Music

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.


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

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