Trail Mix: 10 Best Albums of 2016

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After wading through a sea of great releases this year, here’s our top 10 list of albums from acts who hail from the Blue Ridge region.

Drive-By Truckers

American Band

This poignant political record is easily the Drive-By Truckers’ best effort since the band’s early 2000s breakout period. Co-band leaders Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood are both at the top of their songwriting games, especially the latter in the soulful “Guns of Umpqua,” a simultaneously beautiful and terrifying song written about victims of last year’s mass shooting at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College.


Hiss Golden Messenger

Heart Like a Levee

On his band’s sixth album, Durham-based singer-songwriter M.C. Taylor spills honest musings about guilt and missing home during long stints on the road, while expanding the group’s sound within the roots lexicon. Throughout the record’s 11 tracks, a base of swinging alt-country that fits with Taylor’s nasally, Dylan-like enunciations, fluidly expands with touches of Southern funk, horn-driven Muscle Shoals soul, and uplifting gospel—facilitated by backing vocals from songstress Tift Merritt.


Car Seat Headrest

Teens of Denial

Much like Pavement, Guided by Voices, and Weezer before him, Will Toledo, who records as Car Seat Headrest, turns witty angst into distorted glory. He built a cult following while growing up in Leesburg, Va., by self-releasing 12 albums he largely recorded by himself. Teens of Denial, with a full backing band, is full of seriously great rock and roll—fist-pumping anthems built from youthful confusion.


Margo Price

Midwest Farmer’s Daughter

A hardworking East Nashville songwriter gets her due on this dynamic debut for Jack White’s Third Man Records. She has a voice that’s as sweet as Dolly’s, but her songs use traditional country as a base to get downright gritty, rocking, and soulful.


Angel Olsen

My Woman

Asheville, N.C., resident Angel Olsen has received high critical praise for her third LP, My Woman, and it is definitely deserved. Her gift is a voice that can be equally graceful, powerful, haunting, and full of heartfelt fury. Here you get the full range through emotionally charged retro arrangements—from the jangly pop of “Never Be Mine” and urgent garage rock scorcher “Shut Up Kiss Me” to more drawn-out experiments like the slowly drifting, theatrically intense break-up song, “Sister.”


Sturgill Simpson

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

With lofty expectations on his shoulders following the success of his cosmic country breakout Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Simpson delivered by veering in a different sonic direction, filling A Sailor’s Guide to Earth with horn blasts and dusty soul grooves. Standouts include Simpson giving advice to his young son through the funk stomper “Keep It Between the Lines” and a haunting roadhouse reading of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.”


Band of Horses

Why Are You OK

A revitalized Band of Horses found the sweet spot between atmospheric indie fireworks and take-it-easy 70s folk-rock. Front man Ben Bridwell found songwriting inspiration in the mundane, meditating about family time through Floydian space in the opening “Dull Times/The Moon” and turning bad conversation at a “Casual Party” into a distortion-heavy dance tune. The gentle “Hag” has the ethereal flow of the band’s decade-old breakout single, “The Funeral.” Even in a dad-rock headspace the Charleston, S.C.,-based Bridwell found a way to recapture his early glory.


Lucinda Williams

The Ghosts of Highway 20

The 63-year-old Americana icon took a trip down memory lane, revisiting her experiences growing up in the South through the common thread of Interstate 20. Williams uses her quavering voice to tell vivid stories through dusty roots-rock arrangements with experimental touches that give the record a cinematic quality. The meandering opener, “Dust,” is one of the album’s most poignant tracks, adapted from a poem by Williams’ father, the late poet laureate Miller Williams.


William Tyler

Modern Country

Nashville guitarist William Tyler has played with the likes of Lambchop and the Silver Jews, and he brings an indie aesthetic to this collection of captivating guitar-led instrumentals. With an impressive back-up roster that includes Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche and Brad and Phil Cook of Megafaun, Tyler explores a range of sonic landscapes through both acoustic and electric six-string dexterity, managing, without words, to evoke the feelings implied in titles like “Highway Anxiety” and “Gone Clear.” The closing track, the eight-minute “The Great Unwind,” travels between the experimental jazz flourishes of Bill Frisell and the emotional peaks of Explosions in the Sky.


St. Paul and the Broken Bones

Sea of Noise

Following up its hailed 2014 debut, Half the City, this eight-piece Alabama soul crew avoided the sophomore slump by adding some rock edge and honest social commentary to its impressive vintage revivalism. Front man Paul Janeway is a versatile vocal powerhouse. He both howls like a fiery preacher and croons like a tender-hearted lover, as tempos shift between the down-and-dirty funk of “Flow With It (You Got Me Feeling Like”), the moving retro ballad “Burning Rome,” and the gospel-rock unity anthem “All I Ever Wonder.”


Ready for the tunes? Give nine of these albums a listen below:


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