For the last few years, in the humble estimation of Saving Country Music, it has been a somewhat down era for excellent, legacy-caliber releases in country music and independent roots, with deference paid to the releases that did leave high water marks here and there. But 2017 was a different story, especially the first half, leaving us with difficult choices of what to consider to be the best of the year, let alone where to start whittling down the field. But here we are, and we’ll try and do our best.
More so than most years, a slew of projects will not make the cut as Album of the Year candidates, and this feels like a crying shame. Jason Eady‘s self-titled effort was right on the bubble, and would have been included if the candidates weren’t cut off at 10. Dori Freeman once again impressed just like she did in 2016, and was also right on the bubble. Billy Strings arguably put out the best bluegrass album of the year with Turmoil & Tinfoil. The Brother Brothers and their Tugboats EP can’t be overlooked. Colter Wall put out a high caliber, self-titled effort, and at only 22-years-old, will certainly get more shots at Album of the Year in the future, as will Parker McCullum, who set the pace for forward thinking country coming from Texas and beyond.
That’s to say nothing about Chris Stapleton‘s two installments of From A Room, or Willie Nelson‘s God’s Problem Child, which very well might be his best effort in a decade, or decades. And if it wasn’t for the relative un-country-ness of Shinyribs‘ I Got Your Medicine or JD McPherson‘s UNDIVIDED HEART & SOUL, they may have been included here as well.
But all of these records and more will be included on Saving Country Music’s much more expansive ESSENTIAL ALBUMS LIST, which will be published later in December, so don’t go crying about what has been left off. Further albums will also be reviewed, and be made eligible for the Essential Albums List as the end of the year nears.
As always, your feedback isn’t just requested, it will be included in the final calculus of the winner. So if you have an opinion, pipe up. However, THIS IS NOT A STRAIGHT UP AND DOWN VOTE. Your opinion will count, but it will count even more if you put the effort out to convince us why one album deserves to rise above the others. And please, no “You Forgot!” comments. You think something has been unfairly omitted? By all means use the comments section to inform us. Because ultimately this isn’t an exercise to make music into a competition. The purpose is to expand the knowledge base for great music in a vetting exercise that is open to everyone, and respectful to all the music we think is the year’s best.
Jaime Wyatt – Felony Blues
Incredible singing, songwriting, and production in a heavily-thematic effort that hits straight at the heart.
For many of the best practitioners of country music, they don’t choose to pursue country music as a profession, country music chooses them. It becomes a necessity of their circumstances bred from hardship, bad decisions, a misspent youth, or other situations where the burdens of life grow so heavy, the only way to alleviate the load is to put those personal histories and bad experiences into song. With stories spun directly from Jaime Wyatt’s stained history, Felony Blues has the right style, as well as the real world-authenticity that true country music needs to not just send your toes tapping, but to stick to your bones as the real testaments of a life-worn soul.
Exquisitely produced and recorded with an excellent crew of musicians that includes Ted Russell Kamp, Gabe Wincher of The Punch Brothers, and fellow California country artist Sam Outlaw on the duet “Your Loving Saves Me,” the autobiographical, 7-song record is striking in how full and real it sounds, especially when held in contrast to the rather extended era of uninspiring output we find ourselves amidst in independent roots and country music. Though the album was made on a meager budget, no expense was spared if the song called for it, including steel guitar and backup singers, giving this otherwise West Coast country project plenty of Southern textures. (read full review)
Tyler Childers – Purgatory
Traditional/Outlaw country at its finest. A star is born.
Timing is the intangible quantity that is often overlooked for why sweet lady luck smiles upon certain artists and allows their music to succeed, and why others fall flat, or never seem to find the success their relative talent deserves. If Sturgill Simpson had started his career in earnest at age 23, he may have become a known quantity in music way before he was ready, typecast as just okay, and not be in a position where if he randomly chooses to produce an album from some unknown Kentucky songwriter, it immediately results in a necessity to pay attention.
Just like Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton, Tyler Childers was playing and writing music for many years before he was ready to become a part of the national country music conversation. It was only after years of failure, perseverance, tempering in the fires of everyday life and dues paid on small stages that Tyler was able to find enough wisdom furrowing his brow and the proper resources beneath him to take it to the masses.
It’s that nexus between rural, real-world vernacular, filtered through an intelligent perspective, and gifted with poetic insight that makes an album like Tyler Childers’ Purgatory more infectious than your average throwback country effort. This album makes no apologies, and no attempts to sand down the rough edges, speaking candidly about drug use and womaizing similar to those early underground records from folks like Hank3 that helped set the table for the current country insurgency, yet is still distinctly Kentucky in perspective, steeped in the hollers of coal country, where the action happens down winding roads shaded from the sun due to the looming hills, and debauchery is so easy to discover if you know where to go looking. (read full review)
Lilly Hiatt’s – Trinity Lane
This is the 2017 sleeper.
With her third record, second generation alt-country performer Lilly Hiatt has offered up a career-defining album full of songwriting gems and inspired performances that is spirited to the heights of infectious listening by smart and considerate production. This personal and galvanized work finds the full realization of Lilly Hiatt’s vision, voice, and potential as a songwriter and performer, stepping out of the shadow of a famous name, forging her own sound and identity, and announcing her participation in discussions of who is worthy of praise in a new generation of emerging artists energized by rock and country in equal measures.
Trinity Lane is not just a record for people who like music, but for those dedicated acolytes of the art form who would travel two states over for a festival, or fork out money to buy their favorite artist’s new record on vinyl the day of release. Whether it’s incorporating the time stamp of the day David Bowie died in an alt-country song, or one of Trinity Lane‘s standout songs called “Records,” this particular work doesn’t just speak to what it’s like to have your heart broken, it speaks to having music help you through those moments, and how it can act as the backdrop to certain memories.
Trinity Lane is named for the specific street where Lilly Hiatt resides. But beyond the emotional breakup that inspired this record, it also reminds the true music fan what a place apart music can be for the troubles of the mind and heart—where it can create intimate landscapes inside each of us to escape to. There is us, and then there is us when we are lost in those moments all to ourselves that only the best music can provide—music like the stuff found on Lilly Hiatt’s Trinity Lane. (read full review)
Zephaniah OHora – This Highway
An ideal specimen of classic country in the modern context, and the best-produced album in the bunch.
Zephanaiah OHora’s This Highway just very well might be a modern classic country masterpiece. It’s flawless for what it is, which is a reawakening of everything brilliant and beautiful about the Countrypolitan era of country music, while leaving all the superfluousness of strings and choruses and other overproduction aside. In fact in a strange way, Zephaniah OHora, some 60 years after the original Countrypolitan era, has represented the essence and spirit of what made that era so great even better than some of the original artists and albums that helped define that epoch of American country music.
And don’t let me hear a peep about how some slicked back guy from the Big Apple is incapable of singing country music. Just listen to This Highway, and that perception is immediately discredited. If you want a good excuse to disregard Zephaniah OHora and This Highway, I offer my sincerest apologies. It is still eclectic to take this type of vintage approach to country music, and it won’t put Zephaniah on the Sturgill Simpson trajectory to superstardom. But for what it is and how it’s presented, This Highway leans heavily towards perfection. (read full review)
Marty Stuart – Way Out West
Country music’s best conceptualized record of 2017.
This album is steeped in a moment when forces thought to be so diametrically opposed in culture began to cross breed in ways we are still trying to match the creativity of today. Being a tireless student of the music as he is, Marty Stuart has gone and made a record that delves into this era with such authority and enthusiasm, it comes as close to matching those original moments as anyone since.
Just like The West itself, Marty Stuart’s new album is vast and diverse. You have the Marty Robbins-style desert ballads, you have the California country Clarence White influence, you have the Native American and the Mexican represented since they have such a profound influence on the land, and it’s all interwoven with the wonder that the American West inspires.
As much as Marty Stuart is a student of country music—and always has been from his days of playing in the bands of Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash—he’s also a teacher. And with a refreshing boldness, and frankly a little bit of guts from running the risk of being misunderstood by some of the fuddy duddy fans of traditional country, Marty Stuart encapsulates a critical time in country and all of American music when country music became cool. And even better, with Way Out West, Marty Stuart proves it still is. (read full review)
John Moreland – Big Bad Luv
The best songwriting of 2017, hands down.
Moreland has always been the apex predator in the songwriting department since he began releasing albums, even preceding Jason Isbell for those who put the effort out to seek Moreland out and listen. But the production of his records has always left a little to be desired. It’s hard for an artist who is used to performing solo to sit in a studio and know what to do with additional musicians, and this came through in the recording process. Don’t mistake this as a desire for Moreland to have a “produced” sound. That would suffocate his music faster than anything. But releasing music that is infectious, that honors groove, that finds a fetching melody is just another way to broaden the audience for John Moreland songs and enhance the experience, and shouldn’t been seen as somehow disrespecting or misunderstanding what’s at the heart of his appeal.
Big Bad Luv is exactly the type of album that John Moreland needed to make, where his songcraft suffers none, but is bolstered by the virtue of a more compositional approach to the music itself. And this is the only place he could improve or “evolve,” because the songwriting was already at the pinnacle. This album works like memories do. Salient, yet immersed in longing. Warm, but tinged with a little bit of pain. The song ends, but the message remains in your heart—and on this album, the melody and beat still frolicking in your toes, while presenting maybe even a more elevated songwriting effort from previous Moreland works, if that is even possible. (read full review)
Sunny Sweeney – Trophy
A victory from a once major label star who found her voice, and her home.
With Sunny Sweeney’s new album Trophy, it’s country, it’s Texas, and most importantly, it’s Sunny Sweeney all the way. It is the full package. It is a homecoming for Sunny. Like she says so well in the song “Nothing Wrong with Texas,” we all get so swept up in thinking there’s greener pastures, and better opportunities in latitudes and locations beyond our own, we forget that sometimes the things we go searching for in life are right under our noses. It’s not always a compromise to settle. Sometimes there’s nothing better than what you already have.
Trophy is the name of Sunny Sweeney’s fourth record, and a song about an attitude problem of an ex-girlfriend or wife. But the title is also indicative of a victory. The problem with money and fame is that you can always have more of it. The true victories in life are the ones earned when you discover something about yourself, and achieve a goal that is personal to you. Sometimes this comes with the earning of great wealth and recognition, and sometimes it comes at the compromise of them. But the measurements of fame and wealth are arbitrary and capricious. What’s most important is the personal discoveries you achieve. That is the point of the pursuit of happiness, and what is at the heart of Trophy. (read full review)
Turnpike Troubadours – A Long Way From Your Heart
Has to be considered one of the strongest contenders in a strong field.
The Turnpike Troubadours are the greatest country music band in the world right now. The Turnpike Troubadours very well may be the the greatest country act overall—male, female, duo or group. Unlike other big non-commercial names like Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, and Sturgill Simpson, the Turnpike Troubadours are not polarizing in any way to the population of music fans. Unlike Stapleton and Simpson, they are truly independent. You don’t shy away from the Turnpike Troubadours in any way from some perceived political affiliation or other potential acrimonious issue. And unlike Isbell, Stapleton, and Simpson, the Turnpike Troubadours are solidly, undeniably country.
The appeal for the Turnpike Troubadours crosses age groups, gender, geographic location, and social status. The Turnpike Troubadours are the independent band that even your mainstream-listening friends and family love. The Turnpike Troubadours are energetic and youthful, yet mature. Their music has an infectiousness, yet is still incredibly deep. The Turnpike Troubadours are all things to all country music people, and continuously prove their universal appeal whenever given a chance. And with a head full of momentum and a growing mantle of critical accolades and commercial accomplishments, the Turnpike Troubadours may have just released their most gratifying album yet.
Where other promising acts of independent country seem to almost invariably veer towards the rock or indie side of music as they make their career ascent, the Turnpike Troubadours have stuck to their country roots. If anything, they’ve added more twang to their sound by incorporating a sixth permanent member into the band recently in steel guitar player “Hammerin’” Hank Early. The Turnpike Troubadours are a band that won’t break your heart as a country fan. They won’t abandon you to follow some big trend, or attempt to set one for themselves. Like the rising and setting sun, the Turnpike Troubadours are steady. They are there for you, while remaining remarkably fresh and avoiding anything the feels even close to a stale routine. (read full review)
Joseph Huber – The Suffering Stage
Not to be overlooked, a strong display of songwriting and instrumentation, combined with excellent, unique production.
It’s hard to say enough about Joseph Huber’s songwriting, and how he’s able to evoke melancholy and forlornness in both timeless and timely narratives, or his ability to step behind most any instrument and pull the magic out of a melody that is eerily perfect for the desired mood and message. But something that can’t be emphasized enough about Huber’s music, and what is at the heart of why his songs have this naturally mournful, yet warming sensation, is simply the way his record’s sound, boiled down to perfunctory recording technique. It’s wholly immersive on the senses, like the smell of the inside of your grandfather’s suitcase.
The Suffering Stage makes reference to the Buddhist philosophy of life as suffering, and to life as a “stage” that we’re all simply players on. Whether it’s a spiritual journey or a theatrical movement, the point is to walk away with something learned; something gained. This is what Joseph Huber delivers on this record. Old, forgotten memories get stirred to the forefront. Theories on life are recalled and reflected upon. And you don’t end up more happy like music is supposed to do, you end up a little sad and nostalgic, but in a way that’s strangely comforting in a manner simple happiness is incapable of delivering. (read full review)
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
A tour de force from Isbell. The Album of the Year in Americana, for sure.
Jason Isbell’s The Nashville Sound is a career record. Put it right up there with his 2013 breakout, Southeastern. It is an important record for our time, and not because it relies on raptly polarizing political ideologies as the basis for its message and creative assertions, but because Jason Isbell, a native of Green Hill, Alabama, who is as Southern as the day is long, who is as sharp and in tune with the rhythms of culture in his time as anyone, is like a living, breathing embodiment of the modern day American experience, with all the dichotomies, guilt, glory, fortitude, humility, fears, and vices we all face encapsulated into one perspective, all capped off with his newly-found illumination via fatherhood.
The Nashville Sound is not a country album. It’s a Jason Isbell album. We want to claim it as country because it’s just so damn good regardless of what you call it. Country music should be proud to have Isbell within its ranks, and that’s the same reason so many try to extract an artist like Sam Hunt. A track like “Anxiety” isn’t really country at all. It’s not like any song we’ve heard from Isbell in the past. But it’s good, and most every roots-based genre will look to claim it.
We have lost so much in the last 18 months in the United States and beyond, even those of us who may have won political victories. The polarization and vitriol has inflicted its acrid state of mind on nearly every sector of life, including sports and leisure, and things that are supposed to take our minds off everyday trouble and conflict. At some point there must be a firewall, and music not meant as political insult shouldn’t be taken as such, or characterized so. Especially music that carries such enjoyment, wisdom, and is able to evoke emotions like The Nashville Sound does. (read full review)
Thomas Rhett – Life Changes
1) Please feel free to leave who YOU believe should win in the comments section below, as well as a list of your top albums of 2017.
2) Your feedback is strongly encouraged and will factor into the final decision, but this is not an up or down vote.
3) A much more expansive Essential Albums List will be posted in later December, so no bellyaching about what is “missing.” Make a suggestion of what you believe deserves greater recognition. This list is not just intended to reinforce who you already like, it’s purpose is to help fill in gaps in everyone’s knowledge base about great country and roots music.