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

Maren Morris Hero

Videos by American Songwriter

40. Maren Morris, Hero

Nashville newcomer Maren Morris may have made one of the year’s best country albums with her debut Hero — a feat validated by her CMA win for New Artist of the Year in November — but she also made one of the year’s best pop records. Morris’ uncanny sense of melody (she has writing credits on every song on the album) is rivaled only by the strength of her vocals: the girl’s got serious pipes, and she uses them to great, often subtle, effect throughout Hero‘s 11 songs. Debut single “80s Mercedes” has a singalong chorus worthy of Top 40 radio, while deeper album cuts like “I Wish I Was” channel the soulful heartbreak of Adele or Alicia Keys, the latter of whom Morris joined for a taping of CMT’s Crossroads. 2016 may have been a big year for Morris, but with a debut this strong, there are no doubt far bigger things to come. — BRITTNEY MCKENNA

Warpaint Heads Up

39. Warpaint, Heads Up

Warpaint’s music makes the most sense in the dark. And while Heads Up might be the quartet’s glossiest, catchiest work to date, it still seems to be guided by heavy mood lighting. Each of its 11 songs shares a romantic and lonely atmosphere, like the dance floor of a club after everyone has cleared out. The ghosts that linger throughout the album carry a similar sense of eerie vacancy. The hooks — “You sure look good” in “Dre,” or “You know what you’re doing” in “By Your Side” — are the kinds of things you overhear as you walk home on a Saturday night. And the music -– all stuttering drums and humming bass, with Emily Kokal’s vocals dreamily floating in the mix -– follows you like footsteps, revealing its power as the night blurs on. — SAM SODOMSKY

Courtney Marie Andrews Honest Life

38. Courtney Marie Andrews, Honest Life

Courtney Marie Andrews is the best songwriter you’ve never heard of. If you have heard of her, you’ve likely heard her name mentioned in the same breath as another, more iconic songwriter: Joni Mitchell. Andrews’ breakout album Honest Life, which, despite the assumption that it’s her debut (after all, what a shame that an artist of this level of talent has flown under the radar since 2008), is her sixth solo album. The Joni Mitchell comparisons are apt, both for Andrews’ nimble, expressive vocals and her way with a turn of phrase. What makes Andrews so special, however, is that her influences never verge on the derivative. Single “Irene,” with its percussive piano and pointed, progressive lyrics (“The heart is funny, Irene/ You can’t control who it wants to love/ So let it love, Irene/ Man or woman or anyone it wants”), is unlike any other song released this year; Andrews herself is unlike any other artist. — BRITTNEY MCKENNA

Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam I Had a Dream That You Were Mine

37. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam, I Had A Dream That You Were Mine

Rostam Batmanglij has never been easy to pin down. Best known as one-quarter of Vampire Weekend, he’d most recently lent his Columbia conservatory-trained hand to alternative pop stars Carly Rae Jepsen and Charli XCX before teaming up with the Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser for the country-tinged I Had A Dream That You Were Mine. Minimalist and profoundly raw, listening to these tracks immediately conjures images of the hands that made them, fingers pressed to piano keys with an undeniable urgency. Paired with the gravitational pull of Leithauser’s vocals and image-heavy lyrics, the combination is gut-punchingly evocative. This is new music made for old souls. — KATIE CHOW

Car Seat Headrest Teens of Denial

36. Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial

If you were to read the lyrical content of Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Denial, you might come away thinking it was an insular collection of poetic folk songs written by an introverted soul. Singer-songwriter Will Toledo consults Wikipedia for symptoms of depression, tries to talk himself into participating in social situations, and has bad drug trips in an effort to escape them. The actual listening experience, however, is that of an epic rock and roll journey through big arrangements, bigger riffs and ever-expanding song lengths. Toledo’s open-book approach to personal struggles provides a scarred but triumphant human heart at the center of these 11 blazing epics, all of which find a radio friendly angle in the uncertainties of youth. If only all of our insecurities could sound this heroic. — JEFF TERICH 

Radiohead A Moon Shaped Pool

35. Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool

Even as Thom Yorke howls about burning witches and love turning cold, even as Jonny Greenwood’s guitar beams in at askew angles, and even as the band’s trademark electronic pops and buzzes make occasional appearances, A Moon Shaped Pool turns out to be perhaps the most approachable album that Radiohead has ever made. Whether they’re making ominous warnings, as on “Burn The Witch” and “The Numbers,” or waxing vulnerable, as on “Daydreaming” and “Glass Eyes,” the humanity is what’s so striking about these tracks. When Yorke dusts off a desolate version of fan favorite “True Love Waits” to close out the album, it’s the most heart-wrenching victory lap you’ll ever hear. — JIM BEVIGLIA

Savages Adore Life

34. Savages, Adore Life

In “The Answer,” the churning buzzsaw leadoff waltz on Savages’ Adore Life, Jehnny Beth chants, “Love is the answer,” and it sounds like a declaration of revolution. Ten minutes before the album’s over, she snaps, “This is what you get when you mess with love.” Love is a weapon on Adore Life — both in interpersonal conflict and as the primary component of a young generation’s arsenal against an old guard that seeks to corrupt it. On the U.K. band’s sophomore album, an intense and direct 40 minutes loaded with moments of atmospheric darkness and post-punk abrasion that echoes the band’s incredible live show, that arsenal sounds essentially unbeatable. If love is the answer, as Savages suggest, it’s a love that’s powerful, defiant, sometimes terrifying, but never anything less than exhilarating. — JEFF TERICH 

Cass McCombs Mangy Love

33. Cass McCombs, Mangy Love

Cass McCombs isn’t often regarded as a political artist in the vein of Bob Dylan or Public Enemy. That may have something to do with the stark beauty of his music — it doesn’t agitate quite like “Fight The Power” does. Mangy Love, McCombs’ eighth album, doesn’t find the laid-back, easy-going troubadour shouting slogans through megaphones or assailing Monsanto with album-length diatribes. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a political album. To the contrary, it feels almost more subversive to hear a line like “It ain’t no dream, it’s all too real/ How long until this river of blood congeals?” on leadoff track “Bum Bum Bum,” a sumptuous ‘70s-style pop track about racism and police brutality. Throughout Mangy Love, McCombs examines our damaged society through a compassionate lens, all the while wrapping his concerns in stunningly orchestrated arrangements. Not that he’s all business. Amid all the strife, McCombs finds an encouraging positivity in “Laughter Is The Best Medicine,” which finds him dusting off an old cliché and finding it still holds true. Maybe it’s not as pure as laughter itself, but McCombs’ medicine is a potent blend. — JEFF TERICH 

Kelsey Waldon I've Got a Way

32. Kelsey Waldon, I’ve Got A Way

2016 has been the year of barroom country from badass women (Margo Price, anyone?), and Nashville songwriter Kelsey Waldon’s sophomore album I’ve Got A Way would be at home at any of your favorite divey juke joints. The bulk of the album throws back to classic country greats like George Jones and Loretta Lynn, with arrangements that nod to traditional twang without ever venturing into kitsch or outright mimicry. And while such sonics may be having a moment this year, it’s Waldon’s lyrics that truly shine. “Don’t Hurt the Ones (Who’ve Loved You The Most)” is sure to tug at a few heartstrings, while “Dirty Old Town” could be the wiry younger cousin of “Fist City.” Throwback country’s trendy star could fade out in years to come, but Waldon’s, bright and strong as her songwriting voice, will do anything but. — BRITTNEY MCKENNA



31. Lambchop, FLOTUS

Lambchop’s FLOTUS is bookended by two epic tracks, “In Care of 8675309” and “The Hustle,” which comprise nearly half of the album’s entire runtime. They’re lush, beautiful tracks that find a comfortable place alongside the band’s recent works, and amount to their best 30 minutes of music in the past decade. The former also features vocalist Kurt Wagner’s voice bathed in a tasteful layer of vocoder, as do the majority of tracks that bridge these two sprawling chamber-pop dirges. As such, FLOTUS is immediately the band’s weirdest album, but over repeated listens, one of their most rewarding. The opener and closer prove to be necessary anchors for the album, no single track in between standing out so much on its own but the sequence stitching together as a breathtakingly connected whole. It’s an album that’s alien at first, warmly accessible on repeat listens, and an unexpected essential from a band that continues to surprise more than two decades down the line. — JEFF TERICH 

Song Premiere: Lera Lynn, “Love One Another”