Country music is a genre that moves at a million miles per hour. Year in year out we see dozens of brilliant albums released from a whole myriad of different artists with styles ranging from the hip-hop infused contemporary country to throwback roots and blues. This year has been no different and it’s for that reason that challenging myself to pick a top five is a tough job than ever. I had to go for the albums that I’ve just not been able to put down over the course of the year which unfortunately meant that some absolute beauties had to miss out! Here’s my top five…
1. Midland – On The Rocks
This is an album that just blew me away from start to finish. If there was a perfect country album which combined those traditional sounds with modern hooks for me then this is it! Whether it’s the rollicking country swagger of ‘Make A Little’ or the dusty old country croon of ‘Drinkin’ Problem’ this album has something for every mood. The band have taken their fair share of criticism with some accusing them of being ‘manufactured’ which is a real shame – I guess it sums up the ‘can’t do right for doing wrong’ culture in some country circles. I hate the phrase ‘real country’ as I think it’s banded around far too often but, if you were to ever use it, this is the perfect record. If they can continue to knock out music like this then they’ll surely be considered one of the great country bands of the 21st century.
Check out our review of the ‘On The Rocks’ here.
Read our interview with Midland bassist Cameron Duddy here.
2. Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
The former Drive-By Truckers guitarist is an interesting figure in country music. On one hand his style doesn’t get much attention at all from country radio or the ‘mainstream’ CMA yet on the other he is revered as one of “the greatest lyric writers of his generation” (John Mayer) and is currently the artist in residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame. ‘The Nashville Sound’, titled almost ironically, is one of Isbell’s finest solo works and see’s him go from the rollicking ballsy rock ‘n’ roll of ‘Cumberland Gap’, to the heartfelt and reflective ‘If We Were Vampires’ and back again. It’s a record chock full of clever lyrics which reflect on fatherhood, sobriety and more that are backed up solidly by the fantastic musicianship. This isn’t a record that will make short term waves on country radio but it certainly is one that will stand the test of time.
Check out our review of ‘The Nashville Sound’ here.
3. Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Vols. 1 & 2
Stapleton is a rare breed of artist who has pleased the traditional country fans and modern country fans alike. He managed to smash into the mainstream and become a modern day icon after only releasing one record in the form of his 2015 debut ‘Traveller’. This year Stapleton released two nine-song volumes of his latest offering ‘From A Room’. The record picks up where he left off really with songs like ‘Broken Halos’ and ‘Millionaire’ delivering that sound that we know and love. Stapleton didn’t just tread water on these records though and delivered a more blues-rock sound on the likes of ‘Second One to Know’ and ‘Midnight Train to Memphis’. As a songwriter with credits on some of the biggest country songs in recent years you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Stapleton well of songs doesn’t show any sign of drying up. And yeah, we grouped the two albums together and don’t even care if it’s cheating!
4. Steve Moakler – Steel Town
Despite this being his second full length album and it being critically acclaimed Steve Moakler still sits on the fringes of the big time. The Pittsburgh native delivered a stellar effort this year in ‘Steel Town’ – the record named after his hometown. For those who don’t know Moakler he co-wrote the Dierks Bentley track ‘Riser’ with Travis Meadows and certainly shows the same songwriting chops on this record. As far as singer-songwriters go Steve Moakler is up there with the best and this is showcased on songs like ‘Wheels’, which takes a reflective look on the journey of life, and ‘Just Long Enough’, a song which looks back on a short but life changing relationship. Songs like ‘Siddles Saloon’ add a more uptempo edge to the record which is one of the finest of the year from an artist who is certainly one to watch.
Check out our review of ‘Steel Town’ here.
Read our interview with Steve Moakler here.
5. Aaron Watson – Vaquero
The success of 2015’s ‘The Underdog’ was always going to be a tough act to follow for Aaron Watson. The album made him the first independent male artist to top the Billboard country chart and quite frankly sent the fear of God down Music Row. With ‘Vaquero’ Aaron Watson did not let anybody down. The record builds on the solid foundation of, not just ‘The Underdog’, but nearly a dozen studio releases. Whether it be the Latin tinged title track, the rock ‘n’ roll power of ‘Outta Style’ or the more tender moments such as ‘Diamonds & Daughters’ Aaron Watson proves on ‘Vaquero’ that he is a highly skilled songwriter. The great thing about the album is its consistency – throughout the sixteen songs there isn’t one that makes you want to skip. The musicianship is well on point with the guitar and fiddle taking centre stage alongside Watson’s smooth Southern drawl on plenty of occasions.
Check out our review of ‘Vaquero’ here.
Read our interview with Aaron Watson here.
The rest of the list…
Looking back through the rest of 2017’s releases we found some absolute corkers that were well worthy of a mention. Here are the albums that didn’t quite crack our top 5 but still deserve a mention.
6. Sam Outlaw – Tenderheart
Outlaw followed up 2015’s ‘Angeleno’ with a rich and varied effort which built on the critical success of his debut. Read the full review here.
7. Angaleena Presley – Wrangled
Along with Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe she was part of country music’s most badass female group. She carried on this badass spirit with ‘Wrangled’. Check out the full review here.
8. Old Crow Medicine Show – 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde (Live)
Yeah it may be a live album and yeah it may be all Bob Dylan covers but I’ll guarantee you that it’s one of the best you’ll ever here. The band bring their infectious energy to a live recording and it doesn’t suffer. Check out the full review here.
9. Kip Moore – Slowheart
The fact that many people would have this album at number one on the list says everything that you need to know about the reputation that Moore is gathering in the country music world and this record only made it better. Check out the full review here.
10. Lee Ann Womack – The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone
This stellar effort from Lee Ann Womack channelled a whole manner of country styles and proved why she is one of the top vocalists in the genre.