by Julian Spivey
1. “The Nashville Sound” by Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
Jason Isbell and the Turnpike Troubadours have been on the same album output schedule lately, which has seen them trading the top spot on my annual ‘Best Albums of the Year’ list in the last few years. I believe 2017 is Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit’s time to top the list with the simply perfect The Nashville Sound. I say it’s perfect because there’s not a single song on the album that I don’t like, which is the same way I felt about his last two albums Something More Than Free and Southeastern, as well. Isbell is the best songwriter of his generation and just seems to consistently write songs that I feel within myself and identify with. Stuff like “Hope the High Road,” “Cumberland Gap” and “Molotov” just remind me of all the goods and bads of life. It’s a realism few writers seem to get as accurately as Isbell.
2. “A Long Way from Your Heart” by Turnpike Troubadours
The Turnpike Troubadours have been the best band in country music since they debuted, and yet too many people outside of Red Dirt Country nation even know about them. That’s a crime. Their fifth studio release A Long Way from Your Heart is right up there with the best of the band’s discography, with some critics saying it’s their best work yet (I’m not willing to). Frontman/songwriter Evan Felker has proven to be one of the best and most vivid writers the red dirt genre has ever seen with stunning stories that come to life as if you were watching them on the big screen. The entire unit musically sounds as tight as any band could leading to a sound that’s almost perfect that comes out both on their albums and in their live shows.
3. “From A Room: Vol. 1 & Vol. 2” by Chris Stapleton
I’m going to include Chris Stapleton’s dual releases of From A Room: Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 as one release, which they honestly should’ve been. Many of the tracks on From A Room have been released by other artists or by Stapleton’s previous bluegrass outfit The SteelDrivers before, but are seeing their solo release by Stapleton this year. From A Room proves that Stapleton’s Traveller was no fluke and he’s here to stay with fantastic tunes like “Either Way,” “Scarecrow in the Garden” and “Broken Halos” highlighting his releases.
4. “Way Out West” by Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives
One of the most impressive feats this year was Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives’ concept album of the American West, Way Out West. You don’t see many concept albums, especially in the country/Americana genres, because it so hard to come up with a complete album on the same theme, but Stuart and his incredibly talented band excel at these Western stories like the title track and “Whole Lotta Highway (With a Million Miles to Go)” with excellent instrumentals like “Mojave” and “Torpedo” strewn throughout.
5. “Big Bad Luv” by John Moreland
John Moreland has proven to be one of the best songwriters in Americana music of late, but he seems to continue to be a secret to many. Big Bad Luv, his fourth solo release, is arguably his best yet with emotional and biting reality songs like “Lies I Chose to Believe” and “No Glory in Regret.” Then there’s just good country rockers like “Sallisaw Blue” and “Amen, So Be It.” Moreland shouldn’t be a secret to anybody anymore.
6. “So You Wannabe An Outlaw” by Steve Earle
This is the Steve Earle album I’ve been waiting years for, but was never sure was going to come. I like Steve Earle the folk-singing troubadour, but I love Steve Earle the outlaw country singer. “Guitar Town,” Earle’s debut from 1986 is one of the all-time greatest and most underrated country albums and I’ve been hoping he’d so something to get back to that sound. So You Wannabe An Outlaw is certainly the closest he’s come in a long while with country-rockers like the title track, a duet with Willie Nelson, and “Lookin’ for a Woman.” The album also features a touching ode to his mentor and dear friend Guy Clark in “Goodbye Michelangelo.”
7. “Trophy” by Sunny Sweeney
Sunny Sweeney should be a helluva lot bigger than she is with her brand of country music not sounding all that different from Miranda Lambert, who’s won the CMA for Female Vocalist of the Year an incredible seven of the last eight years. But, who knows why these things happen in the seemingly sexist world of country music. Sweeney’s four studio album Trophy is likely the highlight of her career thus far with traditional sounding country tunes like “Pass the Pain” and “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” mixed in with highly emotional stuff like “Bottle By My Bed.”
8. “Dark Matter” by Randy Newman
Many would probably disagree with the inclusion of singer-songwriter Randy Newman as an Americana artist, but in my opinion if he isn’t considered Americana than who the hell can be? Newman’s music has truly revolved around the American experience. Dark Matter, his first album in almost a decade, is like many of his greatest mixing witty satirical pieces like “Putin” and “The Great Debate” with touching, emotional pieces like “Lost Without You” and “Wandering Boy.” The master still has it.
9. “Colter Wall” by Colter Wall
Colter Wall burst upon the scene in 2017 with a self-titled debut album that showed the Canadian singer-songwriter, though just 22, is the real deal. Wall writes incredibly country-folk songs that seem like they could’ve been throwbacks to the time of Woody Guthrie. Story songs abound on his debut with highlights including the murder ballad “Kate McCannon,” as well as “Motorcycle” and “Thirteen Silver Dollars.”
10. “Purgatory” by Tyler Childers
Tyler Childers, a 26-year old Kentuckian, burst onto the scene this year as a rising outlaw country/Americana star with Purgatory, produced by Sturgill Simpson, who knows a thing or two about the genre. Childers writes and records music well above his age with terrific tunes about the hardness of Appalachian life and close-up details of love. Highlights include the title track, “Whitehouse Road” and “Feathered Indians.”