Indie Playlist

A non-Country fan's opinion on the best Country albums of 2016

By Christian Paz
December 18th, 2016 at 7:26 AM

I mentioned in one of my earlier posts that I really wanted to try to expand the music tastes for people on this site. Without getting too political, I think that there are too many things that we like to use to divide ourselves. I don't want my taste in music to define me as a member of camp A or camp B, so I'll do my bit today to break down some barriers. With that in mind, I spent the past month taking the initiative to listen to country music releases that came out this year in attempt to listen to the other side. Here are a novice's thoughts on the best country releases of 2016, as recommended to me by more expert opinions. 

 
Sturgill Simpson - A Sailor's Guide to Earth
 
I wanted to start with crossover artists: Musicians that blend between genres. See my earlier post about hip-hop artists this year to see why I did this. I didn't want to jump headfirst into the country deep end and definitely picked a good artist to start with, as Sturgill Simpson is most definitely as hipster as country artists come. His new record, which is apparently a defiant statement towards the country establishment in Nashville, comes mixed with a wide variety of blues, epic orchestration, soaring country choruses, and one very memorable Nirvana cover. After such a fantastic starter, I couldn't wait to dive into the rest of my planned listening. 
 

 
Charles Kelley - The Driver
 
This project from the lead singer of Lady Antibellum was also an enjoyable listen. It felt like it was trying to bridge the mainstream country sound with more Americana and folk influences. To me, it felt like one song on the album would be a straight-shooting country anthem, then the next would be a more experimental fusion. That track structure suggests that Charles was trying to rope his more traditional fans from his main project into this new album and keep them interested throughout the project. The title track is a massive standout on this album, with an irresistibly melodic "Woaahhhh" chorus that you'll find yourself singing alone in your car on a late drive home. 
 

 
Maren Morris - Hero
 
I had heard from several people that this young lady was the breakout country artist of 2016. After listening to her debut record, I'd consider her a candidate for breakout artist of the year, not just limited to country. While not terribly innovative, her ear for a catchy hook and classic-sounding production had me tapping my feet pleasantly upon my first listen. While her voice sounds a little too over-produced for my tastes, I think she's in Goldilock's territory with her magic mixture of pop and country. I really liked the track "80's Mercedes", with it's unique, somewhat clever theme and chorus. Expect big things from this artist in the coming years. 
 

 
Brothers Osborne - Pawn Shop
 
I absolutely loved this energetic album! From the opening track, the Brothers Osborne let you know that this album is going to have some serious groove to it, driven by some great instrumentation! The guitars are the star of the show here, with delightfully emotive twangs and plenty of quirky fills. On top of the fantastic guitar work, the expressiveness of T.J. Osborne's voice is another highlight - barely concealing a devilish snicker during the funkier bits, while straining and cracking at key moments in the emotional ballads. I will say that I think Pawn Shop is stronger when the songs are moving at a faster pace, like on "American Crazy". Perhaps experienced country fans disagree with me though, as their lazy burner "21 Summers" seems to be their most popular song. What do I know? I'm just an ignorant city slicker.
 

 
Margo Price - Hands of Time
 
Many of the artists I listened to, especially the ones I'm listing now, are attempting to fuse the country genre with other influences. In the spirit of trying to show my process and growth throughout this listening experience, I'll talk about a project that is pure country, through and through. Margo Price's Hands of Time is a nostalgic album that feels more like "classic" country; I think it comes from the steady tempo dictated by "swingier" guitar. My country experts tell me that it evokes 70's country, which I think is pretty cool in a year where everyone is trying to go back to the 80's. I'm not sure this is my cup of tea, even after multiple listens, but I can appreciate the craft that went into these songs. Margo Price has fantastic attention to detail in her songwriting in some of these tracks, like on her track about an emotionally abusive relationship in "Four Years of Chances". She says, "You had me one thousand, four hundred sixty one days", drawing attention to how clearly she felt the weight of all of those days. Later on, she sings of her newfound man, "He loves me every moment/ Of them three hundred sixty-five days". That kind of detail, mixed in with some old-fashioned songwriting symmetry, is why I think a lot of country fans have been appreciating this album!
 

 
I hope you found your horizons expanded a little bit from this post, and if none of the artists resonated with you, that's okay too! If you did like the artists, some of my other favorite albums from this year and last include projects by Miranda Lambert, Chris Stapleton, and Langhorne Slim. If you enjoy these posts about different types of music than we normally show on the site, let me know in the comments below so I know to keep doing them!
 
Artists: Brothers Osborne, Sturgill Simpson, Maren Morris, Charles Kelley, Margo Price