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.