As 2016 comes to a close, Sounds Like Nashville is looking back at some of the biggest releases of the year. A versatile one for country music, 2016 brought the major label debut albums from acts like Aubrie Sellers, Brothers Osborne and Maren Morris as well as new records from long admired songwriters Brandy Clark and Lori McKenna. Miranda Lambert surprised us all with a double album while Justin Moore embraced the ever changing trends of the genre pushing his brand of traditional country forward. Below are our 16 favorite albums of 2016.
16. Aubrie Sellers – New City Blues
One listen to Aubrie Sellers’ jaw-dropping New City Blues and the listener is hooked. A mature and timeless release, it’s hard to believe this is the singer’s debut. Sellers’ self-proclaimed “garage country” sound immediately draws the listener in and tracks like the rollicking “Sit Here and Cry” and angst-ridden “Paper Doll” beg to be repeated. At times, the music brings to mind Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe, who have both veered away from the predictable to forge their own paths in country music. But don’t be mistaken, Sellers is a unique talent herself. With a debut album this good, we can’t wait to hear what’s next.
15. Drake White – Spark
Drake White’s major label debut was a longtime coming and Spark is exactly what fans have been waiting for. A unique release, Spark includes some family history for the singer as White’s grandfather is weaved throughout the album in the form of sermon snippets. His grandfather taught him the importance of working hard, but also the ability to disconnect. These attributes are heard on songs like “Heartbeat,” “Live Some” and “Back to Free,” where White sings of how he has to go “back to a simpler state of mind.” The energy of his live show is also apparent on songs like the jazz-fused “Equator” and the garage rock of “Elvis.”
14. Jon Pardi – California Sunrise
Well known for his blend of traditional and modern country, Jon Pardi effortlessly combines the old with the new for his 12-song sophomore release, California Sunrise. Songs like opening track “Out of Style” exemplify Pardi’s mix of traditional country with a modern day flair as he sings about learning the secrets of songwriting upon moving to Nashville. A standout release, California Sunrise merges Pardi’s love of traditional country with a modern feel thanks to distinct percussion and electric guitar combined with pedal steel and fiddle accompaniment, leaving the listener satisfied.
13. Jake Owen – American Love
American Love embodies the Jake Owen fans have come to know and love — the laidback, beach loving, VW traveling singer in all his glory. Songs like the feel-good “VW Van” and jazzy “Good Company” showcase Owen’s new horn section that put him equally at ease playing on an island or in an arena. It’s a welcomed and renewed spirit that no doubt is felt by Owen and fans in the live setting. Full of diversity, American Love shows the many sides of his personality and all the while gives fans the perfect summer album for their busy lives.
12. The Cadillac Three – Bury Me In Boots
Bury Me In My Boots has The Cadillac Three standing firm in their Southern roots. Just like their live show, the Cadillac Three’s album has peaks and valleys that combine party anthems like the cleverly titled “Ship Faced” and sultry “Party Like You” with the slower, sometimes somber songs, including the title track and album closer, “Runnin’ Red Lights,” which details the difficulties of life on the road. A band that has written several No. 1 songs for other country artists, Bury Me in My Boots is the Cadillac Three’s turn on the charts.
11. Kenny Chesney – Cosmic Hallelujah
Kenny Chesney’s goal within the album’s 11 tracks was to share feel good music based on a human emotion instead of making a social statement. Throughout Chesney’s Cosmic Hallelujah one theme prevails: living in the moment. In a way, the songs selected seem to be convincing the road warrior that it’s time to slow down the pace. He is heeding his own advice too, as he’ll be taking a break from the road in 2017. While Chesney fans will have to travel to festivals to see their favorite singer next year, Cosmic Hallelujah is enough to hold them over until the next tour.
10. Lori McKenna – The Bird & the Rifle
Lori McKenna is one of the most sought after songwriters and it’s easy to see why with her descriptive lyrics and life-like storylines. Her impeccably detailed lyrics place the listener in the room with each of the song’s characters time and time again. Whether it’s a nostalgic look back on old love in “We Were Cool,” the tongue-in-cheek “Old Men Young Women,” or the poignant “Giving Up On Your Hometown,” the emotions are felt fully thanks to McKenna’s wavering alto. The Bird & the Rifle is a testament to McKenna’s precision as a songwriter and exemplifies why she remains so in demand 10 albums after her debut.
9. Justin Moore – Kinda Don’t Care
Perhaps the most surprising release of 2016, Justin Moore charges forward with Kinda Don’t Care. His fourth studio album, Kinda Don’t Care is Moore’s most diverse record yet. The 12 tracks see an evolution of Moore’s sound, merging the traditional with the modern thanks to the use of synthesizers, programmed drum sounds and handclapped rhythms on several tracks like “Got It Good” and “Rebel Kids.” All the while, Moore’s familiar country twang remains. While Kinda Don’t Care is more beat heavy than previous releases, it is a welcomed evolution that works marvelously for the singer making it one of 2016’s most forward-sounding albums.
8. David Nail – Fighter
David Nail opens up to listeners on his fourth studio album, Fighter. The singer co-wrote seven of the 11 tracks and his story comes to life throughout every song. While the upbeat, danceable first single “Night’s On Fire” and follow-up “Good At Tonight” with Brothers Osborne showcase his fun side, the introspective “Babies” and piano-based “Home” delve deeper into Nail’s psyche. Having openly shared the difficulties he and his wife had in conceiving, “Babies” takes on heightened meaning as Nail sings of learning they’re having twins. It’s this vulnerability that leaves a lasting impression on the listener.
7. Maren Morris – Hero
Maren Morris co-wrote each of the 11 tracks on Hero, all of which showcase her honest songwriting and unique storytelling. Whether the Texas native’s singing of a man who keeps letting her down on “Rich” or transports the listener to worship on her breakout single “My Church,” her vocal ability is undeniable. It is on “I Wish I Was,” though, that best demonstrates Morris’ staying power. A song that has Morris telling a guy they’re not meant to be, it’s a breakup that is strongly felt. Morris’ songwriting talent, powerful vocals and eclectic music style make Hero one of the most unique and enjoyable releases of 2016.
6. Keith Urban – Ripcord
Keith Urban transcends genres on his eighth studio album, Ripcord. The 13-track release is a remarkably diverse album that pushes boundaries and furthers Urban’s evolution as an artist. While many songs are highlighted with banjo accompaniment, like the edgy opening track “Gone Tomorrow,” drum loops are also prevalent throughout Ripcord, allowing the tracks to cross genre lines. “Sun Don’t Let Me Down,” which features Pitbull, is easy to envision hearing on pop radio with dance floor beats and party anthem flavor. Whether it’s slick beats, guitar slinging or vivid storytelling, Ripcord launches the singer into uncharted territory.
5. Frankie Ballard – El Rio
Frankie Ballard’s brand of country music borrows just as much from rock and roll as it does country and El Rio showcases both genres flawlessly. El Rio impresses musically and vocally for a release that begs to be heard in an arena setting. The standout “Cigarette” is a sexy song that has Ballard singing of wanting to be the cigarette on a girl’s lips so he can be close to her while the beautiful “Good As Gold” has him competing against a rich man for a woman’s affection. A perfect blend of rock and country, El Rio showcases Ballard’s influences while pushing his music forward.
4. Dierks Bentley – Black
Eight albums in, Dierks Bentley steps outside the predictable. Black is a reflection on one man’s journey in life and encompasses 13 tracks that tug on the emotions, some stronger than others. One of the standout moments is the heartbreaking “I’ll Be the Moon,” which features Maren Morris. The song details the struggle of a tortured soul dealing with being the other man in a love triangle. Morris adds a unique perspective to the storyline with her striking harmonies and pristine vocals. Self-penned songs like “Light It Up” and “Can’t Be Replaced” leave a lasting mark and show Bentley’s confidence and vulnerability as a songwriter.
3. Brothers Osborne – Pawn Shop
An album titled Pawn Shop can only mean an eclectic group of songs and Brothers Osborne do not disappoint. While the nostalgic “21 Summer” has the guys looking back on old love, their first No. 1 single “Stay A Little Longer” best showcases John’s guitar skills, and it’s no surprise that the album dives deep into those guitar riffs throughout. Brothers Osborne close the album with the gritty “It Ain’t My Fault” with thumping drums and hand clapped rhythms as TJ’s deep voice blends impeccably with the percussion. It’s a rollicking end to a diverse album that more than lives up to its title.
2. Brandy Clark – Big Day In a Small Town
Big Day In a Small Town showcases why Brandy Clark is one of the most respected artists of the genre. Well known for her storytelling, Clark co-wrote each of the versatile 11 tracks. With songs about teenage pregnancy, cheating and life after high school, the album highlights Clark’s ability to vividly describe each story as if the listener were there herself. The tongue-in-cheek “Daughter” impresses while the mostly acoustic “Three Kids No Husband” pulls on the heartstrings. Never one to shy away from telling it like it is, Big Day In a Small Town is easily one of the best albums of 2016.
1. Miranda Lambert – The Weight of These Wings
Emotions run deep on Miranda Lambert’s double album, The Weight of These Wings. The album features two discs of 24 songs that showcase the singer’s adept songwriting. Lambert opens her heart to listeners throughout the album’s 24 tracks and The Weight of These Wings is the most honest we’ve ever heard the singer. It is an album from a woman who admits her faults, details heartbreak, and shares the happiness she feels with the new man in her life. The lyrics are thoughtful and deep with sensitive Miranda being more apparent than the gun-slinging hell raiser we’ve witnessed on earlier releases.