10. Hiss Golden Messenger: “Heart Like a Levee”
MC Taylor knows Sturgill’s pain all too well, and his latest Messenger album tackles the tough decisions made by any touring musician: “What’s it going to take to keep you missing the rambling rake with a heart of obsidian?” he asks everyone he leaves behind to play his songs all over the world. The genius of this particular song is that he sings it as a rural gospel, a celebration rather than a commiseration. Some people don’t have anyone to miss.
9. Brandy Clark: “Homecoming Queen”
Sic transit gloria.
8. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: “Distant Sky”
The death of his son didn’t inspire Nick Cave’s new album, but it did recontextualize every line of every song. None were quite as devastating as this invitation (presumably to his wife, possibly to his audience, perhaps simply to himself) to simply escape and head for that distant sky. The song stops time, if only for a few precious moments.
7. Handsome Family: “Gold”
(Rennie Sparks/Brett Sparks)
Her husband supplies the vocals and the ominous Morricone vibe, but the story here—or, rather, the aftermath of the story—is all Rennie Sparks, master of the desert surreal. She freezes a moment in time, the last moment in the life of a gutshot hood, as the setting sun turns the air gold all around him. It’s better than the entire second season of True Detective and most of the first as well.
6. Angel Olsen: “Intern”
Olsen has admitted that this song began as a sly parody of the chilly synth-rock made by some of her friends, but the sarcasm didn’t stick. Instead, the opener from American Songwriter’s album of the year sounds like a sincere attempt to make herself and you and us get off our collective asses. Lyric of the year, runner-up: “Doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done / Still gotta wake up and be someone.”
5. Car Seat Headrest: “Fill in the Blank”
Will Toledo may be the overachieving patron saint of millennials, with something like 20 self-recorded albums under his belt, but he’s still frustrated with himself and the world and ____________. Lyric of the year: “You have no right to be depressed / You haven’t tried hard enough to like it.”
4. Courtney Marie Andrews: “How Quickly Your Heart Mends?”
(Courtney Marie Andrews)
Andrews drew from her own experiences as an ex-pat working in Belgium and as a barkeep working in Washington State for this single, which doesn’t reinvent the broken-hearted bar tune but refines and streamlines it. She writes with such empathy and insight that she gives Lucinda a run for her money.
3. Drive-By Truckers: “Surrender Under Protest”
American Band was one of the bravest and most rebellious albums of the year, a collection of politically outraged protest songs by a long-running act that risked everything to declare itself an American band, as opposed to strictly a Southern one. By doing so, they jettisoned the character-based songwriting that has defined so much of their catalog and addressed race, gun culture, police brutality, and pervasive hypocrisy head on. Cooley’s song understands the value of Southern tradition—those guitar riffs didn’t come from nowhere—but wonders why that’s more important than basic human decency and dignity.
2. Margo Price: “Hands of Time”
Margo Price put her press bio right there in the opening track of her solo debut, mapping out every misstep and tragedy that led to her surprise breakout in 2016: losing the family farm, shacking up with a married man, losing a baby, going to jail. Her lyrics can be disarmingly matter-of-fact (“All I wanna do is make a little cash”), but her superlatively soulful voice imbues them with immense wonder and warmth, as though she can’t believe her good fortune just to be able to sing her pain.
1. Lori McKenna: “Humble & Kind”
This song was not just a hit, but something like a movement. Early in the year Tim McGraw notched a top-ten country hit with his version, which spawned an Oprah-approved web site and even a book. By mid-year Lori McKenna had released her own version, her aching vocals lending the advice a more loving urgency. Somehow “Humble & Kind” didn’t get old, never became grating and saccharine; somehow it always managed to retain its rocky optimism, its faith in small deeds and big hearts. Maybe it was 2016. In a year defined by tragedy and violence, by Orlando and Oakland, by Brexit and Trump, by the continuing fraying of our collective sanity, “Humble & Kind” comments on a trouble season without being overtly political. It’s a challenge to everybody who hears it, no matter which side of which issue they might find them on, to live up to our best selves.