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.”
by Julian Spivey
1. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
I had seen Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers when they came to Little Rock’s Verizon Arena in 2012, but when they announced their 40th anniversary tour would be coming through town I knew I had to see them again, as one of my all-time favorite groups. Of course, nobody knew at the time it would be the last tour for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, as Petty died of cardiac arrest at just 66-years old in early October just a week after the tour wrapped. That night will thankfully be seared in my mind forever as one of my all-time favorite concert experiences, with Petty and the entire band sounding perfect and the set including a great mixture of greatest hits and deeper album cuts that I dearly loved.
Full concert review.
2. John Fogerty
I’d been lucky to see most of my favorite living rockers over the last few years like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Paul McCartney and others leaving John Fogerty as really the last white whale on my concert bucket list as far as rock music went. Fogerty is a guy who doesn’t tour much anymore, outside of his Las Vegas residency, but I got lucky this year when he came to a casino in Thackerville, Okla., within six hours of my home. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame legend might be 72-years old, but he performs live like an artist half his age (like Springsteen in that way). Fogerty performed all the major Creedence Clearwater Revival hits during this terrific show and his solo hits, as well. It’s a night I won’t be forgetting any time soon.
Full concert review.
3. Eric Church
I’ve seen Eric Church more than any other artist. When he came to Little Rock’s Verizon Arena on his Holdin’ My Own tour in February it marked the fifth time I’ve seen him live. He simply gets better every time. This was easily my favorite concert of his, though they’ve all been great, because he didn’t have any openers or any other bullshit on this tour. It was just three hours of pure high-octane rocking country music with just about every great song he’s ever done in his career, including much of his most recent album Mr. Misunderstood, which may be his best yet. I’m pretty perturbed that this man hasn’t won Entertainer of the Year yet at the CMA or ACM Awards, as nobody in country music puts on a better show.
Full concert review.
4. Alan Jackson
Alan Jackson was pretty much the only living country singer left on my concert bucket list. Unfortunately, he never came anywhere in the vicinity of where I live. When I found out he’d be just south of St. Louis at the Family Arena in St. Charles, Mo. on the weekend of my 30th birthday this year I knew I had to make the trip. It was basically a greatest hits concert for Jackson, making for a memorable evening, even if it was somewhat disappointing that his set was only about 90 minutes and he only played an abridged version of my favorite song of his “Here in the Real World,” his first hit back in 1989. His show also included Lee Ann Womack, another artist I’d always wanted to see, as opener.
Full concert review.
5. Steve Earle
Seeing Steve Earle in concert at Memphis’ Minglewood Hall in early July was everything I’d hoped for from a Steve Earle show. Earle played stuff from his terrific new album So You Wannabe An Outlaw, as well as classics from the entirety of his career spanning all his phases from outlaw country rocker to folk troubadour. Hearing “Guitar Town” and “Copperhead Head” live in concert were two bucket list moments for me, but I also loved hearing stuff like “City of Immigrants” and “Little Emperor,” which maybe ruffled a few feathers among some in the audience. I love that Earle has his opinions and doesn’t shy away from them. I also love how the seemingly at times cantankerous Earle is as gracious as can be to his fans both on and off stage – staying behind to sign autographs for fans, despite few artists of his stature ever doing so.
Full concert review.
by Julian Spivey
20."Dwight Yoakam" by Sarah Shook & the Disarmers
I’ll admit it’s the title of Sarah Shook & the Disarmers’ “Dwight Yoakam” that caught my attention at first. Naming your song after one of my all-time favorite performers will do that. But, the song itself with its old-fashioned cry-in-your-beer heartbreak had me coming back time and time again throughout the year. Shook might not be Carrie Underwood, but I believe it’s one of the best vocal performances of the year. I absolute love the way her voice shakes and quivers when she enunciates certain words. It really gives the song the emotional weight that’s key to it being one of the best of the year.
19. "Bitter and Low" by Blackie & the Rodeo Kings feat. Fantastic Negrito
Blackie & the Rodeo Kings are a folk-rock-alternative-country band from Canada and all those genres combine to make one kickass sound. In 2011, the group united with some of the best women in the country/Americana genres for the duets album Kings And Queens. Proving to be a winning formula the guys teamed up with some of the best men in the genres for Kings And Kings this year. It produced one of the coolest sounding tracks of the year in “Bitter & Low” with Fantastic Negrito, a Grammy-winning blues artist. I’m not sure which member of the trio performs the lead vocals on the track, but it’s one of the most enchanting vocals of the year with its low growl on the tune about just trying to figure out a relationship. Fantastic Negrito’s high-pitched vocals matching perfectly with the growl of the lead vocalist.
18. "Old Stone Church" by John Baumann
John Baumann’s plaintive and then redemptive “Old Stone Church” is one of the best true-to-life stories of the year. The narrator of the song’s father is dying, but finds God before doing so. The family grieves in their own ways, with the narrator choosing to get high as his way of coping with the sadness. It’s one of the most emotional songs of the year with the narrator going from anger, to questioning, to eventually finding spirituality in the same way his father had. It’s a full circle song about how tragedy can take someone to dark places, but how there can also be a way out.
17. "Grandview" by John Mellencamp feat. Martina McBride
I was absolutely thrilled earlier this year when I saw John Mellencamp perform “Grandview” on “The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon” because it sounded like it could’ve been a hit for the Indiana native in his heyday of the early-to-mid-‘80s. Mellencamp had turned more folky and bluesy over the years, and it was good, but you just kind of wanted to hear something again that sounded like “Small Town” and “Pink Houses,” something that really got middle America down pat. “Grandview” does just that in its story of a young man who’s American dream is to get himself a double-wide trailer down at the trailer park for him and his wife (voiced perfectly by Martina McBride). The song has that old school Mellencamp swagger to it that adds to the nostalgia of it all.
16. "Drinkin' Problem" by Midland
The biggest debate in country music in 2017 was over the authenticity of Midland. This evidently means that many of us music writers have too much time on our hands. I don’t care if one of these guys directed music videos for Bruno Mars and another one was a model as long as they perform songs as good as “Drinkin’ Problem,” which was the biggest breath of fresh air on country radio this entire year. Hearing Midland on mainstream radio was a shock to the system the first time I heard it. I felt like I was in the mid-‘90s again. It’s an old school drinkin’ song with the proper amount of twang and it’s well-written. Sure, co-writer Shane McAnally might be responsible for helping crap like Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road” into the world, but we forget he’s also co-written terrific stuff with likes of Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark. We shouldn’t be running down music this good because we don’t like how these guys dress or where they came from.
15. "Imogene" by Cory Branan
I’ve been writing for almost as long as I can remember and in college I was a creative writing major and a journalism minor, so needless to say I love the written word. Therefore, songwriting for me will always be the most important part of music. Cory Branan has proven himself to be one of the best in the genre of Americana and “Imogene” is good proof of it. The self-deprecating ode to a lover who’s already finished with the relationship has one of my favorite verses of the year with the tongue twisting: “You could say that I was never there enough/You could say that I’m a no-account ne’er-do-well, roustabout, detestable, itinerant, execrable, degenerate/Fair enough/You could say that I was a waste of your time/But to say I tried to make you cry is just asinine.” Seriously, many stars on Music Row would have to grab a dictionary to understand some of that. Sure, “Imogene” somewhat makes Branan look like an ass, but don’t tell me you’ve never felt similar feelings in a relationship to those he’s singing about here.
14. "If We Were Vampires" by Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
“If We Were Vampires” is one of the most unusual sounding love songs you’ll hear because it gets down to the hard truth about true love like few others ever have. It touches upon the mortality of love and life, something you just don’t get from many sappy love songs. The chorus is maybe the most devastating you’ll hear all year: “It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever/Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone/Maybe we’ll get 40 years together/But one day I’ll be gone/Or one day you’ll be gone.” The verse about vampires laughing about lovers and their plans really hits home the fact that it’s our mortality as humans that makes love such a precious thing. The husband and wife duo of Isbell and Amanda Shires, an Americana star who plays fiddle in the 400 Unit, dueting on the track makes it all that more special with their made-for-each-other voices blending perfectly.
13. "Kate McCannon" by Colter Wall
At one point the murder ballad was a staple of country and Appalachian music. It’s long since fallen by the wayside, probably because singing about murdering someone – often women – isn’t exactly PC. But, Canadian throwback folkie Colter Wall brought the murder ballad back with a vengeance this year on his self-titled debut album with the story of “Kate McCannon,” a woman the narrator of the song dearly loved, but caught cheating. We all know what must happen next and Wall’s baritone and sparse production perfectly captures the story.
12. "Broken Halos" by Chris Stapleton
It may not work for everyone and that’s understandable, but Chris Stapleton’s “Broken Halos” can go a long way in helping those who’ve experienced tragedy, like so many have in this country and around the world in 2017, by explaining that the reasons and answers for things like senseless violence and natural disasters are not meant for us on earth, but “belong to the by and by.” As with nearly everything else Stapleton sings the vocals are mesmerizing and damn near perfect. The production is minimalistic, which just helps to enhance the power of Stapleton’s raspy, bluesy vocals. No matter how you feel about the after life it’s a song that is truly comforting.
11. "Bougainvillea, I Think" by Sam Outlaw
Sam Outlaw’s “Bougainvillea, I Think” is probably the most beautifully sounding song of 2017. The melody and lyrics enraptured my ears the very first time I heard it. It’s a rather simple song about friendship between two unlikely characters. A man is reminiscing about an older Argentinian woman he used to live next to, but can’t remember her named after all the years, but can picture the flowers she had. The phrasing of “shades of yellow, red and pink/bougainvillea, I think” flow off Outlaw’s tongue so delightfully that you can’t help but instantly fall in love with this sweet song.
10. "Pay No Rent" by Turnpike Troubadours
It’s likely that Turnpike Troubadours frontman and songwriter Evan Felker has never written a more personal song than “Pay No Rent.” The song was written by Felker and John Fullbright as a tribute to Felker’s Aunt Lou, who died of cancer in 2016. Aunt Lou had asked Felker to sing her favorite song, Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” at her funeral. The night before Felker realized she had asked the same of multiple people. So, instead he and Fullbright wrote this beautiful tribute to someone who lived life to its fullest and left the world a better place than it had been. The lyric “in my heart you pay no rent” is a wonderful way to explain how important someone is to you.
9."I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight" by Sunny Sweeney
“I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” is a song I’d heard before. Texas troubadour and all-around rapscallion Jerry Jeff Walker had a version on an album almost 30 years ago. It was written by Chris Wall and Texas singer-songwriter Sunny Sweeney calls it “my favorite country song ever.” She told The Bluegrass Situation: “The melody has gotten me since the first time I heard it years and years ago.” Sweeney’s right that it’s a damn good country song, a heartbreaker like few others, and I’m thrilled she recorded it as she sounds like perfection doing it. “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” is one of those songs that sounds like it should’ve been a classic country song, but for some reason just never quite got it’s due. I’m happy Sweeney is helping to get it out there a little more.
8. "Molotov" by Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
“Molotov” is one of the truly underrated tracks off Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit’s near perfect The Nashville Sound and I believe it’s every bit as devastating as “If We Were Vampires.” Nostalgia, wanting to go back in time to the glory days, thinking about all the things you wanted to do and be and having them not turn out that way are all devastating feelings. “Molotov” hits this hard with lines like: “Time flies when you’re making babies/Do you miss your little black Mercedes/Do you miss the girl you once had time to be/When you said we had the same three wishes/I hope you weren’t being facetious/And I hope you still see fire inside of me.” I think that’s a feeling many of us have had before.
7. "Lost Without You" by Randy Newman
Randy Newman is without a doubt one of the greatest songwriters to ever live. He can bring a tear to your eye by making you laugh or by breaking your heart and can do so in a mere four minutes. He managed to do both on 2017’s Dark Matter with a funny tune about Russian leader Vladimir Putin simply titled “Putin” and then likely the most heartbreaking song of the year in “Lost Without You.” It’s a beautiful tale of a husband and wife with the wife dying of a disease and leaving a man she’s loved and taken care of most of their lives alone. The truly devastating part is when the dying wife gathers her children around and tells them to take care of their father. It’s truly a fantastic piece of writing where Newman tells the story from both the husband and wife’s perspectives.
6. "Barabbas" by Jason Eady
Barabbas is a unique figure in the Bible, as the man imprisoned alongside Jesus whose life is spared when Pontius Pilate offers the public the choice of pardoning a prisoner. Though guilty, Barabbas is chosen to be spared over that of Jesus Christ. He’s never heard from again in the Bible. Jason Eady decided to take this story and write the other side – Barabbas’ story. Eady does so brilliantly in a fashion that leads the song to not necessarily take a religious tone, but one of any guilty man given a second chance. The name Barabbas doesn’t appear in the song, at all, only as its title. It’s a redemption song at its finest. Eady explained to NPR: “To me this song is about the fact that you have two ways to react to guilt. You can ignore it and continue on the path you have been on or you can change your ways and try to redeem yourself. We hoped that Barabbas chose the second of those.”
5. "Cumberland Gap" by Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
“Cumberland Gap” is one of Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit’s best rockers and sounds like something Isbell could’ve released when he was a member of the Drive-By Truckers. It’s a song about wanting to break free of your hometown, but having things like family keeping you in place. “Maybe the Cumberland Gap swallows you whole” touches on the feeling of hopelessness in Appalachia were options are slim and alcohol and drugs are an easier way of escaping than reaching for something outside of the city limits. People have compared Isbell to Bruce Springsteen in the past and the ferocity on “Cumberland Gap” could be Isbell’s “Badlands.” One of the best lines of any song this year is: “and if you don’t sit facing the window/you could be in any town” with the narrator coming to terms with the fact that getting drunk at the local bar is about the best thing he has going for him.
4. "Another Nightmare in America" by Cory Branan
Sometimes the best way to call something horrible out is to put yourself in the shoes of those doing the horrible. Cory Branan decided to take on one of the biggest social injustices facing this country – the shooting of unarmed black men by police – by placing himself in the shoes of the police for “Another Nightmare in America.” It’s a brutal recording about a brutal subject and one of the most important releases of 2017. The singer-songwriter from Memphis has been brand alt-country or folk, but “Another Nightmare in America” has a much-needed punk streak about it with keys that remind me of Elvis Costello’s “Radio Radio” and an “Oh say can you see” chant at the end reminiscent of some of Green Day’s finest work.
3. "A Tornado Warning" by Turnpike Troubadours
The Turnpike Troubadours are the most complete band in any subgenre of country music – Evan Felker is the genre’s best songwriter and the entire band sounds perfectly in place with each other. “A Tornado Warning” is a perfect example of this, with the music complimenting the lyrics of the track perfectly. Notice how the music suddenly gets louder when Felker sings, “It’s loud enough you gotta yell now” as the storm in the song begins to rage. “A Tornado Warning” is also a great example of how Felker throws such specifics into his songs that add to the character like “your tan legs checkered from a folding chair” and how he can just make something so simple sound so pretty like referring to a storm by saying: “The whole thing hits me like a song/a pretty one that won’t last long.” It’s the Troubadours at their best.
2. "Either Way" by Chris Stapleton
I doubt there’s a more devastating song to come out of 2017 than Chris Stapleton’s “Either Way.” It’s a heartbreaking fallen out of love track about a couple that still lives together, but can’t even consider each other friends, let alone lovers anymore. The brutality of the ballad really hits home with the stunningly vocalized chorus: “We can just go on like this/Say the word, we’ll call it quits/Baby, you can go or you can stay/But, I won’t love you either way.” If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “Why has Chris Stapleton won three consecutive CMA Awards for Male Vocalist of the Year?” you need look no farther than this song. The remarkable thing about “Either Way” is Stapleton wrote it (with Timothy Alan James and Kendell Marvel) more than a decade ago and even appeared on Lee Ann Womack’s 2008 album Call Me Crazy. It just kind of shows you how Stapleton was a hidden superstar in the waiting before breaking out a few years ago.
1. "Hope the High Road" by Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
“Hope the High Road” was the first song I heard off Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit’s fantastic The Nashville Sound album early in the year and coming off the incredibly tough 2016 it was the most hopeful thing I could’ve heard. I’m not sure any other chorus spoke to me as much this year as: “I know you’re tired/And you ain’t sleeping well/Uninspired/And likely mad as hell/But wherever you are/I hope the high road leads you home again/To a world you want to live in.” Many people, including those considering themselves to be big fans of Isbell, were put off by the line “there can’t be more of them than us,” but they may be reading too much into the line. All it really means, in my opinion, is there are more good people in this world than bad. At times it doesn’t necessarily feel like it anymore, but if we can all take the high road we’ll get there
by Julian Spivey
40. "Way Out West" by Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives
Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives released one of the best albums of the year in Way Out West, a concept album of the American West. One of the highlights of this album is the mostly spoken word story song title track, which is a trippy hallucinogenic exploration of the West after taking a special pill. It’s Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads meets Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and there’s maybe nobody in the music business right now better when it comes to a spoken word track than Stuart, who’s voice was simply made for storytelling.
39. "Scarecrow in the Garden" by Chris Stapleton
Chris Stapleton’s music will often get you with its emotion. His damn near perfect country voice has this way of eliciting great feeling. But, “Scarecrow in the Garden” is a chance for him to show off his great narrative storytelling with a story about multiple generations of a West Virginian farm family and the trials and tribulations of living off the land. The song, which is the best off his From A Room, Vol. 2, is chilling to the bone with the great chorus: “There’s a scarecrow in the garden/that looks like Lucifer/I’ve been reading Revelations with my bare feet in the river” and the troubling end where our narrator must decide between the Bible in his left hand and the pistol in his right.
38. "All the Best" by Zac Brown Band
I’ve often said that Zac Brown is better when performing other people’s songs. And, that’s definitely the case with his take on John Prine’s “All the Best,” a sweet heartbreak song that you can instantly tell comes from Prine’s pen with a verse like, “I wish you love/And happiness/I guess I wish/You all the best/I wish you don’t/Do like I do/And go and fall in love with someone like you.” The stripped-down production and sweetly backing vocals by Kacey Musgraves make this one of the best in Zac Brown Band’s discography.
37. "No Glory in Regret" by John Moreland
“Don’t it feel like the truth/Comes at the price of your youth?” in John Moreland’s fantastic “No Glory in Regret” is one of the most brilliant lines in any song in 2017. There definitely comes a time in your life – with me it was around the time I left home for college – that you learn certain truths about the world that really signifies the end of childhood more than turning a certain age does. These quiet stories from Moreland really get into the devastatingly sad beauty of what living in the world can be. It’s honestly hard to write about Moreland’s songs because they seem so personal to him, but once you hear them you simply can’t forget them and inside each will be a line or two that might mean something completely different and yet incredibly important to you.
36. "Outbound Train" by Ryan Adams
Every time I heard Ryan Adams’ “Outbound Train” this year, and according to Spotify it was one of my 10 most played tracks of 2017, I thought to myself, “this is Springsteen-esque.” And, believe me that means something special because Springsteen is the pinnacle of songwriting for me and I typically hate reading reviews that compare others to him. But, “Outbound Train” with not only it’s lyrics of finding someone to love simply out of boredom, but it’s propulsive sound throughout, makes me feel like it could’ve been an outtake from Springsteen’s timeless Born in the USA album. Turns out this feeling was intentional on Adams’ part. He told Rolling Stone: “I wanted to go even further into writing simple lines, like ‘80s Bruce Springsteen. I could hear the radio in that backroom at G-Ma’s house. I could see the sunlight coming through the window, and I could hear ‘Jungleland’ playing. I could feel all those elements. And it felt good to be fragile and a little crushed.” It’s weird, but he’s absolutely right about music that makes you feel fragile and crushed also making you feel good in some ways.
35. "Ballad of the Dying Man" by Father John Misty
This is where genres can be too confining. I know that some people will see Father John Misty on this list and say, “I don’t think he’s Americana. He’s damn sure not country.” He’s labeled on Wikipedia as “indie rock” and “folk rock” and well, for the purposes of “Ballad of the Dying Man” that’s close enough to Americana for me. “Ballad of the Dying Man” is one of the sharpest tongued releases of the year, reminding me of some of Bob Dylan’s work. The scathing track pretty much takes on everybody by placing a Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olbermann type broadcaster on his death bed and wondering if the time spent ranting and raving about things like “homophobes, hipsters and one percenters” was truly worth his time. I must admit that at times I can be the person Father John Misty is pointing his finger at, “what he’d give for one more day to rate and analyze.” It certainly makes the words worth listening to.
34. "17" by Will Hoge
Some writers capture nostalgia perfectly. Will Hoge is able to get into the mindset of just how great a feeling it is to be 17-years old and falling in love with “17.” You can instantly feel the urge to love the girl who works at the local movie theater and listens to Guns ‘N’ Roses. Nothing captures the feeling of “17” better than the lyric, “Lost somewhere between the truth and make believe.” Many of us wish we could go back to that feeling once again.
33. "Mildenhall" by The Shins
Every year on my list there’s probably at least one selection where I know someone out there is likely scratching their head and murmuring, “How is this either country or Americana?” I suspect The Shins appearing on this list could be this year’s moment. The Shins have long been considered indie rock, but listen to this sparse recording of Shins’ singer-songwriter James Mercer recounting his time as a teen in England while his father was stationed at the Mildenhall Air Force Base and tell me you don’t hear Americana. If you don’t, your definition for the genre is likely too exclusive. It’s just a great song about how music can shape, change, save and inspire. And, oftentimes this love of music can come out of chance meetings with a kid in class who passes you a tape or being lonely on rainy days and picking up your dad’s guitar.
32. "Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls" by Old 97's
“Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls” by Old 97’s is one of the most fun and rambunctious songs of 2017. It’s infectious right from the start with “Thank God for Irish whiskey/thank the devil for pretty girls/make a mess of all us lucky boys.” Old 97’s have this perfect intensity to their music that seemingly has paved the way for other great bands of their ilk. They’ve always been considered alt-country, but you can see the inspiration they’ve provided to red dirt country bands like Turnpike Troubadours, who covered their “Doreen” on their 2015 self-titled album. It’s essentially country music played with rock & roll intensity. When Rhett Miller screams “turn it up, make a little noise” you want to do just that.
31. "Lost on the Desert" by Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives
As soon as I heard Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives superb American West concept album Way Out West I was in love. I’ve always been a huge fan of Western story songs like the ballads Marty Robbins did in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s like “El Paso” and “Big Iron.” One of my favorites from Stuart’s release is “Lost On the Desert,” the tale of a renegade outlaw who’s stashed some stolen loot in the desert, but gets lost trying to find it after escaping from prison. It’s a song that was first released by Johnny Cash in 1962 (written by Dallas Frazier and Buddy Mize) and has a timeless appeal to it. Lord, there’s something about country boys named Marty and great Western songs.
30. "Tell The Devil I'm Getting There As Fast As I Can" by Ray Wylie Hubbard feat. Eric Church & Lucinda Williams
As someone who’s been writing for most of his life and loves the written word there are times when something unusual hits my ear and I absolutely love it for the sheer language of it. For this reason, I love the specificity of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Tell the Devil I’m Gettin’ There As Fast As I Can,” particularly at the beginning of the song when he’s singing about his music equipment. It’s potentially a little too insider music for some and I admit I don’t know what half of the things he’s talking about are, but it’s so specific you can’t help but be drawn in by it. Hubbard has become an expert with these talking song stories – his gruff voice making for a great storyteller. The song features one of the best choruses Hubbard has ever written and he’s joined by country superstar Eric Church and Americana legend Lucinda Williams on the choruses. Church kind of gets buried, but Williams and Hubbard sound terrific together, like they were meant to do this.
29. "So You Wannabe An Outlaw" by Steve Earle & Willie Nelson
Steve Earle came out roaring as an outlaw country singer-songwriter in the mid-‘80s and for many it’s the version of Earle we love the best. He’s had great success and songs as a folk/Americana troubadour over the last two decades, but we wanted some of that outlaw to return. Earle gave us what we wanted this year and the title track to his album “So You Wanna Be An Outlaw,” a duet with original country outlaw Willie Nelson is everything we could have dreamt about. Outlawin’ sure ain’t easy is what this one teaches us.
28. "The Sleep of Reason" by Billy Bragg
I’m not sure there has ever been a more political non-election year in the history of this country than 2017 and it’s led to the dumb old saying “stick to music” from those who don’t like to see or hear their favorite musicians speak on politics. However, I think it’s incredibly important that the artists of any musical genre speak their minds and speak the truth. One of the best at that this year was English Americana singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, who has been no stranger to poking at listeners throughout the years. His “The Sleep of Reason,” inspired by the Francisco Goya etching from 1799, is the protest song we need in 2017. He absolutely lambastes things like the alt-right, social media tolls, Confederate flag lovers and, yes, President Donald Trump but most of all the fact that complacency in this country and world is how we get to a point where things are as bad as they are right now.
27. "At the Purchaser's Option" by Rhiannon Giddens
Rhiannon Giddens has one of the greatest voices in any musical genre and she uses it for good trying to spread a message of unity and equality and the hard-fought struggles of those who’ve never had it easy. She did this beautifully this year on Freedom Highway, weaving the traditional sound she loves with the struggle of black folks throughout American history. One of the most heart-wrenching tales on the album is “At the Purchaser’s Option,” which details a young slave woman with child coming to grips with the fact that her owner is going to sell her child into slavery and she has no say in the matter. The song was inspired by an old 19th century newspaper clipping that read: “For sale, a remarkable smart healthy negro wench, about 22 years old; used to both house work and farming. She has a child about nine months old, which will be used at the purchaser’s option.” It’s tragic, but true and Giddens gives the story that needs to be heard all the life and sorrow in her vocals it needs to be told.
26. "Riot in the Streets" by Pokey LaFarge
Pokey LaFarge has been a hit for a while amongst fans who love his retro feel, look and mix of Western swing-influenced country and jazz. His music ventures into more of a soulful Americana sound with “Riot in the Streets,” which not only makes you want to sing and dance along like few others tracks released in 2017, but it also has an important message. “Riot in the Streets” was inspired by what LaFarge saw happening around his hometown of St. Louis during the racial tension that boiled over in Ferguson, Mo. after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. LaFarge sings: “There’s so much left to learn/as the bullets fly and the buildings burn.” Boy, is he ever right.
25. "Lies I Chose to Believe" by John Moreland
24. "My Old Man" by Zac Brown Band
Apart from 2010’s “As She’s Walking Away” I believe “My Old Man” from Zac Brown Band’s 2017 release Welcome Home is the best song Brown has ever written. It’s the perfect tribute song to the great dads in our lives and how they inspire and truly build us into the people we turn into. The song was inspired by two father figures in Brown’s life: his father Jim and a mentor Rodney Shelton, whom Brown called “Old Man,” who died in 2015. Zac Brown Band turned to producer Dave Cobb, the best in the business, for their latest album that saw them return to their country roots and is possibly their best release to date.
23. "Purgatory" by Tyler Childers
My favorite bluegrass tune of the year doesn’t even come from a bluegrass album, but rather the title track to Tyler Childers’ Purgatory. “Purgatory” really holds something close for me as the mostly non-religious husband of a good Catholic girl. So, when Childers sings the line “Catholic girl, pray for me, you’re my only hope for Heaven” I can’t help but substitute myself in the narrator’s shoes. I obviously really dig the line, “Do you reckon He lets free will boys mope around in Purgatory?” Lord, I hope so. It’s also one of the best foot-stompers of the year
22. "Last Time for Everything" by Brad Paisley
I had begun to feel like Brad Paisley was lost. Like so many others in the mainstream country game he had chased the modern fads of the day (though not to the horrible extent of others of his ilk) and left good music behind. I hadn’t really enjoyed anything from him since 2011’s “Remind Me” with Carrie Underwood, but when I heard “Last Time for Everything” this year I immediately loved it. It’s the perfect idea for a song because there are so many great things in this world that we will experience for a last time and we take those things for granted whether they be playing catch with your first dog (which really tears me up) to seeing Glenn Frey for the last time (which hits home because I saw his second-to-last ever performance in concert). It really makes me mad that such a great country song can barely crack the top 20 on the charts these days.
21. "The Housefire" by Turnpike Troubadours
Turnpike Troubadours’ frontman Evan Felker is so damn good at writing Southern short stories and turning them into fantastic songs. I’ve previously called him the William Faulkner of Red Dirt Country and he honestly seems to get better with each album. “The Housefire” is an interesting track that covers a family of three – husband, wife and baby – who’s house burns down in the middle of the night, the struggle that ensues and the resiliency in never giving up. Felker is always able to insert little things into his song that just give it a weight of realism like his narrator’s wife wrapping their freezing baby in a Carhart coat she found in his car. In an interesting tidbit it appears Felker has written about these characters before as the name Lorrie has appeared in multiple songs as well as the Browning shotgun the narrator rescues from the housefire.
by Julian Spivey
60. "Too Much Is Never Enough" by A.J. Hobbs
“Too Much is Never Enough” by A.J. Hobbs is just a fantastic honky tonk rocker. “One is too much and too much is never enough” goes the chorus about having one too many at the bar, but also doubling for life on the road as a musician. The twangy guitar with the driving piano throughout really makes you feel like you want to get out on the dancefloor. It’s the kind of rousing track you could have expected to hear from somebody the likes of Waylon Jennings or Johnny Paycheck, who Hobbs name drops on the song.
59. "Living in the City" by Hurray for the Riff Raff
Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra took a major gamble this year when she basically changed the entire sound of her popular Americana group and got back to her Puerto Rican roots on the concept album The Navigator. The gamble paid off and Hurray for the Riff Raff are one of the groups at the forefront of potentially changing what the term Americana music truly means. It’s hard, it’s hard, it’s hard to select a track off a concept album for such a list, but I love the throwback sound of “Living in the City,” which has sort of a girl groups of the ‘60s flavor to it. It’s a sound I love and glad to see someone bring it back if just for one track. Also, I’m not sure there’s a more enchanting line this year than hearing Segarra sing the line: “Mariposa’s singing love songs/All in her dark apartment.” I can’t even explain why I love it so much, it just rolls of her tongue so nicely.
58. "Change My Mind" by Josh Ward
Josh Ward is a man who evidently came up in the wrong era. Had this been a decade or two ago I think he’d be a massive country star with his perfect country voice and traditional country sound on songs like “Change My Mind,” which found itself on the Texas Country chart this year (initially released on his 2015 album Holding Me Together). It’s an old country theme, but Ward makes going to a bar down on one’s luck only to find the woman of his dreams sound as good as it ever has.
57. "The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone" by Lee Ann Womack
“The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone” is a terrific title for a heartbreak country song. Womack sings about how all the old country songs about broken hearts always make it sound somewhat cool, but really the only thing a heartbreak will leave you is “lonely, lonesome and gone.” I love the distinct image of how Hank Williams never sang about watching a Toyota Camry pull out of an apartment complex parking lot. It’s no longer a lonesome whippoorwill or a crying train whistle. It’s a modernized version of heartbreak, but still country as hell. Womack sounds as good as ever too.
56. "Black Jesus" by Jason Eady
“Black Jesus” by Jason Eady is a perfect example of how even though we have our differences depending on what culture we come from or what we look like, deep down we’re all the same human race. It’s not a political song by any means, but in some ways, becomes one of the most important songs of the year with its friendship between an older black man and a young white man bonding on a road construction crew over musical tastes and religion. In the end, it’s just going to be “him and me and Jesus.”
55. "Freight Train" by Robyn Ludwick
There is a lot of pain on Robyn Ludwick’s This Tall to Ride and her raw, raspy voice brings this hurt out perfectly. It’s also a big reason why much of her music reminds me of Lucinda Williams. “Freight Train” is my favorite song on her latest release and it’s a song where the rawness in her vocals shines the best. I particularly like the lyrics about circus freaks being the only ones she can believe, as all her heroes have failed her. The backing music and her soulful vocals give “Freight Train” a nice country-blues vibe.
54. "Arkansas Farmboy" by Glen Campbell
We’ve known for a few years it was a moment that could come any day, but the legendary Glen Campbell lost his battle with Alzheimer’s on August 8. A couple of months prior Campbell’s final album came out aptly titled Adios and featured the heartbreakingly sweet “Arkansas Farmboy,” a biographical song written in the ‘70s by Campbell’s bandmate Carl Jackson about a story Campbell had told him of growing up in The Natural State. The song had been recorded sometime between 2012 and 2013 and Campbell’s voice still sounded great, though he’d already been suffering from Alzheimer’s and had to record the song line by line because he could no longer remember lyrics. One of my favorite aspects of the song is how it incorporates Leadbelly’s “In the Pines,” a song Campbell remembered being taught as a child by his grandfather.
53. "Pontiacs" by John Baumann
John Baumann’s nostalgic reflection of childhood in “Pontiacs” is a song I believe you must be at least around 30, which I turned this year, to truly feel. It’s about how not everything in life works out the way you planned for it to and the times you wish you could go back to the days of playing baseball with the neighborhood kids or losing your virginity in the first car you ever owned. Baumann sings, “I’d give anything for one more day of being young” and it’s a statement I believe a good many of us feel at certain times in our lives.
52. "Sunday Morning Paper"
Angaleena Presley takes the idea of a mother trying to save her child from a life of regret that we were introduced to in Merle Haggard’s classic “Mama Tried” and flips the script. Presley doesn’t seem the least bit regretful of how she turned out, despite claiming to her mama that she tried. “Mama I Tried” is the highlight of Presley’s sophomore release Wrangled with its outlaw sound that incorporates the famous guitar lick from “Mama Tried,” reportedly the first song Presley ever learned to play.
92. "Ern & Zorry's Sneakin' Bitin' Dog" by
91. "Dust" by Trent Tomlinson
90. "Cumberland Gap" by David Rawlings feat. Gillian Welch
89. "The Perilous Night" by Drive-By Truckers
88. "Paper Cowboy" by Margo Price
87. "Ain't Meant to Fly" by Joey McGee
86. "Highway Queen" by Nikki Lane
85. "Bars Ain't Closin'" by Robyn Ludwick
84. "God's Problem Child" by Willie Nelson, Tony Joe White, Leon Russell & Jamey Johnson
83. "Nothin' New Under the Neon" by Midland
82. "Sonny Boy" by Randy Newman
81. "Vandalism Spree" by Hellbound Glory