Friday Five #3: Favourite Country Albums of 2016 (So Far)

We're over halfway through 2016 already and it's been a cracking one for country music, so for the latest version of the Friday Five I thought I'd do a round-up of my favourite country albums of the year so far. It was really hard to choose just five as there have been so many great records out - I could have quite easily turned this into a top ten - but here are the ones I eventually narrowed it down to...

1. Jon Pardi - California Sunrise
There's definitely been a more traditional bent to country music in recent months (helped by the huge success of a certain Mr Stapleton), and Jon Pardi's sophomore set has capitalised on that perfectly. It's an album full of twang but with enough pop sensibilities to translate nicely on country radio and packed with songs that stick in your head for days. Standouts for me are the opener 'Out Of Style', rollicking lead single 'Head Over Boots' - which demands to be a country wedding staple - and the heartfelt ballad 'She Ain't In It'. This is going to be on heavy rotation all summer.

2. Dierks Bentley - Black
Country is a genre all about story songs, and Bentley took that one step further with his eighth record; Black is a story album, loosely structured around an illicit relationship that evolves from being purely carnal into a true romance - with some ups and downs along the way. I really like that this album shows a more emotional side to Bentley, particularly on the two duets 'I'll Be The Moon' with Maren Morris (more on her shortly) and 'Different For Girls' with Elle King, but without losing the party vibe on tracks like 'Somewhere On A Beach' and 'Mardi Gras'. In an age where music is delivered in bite-size three-minute chunks, it's refreshing to have an album that requires you to sit down for an hour and really listen to it, and Bentley's pulled off taking the listener on a journey along with his protagonist.

3. Maren Morris - Hero
Maren Morris' major label debut was one of the albums I was most excited for this year, and thankfully it delivers in spades. From the opening slinky, funky bassline of 'Sugar', the album oozes cool, with the neo-soul-tinged '80s Mercedes', the tongue-in-cheek 'Drunk Girls Don't Cry' and the ska-influenced 'Rich' (which wouldn't sound out of place on a Gwen Stefani album) begging to be played at full volume on a hot day. But it's also a great showcase for Morris' songwriting skills, particularly on tracks like 'I Could Use A Love Song' and the gorgeous 'I Wish I Was'. If this is the future of country music, then I am definitely along for the ride.

4. Frankie Ballard - El Rio
I've had a complicated relationship with Frankie Ballard. I loved his last record Sunshine and Whiskey, which I played on repeat last summer, but was left weirdly disappointed by his Yamaha Stage set at C2C. Thankfully the southern rock-influenced El Rio sees him back on form. It's another one that could be seen as a story album - man gets dumped, moves to the desert, finds new love - but I actually think that narratively it holds together better than Black. Standouts for me are the opener 'El Camino', new single 'Cigarette' and the Eagles-meets-ZZ Top 'LA Woman', but the whole album is one to play on a hot day with the windows down whilst wearing your aviators and leather jacket.

5. Keith Urban - Ripcord
If California Sunrise shows country going back to its traditional roots, then Keith Urban's eighth album highlights just what a huge range of influences the genre now covers. Shimmering beats sit comfortably alongside banjo twang throughout, backing up nostalgic lyrics on songs such as 'Gone Tomorrow (Here Today)' - a tribute to Urban's late father - 'Wasted Time' and Carrie Underwood duet 'The Fighter'. But for me, Urban is at his best on more typical country tracks like 'John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16' (which demands a stadium full of people singing it back at him), 'Blue Ain't Your Colour' and 'Boy Gets A Truck'. The one thing that lets the album down is Pitbull - 'Sun Don't Let Me Down' is a perfectly fine song without him - but overall this is a great showcase for both Urban's skills as a musician and where country music is in 2016, as well as where it's going. Now all we need is him to tour the UK...

There's lots more to look forward to though, with new albums in the pipeline from Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, Kenny Chesney, Chris Lane, The Shires and Ward Thomas among others (plus I'm hoping Brad Paisley and Miranda Lambert will have new records out in the next few months too). So I'll definitely be reviving this post in early 2017 with my favourites from the year as a whole - wonder if any of these will still be on the list?

What are your favourite albums of 2016 so far?

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