AltCBeyond’s Favorite 15 Albums of 2017
2017 was a banner year for Americana. Jason Isbell and John Moreland, the genre’s flagbearers, released new albums and many emerging artists produced outstanding debut and sophomore efforts. A look back at 2017 is also laced with sadness upon the passing of Chris Cornell, Tom Petty, and Glen Campbell. Their talent and music, however, will continue to shape music long after their passing.
Below are AltCountry&Beyond’s 15 favorite albums of 2017, and a selection of favorite songs in the categories of acoustic, slow electric, and up-tempo rock. The musically diverse albums below reflect an expansive view of “Americana.” For this review, the genre refers to music that contains quality songwriting, powerful instrumentals, and sonic independence.
1. Jessica Lea Mayfield: Sorry is Gone
Mayfield’s album Sorry Is Gone captures the raw emotion and feelings associated with the sensitive topic of domestic violence. The album’s tracks flowed naturally for Mayfield as she wrote about her own experiences of being in an abusive relationship. After she completed the album, Mayfield realized she would need to explain its content to others. She hoped that being honest about the issue could help others in similar situations. The lyrics describe her growing feelings of resilience as Mayfield recognizes that she should have more freedom, independence, and security. These words undergird infectious choruses, rhythmic electric guitar, and Mayfield’s subtle, breezy vocals. “Meadow” is my pick for song of the year, and Sorry is Gone is one of 2017’s best albums.
Suggested Tracks: Sorry is Gone, Meadow
“But I deserve to occupy this space without feeling like I don’t belong, I’m done excusing myself; I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but sorry is gone.” Sorry is Gone, Jessica Lea Mayfield
2. Old 97s: Graveyard Whistling
Graveyard Whistling could be the Old 97’s best record to date. For their 11th studio album, the group returned to Tornillo, Texas where they recorded their first major label debut, Too Far To Care. Graveyard Whistling features Rhett Miller at his best with amusing, light-hearted lyrics about dating backed by up-tempo guitar. In “Jesus Loves You,” Miller competes with Jesus for a girl’s affections. He admits that Jesus has a “pretty kick ass story” and has the “world in his hands,” but Miller argues that he is carrying Lone Star beer and is a “real live person.” Similarly, on the track “She Hates Everybody,” Miller dates a misanthrope, and while he is thrilled to be the object of her affections, he has trouble sleeping due to his fear that she will turn on him. The choruses and arrangements on Graveyard Whistling are impeccable, and there is not a weak track on the record.
Suggested Tracks: Jesus Loves You, Good With God
3. Turnpike Troubadours: A Long Way From Your Heart
Oklahoma-based Turnpike Troubadours’ fifth album, A Long Way From Your Heart, is a stellar record that showcases the band’s unique brand of “red dirt” country. Knee-slapping fiddle, ripping country guitar licks, and ballad-laced lyrics will move you onto the dance floor or compel you to sing along to an acoustic track. Vocalist Evan Felker describes a family escaping from a burning house in the song “The Housefire,” while another track “A Tornado Warning,” relates the tranquility of hail hitting a tin roof. Felker also observes a friend in a lovestruck relationship with a younger woman in the acoustic ballad “Unrung.” This record’s release and some national touring should propel Turnpike into the national spotlight.
Suggested Tracks: The Housefire, Unrung
“Well I can tell you she’s a bad idea, For the good it would do, You got a Chevrolet as old as her, Hell you bought it new.” Unrung, Turnpike Troubadours
4. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: The Nashville Sound
The title Isbell chose for his new album made a statement before the first track was released. Isbell, who recorded (and lives) in Nashville, challenged the city’s pop-country leanings with a title recommending a new path for the city’s musical identity. Isbell already won a Grammy for best Americana album in 2016, and in 2017 The Nashville Sound cracked an unexpected barrier when the record was nominated for CMA’s album of the year. Not that any of the accolades phase Isbell. He strives for depth – not hits – on his records, and the Nashville Sound is no exception. The new album contains more 400 Unit instrumentals including Sadler Vaden on guitar, Jimbo Hart on bass, and Amanda Shires (his wife) on fiddle and vocals. The instrumentals energize songs like “Cumberland Gap” and “Hope the High Road,” where Isbell paints fictional pictures of hope and despair. Interestingly, Isbell wrote one of the best tracks on the album “If We Were Vampires,” after the record was complete. Amanda told Jason he should continue his scheduled songwriting even thought the album was finished. He did, and the result of his penmanship was “If We Were Vampires,” an emotional, riveting, and introspective view about mortality and love.
Suggested Tracks: Cumberland Gap, If We Were Vampires
“As soon as the sun goes down, I find my way to the Mustang Lounge, And if you don’t sit facing the window, You could be in any town.” Cumberland Gap, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
5. John Moreland: Big Bad Luv
Moreland kicks into high gear with Big Bad Luv. John Calvin Abney joins Moreland to add ripping guitar and keys to accompany his epic songwriting. Songs like “Sallisaw Blue” and “Amen, So Be It” feature a lively, bluesy element, though Moreland also draws on his acoustic magic for tracks like “No Glory in Regret” and “Latchkey Kid.” This album features some happier moments than prior records, but the lyrics are just as thoughtful and reflective as past albums. In 2017 Moreland made his national TV debut on the Stephen Colbert show. He played “Break My Heart Sweetly” while sitting in a chair and belting out the song’s beautiful lyrics.
I believe (or hope) that you could have heard a pin drop across the country during that song – just as it should be.
Suggested Tracks: No Glory In Regret, Latchkey Kid.
6. Lilly Hiatt: Trinity Lane
Hiatt wrote most of the lyrics to Trinity Lane from her East Nashville apartment after returning from tour to find that her boyfriend had vacated her apartment. On the record, Hyatt looks inward and boldly discusses vulnerable periods of her life where she exhibited neediness, anger, and insecurity. These feelings are a welcome change to the reactionary anger normally expressed on records after a break-up. Hyatt also offers a glimpse into her life philosophy on the track “Trinity Lane,” which is where her apartment is located. In the song she relays routine yet thoughtful observations of herself and her surroundings that capture her attempt to make sense of life. Perhaps what makes the record so special though is Hyatt’s vocals – her irresistible twangy-blues sound, colorful choruses, and rhythmic guitar. Trinity Lane is more polished and richer than her prior record Royal Blue (a great album itself), and lands firmly on Americana’s “best of” list for 2017.
Suggested Tracks: I Wanna Go Home, All Kinds of People
“Gonna hang on a little bit longer, Sleep well, work a little harder, Put my faith in something I can’t see.” Trinity Lane, Lilly Hiatt
7. Cayetana: New Kind of Normal
The Philadelphia-based trio Cayetana released their sophomore album New Kind of Normal on their own label, Plum Records. They created the company to ensure they could chart their own musical path and free themselves from outside interference. The decision was a good one, because New Kind of Normal features a captivating pop-punk sound with an independent flair. Singer and guitarist Augusta Koch’s melodic guitar licks will cause you to bounce and sway while her voice cracks with energy. On the album, Koch explains that depression is a normal and debilitating disease and not a deviant sickness of outcasts. Koch is backed by talented bassist Allegra Anka and drummer Kelly Olsen, and together the trio produced one the best albums of 2017.
Suggested Tracks: Mesa, Bus Ticket
“You think my life is a vacation, That I’m adjusting to this medication, So could feel more, Care less, So I could get this, This shit off my chest.” Bus Ticket, Cayetana
8. Phoebe Bridgers: Stranger in the Alps 2
When Ryan Adams heard Bridgers’s song “Killer,” he asked her to record the track in his studio. Adams later published her first EP on his label. It’s no wonder the song caught Adams’s attention. “Killer,” like many of Bridgers’s tracks, contains mesmerizing vocals and haunting lyrics, in this case regarding the unsettling topic of serial killers. In 2017 Bridger released Stranger in the Alps 2, which contains a slower version of “Killer” and new songs that examine relationships and loss. The ghostly, dreamlike quality of Bridgers’s vocals, backed by fingerpicked electric and acoustic guitar, sends emotion coursing through a listener’s veins.
Suggested Tracks: Funeral, Georgia
9. Sarah Shook and the Disarmers: Sidelong
Shook and the Disarmers’ debut Sidelong contains raucous, energetic tracks that combine Old West ballads with modern narratives about drinking and rough living. Sidelong breathes new life into these themes with crisp pedal steel, country-laced guitar licks, and plain-spoken lyrics that describe desperate situations in humorous terms. In the track “Nail,” Shook comments that her drunk boyfriend “should get his ass outside and dig a hole” because one of them is going to end up in it. Shook’s voice, which elevates and pulsates against Old West style pedal steel, is a natural fit for this genre of music. Sidelong does not sound like a debut album; a testament to the talents of Shook and her bandmates.
Suggested Tracks: The Nail, No Name
“Well I ain’t your last, you ain’t my first, You can’t decide which fact is worst, Why don’t you get your ass outside and dig a hole? This headache’s going to break my heart, The hand brake broke and the truck won’t start, You’ve got me playing the dead man’s card, dear Lord.” The Nail, Sarak Shook and the Disarmers
10. Caroline Spence: Spades and Roses
Spence’s debut record, Spade and Roses, reveals a calm, plain, elegance that ensnares the listener from the first track. Her conversational style narrates stories about love, touring, and drugs with a sound that feels like a personal house show. In “You Don’t Look So Good (on Cocaine),” Spence subtly tells a friend that she is concerned about their drug habit, and in “Hotel Amarillo” Spence explains the realities of touring as a broke singer, and you feel as if she was sitting across the table from you with a guitar. The record shows that Spence is a natural songwriter, and her smashing entrance into the Americana scene was one of 2017’s most pleasant musical surprises.
Suggested Tracks: You Don’t Look So Good (on Cocaine), Hotel Amarillo
11. Waxahatchee: Out In The Storm
Waxahatchee’s fourth album is an emotional and musical departure from past records. Out In The Storm features a feisty, independent Katie Crutchfield, who emerged from a toxic relationship with a distorted guitar and renewed sense of purpose. The shift to grunge rock was a natural fit for Crutchfield and produces an exciting combination of her vocals against a punk-injected backdrop. The album also contains slower acoustic tracks like “Fade” which round out the record and elevate Out In The Storm to one of the best releases of the year.
Suggested Tracks: Silver, Recite Remorse
“I was shaking like a leaf, I was clenching my fists, I was losing my mind, yeah, I was dancing with death.” Silver, Waxahatchee
11. The Menzingers: After the Party
The Menzingers’ fifth full album After The Party proves that the group, despite their misgivings about getting older, can still produce great music. This is the band’s first album in three years and the songs address their apprehension about being a veteran rock band that crosses the 30-year-old mark. The record contains frontman’s Greg Barnett’s commanding, ramped-up choruses supported by quick-paced electric guitar. After The Party shows that the group hasn’t lost a step in three years and remains one of the decade’s top independent rock bands.
Suggested Tracks: Midwestern States, Lookers
12. Diet Cig: Swear I’m Good at This
Swear I’m Good At This is the first full-length record from the duo Diet Cig. Alex Luciano and Noah Bowman released an EP two years ago that caught the attention of critics for its raw energy and lyrics. Their new album, Swear I’m Good At This, retains the same unvarnished edges of its predecessor, but with a slightly more mature touch. The tracks contain orchestrated choruses and memorable lyrics, that examine insecurity, uncertainty, and strength. Songs like “Maid of the Mist” explode with Diet Cig’s energy and do so with a sing-along style sound.
Suggested Tracks: Maid of the Mist, Leo
13. Susto: & I’m Fine Today
Susto’s sophomore effort, I’m Fine Today, marked a musical shift from their debut record. Susto’s first album contained passionate vocals with similar instrumental themes. For their second record, frontman Justin Osborne stretches the musical landscape with an array of Southern tones including breezy rock and slower, key-laced ballads. Osborne, however, still retains the emotion and passion that made the first album so enjoyable. & I’m fine Today is a solid follow-up effort to their debut and highlights Susto’s maturation and diverse musical range.
Suggested Tracks: Waves, Gay in the South
14. Deer Tick: Volume 2
In 2017, four years after the release of their last album, Deer Tick produced two full length records: Volume 1, an acoustic album and Volume 2 with electric instrumentals. The albums, as depicted on the vinyl’s cover, represent ketchup and mustard, with Volume 1 reflecting earlier Deer Tick albums like War Elephant and Volume 2 containing tracks similar to the upbeat songs in Negativity and Divine Providence. Vocalist John McCauley’s shrill and raspy vocals lead classic refrains in songs like “Jumpstarting” and “Look How Clean I Am.” One of 2017’s best releases.
Suggested Tracks: Jumpstarting, Mr. Nothing Gets Worse
15. Vandoliers: The Native
The musical genres incorporated into the Dallas-based Vandoliers’ second album include Tejano, blues, rock, and country. Their meshing of musical identities breaks new ground, leading some to refer to their music as “cow punk.” Lead singer Josh Fleming, a former frontman for a punk band, created the six-piece Vandoliers to generate a new sound that combined traditional Texas music with the raw energy associated with punk. On The Native, Fleming describes life growing up in North Texas, replete with adventure, drinking, long summers, and music. Though the Vandoliers are best known regionally, this album and national touring should garner them a dedicated following.
Read my full review of their album here: http://nodepression.com/album-review/vandoliers-break-new-musical-ground-native
Suggested Tracks: Rolling Out, Endless Summer
2017 Acoustic(ish) Song of the Year: Funeral, Phoebe Bridgers
Runner-Ups: Giving Back the Best of Me, Jaime Wyatt; Diminished Things, Joseph Huber; Righteous Ways, Scott Biram
2017 Up-Tempo Rock Song of the Year: I Wanna Go Home, Lilly Hiatt
Runner-Ups: Silver, Waxahatchee; Mesa, Cayetana
2017 Electric Slow Rock Song of the Year: Meadow, Jessica Lea Mayfield.
Runner-Ups: You Don’t Look So Good (Cocaine), Caroline Spence; Bottle By My Bed, Sunny Sweeney
Other 2017 Favorites
Benchmarks, Our Undivided Attention
Blackfoot Gypsies, To The Top
The Bohannons, Luminary Angels
Colter Wall, Colter Wall
Deer Tick, Vol. 1
The Flatliners, Inviting Light
Jamie Wyatt, Felony Blues
Japandroids, Near to the Wild Heart of Life
Justin Huber, The Suffering Stage
Kali Masi, Wind Instrument
Lauren Barth, Forager
Lee Baines III & The Glory Fires, Youth Detention
Margo Price, All American Made
Nikki Lane, Highway Queen
Porter and the Bluebonnet Rattlesnakes, Don’t Go Baby It’s Gonna Get Weird Without You
Ronnie Fauss, Last of the True
Scott Biram, The Bad Testament
Son Volt, Notes of Blue
Steve Earle, So You Wanna Be An Outlaw
Sunny Sweeney, Trophy
Tigers Jaw, Spin
Tyler Childers, Purgatory
Whitney Rose, Rule 62
Willie Nelson, God’s Problem Child
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