To put it bluntly, 2016 was a gut punch for music fans. The deaths of the icons Merle Haggard, Ralph Stanley, Guy Clark, Prince, and David Bowie, among others, cast long shadows. But it wasn’t all sorrow and tears. The sounds of Americana rang strong, and a number of female artists arrived on the scene with stellar debuts. Though the legends can never be replaced, the following highlights prove that great music never dies.
Album of the Year
The Ghosts of Highway 20
Lucinda Williams released her latest epic way back in February, which seems like a billion years ago. But it’s an album that continues to reveal its lyrical nooks and crannies and her most personal record to date (and that’s saying something). Williams’s unparalleled storytelling resonates as her voice groans with weariness and reflection on “Death Came” and “If There’s a Heaven,” seethes with contempt on “Dust,” and soothes on the touching “Place in My Heart.” The renowned Bill Frisell is the lights-out guest instrumentalist, filling her songs with shimmering guitar. Though it’s heavy-duty stuff, no one but Williams can make heartache and longing so compelling.
Song of the Year
In a year blessed with irresistible, sharply detailed songs from female country artists (Brandy Clark, Margo Price), Texas native Maren Morris hit the perfect blend of sugar and sass on her debut single. A tune about finding salvation by listening to country radio, “My Church” is slicker than I-24 during an ice storm. She name-drops the obvious—Hank and Johnny—but it doesn’t feel calculated. Rather, it’s an honest hallelujah to the transformational power of music.
Debut of the Year
Beyond the Bloodhounds
A South Carolina native, Adia Victoria floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee on her uncompromising debut album. With flashes of gritty roots and rickety blues, her ethereal voice can transform into a sneer on knotty songs about loneliness, ill-fated love, and, on the searing “Stuck in the South,” trying—but failing—to escape the darkness of the past. For a sunnier vibe, check out Brent Cobb’s elegant Shine On Rainy Day, a contemplative stash of stories about small-town Southern life that shows he’s quickly become one of Nashville’s top troubadours.
Billy Bragg/Joe Henry
Shine a Light
In early 2016, Billy Bragg, a U.K. punk rocker turned folksinger, and Joe Henry, an Americana stalwart, boarded a train in Chicago bound for Los Angeles to see if they could channel the legacy of railroad travel. The duo cut songs in station waiting rooms and even next to the tracks, their versions of train-inspired tunes made famous by Lead Belly, Hank Williams, and the Carter Family. With their perfectly matched voices and harmonies, it’s a stunning tribute to the machines that were an integral part of our country’s musical heritage.
Most Welcome Comeback
If Bob Weir never wrote a song again, he could still stand on the mighty peak of the Grateful Dead. But with Blue Mountain, Weir’s first full collection of entirely original material in nearly thirty years, he proves that hiding behind that shaggy beard there remains a potent artist. Weir spent some of his teenage years in rural Wyoming, and a mellow campfire vibe permeates the country shuffle of “Gonesville” and the weary, atmospheric twang of “Gallop on the Run” and “Whatever Happened to Rose.” All told, Weir serves up a perfectly sliced piece of Americana.
With larger festivals like Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza becoming virtually indistinguishable, Lockn’ has carved out a niche with an emphasis on onstage collaborations, along with a handful of bands playing multiple sets. Situated in the rolling horse-farm country of central Virginia, Lockn’ 2016 featured Tedeschi Trucks Band sharing the stage with the blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr. and the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh. Lesh was also joined by the Infamous Stringdusters and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, who returned following their own sizzling set. And though they didn’t have guests, My Morning Jacket delivered a three-hour Saturday night show that sent attendees into a state of delirium.
A 1975 cult classic, Juarez is a sprawling concept album by the Texas singer-songwriter Terry Allen that follows the journey of two couples across the Southwest. With his badass cowboy croon and delicate piano, Allen—who counts Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson as devout fans—paints vivid country-rock songs, using a palette that veers from eccentric to violent. Allen is one of the most influential but unsung figures in the outlaw country world, and he was in good company with concept albums—Willie Nelson’s Red-Headed Stranger and Phases and Stages arrived around the same time. But Juarez is weirder and nonlinear, and travels in a dusty haze full of blood and gravel. Allen is also an accomplished visual artist, and this reissue includes his original cover art. Also be sure to check out another Allen reissue, Lubbock (on everything), a tent pole for the alt-country genre.
Despite boffo ratings each year, NBC’s The Voice doesn’t have a strong track record of transforming contestants into stars. Hopefully that changes with Sarah Potenza—a casualty during season 8—whose scorching, take-me-as-I-am “Monster,” the title track to her debut album, might be the year’s most spirited girl-power anthem. Potenza cut her teeth singing covers in Chicago blues bars before becoming a fixture in the East Nashville music scene, and she combines a fiery voice and crunchy roots rock with a distinct flair for showmanship.