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.