The Best Albums of 2017

Best of 2017

Albums

Singles: Part One | Part Two

The Best Albums of 2017

#20
Dixie Chicks
DCX MMXVI: In Concert

#6 – KJC

DCX MMXVI isn’t the first live Dixie Chicks album, but it is certainly the definitive one. The band wisely emphasizes tracks from Home and Taking the Long Way, with bold rearrangements of “Long Time Gone” and “Truth No. 2” adding muscle to the original through the inclusion of percussion. The acoustic set in the middle highlights both their extraordinary musicianship (“White Trash Wedding,” “Travelin’ Soldier”) and their exquisite taste in covers (“Daddy Lessons,” “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida.”) Throw in vibrant renditions of early hits like “Wide Open Spaces” and “Goodbye Earl, ” and a cathartic encore of “Not Ready to Make Nice,” and you have all the evidence you need that the Chicks still blow everyone else in country music out of the water. – Kevin John Coyne

Recommended Tracks: “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida,” “Daddy Lessons,” “Long Time Gone”

#19
John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter
Sad Clowns & Hillbillies

#6 – LW

While it’s a John Mellencamp album, Carlene Carter is prominently featured throughout it, which elevates the album from good to very good. Born from their work together on a Stephen King play and a movie soundtrack, followed by Carter recently touring as Mellencamp’s tour opener, Mellencamp and Carter have become close music pals, which has resulted in a compelling collaboration of strong compositions and weathered but tight vocals. – Leeann Ward

Recommended Tracks: “What Kind of Man Am I,” “Sugar Hill Mountain,” “My Soul’s Got Wings”

#18
Elliott BROOD
Ghost Gardens

#9 – SG |  #20 – JK

hen ultra-polished country music gets you down, Canada’s Ellliott BROOD is a fine remedy. Ragged around the edges in all the right way, this group of veteran musicians use banjos, mandolins and electric guitars in a way that echoes bluegrass and punk rock in equal parts. While their songs are often dark in nature (“Dig a Little Hole” is the bounciest song about a cemetery that you’ll ever hear), “’Til the Sun Comes up Again” shows their sweet side. Vocalists Mark Sasso and Casey Laforet have distinctive vocals that shouldn’t blend together but somehow do, especially on a song like “The Widower.” The only criticism is that the 11-song album clocks in at around a half hour, with several songs at just 1:30 long. Something this good shouldn’t end so quickly. – Sam Gazdziak

Recommended Tracks: “Dig a Little Hole,” “‘Til the Sun Comes up Again,”  “The Fall”

#17
The Secret Sisters
You Don’t Own Me Anymore

#12 – SG, LW

After falling from the highs of being produced by the likes of Dave Cobb, T Bone Burnett and Jack White, The Secret Sisters’ perseverance through personal upheaval that included a lawsuit and bankruptcy has paid off with You Don’t Own Me Anymore, which was produced by Brandi Carlile and crowdfunded at an impressive speed.

Their tight signature sister harmonies are supported by engaging melodies, and Carlile’s sympathetic production sounds updated while also still sounding timeless. Furthermore, as a result of their turmoil, the sisters effectively tap into their emotions and experiences to write a personal album that showcases their writing prowess that was only hinted at on their debut album, which mostly consisted of classic covers. – LW

Recommended Tracks:  “Tennessee River Runs Low,” “Mississippi,” “He’s Fine”

 

#16
Ronnie Fauss
Last of the True

#6 – SG | #19 – JK

Fauss’ songwriting skills were evident from his earliest EPs, but now that he’s into his third full-length album, he’s grown into his role as a country-rocker as well. “Saginaw Paper Mill” and “Twenty-Two Years” echo back to the early days of the alt-country movement, buoyed by a barn-burning cover of Uncle Tupelo’s “New Madrid.” “Big Umbrella” starts with one of the year’s more intriguing opening lyrics — “Well you were making out with a one-eyed guy/He said that your beauty brought a tear to his eye” — that hearken back to the occasionally warped point of view of John Prine. Fauss calls this a love letter to his favorite artists and genres. Any long-time listeners to Americana/country music will find a lot to enjoy here. – SG

Recommended Tracks: “Big Leagues,” “Saginaw Paper Mill” (with Ben Kweller), “I Think We’re Going to Be Okay”

#15
Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives
Way Out West

#6 – JK | #14 – SG

Marty Stuart has long been one of the great champions of traditional forms of country music, both as a tireless advocate and historian and as an artist whose work is informed by his deep knowledge of and passion for the genre’s roots. In recent years, that perspective has made his albums feel stuffy, like the work of a museum curator who doesn’t want anyone to get their fingerprints on an exhibit’s display case. That’s not so on Way Out West, a loose concept album that emphasizes the latter half of “country & western music” with a real sense of swagger and verve. Stuart’s ace backing band has never sounded better on record, and Stuart is invigorated by the endless horizons he sees to his west. – Jonathan Keefe

Recommended Tracks: “Time Don’t Wait,” “Mojave,” “Old Mexico”

#14
Angaleena Presley
Wrangled

#8 – SG, JK

 There aren’t too many country singers who would take a song literally called “Country” and put a rap verse that shreds the Nashville establishment while praising Sturgill Simpson. There aren’t too many who would throw in a line like, “If you bless my heart, I’ll slap your face,” while dressing down a self-centered acquaintance. In fact, it may be that Angaleena Presley is a one-of-a-kind artist, and country music is all the better for her. Wrangled is filled with clever lines, creative song arrangements and plenty of unexpected moments (wait, was that Guy Clark?!). Staying true to country music on one hand, while being unafraid to mess with some of the genre’s sacred cows (“Mama I Tried” borrows the famous “Mama Tried” guitar riff), Wrangled needs multiple plays to be fully appreciated. – SG

Recommended Tracks: “Cheer Up Little Darling,” “Dreams Don’t Come True,” “Good Girl Down”

#13
Turnpike Troubadours
A Long Way From Your Heart

#4 – JK |  #13 – SG

They’ve been one of country music’s best-kept secrets for a good long while, never quite scoring the commercial stats or critical cachet of some of the Isbells, Clarks, Simpsons, or brothers Avett. A Long Way From Your Heart is the album that announces Turnpike Troubadours as the best working band in (the?) country. That they sound like a country band without adhering too closely to traditionalism or lapsing into tedious Americana signifiers only serves to elevate frontman and principal songwriter Evan Felker’s keenly observed narratives. He absolutely deserves to be mentioned in any discussion of the best contemporary songwriters, and A Long Way From Your Heart finds him and his fellow Troubadours at the absolute peak of their craft. – JK

Recommended Tracks:  “Pay No Rent,” “A Tornado Warning,” “The Housefire,” “Pipe Bomb Dream”

 

#12
Dori Freeman
Letters Never Read

#11 – SG | #13 – JK, LW

On Letters Never Read, her second album, Freeman continues to adeptly display her Appalachian roots. With a warm voice tinged with melancholy, Freeman makes these songs sound like a comforting blanket.

Unafraid to take some risks, Freeman mixes more radio friendly songs such as “If I could Make You My Own” and “Lovers on the Run” with songs that surely aren’t made for radio such as the a cappella “Earn and Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog” and “Yonder Comes a Sucker” only supported by an infectious drum loop. – LW

Recommended Tracks: “If I Could Make You My Own,” “Over There,” “Yonder Comes a Sucker”

#11
Sunny Sweeney
Trophy

#5 – JK  | #9 – LW

That she flirted with mainstream success, scoring a top 10 hit with “From a Table Away” and a Best New Female Artist nomination from the ACMs, just a few years ago makes it all the more frustrating that Sunny Sweeney continues to fall farther off the popular radar. As terrific as her material on Concrete was, Trophy is a career-best for Sweeney. The characters she has created on this set of songs are fascinating and fully-realized, whether they’re looking to get into some heavy shit (on the ribald lead single, “Better Bad Idea”), refusing to apologize for their reputations (on the title track, told from the POV of a “trophy wife”), or reflecting on struggles with infertility (on “Bottle By My Bed,” one of the year’s best-written songs, full-stop). It’s an album that explores women’s agency from different angles, proving that a modern feminist perspective can work flawlessly within a traditional country – JK

Recommended Tracks: “Bottle By My Bed,” “Better Bad Idea,” “Why People Change”

#10
Lorrie Morgan & Pam Tillis
Come See Me and Come Lonely

#4 – KJC | #7 – JK

Whereas their first album together, Dos Divas, was a collaboration between two solo artists, Come See Me and Come Lonely is the debut of Lorrie Morgan & Pam Tillis as perhaps the best vocal duo in country music today. Their voices intertwine and support each other in the way that only an experienced vocal duo can. This album works so well because of the depth of their collective knowledge of the genre, and their confidence as artists to remake classic songs in their own image.  Tillis remains the genre’s most unique female vocalist, one that nobody even tries to imitate because they wouldn’t be able to do it.  Meanwhile, Morgan resurfaces as the powerful torch singer that she was in her heyday, bringing new depths to the familiar (“Blanket on the Ground”) and the obscure (“Saunders Ferry Lane.”) – KJC

Recommended Tracks: “Saunders Ferry Lane,” “Do Ya”, “Rose in Paradise”

#9
Rodney Crowell
Close Ties

#3 – SG | #7 – KJC

The lucky guy charisma and fearless confidence that defined Crowell’s resurgence earlier this century is gone.  Instead, we get a dark collection of regrets and missed opportunities. Close Ties doesn’t sound like the same man who recorded Fate’s Right Hand and The Houston Kid.  The only common thread connecting those great albums and this one is his peerless, incisive songwriting. But there’s beauty in the shadows, and Close Ties features some of his strongest material yet, steeped as it is in loneliness and sorrow. – KJC

Recommended Tracks: “It Ain’t Over Yet” (with Rosanne Cash and John Paul White), “Life Without Susanna,” “I Don’t Care Anymore”

#8
Jason Eady
Jason Eady

#10 – KJC, JK, LW

For going on twenty years now, alt-country and Americana artists have made the mistake of believing that the most certain path to truth will take them on a mid-tempo shuffle through a banal soundscape that includes mostly acoustic guitars, some unobtrusive percussion, and maybe a harmonica or a Hammond organ or a fiddle. The reality is that this pervasive aesthetic doesn’t make these artists any more credible: It just makes them boring. What impresses about Jason Eady’s self-titled album— his fifth, because why not— is that it wants for sonic variety like so many other albums of its kind but manages to remain compelling for the entirety of its duration. It’s a credit to Eady’s tremendous songwriting— he understands that country songwriting is built on an economy of language without sacrificing specific, unique detail— and his under-rated singing that he commands and rewards full attention. – JK

Recommended Tracks: “Black Jesus,” “Why I Left Atlanta,” “Drive”

#7
The Whiskey Gentry
Dead Ringer

#4 – SG | #6 – LW | #12 – JK

Being on their third album while still not being a household name, Dead Ringer is predominantly honest about the insecurities and disappointments that come with working hard and not being as famous as they would like to be. While expressing such sentiments could read as petty, they are pointedly framed with humor and some wry self-deprecation.

Along with those observations, the album also consists of two worthy covers of classic country songs (“Kern River” and “Seven Year Ache”) and even some moments of clever turns of phrase, particularly in “Drinking Again”: “It’s time to start drinkin’ again, but first I’ve got to make it one more day.” Dead Ringer‘s stand out song is its final track, the gorgeous “If You Were an Astronaut.”

Ultimately, Dead Ringer should have been heard in mainstream circles in a different, better world. Even so, it is comprised of songs with catchy hooks and sprightly, muscular productions that complement lead singer Lauren Staley Morrow’s noticeably strong vocal performances. – LW

Recommended Tracks:  “Drinking Again,” “Dead Ringer,” “If You Were an Astronaut”

#6
Lee Ann Womack
The Lonely, the Lonesome, and the Gone

#4 – LW | #9 – KJC | #15 – JK | #18 – SG

On The Lonely, The Lonesome, & The Gone, Lee Ann Womack continues to work out exactly the type of artist she wants to be in the post-commercial phase of her career, and it’s just awesome to hear an artist of Womack’s caliber and clout take the kinds of risks that she does here. The album works as a country-noir mood piece thanks to its sultry, understated production. Womack, for her part, turns in some of her finest performances on songs like “End of the End of the World” and “Bottom of the Barrel” that capitalize on her exceptional gift for stone-country phrasing: Her cover of “Long Black Veil” is an inventive reading of a standard, highlighting Womack’s interpretive skills and breathing new life to a familiar song. She’s less convincing on a cover of the R&B classic “He Called Me Baby” or the outsized, bluesy “Wicked”: Womack is a soulful singer, yes, but the timbre of her voice simply doesn’t work as well in those contexts. Still, Womack is proving herself to be the most daring artist of her generation; if The Lonely, The Lonesome, & The Gone isn’t quite her best album, it’s far and away her gutsiest and her coolest. – JK

Recommended Tracks: “Take the Devil Out of Me,” “Long Black Veil,” “Mama Lost Her Smile,” “Bottom of the Barrel”

#5
Chris Stapleton
From a Room, Volume 1

#2 – SG | #8 – KJC, LW

Chris Stapleton is a case study of how to make it big in country music without the support of Big Radio behind you. His album releases (and there were two of them this year) were events, thanks to excellent songwriting and vocals that are unlike anything else in either the country or Americana worlds. His co-writes with Mike Henderson (“Broken Halos,” Second One to Know,” “Death Row”) are highlights, and “Either Way” is a master class in how to wring every ounce of emotion from a well-done lyric. A well-done Willie Nelson cover (“Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning”) and a wry “Them Stems” complete an excellent album. He’s not traditional country music — there’s a blues-rock edge to go with the country — but Stapleton is needed to help keep modern country music from homogenizing itself into irrelevance. – SG

Recommended Tracks:  “Broken Halos,” “Second One to Know,” “Either Way”

#4
Alison Krauss
Windy City

#3 – KJC | #7 – LW | #14 – JK | #19 – SG

Alison Krauss went away just long enough that her return made her sound brand new all over again. Windy City is a collection of covers that relies heavily on her upfront vocals, with arrangements that support but do not distract from the lady at the mic. She’s always had great taste in material, and as is often the case, it is the surprising choices (“River in the Rain,” “I Never Cared For You”) that pack the most punch. Her stellar readings of “Losing You” and “All Alone am I” just might leave you longing for the Brenda Lee tribute album that you never knew you wanted. A timeless collection from a most essential artist.  – KJC

Recommended Tracks: “River in the Rain,” “Losing You,” “I Never Cared For You”

#3
Kasey Chambers
Dragonfly

#1 – LW | #2 – JK | #5 – KJC

Dragonfly is an ambitious two part album of twenty songs that are an amalgamation of various genres, all of which Chambers delivers with ease. With songs that are personal and others that capture a plethora of perspectives, Chambers manages to effortlessly blend Appalachian mountain music, talking blues, radio friendly pop, and country gospel together into one cohesive work.

Thanks at least in part to reported nodule surgery, it’s also where we hear Chambers stretch her voice to announce that she is more than a singer with the “baby” voice for which she is commonly associated, but also a vocalist capable of impressive strength and range.

While albums that clock in at over an hour and fifteen minutes run the risk of dragging in some places, Dragonfly stays captivating for its entire duration and leaves us satisfied with every note that she sings. – LW

Recommended Tracks: “Ain’t No Little Girl,”, “Golden Rails,” “You Ain’t Worth Suffering For,” “Dragonfly”

 

#2
Rhiannon Giddens
Freedom Highway

#1 – KJC, JK |  #3 – LW | #5 – SG

Rhiannon Giddens has long been celebrated for her vocal talent and her flawless musicianship. On Freedom Highway, she stakes her claim as a vibrant songwriter with a stunning artistic vision. In a year where “Reclaiming My Time” became a rallying cry, Giddens reclaims Americana and roots music for the African-American experience. Deftly weaving classic spirituals and civil rights anthems like “Birmingham Sunday” and “Freedom Highway” with her own compositions, Giddens traces the connective fabric between the slavery of yesterday (“Julie,” “At the Purchaser’s Option”) and the police brutality of today (“Better Get it Right the First Time”), throwing in some timeless compositions of struggle for good measure (“Come Love Come,” “The Angels Laid Him Away.”)

When the album veers away from social commentary to the everyday experiences of love and lust (“The Love We Almost Had,” “Hey Bebe”), the vitality is sustained and deepened. Freedom Highway is an extraordinary album that elevates Rhiannon Giddens into the upper echelon of our best singers and songwriters. You won’t listen to a more important and relevant album this year. – KJC

Recommended Tracks: “Better Get it Right the First Time,” “Julie,” “At the Purchaser’s Option,” “The Love We Almost Had”

#1
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
The Nashville Sound

#1 – SG | #2 – KJC, LW | #3 – JK

“Last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know,” sang Jason Isbell, and a legion of fans shook their heads and said in unison, “Ain’t THAT the truth!” With one line, and without getting into any specifics, he captures the frustration that many of us have been feeling. That happens time and time again in The Nashville Sound. “Anxiety” plays into that sense of creeping dread that we may feel, even if we can’t put a name to it. People who lay awake wondering if maybe the world really has gone crazy will identify with “The Last of My Kind.” Even the much-lauded love song “If We Were Vampires” plays into the dread that even the truest love story will end with someone left alone to mourn.

Given that this is Year One of the Trump Administration, you could put a political slant to the album, but the uncertainties brought up in the album go beyond politics. It could be the fear that comes with reaching middle age. It could be frustration from being trapped in a job or a relationship that you know is a dead end. Heck, even something as joyous as becoming a new parent comes with a slew of worries that keep you up at night. Isbell sings about his background and experiences, but the feelings he shares are universal.

It’s not all hopeless, though. Isbell closes out the album with “Something to Love,” a declaration of hope from parent to child. Even if you’re not a parent, “find what makes you happy… and do it ‘til you’re gone,” is a fine life motto.

Isbell and the 400 Unit have made an album so good that it’s busted into mainstream recognition. Not by having a radio-friendly single or big label backing, but by the simple virtue of being outstanding. That should be impossible to do nowadays, but they pulled it off with impeccable musicianship, well-crafted songs and sentiments that have universal appeal.

“We’ll ride the ship down, dumping buckets overboard. There can’t be more of them than us. There can’t be more,” he sings in “Hope the High Road.” Something to keep in mind as we head into 2018. – SG

Recommended Tracks: “Hope the High Road,” “If We Were Vampires,” “Last of My Kind”

3 Comments

  1. Great collections of albums. Mainstream country might of sucked in 2017, but the indie circuit was fantastic. Dixie Chicks are still sounding amazing in 2017. Their live album has me eager for their next studio album. The Secret Sisters are so underrated. I enjoyed their Put Your Needle Down album a little more, but You Don’t Own Me Anymore album is still solid. Angaleena Presley’s Wrangled was a fantastic album. She broke out the shadows of Ashley and Miranda with Wrangled. I said it before and I’ll say it again, Dori Freeman is madly underrated. Man her voice is sweet as cotton candy. Letters Never Read showcase her voice perfectly. Sunny Sweeney’s Trophy showcase why Sunny deserve more recognition. Sunny constantly find ways to strike you right in heart with her subject matter and it hits you hard. Lorrie Morgan and Pam Tillis what more I need to say. Them separate are amazing, them together blows away all of mainstream country out currently. Come See Me and Come Lonely pretty much solidify that statement. Rodney Crowell continue to add on to his amazing legacy. Close Ties is another solid project from Rodney. Chris Stapleton’s From a Room, Volume 1 album proves how awesome of a talent he is. The fact he drop two in the same year and both sounding great is a testament of Chris’ staying power in modern country music. Lee Ann Womack constantly evolving with every album she do. Her voice is still haunting and her song quality always matches with it perfectly. Lee Ann’s will be remembered as one of the best of her generation. Add The Lonely, the Lonesome, and the Gone as another great album in her amazing discography. Speaking of one of the best of her generation, Alison Krauss does it again. Windy City is a marvelous album that have Alison’s legacy growing more wonderful. Like I said before, Kasey Chambers always drop quality work. Dragonfly showcases Kasey’s diversity in different genres and nailing them perfectly. Rhiannon Giddens’ Freedom Highway hits you right in the gut. It’s deep, insightful, and all round fantastic listen to one of the best currently in country. Jason Eady’s self titled and Jason Isbell’s The Nashville Sound albums just make you sit back and say, dang this is want country music is all about. Detail songwriting, and impeccable musicianship. Make you wished both of them was more famous.

  2. I actually didn’t think the mainstream sucked this year in albums. I really loved the latest albums from Brad Paisley, Lauren Alaina, Carly Pearce, Little Big Town and I even kind of liked the latest Thomas Rhett album as a pop album at least.

    Yeah there was some failures in the mainstream aka Walker Hayes, Luke Bryan and Dustin Lynch with Chris Young as well. But I feel like the mainstream country music area really shined this year beyond Chris Stapleton.

  3. If I may, I would like to put in a good word for Tift Merritt and her early 2017 release Stitch Of The World. This was a wonderful and rootsy album, with such fine songs as the bluesy twang of “Dusty Old Man” and the old-school country-rock of “Heartache Is An Uphill Climb” and “Something Came Over Me”.

    This and my personal opinion of Tift being the finest female artist to have come along in this century.

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