Top 10 Country Albums Of 2016 (@LifeInASong_Dan)

Here are YLIAS writer/editor Dan Wharton’s picks for the top 10 country albums of 2016! (@LifeInASong_Dan)

10. Vince Gill – ‘Down To My Last Bad Habit’

12241373_10153738552354049_3767965530613753176_nVince Gill returned with his fourteenth studio album in February, ‘Down To My Last Bad Habit’. Vince had a hand in writing every single track on the album. The album has a more ‘mainstream’ feel about it than his previous offerings and sees Vince dabbling with a range of sounds, such as the very Fleetwood Mac sounding ‘Take Me Down’ featuring Little Big Town and the soulful title track ‘Down To My Last Bad Habit’. But, the music still maintains that warmth and lyrical beauty that Vince has become known for over his long career. He’s introducing himself to a new generation whilst keeping loyal fans happy, and it’s a truly stunning collection of intricately crafted songs that are a real delight to listen to. I don’t think I’ve ever skipped any of them.

Stand out tracks:
Me and My Girl
My Favourite Movie
I’ll Be Waiting For You (featuring Cam)

 

9. Jennifer Nettles – ‘Playing With Fire’

13087874_1177718088935042_2963118311996147606_nThis one really took me by surprise. I was an avid Sugarland fan and have followed Kristian and Jennifer ever since they went their separate ways, but I never really connected with Jennifer’s first solo offering ‘That Girl’ in 2014. Her new album ‘Playing With Fire’ is a totally different story. It’s a return to her more playful, sassy, Sugarland style if you will! Let’s not waste time talking about her vocals – as we all know, Jennifer could sing the phone book and make it sound incredible with her powerhouse delivery. Let’s look at the quality of the song writing – yes, there’s the fun, mainstream-orientated offerings like ‘Sugar’, ‘Hey Heartbreak’ and ‘My House’ that are a joy to listen to, but the album really shines with tracks like ‘Salvation Works’, a real favourite of mine. Lyrically stunning with wonderful production value. Anything that takes me away to another place when I’m listening is something I really connect with, and there are a few of those here. There’s something for everybody; a brilliant sophomore album.

Stand out tracks:
Stupid Girl
Salvation Works
My House (featuring Jennifer Lopez)

8. Sturgill Simpson – ‘A Sailor’s Guide To Earth’

12938357_10153374713541836_7483592823452664135_nBoy, what a year this guy has had. He’s been living in the shadows for a number of years on the Nashville underground country scene, but this album has catapulted Sturgill Simpson into the spotlight. Sturgill has built a certain reputation for himself, recently attacking the ACMs for their ‘Merle Haggard Award’, and he’s always been a critic of Nashville’s mainstream industry. He’s done it his own way, without the support of country radio, and there’s no stopping him now with a Grammy nomination under his belt. Written for as a concept album addressed to his son, ‘A Sailor’s Guide To Earth’ sees Sturgill experimenting with the brass section more than ever before, creating a totally unique blend of country, rock and jazz. You have to see this album performed live to fully appreciate the quality of the musicianship and thought behind the project. Nominated alongside Adele, Beyonce, Justin Bieber and Drake, wouldn’t it be incredible if he could knick it? It would be fully deserving of the award; class from start to finish.

Stand out tracks:

Keep It Between The Lines
In Bloom
Brace For Impact (Live A Little)

7. David Nail – ‘Fighter’

album_20_656_158_806_677Hands down the most under-rated artist in country music. David Nail has never released a bad song in my eyes and this album was another step up in quality from his phenomenal ‘I’m A Fire’ record back in 2013. David has one of the best voices in the genre and his style of country is always soulful, straight from the heart and pure quality. There are a few absolute classics here, including the gorgeous duet with Lori McKenna, ‘Home’, and the title track ‘Fighter’, dedicated to his wife. This is David’s most personal album to date, addressing the trials and tribulations of trying for a baby for years before finally giving birth to twins earlier this year. His appearance at C2C earlier this year ticked one off the bucket list for me and I hope and pray that he will return soon. “I could be famous but I’ll never wish to be…I just long to be a note in the old man’s symphony”…lyrics that sum up David Nail’s career. He doesn’t get the support from country radio that he deserves but consistency produces material that will resonate with his loyal fan base.

Stand out tracks:

Home
Fighter
Old Man’s Symphony

6. Frankie Ballard – ‘El Rio’

13006634_10153367348876086_179807085463405041_nI must admit, I wasn’t expecting this one to be in my end of year list at all. I saw Frankie Ballard at the C2C after show party back in March, and I came away slightly underwhelmed. He really rocked it up and it was a very loud, overpowering show. He released ‘El Rio’ soon after and I listened with trepidation. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the album and it wasn’t anywhere near as heavy as I expected, and there were a number of instant favourites that are on another level to much of his previous album. ‘L.A. Woman’ is the best track Frankie Ballard has ever recorded, and in truth, the whole album is a sublime fusion of country and old-style rock and roll that only Frankie could pull off. Sales haven’t been great, and I think Frankie’s image might cause for many. The country fans might see him as a rock artist, and the rock guys will think he’s too country. His next release will be so important, but you can’t overlook the work that has gone into this terrific project and it had all the ingredients to be a huge success.

Stand out tracks:

Cigarette
L.A. Woman
Good As Gold

5. Josh Kelley – ‘New Lane Road’

995385_10153999122508454_7268596802316440163_nI’ll confess, I hadn’t heard any of Josh Kelley’s material prior to this release. I, as many others probably do, knew him as the brother of Charles from Lady A. But this album changed everything, an album which I actually prefer to his brother’s first solo release. There is a 70’s influence that pervades throughout this project. Think Crosby Stills and Nash or even James Taylor. It has gone pretty unnoticed in the US country charts, a travesty and a damning depiction of the state of US country radio when a stunning single like ‘It’s Your Move’ can’t even break into the top 40. Josh has experimented with a range of genres here, drawing influence from soul, R&B, jazz and of course, some good old country music along the way. Probably my most-played album of the year; every song just hit me and it always leaves me wanting more.

Stand out tracks:
It’s Your Move
Take It On Back
Life’s Too Short

4. Miranda Lambert – ‘The Weight Of These Wings’

14519820_10154610082100742_3827152647008224534_nIt was refreshing to see Miranda Lambert in the news regarding her music for once, rather than the constant tabloid focus on her divorce. I’ve always looked at Miranda with a feeling of indifference; yes, she has a number of classics in her back catalogue like ‘The House That Built Me’, ‘Automatic’ and ‘Smokin and Drinkin’, but tracks like ‘Somethin’ Bad’ and ‘Little Red Wagon’ have always put me off. There’s never been the level of consistency for me. But her latest project has everything, it’s very country, incredibly well written and her personality shines through the music as clear as day. It addresses the struggles of her break up with great honesty and openness, but there’s also an uplifting sense of optimism throughout the album. ‘Tin Man’ has to be up there as one of the best songs of the year; there are some that really pull on the heart strings. By far the best album (or double album I should say!) that Miranda has ever recorded and it exposes the rootsy side to her music that we know she’s capable of producing, but we don’t hear often enough.

Stand out tracks:

Running Just In Case
Getaway Driver
Tin Man

3. Lori McKenna – ‘The Bird and The Rifle’

imageIn terms of songwriting, you won’t find many better than Lori McKenna. 2 of the best songs in recent years, ‘Girl Crush’ and ‘Humble and Kind’ have both had her stamp on them, and she has been one of Nashville’s song writing heavyweights for a number of years without ever gracing the mainstream scene with her own music. This album came out around the same time that ‘Humble and Kind’ exploded onto country radio which gave her profile a great boost. Admittedly, this was the first album of Lori’s I’d listened to, and it completely blew me away from the first listen. Her raw, raspy vocal is totally unique and each track has been so intricately crafted. The whole project is a lesson in country song writing, with gripping, heartfelt stories throughout and a wonderful melody simplicity. An album that I’ll still be listening to in years to come – well worth checking out.

Stand out tracks:

‘The Bird and The Rifle’
‘Giving Up On Your Hometown’
‘Old Men Young Women’

2. William Michael Morgan – ‘Vinyl’

14291913_1421618097854686_4773602660867622863_nIf you’re a regular visitor to our website, you probably knew this was coming. We’ve banged on about this guy all year since we first heard his self-titled 6-track EP. Country radio has been crying out for someone like William Michael Morgan for years, and if there’s a sign that bro-country is in decline, look no further than the success this guy has had. ‘I Met A Girl’ has become one of this year’s big radio hits, and there’s a real buzz about WMM’s music amongst both the traditionalists as well as the newer generation of country fans. He reminds me of George Strait every time I watch him. William has got it all – the voice, the image and the songs. Not a bad song to be found on this 11-track album, the first full-length release from an artist who in my opinion will be the next ‘big thing’. At just 23 years of age, there’s such maturity in his music and it’s so refreshing to hear. Watch out for William Michael Morgan, you’ll be hearing a lot more about him in the coming years I’m sure.

Stand out tracks:

Vinyl
I Met A Girl
Back Seat Driver

1. Brandy Clark – ‘Big Day In A Small Town’

12717949_1151660438188400_2709904049684975662_nWhen I heard this one earlier this year, I knew it would take something special to beat it. As I’m sure most of you who attended C2C in 2015 will agree, she totally blew me away at The O2 and I was bewildered as to why she isn’t a huge star. I still have that feeing after watching her in small venues on this year’s UK tour. ‘Big Day In A Small Town’ is not only my favourite album of the year so far, it’s actually becoming one of my favourite country albums, period. Brandy has a way with words; a poetic style that really grabs hold of you and draws you in to the stories of her songs. ‘Three Kids No Husband’ is the best song I’ve heard for a very very long time, and no matter how many times I listen to it I still feel such heartache for the woman involved. Shane McAnally co-wrote 5 songs on the album including ‘Homecoming Queen’, ‘Broke’ and ‘Since You’ve Gone To Heaven’ – everything the man touches turns to gold. From start to finish, ‘Big Day In A Small Town’ is a masterclass in song writing from an artist who deserves so much more recognition. She’s not being dragged in to the mainstream mould; Brandy stays true to herself and it’s another stunning collection of songs that have earned well deserved praise from fans and journalists far and wide.

Stand out tracks:
Love Can Go To Hell
Three Kids No Husband
Since You’ve Gone To Heaven

 

Other notable absences:

Brothers Osborne – ‘Pawn Shop’
Drake White – ‘Spark’
Dan + Shay – ‘Obsessed’