still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

The Best Country Music of 2017

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what’s going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don’t seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban’s muddled-at-best 2017 single “Female”, as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, “let’s try something new / for old time’s sake.” – Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae’s debut album are titled “Over the Hill and Through the Woods” and “Honky Tonks and Taverns”. The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. – Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn’t get the attention it deserved. She’s a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman’s longing to have children. — Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us “Somethin’ ‘Bout a Truck” has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore’s career-best performances (see the spare album-closing “Guitar Man”), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. — Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn’t really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton’s recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn’t find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he’s singing about hard-hurtin’ breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we’ve all been there. — Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who’s getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with “Every Little Thing”, a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it’s a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There’s a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her “feel something”, even if it’s anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn’t shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there’s room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

5. Midland – On the Rocks (Big Machine)

A three-piece of excellent singer/songwriters who lock in on handsome harmonies and snappy late ’70s/early ’80s-style urban-cowboy country, Midland were this year’s hot new old thing. Midland let the love and liquor flow, as On the Rocks plays like a long-lost Bellamy Brothers album, full of electric rodeos and Dixieland delights. The trio also supplied the year’s best country bon mots in the hempy Colorado homage “Altitude Adjustment” and the instant-classic sobriety-is-for-quitters anthem, “Drinkin’ Problem”. As their sartorial choices suggest, these guys are throwbacks that nod toward mariachi-style Tex-Mex and smooth Alabama-esque country pop. However, Midland’s hook-heavy debut transcends any notion that they’re merely a retro act; they sound like no other traditionalists on the scene and are certainly a world removed from the rock- and beats-oriented country mainstream. — Steve Leftridge

4. Brett Eldredge – Brett Eldredge (Atlantic)

From the title and cover photo to his romantic visions, Brett Eldredge leans towards the generic over the specific and idiosyncratic. Yet his singing (voice but also approach, demeanor) have a way of taking a cliché like “sure feels good to love someone” and filling it with character. His songs are purposefully framed as universal. Whether he’s singing to a “Brother” or a “Heartbreaker”, all the characters in his songs are types and shadows. Yet his presence is huge and the songs themselves seem written to be karaoke hits, or sing-along-in-your-car standbys. There’s subtle genre-tweaking going on beneath the surface. It might not have the light disco leanings of 2015’s Illinois, but there’s a barroom number with doo-wop elements and a song that pleasantly resembles an ’80s adult contemporary ballad. – Dave Heaton

3. Little Big Town – The Breaker (Capitol Nashville)

Little Big Town have quite an arsenal of vocal weapons: four terrific lead singers who also sing hide-tight four-part harmony. But as fine as their vocal blend is, it wouldn’t much matter if the band couldn’t justify its prolific recording pace by finding exemplary songs. The Breaker keeps the streak alive with another set of solidly built dopamine-producing tunes, moving the needle for one of country’s most consistent acts by expanding their sound in cinematic, sunbaked fashion. Some of the credit goes to songwriting aces: Lori McKenna for the stellar Fleetwood Mac rip “Happy People”; Natalie Hemby for the sweet, breezy “Free”; and Taylor Swift (Old Taylor, that is) for the fantastic “Better Man”. As tight a foursome as Little Big Town are, a special nod goes to Karen Fairchild, who sings lead on all three of the aforementioned tunes. — Steve Leftridge

2. Charlie Worsham – Beginning of Things (Warner Bros.)

Charlie Worsham’s been around the country-music world long enough that he’s recently written a memoir about his experience. Yet his second album, Beginning of Things, is the first time he’s neared becoming a household name. By all rights, he should be one. This album is by any measure one of the most ambitious, stylistically diverse and fun-loving country albums of the year. There’s horns, there’s classic-rock guitar, there’s a tribute to his lawn chair (he loves “every last plastic fiber square”), there’s a 14-second joke-song about forgetting to put on pants. There’s also a sincere tribute to the pleasures of the South (drawls, unlocked doors, whiskey, kids with no shoes) and an affecting commentary on the way human beings lose interest after initial excitement. This is an autobiography, joke-book, party record, and landscape painting at once. Vinyl records, highways, crickets, drunkenness – it’s all here, and more. – Dave Heaton

1. Lee Ann Womack – The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone (ATO)

The country album of the year comes from an artist a decade removed from her run of chart-topping singles and who, rather than keep up with the platinum arena-fillers, leans into lush, emotive songs that showcase a vocal agility nonpareil. On the title cut, Womack references Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb, harkening back to yesteryear, but Womack’s brand of classic country heartbreak is provided by the album’s seductive countrypolitan glow. The slow smoky bedroom tunes (like the shag-carpet stunner “Hollywood”) are Lee Ann’s specialty, but when she gets twangy, reaching back for string-band accents as on “Bottom of the Barrel”, the album finds the perfect balance between gusto and restraint. The covers are also aces, including the great Brent Cobb/Andrew Combs tune “Shine on Rainy Day”, and if an umpteenth version “Long Black Veil” would otherwise feel redundant, Womack gives the standard a gorgeous new interpretation. Overall, by paring things down to spare but elegant arrangements on excellent material, Womack puts her remarkable vocal talents front and center on a timelessly exquisite country album. — Steve Leftridge