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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.

Cory Branan, 'Adios'
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Cory Branan, ‘Adios’

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

Carly Pearce, 'Every Little Thing'
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Carly Pearce, ‘Every Little Thing’

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.

Alison Krauss, Windy City
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Alison Krauss, Windy City

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.

Little Big Town, 'The Breaker'
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Little Big Town, ‘The Breaker’

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.

The Mavericks, 'Brand New Day'
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The Mavericks, ‘Brand New Day’

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.

Secret Sisters, 'You Don't Own Me Anymore'
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The Secret Sisters, ‘You Don’t Own Me Anymore’

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

Chris Shiflett, 'West Coast Town'
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Chris Shiflett, ‘West Coast Town’

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

Travis Meadows, 'First Cigarette'
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Travis Meadows, ‘First Cigarette’

“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.

Becca Mancari, 'Good Woman'
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Becca Mancari, ‘Good Woman’

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.

Kelsea Ballerini, 'Unapologetically'
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Kelsea Ballerini, ‘Unapologetically’

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.

Rodney Crowell, 'Close Ties'
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Rodney Crowell, ‘Close Ties’

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.

Marty Stuart, 'Way Out West'
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Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives, ‘Way Out West’

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.

Luke Combs, 'This One's for You'
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Luke Combs, ‘This One’s for You’

Perhaps no other country performer had a bigger breakout in 2017 than Luke Combs, the North Carolina native whose burly single “Hurricane” – about a woman, not weather – stormed its way to Number One and Gold status by mid-year. Combs’ debut album This One’s for You doesn’t shy from incorporating a few programmed beats, but somehow sounds entirely fresh by nodding to Nineties country and offering a mastery of songwriting fundamentals. Combs, a singer with enough grit and personality to bring it all to life, plays the sly, beer-drinking party dude in the reggae-tinged “Don’t Tempt Me” one minute and then effortlessly switches to romantic leading man on “I Got Away With You.” He’s equally charming as the unrepentant wiseass in “When It Rains It Pours,” parlaying a breakup into an epic streak of good luck and one hell of a silver lining: “I ain’t gotta see my ex-future-mother-in-law anymore.” J.F.