The 15 Best Americana Albums of 2017
In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.
If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncing his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.
As mainstream country music continues to, for the most part, incorporate rock and hip-hop elements onto the charts and into the arenas, Americana music in 2017 was a twangier, often sparer affair. The other identifiable trend amid a genre so diverse is the diversity itself of the artists and output. If anything, in Americana, the present is female: Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.
15. Sarah Shook and the Disarmers - Sidelong (Bloodshot)
Sarah Shook, a honky-tonk spitfire with a chip on her shoulder and a kickass back-up band, dedicates her Bloodshot Records debut to examining the beauty in the profane. Shook is a marvel at writing the kind of classic country one-liners that have inspired generations to cry into their beers or kick back from the bar looking for trouble. She sings in a voice that resonates growing up along dusty roads and seeing a bit too much too young, but hers is not a gun in the purse persona, more a knife in the boot. She'll draw you into her songs' scenarios like that cool friend who has done all the things your parents warned you not to do, telling stories of late-night bedlam and pocket drama about proud, wounded late night warriors. "Nail", "Heal Me", and the title track should all resonate with listeners, but it's a song like "Dwight Yoakum" that could open up the doors to a Hall of Fame-level career. -- Ed Whitelock
14. Angaleena Presley – Wrangled (Thirty Tigers)
Some might consider singer-songwriter Angaleena Presley more of a country than an Americana artist because she has sang and spoken openly about her desire to go mainstream. But as Presley discovered, she's too much of an outsider to ever be an insider. That's why the cover of her new album depicts her bound and gagged. Presley considers herself a whistleblower airing Nashville's dirty laundry. The powers that be are trying to shut her down, but they can't. That may be more myth than truth, or perhaps Presley's songs embody a higher truth. It doesn't matter. These 12 tracks of love, passion, daily disappointments, and frustrations offer musical insights into the human condition. Presley holds her own here and works well with others. Her cowriters and special guests include Guy Clark ("Cheep Up Little Darling"), Chris Stapleton "Only Blood", fellow Pistol Annies' bandmates Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe ("Dreams Don't Come True") and Wanda Jackson ("Good Girl Down"). -- Steve Horowitz
13. Chuck Prophet – Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins (Yep Roc)
There are many perspectives on just what constitutes "Americana". Chuck Prophet's body of work reveals him as a subscriber to the great big stew of American music school of thought on the subject, and Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins finds Prophet and his band, the Mission Express, tearing through a set where familiar guideposts pass by like blurred billboards on a highway bound for New Orleans, or maybe Memphis (and wasn't that Chicago in the rear-view a ways back?). Always a sonic chameleon, Prophet calls the amalgamation "California noir" and from the seductive "Your Skin", through the wry "Jesus Was a Social Drinker" to the raw "Alex Nietro", Prophet adds another collection of chapters to what could be termed an ongoing west-coast-gothic novel in song, stretching back to 2012's sublime Temple Beautiful. -- Ed Whitelock
12. Justin Townes Earle – Kids in the Street (New West)
As his father spent the year honoring outlaw country forebears, Justin Townes Earle, on his eighth album, continued to forge his own unique songwriting path. For most of Kids in the Street, JTE settles into the swampy soul shuffles and blues structures that have been his signature sound of late, yet the album contains several distinctive standouts, like the imagery-rich small-town sketches of the title cut or the Jersey-shore-ish barfly ballad "There Go a Fool". Musically, it all sounds assured and tasteful—a swirling organ, a drowsy clarinet, some junkyard percussion—on another impressive outing from one of Americana's most consistently reliable singer-songwriters. -- Steve Leftridge
11. Nikki Lane - Highway Queen (New West)
When Nikki Lane returned to the studio with Highway Queen, she was returning to the forefront of the rising, women-led Americana movement while she was at it. Not only is her latest record possibly the most cohesive collection of outlaw-flavored roots rock tunes from the Greenville artist, yet, but a rallying call for female individuality and empowerment. She tackles the music present on this record with all of the attitude of a Haggard beside the moxie of a Parton, giving fans of old-school outlaw and western sentiment a modern record to call home all while not backing down from autobiographical themes and convictions. The album's personal call for individuality is a poignant staple in what is otherwise an altogether gritty, sassy, and smooth collection of infectious numbers. -- Jonathan Frahm