For the final ten days of June, I’ll be counting down the ten best albums that fell within my radar during the first half of 2016. Each day, I’ll reveal the next album on the list along with an informal review. This will lead to July 1st, a major release day for albums, when I’ll post an updated version of my Most Anticipated Albums of 2016 list. Enjoy!

#5: Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled by Donovan Woods
Released February 26 by Fontana North Distribution

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Of the ten artists appearing on this list, only one have I seen live this year. Between tours which unfortunately didn’t come to town and shows I sadly missed, I was lucky enough to catch an intimate acoustic performance of Donovan Woods, recorded for a radio show at the City Winery in Nashville. I’m hoping I didn’t pollute the recording with outbursts of my uncomfortably loud laughter because, in spite of his poignant and sometimes deeply sad songs, the man is absolutely hilarious. (If this review doesn’t convince you to listen to his music, you should do yourself the favor of following @donovanwoods on Twitter.) The Canadian country artist might be better known for songs he’s written for other artists including Tim McGraw and Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley, but his solo records are a marvel. I still remember how haunted I was the very first time I heard the opening track of Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled, the string-embellished “What Kind of Love is That?,” and thereafter how astonished I was that (upon that first listen) nearly every song on the record was better than the previous song. That trump-card-after-trump-card isn’t still how I view the album–the first opening pair are two of my longstanding favorite songs–but the track listing is still littered with great tunes, each distinct although carried predominantly by an acoustic guitar and Wood’s whispery voice. During his live performance, he played a handful of the album’s best songs, such as “They Don’t Make Anything in That Town,” a strong example of the detail-oriented storytelling Woods so expertly crafts: “My mom and dad arrived / 1975 / Houses were so cheap, man alive / My dad was digging holes / My momma drove the bus / They bought a little house / They made love / But they don’t make anything in that town now.” The album hits close to home with its final number, “Leaving Nashville,” detailing from an outsider’s perspective how dog-eat-dog, trend-driven, yet addictive the culture of the Country Music Capital of the World can be. It’s easier to compare Wood’s style to the hushed song craft of Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam rather than to any modern country singer, but that’s part of his charm; Donovan Woods creates great country music without the southern accent, without the lyrical clichés, yet also without breaking the confines of the genre. Call it folk, call it singer-songwriter, but don’t forget, those were the foundations upon which country music was built. And what’s a house without a foundation?

Check out “They Don’t Make Anything in That Town” on Youtube, and you can also read a great interview with Woods conducted by one of my favorite music writers, Craig Manning.

Read the review for album #6.

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