Listening to country music in 2017 is a bit of an experience. The genre has a difficult history, as a huge cultural part of the south, country and folk have often had to face down their own complicated past when it comes to issues of slavery, racism, and prejudice. Accordingly, this lists seeks to highlight artists who purposefully break with tradition and incorporate those who take a wider and more inclusive stance in the country music world.
From the incredible fourth record by Valerie June — a black artist who thoroughly maintains her status as country — to new albums from old legends like Rodney Crowell, plenty of roots music this year is challenging the past while also confronting our new American reality. Check out my picks below.
20. Lindsay Ell, Worth The Wait
Lindsay Ell was discovered when she was just fifteen years old by middling Canadian star Randy Bachman (The Guess Who, Bachman-Turner Overdrive), but after a couple early albums didn’t go much of anywhere, it was her 2013 single “Trippin’ On Us” that put her on the map outside of her hometown of Calgary. So her 2017 EP, Worth The Wait is aptly titled, and it builds off the wiry, golden sounds that made “Trippin’ On Us” hit No. 46 on the Billboard chart in the US. Considering how difficult it is for female artists to break into radio period, this was a huge deal! Ell quickly built off that success, releasing several other singles on her new US label Stoney Creek Records, that culminate finally in this six-song EP. Between her soulful cover of John Mayer’s “Stop This Train,” the doe-eyed puppy love of “Waiting On You,” and playful addiction of “Criminal,” Ell has learned how to craft a pop hook with a solid country foundation — and when you pack that alongside her heartbreaker track “Space,” hell yes it was worth the wait.
19. Brad Paisley, Love And War
Brad Paisley is on his eleventh studio album and counting. So what is there left for Brad to do when he’s already embarrassed the heck out of himself with “Accidental Racist” and had all but one of single break the country Billboard’s top 20? Why, keep experimenting of course. There’s plenty of Paisley classic material here, like opener “Heaven’s South” (spoiler alert: he loves the south), and “Today,” a toothsome ballad about love, memory, and a girl with hair falling into her eyes. Sure, Brad can tug our heartstrings, but he really shines when he’s looking to get a laugh; because unlike most country singers — or hell, any musicians these days — Paisley is a really, really funny dude. So the real gems here, as usual, are his left field swings — a Mick Jagger cameo on the tongue-in-cheek “Drive Of Shame,” not one but two Timbaland collabs that prove the influence Florida Georgia Line has had on all of us, John Fogerty showing up on the title track “Love And War” for what feels like a Brooks & Dunn moment.
In fact, the overall impression of Love And War is that it might be time for Paisley to do a full on collab album with someone. That is, anyone other than LL Cool J. After listening to one of his few missteps, “#selfietheinternetisforever,” in which a man who has written hundreds of songs about his personal, intimate thoughts mocks those who snap pictures of themselves, may I suggest he enlist the Chainsmokers? Despite his exploratory streak, Brad always does better when he sticks to topics he knows.
18. Little Big Town, The Breaker
Little Big Town aren’t quite sure if they still want to be a country band. Consider how fantastic “Lost In California” and “Happy People” are, I’m not sure I want them to be either. American genre lines get real lazy when it comes to adults making music that isn’t about f*cking and designed for teens (pop), so while it’s tempting to call The Breaker an adult contemporary record with some good close harmonies, it’s almost more blue eyed soul than anything else. Sometimes, it feels like a musical (“Drivin’ Around), which also isn’t an insult… but it barely counts as a country record. That is, until you throw on the silvery “Beat Up Bible,” the fall from grace title track, or the absolutely stunning Taylor Swift-written “Better Man,” a song that wishes from the deepest depths that a left behind lover could’ve shouldered the weight of a heart worth carrying. This song gives me the chills, there’s so few tracks that explicitly state how often men let themselves off the hooks by refusing to live up to their potential, meanwhile, women have to work twice as hard in every facet of our lives to be taken seriously on any level. Anyway, more groups should have several lead vocalists who can take turns, it makes an album so much more nuanced. Whether or not this is technically a country album, it’s still definitely one of the most interesting things I’ve heard all year.
17. Old 97’s, Graveyard Whistling
Full disclosure: I found out there was a new Old 97’s record when my good friend/the amazing Nashville singer/songwriter Caitlin Rose was in town and performed with the group on late night. She filled in for Brandi Carlile, who sings duet with Rhett Miller on “Good With God” for the record, a song that boasts of a readiness for the afterlife while simultaneously dubbing God a woman. The female version of the duet is a vengeful God responding — it’s pretty awesome. The rest of their new record, Graveyard Whistling builds off similarly off-kilter narratives; “She Hates Everybody” is a pretty straightforward from the title, but God, is it nice to hear about a woman is openly angry instead of keeping the peace, and the album’s other standout “Jesus Loves You” plays off the more popular religious songs sweet undertones and turns them sour. Miller once described his band’s sound as “loud folk,” which couldn’t be more accurate. I’d add, it’s loud folk that loves to splash around in irony.
16. Alison Kraus, Windy City
Alison Krauss has a voice like a glass of champagne, crystal clear, effervescent, sweet and sharp in equal measure, occasionally dry but never harsh, never bitter. She sparkles on Windy City, her fifth studio solo album, which ends up as a mix between her signature bluegrass, big band swing, and jazzy ballads. Krauss has several more records with her bluegrass band, Union Station, and even when she performs without them, she’s most comfortable surrounded by other bluegrass musicians. Windy City is entirely covers of classic artists like The Osborne Brothers, an iconic bluegrass duo from the 60s and 70s, one of whom shows up here, and Krauss shines in particular on the Willie Nelson cover, “I Never Cared For You.” She does despair with a deftness few can ever pull off, turning even ghost stories into lullabies, powering through the fear without a flicker in her peerless voice. If one of the best living vocalists performing plenty of classic bluegrass tunes sounds like something you’d like, then Windy City will not disappoint — just don’t expect a drawl or any cowboy music when you press play on this one. There’s an elegance here that few country musicians ever achieve, and that sophistication will be Alison’s legacy, whether she’s singing her own music or the songs of others.
15. Sam Outlaw, Tenderheart
The name says it all, Sam Morgan aka Sam Outlaw made a western swing pop album with a heart of gold. Tenderheart takes small, everyday symbols like mimosas or bougainvilleas and turns them into vehicles that carry the real message of his song, the feelings of love or loss or freedom. There’s little that counts as outlaw, or even rugged, or even cowboy on this album, rather it’s much more attuned to southern California pop and ’70s singer/songwriters. In fact, the name “Outlaw” was his mother’s maiden name, and after she died, Sam opted to continue using it as his moniker to honor her memory; that story should give you a sense of the man behind this record. Occasionally, more of country phrasing will creep into his work, like on the excellent “She’s Playing Hard (To Get Rid Of),” but the modern bent of Outlaw’s music is part of the appeal. If you don’t like overt twang or a lot of honky-tonk and country landscape signifiers, this is for you — it’s a gateway drug country record.
14. Lady Antebellum, Heart Break
Little Big Town have been one of the most consistent pop country bands of the last decade, and their latest album, Heart Break, which came out today, is a continuation of that streak. Since 2008, the trio have released seven studio albums, and despite a two year break between 2015 and the release of this record — during which time one member had a baby and another released a solo album — they’re back on their pop country magic for Heart Break. Take the title track, for instance, which isn’t focused on the pain of leaving a relationship, but rather on living in the space of being single and enjoying it, giving the heart a rest. Nobody is better at combining old world brass, enormous guitar solos, pop hooks, and country dreams better than these three. “Big Love In A Small Town” will be a summer hit if there’s any justice in the world. If you like country music that doubles as dream pop, then this record is for you.
13. Natalie Hemby, Puxico
I wrote about Natalie Hemby’s excellent debut Puxico in one of my monthly roundups when it came out at the top of the year, and it seems like it’s only gotten better on the subsequent listens since then. Hemby is a veteran Nashville songwriter who finally decided to sing some of her own tracks, and the result is one of the strongest country albums of the year — particularly for a first outing. Hemby manages to make her slow drawl feel like a lasso that’ll loop back around and pull in a verse or chorus you weren’t expecting out of the blue; that’s a songwriter first, vocalist second quality. The standout here is “This Town Still Talks About You,” a song about a local star made good, told from the perspective of someone who never got out. It’s simultaneously the trapped-in-amber and immense freedom that exists between escaping a small town and hanging around, and will hit anyone on either side of that spectrum hard. Given the fact that Puxico is a town in Mississippi with 881 people, you can be sure Hemby is singing from experience here, and throughout the record.
12. Son Volt, Notes Of Blue
Steven Hyden spoke with Son Volt frontman Jay Farrar earlier this year about their ninth record Notes Of Blue in a very political-leaning interview that you should definitely read. For those unfamiliar, Son Volt is the band that formed after Uncle Tupelo broke up, and they dwell in slow-moving folk-rock that’s shot through with bluegrass and Americana. Their strict, swift songwriting is belied by the leisurely melodies. Farrar’s slightly gruff voice, occasionally pushed to the limits of his upper register, falls in perfect contrast with the finger-picking and steely percussion that defines the band’s style. Few albums have relaxed me more this year than Notes Of Blue; it is blues that doesn’t dwell in misery, but lovingly skirts on the edges of it. Getting close to an unknown sadness can be a balm, this record gives you that respite.
11. Rodney Crowell, Close Ties
Rodney Crowell new album Close Ties is hard, glittery and blue like a diamond. At 66 years old, Crowell has entered a late renaissance in his songwriting career, which began all the way back in 1977, his 2014 record Tarpaper Sky was excellent, as was his joint album with long-time collaborator Emmylou Harris, The Traveling Kind in 2015. Following up those two bodies of work just two years later with another album of original material is no easy feat for any musician, let alone one of his age. But Crowell’s tricky songs are easy beneath the surface, yielding lonely harmonica solos and clipped one liners right alongside simple country melodies. Rosanne Cash, John Paul White (of The Civil Wars) and Sheryl Crow show up here, proving you can indeed teach an old dog new tricks. But, when it comes to Close Ties, it’s the old ones that really impress.
10. Tift Merritt, Stitch Of The World
Tift Merrit’s latest album, Stitch Of The World kicks off with a song called “Dusty Old Man” that contrary to what it may seem is a celebration of her man. The record only gets more twisted and endearing from there. Merrit has been making music since 2002, and was even nominated for a Grammy in 2004, but has never broken out in the way a lot of her peers have, despite support from the folk greats likes of Ryan Adams and Iron & Wine. In fact, half of Tift Merrit’s Stitch Of The World features Sam Beam, of Iron & Wine, which gives the back half of the album the feel of a duets album. Still, Merritt shines even more when she’s solo — daydreaming of the happiness she’ll feel on “My Boat,” or taking a universal view on the title track, her work can be both deeply intimate or universal without losing the thread. She has an Americana grace that evokes legends like Emmylou Harris or Alison Krauss, and brings that history right into the present.
9. John Moreland, Big Bad Luv
When I think of John Moreland’s Big Bad Luv, free association helps me describe it more than anything else: A lowriding Cadillac, my dirty car windshield, old jazz and blues clubs, grizzled locals in a dark, empty bar at midday. The Texas-born, Kentucky-raised songwriter has been plugging away, honing his craft over the course of seven albums, more often than not with a backing band of some sort tagging along (the Black Gold Band, now defunct, or the Dust Bowl Souls), and finally, after nearly a decade, he got the look that plenty of musicians dream about — the storied London indie 4AD picked up Big Bad Luv. Moreland mixes blues, folk, Americana, gospel, and alt-rock into his own blackened brand of oldworld country, with the kind of lyrics that feel like proverbs and a delivery rivaled only in authority by Sunday morning pulpit pounders. But preachers don’t pour whiskey in the wind, burn pictures of their best friends, or write songs like “Every Kind Of Wrong.” Currently, Moreland lives in Oklahoma and claims the influence of that land-locked state as part of his rollicking, insightful brand of country, one that’s as likely to be blaring out of a truck rolling down a Tulsa highway as a record player in a Texas bedroom. Oh, and if by chance you hear it blaring out of a Silver Lake apartment, then come say hi.
8. Valerie June, The Order Of Time
Valerie June has long insisted on her presence as a country singer, one who supersedes folk or blues, and claims the genre as one that affords her the ability to do what she does best — be a “f*cking singer who sings some songs.” June broke out in a major way in 2013 with her third album, Pushin’ Against A Stone and four years later, The Order Of Time is her follow-up to that album. Her voice has the kind of ragged authority that only comes with living a demanding life. Born in Tennessee, June was the oldest of five, moved to Memphis at 19 and began performing with her then-husband. After their marriage ended, she began to come into her own as a solo artist, describing her music as “organic moonshine roots music,” and eventually worked with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, who produced and co-wrote Pushin’. Her latest was a written with Norah Jones, and leans more into Jones’ signature bluesy jazz at times, without losing any of the fiery kick that is June’s moonshine. This is a deeply country record that has no interest in conforming to anybody’s whims, it feels at turns ancient and rowdy and sad, like any true country record should.
7. RaeLynn, WildHorse
I wrote extensively about RaeLynn’s stunning debut for my column Country Grammar back when it came out, but it’s worth reiterating once more that she took a failed stint on a singing show and singlehandedly turned it into a full-fledged career as a country star. Okay, well single-handedly might be a stretch; RaeLynn was a pet project of both Blake Shelton, who coached her on The Voice, and his ex-wife Miranda Lambert, who featured her on several tracks of her own. Still, RaeLynn’s debut Wildhorse is such a strong venture she doesn’t necessarily need the superstar co-signs anymore. Even if you think you hate the more pop-leaning side of the country spectrum, these songs are well-written and sturdy, covering everything from heartbreak to first love, a poignant song about growing up the child of divorce (“Love Triangle”), and the booty call kiss off “Lonely Call.” More dream pop than Britney Spears, RaeLynn bridges the gap between her country roots and a strong desire to look forward as an artist. I love the nightmare pop of “Graveyard” and Texas ballad “Praying For Rain,” but every song on here is solid, a rare feat for a debut.
6. Willie Nelson, God’s Problem Child
“The elections are over, nobody won,” Willie Nelson sings on “Delete And Fast Forward,” continuing his longstanding tradition of commenting on politics with the kind of placid disappointment that my grandpa might’ve adopted, if he was still alive. On his first new album in several years, Nelson is doing more than encouraging us not to despair over the news; he’s losing himself in memory and wordplay on “Your Memory Has A Mind Of Its Own” or shaking his own head in wonderment that he’s “Still Not Dead.” Like plenty of the old legends from his era — and make no mistake in using the word legend, Nelson has released over sixty-eight albums in his eighty-four years — Nelson uses dark humor and innate gentleness to make country songs that both prod you out of your despair and wrap themselves around you like an embrace from the past. There are few voices more comforting than Willie’s, and while he self-proclaims himself as a problem child, the truth is, he feels more like country music’s doting big brother than anything else. Light up a J tonight, find a back porch to sit on, and throw this on, when you’re with Willie, you’re with family. Even when he does eventually leave us, he’ll always be with us in spirit and in smoke.
5. Whitney Rose, South Texas Suite
This country belle has a rawhide and lace alto and an independent streak a mike wide. On the lusty and headstrong lead off of her short new record South Texas Suite, she demands to be led out on the floor of the local honky tonk for a “Three Minute Love Affair.” Later, she assures that meeting your mother won’t mean putting on a mask, or even high heels, on “My Boots,” and she finally gets sentimental for “Bluebonnets For My Baby.” But Rose is a Canadian ex-pat who channels all the old-fashioned honky tonk sounds of her current hometown, Austin Texas, into a stunning six-track release that deserves about a thousand times the attention its garnered so far. Her voice is slow syrupy like a true Georgia native, even if she’s a transplant from colder climes, and its pristine tone makes this record a gorgeous listen front to back. Even a backward-looking song like “Analog” ends up sweet and nostalgic, a torch song to a lost era in her capable hands, instead of irksome or reactionary, and the record’s final, instrumental number “How ‘Bout A Hand For The Band” proves that Rose knows how to surround herself with real players — and to value them. Imagine if Kacey Musgraves was even more old-fashioned than she already is in every single arena, but also was wildly headstrong and a little lascivious, and you’ve got Whitney Rose.
4. Chris Stapleton, From A Room Vol. 1
After his 2015 breakout Traveller Chris Stapleton has reached the kind of country star ascension that people of his caliber so often never gain. In Steven Hyden’s excellent review of the record, he noted that on this follow-up Stapleton has gone for a record that turns him into country music’s everyman, instead of the genre’s savior. Which leads me to a much harped upon point — country music doesn’t and has never needed saving. If the fifteen entries above this one don’t convince you of that, then the three below it certainly will. Because 2017 is such a strong year for the genre that even a breakout star who racked up all the awards and immediately put out a follow-up isn’t at the top of the heap, release-wise. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of rubbery, soulful songs here that will live on my playlists all year, like the regretful, shadowy “Either Way” and the fiery “Second One To Know.” According to the record’s title, From A Room Vol. 1, a second volume will be out later this year; and who knows where that follow-up will land when we revisit rankings at the end of the year. Stapleton understand the game, and he plays it well, just don’t like a single artist’s rising star blot out the rest of this big country sky, plenty of lights are shining here.
3. Nikki Lane, Highway Queen
Nikki Lane should be a household name by now, but the Nashville system is sexist, outdated, and blind to the gems that are within arm’s reach at any moment. No matter, I don’t need the big machine to point toward the best records of the year, word of mouth will usually take care of that anyway, if you’re listening to the right people. Let me tell you then, flat out, that Highway Queen is a real piece of work, from the first “yippee ki-yay” on album opener “700,000 Rednecks” to the loved-up adrenaline of “Jackpot” and the simmering, strung-out love of “Foolish Heart.” Lane has a way of communicating the most vulnerable moments without losing any of her own internal strength. Her big-hearted yelps and mooning alto make the transition between loved-up anthems and yearning ballads feel seamless Even when she’s tearing down the highway, sobbing out the window over a good for nothing man, she’s still queen of that road. Don’t forget that.
2. Aaron Watson, Vaquero
This record has to be 2017’s sleeper country hit. I pressed play with some trepidation after reading an unfamiliar but glowing review, and was blown away by the scope and tenderness of Vaquero. It is the most kind-hearted cowboy record you’ll hear all year, as full of joy as any honky tonk at drunk o’clock, with room for songs that tug at your heartstrings and get you whiskey weepy. As the name suggests, Vaquero is celebration and appreciation of Tex Mex culture that’s sorely needed in an era of ICE raids and president-led xenophobia that misunderstands the immense value and incredible history of Latinx culture. Watson is a Texas native, clearly influenced by the Latinx elements that have become so intermingled with his own Texas culture, and his songwriting expertly and appreciatively addresses that influence on his particular brand of country in a way that is respectful and even venerates that heritage. Perhaps that’s because Watson is completely independent, and works to keep himself out of the Nashville machine that tends to eschew or whitewash these stories. Not that his entire oeuvre is focused on those relations, “Run Wild Horses” is, spoiler alert, more about the bedroom than the stable, and “These Old Boots Have Roots” channels Dierks Bently for a song that scopes out his own love story over a mean and jumpy fiddle. There’s plenty more I could tell you about this album, but it’s the kind of record where everyone ends up with their own favorite song, so my advice is to throw it on and see what connects for you.
1. Angaleena Presley, Wrangled
Angaleena Presley put out the best country record of the year, and she did it all by herself. Sure, there’s a Guy Clark co-write, yes Yelawolf shows up to help her skewer the radio’s insistence on only playing bro-country, and Wrangled was released on Thirty Tigers Records, a small independent label that distributes for plenty of artists who can’t handle grappling with Nashville’s outdated major label machinery. But when it comes down to it, Presley did it her own way. That will always be more valuable than any label advance, a spot on the country chart, or a Grammy award. Although Grammy voters, if you’re reading this, check out the country singer kiss off “Dreams Don’t Come True” (featuring the band-back-together harmonies of Ashley Rose and Miranda Lambert), the searing hat-tip to Merle Haggard “Mama I Tried” or the feisty, unrelenting honky-tonk defiance of “Good Girl Down” and consider that this album should definitely be on your ballot. Like I wrote in my column on this album back when it came out, Angaleena Presley is speaking out for the real hostages of country music system — women. For those who want to buck the system, Wrangled is square one, a surefire classic just waiting for the momentum it needs to rise all the way to the top.