All posts by Megan

My Top Ten Albums of 2017 so Far

Editor’s Note: Why didn’t I choose thirteen again? Actually, I was going to, but these ten just stand out above the ones I would pick for eleven, twelve, and thirteen, so they’ll just be in the Honorable Mentions. This has a little, but not much, to do with the original grades given to these albums; it’s more about music that holds up, so some of these might have lower ratings than you’d expect, and there are some that we rated higher that didn’t make this list because I simply don’t go back and listen to them, and for me, that’s what music is all about. It might be a 9 on paper, but if I’m not listening to it months later, that number is arbitrary, so don’t let the numbers factor into it too much at this point. Lastly, just like the songs, these are my picks, not necessarily those of Country exclusive as a whole, and these are, unlike the songs, in order for me.

#10: The Steel Woods–Straw in the Wind

Original Rating: 8/10
This honestly would be higher on the list right now because the first half is excellent, but it does drop off some for me in the back half. Still, it’s a very nice debut from The Steel Woods, tinged with Southern rock, blues, bluegrass, and country; in fact, I’d like to make the point that look how many of these entries are debuts, what a cool year for debut records.
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#9: Chris Stapleton–From a Room, Volume 1

Original Rating: 8/10
Some of you are going to hate me for ranking it this low, and others are going to hate me for saying it’s better than Traveller. But it’s a more consistent effort from Stapleton than his first record, and it’s still holding up nicely.
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#8: Shinyribs–I Got Your Medicine

Original Rating: 9/10
Yeah, okay, this ranks higher as an album than some others that will be higher on this list, and I still stand by that 9 too. It’s definitely the most fun album here. It doesn’t hold up quite as much as some lower-ranked albums coming up because you have to be in a certain mood to play it. But Shinyribs is the type of group you should just let yourself enjoy; they won’t be for everyone, but they should be.
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#7: Robyn Ludwick–This Tall to Ride

Original Rating: 7.5/10
All right, what is it about this one? Well, it just works its way in. It’s unique and cool, and no, the hookers and cocaine all over this record won’t be for everyone, but if you can get past the dark material Robyn writes and sings about, this is a great record. It’s definitely being underappreciated, and I underrated it, not necessarily because I undervalued the songs themselves but because I underestimated its mileage and ability to be replayed which it turns out has been great.
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#6: Jaime Wyatt–Felony Blues

Original Rating: 7.5/10
Yeah, I said this rating would be misleading when I reviewed it, and it turns out I was right. It’s hard to grade a seven-song project, and when four songs turn out to be excellent tracks, and the other three are good, it’s hard to question this. It’s short, sure, but there’s no filler like there has been on many albums this year. Jaime Wyatt’s is another debut record, and this is probably the most promising one I’ve heard all year. She’s someone you should definitely keep your eye on, and since February, this has gone from being a strong debut to one of the best albums of 2017.
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#5: Kasey Chambers–Dragonfly

Original Rating: 8/10
Please, stop caring that this is a double album, and do yourself a favor by listening to it. This has been massively underrated, both because Kasey is Australian and because it’s a double album, but it’s one of the most consistent and diverse releases of the year–there’s something here for everyone, from traditional to blues to folk rock to gospel to country pop. Go check it out.
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#4: Jason Eady (self-titled)

Original Rating: 9/10
This is going to be a dark horse for Album of the Year; Jason Eady is the only person who could make a completely stripped-back, acoustic record that could be played without electricity (except for some steel guitar) and have it compete with the best albums of the year based on his songwriting and melodies alone. This record grows on me every time I listen to it. Another somewhat underappreciated album, and definitely the best album to come out of the Texas/Red dirt scene thus far this year.
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#3: Angaleena Presley–Wrangled

Original Rating: 10/10
I know, some of you that know how I felt about this record are falling out of your chairs right now that this is #3. I still love it, and these top three are all excellent. The reason this has slid momentarily to #3 is that I come back to it all the time, but not as much to the entire album as to specific songs. But like I said, these top three are all almost interchangeable, and some of the songwriting here is the best of 2017 so far.
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#2: Colter Wall (self-titled)

Original Rating: 9/10
All right, so yeah, this has passed Angaleena. There are still a couple of boring songs, so I wouldn’t give it a 10–although I might change angallena’s to a 9 or 9.5 if I were reviewing her today–but man, what a timeless album. This pretty much blew me away on the first listen–which is the case with all the top three–and just like Jason’s, it’s very minimal, and all you need is Colter’s throwback voice and his stories and melodies. Excellent record. Another debut, by the way.
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#1: Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives–Way out West

Original Rating: 10/10
Back in March, nothing had blown me away in 2017. I remember talking about the fact that there had been some good albums, but not great ones. I was a little discouraged–and then this came along and blew everything out of the water, and I’m still waiting for something to top it. It’s been a much better year since, and 2017 will be an entertaining year waiting to see if an album can possibly top the musical genius Marty Stuart put into this album and depiction of the West. It’s not a lyrical masterpiece; in fact, none of its songs made yesterday’s list. But that’s what makes it even more special; Marty went into a genre that is lyrically focused and made a western album based purely off the musical styles and mood. It’s, at least for me, a flawless record.
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Honorable Mentions

  • Sam Outlaw–Tenderheart (would have been #11)
  • Kody West–Green (would have been #12, another debut)
  • Aaron Watson–Vaquero (would have been #13)
  • Nikki Lane–Highway Queen
  • Rhiannon Giddens–Freedom Highway
  • Sunny Sweeney–Trophy
  • The Mavericks–Brand New Day
  • Zephaniah Ohora–This Highway (this will probably make future lists, but I need more listens

Albums on the Radar, With Potential to be Reviewed

Being listed here does not mean Brianna or I will review these, it just means we’re aware, and they may be considered, but have not been reviewed yet.

  • The Infamous Stringdusters–Laws of Gravity
  • Lauren Alaina–Road Less Traveled
  • The Secret Sisters–You Don’t Own Me Anymore
  • Ray Scott–Guitar for Sale
  • Glen Campbell–Adios
  • Shannon McNally–Black Irish
  • Joseph Huber–The Suffering Stage
  • Tony Jackson (self-titled)
  • John Baumann–Proving Grounds
  • Jake Worthington–Hell of a Highway
  • Ags Connolly–Nothin’ Unexpected

Album Review: Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters (self-titled)

Rating: 7/10

All right, so I’m not overly familiar with The Honeycutters, and some people in this situation like to take a little time before such a release to listen to past albums and perhaps familiarize themselves more with a band or artist, but for me, I enjoy just staying ignorant and getting to know the artist through the new record. I know a few Honeycutters songs, but I’ve never listened to one of their albums, and for me, this is an opportunity to see if the new album can make me a fan. They’ve changed themselves to Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters–and kept the Honeycutters part simply for less confusion–but that’s just simply long to write, so I’ll stick with just the Honeycutters mostly.

So after listening, yes, I’m definitely enjoying this group, and Amanda Anne Platt is a fine vocalist and wordsmith. There are some great songs here too, which I’ll get to, but first, I do have one giant criticism of the album as a whole, and I usually don’t like to start reviews off negatively, but this has to be said. This entire album is going to sound better in October. It’s got fall/winter vibes, and it’s just not a record I want to pull out in June and listen to. The opener, “Birthday song,” even mentions the fall, and it just puts you in that frame of mind, and you never leave. It’s mid-tempo all the way through too, so there’s never really any upbeat, summery atmosphere, and I just can’t help but wonder why on earth they released this album right at the beginning of summer. It would probably rate higher than a 7 in October, and hell, it will probably be one of the albums that grows on me throughout the year. So please, I encourage you, if this album bores you or puts you in a somber mood, pull it out again in October.

That said, even though I can’t really listen to this record as a whole right now, there are some really standout songs. There is a moment in the heart of the album where you have three incredible songs in a row in “Eden,” “The Guitar Case,” and “Learning How to Love Him.” I keep replaying these three. “Eden” tells of the hardships of a family living in the heartland of Indiana; the woman has lost her job and is struggling to get by each day with her kids. It’s unclear whether she is divorced or widowed. The hook here is astounding–I say, please, let me back inside the garden. I won’t eat anything that’s fallen from that goddamned tree.” It’s not where I thought this was going, and it’s interesting because it alludes to the fact that original sin brought all this on, or at least that this character thinks so. “The Guitar Case” seems to be autobiographical and describes Amanda Platt’s struggles as a singer–“You can do what you love, or you can go to hell.” The melody in this one is also really nice and adds to the song, along with some nice piano, which I should mention is an instrument used pretty liberally by this group and which I enjoy. Brianna pointed out recently that it’s not used enough in country, and she’s 100% right. Then there’s “Learning How to Love Him,” which was written for Platt’s friend about her struggles to love her husband all the years they were married; now suddenly he’s terminal, and she finally understands what love truly means, and nothing else matters. If you listen to these three, particularly right in a row, and don’t come away with respect for the songwriting of Amanda Platt, I’d be shocked.

There are a couple of other nice moments too, like in the love songs “Rare Thing” and “What We’ve Got.” The latter sees Platt confronting her selfish past and finally being glad that she can appreciate love instead of wanting everyone to want her; it’s quite a mature, honest way to present a love song, calling herself “ugly and unkind.” “The Good Guys” is another good one trying to convince a man to do the right thing and buy the woman he loves a ring and start a life together. There’s more piano here, and once again, the melody really enhances the song. Actually, a lot of the songs are quite good on their own, it’s just that they run together in album form. As I said before, there needs to be more of a variety in tempo, and there’s also some unnecessary, frankly boring filler on this thirteen-track record. “Diamond in the Rough” is the best example of a track they could have just left off.

Overall, this is a nice, pleasant listen. Amanda Anne Platt is a pretty great singer, which isn’t always the case in Americana music, and she does a great job bringing out the emotion in tracks like “Learning How to Love Him” and “Eden.” There are some really well-written songs too, and the instrumentation and melodies work well with the songs. There’s some filler, but the main problem is just that it’s a fall album. IN October, I might give this an 8.5, but it’s just too mid-tempo and sleepy right now in June. So, I recommend checking it out, listening to some songs, and then coming back to the album in say, four or five months.

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My Top 13 Songs of 2017 So Far

Editor’s Note: I wrote “my” instead of “Country Exclusive’s” for a reason; this does not necessarily reflect the views of our entire site. Also, these are not, and I repeat, not, in any order. Finally, with the exception of one song which I felt it would be idiotic to leave out, these are all from stuff we have covered in some fashion, either by a full-length review or perhaps through a feature in our “Memorable Songs from Overlooked Albums” pieces. Normally, I would restrict this to stuff one of us has actually written about, but that would leave out one song which, like I say, it would be a glaring sin not to bring up here. So take all this into consideration, and feel free to leave your own lists of songs and thoughts about these in the comments below!

Aaron Watson: “Clear Isabel”

From Vaquero
The first song to really blow my mind in 2017, this is a great and timely story about Isabel and her father, Mariano, who flee to America to escape the cartels of Mexico. Isabel ends up married to the narrator of the song, but her father is deported and later gunned down. It’s an honest and heartbreaking look at immigration, not to mention a brilliant song. Even better with the instrumental prelude, “Mariano’s Dream.”

Jaime Wyatt: “Wishing Well”

From Felony Blues
Jaime Wyatt is probably the name I’m most excited about breaking out in 2017. She has a way of singing about hardship that still manages to put a smile on your face, and this is just a stellar song that gets better every time I hear it.

Natalie Hemby: “Cairo, IL”

This one comes off Puxico, which we didn’t review in full, but it was partly responsible for the “Memorable Songs” features because this track about the lonely, forgotten river town of Cairo, Illinois, is one of the best songs of the year and should by no means be overlooked.

Jason Eady: “Barabbas”

From Jason Eady’s self-titled album
Purely from a songwriting standpoint, this has to be the cleverest thing to come out this year, telling us the story of the man freed by the crucifixion of Jesus, yet never mentioning Jesus or religion, and instead allowing the song to be a timeless track for everyone, although connecting even more deeply with those of faith.

Angaleena Presley: “Dreams Don’t Come True

From Wrangled
This just blew me away on the first listen; who’s going to tell you, especially at the beginning of their record, that look, dreams don’t come true, and don’t believe anyone who says otherwise? But it’s Angaleena Presley’s reality, and credit her for confronting it head-on to deliver us something so powerfully painful and honest.

Angaleena Presley: “Wrangled”

Also from Wrangled
Angaleena Presley has the distinction of being the only one on the list with two entries, but this song is equally deserving. From the wonderful melody to the thought-provoking lyrics about being “wrangled” by her life and husband, this song stands out just as much as “Dreams Don’t Come True.”

Brad Paisley: “Gold All Over the Ground”

From Love and War
What, a mainstream name like Brad Paisley? Yes, that’s what I said. This is Paisley’s musical adaptation of a poem composed by Johnny Cash in the 1960’s, and they don’t make love songs like this anymore. Between the poetry of Cash and the arrangement of Paisley, it has definitely earned its place among the best songs so far in 2017.

Colter Wall: “Kate McCannon

From Colter Wall’s self-titled album
There were many outstanding songs on Colter Wall’s debut record, I just picked the one that shined a tiny bit brighter than the rest.

Chris Stapleton: “Either Way”

From From a Room, Volume 1
I didn’t always think Chris Stapleton showed emotion on his new album–sometimes he just belted songs, and they lost a little of the passion. But this is one moment where he absolutely killed it, and this version might be better than the original LeeAnn Womack version.

The Steel Woods: “Straw in the Wind”

From Straw in the Wind
What a dark, ominous tale–this one comes from one of our collaborative reviews, and Brianna and I both agreed that this story of a town where strangers “disappear like straw in the wind” is a standout of the record.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: “If we Were Vampires”

Yeah, here’s the one I didn’t review, but this is one of the best songs of Isbell’s career, and when I said they don’t make love songs like that anymore about Paisley’s, I guess Isbell proved me wrong. He mentions all the details he loves about his wife, and more than that, he makes you think of death as a gift because it allows you to be a better lover and make the moments last. What a beautiful and morbid picture of love; I’ve never been sad, happy, and scared while listening to a love song before, but that’s what Jason Isbell does here.

Kasey Chambers: “Jonestown

From Dragonfly
The standout of Chambers’ recent double album, this one deals with hardship and discrimination and tells a great story. Probably the most underrated and least known one on the list.

Trisha Yearwood: “Maggie’s Dream”

This one is from the Gentle Giants album, and like I said before when I mentioned this song, I don’t care that it’s a cover, it’s still one of the best songs of the year. Trisha Yearwood delivered a better rendition of an already great song, and she’s earned her place on this list.

Honorable Mentions

  • Jason Eady: “Black Jesus”
  • John Moreland: “Love is Not an Answer”
  • Lauren Alaina: “Same Day, Different Bottle”
  • Zac Brown Band: “All the Best”
  • Kelleigh Bannen: “Church clothes”
  • Rhiannon Giddens: “Better Get it Right the First Time”
  • Sam Outlaw: “Everyone’s Looking For Home”

“It’s Always the Songs”–What we Should Learn From Steve Earle’s Recent Outbursts

Ahead of his new album So You Wannabe an Outlaw, Steve Earle has not been afraid to speak his mind. IN a recent interview with The Guardian, Earle calls out, among other things, the current state of pop country and says that the mainstream is nothing but “hip-hop for people who are afraid of black people.” He also says that “the best stuff coming out of Nashville is all by women except for Chris Stapleton.” I don’t want to focus too much on this interview since that’s not originally what this article was meant to be about, but it adds new light to it and strengthens the point I was originally going to make here–Steve Earle is not afraid to be honest and share his opinion. However, the thing is, although it’s not overly common, bashing pop country is certainly not uncommon, and we’ve seen our fair share of artists do so over the past several years. The thing that makes Earle’s recent statements different comes in light of another interview, which before today had been the main focus of this piece.

IN another interview in Canada, with The Globe and Mail, when asked about Canadian songwriters, Steve Earle mentioned Colter Wall, citing him as “the best singer-songwriter I’ve come across in years.” Here’s where the interview takes an interesting turn.

I haven’t heard his new album yet, but I heard him [Colter] described as “bad Richard Buckner.”
Richard Buckner sucks. Richard Buckner is the most overrated songwriter in the history of songwriting ever. Girls liked him, because he stared at his feet. He’s a neanderthal. I know Buckner.
I’m quite fond of Buckner’s music. Particularly, The Hill (2000).
He can’t write his way out of a wet paper bag. Richard Buckner was nothing but a painfully alternative hipster’s darling. But I hate a lot of things people think are brilliant. I will not read Cormac McCarthy again. Technically, he’s one of the best writers I’ve ever come across. But I don’t think his intentions are good. I don’t think he likes us. I don’t think he likes himself. Actually, I think he likes himself just fine. That’s what’s so disgusting about it. I think he thinks the rest of us are pieces of [garbage].
Painfully alternative hipster’s darling, you say about Buckner. Can you explain that?
I don’t want to be a part of a culture that defines itself by what it hates. I can’t stand alternativism. I mean, I hate disco, but I have to admit there’s been some great art coming out of dance music.
But out of hate and alternativism comes great art. Punk rock, as a reaction to disco, for example.
Sure. But the stuff that’s great in punk rock are the songs. The songs hold up. The stuff lasts. Nirvana’s not Nirvana because of punk rock. Nirvana’s not Nirvana because it was different than hair metal. Nirvana is Nirvana because Kurt Cobain was a world-class songwriter. It’s always the songs.

First of all, I had never heard the name Richard Buckner before this interview, and let me tell you, after getting acquainted, Steve Earle is entirely correct, Richard Buckner sucks–but that’s beside the point. The point is, and it’s been strengthened today by his criticism of the mainstream, that he’s not afraid to judge the independent/Americana/alternative in the same way as what is popular. We’re all pressured by that in this independent country scene, to like everything Americana just because it’s not on the radio or isn’t considered mainstream. But let me tell you, a lot of it bores the hell out of me, and Country Exclusive was founded on a principle of honesty. When I said that, I didn’t just mean bashing the mainstream, and I get that there’s a certain problem with spending too much time unnecessarily bashing the little guy, but there’s also this elitist attitude in the Americana world that makes it seem as if you can’t criticize anything about these artists. Hell, there are albums I enjoy but have slight criticisms about in Americana, but somehow, if we say that, it’s a horrific thing. Criticism is meant to be constructive, and to share an opinion–and if the artist deems it necessary to listen, perhaps to make that artist better, but again, it’s just someone’s opinion. WE all find it easy to bash Nashville and pop country, and we all rally behind people like Steve Earle when they do the same. So why do we attack him for saying something negative about an Americana artist? I love that last point–“It’s always the songs.” Let it always stay about the songs. That goes for you mainstream fans afraid to like Jason Isbell, and for you independent/alternative/Americana fans afraid to like Chris Stapleton because he wrote some mainstream hits. Just let it be about the songs. They should, and will, speak for themselves.

Reflecting on: Steve Earle–Copperhead Road

Yeah, okay, so I’m going to refer to Steve Earle quite a lot in the next few days, so just get used to it. Ever since we heard about the new album, I’ve known I would do a reflection of Steve this week. The obvious choice would be Guitar Town–that’s the one album everyone seems to cite as his best, and it’s the album that Earle said inspired him to make this new record when he revisited it for its thirtieth anniversary. But Copperhead Road is the one I’m doing instead; for one, just because Guitar Town is more well-known, and also because the title track is such a signature song for Steve Earle and a timeless song in country music. It’s a song I’ve grown up hearing everywhere, and my final decision came to do this album when Brianna broke my heart by telling me she’d never heard that song.

Release Date: 1988
Style: country rock, almost like Red Dirt before we called it that
People Who Might Like This Album: fans of Texas and Red Dirt music, especially the harder-leaning stuff, maybe people who like stuff like Eric Church or Kip Moore
Standout Tracks: “Copperhead Road,” “The Devil’s Right Hand,” “Snake Oil,” “Nothing But a Child”
Reflections: All right, so this was cool for me, because I know some Steve Earle songs, but I’m not overly familiar with his albums. It wasn’t a first-listen sort of experience when I played Copperhead Road for this piece, but it also wasn’t something I knew like the back of my hand. What struck me that I’ve not really thought about before is the style; in 1988, you had stuff like George Strait and Keith Whitley and Randy Travis fighting for a more traditional sound on country radio, fighting to take back country from the more pop-influenced stuff–and then there’s this, which is just totally different from any of that. Nowadays, you get so many mainstream artists blending country and rock–some do it well like Eric Church and occasionally Kip Moore, which is why I mentioned them above, and some just release arena rock with no country influence. The point is, it’s normal; that’s basically what the entirety of Red Dirt music sounds like. in 1988, this was a very unique sound, and like I say, I’ve never really taken time to consider that fully.
I mentioned the title track, and now I have to say, if you’ve made it to this point in your journey without hearing “Copperhead Road,” I’m frankly a little shocked; it’s just such a classic, at least where I’m from. I heard it all the time growing up, at various events, bars, wedding receptions, etc. Anyway, it’s a fun song about a Vietnam veteran whose family made moonshine, and after the war, he uses that knowledge to grow and sell marijuana “down copperhead Road.” “Snake Oil” is another fun one; I’m reminded a little listening to this record that stuff can be fun and upbeat and still be well-written, a lesson mainstream Nashville could learn. But there are some serious moments too, like the closer, a stripped-back religious song called “Nothing but a Child.” It’s probably the most country one here.
I don’t think Steve Earle has always put out good music; in fact, I’m more excited for Friday’s release from him than I have been for one of his records in years. But those early albums were great, and you should check them out. And yeah, that goes for Guitar Town as well, even though I didn’t write about it.

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