Let's be honest: mid-year lists are kind of superfluous. I expect that my opinions on the records below will continue to shift. Add six months' worth of new releases, and my list come December will almost certainly look nothing like this one does. With that said, I've heard a lot of great albums this year, and I wanted an opportunity to reflect and think about which ones have resonated the most. All 10 of these records (plus the bonus EP) get the highest recommendation from me.
Happy July and happier listening!
With a force-of-nature voice, a sharp talent for storytelling, and more than a bit of wit and charisma, Parker Millsap weaves The Very Last Day into 2016's best album—so far, anyway. He's only 23 years old and this is only his second record, but when you hear him wail on "You Gotta Move" or spin a tale about the homosexual son of a preacher on "Heaven Sent," you might swear he's got twice that many under his belt.
Sturgill Simpson's breakthrough record, 2014's Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, was an explosion of classic country, tinged with psychedelia. The Kentucky singer/songwriter paints with an even broader brush on the follower up, A Sailor's Guide to Earth—to the point where many of his fans cried betrayal and bitched about it not being "country enough." Fuck that. On this record, "country music" is anything Simpson wants it to be. He pulls in influences from a dozen genres to create a love letter to his new son, from soul to progressive rock to grunge and beyond.
3. Brian Fallon - Painkillers
On his first solo record, the frontman from The Gaslight Anthem opts out of reinventing the wheel. Instead, he surges straight down the center of the highway, writing songs that feature his usual mix of classic rock, folk, Americana, and references to favorite songs and movie stars. If you wanted a more polarizing record in the vein of Gaslight's Get Hurt, you were probably disappointed by Painkillers. This album, though, showcases Brian Fallon as an artist who knows what he does well and is perfectly content to put out a record that emphasizes strength of songwriting craft over surprises. The decision to hold steady pays off, with cuts like "A Wonderful Life," "Rosemary," and "Open All Night" ranking among his best ever.
4. The 1975 - I like it when you sleep…
On their debut, 2013's self-titled album, The 1975 were a pop band willing to draw as much from emo as they were from boy bands. They were unique, but not flamboyantly so. On the follow up, though, these boys from Manchester transform into the most audacious band currently making music. Long ambient interludes transition into straight-up pop jams, while the album's most John Hughes soundtrack-worthy anthem ("This Must Be My Dream") is just two tracks away from a raw acoustic heartbreaker ("Nana"). The record—like its title—is a hair unwieldy, but start combing the tracklist for inessential songs and you'll make an interesting discovery: there aren't any.
When it comes to scene classics, it's usually not very hard to tell what's going to stand the test of time. From the first time I listened to Goodness, it sounded like something that kids were going to be discovering 10 years down the road, in the same way that they still discover stuff like Clarity. Less catchy and intense than its predecessor, 2014's Home, Like NoPlace Is There, Goodness is also much more life-affirming, trading the dark emotional doldrums of Home for flickers of love, wistful reflection, and uplift. The songs aren't always as striking as the ones from the last album, but some of them—like "Opening Mail for My Grandmother" and "End of Reel"—are as viscerally engaging as anything this band has ever written.
To the outside eye, Josh Kelley peaked early in his career, landing a minor hit off his 2003 debut album with "Amazing." Fast-forward 13 years, though, and Kelley is the rare, almost unheard-of artist who is making his best music with his eighth full-length. A collision of pop, soul, country, folk, and even a little bit of gospel, New Lane Road is as instantly timeless as new albums come. Kelley's voice has always been his not-so-secret weapon, so smooth and delicate one minute and full of force the next. Here, he parlays it into more than a few remarkable moments of pathos, with the bookends ("It's Your Move" and "Only God Can Stop Her Now") standing out most clearly.
The hooks on Maren Morris's major label debut are so huge that it's not hard to see why she is being heralded as the new country "It" girl. On songs like "Sugar," "Rich," and "80s Mercedes," she effortlessly combines wit, sense for melody, and girl power into an irresistible sound that isn't quite pop and isn't quite country. It's on the ballads where Morris really sets herself apart from the crowd, though, with the likes of "I Could Use a Love Song," "I Wish I Was," and the soaring "Once" sounding like iconic classics in the making.
8. Donovan Woods - Hard Settle, Ain't Troubled
Donovan Woods has always been a talented songwriter, but Hard Settle, Ain't Troubled, his fourth full-length, takes his chops to the next level. More experienced as a writer now than he was a few years ago (having landed songs on a few albums by major Nashville country artists), he conveys different kinds of desolation here with an eye for detail and a clear willingness to twist the knife. From the fracturing relationship of "On the Nights You Stay Home" to the universal regret of "The First Time," all the way to the roller coaster of emotions that defines "Leaving Nashville," Woods will break your heart at least half a dozen times on this record.
9. Sister Hazel - Lighter in the Dark
And here I thought I'd outgrown Sister Hazel. One of my favorite bands from childhood, this roots rock act from Gainesville hadn't made a record that resonated with me since 2006's Absolutely. Lighter in the Dark revitalizes their sound, taking the band in the most overtly "country" direction of their career. The result is a bona-fide summer soundtrack, crammed with road-trip-ready anthems ("Fall off the Map," "Run Highway Run"), classic rock throwbacks (the Eagles-flavored "Prettiest Girl at the Dance"), and dusky, lantern-lit ballads ("Ten Candle Days"). Suffice to say I've reached for this album a lot for runs or long drives on sunny days.
Brandy Clark's sophomore record is a bit glossier than her debut (2013's 12 Stories), but don't mistake this album as a mainstream sellout maneuver. Clark is still one of the best songwriters in the country music genre, and this record includes at least five of the year's best compositions. Clark can spin a great chorus (the gorgeous and wistful "Homecoming Queen," or the anthem of heartbreak that is "Love Can Go to Hell"), but her secret weapon is the details: the son who can't talk about his late father until after he's had a couple drinks in "Since You've Gone to Heaven," or the single mother in "Three Kids, No Husband" whose only moments to herself come during smoke breaks at work. At her best, Clark's understanding of the beaten and downtrodden is almost Springsteen-level.
If Steve Moakler's self-titled EP were a few songs longer, I would have been tempted to include it on this list. Moakler's brand of pop country is breezy summertime fare, but his unique voice and his eye for detail elevate his songs above anything and everything on country radio these days. "Summer without Her" is what Dashboard Confessional's Dusk and Summer might have sounded like if Chris Carrabba had taken a more Nashville-driven approach, while "Suitcase" has a hook that should make Moakler famous. Here's hoping that we'll see a full-length before year's end.