Sometimes there’s a trade-off between quality and quantity. But sometimes there’s more than enough of both. Such was 2017 in roots and Americana music. Some icons and stars of the format released new music, and the waves of impressive newcomers with debut or sophomore projects never stopped coming.
The stylistic range, the inventiveness and the emotional intensity here in our 27 essential albums and a long list of honorable mentions should not be taken for granted. This explosion of expression and soul-lifting sound has been made possible by sturdy traditions, strong business practices, a quality trade organization, broadcasters and festival bookers and - ultimately - discerning, passionate fans. There's a good case that Americana is the deepest and richest field of popular music in the world right now, and we at WMOT, now one year into this Roots Radio adventure, are proud to be part of it. Because we get to listen to and play artists like these.
Rhiannon Giddens - Freedom Highway
With a MacArthur Fellowship, an IBMA keynote speech and this topical, uncompromising album, Rhiannon Giddens should have been named Americana Artist of the Year. But whatever. This masterful, intimate set of songs is arguably the most relevant and empowered of the year. The fast-evolving folk artist grieves, celebrates, questions and provokes in tune with Dirk Powell’s translucent production.
Turnpike Troubadours - A Long Way From Your Heart
A dozen years of incessant touring and refinement led to this breakthrough LP, a thoroughly realized country music masterpiece. Lead singer and songwriter Evan Felker is heir apparent to the Red Dirt legacy of Jack Ingram and Radney Foster, thanks to his lyrical insight and soul-stirring voice. The eleven tracks fit together seamlessly, and once on, it’s about impossible to turn off.
Ben Sollee - Kentucky Native
As a cello wielding songwriter he's unique, but what would Ben Sollee do next? The exciting answer is this deliberate unpacking and reassembly of bluegrass music. The musicians were carefully recruited from the best of the new acoustic scene. The songs brim with details, insight and activism by example. Bill Monroe is a ghost in the misty background, but this represents folk innovation at its most meaningful.
Texas Gentlemen - Texas Jelly
What if Marty Robbins was in NRBQ or Steely Dan happened in Dallas? That might offer a hint at the nature of this fiercely original and communicative band. Formed by an elite cadre of North Texas studio and stage musicians, TG is a Cowtown A-Team jam band. The grooves are priceless, the off-ramps frequent. And the eight-minute “Shakin’ All Over” makes for explosive vinyl.
The Secret Sisters - You Don’t Own Me Anymore
Lydia and Laura Rogers have had big breaks and nearly been broken by the weird vagaries of the music business in their short career. But when Brandi Carlile offered to produce them, fans stepped up with funding, and this cathartic, reviving album was born. The songs are almost painfully candid, but the rapturous harmonies leave you floating above the turmoil.
Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards - California Calling
These are fruitful times for string band innovation, and right near the top has got to be this Bay Area quartet led by songwriter/singer/fiddler Cortese. The sound is indeed western and wide open, with an old-time Appalachian soul and music academy skills. Finely wrought group vocals play off the pulsing strings for a sound like no other.
Eric Brace and Rory Hoffman - Cartes Postales
Tour de force is probably the right word and definitely the right language. Americana stalwart Eric Brace drew on his lifelong experience with French chanson to make one of the most lush and listenable records of the year. Credit Rory Hoffman with the uncanny, layered instrumental work on accordion, guitar, harmonica, clarinet and more. A beautiful and informative package too.
Dori Freeman - Letters Never Read
With two top albums in two years, Freeman is shaping up to be a long-haul treasure. Not only is her voice a pillow in a meadow, it’s mixed brilliantly on this recording. The music is country through and through, with popular smarts. Teddy Thompson again produces, now with more Thompson, including father Richard on some guitars and a lovely cover of “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight.”
The Wild Ponies - Galax
Doug and Telisha Williams of East Nashville have explored wide-ranging sounds, but here they’ve completely found themselves with a bracingly rural album cut in an old shed on Doug’s grandfather’s Galax, Virginia farm. Nature’s ambience accompanies the acoustic sessions cut by Neilson Hubbard. Songs like “Mamma Bird” and “Tower and the Wheel” reveal wonderful writers who draw stories from their home ground.
Valerie June - The Order of Time
The notion of blending Hill Country Blues, Memphis soul and North African Tuareg music is incalculably appealing, but it’s not clear this West Tennessee free spirit is being that intentional or intellectual about it on her second album. She just lays down her truth, and it’s among the most arresting and strangely beautiful sounds on Earth.
Jason Isbell - The Nashville Sound
Whether it’s his recorded output, his gripping shows, his thoughtful commentary or his clever Twitter feed, Americana’s leading man seems to shoulder his responsibility without strain or sweat. This solid collection features social folk bravery and brilliance in “Cumberland Gap” and “White Man’s World,” while “If We Were Vampires” is a prick of bitter, beautiful truth about life-long love.
The Infamous Stringdusters - Laws of Gravity
Ten years into their career, the Dusters have here blended the freshness of their founding vision with the mastery and synergy that only 10,000 hours on stage can produce. With a band full of skilled writers, lead singers and super pickers, this album keeps renewing its hold on your attention. The jam on “Black Elk” is but one glimpse of the state of the bluegrass art, circa 2017.
Angaleena Presley - Wrangled
The campy cover belies the deeply serious (and frequently funny) songwriting on Presley’s commanding second solo album. This fierce Kentucky feminist will not be trussed up, held back or tied down. “I'd rather eat dirt than bake another prize-winnin' cherry pie,” she sings with a snarl and a wink. There’s not been so much literary-level brassitude in country music since Loretta herself.
J.D. McPherson - Undivided Heart & Soul
McPherson’s reliance on classic rockabilly forms and spare arrangements ought to pigeonhole his music, but a nervous energy and lust for fresh textures and timbres make it irresistible and original. Every one of these eleven catchy songs could be a single. “Crying’s Just A Thing That You Do” is typical - magnificent snark you can twist to.
Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge - Mount Royal
Two of the finest guitarists on the planet compose jewel box instrumentals that work for headphone-close listening or Sunday brunch. “Critter” Eldridge (of Punch Brothers) sings a couple of trad songs and a Pearl Jam cover with laid back grace. Keep your ears on these virtuosos in general.
Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn - Echo In The Valley
Washburn says her role on album one by the married banjo masters was limited by her new mom tiredness but that this follow-up is a fully realized, fully awake collaboration. The arrangements are meticulous and finely woven. The juicy timbres of varied banjos and Washburn’s refined mountain voice make a particular and dreamy emotional landscape.
Hurray For The Riff Raff - The Navigator
Alyndra Segarra has evolved rapidly as an artist, and she’s never been so explicit about her heritage as she is on this concept album about the Puerto Rican experience in New York. Falling as it did between Miranda’s Hamilton and the abandonment of the island after Hurricane Maria, The Navigator is celebratory, righteous and prophetic. And it’s got ritmos por dias.
Marty Stuart - Way Out West
Greatness is never a surprise from the pompadoured patriarch of hard core, Nashville-derived country music. But the tone and make-up of Way Out West were head-turning, with a bunch of cinematic instrumentals and fabulous psychedelia on anchoring songs like “Time Don’t Wait.” The Fabulous Superlatives might be the best four-piece band in roots music.
Jerry Douglas Band - What If
The most influential dobro player of all time hadn’t indulged all of his own influences until this album, which taps a lifelong love of Weather Report and Chick Corea. The compositions easily integrate fiddle, electric guitar and horns into jazz with roots. Several vocal numbers show a powerful singing side of Jerry we’ve never heard before.
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real
Willie’s son has pulled all the strands of his musical interests and his extensive experience together into this diverse, classic feeling project. As per the title or the record and band, it’s a true ensemble affair, with subtle meshing of sound and voice, while the songs sound much older than they are.
Lilly Hiatt - Trinity Lane
Another descendant of Americana royalty (John Hiatt) finds herself as an artist in this fervently rocking and abstractly bluesy collection. The impression is of a thoughtful woman’s well-written diary, with emotional transformation and prosaic details that light up the songs like interior rooms.
Tyler Childers - Purgatory
In what’s arguably the male debut album of the year, Childers delivers arresting postcards from his rural Kentucky home turf, replete with booze and cocaine, love and conflict. Sturgill Simpson’s production builds a hearty foundation. Tyler’s wise, chapped voice describes a world. “Whitehouse Road” was radio candy this summer. The promise here is of a new era Steve Earle.
Lillie Mae - Forever And Then Some
From early tutelage by Cowboy Jack Clement through her family band Jypsi holding down the bohemian heart of Lower Broadway through work on stage with Jack White, the youngest musician in Nashville’s long-admired Rische family has arrived. Her debut is charming and challenging, urban and rural, dark and light.
Billy Strings - Turmoil & Tinfoil
This Michigan-raised 25-year-old isn’t just a gobsmacking acoustic guitar flatpicker. He leads a band like seasoned vet, sings great and writes songs that take a hard look at America with a mix of anger and idealism. The jams here are swirling and powerful. Trippy sound effects enhance the acoustic core. Bluegrass needs a new Tony Rice, and this fellow’s audition is going very well.
The Mavericks - Brand New Day
One of roots music’s most dynamic bands released their first studio album on their own label, entirely in charge of their own destiny for the first time in their dominant career. All the color, groove, spirit and sturdiness of song we’d expect are here, along with an extra zest, born of artistic/business freedom.
Lee Ann Womack - The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone
No one is more sure-footed or tasteful when it comes to classic country than Womack, and the title announces clearly the bleak and blue mission of this 14-song collection. She and husband/producer Frank Liddell retreated to a famous Houston recording studio and worked on a big batch of Womack originals plus a few outside gems. What could go wrong? Nothing went wrong.
Becca Mancari - Good Woman
Among the more sonically adventuresome records from the borders of Americana, Good Woman features double tracked vocals, tasty beats and spectral guitars. Yet all this is in the service of sturdy melodies and seductive, conversational lyrics. She says her goal is music that “respects the roots but also has space and the galaxy in it.” Achieved.
Other Roots Radio Favorites: Old Crow Medicine Show - 50 Years of Blonde On Blonde // Cory Branan - Adios // Christian Lopez - Red Arrow //Nikki Lane - Highway Queen // Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer - Not Dark Yet // Amanda Ann Platt - And The Honeycutters // Chris Stapleton - From A Room, Vol. 1 // Natalie Hemby - Puxico // Nora Jane Struthers - Champion // Justin Townes Earle - Kids In The Street // Jon Byrd - Dirty Ol' River // Jim Lauderdale - London Southern // Ryan Adams - Prisoner // David Rawlings - Poor David's Almanac // Hiss Golden Messenger - Hallelujah Anyhow // Sam Outlaw - Tenderheart // Margo Price - All American Made // The Whiskey Gentry - Dead Ringer // Sarah Siskind & Sunliner - Love // Molly Tuttle - Rise // Gregg Allman - Southern Blood // Travis Meadows - First Cigarette // Jackie Greene - The Modern Lives Vol. 1 // The Mastersons - Transient Lullaby
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