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40 Best Country and Americana Albums of 2017

Kip Moore flipped off the industry, Willie Nelson taunted mortality, and Margo Price questioned the American dream

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.

Charlie Worsham, 'Beginning of Things'
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Charlie Worsham, ‘Beginning of Things’

It speaks volumes about Charlie Worsham that his sophomore album, Beginning of Things, kicks off with 14 goofy seconds of Roger Miller honky-tonk called “Pants,” and then leaps immediately into “Please People Please,” perhaps one of the more sophisticated and mature modern country songs this year. What it says is that Worsham, leading contender in the pool of Nashville’s most underappreciated artists and instrumentalists, is able to meld humor and lightness (through tracks about forgotten britches and wobbly drunken escapades) with introspective, inspirational odes to paving your own way. Beginning of Things is less about the starting line as it is about the journey, following through Worsham’s process of self-doubt and discovery, and taking stock of his wounds – specifically, the open gashes left from some crushed music industry dreams. “When the needle drops down, what you gonna do?” he sings on “Cut Your Groove,” asking anyone who is listening, but himself, too. “Life is a record, better cut your groove.” Unlike the genre’s current class of slick gentlemen, Worsham’s unafraid to show that he’s not perfect. M.M.

Natalie Hemby, 'Puxico'
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Natalie Hemby, ‘Puxico’

Hemby is the latest in-demand country songsmith to move from Music Row writing rooms to center stage, following solo breakouts from Brandy Clark, Chris Stapleton and Brent Cobb. And just like those artists’ albums, Puxico – named for the Missouri town where Hemby’s grandfather lives – is vividly written and charmingly un-flashy. Hemby has thrived in Nashville for long enough to know that fancy production is unnecessary if the song is a good one, so acoustic guitars dominate here, and the percussion is unobtrusive. On the melancholy highlight “This Town Still Talks About You,” Hemby leaves a drum machine on the track, as if she were preparing to pitch it to a country-radio star. We’re glad she didn’t. E.L.

Kip Moore, 'Slowheart'
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Kip Moore, ‘Slowheart’

Kip Moore’s always been one of Music Row’s most defiant ones: insistent on recording his own songs, unwilling to keep his opinions silent and unable to play by the rules. And because of it, the genre has had trouble figuring out exactly where to land him, despite a fan base that is quickly reaching an Eric Church-level of dedication. But it all works for Moore on Slowheart, his third record, which rejects current country trends in favor of a raw, rollicking Southern-rock journey that doesn’t depict him as anything but an adult man with a weakness for love (or a little casual sex, on the deliciously naughty “I’ve Been Around,”), a tentative heart (the aching, Motown croon of “Try Again”) and an allegiance to music above all else (the album’s stunning live-to-tape closer, “Guitar Man”). With Moore overseeing a bulk of the production, Slowheart is strikingly stripped-down while still ringing arena-friendly, and finds a vulnerable artist never content to stay in one place for long. M.M.

Angaleena Presley, 'Wrangled'
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Angaleena Presley, ‘Wrangled’

“I don’t want to be an outlaw, I don’t want to be a renegade,” sings Angaleena Presley on her song “Outlaw.” It’s one of several bitter pills the Kentucky native has to swallow on her second album Wrangled, as she grapples with the boxes into which she’s been placed and the opportunities she’s missed. On “Dreams Don’t Come True,” she reckons with the reality that success doesn’t look or feel anything like she imagined, with musical flourishes that mirror a spiraling descent into depression. She spoofs radio country’s fixation on jeans, trucks and dirt roads in the raging “Country,” enlisting Southern rapper Yelawolf for a few fiery bars. Whether calling out a “spoiled-rotten daddy’s girl” for not supporting other women in “Bless My Heart” or raining biblical justice on an abusive preacher, Presley proves she’s way more than an outlaw – she’s one of most fearless songwriters working in country music. J.F.

Lilly Hiatt, 'Trinity Lane'
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Lilly Hiatt, ‘Trinity Lane’

She may be a Nashville gal, but Lilly Hiatt drops names like Springsteen and Prince into these 12 songs, one of which is called “The Night David Bowie Died.” She’s a rocker, writing lived-in autobiographical details about unhealthy habits, nagging obsessions and love gone bad (or worse). Like her father John, Hiatt has a way of finding the just-right lyrical detail: “Your mother loved driving to the B-52’s,” she tells a would-be paramour in “So Much You Don’t Know.” Her willingness to bare scars can seem alternately courageous, foolhardy and disarming – and, at her best, all of that at once. Plus she rocks throughout Trinity Lane with enough bona fide commitment to signify that she’ll own her mistakes, by God. This is a record that portends even greater ones to come. D.M.

Willie Nelson, 'God's Problem Child'
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Willie Nelson, ‘God’s Problem Child’

It’s no small feat when a tried-and-true legend delivers some of his most masterful work in the latter years of his career. Released the day before his 84th birthday, Nelson uses humor, introspection, wistfulness and even a bit of optimism to address mortality (both the listener’s and his own) head on in nearly every one of the album’s 13 tracks. Although there are a few more cracks in Nelson’s distinct warble these days, his inimitable spirit and one-of-a-kind musicality shines as bright as ever on “Still Not Dead,” “Delete and Fast Forward,” “Little House on the Hill” and the Merle Haggard tribute “He Won’t Ever Be Gone.” However, it’s Nelson’s ever-present romantic side on tracks like “True Love,” “Your Memory Has a Mind of Its Own,” and “A Woman’s Love” that provide God’s Problem Child with some of its most distinct moments of heartfelt vitality. W. Hodge

Midland, 'On the Rocks'
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Midland, ‘On the Rocks’

The new Texas trio caught their share of shit this year for not being “authentic enough” – whatever that means – but the band’s bona fides are all over their debut album, an excellent collection of undeniably country music. Whether writing and singing about boozy self-medication (the Grammy-nominated “Drinkin’ Problem”), cold-hearted breakups (the castanets-driven “At Least You Cried”) or the not-so-romanticized imagery of the road (“Check Cashin’ Country”), Midland keep one custom-made boot firmly on twangy ground. The results are glorious – no matter what you think of the guys’ elegantly unkempt hair. J.H.

Rhiannon Giddens, 'Freedom Highway'
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Rhiannon Giddens, ‘Freedom Highway’

During a year when Confederate monuments served as a symbolic springboard for racial violence and hatred, no songwriter provided a more important window into our nation’s ugly history than Rhiannon Giddens. The former Carolina Chocolate Drops frontwoman emerged as country/roots music’s most vital storyteller and public historian with Freedom Highway, a collection of under-represented tales that spans several hundred years of American tragedy and persistence, from the slave narrative of “At the Purchaser’s Option” to the Sixties civil rights prayer “Birmingham Sunday” to the vital Black Lives Matter-era police brutality anthem “Better Get It Right the First Time.” On her second solo album, Giddens makes a most necessary argument for the contemporary urgency of centuries-old roots music stylings, weaving pre-war gospel, Sixties R&B, 19th-century slave spirituals, hip-hop and Cajun folk into an exuberant whole. J.B.

Lee Ann Womack, 'The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone'
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Lee Ann Womack, ‘The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone’

It’s clear in the first few bars of “All the Trouble,” the opening track of The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone, that something mysterious – and something tempestuous – is brewing inside of Lee Ann Womack. Oozing with stark and moody blues, she sounds more Lightnin’ Hopkins than anything sitting comfortably on terrestrial radio. But in the more than two decades she’s been in the spotlight, Womack’s proven that she’s completely undaunted when it comes to taking risks on unknown songwriters or veering toward the traditional. Recorded at SugarHill studios in Houston with husband Frank Liddell on production, Womack had a hand in writing half of the album’s tracks, which range from the steel guitar-laced “Talking Behind Your Back” to the soulful swank of “He Called Me Baby,” which both further cement Womack as one of the genre’s most formative vocalists. It’s Nashville’s younger generation who often gets to hold the candle for reinventing and rebirthing country’s classic sounds, but The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone is one the best examples this year of how old can be new again. Or, in Womack’s hands, timeless. M.M.

Chris Stapleton: 'From A Room: Volume 1'
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Chris Stapleton: ‘From A Room: Volume 1’

A collection of songs written 10 years ago, Stapleton’s eagerly awaited follow-up to 2015’s Traveller could have come across like some K-Tel Best of the Beard compilation. But the supremely talented singer doesn’t rest on old laurels. These performances crackle and pop with new energy, as Stapleton embraces the R&B, Southern rock and country components of his pedigree. On “Second One to Know,” he lets his voice run wild, setting up a wicked one-note guitar solo, and later dials it back on the hushed “Either Way.” It’s that kind of juxtaposition that makes Volume 1 (as well as the just-released Volume 2) an authentic snapshot. J.H.

Valerie June, 'The Order of Time'
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Valerie June, ‘The Order of Time’

Valerie June perfected her handsomely idiosyncratic brand of Americana on this second LP, steeped deep in electric blues and old-time folk, gilded in country twang and gospel yearning. The press-repeat standout is “Astral Plane,” with its woozy reverb and disarmingly tender, flying-on-the-ground vocals. “Shakedown” is an impressionist juke-joint party jam. But the headiest moments are “If And,” which taps into Tuareg styles to map African sounds from old world, to new, then ’round again; and “Got Soul,” a matter-of-fact re-braiding of Southern musical history with banjo, fiddle and Stax/Volt brass. Who knew musicology could feel so good? W. Hermes

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, 'The Nashville Sound'
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Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, ‘The Nashville Sound’

“I ain’t fighting with you down in the ditch, I’ll meet you up here on the road,” sings Jason Isbell on “Hope the High Road,” the declaration of unyielding perseverance that ties together his sixth studio album, a 10-track Americana jewel. Indeed, Isbell elevates relationships (“If We Were Vampires”), discussions about privilege (“White Man’s World”) and the art of songwriting itself to a higher plane on The Nashville Sound. But the LP addresses nationwide blue-collar hardships, from the trap of addiction (“Cumberland Gap”) to crushed dreams (“Tupelo”), proving Isbell is a voice for all people, not just the ones in the South. J.H.

Margo Price, 'All American Made'
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Margo Price, ‘All American Made’

Margo Price’s 2016 debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, established her as one of the sharpest songwriters in Nashville, but her second LP upped the ante in remarkable fashion. All American Made is a fierce protest album about the ways that the American dream has failed so many – see the feminist ballad “Pay Gap,” where she channels Loretta Lynn and Donna Summer for a frank discussion of capitalism’s double standards. It’s also a reverent tribute to music’s past, featuring a tender duet with Willie Nelson and a slew of other songs that recall his Seventies heyday. No other country act, and precious few from any genre, went nearly as deep as Price did this year. S.V.L.

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