With all the great music that came out this year, you’d be forgiven for letting a few gems slip under your radar. Nearly every week, a slew of country and Americana artists released great albums to the music-loving public. From a California country masterpiece to a rowdy alt-country band out of North Carolina, here are 8 great albums you may have missed this year.
With a debut album as brilliant as Sam Outlaw‘s Angeleno, expectations were high for a followup. Thankfully, Outlaw delivered with his equally beautiful sophomore album Tenderheart. The record is a collection of delicate explorations of life. From a quest for meaning in “Everyone’s Looking For Home” to the classic country wit of “She’s Playing Hard to Get (Rid Of),” Tenderheart is one of the most impressive releases of the year.
Written after an eight month stint in the Los Angeles county jail, Felony Blues represented a new start for Jaime Wyatt. Writing about her past troubles and brush with the law helped the L.A.-based singer move on with her life and give voice to others still struggling. On standout tracks “Wishing Well” and “Stone Motel” Wyatt sounds like a modern day Merle Haggard, telling tales from the jailhouse and singing songs of redemption that would make the Hag proud.
A veteran songwriter in Nashville with cuts by Chris Stapleton, George Strait and Gary Allan under his belt, Kendell Marvel was already a huge success before the release of his phenomenal debut album Lowdown & Lonesome. But we sure are glad the Music City hitmaker decided to release a studio album nearly 20 years after he moved to Nashville. The slow-burning ballad “Watch Your Heart” sounds like something The Highwaymen would have recorded, while “Untangle My Mind,” co-written with Chris Stapleton and Jaron Boyer (and also included on Stapleton’s From A Room Vol. 2) is one of the best honky tonk anthems in years. Lowdown & Lonesome is the work of a man who has dedicated the better part of his life to crafting incredible songs. And it shows.
Lilly Hiatt has been a staple of East Nashville’s music scene for the better part of a decade and Trinity Lane may be her best work to date. The alt-country gem finds strength in heartbreak and starting over, from the self-awareness of the title track (“I get bored so I wanna get drunk/I know how that goes/so I ain’t gonna touch it”) to the joy of finding hope in music on “Records.”
From the opening notes of Dori Freeman’s Letters Never Read, you can hear the Virginia-born Freeman’s Appalachian roots. Even the lilting love song “If I Could Make You My Own” was inspired by old time murder ballads. Freeman expertly blends classic pop with traditional old time folk songs to create one of the most original and honest records of the year.
Joseph Huber gained notoriety in the Americana world as a founding member of bluegrass band the .357 String Band. But Huber has steady been releasing incredible solo albums, and none are more mesmerizing than The Suffering Stage. Filled with soul-baring lyrics and soaring fiddles, The Suffering Stage demands to be heard. Start with “You Showed Me,” a barroom weeper and requiem for a long-gone love.
Oklahoma native Travis Linville has quite the musical pedigree. He’s been called the “godfather of modern Oklahoma folk.” He’s a highly sought after musician who has collaborated with the likes of Hayes Carll and Jon Fullbright. On Up Ahead, Linville finally takes center stage and it’s a welcome arrival. The melancholy “Flowers in Your Hair” and the pedal steel laden “Bar Room” are album highlights.
Sarah Shook and the Disarmers may seem to have unlikely country beginnings. The North Carolina alt-country outfit was founded by upstate New York native Sarah Shook, who fell in love with country music in her early 20s after being raised on a strict regimen of classical and praise music. But as soon as you hear Shook’s biting outlaw yodel, the pure country soul that lies within is evident. The band would be equally at home in an L.A. rock club or a Texas dive bar. “Dwight Yoakam” is a perfect tear-in-your-beer song with an obvious nod to another country badass who was embraced by the rock world while maintaining his country roots. Songs like “Make it Up To Mama” and “Misery Without Company” put the “outlaw” in the outlaw country, with lyrics like “the only thing keeping my chin up is this bottle.” We’ll drink to that.