2017 was another solid year for Roots & Americana music. More than solid, even.
When I sat down to draft my initial list of albums that would be in contention for the ten spots available on this list, I ended up filling a page in my trusty notebook with nearly three times that many records. I was surprised it was that few. I could have gone 40 or 50 deep without expending too much extra thought or effort.
The real effort came when I looked to winnow that list down to the standard “Top 10. I could get it down to 15 or so, but each subsequent cut got harder and harder to make. It felt wrong to recognize only 10 albums while leaving others out in the cold. Representing all the different artists and sounds that made 2017 special for me would require listing more than just ten records.
Once I realized my dilemma, I quickly put together a way to work around it. So… here it is.
You’re still getting a traditional “Top 10” list of my favorite albums of the year. However, each of those albums is also paired with a companion album that explores similar sounds, themes, or otherwise occupies a similar space as the actual album in the list. These albums aren’t necessarily 11-20 on my list, but they were on my original short list and occupied a good deal of my listening time this past year. I feel pretty confident in saying these 10 (20?) albums more than fairly represent my favorite music of 2017.
A few things before we start…
*I have not placed Chris Stapleton’s From A Room: Volume 1 or 2 on this list. Going back to the first Steeldrivers record, I’ve always struggled a bit with ranking my elementary and high school classmate on these lists. Too high, and I look biased. Too low, and I fear I’m over compensating. I’ll just say that I think both of Chris’ albums from this year are great, and “Broken Halos” is the lead track on my Best of 2017 mixtape (literally).
*I don’t ever consider live records, compilations, or tribute albums for these year end lists. For these purposes, an album is a mostly original recording from the studio featuring a single artist or group.
*This list isn’t “Best,” it’s “Favorites.” I’m weighing artistic merit, sure. Mostly, though, these are just the records I enjoyed listening to the most… and kept going back to… this past year.
*While I did not limit myself to strictly Roots & Americana releases, they do represent most of what you’ll find here… with one exception that surprised even me.
*At the end, you’ll find a playlist with one track from each of the 20 (21?) albums listed here.
OK… Here we go.
My 10 Favorite Albums of 2017
10. Jessica Lea Mayfield – Sorry is Gone
In a year that gave birth to the “Me Too” movement and just saw Time Magazine name The Silence Breakers… (primarily) women who spoke up and spoke out against sexual harassment and violence… as Person of the Year, Sorry is Gone stands out as an extremely powerful and relevant work. The subject matter this record primarily draws from is Mayfield’s own abusive marriage and her emergence on the other side of that traumatic experience. While this topic could make for a darker album that would ask a lot of the listener to take in and absorb, the songs here ultimately send Mayfield down an optimistic, if uncertain, path where ruminations on trauma and broken trust are less depressing contrasted against the future that path hopefully leads her down. Like countless other women who have begun to speak out in recent months, Mayfield is done apologizing for being a victim.
If You Like That, Try This: This is the Kit – Moonshine Freeze
The connection between these two records is more musical than topical. Both albums lean more on Indie Rock than Americana for influences, and come off as utterly infectious because of it. British musician Kate Stables is the primary driving force behind This is the Kit, and her loping, looping recitation of the album’s title track is one of most powerful ear worms I have carried with me this year.
9. JD McPherson – Undivided Heart & Soul
A lot of what you need to know about this record from JD McPherson can be gleaned from the cover art alone. The Tex Avery inspired drawing provides a hint to the retro-inspired rockabilly sound McPherson has so effortlessly championed since his 2012 debut, and also points to the frenetic qualities of the music within. “Lucky Penny” recalls the Black Keys with its distorted riffs and muscular groove, and that’s kind of the norm on this record. McPherson puts his foot on the gas with the album opening “Desperate Love,” and doesn’t ever really let up all the way through the album closing “Under the Spell of City Lights.” When he does decelerate ever so slightly, as on “Hunting for Sugar,” the results are as sublime as the rest of the record is powerful.
If You Like That, Try This: Chuck Prophet – Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins
Chuck Prophet doesn’t lean quite as heavily on the retro vibes as McPherson, but a titular reference to the “I Fought the Law” singer proves he doesn’t shy away from them either. Like McPherson, Prophet jams his album full of swaggering guitar riffs and hooks stacked on top of hooks to keep you coming back. Bonus points for the spot on Connie Britton impression contained within.
8. Caroline Spence – Spades & Roses
In June, I wrote:
“The strength of this album… 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. “
Earlier this month, Spence released a video for “Softball” that featured 21 female songwriters lip-syncing along to her lyrics. The video ends by listing all 21 of those artists by name above the phrase, “Listen to their music!” It’s solid advice.
If You Like That, Try This: Margo Price – All American Made
Margo Price lives a bit more in the honky-tonk world than does Spence, but still shares some of the same space. “Pay Gap” minces no words in tackling societal inequities while “Learning to Lose,” a duet with Willie Nelson makes sure all the heartbreak bases are covered.
Natalie Hemby’s ode to small town life, Puxico, is also a good comparison here.
7. Zephaniah Ohora & The 18 Wheelers – This Highway
If I wasn’t convinced that Brooklyn’s Zephaniah OHora had a firm grasp on Haggard & Jones’ brand of Country music by the time I got to the end of this record, I certainly was when I saw how he held the Mercy Lounge in his sway during his showcase at the Americana Music Conference. After my spot near the stage became prime dance floor real estate early in the set, I slipped off to the side only to notice Jim Lauderdale had popped out to catch the show as well. I asked “Mr. Americana” if he’d heard Ohora’s record. An excited, “Oh yeah,” was the response.
Listen folks. There are a lot of artists out there who sound like they’re trying to recapture and reproduce the lost sounds of Country Music past. This guy had me checking liner notes to make sure he was actually recording these songs in the here and now. The extent to which Ohora embodies those bygone days must be heard to be believed.
If You Like That, Try This: Sam Outlaw – Tenderheart
Classic Country didn’t just exist in Nashville. Outlaw is a California guy who brings that sensibility to his take on the genre. He also brings a stable of great songs that can pluck at the heartstrings (“Everyone’s Looking for Home” & the title track) or tickle the funny bone [“She’s Playing Hard to Get (Rid Of)”].
6. Rachel Baiman – Shame
The opening song on Rachel Baiman’s album serves as both the title track and a bit of a mission statement for the record. “They wanna bring me shame/But there ain’t no shame” Baiman sings in response to those in religious or patriarchal positions of power. It’s a mantra the former 10 String Symphony member has carried over from her recorded work into the real world as well. After the 2016 Presidential election, Baiman co-founded the organization Folk Fights Back in an effort to, “raise awareness for critical issues in today’s political climate and fund organizations actively fighting for social and political change through fundraiser concerts.” It seems the flaming fiddle on the album cover is more than just a symbol of Baiman’s willingness to subvert the traditions of the traditional folk music her sound is steeped in. It could also be a literal instrument for change.
If You Like That, Try This: Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some
Like Baiman, Lillie Mae Rische is a bit of a fiddle playing prodigy who stepped out on her own with a debut solo record in 2017. For a debut artist, Rische already boasts a long career in music that began in childhood in a band with her father and siblings and includes periods of collaboration with Cowboy Jack Clement and Jack White among others.
5. John Moreland – Big Bad Luv
John Moreland first hit my radar in 2013 when a track from his album In the Throes boldly stated, “Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore.” Of course, Moreland has set about actively disproving that theory by consistently releasing album after album full of deeply thoughtful musical ruminations on heartbreak, faith, mortality, and any other topic worthy of deep mournful probing. On Big Bad Luv, Moreland continues to tap whatever vein it is that allows him to spill his blood so easily into his words. What makes this record stand out, however, is how Moreland takes those extra steps to make sure his words are fleshed out by a fuller sound than anything he’s previously put down on tape. In “Old Wounds,” Moreland opines, “If it don’t bleed, it don’t feel like a song.” All eleven tracks on this album feel like songs… and, man, do they bleed.
If You Like That, Try This: Turnpike Troubadours – A Long Way From Your Heart
Like Moreland, The Turnpike Troubadours hail from Oklahoma, and… like Moreland… the strength of this band is songwriting. Lead singer Even Felker incorporates narrative storytelling as a tool quite a bit here, and long time Troubadours fans will be excited to continue the stories of Lorrie and other characters who have populated past songs. New listeners should still enjoy their first steps into the worlds Felker creates.
4. Lilly Hiatt – Trinity Lane
If you love music, you probably have that one special album in your collection. You know the one. It’s been with you for a while now. You put it on when you need comfort from a broken heart, or you just need something to amplify that last bit of joy you’re trying desperately to hold onto when things aren’t going your way. It knows you. It knows exactly what you’ve been through, and exactly where you’re at. One song will be right there crying alongside you while the next track can pull the smile out of you that you didn’t think you could muster and leave you dancing alone in your living room with the volume knob pegged.
Lilly Hiatt has that album in her collection. I know because she sings about it here on the song “Records.” I know because she has made an album just like that in Trinity Lane.
If You Like That, Try This: Nikki Lane – Highway Queen
By my count, this album from Nikki Lane spent seven weeks at #1 on the Americana Airplay Chart in February & March of this year. Thus proving emphatically Lane’s declarative that, “The Highway Queen don’t need no king.” Try it out the next time you hit the highway yourself. I think you’ll find that Lane’s raspy twang and driving hooks will help you arrive at your destination in a much better mood.
3. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
In the year of Black Lives Matter, Me Too, Stand with Standing Rock, and other movements meant to breed empathy for traditionally marginalized groups, Jason Isbell is here to remind us that, “There’s no such thing as someone else’s war.” We’re all in this thing together, you see. The centerpiece of this record is a song called “White Man’s World” in which Isbell turns his eye to injustices of the world and envisions a future for his daughter, and all our children, where those things no longer exist. There’s still time for us to make this future a reality, Isbell tells us, when he sings, “We’re still breathing./It’s not too late.” And while that’s true, he follows that thought on the very next song, “If We Were Vampires,” by reminding us all that our breathing days are limited. Best get to work living, loving, and fighting for what you believe in while you can.
If You Like That, Try This: Andrew Combs – Canyons of My Mind
From the opening track of this record, “Heart of Wonder,” it is clear that Andrew Combs is an artist who is comfortable with taking chances on growing and expanding his sound from album to album. There’s a grit to this song… a darkness. And by the time the horns kick in at the bridge… a frenetic energy that I found very exciting. Throw those sophisticated sounds onto an album with a batch of well written songs with a bent toward social and environmental awareness, and I feel very comfortable making the Isbell comparison here.
2. Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway
Rhiannon Giddens is a genius. Legitimately. Giddens was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant in October. Of course, anyone who has followed Giddens’ path from her days with The Carolina Chocolate Drops to today knows that already. With the Chocolate Drops, Giddens traced the story of traditional American music all the way back to its African roots. On this album, Giddens’ focus is turned more toward the story of the African American experience from the roots of this country all the way to today. Characters on this record include a mother at risk of being torn away from her child as she is sold on the slave market (“At the Purchaser’s Option”) and a modern youth who’s “good intentions” still lead to a bad situation at the hands of the police (“Better Get it Right the First Time”). As the tales on the record weave through time from slavery to the Civil Rights movement to the modern day, so does Giddens morph her sound from the more traditional to 60’s-era protest songs to hip-hop and rap. As dark as some of these tales can be, the album ends on a forward looking note with the titular cover of the Staples Singers classic “Freedom Highway.”
If You Like That, Try This: Mavis Staples – If All I Was Was Black
I think the reason Giddens closed her album with a Staples Singers song is because she knows to do the exact same thing I do whenever I need a little comfort away from the weight of the world… just put on some Mavis. It always helps. Mavis Staples was already one of my most listened to artists in 2017 well before she dropped this Jeff Tweedy produced gem in December. The empathy and love that ooze out of every note Staples sings on this record will surely continue to grace my playlists well into 2018 as well.
1. Hurray for the Riff Raff – The Navigator
Translated into English, the Latin American slang “pa’lante” roughly means “to move forward.” As it’s used here by Alynda Lee Segarra toward the end of Hurray for the Riff Raff’s The Navigator, it’s comes as a shout of encouragement to those who need it to keep moving forward in trying and uncertain times.
Before she could pen “Pa’lante,” however, Segarra had to first look backward. She traveled to both Puerto Rico (where her ancestors are from) and the Bronx (her childhood home) in an attempt to reconnect with her roots. After steeping in the Puerto Rican culture she uncovered in both places, as well as learning about the challenges that culture faces from issues such as poverty, assimilation, and gentrification, Segarra was inspired to write The Navigator. The record ended up as a concept album of sorts that traces the path of a young woman uncovering that same heritage and tackling those same issues.
The record incorporates many musical styles and traditions including traditional American Folk and more Latin inspired rhythms and percussive elements. This album is a deeply personal turn for Segarra and another pleasing step for a band that was already critical darlings following their previous effort, 2014’s Small Town Heroes. The Navigator moves their sound forward. It mores Segarra’s songwriting forward. It moves the conversations about Puerto Rican pride, heritage, and independence forward.
If You Like That, Try This: Kesha – Rainbow
Much like The Navigator is the result of Alynda Lee Segarra reclaiming her heritage, Rainbow is the result of Kesha reclaiming her life and career following a prolonged legal battle in which Kesha alleged sexual assault against, and attempted to regain her recording rights from, a former producer. The resulting album is a daring statement of independence from an artist finally freed to make the record she wants. And while this is undoubtedly an unapologetic pop record it freely borrows from Country, Soul, and even Americana thanks to guest spots from Steelism, All Our Exes Live in Texas, The Dap-Kings Horns, and even Dolly Parton. This is the record I never expected to love in 2017. I urge you to give it a listen, even if you don’t expect to either.