This site has sat in silence for a bit of time now.
I’ve nearly dusted it off on a few occasions during that time, but I always seem to get distracted for some reason. That does’t mean I haven’t thought about coming back to it. A few times lately, I’ve had some kind of thought, review, or rant pop into my head and bounce around for a day or two. I come here to hash it all out into a post… and it just comes out in a tweet storm instead. I like that format, but I like this one better. I’d like to use it more frequently.
There’s no way I have the time these days to commit to updating on any kind of regular basis. So I’m not gonna promise to do that. I’m just going to promise to try to not leave this space blank for 20+ months at a time. If something gnaws at me for a minute, I’ll try to address it here. We’ll see how it goes.
Anyway… A lot of folks have been posting their mid-year lists of the best records of 2017. That got me thinking about my favorite records of 2017. And… well… since I just promised to try to write things out when they get bouncing around in my head, here are my ten favorite albums to this point of 2017, ten more albums that are also great, and a Spotify playlist containing 50 tracks from those 20 albums.
My 10 Favorite Americana Albums of 2017. So Far… (listed alphabetically)
Ryan Adams – Prisoner
Ryan Adams may be the most prolific songwriter of my generation. It’s a well documented trait that has been both his blessing and curse over the years. Adams floods the world with songs (even this February release has already been followed by a Prisoner B Sides album), often resulting in albums that my ears would define as containing nearly equal amounts of hits and misses. For that reason, many of Adams’ later records seem to blend into one in my memory. For some other reason, most of the songs on this one seemed to break through and hit with me the first time around… and have stuck there as well.
Rachel Baiman – Shame
Rachel Baiman was brand new to me when I first picked up her newest solo effort. I had heard a bit of her band 10 String Symphony in the past, but I didn’t really connect her to that project. I just saw the skull and the flaming violin on the cover and immediately stuck the CD into the “listen” pile. When I did put it in the player, I was immediately struck by the Hartford-meets-Welch sound of the album opening title track. I was even more impressed once I felt the lyrical weight of that song of eschewing religious and societal pressures and finding one’s own way to “triumphant jubilee.”
Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway
Where do I even start with this record? Rhiannon Giddens second solo album presents an artist so comfortable in her own skin and so capable of tackling delicate and complex social issues through song that her own original compositions dealing with the African-American experience in this country ranging from slavery to the Black Lives Matter movement stand shoulder to shoulder with the Pops Staples composition that gives this album its title track. Simply put… Giddens is one of the greatest talents working today in any genre of music. From her operatically trained voice to her razor sharp pen, Giddens possesses the ability to move the listener in any number of ways.
Hurray for the Riff Raff – The Navigator
Just a couple of years ago, Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra called for folk singers to “fall in love with justice” and “sing the tune(s) of this time.” Segarra has risen to her own challenge with her latest effort, a concept album of sorts that finds her fully embracing both her Puerto Rican heritage and her New York City upbringing. The centerpiece of the album comes near its end in the call to action track “Pa’lante.” Translated into English, the abbreviated phrase pa’lante roughly means “forward.” That’s exactly where Segarra is looking with this record.
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
As a songwriter, Jason Isbell possesses the highly enviable talents of observation and interpretation… to make the mundane moments of others’ daily existence profound. Take for example the character study that is “Cumberland Gap.” Here Isbell fully inhabits the life of an Appalachian miner’s son who dreams of forging his own path, though he is destined to succumb to the gravitational forces of his hometown. When he turns those powers on himself and his own house, we get songs like the stop-you-in-your-tracks-powerful “White Man’s World.” Here, Isbell the father simply wishes for his young daughter to have opportunities those who came before her did not. Hell, he wants the same for everyone.
Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some
For an artist releasing her debut solo record, Lillie Mae Rische has a pedigree many musicians with several recordings under their belt would be jealous of. Mae has garnered attention in recent years as fiddle player and vocalist in Jack White’s band. Before she was even 10-years-old, however, Mae and her siblings were mentored for a time by none other than Cowboy Jack Clement. Elements of Clement’s classic country influence as well as White’s edgier modern approach can both be found here. Make no mistake, though. It is readily apparent as soon as Mae belts out the unadorned first line of the album opening “Over the Hill & Through the Woods” that she is her own artist with her own voice.
John Moreland – Big Bad Luv
Honestly, I think this album landed its spot on this list before I even heard it. I got to host Moreland for a brief interview and performance when he was in town a few weeks before the record’s release. By the time he (along with John Calvin Abney on guitar) was done with the first verse of a live (radio friendly) version of “Sallisaw Blue,” I knew I was gonna love the whole thing. Moreland has always been adept at spilling the entire contents of his heart into his work, and he does not disappoint on that front in this set. In fact, Moreland’s writing style may be best summed up by the very self aware closing line from this disc’s “Old Wounds.” Moreland sings, “If we don’t bleed, it don’t feel like a song.” John Moreland has songs.
Zephaniah Ohora with the 18 Wheelers – This Highway
Maybe the highest compliment I can pay this album from Brooklyn classic country newcomer Zephaniah Ohora is that I was over halfway through listening to the thing before I realized that he was singing original songs. The ghosts of George & Merle are so tightly woven into the sound of this record, I initially assumed Ohora was simply mining some lesser known gems from their catalogs. Seriously… tell me Merle Haggard didn’t write “Songs My Mama Sang.” I’m still not sure I believe he didn’t. Having said all of that, this record should in no way be mistaken for some sort of paint-by-numbers aping of the past. Ohora certainly has his ears pointed toward his predecessors, but his heart and soul (& this album has plenty of both) are firmly planted in the present. Simply stated… I’m not sure I’ve heard a better sounding record in 2017.
Caroline Spence – Spades & Roses
The first thing you notice when listening to Caroline Spence is her voice. It’s lilting and ephemeral… yet firmly in command of each melody and refrain. The strength of this album, however, lies in Spence’s songwriting. Whether it’s the road weary loneliness of “Hotel Amarillo” or the deep personal confessions of “Southern Accident,” Spence strikes a resonant chord in the listener by placing a bit of herself into each and every song. “Softball” is a tune I got a preview of back in 2015 when I hosted Spence at WDVX. This song alone should put her in conversations alongside Giddens, Isbell and a handful of others as a songwriter with the ability to subtly address the issues of our time for how it deals with the language of sexism in today’s society. Spence also gets bonus points for making my wife’s favorite record to this point of 2017.
Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives – Way Out West
So you thought Sturgill Simpson had the market cornered on psychedelic country records? Not so fast. On Way Out West Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlative band mates (Kenny Vaughan, Harry Stinson, Chris Scruggs) embark on a sort of Western travelogue full of surf rock instrumentals, Bakersfield bravado, and… yes… even pill fueled psychedelic swagger. The thing about Marty Stuart, though, is that he is such a student and historian of country music and all of its forms and influences, that all of these stylistic detours are expertly pulled off and give the album a perfect variety of textures to hold the listener’s attention all the way to the end.
Honorable Mention: 10 More Records I’ve Been Digging in 2017 (also alphabetical)
Andrew Combs – Canyons of My Mind
Joshua James – My Spirit Sister
Nikki Lane – Highway Queen
The Old 97’s – Graveyard Whistling
Sam Outlaw – Tenderheart
Chuck Prophet – Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins
Robert Randolph & the Family Band – Got Soul
Shinyribs – I Got Your Medicine
Son Volt – Notes of Blue
Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Volume 1