This was an incredibly hard list to make cuts from, and I already have a playlist ready to publish which includes sixty-six of the best tracks from this year and can be accessed on Spotify and Apple Music. But this is here to highlight the absolute best of the best, and in a ridiculously strong year for songs, that’s even more of a distinction. If you’re wondering why this isn’t trimmed to ten or lengthened to twenty, well, I had to stop somewhere, and this was the number I chose on the midyear list, so…
Very Honorable Mentions
- Natalie Hemby: “Cairo, IL”
- Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters–“Eden”
- Ags Connolly–“Do You Realize That Now?”
- The Secret Sisters–“Carry Me”
- Kasey Chambers–“Jonestown”–
- Colter Wall–“Kate McCannon”
- The Steel Woods–“Straw in the Wind”
#13: Chris Stapleton–“Scarecrow in the Garden”
This song perfectly explains the reason we wait until mid-December to publish these. An incredible story song of a family farm started by an Irish immigrant and then passed down through generations, through seasons of prosperity and hardship, until the current narrator, the grandson, is faced with seeing the land he loves deteriorate around him. There are also biblical undertones to this, underscoring possible sin haunting the family, as the grandson sees Lucifer in the scarecrow in the garden and reads Revelation with a pistol in his other hand.
#12: Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real–“Forget About Georgia”
What a brilliant way to write a song, linking the name Georgia with the state and his father’s song “Georgia on my Mind.” Of course he can’t forget Georgia because he’s forced to say her name in the song each night; it makes perfect sense, and even though it’s specific to this woman and that song, it’s universal because we all have associations like this that will forever make us think of certain things and people. “I pray I’ll forget about Georgia, but a part of me hopes that she’ll never forget about me” is right up there for Lyric of the Year. Also the guitar outro is definitely the Instrumental of the Year.
#11: Turnpike Troubadours–“Pay no Rent”
Written about Evan Felker’s late aunt, but also written in that universal Evan Felker way that makes it somehow relatable to anyone who has ever lost someone. It’s even ambiguous enough to mean a former friend or lover, but at the same time, it’s the detail and unique turns of phrase that elevate this above so many other songs about loss. It’s at once grieving and reflective, sad over the loss but looking back fondly at the memories. And “in my heart you pay no rent” is up there for Hook of the Year.
#10: Angaleena Presley–“Wrangled”
This is a gorgeous song both melodically and lyrically, and yes, wins Melody of the Year. There are a lot of frank moments of honesty on Angaleena Presley’s latest record, but this one is delivered in such a subtle way. The woman in question is not angry so much as tired, defeated, sick of her life and her husband and perhaps most underrated about this song, sick of the church women around her who seem to enjoy all of this. I think Presley is saying so perfectly what so many women are feeling and probably would like to say, but she’s also not saying it with hatred or in a polarizing way, just a quiet, calm resignation that ultimately speaks more.
#9: Sarah Jane Scouten–“Acre of Shells”
This one I’m actually struggling for words to explain, as it’s just the beauty in hearing it. A brilliantly written love song; I know in that department this year, we’re all focused on “Vampires,” but this is just as hard-hitting. And the actual Lyric of the Year goes to “How could I ever love somebody else? IN an acre of shells, you’ll find just one pearl. And how could I ever love somebody else when I know that you’re in the world?” What a perfect illustration; stand on the beach and think of the infinite number of shells around you. Hell, think of the number of shells just within your reach or field of vision…and in all that space, you’ll find just one pearl. What a special and simple way to describe someone you love.
#8: Jaime Wyatt–“Wishing Well”
From Felony Blues
I wish I could give this Opener of the Year, and if it weren’t for a song coming up on this list, I would award it. You think we can’t have fun songs up here in the top ten of the year? Well, Jaime Wyatt can. And it’s because despite this one being easily the most playable and fun, even almost radio-friendly, of the bunch, it’s a deep and personal song to Jaime about second chances and starting over in life. And we can all relate to it, maybe not to her exact circumstances, but to that feeling of praying for better days but learning to deal with what we have–“bought my ticket for the rainbow, but it just hasn’t come through” is another incredible lyric and something we can all understand.
#7: Shannon McNally–“Banshee Moan
From Black Irish, featured in Memorable Songs
If you’re saying: “who?” right now, please listen to this ridiculously underrated song. This is why we have the Memorable Songs feature, as this gets the honor of being the only one here not from an album we reviewed. This is what Keith Urban couldn’t say with “Female” and what Margo Price could have said with “Pay Gap,” but the former was made for radio, performed by a male, and written by committee, and the latter was too shallow for these kinds of sentiments. This is a beautiful, subtle, yet timely and honest portrayal of the discrimination that women do face in the workplace and in society, as well as a call to those women to mourn for all their sisters, past and present, who have gone through this.
#6: Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit–“If we Were Vampires”
From The Nashville Sound
What a beautiful and terrifying way to look at love, knowing you or your lover will one day be gone. It’s both a morbid way to look at things and a reminder to treat each day as if it were your last; indeed, as Isbell sings, “maybe time running out is a gift.” Another thing that hasn’t been praised enough about the song are the little details in the first verse that he lists off; he’s saying “it’s not” to all of these things before explaining that “it is” the fact that one day one of them will be gone which gives him urgency. We get to that part and forget the specificity and the beauty in all of the “it’s nots,” as he lists unique details that could only be specific to Amanda Shires and speak of a love deep and familiar. Add the fact that she sings with him here, and this is just a brilliant song through and through.
#5: Jason Eady–“Barabbas”
IN terms of sheer idea for a song, this has got to be the best of the year. It’s written about the man who was set free in order that Jesus might be crucified, yet nowhere, aside from the title, do we hear Barabbas or Jesus mentioned. It’s both deeply personal to those of faith and universal to all, and this speaks to the subtlety in the storytelling of Jason Eady. Also, we like to talk about Amanda shires and Morgane Stapleton adding a lot to their husbands’ records, but Courtney Patton’s harmony here adds a gorgeous element to this as well.
#4: Aaron Watson–“Clear Isabel”
This song is the perfect explanation for why we have to separate songs from albums, and even songs from artists. Yeah, Aaron Watson made a pretty light, fun record–and then there’s this, the best story song of the year. It’s the tale of Mariano and his daughter, Isabel, who flee to Texas to escape the cartels of Mexico. It ends happily for Isabel, as she ends up married to the narrator. But Mariano is deported and ends up shot in the back before he can come to America legally. Another timely song that speaks to issues facing us in 2017, but again, not told with hatred, but rather told in the form of a story, to educate and unite as only music can. Add in the instrumental prelude, “Mariano’s Dream,” and this song gets even better.
#3: Angaleena Presley: “Dreams Don’t Come True”
Well, this definitely gets Opener of the Year. Who opens a record by telling their audience dreams don’t come true, and not only that, “don’t let anyone tell you they do?” It’s 2017, we’re all supposed to be living our lives to the fullest and such; there are so many songs telling us we’re perfect how we are, and if we believe in ourselves, our dreams will certainly come true…and then this comes at you like a complete reality check. Instead of making hit records, Angaleena wound up pregnant. Instead of being famous for three chords and the truth, she’s struggled in the industry to get the recognition she deserves. And it’s sadly a reality much truer for many of us than the platitudes we hear so often these days. Yet this song is told with enough humor that it lightens the blow a little and is delivered as fresh, candid honesty that sometimes not even our closest friends and family can give us.
#2: Jason Eady–“Black Jesus”
From Jason Eady
This one was only an Honorable Mention on my midyear list, but it has come out of the blue over the past few months to earn its place here. This is exactly the song we need in 2017, not dividing us into races and classes and sexes, yet not preachy and judgmental and ultimately accomplishing nothing with its message. Its subtlety was the reason it hadn’t earned a top spot by the middle of the year, but that’s the exact reason it has earned this now–Jason Eady simply tells a story of two men, one white and one black, coming together, side by side at work, bonding over music. We need more songs like this, spreading unity and peace, and yet at the same time, there are a lot of them that just come off preachy. This song has been covered on two other albums that I know of in 2017, and that speaks to how it’s impacting many people in its own special, subtle way.
Song of the Year: Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit–“Last of my Kind”
From The Nashville Sound
This, as I say, was a ridiculously difficult list to make, but I kept coming back to this song. It’s a picture of nostalgia for days past and people now gone, something we can all relate to, but it’s the aforementioned details in Jason Isbell’s writing that blow me away here. The narrator is unhappy with life in the city; seems like an ordinary theme, but a line like “nobody here can dance like me, everybody clapping on the one and the three” is just insane. It’s a sentiment many of us can understand, yet it also seems to be personal to Isbell, reflecting the dichotomy he experiences as a Southerner with often very different views from those around him. It’s that feeling of being caught in the middle, of never belonging, of life seeming to have passed you by. It’s ironic that he feels like the last of his kind because so many of us feel this way too. Ultimately, this is that perfect balance of personal and universal, specific and timeless, and this, in a very strong list, is the best song of 2017 and the one that has affected me the most.