Tag Archives: Turnpike Troubadours

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.

Year-End Lists Should be About Quality, Not Quotas

Before the release of my list of the best albums of 2017 tomorrow, I’d like to address an issue that’s been bothering me increasingly over the past week, as more and more people release their year-end lists of great country/Americana/bluegrass songs and albums. There seem to be two prevailing themes–the lists, in varying degrees of discrepancy, feature more men than women, and people are getting upset about this, citing it as a consistent, systematic discrimination similar to that faced by women on country radio and all across the industry.

First of all, undoubtedly there is an inherent bias and discrimination against women in the music industry, maybe especially in the country industry, and I’ve spilled much ink discussing this. Women are not given a chance to succeed on the radio despite sales numbers–see Miranda Lambert and “Tin Man,”–while men seem to constantly rocket up the charts no matter how much (Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road”) or how little “Luke Bryan’s “Light it Up”) it might actually be selling and resonating with the general public. Women are consistently speaking of quotas held by labels and radio programmers, of only being allowed so many slots in the mainstream just because of their gender. All of this is factual, and disheartening, , and something Country Exclusive will do its small part to fight and rail against for the foreseeable future.

But just as the quota for women shouldn’t exist on country radio, it shouldn’t exist on these year-end lists either. As a woman, I strive for equal opportunity with men, and I can’t speak for these artists, but what I can say about Country Exclusive is that we will offer an equal opportunity for both genders to be heard, reviewed, and considered for year-end lists. Although I can’t speak for anyone else with certainty, I believe this rings true for others in my position as well. That said, I will not guarantee equal results here–I will not feature a year-end list that contains exactly half men and half women unless that is a true reflection of my opinion of the quality of the music. I will not add or take away women from a list just to fill a quota or to avoid offending anyone. And if I were an artist, I’d want to be recognized on a list such as this because the writer(s) respected the quality of my work, not because they were playing an arbitrary numbers game. Just as it is wrong to exclude based on gender, it’s wrong to include only on that basis, for this in turn diminishes the quality of one’s output and asserts that specific groups, in this case women, need special treatment and mandated quotas in order to make these lists. This is not equality. This is not progress. This is affirmative action, and affirmative action is not, or should not be, the goal. A tweet I read sums this up perfectly by saying that if you pay attention to gender when listening to music, you’re doing it wrong.

Country Exclusive did not operate regularly in 2016, but two albums received a 10/10 rating that year and could be considered tied for Album of the Year. Those were Dori Freeman’s self-titled debut and Courtney Marie Andrews’ Honest Life. In 2015, our Album of the Year was given to the self-titled record by the Turnpike Troubadours, and in 2017, it will go to a man. Of the eight albums that have received perfect grades from me over the past two and a half years, five were by women–I heard it said that if these lists weren’t biased, surely on one of them, there would be more women than men, so although this is not a year-end list, there is a small example of women outnumbering men here on this platform. That said, in 2017, twenty-eight of the seventy-eight albums we’ve reviewed here have been either by solo women performers or by groups fronted by women–those are numbers reflecting the material which has been available to us, this is not half, nor will the albums list reflect that. I can’t speak for everyone on this, of course, but much of this is a numbers game–not a game of filling quotas, but simply of the numbers being unbalanced when it comes to albums released in 2017.

Lastly, above all, this should be about the quality of one’s work. If the twenty best albums of the year were made by men, a writer should reflect that, and readers should respect that. If they were made by women, once again, a writer should reflect that, and readers should respect it. Writers should take all artists’ music into equal consideration, but if this is happening, they shouldn’t be singled out for including more men than women, certainly not in a year where more albums have been released by men. Equal opportunity does not necessarily mean equal results, nor should we wish it to because this is a fundamental disrespect of the quality of music made by both men and women. Imagine being left off the list as a man because the list required more women that perhaps made lesser projects. Imagine being included on the list simply because you were a woman, rather than because that person actually believed in you and your craft and sought to highlight your music among all your peers, not just those from your gender. Neither scenario correctly reflects the true quality of the music at hand, and ultimately, that’s the problem with the systematic discrimination in the industry. It’s all about quotas, not quality. So set an example by not allowing it to be that way in independent music and on these lists, so that artists are truly recognized for putting out the best music, and so that gender is a completely irrelevant factor. It’s not about having “enough” women on these lists, it’s about making sure that the best music, regardless of anything else, is heard and rewarded.

My Top Thirteen Songs of 2017

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”

From From a Room, Volume 2

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”

From Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real

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”

From A Long Way From Your Heart

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”

From 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”

From When the Bloom Falls From the Rose

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”

From Jason Eady’s self-titled record

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”

From Vaquero

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”

From Wrangled

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.

Collaborative Review: Turnpike Troubadours–A Long Way From Your Heart

Brianna and I are both huge fans of this band, and again, I do apologize that this comes late, but the only fair way to review this is a collaboration, and so we are here now to discuss our thoughts. Both of us enjoyed the new album, but this is definitely the most we’ve differed on a collab piece, which certainly made it a fun discussion, hopefully also a fun read.

Conversation

Megan: So first off, how would you say this is stacking up against other Turnpike albums? Obviously we’ve both been big fans for a long time, and I’ll just say, this had to grow on me.

Brianna: This one had to grow on me too. But at this point, it’s my second favorite after Diamonds and Gasoline. The band really bring the energy this time around, and the musicianship is stellar. I feel like this is their best album musically, as far as the various styles that are featured.

Megan: See, this is why the collaborations are good. Because for me, musically this is actually my least favorite. I’m not as much a fan of the more rock-influenced direction they went in for some of it. I feel like what got better on this album in particular was the songwriting.

Brianna: I love their country sound so much. Particularly the fiddle and also all the steel guitar on this album. It’s great! But songs like “Something to Hold On To” really show off their abilities with a more rock sound. It’s actually my top favorite song, I think. Also, I have to mention the musicianship on “A Tornado Warning.” That part where the lyrics speak about country music and the band breaks into this great sort of country sound for those few seconds is one of my favorite moments on the whole album instrumentally. As for the songwriting, I agree that it got a lot better. I like the albums before this one a lot, but not since Diamonds and Gasoline have I felt so drawn to the stories and characters.

Megan: Yeah, as an Oklahoman, I have to talk about “A Tornado Warning” for a minute. So essentially, they’re trying to use the music to explain how the wind sounds leading up to and during a tornado. I appreciate these details from them. I know it’s important to Evan Felker just based on stuff I’ve read that he writes about and portrays Oklahoma in the proper light, and I think this song is a great example of that.

Megan: As far as the stories and characters, I think a song like “The Housefire” is an example of the improved songwriting because it’s kind of an average song on the surface, but it gets elevated with the attention to detail and the inclusion of the mysterious Lorrie. If you’re new to Turnpike, you’re not impressed, but if you know Lorrie already, it’s even more significant.

Brianna: It sure is. If you’re new to the band, I’d even recommend going back and checking out the songs where she appears. It’s extremely unique and clever how Evan crafts such compelling stories. I love “The Housefire” and think it’s one of their best story songs. It just feels fuller knowing Lorrie’s backstory.

Megan: I’m glad you mentioned going back, because I think that’s my main criticism with this album. Even though the writing is better, it’s almost like an inside thing by now, like you couldn’t start someone new to this band with this album because of the references and interwoven stories.

Brianna: That’s a good point. I haven’t thought about that. On one hand, you’re right. All these little details, like the Browning shotgun that belongs to the narrator of “The Housefire” keep coming up, so yes, you do miss out on some things if you’ve never listened to them before. I”m more fan and think it’s awesome that these guys have created their own world and characters, but if you look at it this way, it can be a bit alienating. Still, if you are unfamiliar, you wouldn’t really know you’re missing out, and you could still appreciate the song. You’d just not get the bigger picture until you listened to their previous work.

Megan: That’s also a good perspective. So, standout moments for you? I know you’ve already mentioned “Something to Hold On To.”

Brianna: OH yeah, the guitar and chorus of that song are just so catchy! I love it. Besides that one and “The Housefire,” I love the fast pace of “Winding Stair Mountain Blues,” with its sort of bluegrass sound. Plus, the lyrics are very interesting. I also really love “Pay NO Rent” because it’s such a heartfelt description of emotion. “Sunday Morning Paper” is very catchy and also pretty timely, as it’s about the death of rock ‘n’ roll. Really, I could go on about almost all of these songs. What about you?

Megan: I’d agree about “The Winding Stair Mountain Blues” and Pay NO Rent” for sure. “Winding Stair” is just stellar instrumentally, and it shows off their fiddle which I always have a weakness for. On the other side of that, you’ve got “Pay no Rent,” which is pretty much Exhibit A for the fact that Evan Felker is a redneck Shakespeare. Incredibly poetic, well-written song. Also really digging “Pipe Bomb Dream” and “Old Time Feeling (Like Before).”

Brianna: OH, how could I forget about those two? The first thing I noticed about “Pipe Bomb Dream” was all the great steel guitar, but I think painting the portrait of a war vet getting into trouble with the law on account of some rather illicit activities was kind of fun. As for “Old Time Feeling,” I thought it was pretty potent emotionally, as he’s saying he felt exactly the same way he used to. Times have changed, but his feelings haven’t. I like the lyrics of that song a lot.

Megan: It’s easy to forget them, I think, because there are so many great songs. So I think we agree on the low point of the record, that being “Oklahoma Stars.”

Brianna: For sure. It’s not a bad song by any means, but the lyrics don’t really do anything for me. There isn’t one Turnpike Troubadours song I think is awful, but this one just kind of…bores me, I suppose.

Megan: Jamie Lin Wilson did that song at Medicine Stone. She wrote all of it and sent it to Evan, who apparently added the last verse. I actually thought her version was beautiful, and I was really looking forward to hearing theirs. She had written the song after Medicine Stone last year about the experience there; that’s why it mentions the “banks in late September” for example. I actually think their version is completely awful in comparison, because it’s a complete misinterpretation of hers. Hers was much more melodic and heartfelt, and I think this one stripped a lot of that away.

Brianna: Oh wow, I definitely need to see if I can listen to her version. I really like her singing, so I’m betting I’ll like that a lot.

Megan: Yeah, hearing it on this album was majorly disappointing for me. She’s singing with him on it, but it still just doesn’t sound right. Anyway, I’m interested to see what your overall rating of this will be because based on this conversation and some things we’ve said in private, I think this may be the first time your rating beats mine.

Brianna: I think I’ll have to go with a 9.5 on this one. The instrumentation really is stellar, and the sound is much fuller than on their previous albums. The writing is very well done, and I love most of these songs. Really, the only thing bringing this album down for me is my total lack of feeling toward “Oklahoma Stars.” While I definitely acknowledge your point about the number of things on this album that are kind of special only if you’re already familiar with their work, it’s just something that draws me into their music and this album even more.

Megan: Everyone, take note, this is the highest rating for an album Brianna has yet given here. I myself don’t love it as much as you, I’d go with an 8 for this album. The songs I enjoy I absolutely love, but it’s not the entire album for me. Definitely a solid addition to their discography, but I guess I’ll be in the minority because I don’t think it’s their best album overall. And we’ve created a weird collective rating for this which has never happened before.

Collective Rating: weirdly, 8.75/10

Buy the Album

Go See the Turnpike Troubadours Live If It’s the Last Thing You Do

It’s been a weird month for me, and I’m sorry I’m just getting to this now, but trust me, I had to take some time for myself, and it was well worth it. I do expect there to be quite an influx of writing during the next few days because I’ve been listening to a lot of music but haven’t had the time to really sit down and write my thoughts on anything.

But absolutely the first thing I have to address is the live show I saw last Friday in Oklahoma City at a place called the Criterion for the Turnpike Troubadours’ album release party. I’ve now seen Turnpike three times live, and I’m so glad I finally get to devote an entire post to this. I will freely say that in September at Medicine Stone, they didn’t live up to themselves as much, and their show didn’t blow me away on the level that it has each other time, but without a doubt, the Turnpike Troubadours is the best live music experience I’ve had the opportunity to see.

It’s hard to even begin to put into words the kind of brilliance you see at a Turnpike show, but you know all that ridiculous fiddle and guitar and just generally awesome instrumentation? It’s barely contained on their albums, and then you hear it just basically come unleashed in a live setting. There’s nothing like the opening to “Before the Devil Knows We’re Dead” as the band just breaks out into the song, and all hell breaks loose. It’s surreal to listen to a song like “Seven and Seven,” meant to be such a deep and thought-provoking number, be screamed out among thousands of people because somehow this band managed to write it in an upbeat, concert-friendly way. This helped me to enjoy some of the new album more–you’ll see my thoughts on that shortly, by the way–because songs like “The Housefire” work better in a live setting, and suddenly a serious song becomes lively and fun. And then you get moments like “Pay no Rent,” where the songwriting of Evan Felker is on full display, and even if you came here looking for a party, you can’t help but be hit by the genius in these lyrics.

Even having seen Turnpike twice already, “Long Hot Summer Day” is a moment I was looking forward to, just hearing the fiddle over and over for the chorus. At Medicine Stone, they had tended to do this as an encore, but here, they did it as the finale, to ridiculous applause. The encore featured Jamie Lin Wilson, who had been the opener and is another great live performer, and she was there for “Call a Spade a Spade,” a song she appears on in its studio version. The night ended with “The Bird Hunters,” which is amazing in and of itself, because that song is a five-minute, waltzing heartbreak song, and yet, the Troubadours manage to make it something lively enough for the end of a concert. It’s truly special to hear everyone singing along to this, and it makes me go back to Jamie Lin saying that Evan Felker somehow manages to write “deep, thoughtful songs that also make you want to party.” This is extremely rare, and it means both that this band’s writing might be a little underappreciated and also that they’re accessible enough for everyone.

They’re certainly being given greater attention now, but the Turnpike Troubadours are still massively underrated. Trigger addressed this a little on SCM, but it’s a shame that artists like Turnpike and others are struggling to find live audiences outside Texas and Oklahoma because they should be on the level of Isbell and Simpson. NO question. So go out and support the best band making country music today if you have any interest in live music at all.