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

10. Valerie June – The Order of Time (Concord)

Valerie June’s fourth LP sounds like a lo-fi recording of the band playing a ramshackle roadhouse set of Southern-steeped gems. It all works just right to capture June’s distinctive murmuring-imp delivery, as she slips and slides up and down the scale to bring out the melodies in songs like “Two Hearts” (not a Springsteen song, although it sounds like he could’ve written it) and the slow-burning gospel-soul of “Slip Slide on By”. The songs are uniformly first-rate, at once containing traditional song structures yet filled with kinks and twists to conjure a fresh combination of genres—country, soul, jazz, jump blues, folk—that serves as a refreshing embrace of melting-pot diversity amid the current Americana scene. —
Steve Leftridge

9. David Rawlings – Poor David’s Almanack (Acony)

David Rawlings drops the “Machine” suffix on this third title under his own name, and eighth collaboration with partner Gillian Welch, finding his freakier self. The characters that inhabit this recording feel as familiar as those found in childhood folktales. The titular maiden of “Lindsey Button” is sophisticated but primal with tinges of the redemptive. “Come on Over My House” is one of those songs that becomes a fast and lasting favorite. Rawlings has never been one to force his performances, delivering them with an ease that’s beyond remarkable. That trend continues here. Often, he sounds as though he’s breathing directly from your speakers. Though Welch has been credited with the partnerships’ sparer moments it’s hard not to register that suspicion as something more nebulous, indefinable across these tracks. The music is given life by those empty spaces, with little sign of fatiguing along the way. —
Jedd Beaudoin

8. Whitney Rose – Rule 62 (Six Shooter)

Whitney Rose named her new record
Rule 62 after the aphorism: “don’t take yourself too damn seriously”. That wryly fits the contents of Rose’s material. The Texan by way of Canada sings about extremes. Whether the topic is truck driving or attending funerals, making the first move or getting divorced, being scared or feeling passionate, Rose delivers the lines straight with a twist. There’s a thin line between telling a compelling, detailed story and being absurd. The key, according to Rose, is to have it both ways. That philosophy gives her strength. Rose sings in a whispery, honey-dripped voice about life’s existential questions to a two-step beat and the twang of a steel guitar. She knows how to boogie as a member of the pack as a way of dealing with the terror of the 6:00 news and she understands that being by oneself doesn’t reduce the need to be held tightly at night in bed. — Steve Horowitz

7. Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway (Nonesuch)

Rhiannon Giddens first had her hand in founding a folk revival with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, but it wasn’t until her resounding solo debut in 2015 that she began to take center stage as one of Americana’s most celebrated new artists. If
Tomorrow Is My Turn was a revelation, Freedom Highway is the even more pertinent revolution that follows. Everything that made her first record with T Bone Burnett great is present here, from her incredibly adaptable, resonant vocals to her innate artistic gravitas. Yet, what truly sets Freedom Highway apart from the rest is Giddens’ unrest in highlighting the violence and unjustness that has plagued African Americans for hundreds of years. She opens her sophomore effort up with the poignant tale of a mother worried for her child born into slavery, and from there, she goes on to rally listeners’ awareness towards sexual assault, police brutality, and other potent subject matters all within the makeup of an infinitely listenable collection of roots music. Paying homage to gospel, hip-hop, blues, folk, jazz, rock, and R&B on the record, Giddens manages to keep things impressively cohesive despite her myriad of musical influences, as well. — Jonathan Frahm

6. Natalie Hemby – Puxico (GetWrucke)

Few Americana artists have their feet as worn into country soil as Natalie Hemby does. Prior to the release of her debut album,
Puxico, earlier this year, she was known around Nashville for writing tunes that the likes of Miranda Lambert and Little Big Town picked up and made hits out of. Yet, when she hit the drawing board for developing a record of her own, it decidedly was made with a tip of the hat to both country and rock ‘n’ roll. The end result is a record dripping in hometown sentiment but with the cheese withheld. Hemby comes across as cool, easy-going and heartfelt as she can be across the nine tracks of which Puxico is comprised, her sweet voice and smooth, rootsy arrangements making for an easier, more insightful listen than any artist’s debut album has any right to be. — Jonathan Frahm

5. Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer – Not Dark Yet (Silver Cross)

Two sisters, working together for the first time, deliver a delicious covers-heavy set produced by the would-be crowned prince of Americana, Teddy Thompson. Thompson has a special sensitivity for the female voice (listen to his work with his mother, Linda) but that would mean little to nothing without the formidable talents he’s dealing with. Lynne and Moorer shine especially bright on Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms”, wherein we hear the emotional heft laid bare. Their vision of Bob Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet” reminds us how often and how well Zimmerman’s pen intersects with the feminine voice. There’s a nakedness and understanding that comes into these songs that upsets much of what either sister has done on her own. Let’s hope it’s not their last time to sit in front of the mics together. —
Jedd Beaudoin

4. John Moreland – Big Bad Luv (4AD)

John Moreland has been building a buzz for the past couple years, and with Big Bad Luv, where he moves from mostly acoustic arrangements to a full band sound, he explodes all expectations. It’s an astonishing record, a testament to living in the moment and letting the details sort themselves out, and it is not hyperbole to sat that this is the kind of record that Springsteen released at his peak. Moreland’s singing often calls to mind the Boss’s own gruff yet mellifluous voice while remaining distinctively his own. So, too, Moreland’s songwriting evokes comparison to earlier masters like Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, or Guy Clark while adding his own surprises and quirks. “Salisaw Blue”, “No Glory in Regret”, and “Lies I Chose to Believe” all point to a songwriter on a hot streak that promises not to end any time soon. —
Ed Whitelock

3. Hurray for the Riff Raff – The Navigator (ATO)

Bronx native Alyndra Segarra takes her Crescent City band Hurray for the Riff Raff back to her Nuyorican roots. Segarra literally serves as
The Navigator into the past where memory, poetry, myth, and reality mix to create a rich, spicy and hearty guisada. The central theme of the album concerns believing in oneself and helping others. It’s a simple message, but a difficult one to maneuver in this world that can act to diminish one’s value as a person — especially if one does not have money or belongs to a minority group or whose family life may not match traditional norms. Hurray for the Riff Raff’s music inspires one to look inward and enjoy life. No matter how forbidding the times may seem, we are all in this together. We can still sing and dance, even if it is by oneself in the dark, so we will never be truly alone. — Steve Horowitz

2. Lilly Hiatt – Trinity Lane (New West)

There’s something undeniably powerful about heartbreak and anger as fuel for great songs. Whatever stoked Lilly Hiatt’s fires during the creative process this time out should be saluted as much as the singer-songwriter herself. “The Night David Bowie Died” serves as an excellent introduction to the emotional complexity and catharsis across the record as a whole. Though we’ve certainly all wanted to call an old mistake, we’ve probably never had the guts to face our motivations the way Hiatt does here. “Records” meditates on the healing powers of those spinning black circles without sounding like a Cameron Crowe retread. More than that, it speaks to the forms ability to transform and transcend and, ultimately,
Trinity Lane, with its venom and vengeance, spirit and spit, does both with enviably clarity. — Jedd Beaudoin

1. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound (Southeastern)

Jason Isbell recently played a six-night run at the Ryman Auditorium and played a different Tom Petty cover each night. Indeed, Isbell has a lot in common with the late legend, as both men’s songs stick to three-or-four chords and straightforward melodic and rhythmic structures. In the Petty style, Isbell knows that he never needs to run out of great ideas and terrific songs just because he keeps things simple, and he’s proven it on his third superb record in a row. The melodies pour out of him, and he uses his voice as the perfect rhythmic and tonal instrument to phrase the lines he’s written. The stellar quality of
The Nashville Sound is even more impressive considering that Isbell is following two masterpieces in a row, so living up to his own precedent can’t be easy. But like everything else he does, he makes it look easy. — Steve Leftridge