Here we are then, at the start of a new year. The whole twelve months ahead of us, with new music from Drew Holcombe, Tift Merritt, Nikki Lane, Aaron Watson and more in the next couple of months, plus loads of tours including the likes of Brent Cobb, Angaleena Presley, Miranda Lambert to name but a tiny few. Still, this little column is to review the best of 2016, to pull out the highlights from a packed release schedule. It was a strange year, and a year when death and politics took over, but there were musical highs; as there always will be. As usual, anything that made our main Albums of 2016 feature is excluded here, hence no Sturgill, Margot, or DBT. Without further delay then, here are our Campfire Tales Country & Americana Albums of 2016.
Beluh by John Paul White
Now the two halves of The Civil Wars have both released their first music since their less than amicable split, all the rumours can finally be put to bed. They have really very different views on music. After Joy Williams less than exciting Venus there was a twelve month wait for John Paul White’s first post project. And for fans of the duo this is where it’s at. Beluh is a mighty continuation of the brimstone and fire approach to roots music that brought them so much success.
California Sunrise by Jon Pardi
Ah, the old traditional versus radio country rears its head early on in this list. But hey, that’s the great thing about Jon Pardi and exactly why his second record is here: it’s the perfect mix of both. The slide guitar and vocal twang of ‘Out Of Style’ is Pardi in a neat five minutes. “When I first got to Nashville town / They called me in and sat me down / And told me all about the ins and outs of writing songs”
The Bird & the Rifle by Lori McKenna
More famous for a Little Big Town song than anything she’s performed herself Lori McKenna released the best record of her career with The Bird & the Rifle. ‘Wreck You’ tears the heart in two and ‘Humble and Kind’ knocks it out of the park. Tim who?
Mud by Whiskey Myers
If there was another American band that beguiled UK audiences as much as Whiskey Myers in 2016 then props to them as these guys rocked British socks off. Mud is a rock album really, just with a southern twang. Or it is until you get to ‘Trailer We Call Home’ which reminds you of the wonderful heart at the centre of this hard rocking collective.
The Weight Of These Wings by Miranda Lambert
She’s one of the biggest names in American music, he’s a high profile divorce behind her, the expectation of following up the excellent Platinum, and Miranda Lambert decides to release a double album? What folly, right? Well no, it’s bloody marvellous, from the frothy ‘Highway Vagabond’ and ‘Pink Sunglasses’ to the laid bare lyrics of ‘Ugly Lights’ and the loss of love on ‘Tin Man’ and ‘To Love Her’ this is a triumph.
Hero by Maren Morris
The undoubted breakout star from Nashville in 2016 was actually an old hand. Though Maren Morris seemed to come from nowhere with her huge hit ‘My Church’ she’s actually been around writing songs for others for a few years. That practice paid off in spades on her debut with singalongs like ‘80s Mercedes’ and ‘Drunk Girls Don’t Cry’ trading space with spiky tracks like ‘Rich’. Hero was a spot on mix of nods to trad and hooks for radio.
I’ve Got A Way by Kelsey Waldon
After first coming to the attention of those in the know with her low key 2014 debut The Goldmine, Kelsey Waldon builds on that goodwill and experience with more of the same, a grounded, authentic version of country music. ‘False King’ rags on wannabes and country-pop singers and is just one of the clever-clever lyrics that Waldon has written. This is another hidden gem, listen and enjoy.
My Piece Of Land by Amanda Shires
Another TMF fave is Jason Isbell’s better half. 2013’s Down Fell The Doves was a stunner from nowhere and three years, one marriage and a baby later Ms Shires drops more of the same. Quirky vocals, idiosyncratic lyrics, and a killer set of melodies means My Piece Of Land stands alongside her husband's work showing just how good Americana can be. Oh, and she can do beautiful too, just hear the wonderful ‘You Are My Home’.
Big Day In A Small Town by Brandy Clark
Following up 2013’s 12 Stories was half easy, half hard. Critically there wasn’t much room for improvement but sales of Brandy Clark’s debut definitely could be smash. And so it was, a huge critical and financial success, Clark even managed to get mainstream airplay. Blimey. The radio hit ‘Girl Next Door’ is actual a great example of the winningness of this record, it's smart, cutting lyrics are mashed together with a hook and chorus literally made for radio. The minutae of life is still caputed in those Kodak moment songs like ‘Soap Opera’ and the snarky as well ‘Daughter’, but Clark can deliver heartfelt too, as the wonderful ‘Love Can Go To Hell’ or ‘Three Kids No Husband’ show.
Blindfaller by Mandolin Orange
The fifth record from North Carolina duo Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz is just a beautiful blend of slide guitar, banjo picking, vocal harmonies, and dreamy melodies. The evocative violin on ‘Picking Up Pieces’ is just one of the many times the duo draw you in closer. It’s a real treat for the ears and the soul.
Resistor by Lera Lynn
A bit different from your usual Americana singer, Lera Lynn’s latest record, and the name of her recording studio, is inspired by her ongoing resistance to mainstream Nashville. A quick read of our interview with her shows her feelings toward Music City. Resistor is packed with dark and brooding tunes: the driving beat of ‘Shape Shifter’, the dirty grooving riff of ‘What you Done’, sultry vocals on ‘Run The Night’, and the reverb drench ‘Little Ruby’. The atmosphere might be in the shadows but the melodies and hooks are shining bright.
Young In All The Wrong Ways by Sara Watkins
2015 was busy for Sara Watkins, her supergroup album was released (Watkins Family Hour by Watkins Family Hour) and she toured the UK as part of the Transatlantic Sessions. All that followed in 2016 by this cracking record and a huge US tour with Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz. Amongst ten excellent songs, the title track is infectious rock, and ‘The Love That got Away’ is a dainty tearjerker.
A quick disclaimer; some very good records were released in 2016 but have official UK releases in 2017, as we’re UK based it’s only fair to move them out of this list, they include the latest from Courtney Marie Andrews and the debut from Brent Cobb. Look for them in a year’s time.