From undeniable debuts to heartbreaking farewell statements to new efforts from the format’s most timeless legends, 2016 was a rich year for country music. Though men still control the charts, 2016 saw women flex their artistic muscle and arguably dominate the genre in a way not seen since the late ’90s. We have a feeling that regardless of the outlet, the three albums atop this list will find their way onto most 2016 year-end lists. Here’s Billboard’s 10 Best Country Albums of 2016.
10. Hymns That Are Important To Us, Joey + Rory
It would be easy to put this album on our list because of the emotional story behind it — dealing with Joey Martin Feek’s brave battle against cancer. However, the simplicity of this album spoke volumes, and when you heard this couple harmonizing on classics like “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “It Is Well With My Soul,” you knew they weren’t just singing words. This was as real and honest as any country album this year.
9. Sinner, Aaron Lewis
Lewis made headlines in 2016 with his controversial thoughts on other artists’ music. But that takes nothing away from this set, where the Staind lead singer delivered an album that kept it simple and country. The no-holds-barred honesty of tracks such as “I Lost It All” and “Mama” were some of the finest writing from a male artist this year.
8. It’s About Time, Hank Williams, Jr.
After ending a long partnership with a label where he felt restrained, “Bocephus” partnered up with Scott Borchetta at Nash Icon, and released one of his strongest albums in years. Cuts like the Waylon Jennings oldie “Mental Revenge” and “God Fearin’ Man” showed that he has lost none of his bite — and “Just Call Me Hank” might cause a tear to form in the eye — a rarity for a Williams album.
7. Gunslinger, Garth Brooks
Granted, it’s risky to put brand new discs on this list for the simple reason that they haven’t had time to sink in like albums released earlier in the year. But instead of trying to adapt to current trends on his Man Against Machine disc, the icon went back to simply being Garth Brooks on Gunslinger. And that works exceedingly well, especially on cuts like the George Jones-ish “Honky Tonk Somewhere” and the reflective “Ask Me How I Know.”
6. Down To My Last Bad Habit, Vince Gill
Tom Brady plays football — and does it well. Jimmy Fallon makes us laugh — and does it well. And Vince Gill continues to vocalize as strongly as anyone in town. Though unfortunately ignored by radio, Gill’s ageless tenor dazzled throughout this disc, with “I Can’t Do That” and “Like My Daddy Did” proving that, like a fine wine, Gill has only gotten better with age.
5. Ripcord, Keith Urban
One might think that with ten producers credited on this album, Urban’s ninth solo disc would be a cluttered mess. However, the singer — closing in on two decades of chart dominance — delivered a set that pushed the boundaries of the format to new heights. It would be worth the price of admission alone, however, just to hear Urban’s gorgeous “Blue Ain’t Your Color.”
4. Tattooed Heart, Ronnie Dunn
Long before Chris Stapleton came to town, there were great male vocalists with powerful ranges recording country music. Arguably the finest male voice of the past quarter-century, Dunn made his Nash Icon debut with an album that showcased his greatness with tracks like “Damn Drunk” and the ’90s flavored “Only Broken Heart In San Antone.” And who but Dunn could cover pop queen Ariana Grande on the title cut and get away with it?
3. Big Day In A Small Town, Brandy Clark
Radio programmers need to be chided for not picking up on the absolute genius that is Brandy Clark. I have to admit that I was a little skeptical that the singer-songwriter might go in a more mainstream direction with the selection of Jay Joyce as a producer, but the combination worked. Country music knew few finer moments in 2016 than this album, with the brilliant “Daughter” being a prime example. Get on board, radio!
2. Hero, Maren Morris
At the same time, country radio needs to be applauded for their universal acceptance of Morris with her major-label debut. Singles like “My Church” and “80’s Mercedes” hit the airwaves with the subtlety of an atomic bomb — and there’s more where that came from, with highlights on the disc including “Rich” and “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry” showing an attitude the format hasn’t seen since…Lambert hit the scene.
1. The Weight Of These Wings, Miranda Lambert
Many people were wondering how much Lambert might reveal about her divorce from Blake Shelton on this double-disc set. She tended to not address the subject directly, but songs such as “Vice” hinted at heartbreak. At the same time, tracks like “Pink Sunglasses” and “We Should Be Friends” showed that Lambert could still kick up her heels with the best of them.