While a number of country veterans released their strongest albums in years – Willie Nelson’s God’s Problem Child and Brad Paisley’s Love and War, among them – 2017 belonged to new artists. Fresh faces like Carly Pearce, Luke Combs, Midland and RaeLynn delivered debut LPs that both looked forward and revived the tenets of the genre: personal stories, smart lyrics and sing-along hooks. After a few years of awkwardly wandering in the trend-chasing wilderness, Nashville is once again finding its footing, realizing that pop, rock and hip-hop influences can fully exist in country if they’re allowed to occur naturally. Elsewhere, the Americana world was also reliably on point, with LPs from David Rawlings, JD McPherson, Becca Mancari and Rhiannon Giddens illustrating the scope of modern roots music – there were records of introspective folk, twangy country, early rock and even Sixties protest songs. Herewith, our picks for the 40 best albums of the past year.
Thomas Rhett doesn’t cut the same brooding figure as fellow sonic experimenter Sam Hunt, but instead throws a party where fans of Alabama, Childish Gambino and Buddy Holly can all find some common ground. Shaped by the imminent arrival of his two daughters, Life Changes finds Rhett tinkering with strains of silky R&B, Chainsmokers-style EDM and effervescent pop for a series of head rush-inducing jams. The title track mixes late-Nineties alterna-pop with hyper-personal lyrics about success, marriage and fatherhood – topics he explores in many of the other tracks, like the thundering album closer “Grave.” J.F.
“Can I trust you now for sure?” Jessica Lea Mayfield asks on “Meadow,” one of the sharpest rhetorical questions on this awesomely acerbic breakup album. Songs like that one, or the worn acoustic lament “Safe 2 Connect 2,” or the grungy ballad “WTF,” are even more powerful if you know the album’s traumatic backstory. But you don’t need that context to appreciate Mayfield’s radically compelling brand of emotional honesty. Leading a limber session band that includes Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley on drums and Seth Avett on keys and backup vocals, she’s in full command. A 37-minute thunderstorm inside a candy shell of aching melody. S.V.L.
Are Rawlings’ “solo” LPs lesser than those he’s made with Gillian Welch? Hardly, as this set proves once again. Most of these originals sound like vintage folk classics, and his sibling-deep harmonies with Welch – who sings throughout – remain glorious. His pop tastes, intriguingly, are becoming more explicit. “Airplane” is a country hit posing as orchestral folk, and “Cumberland Gap” conjures Fleetwood Mac as vividly as Haim. W. Hermes
Brad Paisley’s protest-song devotion is part of his country traditionalism, which continued with his 11th studio set, whose title track is a bullseye John Fogerty collaboration denouncing America’s shameful treatment of vets. Star cameos include Mick Jagger and, in a matter-of-fact refusal to be defined by “Accidental Racist,” Paisley’s Southern neighbor Timbaland. But the most vivid activist gesture might be “selfie#theinternetisforever,” which rhymes “tweet it,” “delete it” and “unsee it” in the interest of a healthier media ecosystem. W. Hermes
Little Bandit bandleader Alex Caress has a timeless Roy Orbison/George Jones croon and a taste for note-perfect Countrypolitan arrangements. That sound alone is enough to draw listeners in to his East Nashville crew’s debut; what makes it one of the year’s finest country LPs is everything else. Caress is a canny songwriter, with a wicked sense of humor (see the mock-mournful murder ballad “Scattered and Smothered”) and a tendency toward conflicted passion, whether the object is a fast-moving town (“Nashville”) or a noncommittal lover (“Pitiful Heart”). He’s admirably dedicated to resisting cliché even when he flirts with familiar forms. These songs feel lived-in and real, even when – maybe especially when – they’re delivered with the slightest ironic smirk. S.V.L.
“Daddy got sober, mama got his best friend. I’ve cut down crying to every other weekend,” sings Lauren Alaina in the killer opening couplet of “Doin’ Fine,” from her excellent second album Road Less Traveled. It’s a clear indication that the former American Idol runner-up has done some living in the six years since she released her debut album Wildflower. She looks at the sacrifices one has to make to have a musical career in the heart-rending “Three,” spreads a body-positive message in “Pretty” and wrestles with a family member’s addiction in “Same Day, Different Bottle,” but also cuts loose on pleasure-inducing pop-country numbers like “Queen of Hearts” and “Next Boyfriend.” Alaina once entered the music industry as a big-voiced teenager – on Road Less Traveled, she’s a grown-ass woman in full command of that voice. J.F.
With the release of A Long Way From Your Heart, the Turnpike Troubadours all but break free from the constricting “Red Dirt” label. While elements of that expansive, road-worn sound remain, the indie band from Oklahoma isn’t afraid to tighten up on songs like “The Hard Way,” an under-three-minute lament about always coming in second; “Unrung,” with its can’t-right-a-wrong message; and “Pipe Bomb Dream,” which traces a path via new member Hank Early’s gliding pedal steel licks. Still, this is singer and chief songwriter Evan Felker’s canvas, and he drops hyper-descriptive lyrics throughout. “You ran out to roll your window up, light rain falling in your hair, your tan legs checkered from a folding chair,” he sings in the ominous “A Tornado Warning,” a metaphor for an equally fast-moving relationship. J.H.
Pegged early on as a rockabilly revivalist, this Oklahoma native takes a hard left turn into Nashville garage rock on this, his third album. And Undivided Heart & Soul is all the better for it, a blast of maximum R&B that sounds like the Black Keys getting together with Amy Winehouse for a country bender. Parker Millsap, Butch Walker and Aaron Lee Tasjan are among the co-writers of various songs, but the highlights are the bluesy blasts of soulful rock throughout the entire proceedings. Best of all is “Lucky Penny,” which sounds like a cutting contest between McPherson’s intensely piercing voice and shredding blues-rock guitar that seems capable of killing small animals. D.M.
Michael “M.C.” Taylor, the blue-collar visionary leader of Hiss Golden Messenger, is Tom Joad come to life – a plainspoken everyman just trying to make sense of his own heart in hopes it might help him figure out the rest of the world, too. It’s that heart that shines through Hallelujah Anyhow, an album that lives up to that seemingly contradictory title by somehow conveying both hopefulness and weary resignation. Stately country-soul arrangements lend the proceedings a sense of dignity, with Taylor’s matter-of-fact voice conjuring up truth as well as beauty. This is comforting balm at a time when day-to-day reality can seem like the stuff of madness-inducing nightmares. D.M.
It’s only natural that the Band of Heathens – a tireless touring outfit – made one of the year’s best driving records. The Austin group’s latest album is a high-octane mix of skronky R&B (“Daddy Longlegs”), hazy CSN&Y pot anthems (“Green Grass of California”) and even emotive alt-rock (“All I’m Asking”), all combining to create one of the most far-reaching and genre-melding Americana LPs of 2017. Still, it’s a disciplined project, clocking in at a tasty and succinct 40 minutes – the ideal length for decompressing during the afternoon commute. If the Keith Richards riff of “Trouble Came Early” doesn’t make you stomp the gas, you’re probably taking an Uber home. J.H.
Jade Jackson’s Gilded, released by the vaunted Anti Records imprint, combines her native California’s storied punk history with her warm vocal rasp, vivid lyrical insights and melancholy melodic lines. Working with producer Mike Ness (of Social Distortion), Jackson is fearless as a storyteller, bidding adieu in the wanderlust-over-love kiss-off “Motorcycle,” searching the horizon for silver linings in “Finish Line” and leading the twangy barroom slink of “Troubled End.” Instrumental virtuosos Sara Watkins and Greg Leisz add to the desert-at-dusk ambiance of Gilded, making for one of the year’s most self-assured debuts. W. Hodge
With his almost absurdly weathered baritone, Colter Wall is impossible to mistake for any other 20-something Canadian troubadour. But it’s the serious songwriting on his self-titled debut that distinguishes him in the country-folk-Americana landscape. Produced by the ubiquitous Dave Cobb, Colter Wall nods to Dylan, Prine and Arlo Guthrie with sprawling story-songs that draw on Wall’s own experiences, like the in-a-bad-way “Thirteen Silver Dollars.” These are lived-in ballads, delivered by a raconteur with an attention to detail and the confidence to exist far outside of the mainstream. J.H.
More than two years passed between RaeLynn’s excellent Me EP and her full-length debut, but she used this period to amass a strong collection of songs. Many tracks here were co-written with Nicolle Galyon, who helped with RaeLynn’s breakout hit “God Made Girls” and shines again on “Love Triangle,” one of the more devastated – and devastating – songs to break the Top 30 at country radio this year. The lead single sets the tone for WildHorse, which is often more meditative than the breezy Me, with standouts like “Say,” a yearning 6/8 ballad with Dan + Shay, and “Praying for Rain,” a muted closing incantation. But RaeLynn injects “Young” with some of the verve that made early songs like “Kissin’ Frogs” and “Careless” essential: “Flirt with some boy and ask him to dance,” she sings. “Lean in and kiss him right on the lips ’cause I can.” E.L.
While Cory Branan has established a notable career as a punk troubadour, his fifth studio album Adios is a coming-out party for his dexterity in all genres. The album opens with the early rock & roll rumble of “I Only Know” and closes with the drunken country waltz of “My Father Was an Accordion Player,” with stops along the way for political punk-tinged protest (“Another Nightmare in America”), heartland rock sing-alongs (“Blacksburg”), moody jazz-infused folk (“Cold Blue Moonlight”) and a Springsteen-esque paternal ode (“The Vow”). Branan refines all of those inspirations through a singular lyrical filter of wit and ache, making an album that woos your heart as it breaks it. With additional sonic splashes from guests Amanda Shires, Dave Hause and Against Me’s Laura Jane Grace, Branan’s Adios captures the boundless spirit of Americana rock. W. Hodge
After providing country radio with one of its strongest hits of the year with her haunting ballad “Every Little Thing,” Carly Pearce showed off her versatility on her first LP. Every Little Thing is a wide-reaching, elegant album, a mix of devastated torch-ballads (“If My Name Was Whiskey”), mid-tempo radio fodder (“Careless”) and raucous country-rockers (“Catch Fire”). Working with pop specialist Busbee (who produced Maren Morris’ 2016 Hero) and Music Row’s finest co-writers like Natalie Hemby, Shane McAnally and Barry Dean, Pearce navigates the dangers of small-town gossips and boys who cry love with maturity and wit. Despite its sprawling 13 song tracklist, Every Little Thing is a sturdy, declarative debut that establishes Pearce as one of 2017’s freshest young voices. J.B.
For her first solo album in 18 years, the finest vocalist in country music assembled a group of bluegrass, pop and classic country songs she’d grown up listening to. The result is a sentimental, aching meditation on musical nostalgia and a love letter to Nashville’s mid-century Countrypolitan boom. Those sounds are faithfully updated here by producer Buddy Cannon, who enlisted the city’s finest session pros and a full string section to round out the album’s warm sound. Singing a collection of mostly ballads originally recorded by legends like Brenda Lee, the Osborne Brothers and Roger Miller, Krauss delivers one of the most affecting vocal performances of her career, imbuing songs like “River in the Rain,” “All Alone Am I” and “Dream of Me” with a gentle intimacy and modern urgency. J.B.
On three of their last four albums, Little Big Town have settled on an impeccable formula: Round up some of country’s best songwriters (including Lori McKenna, Hillary Lindsey and, for the first time here, Taylor Swift); call producer Jay Joyce, a master of analog-sounding A.M. gold redux; and let their exquisite four-part harmonies do the rest. They lean toward crunchy early Seventies Southern rock on “Rollin'” and nod to U2 on “Night on Our Side,” but Little Big Town are always at their best when those harmonies are unobstructed. Vocal groups are so rare these days – in both country and pop more generally – that even the wordless parts of The Breaker feel generous: Listen to the last 30 seconds of “Lost in California,” in which Little Big Town need nothing more than sighs and “ooohs” to command attention. E.L.
As under-appreciated resources go, the Mavericks are pretty much in a class by themselves. The band, led by Raul Malo – the Miami-born Caruso of country music – has been making first-rate Latino-flavored honky-tonk albums for a quarter-century now, with a consistency of quality that’s easy to take for granted. Brand New Day, the Mavericks’ third album since regrouping in 2013 following a decade-long hiatus, was produced by Niko Bolas from Neil Young’s orbit, and he wisely keeps the focus where it belongs – on Malo’s glorious bellow, which has never sounded better. Brand New Day, already nominated for a Grammy, is another impeccable, lushly operatic set, suggesting that Malo really is the Roy Orbison of our time. D.M.
An album that almost never got made, You Don’t Own Me Anymore from the Secret Sisters stands as one of the year’s most confessional and cathartic collections of songs. To get there, the Rogers sisters overcame a lawsuit, impending bankruptcy and a crisis of creative confidence to craft inspired songs that traffic in newfound resilience (the title track), quirky lonesomeness (“Tennessee River Runs Low”), nostalgic identity (“Little Again” and “King Cotton”), and engaging cinematic narratives (“He’s Fine” and “Mississippi”). In the end, You Don’t Own Me Anymore, with its majestic harmonies and the deft touch of Brandi Carlile as producer, earned the sibling duo their first Grammy nomination for Best Folk Album. W. Hodge
Along with holding down lead guitar duties for Foo Fighters and hosting his own Walking the Floor country-Americana podcast, Chris Shiflett somehow found the time to release his rowdy and reflective solo record West Coast Town. Recorded at Nashville’s historic RCA Studio A with producer Dave Cobb, the album finds Shiflett creatively blending his Left Coast country tastes with his punk-rock roots in ways that nod to both Buck Owens and Social Distortion’s Mike Ness in equal measure. From the autobiographical title track to the allusion to punk legends NOFX in “Tonight’s Not Over” and the day-in-the-life honky-tonk swagger of songs like “I’m Still Drunk” and “Goodnight Little Rock,” West Coast Town reveals itself as Shiflett’s musical memoir. W. Hodge
“When you’re young, you don’t think about getting old,” sings Travis Meadows on “McDowell Road,” a moment on First Cigarette that’s about taking stock of how quickly life passes us by, and how delicate each breath is. Meadows would know – he’s fought addiction, overcome illness and pulled himself out of desolation to become one of country’s most treasured songwriting weapons (called in by Eric Church and Dierks Bentley to give their albums a potent punch). Meadows sings like a man who’s felt the pull of the darkness but chose to find the light: With a raspy imperfection to his delivery, he illustrates his stories through details that penetrate, from the kiss of some Coppertone on the skin to the deep, dangerous satisfaction of the morning’s first cigarette. It’s in the minutiae that Meadows finds the universal moments, coming out with an album that’s equal parts hurt and healing, and one that may linger long after the smoke has cleared. M.M.
Nashville-based songwriter Becca Mancari got headlines for being part of Bermuda Triangle, her new trio with Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard and Jesse Lafser, but her solo debut Good Woman is equally worthy of interest. It’s heavy on the hazy folk-rock atmospherics of Mazzy Star or Beck’s Sea Change, but occasionally allows the sunlight to stream in, as with the breezy strums and pedal steel on “Summertime Mama.” Mancari searches her soul across nine impressionistic tracks, singing of a love that flamed out quickly in “Arizona Fire” and another that faded imperceptibly in “Kitchen Dancing.” Taken as a whole, it’s the kind of album that gives you enough space to spread out and luxuriate. J.F.
Two years after becoming the most successful new female country solo artist since Taylor Swift with her debut The First Time, Kelsea Ballerini responded with Unapologetically, a pop tour-de-force that deepened the Tennessee singer’s emotional palette while expanding her musical sensibilities. From her deft phrasing on the chorus of the opening “Graveyard” to the anxious inner dialogue during the chorus of “Get Over Yourself,” Ballerini shows off her sharp skills as a nuanced songwriter (see “I Hate Love Songs”) and supple vocalist on this 12-song collection that traces a narrative arc of heartbreak, soul-searching and perseverance. Along the way, she flirts with mainstream flourishes on “Roses” and makes a convincing Top 40 grab on “Miss Me More,” evidence that, at 24, Ballerini may continue to follow Swift’s path. J.B.
Crowell is incisive and scrappy on Close Ties, his best album of the decade. Many of these songs are musings on country history, offering a veteran a chance to remember his relationships with Guy and Susanna Clark, the peerless songwriting of Harlan Howard and Mickey Newbury, and the youthful hubris he displayed as an “insecure little shit” on his breakout solo album, 1988’s Diamonds & Dirt. There’s plenty of ambivalence on Close Ties: “Things have changed around here, you bet/But it don’t seem much better yet,” Crowell sings in “Nashville 1972.” But this is the work of an artist still determined to rustle up another great song, just as he was when he moved to Music City more than five decades ago. “I don’t care what you think you heard,” he asserts on “It Ain’t Over Yet,” a gratifying collaboration with Rosanne Cash and John Paul White. “We’re still learning how to fly.” E.L.
Country music is a big tent, but California is even bigger on this tribute to America’s Left Coast by the omnivorous country star Marty Stuart. Mike Campbell, lead guitarist and co-pilot of the late Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, serves as producer and co-conspirator on Way Out West, an album that covers a lot of ground – from the Byrds to the Beach Boys, Dick Dale to Glen Campbell, Bay Area psychedelic to Southern California mariachi, with the occasional Native American flourish. Stuart and Campbell’s dueling guitars conjure up the missing link between beaches, deserts and honky-tonk. And thanks to their six-string virtuosity and smoking performances by Stuart’s longtime band the Fabulous Superlatives, the twang remains the same no matter the genre. D.M.