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Last year, I opened this list with a discussion of 2016 was the year that bro-country was forced to reckon with itself, that songs about short shorts and pickups would no longer make you a top country star. 2017 has mostly borne that out; the bros have given way to a gentler shade of male, like singers like Brett Eldredge and Chris Young, guys who won’t sing about Fireball or any other rail whiskey product.
But ultimately, it was a quiet year for country music. Chris Stapleton dominated the charts for more than a quarter of the year, but there wasn’t a lodestar album that dominated the conversation this year, and it seemed like every other week boasted a country album that needed attention. Shania came back, Kane Brown came up, and everybody from Jason Isbell to Brad Paisley took their time at number one.
If there was a debate to be had, it was over that recurs every 10 years debate over who gets to make country music, like it wasn’t decided at least by the moment that Merle “Born In California” Haggard became one of the genre’s biggest stars in the ‘60s that literally anyone anywhere can be “authentic” country. A bunch of performers found themselves embroiled in debates that were litigated in Rolling Stone Country and elsewhere over who qualifies as getting to make “real” country. It’s a debate that’s been had over and over--CMA Entertainer Of The Year Garth Brooks used to be considered “inauthentic”--and the 10 albums below sometimes found themselves embroiled in that discussion. But this year proved, for the millionth time, that great country music can be made by former ad execs, and former models, and former Pistol Annies, and 22-year-old wunderkinds from Saskatchewan.
In a past life, Sam Outlaw was an advertising executive in Southern California, before he changed gears at 30 and started making stately, well, tender, country music that sounds like an indie pop update to the vaunted Countrypolitan sound. His sophomore album Tenderheart is a witty, sly, well-produced album with songs both hilarious (“She’s Playing Hard To Get Rid Of”) and raw (“Say It To Me”). But it’s Outlaw’s voice--a soft, beautiful instrument--that makes Tenderheart an album worthy of becoming a constant companion.
Jason Isbell spent most of this year being one of the only country stars openly questioning the matters of our times--Trump, white privilege, sexual violence by men--on his Twitter feed and in interviews. Isbell’s audience probably doesn’t have much overlap with a Luke Bryan audience that probably disagrees with him on these points, and thus has less risk, but still, it’s refreshing for a country star to be calling the bullshit bullshit. The Nashville Sound has songs that speak to that openness to questioning power structures, from “White Man’s World” to “Anxiety,” but it also boasts the most muscular and most “rock” work of Isbell’s work since he left the Drive By Truckers. The Nashville Sound doesn’t shine as bright as Isbell’s last album, but that’s sort of the point; after years of personal and professional turmoil, it’s just great to see him out here making the music he wants to make in healthy, and rebellious, spirits.
There are few albums this year that open as irresistibly as Highway Queen: a hollered “yippee ki yay” announces the broiling “700,000 Rednecks,” a meta song about how Nikki Lane figures that all you need to have a successful country career is 700,000 rednecks to buy your records and support you on tour. Lane, another country outsider who started her career after she realized she could write better songs than her shitty ex, does a lot for herself to get to that 700k redneck goal on Highway Queen--it’s both traditional and left field country, with songs that sound like honky tonks in 1971, and like a country album that a badass, road weary woman who takes no shit would make in 2017.
In which a group of sidemen for country luminaries like Kris Kristofferson and more decide to become a bit player Justice League, head to Muscle Shoals, and vanquish a couple bottles of whiskey while recording one of the loosest, loopiest, most fun albums of any genre in 2017. Come for “Habbie Doobie,” stay for “My Way.”
After the death of Merle Haggard last year, Willie Nelson has found himself as the last of the OGs, the last man standing from that ‘60s country star class. That spectre--of watching your friends die while time moves on--hangs over God’s Problem Child, which has songs about feeling old, being reported as dead (“Still Not Dead”), wanting to get through the shit times (“Delete And Fast Forward”), and tributes to the departed (“He Won’t Ever Be Gone”). Willie’s songbook has long been an American treasure, and watching him as he surpasses his 55th year in music has been one of the year’s highlights.
This might be a bit “down the rabbit hole” of country music internet fandom to bring up, but no album this year was more of a lightning rod than Midland’s debut On The Rocks. Musically, Midland exist in a world where country finished in 1997; their debut album presupposes that Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson and George Strait were the peak, and their album is all smart, fun writing and all line dancing and all kinds of awesome. "Drinkin' Problem" rules.
But, interpersonally, they were models, and soap actors, and music video directors before becoming a country act, which for some reason, drove country internet people insane. But here’s the thing: you can tell when something has the internet going nuts for no reason, and when it does because it hits some unrung bell. This Midland album would not matter to anyone if it didn’t totally rule, so the “authenticity” debate is a bucket of water it unfortunately has to carry. So, listen to this, and wear a bolo tie like noone is watching.
Angaleena Presley is the lesser known leg on the Pistol Annies tripod behind Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe, but her solo career hit its peak this year with Wrangled, a sometimes raucous album featuring some of this year’s best songwriting. From the bucking expectations of “Mama I Tried” and “Country” to the despair of coming up short of “Dreams Don’t Come True,” no other songwriter made an album that covers more ground than this one. Presley should be a big star; hopefully a reappraisal of this album could make that happen.
Kip Moore is what would have happened if Born In The USA-era Bruce Springsteen grew up to play songs about drinking fifths of whiskey in order to get over the women who’ve left him and he’s let down. Which is to say there is not an album that rocks harder and better than this in 2017; it’s the only album I wanted to hear between beers 2 and 700 since it came out. Put on “Bittersweet Company,” and instantly you’re transported to a Camaro doing 105 into the sunset. Rock might be dead, but Kip Moore is still living.
Chris Stapleton is often held up as some paragon of “good” country music, an alternative to the guys named Chace who are dominating country airwaves, despite the fact that until he became a huge solo star, Stapleton made most of his rent money selling songs to Thomas Rhett and Luke Bryan. But then that CMAs performance happened, and Stapleton became his own cottage industry, selling copy after copy of Traveller (his 2015 album has sold around 500k copies this year alone). That lead to something Stapleton has never faced in his musical career: actual pressure. How would he live up to Traveller?
He hit the studio, and did some loose sessions that led to this pair of albums, which, all told, are a stronger collection than Traveller. From the opening clarion call of “Broken Halos” to the close of a cover of Pop Staples’ “Friendship” these two albums are Stapleton at the height of his power; clear, well written, well produced country music delivered with his showstopping, first class voice. Stapleton spent years trying to make the music he wanted to make before he was given the opportunity. These albums prove he’ll be able to do that for as long as he wants.
Colter Wall is 22 years old. That’s young for a performer by any metric, but especially so when that performer has a voice as unique as Wall’s; his vocals sound like the erosion of a pile of rocks into a beach; deep, earthy, and his lyrics sound like they’re being delivered from behind a baseball of chewing tobacco. Which is to say that his self-titled debut was one of the most surprising albums of 2017: you don’t expect to listen to someone with a voice that sounds like it’s transmitting from the literal old west in 1873 anymore, but that’s what Wall’s debut is. It’s got songs about murder, and lust, and death, and motorcycles, and the landscape, and women, and the railroad, and it’s haunting, and beautiful, and stark, and the best country album of 2017.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.