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