Album Review: Emily Herring–Gliding

Rating: 7/10

How often on these endless reality shows and talent competitions do we see judges and vocal coaches stress the importance of individuality? They are not only looking for raw talent, but something unique and fresh and different. And why not, when so much of popular music continues to pump out more of the same ideas from different voices? Any music class will tell you that music cannot expand further, that at this point, it’s just rehashing old ways and modes of doing the same things–this is one of the biggest criticisms of contemporary music by those who study classical and believe modern music to be somehow inferior to that discipline. So it’s up to those makers of modern music to work within the confines of their craft to continue to stand out and present us with new ideas. And country music is often regarded as one of the most restrictive genres in which to create things, so it’s even more impressive when you see a country artist proving all of these theories wrong.

That is what we see with Emily Herring’s latest album, Gliding, as she presents a traditional approach heavily blended with influences of Western swing. So many country artists today in the independent realms are doing this east Nashville/Americana sound that by now has been absolutely done to death to the point it’s about the least original and most clichéd thing you can possibly do outside the mainstream, or they’re mixing in the raw rock influences of Red dirt, or they’re making West Coast country with a modern take on the polished Nashville sound. This isn’t any of that, it’s something all its own, and yet it’s more traditional than many records released this year. Herring’s influence comes closer to that of Bob Wills than anything else, but this record is not trapped in that time period either, as she’s got a voice reminiscent of Robyn Ludwick or perhaps Tanya Tucker, which lends itself to harder mixes of country and rock and gives this album yet another unique quality.

But neither Ludwick nor Tucker possess the falsetto of Emily Herring, an addition which renders her able to pull off softer, more vulnerable songs like “Midnight” and “Yellow Mailbox” right along with some of the harder stuff like the title track and the painfully honest “Right Behind Her.” This one is the highlight of the record, as she lays out the truth that she literally doesn’t know if she can go on living without her mother being there for her. “If my mother were to die, I fear that I’d be right behind her,” cuts even more when you know that her mother did die in the final stages of this album’s making. That bluntness in her writing comes out on the closer, “Getting By,” also, as she describes her days as a mechanic and only being responsible for herself, trying to stretch a dime in order to survive.

This album needed some moments of levity to brighten the mood, and they come in the form of two covers, “All the Millers in Milwaukee” and “Semi Truck.” The former especially suits Emily and her voice and allows more of the fun side of her personality to stand out. It also fits more on the record as a whole than the latter because although light, it’s still a breakup song like much of the more serious material. There’s another lighter moment in the Western swing-infused “Best Thing I’ve Seen Yet,” and although it’s not a personal favorite, it adds balance to the album and shows another, more tender side of Emily Herring.

This album is not without its flaws, and it could have used perhaps another jolt of energy and maybe some sharper songwriting in places, but it’s still a good, promising record from Herring and one that is worth checking out, if only for its unique nature. Its propensity to draw from the influences of Western swing, combined with a voice like Emily’s, suited more for classic rock or harder country but somehow lending itself to these songs very well, makes this album intriguing and certainly memorable in the country space. It might not be a record you love on first listen; rather, it’s more an acquired thing, a potential you see in a song or two that unveils itself after a few listens to the whole album. In the end, it’s that potential which shines brightest about this release, and Emily Herring becomes another cool discovery of 2017, even if the year is nearly over. Not an album, and certainly not an artist, to be overlooked.

Buy the Album

Single Review: Sugarland’s “Still the Same”

Rating: 4/10

So I guess we’re never going to get back the Sugarland of old, the group that produced the singles “Baby Girl” and “Want to” and gave us hidden gems on their early albums like “Hello” and “Fly Away.”

I guess we’re stuck with the new and (supposedly) improved Sugarland, the one that gave us the incredibly obnoxious pair of songs “Stuck Like Glue” and “All I Want to Do.”

But actually, that’s not even entirely accurate either because at least those songs made you feel a certain degree of something, even if the emotion varied from annoyance to hatred. All this new “Still the Same” single is is filler at best and an insomnia cure at worst. It’s an absolutely weak and whimpering way to make a comeback…and what an ironic title because the sameness and nothingness in this song is ultimately its defining point and even makes other criticisms seem trivial in comparison. Sure, it’s got electronic beats, it’s overly processed, and Jennifer Nettles’ twang is overdone–but you don’t even notice any of that by the end of the song because it’s already faded into the background and forgotten. Four listens in, and I can’t quote a single lyric. The idea is that their love is still the same after all this time, but it’s a thinly veiled metaphor for their career. The whole thing is poorly written, overproduced, and basically just a shallow piece of nothing. It’s not even that I would turn my radio dial when this came on; I wouldn’t have to because it is so easily tuned out.

Sugarland can be much better than this, as can each of its members separately. Here’s to hoping that whatever comes next for them will be better because this single is lazy and disappointing.

Song Review: “Bored if I Don’t” by Kaitlin Butts

Rating: 7.5/10

Thanks to reader Wes for inadvertently making me aware of a recorded version of this song; I first heard this live in September at Medicine Stone and sought to review it then but could not find a recorded version. This isn’t a studio version per se, it’s a live acoustic recording of the song.

Sometimes, the best songwriting is marked by lyrical poetry and unique turns of phrase, things said in a way that we’ve never heard before or that paint the same sentiments in a new and clever light. Sometimes the best songwriting is simple, marked only by its ability to relate to us on a personal level and make us feel something. And it doesn’t have to be something we’ve experienced–Saving Country Music’s 2017 Song of the Year is a good example of this, as you don’t have to be childless to understand Sunny Sweeney’s longing for a baby in “Bottle by my Bed.” In fact, good songwriters can make us understand and feel things for characters we might not otherwise empathize for in real life.

The woman in the new song by Oklahoma songwriter Kaitlin Butts might not be a character for which we’d all readily have compassion, as she describes sneaking around repeatedly to cheat on her husband, whom she calls “honest as the day is long.” It’s the details, though, that paint a better picture of this narrator–she was married too young and too soon and from a small town, not really even understanding what she was promising. She doesn’t say why she got married under these circumstances, but it’s not hard to imagine–maybe she was just naive, or maybe she married with hopes of security, a better life, or of leaving the town. Maybe this was what she wanted, but now she has grown up and realized it isn’t, something many of us can understand. We can only speculate on that part. We do know that she doesn’t want to hurt the man she married, yet now she understands that this isn’t really what she wants for the rest of her life. She doesn’t see a way around that, so she tries to find herself and what she’s looking for with other men. She knows she should stay home, but that doesn’t make her happy, and in the end, she’s losing either way. It’s all summed up in the line, “I’m damned if I do, and I’m bored if I don’t.”

It’s the frank honesty with which she delivers this song that’s missing from so much of today’s country music. The production is incredibly simple as well, with just her guitar supporting her and allowing the lyrics to be the focus, although I expect there to be more to it if there is a version recorded for a future album. Hopefully, we’ll be getting a full album from her in 2018. For now, this is a fine song, and Kaitlin Butts is a name you should keep your eye on.

Collaborative Spotlight: Glen Campbell–Adios

Now for something I’ve wanted to do all year but couldn’t bring myself to: spotlighting Glen campbell’s final album. I had listened to a couple songs before now, but to try and listen to the whole thing was just too sad for a Glen fan like me. But I wanted to honor him with this and made it my goal to do before the end of 2017. I thought I’d enlist another Glen fan to help honor him as well, so I got Zack of The Musical Divide to join me in sharing his thoughts about Campbell’s last album. Neither of us wanted this to be a review, just a way to honor our friend.

Megan: So what we have here is mostly–actually I thought until I heard this that it was all–cover songs, but they’re songs that one, meant something to Glen, as they were supposedly songs he gravitated toward when he was just sitting around with his family picking his guitar, and two, a lot of them also have undertones running through them that sort of explain what’s going on for him at the time.

Zack: “I think overall that yes, Adios is mostly a covers album full of the few songs Glen was still able to play. However, the way that the majority of the tracks speak to deeper levels given his condition is chilling. I think overall it’s amazing how great and passionate he still sounded vocally, and even the instrumentation is often on point. I enjoyed the soft touches of piano on “Just Like Always” and “Postcard From Paris”, and the crisp fiddle on “Arkansas Farmboy” was a treat for the ears.

Zack: I love the rollicking banjo on the opener, “Everybody’s ‘talkin’.” I think one thing you notice with this album is that they aren’t just cover songs. They’re sort of relatable to what was his situation at the time. For example, he says everybody’s talking at him, and he can’t hear a word they’re saying. With Alzheimer’s, him “not hearing” could be him not comprehending or remembering what was being said. A joyous opener on an instrumental standpoint, but a somber way to open it all.

Megan: I noticed all that too, and as we’ve mentioned, it will sort of continue to be a theme throughout this record, lingering in the background to add a touch of sadness to the whole thing. I also am amazed by how surprisingly good his voice is.

Zack: I agree regarding him being really solid vocally all throughout this album. With the next track, “Just Like Always”, he’s recalling a special night he had with his lover, and with the soft piano bolstering it, it’s meant to be seen more as somber I think for this version. After all, we again get a line such as “Maybe someday I will forget”, and that can’t be a coincidence. Of course, there’s enough ambiguity in the writing to imply that even if he does forget that night and even if his lover in question moves on, their love will still last forever. There’s a lot of subtext here. Really solid, touching, and honestly hard to listen to so far. It’s beautiful.

Megan: Speaking of hard to listen to, enter “Funny How Time Slips Away.” It also obviously reflects what’s going on with Glen, and in that light, it’s got more meaning than the original intent of the song. He and Willie Nelson should have done more stuff together, that pair really works.

Zack: Considering this is similar thematically to Just Like Always, I see this more as a counter moment of levity considering how heavy the album starts. Considering he’s doing it with Willie, it feels just like two old buddies dusting off one of the few songs people will know is a cover right from the get go. I mean, there’s at least some humor as the narrator calls out his ex for saying she’ll love her new beau forever when that’s the same thing she told him originally. Like I said, I see it merely as a counter to the darkness so far, and it’s needed.

Megan: I’ve never heard “Arkansas Farm Boy” either. This is a more lighthearted song too, and one of the few without as much of the sad undertones and double meanings. I need to find the original of this, this is a really great song. Also love the fiddle.

Zack: Oh, this is actually an original tune. I like how he recalls his childhood here. Sure, it was tough, but at the same time he remembers everything very fondly, especially since it’s when he learned to play music. At the same time, we have allusions to his aging self again as he states he’d give anything to go back again. It rings a hell of a lot more louder than say, someone on the radio wanting to be twenty again just so they can get drunk every weekend…

Megan: I also enjoy “Am I All Alone”. It goes in with the theme of songs reflecting his state of mind. I Actually would like to hear more Vince Gill if I’m honest.

Zack: Ha, I’d like to hear more of Vince Gill as well, but at least it isn’t another “Sober Saturday Night” moment.

Megan: They talked about having to give this to Glen line by line in a lot of places, and it speaks to the fact that he is a ridiculous vocalist that it’s all so connected emotionally, like in “It Won’t Bring Her Back” and later in “She Thinks I Still Care.” “It Won’t Bring Her Back” is the highlight of the album for me so far.

Zack: Really? I actually didn’t know that. Everything blends together so well that I would have never guessed. Unfortunately it makes sense, but the fact that you can hardly even tell is stunning. Anyway, moving on to “It Won’t Bring Her Back”, the advice from a friend to another to let go of a past lover on “It Won’t Bring Her Back” is reminiscent of “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” in a way. Unfortunately we do lose people whether it be through breakups, them moving away, and deaths among scenarios. There is a time for grieving, but what’s most important is that we move on knowing we’ll always have those memories to go back to in our time of need, at least for now.

Zack: “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is another moment of levity akin to “Funny How Time Slips Away” only much more upbeat. It’s amazing how much charisma Glen still had at this point.

Megan: Everybody and their mother has covered that song, and yet it’s still great. I second your thoughts on that charisma thing. Like I said, it’s amazing how invested he is emotionally in all these songs if it had to be done line by line a lot. His family and his producer said that they picked songs he always picked up his guitar and sang because he would know them easier. They said he knew some of it, but a lot of days, they had to give it to him line by line so he could remember. Given that, it’s a testament to his talent that he can interpret all these songs so well.

Zack: That honestly just made listening to this a lot tougher. Especially now that we’ve gotten to my personal favorite here, “Postcard From Paris”. I love that his family provides harmony on this one. It’s easily my favorite track here. The imagery that centers around him traveling around the world hoping to find himself is an interesting spin, and the fact that in the end, he can’t do it without his friend (assuming it’s his lover) is touching. In a way the traveling could even be seen as a metaphor for him traveling somewhere else in his mind, and the fact that his family sings “I wish you were here”…damn it, this piano ballad nearly made me cry.

Megan: I agree, it’s a truly lovely song with another story of missing someone with undertones of what he is going through as it talks about things like the shadows falling all around. There is some really great piano supporting this one as well. Although, it’s good we have the next song, “A Thing Called Love” to lighten the mood. The song will just put a smile on your face after that incredibly heartbreaking moment. Very well-placed and correct, asserting that love can bring down even the strongest and most jaded of us all.

Zack: I agree, it’s another moment of levity, but I still think there’s something more to this. After all, it essentially echoes what Just Like Always did which is show how love can prevail over disease, death, or really anything. It’s the one thing that will remain after we’re gone, mentally or physically.

Megan: Really excellent point there.

Zack: Thank you! Or rather, thank Glen.

Megan: And now we’re at the closer, “Adios”. “I miss the blood red sunset, but I’ll miss you the most.” Yeah, that sums up this whole album. It’s a depressing goodbye song, but also it’s reflective and not as obviously about death, so it leaves you sad but not devastated. There are a lot of depressing moments here, but this album is kind of comforting as well.

Zack: Yes, “Adios” is obviously a somber closer, but I enjoy the ambiguity in the writing. Jimmy Webb has a way of saying a lot with very few words, and this is an example. It’s a touching sort of “goodbye” song that sure, is meant to signal a breakup more than anything, but that doesn’t mean the sentiment on this particular album doesn’t ring louder than that. Overall, this is the type of album that’s hard to talk about in so many ways. The many covers here take on new meanings in the context of this album, and knowing what you said about him having to do most of this line by line…it’s just heartbreaking really. Still, the finished product which is now the official last Glen Campbell album is a treasure.

Megan: Yeah, this was hard to listen to and hard to talk about, but in a way, it’s also a comforting listen and a bit of a snapshot into what Glen was going through when he recorded this. Enjoyed sharing his final album with you, and thank you, Glen, for a lifetime and legacy of music.

Buy the Album

My Top Twenty-Five Albums of 2017

And now for the list you’ve all been waiting for, for the one I’ve been preparing for all year, and for the one that represents the heart and soul of what we do here. I debated much on how far to extend this list…should it be ten, or twenty, or follow suit with several of my lists this year and be thirteen? IN the end, I found that after reviewing seventy-eight albums so far in 2017 and featuring twenty-seven so far in Memorable Songs, not to mention others I’ve heard and did not include in that feature, that eight stood out above everything else and should be considered most essential on this list. Another fifteen stood out a little under that, and then it became a question of whether to cut the list of twenty-three down to twenty or search for two deserving others to round it out to twenty-five. I opted for showcasing more music, but as you’ll see, I’ve separated the most essential from the rest because those eight still stand proudly above the rest and should be recognized as such. One more note for any of you who might be newer, this list reflects the evolving, changing nature of music and my reactions to it throughout the year, so rating should not be considered a huge factor at this point–a factor, yes, but second to how well the music has held up over time.

Essential Albums

25. Kody West–Green

Standout Tracks: “Green,” “Ledges,” “Ogygia”
This album starts off an exciting trend here–a good amount of debut albums making this list. It’s been a great year for debut records, and Kody West is certainly the most interesting thing to come out of the Texas/Red Dirt scene this year. Not the best album from that scene, but something new and refreshing, blending the traditional and the modern, the country and rock influences, into something cool and promising. Check this out while you can still say you were ahead of the curve with West.
Read Full Review

24. Nikki Lane–Highway Queen

Standout Tracks: “Jackpot,” “700,000 Rednecks,” “Highway Queen,” “Forever Lasts Forever”
So many boring, mid-tempo albums in the independent/Americana scene in 2017. This is fun and vibrant, a breath of fresh air and personality. This is an artist coming into her own and being herself in the best way possible. It stands out above many others simply for the jolt of energy and life it offers, proving that you can make a good album in this scene and write smart hooks without being so serious all the time.
Read Full Review

23. Robyn Ludwick–This Tall to Ride

Standout Tracks: “Freight Train,” “Texas Jesus,” “Bars Ain’t Closin’,” “Lie to Me”
I’ve been saying this since it came out, but if you can get past the hookers and cocaine all over this record, it’s a great listen. The melodies are engaging and the sentiments relatable, and credit to Robyn Ludwick for exploring these subjects, so often ignored in country, and giving a voice to these characters. Her knack for portraying people usually so ignored and misunderstood by society is remarkable, and though not as blatant a form of social commentary as say, the next album here, this one still has a lot to say and does it in a really interesting way.
Read Full Review

22. Rhiannon Giddens–Freedom Highway

Standout Tracks: “At the Purchaser’s Option,” “Julie,” “Better Get it right The First Time”
While we’re here, I’d like to say that not including “Better Get it Right the First Time” on my Spotify and Apple Music playlists was a complete oversight, and it should have been there, though I have no idea what it would have replaced. That said, this album is better all the way through, as a whole, as it tells the story of African-American history and heritage that is more story than song, more reflection than sermon, and teaches the past while still looking hopefully into the future. Some might wonder why it isn’t higher on this list, and that goes back to a rating thing–this album is not perfect, but it’s very good and received an 8.5 here. Yet it’s just something you respect more than you enjoy, and while it’s a great album, it’s not the album you’re going to pull out and listen to over that much. Still, it’s got something to say, and it does so in fine fashion.
Read Full Review

21. Turnpike Troubadours–A Long Way From Your Heart

Standout Tracks: “Pay no Rent,” “The winding Stair Mountain Blues,” “pipe Bomb Dream,” “A Tornado Warning”
I know, I know, it’s Album of the Year for a lot of people. Turnpike did receive Album of the Year here in 2015 for their excellent self-titled release, and while this is still a great album, in the spirit of honesty, I have to say it’s not the best of their material for me like it is for a lot of people. Brianna and I reviewed this together, and she’s got a considerably more favorable opinion of it than i do. That said, the songwriting here is in some places the best of the band’s career. They’re consistently churning out good quality country music, and you can’t go wrong with any of their albums.
Read Full Review

20. Shinyribs–I Got Your Medicine

Standout Tracks: “I Gave up All I Had,” “Trouble Trouble,” “I Don’t Give a Shit,” “Tub Gut Stomp & Red-Eyed Soul”
This is the exact opposite of Rhiannon Giddens’ album before it–it’s the antithesis because it’s bright and fun, and you’ve got to be in a certain mood to appreciate it. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it’s nearly perfect for what they’re trying to accomplish here. I hold back slightly because again, you aren’t going to pull this out quite as much as some others, and also there’s only really a smattering of country here, but this is just warm, infectious music that puts a smile on your face, something we all need these days. Give this a chance.
Read Full Review

19. Steve Earle & the Dukes–So You Wannabe an Outlaw

Standout Tracks: “Walkin’ in L.A,” “Fixin’ to Die,” “This is How it Ends” (ft. Miranda Lambert)
I’ve had a strange relationship with this record–at first I loved it, then several people pointed out the pretty much sloppy production on the album, and I grew to not like it as much despite not being able to hear all the production issues myself. When reviewing albums I loved this year, I went back to this and found what I loved again–so I get it if you don’t like this album because of the production, but honestly, I enjoy the hell out of this and think it’s one of Steve Earle’s best in a good long while.
Read Full Review

18. Dori Freeman–Letters Never Read

Standout Tracks: “Cold Waves,” “If I Could Make You My Own,” “over There,” “That’s All Right”
The album to check out for that long-lost Appalachian sound. For me, not quite as good as her outstanding debut–tied for unofficial Album of the Year in 2016–but still a solid collection of tunes. Dori didn’t change much, or anything really, with this approach, but why should you when it worked so perfectly the first time?
Read Full Review

17. John Moreland–Big Bad Luv

Standout Tracks: “Love is Not an Answer,” “No Glory in Regret,” “Sallisaw Blue,” “It Don’t Suit Me (Like Before”)
Some of this is the best songwriting of the year. And it’s not just his lyrics, it’s the production and, most of all, the warm, engaging melodies that keep you coming back and listening. In fact, a lack of accessibility may be this record’s only flaw, as it’s almost too deep, and he’s almost writing too much on another level. That said, this is poetry at its finest and set to melodies that really allow it to shine and grow over time.
Read Full Review

16. Jaime Wyatt–Felony Blues

Standout Tracks: “Wishing Well,” “Wasco,” “Stone Hotel”
Another debut record, and one of the most exciting of the year. This is easily the project that has grown the most for me throughout the year, as Jaime’s music only continues to get better. A nice little album that draws on her own experience in the best way possible to tell a story of second chances and starting over, and to actually create something I’d call outlaw country, if that were a style.
Read Full Review

15. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit–The Nashville Sound

Standout Tracks: “Last of my Kind,” “Tupelo,” “If we Were Vampires,” “Something to Love”
And here it is, the album that produced the 2017 Song of the Year. Once again, Jason Isbell delivers with a slice of that incredible songwriting, and on this album, it also gets backed up by more interesting and diverse production. Not a perfect album, and I still don’t know what the hell “Chaos and Clothes” is supposed to be, but this is his best and most accessible album to date.
Read Full Review

14. Kasey Chambers–Dragonfly

Standout Tracks: “Ain’t NO Little Girl,” “Jonestown,” “Shackle and Chain,” “Talkin’ Baby Blues,” “Summer Pillow,” “Golden Rails”
More standouts here because we’ve got a double album on our hands. Much like Dori Freeman, Kasey Chambers isn’t necessarily breaking any new ground here, and this isn’t quite on the level of her excellent 2015 record Bittersweet, but this is an expansive showcasing of all her styles, from more traditional to rock to bluegrass to pop. She can do it all very well, and it continues to baffle me how little love we give her in the States.
Read Full Review

13. Travis Meadows–First Cigarette

Standout Tracks: “McDowell Road,” “Sideways,” “First Cigarette,” “Pray for Jungleland”
This album has to get Production of the Year, not necessarily because it’s the most impressive display, but because it is the album where the production contributes most to the overall story and general enjoyment of this record. It’s a little journey through his life, nostalgic for the past but content with the present, and the extra care taken to do things like make all of the songs flow into each other so that it’s as if you’re taking the trip right along with Travis, makes this a special listen.
Read Full Review

12. The Infamous Stringdusters–Laws of Gravity

Standout Tracks: “Freedom,” “Black Elk,” “This ‘ol Building,” “Maxwell”
Well, I didn’t get to nearly as much bluegrass as I’d have liked this year, but this is one badass bluegrass record and the best one I’ve heard in 2017. It’s got all the wonderful instrumentation we expect from this genre, but it’s also got great storytelling, not to mention a youthfulness and vibrancy permeating the whole thing. This is the album to send people’s way who think bluegrass is stuffy and boring and old-fashioned, trust me.
Read Full Review

11. Crystal Bowersox–Alive

Standout Tracks: “A Broken Wing,” “The Ride,” “Marlboro Man,” “Let me Walk Away,” “NO Mistake,” “Mine all Mine”
I don’t know why more people didn’t pay attention to this throughout the year, but now’s your chance. This is a live album, but it’s not your typical one recorded for a huge audience and just providing live versions of previously released material. This was recorded in an intimate setting for sixty people over the course of three shows and features mostly new songs. It’s a unique album about being alive that captures perfectly her current state of mind and explores all the joy and pain that being alive has to offer. And this is, without question, the best album vocally of the year.
Read Full Review

10. John Baumann–Proving Grounds

Standout Tracks: “Old Stone Church,” “When Ophelia Comes to Town,” “Here I Come,” “Holding it Down,” “The Trouble With Drinkin'”
This album is the perfect balance between both sides of the Texas scene–the side with more depth and incredible songwriting, and the side with cool, vibrant songs that would sound awesome in a live setting. And if you wonder why only one of these songs made my Apple Music and Spotify playlists, it’s honestly because I could have picked almost the entire album and decided to limit myself.
Read Full Review

9. Justin Payne–Coal Camp (EP)

Standout Tracks: “Miner’s Soul,” “Piece of my Life,” but it’s better as a whole
Yes, I know, an EP actually made it this high on the list. It’s because Justin Payne’s very special love letter to the coal region of West Virginia is just right at six songs. Plus, it’s got the added awesomeness of actually being delivered by a coal miner. This blew me away the first time I heard it, and it still does.
Read Full Review

Most Essential Albums

8. Zephaniah Ohora–This Highway

Standout Tracks: “Way Down in my Soul,” “High Class City Girl From the Country,” “She’s Leaving in the Morning,” “I Do Believe I’ve Had Enough”
And now for the eight that were impossibly hard to rank. This one is certainly the most country and is a near flawless representation of the countrypolitan sound. And it’s by some guy from New York City, thoroughly walking all over the stereotype that you have to be “authentic” to make good country music. The sheer genius of this is that he doesn’t try to hide anything or be something he isn’t, and that in turn makes it authentic. Also, this is another debut, so imagining where Zephaniah Ohora can go from here is pretty exciting.
Read Full Review

7. Jason Eady (self-titled)

Standout Tracks: “Barabbas,” “Black Jesus,” “NO Genie in This Bottle”
So, Jason Eady produced two of my top five songs of the year which is pretty impressive and insane. It’s also pretty insane that in a year of mid-tempo, boring country/Americana releases, Jason released a completely stripped-back, acoustic affair, and yet because of the sheer beauty in the songwriting and the warmth of the melodies, it manages to rise above everything else and be one of the best albums of the year.
Read Full Review

6. Tyler Childers–Purgatory

Standout Tracks: “Whitehouse Road,” “Lady May,” “Honky Tonk flame,” “I swear (to God),” “Tattoos”
This is my most played album of 2017, and it gets better each time. I wrote all these standouts here, but this one, like some others here, is better as a full listen, as you go on Tyler’s journey of finding love, screwing it up, and turning to vices. And although this isn’t a debut, this is his second album and his first major moment, and it’s a moment that has been very well deserved.
Read Full Review

5. Suzanne Santo–Ruby Red

Standout Tracks: “Best out of Me,” “Better Than That,” (ft. Butch Walker), “Ghost in my Bed,” “Love Fucked UP”
Another solo debut. This, although it’s certainly got some acoustic, country-leaning moments, tilts more toward the rock side of things, and I debated whether to include it this high on a country list for that very reason. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t one of the best records of the year for me and another one of the few that blew me away from the very beginning. A hard-edged album that talks of drinking and sex and vices, it’s definitely got something to say. Probably not for everyone, but definitely for me.
Read Full Review

4. Ags Connolly–Nothin’ Unexpected

Standout Tracks: “Haunts Like This,” “Do You realize That Now?”, “Neon Jail”
My only regret here is that I wish it hadn’t taken me till July to hear this because I could have been enjoying it since February. This is nothing flashy, or “unexpected,” but it’s a case of everything just working–the extra touches of instrumentation like the piano and accordion, the wonderful melodies, the lyrics that sink in more and more each time you hear it. This is another one I’ve loved from the start. The definition of a nice, easy listen. And to top it all off, this guy’s British, so he joins Zephaniah Ohora in proving that just being yourself and singing in your own accent about your own stuff can produce the best music.
Read Full Review

3. Angaleena Presley–Wrangled

Standout Tracks: “Dreams Don’t Come True,” “Wrangled,” “Good Girl Down,” “Mama I Tried”
Yep, another one that had me on first listen. This is Angaleena Presley’s self-proclaimed “f you” record to the industry, and in candid, sometimes subtle, often angry and inappropriate, ways, she delivers just that. She addresses her struggles in the business and the discrimination against women, and does so in engaging and entertaining ways that keep this album playable and interesting despite the importance of the messages being conveyed.
Read Full Review

2. Colter Wall (self-titled)

Standout Tracks: literally everything here except “You Look to Yours”
Another debut, another one that throws the authenticity debate out the window, as Colter’s from Canada, and another one that absolutely blew me away from the beginning. Colter Wall and his astounding, throwback country voice have a ridiculously bright future ahead of them, and when you combine that voice with tales like these, of hopping trains and sleeping in lonely hotels, of murdering your girlfriend and spending your days in prison for it, this record captures another time and place in a way that makes it, well, timeless.
Read Full Review

Album of the Year

1. Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives–Way Out West

Standout Tracks: “Please Don’t Say Goodbye,” “Way Out West,” “Air Mail Special,” but really, it’s about the album as a whole
And speaking of capturing another time and place, enter Marty Stuart and this album…only instead of capturing it in the throwback way of Colter Wall, this is done in a vibrant, fresh, forward-thinking manner. It’s an almost psychedelic record, an exact representation of country evolving in 2017 in a way that still respects the roots of the genre. I’ve said this before, but in a genre of lyrics and stories, the risk that Marty Stuart took by delivering this in a thematic way that connected the songs by their music and mood should be commended. It’s almost cinematic, and in an era where the album concept is being lost in the mainstream, and in the independent scene where it’s thriving, the albums are still basically just collections of good songs, this record literally has to be played all the way through to be fully understood and appreciated. A concept record and a fine one, the most impressive one of 2017.
Read Full Review

P.S. Honorable Mention to Kesha, who couldn’t qualify for this list because of genre, and her album Rainbow for being far and away the best non-country album I’ve heard in 2017.