Country Perspective’s 2016 Album of the Year – Sturgill Simpson’s ‘A Sailor’s Guide To Earth’

2016 was a great, yet weird year for country and Americana albums. There was no doubt a lot of quality music released. The majority just wasn’t what we were expecting. There was also much debate over country music and defining it. But that’s what made many releases so surprising. Normally traditional acts got away from their usual sound, yet still delivered great albums. To me country music this year was about artists basically deciding the debate over country music for us. It’s no longer really about genre lines. It’s about real music that resonates with the human spirit and everyday life. When an artist goes into the studio to create art, they don’t go in with the mindset of making it fit into a box. They don’t let boxes and parameters determine their art. Their art determines the box it fits in. It simply defines itself. To me one album defined this lesson more than any other this year. That album is Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Country Perspective’s 2016 Album of the Year.

Sturgill Simpson A Sailor's Guide To Earth

I’ll be honest: most of the year I didn’t think I would give Simpson album of the year. I thought for sure another artist would come along and top him. In fact I was wishing and hoping that one artist would force me to give them album of the year. It never happened. I guess I might have fallen into the trap many fell into with this album too and compared it to his previous album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. That album after all was flawless from front to back. It won our 2014 Album of the Year. It will probably be viewed as a classic years from now. Yes, it’s true that A Sailor’s Guide to Earth isn’t as good as Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. But it’s not fair to judge this album in this way because this a masterpiece of itself if you at what it symbolically represents.

Before I get to that though let’s point out a crazy fact: Sturgill Simpson decided to release an album about the birth of his child as his major label debut record. An artist who just captured the world by surprise with a future classic album decided to follow it up with an album on fatherhood, some would say is quite corny on paper. No other artist would do something so crazy because they don’t want to risk their newfound position. But Sturgill Simpson is no other artist. He put all of the new fame and expectations aside and made the exact record he wanted to make. He traded the groovy psychedelic stylings for a horns section. He made a record that some wouldn’t even call country. Simpson could have easily put out another Metamodern or even High Top Mountain and given right into expectations. This would have been simple enough, but Simpson has proven every step of the way that he doesn’t take the simple way. Instead he followed his heart. The guts and confidence to do this cannot be understated. This shouldn’t have worked and yet it very well did. Not to mention, Simpson also wrote all eight original songs himself and produced the entire album himself. He did all of his on his major label debut.

Symbolically, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth represents a giant screw you to both sides of the country aisle and critics like myself. It’s an utter disregard for the expectations set by both sides and the boxes each expect artists to hop into. Simpson essentially says screw your box, I have my own. He wasn’t the only artist to basically adopt this attitude with their music. I don’t think anyone out there is more sick and tired of the genre arguments than artists. The fans and some critics seem to be the only ones who care. As I said before, I liken genre labels to aisles at the grocery store. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what you label something as long as you get what you desire. Why fuss over labeling? Most music fans desire great music and if they get that they’re not going to suddenly rebuke it if the music isn’t labeled properly. They’re just happy to get what they want. Purists can cry about the lack of steel guitar and outlaw themes. Pop country fans and label executives can complain it isn’t catchy or happy enough. Meanwhile Sturgill Simpson is heading to the Grammys competing for Album of the Year and thousands of people are singing the praises of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. (Funny enough I had decided on this as album of the year before the Grammys even announced his nomination and even had a majority of it outlined)

There’s an old saying: the more things change, the more they stay the same. While Simpson largely seem to go in a different direction with this album, he really didn’t when you get down to the songs themselves. Simpson has always written about life and the real things we can experience, specifically going off his own experiences. On High Top Mountain, the general theme is trying to make and find your way in life. Simpson sings of trying to make it in music and paying tribute to his family and wife who are behind them. On Metamodern, the general theme is finding meaning in life’s experiences and finding true love. Simpson sings of his old drug using days and the trials and tribulations of those experiences leading him to realize he just needed the love of his wife. Then you get to A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, where it’s about a father welcoming a child into the world and trying to show the child the lessons they need to survive the crazy world we live in. Simpson tries to absorb the magnitude of welcoming his first-born into the world and reflecting on his own upbringing to bestow life lessons upon the child.

Simpson always has and always will continue to sing what he knows and experiences. It’s real life put into songs. That’s what every music fan wants out of their music. It’s a powerful thing when an artist can take their own life and be able to present it in a way that others can deeply connect with their own thoughts and experiences. It’s this shared human bond that tells us when the music we’re listening to is special. We don’t remember something for the genre it’s labeled. We remember something for being real and genuine. That’s exactly what Simpson delivers with A Sailor’s Guide to Earth and why it’s Country Perspective’s 2016 Album of the Year.

Country Perspective’s 2016 Album of the Year Nominees

Throughout 2016 Country Perspective had the privilege to review a lot of fine music. The world of country, Americana and folk certainly produced it’s fair share of great music throughout the year, reviving old sounds and sparking new ones every step of the way. There was certainly a fair share of innovation and creativity on display from a variety of artists. And now we get to look back the very best that was released. We first take a look at the very best albums of 2016, which will be nominated for Country Perspective’s top award, Album of the Year.

When deciding what album will win the 2016 Country Perspective Album of the Year Award, Country Perspective will take into consideration some key aspects: songwriting, instrumentation, production, accolades, impact on genre, consistent quality in the album and how memorable they are. I will ultimately decide which album will win Country Perspective’s top award. But I’m not the only one deciding. Country Perspective encourages feedback from you the readers! Your comments and suggestions will most certainly be considered when determine who wins not only this award, but all the year-end awards here at Country Perspective.

One more thing: In order for an album to be eligible for Album of the Year, it must have received a perfect 10/10 rating in its review. No other albums are considered. Only the best of the best get a shot. This year I did a much better job I feel in grading, especially for the 10/10 albums and only gave a couple of grades that I ultimately found to be too high. After much consideration I found four albums were ultimately worthy of their 10/10 grades and fit to be the nominations for Country Perspective’s 2016 Album of the Year. So without further ado, here are the nominees:

Dave-Cobb-Southern-Family

Various Artists/Dave Cobb – Southern Family

Coming into 2016 this was an album everybody in the independent/traditional community were licking their chops in anticipation to hear. How could you not be excited for a project headed by super producer Dave Cobb, which everything he touches seems to turn into gold? To top it off an all-star cast of artists from both the mainstream country and Americana realms would be recording the music. Well the hype was certainly met, as this turned out to be exactly what many anticipated it to be and that’s one of the year’s best albums. While this didn’t make the impact I was hoping it would make, everyone who has heard it in both critics and fans circles seem to be in near unanimous conclusion that it’s brilliant. It’s hard to pick highlights on this album because you could pretty much say this about every song. Cobb got 100% out of each artist on the project.

After listening to Southern Family, you come away with a better understand and feeling of southern culture and lifestyle. It’s very easy to point out the problems that existed in southern culture in the past and the stigma this caused for the south is something that will remain with the culture for years to come. But it’s important to remember the redeeming qualities of the southern culture: family, friends, love, spirituality, home. All of these things southerners should rightly be proud of and point to as their defining qualities that make them great. This album celebrates southern pride with dignity and genuineness that should make any southerner smile. Cobb bringing together all of these artists who clearly understand southern culture, from both mainstream and independent realms, is not only a unifying moment for southern people, but country music in general. That’s something we can all appreciate.

BJ Barham Rockingham

BJ Barham – Rockingham 

Small towns are a pretty common theme in country music. If you turn on country radio you’re bound to hear some upbeat song that glorifies small town living and makes rural living out to be the greatest thing in the world. But the truth is there are a lot of harsh realities about small town living you won’t hear about in those songs. Luckily for us there are artists like BJ Barham who come along and give us the sad truth behind small towns all across America. Barham has spent the majority of his career as the frontman of the popular independent country group American Aquarium. But this year he decided to step out alone and release his first solo album, a project titled Rockingham that he wrote after the terrorist attacks in Paris. The result is one of the best albums I’ve heard all year.

BJ Barham’s Rockingham will flat-out knock you on your ass. It’s depressing as hell and it’s full of raw emotion. Don’t take this as bad as it’s quite the opposite. It’s a beautifully dark album that paints a poignant tale of the failed American dream, lost hope, the hells of small town living and the trials and tribulations of everyday life. The songwriting is absolutely flawless and couldn’t be any deeper if it tried. While I didn’t spend a lot of time talking about the instrumentation on this album because the songwriting is so excellent, it also shines bright and does a good job of letting the lyrics do the heavy lifting. At eight songs long, this album is somehow the perfect length. It doesn’t let up and hits you in the gut every step of the way. I don’t think there will be another album released this year as morbid as Rockingham. But I don’t know if there’s an album better than it this year too.

Sturgill Simpson A Sailor's Guide To Earth

Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth

Sturgill Simpson capture our inaugural Album of the Year award in 2014 with his sophomore album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music and now he’s back again going for his second win. Metamodern launched Simpson’s career into a whole new stratosphere, as he signed a major label deal with Atlantic Records and has quickly become a household name in country and popular critics’ circles. So in 2016 he was faced with the unenviable task of following up a near-universally praised album, while also releasing his first album under a major label. Of course in his own unique way, he delivered again.

A Sailor’s Guide To Earth has received just as much praise from critics as his sophomore album, despite some grumblings from fans hoping he would have been more traditional with his music. The album debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200 chart and went on to be #1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, Billboard Top Rock Albums chart and the Billboard Folk chart. He’s also continuing to sell out larger venues across the world and appears to not be slowing down in the slightest in terms of his popularity. Needless to say Simpson wins in terms of impact of the nominees, but this is only one facet of the award.

A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is another masterpiece from Simpson. If you’re looking for another copy of High Top Mountain or Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, don’t bother listening. If you’re a fan of music and you trust Simpson, strap in and listen to this album because you won’t be disappointed. You will however be surprised, as Simpson once again takes a different approach in the sound department. There are multiple outright country songs and every song has country elements in them. But there’s also Memphis soul and the Muscle Shoals sound that deeply influence the album. Not to mention there’s lots of string production and horns in many songs. Is it a country record? Well I can tell you Sturgill Simpson wrote, produced and performed an album of phenomenal music. I can say this is Simpson’s most cohesive and tight-knit album yet. Perhaps the best answer to this comes from the late great Merle Haggard: “Good. If it’s what they’re calling country, you don’t want to go near that shit.” And Simpson did exactly that. Simpson gave us something we never expected and yet exactly what we wanted and that’s art straight from the heart.

Chris King Animal

Chris King – Animal 

Chris King came onto a lot of people’s radars in 2013 with the release of his album 1983. It was definitely a country leaning album. But his follow-up takes a different. King went Americana with his new album Animal and the creative shift pays off in spades to deliver an enthralling album on heartbreak and life. You could call it a concept album, but then again aren’t all good albums concept albums? There’s still a country influence in the album, but there’s also rock, pop and other flourishes. King and Animal are undoubtedly the underdog of these four nominees, as the other nominees are an all-star cast of names, one of the biggest artists in country music and a popular independent artist with a fairly large following. But King absolutely belongs alongside them, as he proves with Animal he’s a name you should be familiarizing yourself with if you haven’t yet.

Chris King delivers a storytelling masterpiece with Animal. Looking at each song individually on this album, you have some pretty good songs. Put them all together and they all connect for one long, spectacular journey. It’s the journey of a man exploring love, discovery, overcoming mistakes, the unknown and ultimately what we’re all looking for in this crazy thing we call life. Most albums are just a collection of songs, not really all connecting with each other. Sure you’ll find a lot of albums with similar themes and tones throughout, but very rarely do you come across albums that connect from start to finish like Animal does. It should also be pointed out that production on this album is just as flawless as King’s songwriting. Producer John Ross Silva really nails the tone and sound on this album, as it properly reflects the changes in attitude of the main story told throughout. Everything on this album works together perfectly. Chris King shows us all what a true album sounds like. Animal is one of the best albums you’ll hear all year.

That’s your nominees for Country Perspective’s 2016 Album of the Year award. Be sure to voice who you believe should win in the comments below.