Craig Manning’s Top Albums of 2016

Say what you want about 2016, but the music was fantastic. It would have been damn-near impossible for this year to top last year in terms of albums I loved—simply because 2015 completely reconfigured my tastes and taught me entirely new ways to love music. Even still, 2016 brought its fair share of riches. Butch Walker, Jimmy Eat World, and Green Day all released their best records since 2004—a miraculous feat, given that 2004 remains my all-time favorite year for music. Dawes continued to redefine what their sound could be, with a record so adventurous it cost them a few long-time fans. Discoveries like Parker Millsap and Lori McKenna wowed me with their songwriting prowess and became potential new favorite artists. Sturgill Simpson and Maren Morris led the vanguard of country music’s renaissance, following in the footsteps of what Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell were able to accomplish in 2015. And Yellowcard, one of the most important bands in my personal musical development, decided to call it quits.

These artists and many others formed the backbone for my personal soundtrack in 2016—alongside my own music, which I recorded and released out into the world for the first time in March. (My album, called A Way to Get Back Home, is currently available on a name-your-price basis here.) For me, it was a year of great creative discovery, and the music that defined it all was fittingly vibrant and exciting. As you’ll see from the list below, country and Americana—which became my go-to genres in 2015—continued to be my favorite places to reside. But 2016 was also an incredible year for rock music and a year in which a lot of young, up-and-coming artists found their voices with gorgeous songs and heartfelt storytelling. Of the 252 records I heard this year, here were the ones that I clung to the hardest.

1. Butch WalkerStay Gold

“When my favorite bands still wrote songs I liked/I can’t relate to ’em anymore.” So Butch Walker sings on “Wilder in the Heart,” one of the many great songs on his most openly nostalgic record ever. Stay Gold finds Walker looking back on his past—painting youth, young love, and friendships lost and found with such lively and vibrant brushstrokes that the songs come to life in bursting, brilliant color. It doesn’t hurt that Butch has put together his best set of hooks since 2004’s Letters, turning in songs like “Stay Gold” and the largely spoken-word “East Coast Girl” that sound like anthems from the very first time you hear them. Compared to its predecessor—last year’s Afraid of Ghosts, which saw Walker exorcising some deeply personal demons following the loss of his father—Stay Gold is a gleefully joyful record. Instead of following in the footsteps of Ghosts and its stripped-down, reverb-heavy mood pieces, Stay Gold is a love letter to 70s and 80s rock ‘n’ roll—from Bruce Springsteen to Elvis Costello to Elton John and beyond. But Butch is still clearly feeling reflective here, thinking about girlfriends who got away (the splendid “Spark: Lost”), returning to old stomping grounds with friends who he lost touch with (“Record Store”), and recalling the awkward excitement of new love (“Can We Just Not Talk About Last Night”). For my money, it’s the best rock album of the year, a glowing example of just how powerful rock ‘n’ roll can be when done right. Unlike those old “favorite bands” Butch brought up in “Wilder in the Heart,” the songs he’s writing are still easy to relate to on multiple levels—just like the great rock records of yesterday.

In addition to being a musically thrilling adventure, Stay Gold was also the record I really needed this year. Where every publication and most music writers were ranking narratives—picking out the 2016 records that most encapsulated the tension and uncertainty of this shitty, shitty election year—my favorite album of 2016 was the one that made me feel happiest to be alive. Though released in late August, I was lucky enough to get my hands on Stay Gold in early June. It quickly became my go-to summer soundtrack—the album pushing my pace on every run or causing me to drive too fast every time I got in the car. By the time I saw Butch put the record through its paces at a late summer live show, it was the perfect bookend to a glowing, glorious season.

A lot of people are going to look back on 2016 and see a terrible year. They’ll see Donald Trump. They’ll see Hillary Clinton. They’ll see a contentious election cycle that caused even the most reasonable people to hurl insults and threats at one another like snowballs. They’ll see all of the pioneers that we lost in music, sports, film, and more. But when I look back, I’ll remember making my first record, writing my first book, reconnecting with friends and family members who I hadn’t seen in years, playing a key role in launching this website, performing a song I wrote at the 20th anniversary of my elementary school’s grand opening, seeing live shows by a whole slew of my favorite artists, and generally living life to its fullest. It’s fitting that so many of those moments were filtered through the songs, lyrics, and pounding guitars of Stay Gold—the only album from this year that felt, to me at least, as big as life itself.

Key track: “Spark: Lost”

2. Jimmy Eat World Integrity Blues

At Chorus.fm, our album of the year this year wasn’t what other publications rallied around. It wasn’t Beyonce or David Bowie or Frank Ocean, though all appear somewhere below. It wasn’t even The 1975, a band that our community has been supporting since the very beginning and that actually did earn a few notices from other sites. Instead, our favorite album of 2016 came from a band that helped to mold and shape not only my own musical tastes, but also the entire community that Jason has been working to build since AbsolutePunk.net began. And while 2016 saw the sun go down on AbsolutePunk, it also sees Jimmy Eat World claiming our Album of the Year title. As the old mantra goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

You don’t expect a rock band to deliver what is arguably their career peak more than two decades into their career. That statement is especially true given the fact that a lot of people don’t even know that Jimmy Eat World exists beyond “The Middle” (a song that, oddly, saw a resurgence of popularity in 2016). But it’s hard to stop hurling superlatives at Integrity Blues, a truly magnificent record whose songs already feel like old friends and trusted companions, even after just a few months. The most obvious reason for that friendly and familiar feeling is that many of the best songs on Blues wouldn’t have been out of place on 2004’s Futures, still Jimmy Eat World’s high water mark. From the perfect rain-soaked highway anthem that is “It Matters” to the propulsive ricochet of rockers like “Through,” Integrity Blues may be Jimmy Eat World’s ninth album, but it frequently feels like it could have been their fifth or sixth. Here, Jimmy Eat World don’t sound like aging rockers at all. Rather, they sound like a band in their prime, still writing songs with huge hooks, beautiful arrangements, soaring vocals, and lyrics that hit you right in the gut.

Of course, all of Jimmy Eat World’s albums have those ingredients. What makes Integrity Blues the band’s finest work in a long while is its surprising thematic heft. Though not a breakup album, per se, Integrity Blues has a general theme of bettering yourself, getting back up when you get knocked down, and growing from your heartbreaks and failures rather than letting them shatter you. “Lost and learning, wander ’til we’re old,” Jim Adkins sings in the catchy lead single “Sure and Certain,” and that’s the perfect distillation of what this record is about. We are, all of us, just works in progress. We are driving down a highway toward a destination we will never reach. While that fact might seem daunting or even a bit demoralizing, this record finds the beauty in it. Nothing can break you, because you’re always building and rebuilding. In a year like 2016, that message was something a lot of people needed to hear, and I’d like to think that some of them found strength in these songs when they couldn’t find it anywhere else. There are moments on the record, as in life, where the time comes to wallow in sadness: see the aforementioned “It Matters” or the fittingly titled “The End Is Beautiful.” But album closer “Pol Roger” is all hope, recovery, resilience, and elation—a bracing reminder to never stop fighting, no matter the injury. “First, they’ll think you’re lost,” Adkins sings in the chorus, before giving us the simplest and most beautiful lyrical twist of the year: “But you’re not.”

Key track: “It Matters”

3. Parker MillsapThe Very Last Day

The apocalypse is a laughing matter in the songs that make up The Very Last Day—or, at least, it’s something that we all damn well deserve. Hailing from Oklahoma, singer/songwriter Parker Millsap is only 23 years old, but you wouldn’t know that from hearing his voice. Sometimes soft and gentle like Noah Gundersen’s folky croon, but more often big and brash like Robert Plant’s bluesy roar, Millsap’s voice anchors every song on this record and gives most of them a near-otherworldly aura. Take “Hades Pleads,” a rollicking number that opens with a buzzsaw of acoustic guitar chords and transitions into a romantic proposition from the devil. Or “You Gotta Move,” a cover of an old spiritual where Millsap commits to such a degree that his chasm of a voice threatens to open up and swallow you whole. With big moments like these and the fire-and-brimstone title track, it would be easy for this record’s slower and more subtle tracks to be overshadowed. Luckily, Millsap is just too good a songwriter for that. Indeed, the album’s centerpiece, the haunting ballad “Heaven Sent,” might just be the year’s best song. The type of classic narrative slow-burn that you only really get from country or folk music, “Heaven Sent” tells its story from the perspective of a preacher’s son who has fallen in love with his best friend. The twist? His best friend just happens to be a boy. Weaker songwriters would play the tale as one of empowerment, a love-who-you-love-and-damn-everyone-else type of anthem. Millsap goes the harder route, addressing the agonizing decision the main character has to make when loving who he loves could cost him his family, his religious faith, and his entire sense of self-identity. In March, when The Very Last Day hit the streets, the song was stirring and disquieting. Nine months later, after a vicious election season that brought hate, separation, bigotry, and misunderstanding to the forefront, “Heaven Sent” feels downright bone-chilling. On an album that glorifies flames, devils, and the end of the world, it says something that the harshest gut-punch comes from a song about basic intolerance.

Key track: “Heaven Sent”

4. DawesWe’re All Gonna Die

After making what was arguably their magnum opus with last year’s All Your Favorite Bands, I expected Dawes to get off the road and relax for a few years. I expected wrong. Instead of taking a rest, they fired back into the studio and made their most sonically adventurous record yet. If Favorite Bands was a “live record,” cut with minimal studio intervention to capture the improvisation and interplay of a band in their prime, We’re All Gonna Die is Dawes’ studio record. Enlisting the talents of Blake Mills, a Grammy nominee for last year’s Alabama Shakes record, Dawes use the studio here like a fifth band member, fleshing out, distorting, and twisting their sound into something a lot weirder and more modern than their traditional Laurel Canyon folk roots. The result is a bolder, brasher record than its predecessor, and one that (understandably) got a bit of a lukewarm reception among diehard fans. Certainly, there are some out-there moments, like “When the Tequila Runs Out,” the near-novelty lead-off single, or “One of Us,” the infectious opener where frontman Taylor Goldsmith’s pristine tenor gets locked behind a wall of fuzz and buzz for the entirety of the song. But Goldsmith’s writing is as vivid as ever, conjuring up detail-oriented vignettes in songs like “Roll with the Punches,” “Less Than Five Miles Away,” and “For No Good Reason” that are more poetic than 90% of singer/songwriter records this year. Yes, there’s no instant American songbook classic on the level of “All Your Favorite Bands.” However, the record as a whole, is more adventurous, ranging from slow-burn vinyl soul (the title track) to the kind of song Bob Dylan would probably write if he were a piano player in a Wild West saloon (“As If by Design”). Every experiment pays off, solidifying these guys as arguably the best rock band in America right now.

Key track: “One of Us”

5. Lori McKennaThe Bird and the Rifle

Lori McKenna has won two Song of the Year trophies in a row at the CMA Awards, and after listening to The Bird and the Rifle, it’s not difficult to see why. Produced by Dave Cobb—the guy who helped Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Chris Stapleton become the three most-cited names in conversations about country music’s resurgence—The Bird and the Rifle is a sparse and subdued disc about family, relationships, heartbreak, and the passage of time. In terms of sheer songwriting craft, it’s tough to put any album from 2016 above this one. McKenna inhabits her characters deeply, and her empathy turns songs like “The Bird and the Rifle” and “Wreck You”—both about doomed relationships—into much deeper offerings than the usual “somebody done me wrong” songs that many have come to expect out of country music. The highlight is “Giving up on Your Hometown,” a song whose ultimate punchline—”I guess even when you stay right here/Sometimes you can’t go home”—affected me more deeply than any other moment in a song this year. But this is the kind of record where every track makes you think, from the graduation-ready “Humble and Kind” (cut by Tim McGraw last year in the radio hit version) to “We Were Cool,” an aching look back at young love from a middle-aged perspective.

Key track: “Giving up on Your Hometown”

6. Sturgill SimpsonA Sailor’s Guide to Earth

2016 was, justifiably, a somewhat political year for music. But while rappers, protest rockers, and even pop stars all had words to say about the state of our country, my favorite political “statement” of a record was Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. The politics of this album are certainly not as pronounced as the ones on something like Green Day’s Revolution Radio or Drive-By Truckers’ American Band. There are no mentions of hateful leaders, racism, or class struggles. There aren’t even nostalgic looks back to when things were better. Instead, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth addresses one of the most terrifying and life-affirming things you can do in the dark and twisted age that we live in: bring a child into the world. Simpson, often considered a “savior of country music,” wrote this record (his third) shortly after the birth of his son (his first). His songs dissect the fear that a parent feels as they wish for their child to have it better than they did, while still knowing that everyone will face down their own dark days. Specifically, Sturgill looks back to his own days as a Navy serviceman as a lens to examine the horrors of war, the politics and profit behind our modern conflicts, and the importance of holding family close as the world spins out of control. Presented as a seamless song cycle, with nary a break between tracks, Sailor’s Guide is best taken as a whole—though the blistering “Call to Arms” stands out as an obvious highlight. Following the album’s improbable Grammy nomination for Album of the Year, it feels like the best is yet to come for Sturgill. I can’t wait to see what that future might look like.

Key track: “Call to Arms”

7. Brian FallonPainkillers

It would be easy to write off Painkillers as a time-killing exercise. We’ve seen it a million times: band goes on hiatus; frontman decides to record a solo album; frontman comes back with a set of songs that probably would have been a lot better if he’d saved them for his band. But Brian Fallon of Gaslight Anthem fame seemed like he needed a break after the band’s last album, 2014’s Get Hurt. That album, written and recorded in the wake of Fallon’s divorce, got bashed by critics and earned its fair share of put-downs from longtime fans as well. When I interviewed him earlier this year, Fallon wasn’t even sure if there was a future for The Gaslight Anthem. Painkillers, as a result, only rarely sounds like the band that made the New Jersey rocker famous. Instead of big anthemic choruses and classic rock guitar solos, Painkillers is largely an exercise in wistful Americana and throwback pop. “Rosemary” splits the difference between The Cure and ‘60s girls groups, while “Nobody Wins” is a smooth, catchy singalong in the tradition of Smokey Robinson. There are a few Springsteen moments (because how could there not be) in the bracing leadoff single “A Wonderful Life” and the more subdued “Steve McQueen.” For the most part, though, Fallon is chasing other idols, from the Beatles (“Among Other Foolish Things”) to Rites of Spring (“Long Drives”), all the way to Don Henley (“Open All Night”). As a whole, the album feels less cohesive than virtually everything else Fallon has done in the past, coming across more as a collection of songs than as a singular thematic piece. But when the caliber of the writing is as high as it is on songs like “Smoke,” a ragged acoustic anthem, or “Honey Magnolia,” a wistful gender-swapped ballad, it’s tough to find much to complain about.

Key track: “Open All Night”

8. Maren MorrisHero

In early November 2015, I stumbled upon a brand-new five-song EP from a young country singer named Maren Morris. The songs—country twang with more than a little bit of pop sheen—were both soulful (“My Church”) and blissfully catchy (“80s Mercedes”), and I made sure to blast them as much as I could before Michigan’s unseasonably warm 70-degree weather faded away into another long and grey winter. Little did I know that I was listening to the work of a soon-to-be superstar. It wasn’t long before “My Church” started blowing up on country radio, and when Hero arrived in June—just in time for summer—it was clear that the EP had been no fluke. Capable of being both the cleverest girl at the party (“Rich”) and the most vulnerable singer on the stage (“I Could Use a Love Song”), Morris sounds like a star from first note to last. With the instant classic opener “Sugar,” she also brought the single sweetest hook to a summer season full of them. It wasn’t surprising when she won the CMA Award for Best New Artist, or when she got nominated for the same award at the Grammy’s. It’s not even surprising that one of the songs on this record (“Second Wind”) was previously recorded by Kelly Clarkson. With Hero, Maren Morris made both the best mainstream country album and the best pop album of the year.

Key track: “I Wish I Was”

9. YellowcardYellowcard

2016 was a great year for music and a great year for emotional, honest songwriting. So it says something that no song hit me quite as hard on first listen as “Fields & Fences,” the final track on the last album Yellowcard will ever make. Fittingly, the guys from Yellowcard decide to delay their goodbye a bit, stretching “Fields & Fences” to seven minutes and two parts. The resulting song hits like a bag of bricks, from the wistful, country-flavored first half to the big, climactic second half. By the time the violin faded out at the end of the song, closing the door on Yellowcard’s 10-album career, I’m not ashamed to say I had a tear or two in my eyes. “I want to start living, I want to be brave/I want to find where I belong,” Ryan Key sings in the goosebump-inducing second verse. It’s a fitting place to end for Yellowcard, a band whose records have always been about finding a place to belong. Friends. Family. Home. These things have always been the bread and butter of Yellowcard’s catalog, from the moment the narrator left home in “Way Away” to here. Yellowcard may not be the best album in Yellowcard’s catalog, but it’s a beautifully resonant send-off for a band that has meant an awful lot to so many of us.

Key track: “Fields & Fences”

10. Green DayRevolution Radio

“Rock is dead” thinkpieces will, unfortunately, never die. But 2016 was about as strong a year as you could expect for the genre (or movement or sound or whatever “rock” actually is). One of the bands I least expected to help lead that charge was Green Day, not because they haven’t before (on the contrary, they were very central to defining what rock “was” in the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s alike) but because I thought they’d effectively reached “past their prime” territory. I was wrong. Moving on past an overly maligned but still largely vapid “trilogy” release—not to mention 2009’s bloated, overblown 21st Century Breakdown—Green Day came back and released one of their best albums ever in Revolution Radio. It’s also one of their most prescient. American Idiot captured the zeitgeist of the post-9/11, mid-Bush, war-dominated landscape of 2004. Revolution Radio does the same kind of zeitgeist-surveying and comes back feeling even more haunting and troubling than Idiot. The best songs—”Bang Bang,” “Troubled Times,” “Still Breathing,” and “Forever Now”—either portray the modern American landscape as something out of a horror flick or offer stirring, resilient calls to arms for what to do when shit hits the fan. The added weight and cohesion helps elevate Revolution Road over the trilogy albums, but it wouldn’t be worth as much as it is without the band’s continued mastery of melody. On breezy pop-punk jams like “Too Young to Die” or big, grand power ballads like “Outlaws,” Green Day show that, musically, they’ve still got a leg up over virtually every band they ever influenced.

Key track: “Still Breathing”

11. The 1975I like it when you sleep for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it

Like 2016, 2013 was a banner year for big-name artists, with everyone from Justin Timberlake to Daft Punk to Arcade Fire dropping high-profile releases. It was also the year of bombast—a year where a lot of artists adopted a “bigger is better” mantra and ended up just sounding and looking absurd. Amidst all of the disappointing clutter, one of the core triumphs of that year came from a British band called The 1975, with a debut album that was essentially three EPs stacked together back-to-back. Fast-forward to 2016, and it’s The 1975 that most embraced the absurd. From the unwieldy album title to the almost-longer-than-CD-length running time, the Manchester outfit’s second album is a staggering work of pop excess. But The 1975, perhaps more than any other band working today, are well-suited for excess, and I like it when you sleep… is a grand triumph. The album’s major selling point in most reviews and EOTY notices has been its versatility. Here, The 1975 draw convincingly from funk, punk, glam, ‘80s pop, modern pop, arena rock, bedroom folk, and electronic ambient music. Brilliantly sequenced and meticulously produced, this album distills all of those styles into one of the year’s most immersive listening experiences. What too many reviews have left out, though, is that the songs are just damn sturdy. Sure, the album works best taken as a whole, but you could also pull at least half of these tracks out of the context of the record and have them stand strong as singles. There are pop anthems (“She’s American,” “The Sound”), unapologetic throwbacks (“This Must Be My Dream”), slow-burning breakup songs (“Somebody Else”), striking examinations of addiction (“Paris,” “UGH!”), and heartbreaking eulogies (“Nana”). Any one of them—not to mention other highlights like “A Change of Heart” or “The Ballad of Me and My Brain”—could be a solid song of the year candidate. That they are all on the same album is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

Key track: “Paris”

12. Miranda LambertThe Weight of These Wings

Miranda Lambert has always been a talented songwriter and a passionate performer. In the past, though, her lofty potential has often been weighed down by her mainstream obligations. One of the most reliable purveyors of the scorched-earth country kiss-off, Lambert’s records have frequently been built around loud, angry anthems instead of focusing on the more intriguing subtleties of her songwriting. On The Weight of These Wings, Lambert changes gears. This record isn’t built around obvious radio singles in the vein of past hits like “Kerosene” and “Mama’s Broken Heart.” In fact, there isn’t a single song in that vein across this record’s double-album running time. Instead, most of Weight sees Lambert turning down the volume, turning off the smartphone, and going back in time. Easily the singer/songwriter’s most traditional and organic collection yet, The Weight of These Wings is also her best. The ballads shine the brightest, from highway bound confessionals (“Running Just in Case,” “Getaway Driver”) to the intimate love songs (“Pushin’ Time”), all the way to the honky tonk weepers (“To Learn Her”). Written and recorded in the wake of Lambert’s divorce from country-douche-in-residence Blake Shelton, the ballad-heavy Weight of These Wings could easily be framed as a breakup album. Instead of letting the record become one long sad slog, though, Lambert peppers the proceedings with lighter moments—like the plastic pop of “Pink Sunglasses,” the garage-y overdrive of “Six Degrees of Separation,” or the dusty nostalgia of “Good Ol’ Days”—to keep things interesting. The result is the most vibrant, versatile, and enjoyable double album in ages. It’s a nice reminder that the format doesn’t have to be all about overindulgence and excess.

Key track: “Getaway Driver”

13. Brandy ClarkBig Day in a Small Town

Kacey Musgraves got a lot of credit back in 2013 for releasing a country record loaded with snark, wit, dark humor, and more than a few mocking jabs at mainstream country trends. Looking back, that record—along with Jason Isbell’s Southeastern, also a 2013 release—look like the beginning of a sea change in country music, away from the “bros” and toward something more substantive. But Kacey isn’t the only one writing songs like that: Brandy Clark co-wrote three songs on Same Trailer, Different Park (including the wave-making “Follow Your Arrow”) and creates a similar world on Big Day in a Small Town. The title track, “Broke,” and “Daughter” are all heavy with the dark humor that Kacey patented three years ago, but the best songs on Big Day in a Small Town are the ones where Clark allows herself to be a bit more earnest and introspective. They also deserve to be on any “best songs of 2016” list: the hard-knock domestic reality of “Three Kids No Husband” (a powerful co-write with Lori McKenna); the yearning nostalgia of “Homecoming Queen” (previously recorded by Sheryl Crow); the seething but melodically resplendent “Love Can Go to Hell”; or the shattering Springsteenian finale that is “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven.” At its best, Big Day in a Small Town is an awe-inspiring master class in songwriting.

Key track: “Love Can Go to Hell”

14. Bon Iver22, A Million

For a long time, it felt like we’d never hear another Bon Iver album. Band mastermind Justin Vernon never looked like he was leaving music behind, but he certainly seemed reluctant to return to the project that had won him a Best New Artist Grammy in 2012. In 2013, he made a great record under the Volcano Choir moniker. He was a key Kanye West collaborator on two consecutive albums. He cropped up annually at his Eaux Claires music festival, even performing a pair of new songs (and stirring up plenty of speculation) in 2015. Still, I wasn’t holding my breath for a true follow-up to 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver until the day it was officially announced. After it arrived, 22, A Million confused me. The glitchy production choices were, in my mind, unnecessary—weird flourishes that distracted and detracted from the songs rather than enhancing them. However, I’ve since come around on 22, A Million, a record that needed the cold winter weather to hit before it really came alive. Cold, lonesome, and emotionally raw, 22, A Million is an unexpected companion to For Emma, Forever Ago. Though not baring the acoustic folk vibe of For Emma (appearances of the acoustic guitar are few and far between), 22, A Million makes a spiritual return to the lonesome Wisconsin cabin where Justin Vernon made his first masterpiece. He’s using different tools to convey his emotional struggle this time, trading the acoustic guitar and raw vocals for loops, vocoders, sped-up vocal parts, and instruments invented specifically for this album cycle, but the world he takes listeners to is still the same. The result is a record that sounds like nothing else, a stunning mood piece that is arguably more transportive than any other album made this year.

Key track: “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”

15. John Paul WhiteBeulah

The breakup of The Civil Wars stands as one of the most heartbreaking occurrences in modern music. Just after peaking with their sublime sophomore self-titled record, the Americana duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White fragmented and fell apart. Williams released an uneven solo album last year, but even its best moments missed the complement of White’s voice and guitar playing. White’s first post-breakup solo record is a good deal stronger, mostly because it steers clear of material that recalls The Civil Wars. There are exceptions: the aching “Hate the Way You Love Me,” for example, has a gorgeous, emotive chorus that resembles classics like “Poison & Wine.” For the most part, though, Beulah is a dark, contemplative mood piece. The melodies on the Civil Wars records always grabbed you right away, but that’s not the case with most of the material on Beulah. These songs—with their spartan acoustic guitar arrangements and gently crooned melodies—take some time to percolate. Given a cold fall day and a cup of tea, though, the tunes on Beulah come alive—from the haunting slow dances (“The Once and Future Queen”) to the electric-guitar-led scorchers (“Fight for You”), all the way to the songs that combine the best elements of both (like the steady, overpowering crescendo of “Hope I Die”).

Key track: “Hate the Way You Love Me”

16. Drive-By TruckersAmerican Band

I was a Jason Isbell fan before I was a Drive-By Truckers fan. As a result, my favorite Truckers songs tend to be the Isbell numbers from Decoration Day and The Dirty South (“Decoration Day” and “Goddamn Lonely Love,” specifically). I also tend to spend most Truckers albums wishing Isbell was there to lend a hand. That’s not the case with American Band, though, which stands up as the best and most vital album the Truckers have released since Isbell got kicked out. Feeling the outrage and agony of one of the most politically fraught years that many of us have seen in our lifetimes, Truckers’ masterminds Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood wrote a record full of flammable protest rock. Trump doesn’t get an explicit mention, but the hate and division he brought to the surface float over the proceedings like a fog of war. The songs address everything from immigration (sterling opener “Ramon Casiano”) to police violence and institutional racism (“What It Means”). “Guns of Umpqua” takes on the perspective of a character barricading himself in a classroom during a school shooting, unsure of whether he will live or die. “Once They Banned Imagine” recalls the weeks and months following 9/11, when radio stations started pulling potentially offensive or upsetting content from the radio waves. And “Ever South” finds Hood contemplating what it means to be a southern man in the age of Trump. It would be easy to dismiss these songs as liberal sloganeering—especially if you just look at the titles or read a few quoted lyrics. But the Truckers aren’t blaming conservatives, southerners, or even Donald Trump for the state of the nation. Instead, it’s everyone’s fault—for our indifference to people we don’t know personally, for our belief that our post-9/11 pursuit of “national security” was worth sacrificing liberty, and for our numbness to seeing that flag flown at half-mast. Even if you don’t agree with every lyric, it’s tough to doubt the power or validity of the overall message.

Key track: “Ramon Casiano”

17. Brothers OsbornePawn Shop

Brothers Osborne’s Pawn Shop was perhaps the first great record of the year, a powder keg of country hooks and unbridled rock ‘n’ roll energy that arrived on January 15th—the third release date of 2016. While the album arrived in the dead of winter, though—perhaps to capitalize on the success of its pre-release singles—the songs themselves are peak summer. “Dirt Rich” charges out the gate with the image of a screen door with holes big enough to let the bugs get in. “21 Summer” is a nostalgic trip back in time to those youthful summers where nothing mattered but the girl in your passenger seat and the limitless potential of the night. “Stay a Little Longer” is a fiery testament to irresistible infatuation, with one of the greatest guitar solos to grace a song this decade. All of that happens in the first three tracks, but there’s plenty more to enjoy throughout the remaining eight, from the gospel-infused slow-burn of “Loving Me Back” (an entrancing duet with country veteran Lee Ann Womack) to the cheating lover saga “Heart Shaped Locket.” Mainstream country gets a lot of flak for being formulaic and creatively bankrupt, but here, these newcomers show that it can still have the lyrical charm and musical heft of so-called classic rock ‘n’ roll.

Key track: “21 Summer”

18. Donovan WoodsHard Settle, Ain’t Troubled

Donovan Woods left arguably the two best songs he’s ever written—2015’s standalone singles “Portland, Maine” and “That Hotel”—off the tracklist of his fourth full-length album. For a lesser artist, that decision would be the ultimate shot in the foot. For Woods, though, it’s a chance to shine a light on great songs that listeners haven’t already heard. A Canadian folkie turned Nashville songwriter, Woods writes with a deft sense of craft and an innate ability to break your heart with the details. The kid who dies in a car wreck in “They Don’t Make Anything in That Town,” only for his truck to get fixed up, sold, and put back out on the road. The ex-boyfriend and girlfriend in “On the Nights You Stay Home” who won’t go out with friends because they’re scared of running into one another. The singer/songwriter in “Leaving Nashville” who is riding the waves of success one moment and down on his luck the next. The characters that populate these songs feel like real people. They aren’t the faux-heroic types you always hear about in rock songs. They don’t get the girls or the hit songs or the good luck. Their stories turn Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled into a heavy listen, but one that is ultimately incredibly rewarding for its unflinching look at human fragility and resilience.

Key track: “On the Nights You Stay Home”

19. Lydia LovelessReal

If there’s an award to be given for the biggest quantum leap made by an artist in 2016, I don’t see how it could go to anyone other than Lydia Loveless. The Ohio singer/songwriter made a splash in 2014 with Somewhere Else, an alternative country LP with a rough, garage-y edge. It was a solid collection of songs and showed a lot of promise, but the production didn’t quite do the songs justice and Loveless still seemed to be finding her voice. When I first pushed play on Real and “Same to You” came cascading out of my speakers, I could hardly believe I was hearing the same artist. The three minutes and 56 seconds that make up “Same to You” constitute arguably the greatest vocal performance captured on a tape in 2016, a tar-kicking, tour-de-force of emotion that sets up the record perfectly. Loveless’s vocal is reminiscent of the heart-on-the-sleeve emotional intensity that Adam Duritz poured into the first few Counting Crows records—a fitting comparison for how much Real feels like a ‘90s folk-rock record. Her songs here, typically collisions of catchy hooks (“Bilbao”) and brutal lyrics (“Real”), straddle a line between alt-country and alternative rock. They also perfectly achieve the goal Loveless set out for herself on this record: to be more honest and truer to herself than she had ever been in the past. That decision to be more real leads to some pretty crushing moments—like “Longer,” a song about a friend who died of a drug overdose, or “Out on Love,” one of the more demoralizing (and more gorgeously rendered) breakup songs to come along in the past few years. With the honesty of her writing and the emotive passion of her vocal delivery, though, Loveless turns Real into a jagged but life-affirming piece of work.

Key track: “Same to You”

20. The HotelierGoodness

The Hotelier’s breakthrough sophomore LP—2014’s Home, Like NoPlace Is There—cast such a mammoth shadow over that year that it became impossible to forget. As AbsolutePunk.net’s Album of the Year, Home felt like a genuine “new classic” very shortly after it was released. The follow-up, Goodness, is neither as immediate nor as emotionally intense. As a result, I had a tendency to forget about Goodness this year, often going weeks or months between my listens. Every time I pressed play, though, the album drew me back in and had me catching new details I hadn’t noticed in the past. What made Home so great was the collision between its catchy choruses and its deep, hard-hitting lyrics about trauma, heartbreak, and abuse. It provided a cathartic release that helped a lot of people deal with the dark patches in their lives and find some relief. Goodness doesn’t feel like it has the same gravity, but as I kept returning to the album throughout the year, I gradually started to see it as something even more powerful. Home reckoned with the worst days and sought recovery. Goodness basks in the glory of better times and urges resilience to help you make it through the bad ones. It’s an overpoweringly touching record about life and love, and about how even the bumps along the way—from losing loved ones (“Opening Mail for My Grandmother”) to seeing great relationships come to a close (“End of Reel”)—are vital brushstrokes on a vibrant, chaotic, and ultimately beautiful canvas.

Key track: “Opening Mail for My Grandmother”

21. Josh KelleyNew Lane Road

Josh Kelley’s vocals on New Lane Road are out of this world. The singer/songwriter—once a one or two-hit wonder, with early 2000s radio singles “Amazing” and “Everybody Wants You”—has been leaning more and more in the country direction over the past decade and a half. That’s not surprising, considering that Josh’s brother Charles is one-third of the platinum-selling country group Lady Antebellum. Here, Kelley strikes the perfect balance between country, backwoods Americana, and his pop roots—give or take a little bit of gospel—to make his best album yet. With Kelley’s honey-sweet voice and the traditional feel of many of the arrangements, most of these songs sound like instant classics. Opener “It’s Your Move” hits one of the best choruses of the year, while soulful highlights like “Call It What It Is” and “Take It on Back” sound like a mix between Jackson Browne and Marc Cohn. New Lane Road seems destined to be one of the year’s most overlooked albums, given Kelley’s fairly low profile and the fact that most of its clearest influences are unfashionable “adult contemporary” albums from years gone by. But I’d defy anyone to listen to “Only God Can Stop Her Now,” the record’s emotional tour-de-force of a closing track, and not feel something.

Key track: “Only God Can Stop Her Now”

22. Amanda ShiresMy Piece of Land

Almost nothing about My Piece of Land is immediate. From Shires’ sweet, soft vocal delivery to her meticulously detailed poetry, this record is a slow-burn that digs its roots exponentially deeper with each listen. In a year like 2016, it’s all too easy for a record like this to get lost. 2016’s music calendar brought so many releases from superstars that small albums like this one—albums that might have gotten more attention in previous years—got missed by a lot of people. That’s a shame, because My Piece of Land is a beautiful, life-affirming piece of work. Written while Shires was pregnant with her first child, this record carries with it all of the fears, excitements, doubts, and joys of new parenthood. On “The Way It Dimmed” and “Slippin’,” Shires frets about the love she shares with her husband burning out—a chance that seems that much scarier with a child in the picture. On “When You’re Gone,” she paints the portrait of an empty house and how it feels different when her husband is away on the road. On “Nursery Rhyme,” she prepares and waits anxiously for the arrival of her new daughter. And on “You Are My Home,” she affirms her love for her husband and their new family, proclaiming “Anywhere you stand/Is my piece of land.” Elegant production from Dave Cobb helps emphasize the highly personal nature of the concept, while vocal and guitar contributions from Jason Isbell—Shires’ husband—create an astounding level of intimacy. Ultimately, though, its Shires’ thoughtful songwriting that makes this record one of the finest of the year.

Key track: “You Are My Home”

23. Frankie BallardEl Rio

Frankie Ballard’s El Rio was billed as a country record, but it’s more back-to-basics, bar-band rock ‘n’ roll. Throughout the 11 songs that make up this record, Ballard makes a case for himself as the modern Bob Seger, slinging earthly (and sometimes  sleazy) rock songs built for summertime road trips and boat cruises. There’s even a Seger cover nestled in the penultimate slot (“You’ll Accomp’ny Me”), but the highlights are up front. Given Chris Stapleton’s meteoric rise to success in 2015, it’s not surprising that Ballard (or his label) chose to kickstart this record with two Stapleton co-writes. The first, “El Camino,” is mainstream-country-by-way of Butch Walker’s The Spade. The second, “Cigarette,” has a classic soulful Stapleton hook with a thrilling bridge. Even beyond Stapleton’s presence, though, El Rio is stacked with new warm-weather staples, from the undeniable hook of “Wasting Time” to the glammy SoCal barnstormer “L.A. Woman,” all the way to the dusky guitar loop of “Good as Gold.” Even the radio single, the Corona-soaked love story “It Started with a Beer,” has a lived-in charm that many mainstream country hits lack.

Key track: “Cigarette”

24. Sister HazelLighter in the Dark

Inexplicably released in January, during the dead of winter, Lighter in the Dark came alive for me once the weather got hot. My go-to summer driving soundtrack for the year—at least until Butch Walker’s Stay Gold came along—Lighter in the Dark sees these roots rock veterans going country. To be fair, Sister Hazel have always been a country-leaning pop band, so they didn’t have far to go. Still, the boys from Gainesville, Florida commit to the change of direction completely, teaming with big-name country songwriters like Luke Laird, Hillary Lindsay, and Darius Rucker to concoct their twist on a modern Nashville sound. The result is a breezy highway mixtape, one meant for car stereos, country dive bars, and late, late nights under the stars. There are moments of cheese—the Rucker-featuring “Karaoke Song” is gloriously hokey in a still-sort-of enjoyable way—but there are also more than a few moments of magic, from the pitch-perfect Eagles-influenced throwback that is “Prettiest Girl at the Dance” to “Almost Broken,” a devastating duet with up-and-coming country talent Jillian Jacqueline. These guys are so far past their ‘90s one-hit wonder days that most listeners probably view them as either a throwback novelty or a punchline. With Lighter in the Dark, though, Sister Hazel embrace a new genre and end up sounding both fresh and classic at the same time.

Key track: “Prettiest Girl at the Dance”

25. Ryan BeaverRx

“Let the lights go out in this town and in my heart/Bring it on, I ain’t afraid of the dark.” If there was song this year marked by more resilient and defiant proclamation, I haven’t heard it. The song that couplet comes from, Rx opener “Dark,” is perhaps my favorite song of the year—an exhilarating Springsteen-style anthem that manages to fit all of the hopes, dreams, heartbreaks, and failures of a life into the space of four minutes. In a year that brought plenty of darkness, “Dark” was the song I kept coming back to, a sobering reminder that fighting hard and facing down the tornadoes of life—even if you have to do it with a drink clutched firmly in your hand—is always worth the risk. The rest of the album doesn’t quite live up to that impossibly high standard, but it’s still one of the year’s finest country LPs. The desolate beauty “If I Had a Horse” ends the record on a Jason Isbell-esque note, while the apocalyptic romance of “When This World Ends” features a slightly pre-fame Maren Morris on backing vocals. Send-ups of “Kristofferson” and “Vegas” round out the album with tuneful songwriting that fits well among the crop of recent alt-country revivalists. It’s some of the riskier moments, though—the pounding southern rock of “Rum and Roses” or the addiction saga of the title track—that give the album its unique edge.

Key track: “Dark”

26. Ingrid MichaelsonIt Doesn’t Have to Make Sense

From Butch Walker’s Afraid of Ghosts to Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, many great albums have been born from artists who decided to be candid about losing loved ones or going through divorces. Only rarely, though, does an artist end up in a place where they are exploring both of those personal heartbreaks on the same album. Such is the case with Ingrid Michaelson’s It Doesn’t Have to Make Sense, whose 10 songs constitute arguably the year’s saddest record. Written in the wake of her mother’s death and the separation from her husband, Michaelson’s newest batch of songs is almost punishing in its bleakness—at least for the majority of its running time. Starting with the reflective “Light Me Up,” the first six songs of this record pull no punches. “I Remember Her” is the roughest gut-punch, a raw piano ballad that encapsulates what it feels like to run out of time with someone you love. But then the album turns a corner, with “Hell No” (the album’s purest pop song) transforming heartbreak into defiance and “Celebrate” winding back the clock to the carefree parties, summer nights, and sing along songs of youth. The message is clear: this album isn’t about grief or heartbreak, though both are present. Rather, it’s a record where the artist claws her way toward recovery in real time, leaving it all on tape for the world to hear.

Key track: “Hell No”

27. Brent CobbShine on Rainy Day

Understated and beautifully organic, Brent Cobb’s Shine on Rainy Day would be easy to spot as a Dave Cobb record even if it didn’t bear the Cobb name. As the cousin of Nashville’s hottest producer, Brent Cobb makes music that is just about perfect for Dave’s restrained work. More than any other artist Dave Cobb has produced for since landing himself on the map with Jason Isbell’s 2013 masterpiece Southeastern, Brent actually sounds like Isbell, his dusty tenor very much recalling the tunefulness and timbre of Americana’s reigning king. However, where Isbell trades largely in dark narratives and devastating character studies, Cobb’s songs portray a comforting kind of weatherworn optimism. The title track is the undisputed highlight, a James Taylor-style beauty that sends a message of hard-won resilience (“Laughing ain’t a pleasure ‘til you know about cryin’,” Cobb sings in the second verse) that feels especially resonant after this year. But the entire record sounds timeless and classic from the first time through, from opener “Solving Problems,” which recounts a Sunday afternoon conversation between two pals sitting on a porch, to “Black Crow,” the stirring Southern Gothic closer.

Key track: “Shine on Rainy Day”

28. Margo PriceMidwest Farmer’s Daughter

It’s a story that’s already becoming the stuff of music industry legend: Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, the debut LP from Illinois-born country singer Margo Price, got turned down by every single label in Nashville. It looked like Price’s career was over before it started—at least until Jack White’s Third Man Records got involved and agreed to release the LP as their first-ever country album. Price went on to become one of the breakout critical successes of 2016, earning rave reviews from a range of publications and landing on EOTY lists everywhere from Rolling Stone to Paste to American Songwriter. Where Maren Morris conquered the country world in 2016 by going for a forward-thinking pop-influenced sound, Price is all about the throwback. She’s been justifiably compared to everyone from Loretta Lynn to Carole King, and her songs transition the classic country sound into modern times as well as any artist has been able to accomplish. Even with Price’s unapologetically twangy voice and the prevalence of steel guitar, though, A Midwest Farmer’s Daughter has resonated with non-country fans. Give credit to the quality of the songwriting, which is sharp, nuanced, and unique throughout these 11 songs. The highlights are the narrative-driven “Hands of Time” (which sits in the track one position and functions almost as an origin story), and the swooning “How the Mighty Have Fallen” (a tune that sounds like a gorgeous love song, but is actually about a pitiful, groveling man trying to win back his ex-lover). There’s plenty to love here, though, from “Hurtin’ (On a Bottle),” Price’s tipsy take on a country drinking song, to “This Town Gets Around,” an eviscerating indictment of sexism in country music.

Key track: “Hands of Time”

29. WeezerThe White Album

After years of hit-or-miss releases (with an emphasis on “miss”), Weezer returned to their ’90s alt-rock glory this year with their fourth official self-titled record. This one, a White Album, is arguably the band’s best work since their debut, doubling down on the pop-punk hooks and adolescent themes that made The Blue Album such a staple. Former Butch Walker protégé Jake Sinclair takes the boards and helps Weezer re-center their sound—on a California beach somewhere. The result, though it released on April 1st, was one of the year’s most unbreakable summer albums. Kicking off with a drive to the ocean in “California Kids” and ending amidst pleas of “I just want the summer to end” (in the aptly titled “Endless Bummer”), Weezer captures the scope and feel of a single summer romance about as well as any album since Everything in Transit. Along the way the band delivers some of their sharpest hooks (take your pick of “Wind in Our Sale,” “King of the World,” “Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori,” or “LA Girlz”) and plenty of dumb fun (“Thank God for Girls,” “Do You Wanna Get High”) for a readymade windows-down driving mix.

Key track: “LA Girlz”

30. Vince GillDown to My Last Bad Habit

Known widely as one of the greatest singers in the history of country music, the 59-year-old Vince Gill sounds like a man half his age on his latest LP. A terrific example of a late-career triumph, Down to My Last Bad Habit winds the clock back to the ‘90s (or before) with a set of soulful, bluesy rockers and wistful country ballads. The result is a record that sounds like it doesn’t belong in 2016, in the best way possible. Rather than chasing trends, Gill just writes songs that emphasize what he’s good at. The choice pays dividends across the board. The rockers are foot-tapping, sing-along fun: see the propulsive opener “Reasons for the Tears I Cry,” the road trip ready “Me and My Girl,” or the late album Richard Marx co-write “When It’s Love.” The ballads are heart-on-the-sleeve, gut-wrenching gorgeous: see the instant classic title track or the elegant slow dance of “I’ll Be Waiting for You,” an affecting duet with rising country star Cam. Albums like this one tend to get tagged with the backhanded compliment of “workmanlike,” but “workmanlike” from a guy with Gill’s level of talent still equates to one of the year’s best albums.

Key track: “Down to My Last Bad Habit”

31. Jamie KentAll American Mutt

A dynamic and exciting album from a relative newcomer in the Americana/country music space, Jamie Kent’s All American Mutt finds the Massachusetts-born singer/songwriter showing off his chops in a range of different styles. From the rowdy (“Sheila,” which features a guest appearance from Huey Lewis) to the restrained (“Red Rover,” a classic-style duet with country singer Michaela Anne), All American Mutt combines Nashville twang with classic rock traditionalism. The obvious punchline is that it’s a collection that lives up to its name. While Kent’s drive to cover a lot of musical ground could easily be an excuse to naval gaze, though, the most impressive thing about the record is just how well it captures its different styles. “Home Again” is an Isbell-era road song, while “Be Your Man” and the hooky “Last Call” wouldn’t be out of place on a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album. Perhaps most satisfying, “Embrace the Disaster” and album highlight “Look Up” have a world-weary gruffness to them that is a dead ringer for Springsteen’s post-millennial acoustic material. The latter, a hymn about living in the now instead of getting distracted by your phone or bogged down at work, is one of the year’s best songs, in any genre.

Key track: “Look Up”

32. Hailey, It HappensHailey, It Happens

Frigid, dynamic, and beautiful, the latest record from Boston-based synth-pop duo Hailey, It Happens is a beautiful display of growth in songwriting and style. What makes the record great is its dichotomy of theme. It’s entirely possible that this band—made up of vocalist Chris Cleary and keyboardist Bob DiBari—could write a fantastic album of swooning pop songs like “Dreaming” and hit the ball out of the park. Instead, they choose to place “Dreaming” alongside complex, regretful songs about growing up, losing friends and family members, watching your hometown change, and making peace with your choices. Songs like “Dandelion” and “Bluebird,” for instance, are filled with snapshots of relationships that fell apart—from Ben E. King songs and whiskey on a summer night to coffee shops and other old haunts that aren’t there anymore. But the highlight is “27,” where Cleary asks “Were those the good years? Damn, I must have missed them.” It’s a sobering reminder that, if you sit around waiting for life to start, it never will.

Key track: “27”

33. Jake OwenAmerican Love

In the past, Jake Owen has been associated at least tangentially with the noxious “Bro Country” movement. On his fifth LP, though, Owen turns his back on the bar-hopping, hard-partying, rap-country ways of his brethren and turns in a collection that is markedly more vulnerable and traditional than anything he’s done in the past. Recorded in the wake of Owen’s divorce, American Love splits its runtime between nostalgia for better days and aching ballads for what he’s lost. Not all of the songs hit: “VW Van” and “Good Company” are both songs that lean back toward the party vibes of Owen’s previous records (and away from substance). For the most part, though, American Love offers interesting twists on the pop-country sound and surprisingly spry songwriting. The highlight might be “If He Ain’t Gonna Love You,” a soulful Chris Stapleton co-write where Stapleton stops by for a vocal feature and practically takes over the song. But even without the assistance of country music’s reigning champion, American Love offers up perfect summertime pop songs (“Everybody Dies Young”), throwbacks to Jackson Browne’s Laurel Canyon sound (“LAX”), and a piano ballad so raw and sparse that it’s a miracle it made it onto a mainstream country record in 2016 (“When You Love Someone”). Even the more generic exercises—the R&B-meets-country rave-up of the title track, or arena-ready showstoppers like “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” and “American Country Love Song”—are a bit deeper and more well-crafted than comparable songs from other country A-listers.

Key track: “If He Ain’t Gonna Love You”

34. Mandolin OrangeBlindfaller

Mandolin Orange’s last record, 2015’s beautifully understated Such Jubilee, was the sleeper classic of last year for me. I discovered that record in the summer and liked it a lot on first listen, but didn’t fall in love with it until December rolled around and it became my go-to Christmastime record. Fast-forward a year and there’s a fair argument to be made that I’ve spun Such Jubilee more than any other piece of vinyl in my record collection. So when Mandolin Orange—the Americana songwriting duo of Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz—announced that they were dropping another album less than a year after their last one, it quickly shot up my “most anticipated” list. Blindfaller, the Such Jubilee follow-up, is not nearly as splendid as its predecessor. Where Such Jubilee was a profoundly personal album written about coming home after a long and exhausting tour cycle, Blindfaller shifts the focus more toward the public sphere, pulling its inspiration not from personal events, but from the headlines of our time. “Wildfire” is a song about racism, charting the history of our country’s worst disease from the Civil War days until now. “Gospel Shoes,” meanwhile, takes GOP politicians to task for letting their religious beliefs dictate their policies. These are deep, interesting, and well-written songs—taking on subjects that a lot of people were thinking about in 2016 in ways that no one else quite thought of. The album’s sequencing does it no favors, putting the best songs at the beginning or end and rendering the mid-section a bit of a snooze. But the best songs—from Frantz’s stunning, restrained vocal work on opener “Hey Stranger” to the loose honky tonk buzz of “Hard Travelin’”—are more than worth the price of admission.

Key track: “Hey Stranger”

35. Sarah JaroszUndercurrent

There’s a soft, unassuming beauty to Undercurrent, the fourth album from Texas roots artist Sarah Jarosz. A 25-year-old singer/songwriter with a talent for making music that sounds timeless, Jarosz can stun whether she’s playing a simple acoustic-guitar-and-vocals number (opener “Early Morning Light”) or adding organs, electric guitar, and tasteful bass accompaniment for a more vibrant piece (the Parker Millsap co-write “Comin’ Undone”). On the foreboding “House of Mercy,” she sounds like a young Stevie Nicks, pulling off a tune that wouldn’t have been out of place toward the end of Rumours. And on “Green Lights,” she coveys the excitement, awkwardness, intoxication, and naivete of young love. Through clever use of different types of arrangements—as well as the presence of multiple guests—Jarosz manages to make a surprisingly dynamic record with her relatively modest, bare-bones sonic palette. It’s not surprising that the Grammy committee took notice and threw Undercurrent nods in the Best Folk Album, Best American Roots Performance, and Best Engineered Album categories.

Key track: “Green Lights”

36. Jared DeckJared Deck

This debut album from rural Oklahoma country singer Jared Deck flew well under the radar this year, getting a notice from Rolling Stone Country but inspiring only a few other blips on the radar. That’s a shame, because Deck is a promising young talent—a troubadour whose weathered voice and proclivity for both gospel-laced ballads and bluesy rave-ups flags him as a potential heir apparent to the Chris Stapleton throne. The entire album is a pleasant surprise, but the highlights especially make me excited for whatever might come next from Deck. Opener and lead single “17 Miles” is an ode to a botched escape, a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale about the time that Deck tried to leave his small rural town behind at age 21. 17 miles outside of town, his car broke down. The humor and irony doesn’t escape Deck here, as he pens the tale as a Stones-y rocker with a tongue-in-cheek edge. “I’m coming home!” Deck exclaims matter-of-factly at the end of the song. Elsewhere, Deck turns down the amps for beautifully restrained ballads like “Wrong Side of the Night” and the church-bound closer “Song You Can Use.” Even if Deck isn’t headed for a Stapleton-like bout of success, with songs this good, he could easily become a cult favorite along the lines of Will Hoge.

Key track: “Wrong Side of the Night”

37. Aubrie SellersNew City Blues

One of 2016’s first great releases, Aubrie Sellers’ New City Blues was a highly-anticipated record from a debut Nashville talent. With a pair of famous country music parents—singer Lee Ann Womack and noted songwriter Jason Sellers—Aubrie Sellers was always going to end up making music. That her debut record is so unique and singular is more surprising. Wouldn’t years of growing up around country music lead someone to internalize what they heard—tropes, clichés, and all—and create something bearing those characteristics? Not for Sellers, apparently. Instead, the 25-year-old singer/songwriter made a record of “garage country”—songs that bear an obvious twang, but that are often layered with distorted guitars and loud, unpolished production. Sellers’ love for flagellated leads yields solid results much of the time—see the foreboding opener “Light of Day” or the crunchy “Paper Doll.” But the best songs are actually the ones where Sellers lets herself sound like a more traditional country singer. “Liar Liar” is a superb co-write with Brandy Clark about a philandering man, “Loveless Rolling Stone” is a timeless song for the road, and “Like the Rain” is one of the year’s most gorgeous ballads, in any genre. At 14 tracks, New City Blues is certainly too long and has some growing pains and filler material issues that often crop up on debut albums. Sellers is definitely a talent, though, and it’s not hard to see her making a true masterpiece an album or two down the road.

Key track: “Like the Rain”

38. Charles KelleyThe Driver

Charles Kelley, like many Nashville A-listers, doesn’t write all of his own songs. On his debut solo album, though, the Lady Antebellum singer arguably does a better job of pulling together a rich and varied track listing than any of his contemporaries. It doesn’t hurt that Kelley has assembled a fantastic slate of co-writers and guest features here to spice things up. “The Driver,” a slow-burn beauty about a traveling circus, brings Dierks Bentley and Eric Paslay onboard. “The Only One Who Gets Me” is a soulful, classic ballad with longtime Taylor Swift collaborator Nathan Chapman as co-writer. “Round in Circles” is a collaboration between Charles and his brother Josh Kelley (also featured on this list). Second single “Lonely Girl” is a Chris Stapleton original. Miranda Lambert shows up for a feature on penultimate track “I Wish You Were Here,” a song that stunningly captures the ache of long-distance relationships and the downside of touring life. And Kelley gets none other than the legendary Stevie Nicks to provide guest vocals for his cover of Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents,” an underrated song given a lovely update here. Even with such an impressive slate of guests and co-writers, though, the best song on The Driver comes from two lesser-known writers: Abe Stoklasa and Donovan Woods. The song, “Leaving Nashville,” closes out this record just like it closes out Woods’ solo record from this year (again, also on this list). Where Woods’ version is a restrained and resigned acoustic ballad, though, Kelley’s is a defiant emotional tour-de-force, building to a goosebump-inducing climax that the Donovan Woods version never quite reaches. The Driver might be a mainstream release, but Kelley’s clear devotion to stellar songcraft and interesting collaborations—as well as the record’s surprisingly downbeat vibe—make for a luxuriant, spacious release with a lot of personality and texture.

Key track: “Leaving Nashville”

39. PinegroveCardinal

Pinegrove’s Cardinal was one of the year’s most buzzed-about rock albums. From our “scene,” it was certainly the album to get the most attention from the mainstream music press—surpassing even The Hotelier. For a long time, I couldn’t figure out why. Pinegrove’s sound—which distills elements of emo, indie rock, and even folk and Americana into a gorgeous, contemplative mix—seemed like something that should have resonated with me. An emo band masquerading as a country band (or vice versa)? Sign me up! But Cardinal didn’t hit me until the temperature dropped and I let the lyrics really wrap themselves around me. The obvious highlight is “Old Friends,” a song that perfectly captures how your hometown seems to transform as you grow up and lose touch with the people who you used to share it with. “I know this town grounded in a compass,” frontman Evan Hall sings at the beginning of the track, but he twists the knife later, stating “I saw Leah on the bus a few months ago/I saw some old friends at her funeral.” There are lots of songs about loving the place you grew up, but few are as complex or as moving as this one. The rest of the album delivers similarly devastating moments, from the big crescendo in “Aphasia” (“One day I won’t need your love/One day I won’t define myself by the one I’m thinking of”) to the vulnerable conclusion of album closer “New Friends” (“The end of summer and I’m still in love with her”). Bands who write this thoughtfully and openly are rare, so I’m glad I finally came around on what makes Cardinal so special.

Key track: “Old Friends”

40. David NailFighter

I struggled a bit deciding what to put in this slot. For a long time, Courtney Marie Andrews was at number 40, for her gorgeously understated 2016 release Honest Life. In the end, though, David Nail pushed into the top 40 largely on the strength of a single song. Even among the albums up at the very top of this list, it would be hard for me to find a song from this year that affected me more deeply than Nail’s “Home.” Featuring harmonies from Lori McKenna, this song is impossibly beautiful—the most beautiful song I heard in a year full of deeply moving songwriting. It’s about the kind of love/hate relationship that a lot of people have with the place they grew up. You spend years thinking about getting away from that town and making your own way. Then, one day, when you’re feeling broken and lost, there’s suddenly nowhere on earth that you’d rather be. “It’s where you’re from/It’s your oldest friend/And you think it will forget you when you go/But you know it’ll take you back in/It won’t fade away/It’ll watch you leave/And stay sitting there waiting in the fields and the sky and the stone/In your blood and your bones/Home.” No track put tears in my eyes more in 2016. Fighter has other great moments too: the title track, with its chorus about singing along to “Little Red Corvette” in the car; the Vince Gill-featuring “I Won’t Let You Go”; the summer night sing-along of “Night’s on Fire”; the sexy, swooning “Champagne Promise,” with a strong assist from the fantastic Logan Brill. But it’s “Home” that sells Fighter as a must-hear release.

Key track: “Home”

Favorite EPs

I’ve never been sure how to handle EPs on end-of-the-year lists. Worthy of some sort of recognition, these collections also aren’t long or substantial enough to be compared alongside full-length albums. However, this year certainly brought some riches in the EP department. Steve Moakler’s self-titled extended play brought a set of songs that figured deeply into my summer soundtrack. Noah Gundersen’s Young in the City project channeled Springsteen and Henley into a collection of blistering, beer-soaked ‘80s rock ‘n’ roll songs. Butch Walker used a four-track recorder to make Cassette Backs, a stripped-down counterpart to his album Stay Gold that housed one of his best songs ever in “Roll Me Out.” And Post Monroe and Countless Thousands both landed on my radar for the first time, delivering harmony-soaked country music (the former) and lively, melodic punk rock (the latter) that I revisited repeatedly.

Here were my favorite short-form releases of 2016:

  1. Steve MoaklerSteve Moakler
  2. Young in the CityYoung in the City II
  3. Butch WalkerCassette Backs
  4. Post MonroePost Monroe
  5. Countless Thousands You’re Goddamn Right

Favorite Discoveries from Previous Years

One of the most frustrating things about compiling year-end lists is that your list can only ever be a work in progress. As a writer, I’m trying to finalize my list, blurbs and all, by Christmastime. In other words, anything I hear after about December 15th isn’t making my list, while other first listens from December are likely to miss due simply to the limited time they have to sink in.

The other frustrating thing is that, when you make a list—especially one like mine, where I write about each album and filter some autobiographical details into the frame—you only get to contextualize music that actually came out in a given space of 12 months. This year, some of my biggest “life soundtrack” albums came from previous years, and I couldn’t let this feature go without at least mentioning them. Here are the five albums from years past that I felt most grateful to discover in 2016:

Dierks BentleyRiser
Steve MoaklerWide Open
Josh Abbott BandFront Row Seat
Lori McKennaNumbered Doors
Old DominionMeat and Candy

The 2015 Re-Rank

I almost didn’t even put this part of the feature into my post this year, just because my thoughts haven’t changed much since I put my pencil down and finalized my 2015 list. But the “last year’s top 10, re-ranked” thing is a tradition for me at this point, so I figured I’d give it a shot. The top six didn’t change at all, while only one album from the top 10 (Will Hoge’s Small Town Dreams) slipped out. Otherwise, Mandolin Orange jumped up a few notches, Kacey Musgraves and Matt Nathanson shifted a slot or two, and John Moreland and Turnpike Troubadours leaped into the fray.

The great thing about a re-rank? I don’t feel bad about having a tie.

  1. Butch WalkerAfraid of Ghosts
  2. Jason IsbellSomething More Than Free
  3. Noah GundersenCarry the Ghost
  4. DawesAll Your Favorite Bands
  5. Chris StapletonTraveller
  6. Logan BrillShuteye
  7. Mandolin OrangeSuch Jubilee
  8. Turnpike TroubadoursTurnpike Troubadours
  9. Kacey MusgravesPageant Material
  10. (TIE) Matt NathansonShow Me Your Fangs
  11. (TIE) John MorelandHigh on Tulsa Heat

The 2006 Re-Rank

A few years ago, I added a 10-year re-rank to go along with the previous year re-rank. Nowadays, I find this part to be almost as exciting as making my list for the current year—especially since I’ve been spending a lot of time writing 10-year retrospectives lately. 2006 was a particularly rich year—one that, if I recall correctly, marked the first time I ever published an AOTY list online. That list is lost to the sands of time and Myspace, but here’s the way I see things now:

  1. Butch WalkerThe Rise and Fall of Butch Walker and the Let’s-Go-Out-Tonites!
  2. John MayerContinuum
  3. Dashboard ConfessionalDusk and Summer
  4. Mat KearneyNothing Left to Lose
  5. The KillersSam’s Town
  6. The Hold SteadyBoys & Girls in America
  7. Sister HazelAbsolutely
  8. The Dixie ChicksTaking the Long Way Around
  9. Boys Like GirlsBoys Like Girls
  10. The Red Hot Chili PeppersStadium Arcadium

That’s all folks! If you made it to the end of this, thanks for reading! Even if you didn’t, I hope you have a beautiful and prosperous 2017. In the words of Dawes, “May all your favorite bands stay together.”

Craig Manning
Craig Manning Craig Manning is a contributor at chorus.fm. He can also be found at @FurtherFromSky on Twitter and on Facebook.