Tag Archives: John Baumann

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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?
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

Album Review: John Baumann–Proving Grounds

Rating: 8.5/10

Texas country and Red dirt, despite all of the many influences and sounds, still really comes down to two sides, just like its Nashville counterpart–there’s more of an equal playing field in Texas and Oklahoma, and that’s ultimately the difference, but the point is, you still have your serious, singer-songwriter types and your more pragmatic, commercial types. The former would be the Jason Eadys and Courtney Pattons and Jamie Lin Wilsons, and the latter would be the Aaron Watsons and Josh Abbotts, and the beauty of it all is that each artist gets to choose their own path. And then sometimes, you get artists like Turnpike Troubadours; I remember Jamie Lin Wilson telling me they could play in listening rooms or big venues because Evan Felker writes deep songs “that also make you want to party.” And it would seem that John Baumann has managed to capture that spirit as well on his latest album, Proving Grounds, effortlessly blending the serious and the fun, the bright and the dark, into a really enjoyable album, an album that I think will have quite a lot of mileage throughout the year.

John Baumann has said that this is his most personal record, and you can feel that echoing throughout the album, from the stirring opener, “Here I Come,” to the nostalgic closer, “Pontiacs,” which goes on for over eight minutes. The opener details Baumann’s dreams as a child to one day become a successful singer-songwriter and reflects on his life now as he gets closer to being a “high plains troubadour.” I think “High Plains Troubadour” would have been a great name for this record. The closer, as I mentioned, is nostalgic and sees John Baumann as an adult, wishing for just one more day to be young. Admittedly, this is not one of my personal favorite tracks, but it does serve as a closing thought to the journey started in “Here I Come,” and together, the two frame the album nicely. In between, we learn, in sharp detail, the pain of Baumann’s father dying in “Old Stone Church,” and how each family member coped in their own way. With its simple melody and honest, glaringly specific lyrics, this one stands out proudly on the album and will relate to anyone who has been through the pain of losing a loved one despite it being so personal to Baumann.

In less autobiographical, but no less serious, moments, there’s the beautiful love song “Turquoise” and the thoughtful “Lonely in Bars”–I’d like to take a moment to point out that the former takes place entirely by a river in the moonlight, and that the latter is about two people meeting in a bar and the offer for more, and yet neither of these songs manage to be clich├ęd, disrespectful, generic, etc. IN “Turquoise,” the only parts of the woman we ever hear about are her “turquoise eyes” and it never goes further than “the first kiss I plan to give her.” In the latter, the story line goes far deeper than just meeting at a bar and hooking up; you hear the details about the woman not having a ring and having been in a troubled relationship with an older man, and you hear the narrator making the offer to stop being lonely in bars and see what happens, “embarrassment be damned.” Either of these, especially “Lonely in Bars,” could legitimately be mainstream hits, or they could have been, if they were less well-written or respectful. Essentially, they started with moonlit rivers and midnight bars, the foundations for mainstream hits, and then actually progressed into great songs.

Mixed in with all these great songs, we get the fun side of John Baumann. “The Trouble with Drinkin'” has got to be one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard this year; that fiddle is awesome, and it would be great live. There’s another one dealing with addiction in “Heavy Head,” and the beauty in “Turquoise” is followed by the more lighthearted “Love #1” which could be seen as the continuation to that song. Texas songwriters are often criticized–and many times rightfully so–for their continuous references to Texas, but “Holding it Down” manages to be clever, witty, and catchy despite this. There are so many artists that could take a lesson from this–you can make a song about Texas in a smart way. “When Ophelia Comes to Town,” with its lively, rocking production, is one of my personal favorites here, and one of the most fun; it details all the things the narrator does to get ready for a woman to visit, and all the things they’ll do once she arrives. I wasn’t expecting the twist at the end, and I almost wish it had stayed fun because in the end, he gets word that “Miss Ophelia’s dead.” But the song’s still fun, and it’s still one of the standouts for me.

So, if you haven’t figured it out, this is a great album. It’s got some excellent songwriting, and it’s a good balance between the serious and fun songs. Hopefully, John Baumann continues in this direction, writing more personal stuff, because this is where his writing shines, and I think it will only get better. This is one of the best Texas country albums released in 2017 so far and one that gets better with each listen.

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