American Songwriter’s Top 50 Albums Of 2016: Presented by D’addario

Against Me! Shape Shift With Me

30. Against Me!, Shape Shift With Me

Against Me’s Laura Jane Grace has been one of punk rock’s most intelligent and outspoken voices for the better part of two decades. From anarchist politics to gender dysphoria, Grace’s cutting commentary and vicious wordplay are the most astute in underground music — clever, confrontational, and catchy as hell. So when her gaze shifted to the topic of romantic love — a subject only tacitly acknowledged on the band’s previous six records — we were prepared to see the concept eviscerated. What we got was one of the most focused and energetic records of the band’s career, one that captures all of the emotional catharsis that powers its live show and peers deep into the void of 21st-century relationships. — SEAN L. MALONEY

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29. Brian Fallon, Painkillers

For the second straight year, one of the best of the New Springsteen bandleaders stepped out for a great solo album. In 2015, it was Craig Finn of The Hold Steady; this year Brian Fallon of The Gaslight Anthem reaches for his moment and makes an honest stand with Painkillers. And like Finn, it turns out that Fallon’s earnest narratives thrive with less instrumentation around them. That’s not to say that Fallon doesn’t give us a few pocket anthems on the album (“A Wonderful Life,” “Smoke”). But the title track and “Steve McQueen” are restrained beauties, proving that Fallon’s change-ups can be just as effective as his fastballs. — JIM BEVIGLIA

Miranda-Lambert-Weight-of-These-Wings-album

28. Miranda Lambert, The Weight Of These Wings

Break-up albums are hit or miss. Done well, as with an effort like Marvin Gaye’s 1978 divorce album Here, My Dear, and a break-up record becomes canonical, forever part of a particularly heartbreaking niche of the larger concept album genre. Miranda Lambert’s double album The Weight Of These Wings, written in the wake of her very public divorce from fellow country artist Blake Shelton, will go down as one of those long remembered, deservedly revered records. Split into two sides — The Nerve and The Heart — the album listens as a start-to-finish journey, a metaphor driven home by several songs about hitting the road (two such songs, “Runnin’ Just In Case” and “Highway Vagabond,” kick off side one). It’s a slow-burn of an album (thanks, in part, to a production team of Frank Liddell, Glenn Worf and Eric Masse), one that fans of Lambert’s “Gunpowder And Lead” past may find a more challenging listen than previous efforts, although one they’re also likely to find more rewarding. Following 2014’s Platinum, which was something of a thesis statement on the intersection of independence and womanhood, this 24-song Portrait of the Artist As Starting the Hell Over is as powerful as it gets, and hopefully offers Lambert as much healing as it’s sure to offer its listeners. — BRITTNEY MCKENNA

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27. Dawes, We’re All Gonna Die

Feisty isn’t a word that springs to mind when considering Dawes. Yet We’re All Gonna Die certainly comes out swinging with big guitars, chunky grooves and what seems to be a concerted effort to mix things up from their usual wistful balladry and thoughtful mid-tempo. Heck, they even tackle reggae. But what’s most surprising about the album is just how well Taylor Goldsmith’s intricate lyrics fit into the aggressive music, especially on the circus-like “No Reason At All” and the crunching “One Of Us.” And on “Roll Tide,” the band slips back into balladry like it’s a velvet glove, just in case the new direction doesn’t take. — JIM BEVIGLIA

Lydia Loveless Real

26. Lydia Loveless, Real

For her fourth studio effort, Lydia Loveless doubled down on the ’80s reverb rock she began exploring during her 2014 breakthrough Somewhere Else. The result, a 10-song collection of crisp pop-rock, fierce cowpunk, and bleeding heart new wave, is the singer-songwriter’s greatest album to date. On the record’s flawless side two, Loveless send ups restless heartland masculinity (“Midwestern Guys”), delivers a pious, bruised devotional (“Bilbao”), and writes a brutally dark portrayal of a sexual predator in “European,” a song that’s gained a vital, twisted gravitas during a year when “grab them by the pussy” became a calling card to the White House. — JONATHAN BERNSTEIN

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25. Bonnie Raitt, Dig In Deep

Bonnie Raitt still lives in a groover’s paradise, a place where guitar slides get greasy and dancing is foreplay. And with tracks like her cover of INXS’ “Need You Tonight,” she turns the temperature up to red-hot. But she remains adept at cool-toned pop like “I Knew.” “Gypsy In Me” and the politically pointed “The Comin’ Round Is Going Through,” in which righteous anger fuels her fingers and voice, fall somewhere in between. But it’s Raitt’s gift for silvery, nuanced balladry that elevates Bonnie Bishop’s “Undone,” producer Joe Henry’s “You’ve Changed My Mind” and her own “The Ones We Couldn’t Be” into highlights. — LYNNE MARGOLIS

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24. Hiss Golden Messenger, Heart Like A Levee

Hiss Golden Messenger began when M.C. Taylor, a solo musician, recorded a set of quiet folk songs, making sure not to wake his sleeping son. Now on his sixth album Heart Like A Levee, Taylor is fronting a full band, singing the finest songs of his career, and causing an almighty ruckus -– all in the name of his child. The album begins in-scene at his son’s sixth birthday party: “Everybody in this whole damn place is gonna have a good time,” he sings in “Biloxi.” And while Heart Like A Levee is a good time, it’s a hard-won kind of joy. You can hear the struggle all over it: in the sad slide guitar that fills the blanks in “Biloxi,” the cathartic call-and-response of the title track, the workingman’s soul of “Happy Day (Sister My Sister).” These are songs that embody the pursuit of happiness without forgetting all the hard places you end up along the way. — SAM SODOMSKY

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23. Beyoncé, Lemonade

Beyoncé is our most important living pop artist, and if the rest of her oeuvre doesn’t make you a believer, Lemonade certainly should. On Lemonade, she grapples with marital infidelity, sure, but more important than the lines that became tabloid fodder (“Becky with the good hair,” et al) are her biting critiques of social issues. On first single “Formation,” which caused significant controversy among lazier viewers who missed the Houston-born artist’s bigger point while watching the song’s music video, Beyoncé takes on race-driven police brutality, urging listeners to “get in formation” to fight injustice. Album standout “Freedom,” which features Kendrick Lamar, samples a 1947 prison song (an Alan Lomax field recording from the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman), a choice made all the more poignant in a song that, while also fitting neatly into the relationship-driven narrative at the album’s heart, reckons with slavery, riots and oppression. Beyoncé has the gift of making the personal universal, and, in times as divided as these, she’s exactly the kind of artist we need to keep us where we need to be: in formation with one another. — BRITTNEY MCKENNA

Robert Ellis, Robert Ellis

22. Robert Ellis, Robert Ellis

On his fourth solo album, the Texas songwriter progresses from his long-forsaken honky-tonk traditionalism in leaps and bounds, whether on the tense storytelling of “California,” the radio-friendly bombast of “How I Love You,” or the plainspoken roots perfection of “Amanda Jane” and “Drivin,” all in the album’s first five songs. Side two of Robert Ellis, full of doo-wop harmony (“Couples Skate”),  distorted feedback (“It’s Not Ok”), and ambient noise (“Screw”), highlights the singer-songwriter’s unwillingness to adhere to any Americana guidebook. The surprisingly cohesive result, which seamlessly blends genre-bending adventurousness with airtight craftsmanship, is Ellis’ most accomplished album yet. — JONATHAN BERNSTEIN

Brandy Clark Big Day in a Small Town

21. Brandy Clark, Big Day In A Small Town

It’s no secret that country radio has a woman problem, and, if you’re skeptical, the fact that only one song from Brandy Clark’s excellent sophomore studio album Big Day In A Small Town barely cracked country radio’s Top 40 should be evidence enough. Clark has lent her pen to many a country star — Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert, for example — but when she first turned inward on 12 Stories, the result was stunning. That collection earned raves from everyone from the New Yorker to the New York Times, and rightfully so: if Clark’s attention to detail didn’t break your heart, her voice certainly would. On her follow-up, Clark, with the help of producer Jay Joyce, goes for a bigger sound, but the stories remain, as the album’s title suggests, just as small, offering gut-wrenching glimpses into the lives of the inhabitants of the American small town. That Big Day didn’t earn a single CMA nomination isn’t a knock against Clark. It just means that country has yet to catch up to its fastest-rising songwriting star. — BRITTNEY MCKENNA

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