At the halfway point of 2017, the country and Americana worlds have been full of surprises from every direction. Reliable songwriting heroes Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton returned with heralded efforts, while mainstream performers like Lauren Alaina and Lady Antebellum turned out songwriting-focused collections, and newcomers such as Luke Combs and Colter Wall pointed to the future. Here are the 25 best country and Americana releases of the year so far.
Angaleena Presley has lived on the fringes of commercial country success for years now. As one third of the Pistol Annies, she got a taste of that success, and ever since she has unapologetically wanted (not to mention deserved) more. Her sophomore album Wrangled, the follow-up to 2014’s critically acclaimed American Middle Class, sets those frustrations to music with biting, beautiful results. Opening tune “Dreams Don’t Come True,” which features fellow Annies Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe, turns the common country “follow your dreams” trope on its head over ethereal harmonies and sinewy pedal steel. “Country” is a pitch-perfect satire of bro-country with a fiery, Sturgill Simpson-checking verse from Alabama-born rapper Yelawolf. “Outlaw” plainly grapples with Presley’s desire to be a “straight-shootin’, high-falutin writer on the hit parade.” With Wrangled, Presley unfortunately still didn’t get the commercial attention she so badly deserves, but she did write one of the year’s very best albums, hit parade be damned. B.M.
It’s a boom time for inspired renegade country acts, but this twentysomething from Saskatchewan is something else. Namechecking Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #9” and a laundry list of abusable substances in a boomy baritone pitched between Johnny Cash and a smoke-cured Kris Kristofferson, he unspools vivid story-songs about “loners and no-account stoners,” guided by little more than foot-stomp percussion and Travis-picked acoustic guitar. Producer Dave Cobb shows his mastery by mostly staying out of the path of this talented freight train.
Over the years, the once-rotating cast of singers and songwriters in Band of Heathens have steadily solidified into being a singular unit, one that shares the mic rather than passing it off from turn to turn. On Duende, the Austin group’s fifth studio LP, that helped the folk-hearted ensemble rock harder than ever, channeling the loose, early Seventies jams of the Rolling Stones and the Band, but without the members sacrificing their individual voices. From the sunny sing-along of “All I’m Asking” to the fits-and-starts swamp funk of “Daddy Longlegs,” Duende wasn’t afraid to follow its whims, a band of brothers just plain having fun. J.G.
We Say: He may appear to be a thick-bearded Seventies outlaw-country throwback, but make no mistake: Chris Stapleton is a soul singer, with a preternaturally creaky voice that can turn wizened or brawny, full of pained howls and distended vowels. … Arrangements – for guitar, bass and drums, with touches of steel guitar and harmonica – are spare and lean. Songs smolder rather than blaze, amble instead of bolt, and generally keep the volume reined in. Even “Second One to Know,” a fierce rocker with rhythm guitar that attacks like John Henry’s hammer, still leaves space for Stapleton’s vocals to match it, blow for blow. W.H.
We Say: On his new album, the singer probes his own mortality and wrestles with death head-on for the first time on record. … Set to longtime producer Buddy Cannon’s sparse, elegant country arrangements, these songs are brimming with bleak prophecy and spiritual acceptance, as Nelson ponders his eternal home (“Little House on the Hill”), everlasting compassion (“True Love”), and his fallen comrade Merle Haggard (“He Won’t Ever Be Gone”). J.B.
The longtime Foo Fighters guitarist salutes his homeland, collaborates with Dave Cobb and takes his Telecaster for a twangy spin on this Americana solo album. The autobiographical songs spin stories of a childhood spent in working-class Santa Barbara and adult years logged on the road, where hotels, hangovers and heartaches all swirl together. Shiflett’s punk roots shine through the mix, adding grit to a brand of country music that owes as much to the spirit of blue-collar roots rock as the electrified punch of Bakersfield. R.C.
“I think it’s time to take a heart break,” Hillary Scott sings on the title track of Lady Antebellum’s sixth LP, a song about making the most of being single and sexy in the summertime. More than that, though, it’s indicative of the Nashville group’s mindset as they recorded Heart Break, their rebound from the letdown of 2014’s 747. They may have teamed back up with an old flame, producer Busbee, but Lady A were looking for a fresh start after three years away. They certainly got one, with the unexpectedly slinky funk of “You Look Good” underlining that this newly recharged Lady A just wants to have fun. J.G.
the majority of bro-country’s standard bearers switched up their approaches
upon Chris Stapleton’s coronation as country’s new king – softening their
sound with boy band-flavored pop or moving away from the party vibe to more
adult songwriting – Brantley Gilbert stuck to his guns and released his best
album yet with The Devil Don’t Sleep.
He’s still the proud, defiant Southerner with a wild streak, rowdy one moment
(“The Weekend”) and repentant the next (“3 Feet of Water”),
but that dichotomy never comes off like a posture he’s been forced to adopt. Tracks
like the sneering “Bro Code” made it easy for critics to dismiss
Gilbert yet again, but his self-awareness on “The Ones That Like Me”
(“You either want to hit me or hold
me / Those that hate me don’t know me“) suggests that oft-maligned bros
like Gilbert are much more complex than anyone likes to admit. Frequent
collaborator Dann Huff also found the appropriate level of menace for his polished
production – snare drums hit like pistol cracks while meaty guitar riffs
barrel through like jet-fueled 18-wheelers, the soundtrack to Friday night in
small towns everywhere. J.F.
Outlaw country has been all the rage over the last few years, but few artists claiming the outlaw moniker can actually say they’ve seen the inside of a jail cell. Los Angeles’ Jaime Wyatt is one of those few, but don’t let her rap sheet fool you. While her debut release Felony Blues can burn barns and honky-tonk with the best of them, it also shows Wyatt to be well versed in vulnerable songwriting – tracks like “Giving Back the Best of Me” are worthy of comparison to works by songwriters Brandy Clark and Lori McKenna. Somewhere between an EP and an album, the seven-track collection introduces Wyatt as a welcome new voice in country music, outlaw or otherwise. B.M.
Windy City, Alison Krauss’ first solo LP in 17 years, may sound like a tribute to her home state’s largest city, but its roots run much deeper than the title may suggest. Recorded in 2013, Windy City took nearly four years to see release, thanks in part to Krauss’ busy touring schedule with her band Union Station. But in a collection of covers that includes classics from Brenda Lee and Willie Nelson to bluegrass gems from the Osborne Brothers (who performed the title track), the connective tissue was the album’s producer, the legendary Buddy Cannon. Krauss, the most decorated female artist in Grammy history, is a preternaturally versatile singer, but with Cannon’s help she sounded right at home. J.G.
Being a sad bastard can make for great art, but it will only get you so far. Just ask John Moreland, a self-proclaimed sad bastard who made a name for himself with the devastating songwriting of 2013’s aptly titled In the Throes. But while he’d earned the praise of Miranda Lambert and toured with Jason Isbell, the newly married Oklahoma native needed to explore more sides of himself on Big Bad Luv, if not for his art then for his own well being. Upbeat numbers like “It Don’t Suit Me (Like Before)” and “Sallisaw Blues” still saw Moreland wrestling with love, happiness, and religion, but in a looser, sometimes even lighthearted way – and, funny enough, the art didn’t suffer at all. J.G.
Country music has always had strong ties to California, and there may be no better artist to give it proper tribute than Marty Stuart. Not that he’s the first to record an album about the Golden State – Vince Gill and Paul Franklin were among the most recent to do so, back in 2013. But no one does it quite like Stuart, who looks beyond Bakersfield and Folsom Prison to see California in all its wild, woolly wonderment, from the Pacific Coast Highway to “Surfin, U.S.A.” A collaboration with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ lead guitarist Mike Campbell, who also produced the album, Way Out West is a trippy kaleidoscope of deserts, highways and pill-popping hallucinations, equally at home in a Marty Robbins border town as it is in a Gram Parsons dreamscape. J.G.
People who bailed on RaeLynn after “God Made Girls” could probably be forgiven, but it’s still their loss. Stalled by the ever-capricious whims of country radio (you know, not playing women) and a move to a new record label in Warner Bros., RaeLynn’s forever-in-the-making debut Wildhorse still manages to stick the landing. Lead single “Love Triangle” is one of the sharpest accounts of divorce to come down the pike in years, delivered with the resigned understanding that some wounds don’t ever fully heal. But RaeLynn is no mere balladeer. Elsewhere, she smartly documents many aspects of young womanhood and its confusing, thrilling twists by writing or co-writing her experience into every song on the album. She sings of self-discovery in “Your Heart,” awakening in “The Apple,” while rebuffing a would-be suitor in “Lonely Call” and instilling strength in “Insecure,” with forward-leaning production that suits her bright persona and lightly distressed Texas twang. In the title track, she declares her need to not be fenced in by a man, which doubles as a manifesto for an artist’s right to creative expression. J.F.
With the signing of Margo Price, Jack White’s Third Man Records quickly established itself as not just one of the great independent rock labels, but also as a supportive outlet for deserving country artists that don’t quite fit the Music Row mold. One of their more recent signings is Lillie Mae Rische, a longtime player in the Nashville live scene and a member of White’s touring band. Lillie Mae’s full-length debut Forever and Then Some spans a number of genres – country, Americana and bluegrass among them – and is made cohesive by her nimble voice, intricate songwriting and stunning musicianship (not too surprising coming from an artist who had a fan in Cowboy Jack Clement as a child). Score one more for Third Man. B.M.
Natalie Hemby has long written hit songs for country artists like Miranda Lambert and Little Big Town, just to name a couple bullets on her lengthy resume. Puxico, though, marked the first time Hemby has released material under her own name. Not surprisingly, Puxico is chock full of stellar, carefully crafted songs, like nostalgic ballad “Cairo, IL” and the wistful “This Town Still Talks About You.” Somewhat surprising, though, is the album’s aesthetic, which hews far closer to Americana rock than it does the radio-ready country for which Hemby become known. Unfortunately that means you won’t hear these particular Hemby tunes on your FM dial anytime soon, but that’s radio’s loss. Puxico shows a country songwriter at the top of her game, even if it isn’t at the top of the charts. B.M.
New artists’ debut albums are rarely so cohesive, engaging and altogether satisfying. But Combs hits all those marks on This One’s for You, a collection of 12 songs co-written by the North Carolina singer-songwriter. And lead single, the multi-week Number One “Hurricane,” isn’t even the best of the bunch. That honor falls to the stunning “I Got Away With You,” perhaps the only country song to ever name-check both the Louvre and Alcatraz in its chorus. Yes, Combs hits some familiar notes – the redneckin’ “Out There”; too-drunk-to-stand “Beer Can” – but This One’s for You, with its mix of Nineties twang and contemporary swag, is undeniably refreshing. Not since Eric Church’s Sinners Like Me has a debut LP so perfectly summed up the artist behind it. J.H.
It took Lauren Alaina five years to release Road Less Traveled, the follow-up to her debut LP; time the former American Idol contestant took to hone her songwriting skills and whittle hundreds of tracks down to 12 moments of pop-country glory. Alaina sings about divorce and self-doubt, making life’s uncomfortable moments all the more tolerable when cased in infectious melodies and her honeyed vocals. She’s sassy on “Queen of Hearts,” wrestles with the demons of another on “Same Day Different Bottle” and is heartbreaking on “Three,” a tender, dynamite ballad about the downside of fame – missing family affairs for headlining gigs might not be relatable to most, but with her breathy style of belting, Alaina makes it a moment for anyone who’s ever had to sacrifice in favor of a distant dream. M.M.
“You can tie her down, you can bottle lightning, but the highway queen don’t need no king,” sings Nikki Lane on the title track of her third album, Highway Queen. Clearly nothing is holding down Lane, who is busy roping bulls, boys and 700,000 rednecks on an LP that shoots from Nashville to Las Vegas with the force of a Southern-rock cannon. Produced by Lane and Jonathan Tyler, the South Carolina native gets deep in the pocket of her gritty country groove that’s fierce enough for the bikers, twangy enough for the traditionalists and as New York City as it is Nashville. Well, Seventies New York City, at least: one part Lou Reed, one part Loretta Lynn. M.M.
Few people in country understand the genre’s diverse roots like Charlie Worsham, and how it can be both a place for silliness and sarcasm as well as loss and longing. On his second album, Beginning of Things, Worsham balances all sides: a little lightness on the Hayes Carll-style rambling of “Lawn Chair Don’t Care,” some sobering life lessons on “Cut Your Groove,” a touch of Roger Miller mischief on “Take Me Drunk.” It’s why when he gets really serious, like on the defiant “Please People Please,” his fighting words and sultry, moody licks of guitar really resonate. Packed with ambitious instrumentals and virtuosic craftsmanship, Worsham’s making music for the heart and the mind. M.M.
Mixing alt-country croon with dark Americana swoon, Gilded introduces Jade Jackson as another heiress to Neko Case’s throne. She gets a boost from her producer, Social Distortion frontman Mike Ness, who steers her debut album away from Music Row sonic pitfalls and, instead, focuses on Jackson’s husky vocals and small-town storytelling. One minute, she’s the girl next door, singing with wounded tenderness about lost love. The next, she’s turning “Motorcycle” into a femme-fatale anthem, brushing off the boys like some sort of California-country Bond girl. R.C.
We Say: The Nashville Sound follows in the wake of Isbell’s 2013 breakthrough Southeastern and its 2015 follow-up Something More Than Free, albums that introduced the former Drive-By Truckers third-man to a larger audience with their tales of drunken demons and fresh beginnings. But after spending the last five years reckoning with past darkness, Isbell, 38, shifts his gaze outward. He pledges everlasting faith to his wife on the tearjerker “If We Were Vampires,” offers parental advice on the backyard bluegrass of “Something to Love,” and delivers an urgent warning to the white male demographic, which overwhelmingly voted for Trump, on “White Man’s World.” J.B.
Three years ago, “Girl Crush” opened the door to crossover stardom for Little Big Town, a group that spent a decade and a half building a foundation on country harmony fundamentals. That song may have been a lightning-in-a-bottle moment for the Nashville natives, but the pop meanderings of the Pain Killer follow-up Wanderlust mostly felt like a distraction. So it was perhaps ironic, though no less appropriate, that country-turned-pop-star Taylor Swift would help turn Little Big Town back to the basics. Swift’s “Better Man,” a stellar showcase for Karen Fairchild, hit the reset button and took them to the top of the country charts. The downtempo stunner set the tone for The Breaker, an album that’s one of their best top to bottom, thanks to the band playing to its strengths. J.G.