In 2016, country artists started to enhance their depth in storytelling, and their work was rewarded. Thomas Rhett’s “Die A Happy Man” dominated the No. 1 position on Billboard’s country airplay chart for six weeks. The Dixie Chicks launched the DCX MNXVI World Tour in Europe. ABC’s Nashville switched to CMT, and 30 artists recorded the all-star collaboration “Forever Country,” a single for the 50th annual CMA Awards.
Here are the country albums that defined 2016.
10. Obsessed by Dan + Shay
With Obsessed, Dan + Shay’s Shay Mooney and Dan Smyers started to reveal they have reliable ears for timeless country-pop. They also arguably proved that no one in their time of music can sing like them. The melodies they master on the album are challenging to execute for any artist, especially live. Yet, they do it consistently for every show. Mooney and Smyers co-wrote eight of the album’s 10 songs. It’s enduring hits include “From the Ground Up,” “How Not To,” “Road Trippin'” and “Obsessed.”
9. They Don’t Know by Jason Aldean
By the time Aldean released his seventh album, he had established a solid relationship with his fans, and he knew what worked for them. The gold-selling, 15-song collection featured his 17th, 18th and 19th No. 1s, including “Lights Come On,” “A Little More Summertime” and “Any ‘Ol Barstool.” Aldean’s consistency as a hit-maker allowed him to keep his place at the top-billing for most major country festivals.
8. Pure & Simple by Dolly Parton
As “I Will Always Love You” can attest, Parton can write one helluva love song, pure and simple. And the originals on her 45th studio album live up to that standard. The collection was inspired by an engagement at the Ryman Auditorium, where she delivered a series of stripped-down performances where her storytelling was the primary star of the show. “Tomorrow Is Forever” and “Say Forever You’ll Be Mine” were previously recorded as duets with Porter Wagoner.
7. Pawn Shop by Brothers Osborne
Brothers Osborne’s T.J. and John Osborne brought back Trace Adkins’ edge and Greg Allman’s attitude with the release of their debut album. Opener “Dirt Rich” sets the tone for the album’s blue-collar nature, which gets echoed in the title song. However, the collection’s “Rum,” “Stay A Little Longer” and “It Ain’t My Fault” led to their breakthrough and their first CMA Award win for vocal duo of the year in 2017.
6. Midwest Farmer’s Daughter by Margo Price
Anyone who moves to Nashville for music will recognize elements of their journey when they listen to Price’s autobiographical debut. She sings of moving to town being $57 away from broke in “Hands of Time.” In “This Town Gets Around,” she details the moves of sleazy Music Row executives who won’t take a chance on talented artists unless they perform sexual favors first. Its realness is punk to the core, much like the storytelling of Loretta Lynn. Both are clarion, honky-tonk sirens who share ties with Jack White. He produced Lynn’s Grammy-winning Van Lear Rose, and Price was the first country artist signed to White’s Third Man Records. Recorded at Memphis’ Sam Phillips Recording studio with producer Matt Ross-Spang, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter embodies two music cities at the same time. It’s is very Memphis in its retro innovation and use of soul, yet it incorporates the sounds of a honky-tonk underground that’s the pride of Nashville.
5. Hero by Maren Morris
Morris showed that she is the Linda Ronstadt of her time in country music with the release of Hero. Like Ronstadt, Morris can sing anything and do it well (in the rain, shine, tidal wave or whatever). Plus, everyone wants to sing with her, including Thomas Rhett (“Craving You”) and Zedd (“The Middle”). She can tackle Weezer rock with ease as she does in “Rich,” and then elevate you with a moving ballad as she does in her first No. 1 “I Could Use a Love Song.” Her Grammy-winning “My Church” is so popular, it has become a standard among all the bands performing in bars along Nashville’s Lower Broadway. That’s the hallmark of an undeniable hit.
4. Spark by Drake White
After years of touring with artists like Willie Nelson, Eric Church and Zac Brown Band, White released his 2016 debut Spark, an anthemic ode to country roots. Zac Brown and Chris Stapleton’s popularity sparked a trend in powerhouse singers, and White has earned the respect of pretty much all of them. “It Feels Good” enlivens the spirit with a background of foot-stompin’ and gospel. “Elvis” teaches that most problems can be solved with time. He channels his inner Otis Redding on the love song, “Makin’ Me Look Good Again.”
3. The Weight of These Wings by Miranda Lambert
With The Weight of These Wings, Lambert proved that no matter what, every song she records is country. Her first double-album is split into two collections, The Nerve and The Heart, offering a mix liberated self-acceptance (“Well if we ain’t broke down then we ain’t doing something right”) and vulnerability (“Every time you’re feeling empty / Better thank your lucky stars.”) “Tin Man” was Grammy-nominated for best country song and best country solo performance in 2017. In the year prior, “Vice” was up for best country solo performance and best country song at the 59th annual Grammy Awards.
2. California Sunrise by Jon Pardi
Pardi’s sophomore album shows that he does traditional country better than anyone in his class of musicians. It’s life started with the shuffle and his first No. 1, “Head Over Boots,” which opened the trail for “Dirt On My Boots,” “Heartache On The Dance Floor” and “Night Shift.” The platinum-selling collection transitioned him into an arena-ready act and led to the 2017 CMA Award win for new artist of the year.
1. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth by Sturgill Simpson
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth was a game-changer for Simpson. Winning the 2016 Grammy for best country album, the nine-song collection is a letter to his son that’s filled with solid wisdom on growing up and getting older. The album’s popularity, with its cosmic country soundscape and blend of soul, helped the Kentucky native to graduate to an all-genre festival headliner in subsequent years. Outside the 2017 CMA Awards at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, he busked with his Grammy to help raise money for the ACLU. In 2018, he headlined the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival on his 40th birthday.