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The 25 Best Albums of 2017

It was a challenging year for everyone, including country music and its fans. Social issues like sexism and gun control weighed heavily on the minds of listeners and artists alike. With those challenges came new works of art that faced those issues head-on. Storytelling was well represented by country artists this year, many of whom opted to push back against the big pop-leaning styles that have recently dominated the top of the charts. From emerging artists to old favorites, here are Wide Open Country‘s picks for the best country albums of 2017.

Margo Price, All American Made

Third Man Records

Just as Johnny Cash supported Native Americans in song, Margo Price fearlessly serves as a socially conscious force in traditional country. Her latest declarations of musical independence expose real-life concerns of women and the working class. — Robert Moore


Midland, On The Rocks

Big Machine Label Group

After all the hubbub around Midland subsided, the one thing everybody agreed on is the quality of their debut album On The Rocks. Quite simply, nobody has done 1970s era traditional country as well as this visionary trio since, well, probably the 1970s. They also earned their first Grammy nomination for “Drinkin’ Problem.” — Jeremy Burchard


Chris Stapleton, From a Room (Vol. 1 & 2)

Universal Music Group

 

The two-part release of From A Room: Volume 1 and 2 is an ambitious statement from Chris Stapleton without ever trying to be. At 18 tracks total, Stapleton provides a smorgasbord of styles and sounds that cater to everyone. The Southern rock moments of “Midnight Train To Memphis” and “Second One To Know” are as engaging as the country radio gold of “Millionaire” and “Broken Halos.” Still, when he scales it back on the likes of “A Simple Song,” he confirms that his most intimate moments are to be the most cherished. — Thomas Mooney


Charlie Worsham, Beginning of Things

Warner Bros. Records

For years, Charlie Worsham has been known as one of the most talented and highly underrated songwriters and performers in Nashville. Although he made his major label debut back in 2013,  Beginning of Things is by far his most authentic and original release. Clever songwriting is mixed with humor (“Take Me Drunk”), heartache (“Call You Up”) and that constant urge to make your mark (“Cut Your Groove”). By channeling the sounds of Mississippi, his home state, Worsham has created one of the most cohesive and inspiring records of the year. — Lorie Liebig


Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound

Lightning Rod Records

In turbulent times, we look to music to make sense of the world, or at least help us cope with the chaos. Enter Americana’s great truth-teller with a poignant and timely album that’s simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting. The Nashville Sound finds Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit addressing sexism and racism (“White Man’s World”), painting portraits of the lost and lonely (“Last of My Kind,” “Tupelo”) and giving the American public a much-needed rallying cry (“Hope the High Road”). — Bobbie Jean Saywer


Whitney Rose, Rule 62

Six Shooter Records

Rule 62‘s retro sound reflects a talented performer and songwriter’s grasp of country and rock’s varied pasts. Rose’s “Trucker’s Funeral,” an old-school outlaw country story-song with a memorable plot twist, might just be the most underrated song of the year. — Robert Moore


Tyler Childers, Purgatory

Hickman Holler Records

Perhaps the most surprising release of the year, Tyler Childer’s brilliant Purgatory is a tribute to his Kentucky homeland and its people. With the tender “Feathered Indians” and the meditative “Universal Sound,” Childers — at just 26 — has proven himself to be one of the finest voices and songwriters working today. — Bobbie Jean Sawyer


Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, Way Out West

Superlatone Records

This stellar live act’s latest album celebrates California’s musical allure. Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives tip their hats to the Bakersfield sound, the Byrds and everything in between, with a touch of honky tonk swagger. — Robert Moore


John Baumann, Proving Grounds

Golden Spread Records

John Baumann‘s Proving Grounds is found on the corner of Robert Earl Keen and Guy Clark. Right out the gate, he delivers insightful one-liners like “it’s too soon for accolades and it’s too late to quit.” Songs like “Heavy Head” and “Holding It Down” are satisfying honky-tonk anthems that hook you in with his Texan twang. Still, it’s the heart wrenching gut punches of “Old Stone Church” and the coming of age narrative of “Pontiacs” that give Baumann validation as a top-tier songwriter. — Thomas Mooney


Natalie Hemby, Puxico

GetWrucke Productions

Inspired the tiny town of Puxico, Mo., Natalie Hemby’s incredible debut studio album Puxico zooms in on snapshots of rural Americana: a well-worn path to a church, a scuffed wooden floor, the blinking lights of a ferris wheel at a small town carnival. But it’s people and their importance in our lives at the center of Puxico. Hemby, who’s penned songs for Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town and Lee Ann Womack, turned her keen songwriter’s eye to prove that even when you cut through the haze of nostalgia, our roots and familial legacies shape us in ways we shouldn’t take for granted. — Bobbie Jean Sawyer


John Moreland, Big Bad Luv

4AD

John Moreland‘s hardly new to writing great roots-informed songs, as he’s seven albums into an artistically consistent career. Yet his ability to wring every last drop of emotion from his lyrics reached new heights in 2017. — Robert Moore


Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom Highway

Nonesuch Records Inc.

On Freedom Highway, Rhiannon Giddens continues exploring the past and how it often sheds insight on the present. She sheds a light on the injustices in America’s dark past from the outset with “At the Purchaser’s Option,” a grim tale that evokes slavery. Still, despite addressing difficult subject throughout, there’s often a glimpse of hope that rings out in Giddens’ voice. Her rendition of The Staple Singers “Freedom Highway” is as powerful as they come. Her sense of space is just as powerful as the tones and textures of her sparse compositions or her haunting lyricism. She flows from southern gothic folk to gospel soul to New Orleans brass with ease throughout. — Thomas Mooney


Jason Eady, Jason Eady

Universal Music New Zealand Limited

On Jason Eady’s self-titled album, the troubadour has never seen more at ease. And yet he also sings some of his most pointed and somber stories yet, like “Where I’ve Been,” “No Genie In This Bottle” and “Barabbas.” — Jeremy Burchard


Angaleena Presley, Wrangled

Thirty Tigers

Angaleena Presley aims her biting wit at a country music industry that overlooks talented women on this semi-autobiographical album. That same mainstream machine missed out on unforettable co-writes with Wanda Jackson (“Good Girl Down”) and the late Guy Clark (“Cheer Up Little Darling”). — Robert Moore


Rodney Crowell, Close Ties

New West Records

Rodney Crowell’s Close Ties plays out as if the veteran songwriter was sitting in your living room. The intimate stories of “Life Without Susanna” and “Nashville 1972” feel more like entries in a personal diary than a memoir. Often only accompanied by an acoustic guitar, Crowell’s earnest affection for dear friends who’ve passed on shines brightly. The rich detail of “Forgive Me Annabelle” is a clear reminder that Crowell is as sharp as ever. — Thomas Mooney


Willie Nelson, God’s Problem Child

Legacy Recordings

Willie Nelson always finds a way of remaining relevant. At 84-years-old, the county icon delivers his best album in years with God’s Problem Child. He reminds you that everyone’s clock is ticking towards an end throughout as he contemplates mortality, legacy and life. The stark and dark tones set the mood while Nelson delivers honest lyrics that leave lasting impressions. None more so than when Tony Joe White, Jamey Johnson and Leon Russell join him for the slow-burning title track. — Thomas Mooney


Will Hoge, Anchors

Thirty Tigers

Anchors came at a crossroad for Will Hoge. Before making it, he briefly fell out of love with everything about the music industry — music included. But after some inspiration from his kids, Hoge came back in full force with his most impassioned album ever. Everything is there, from the stories to the melodies to the emotion. — Jeremy Burchard


Charley Crockett, Lil G.L.’s Honky Tonk Jubilee

Son of Davy

Charley Crockett‘s Lil G.L’s Honky Tonk Jubilee is more than just a record of traditional country covers. With his soulful, bluesy voice, Crockett breathes new life into these songs, giving them the kind of care only a lifelong student of country and roots music could give. At a time when modern country music moves farther and farther away from its roots, Lil G.L.’s Honky Tonk Jubilee is not to be missed. — Bobbie Jean Sawyer


The Mavericks, Brand New Day

Mono Mundo Recordings

The Mavericks released their first independent album of their career in Brand New Day, and Raul Malo and company didn’t disappoint. The record feels as exciting as their 1990s heyday but with a modern urgency. — Jeremy Burchard


Glen Campbell, Adiós

Universal Music

In his final farewell, it seems fitting that country icon Glen Campbell went in and recorded a collection of songs he always wanted to record on the aptly-titled Adiós. Despite hearing the toll of Alzheimer’s at times, Campbell’s still able to capture flashes of magic on standards like “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “She Thinks I Still Care” and the poignant “Adiós.” — Thomas Mooney


Sunny Sweeney, Trophy

Universal Music New Zealand Limited

Country music at its core is about truth. And no album this year was more truthful than Sunny Sweeney’s Trophy. For her fourth studio album, Sweeney returned to her Texas roots and made the best album of her career. From the striking “Bottle By My Bed” to the tell-it-like-it-is title track, Trophy is a triumph in every sense of the word. — Bobbie Jean Sawyer


Lee Ann Womack, The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone

ATO Records

On The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone, Lee Ann Womack flexes her songwriting chops, with cuts on just under half the album. And of course, her beautiful voice, at times both delicate and confident, sits front and center. The release of the record may have been a bit overlooked, but it’s impossible to overlook a country treasure like Womack. — Jeremy Burchard


Caroline Spence, Spades & Roses 

Tone Tree Music

With Spades & Roses, Nashville’s own Caroline Spence taps into her own experiences as a woman and provides the perfect soundtrack for the rest of us fighting just to find our own way in the world. From the lovelorn “Hotel Amarillo” to the anthemic “Softball,” every single track is an example of impeccable songwriting. Great music defies genre lines, and Spades & Roses should become one of those lasting examples of a record that’s brilliant from start to finish.  — Lorie Liebig


Turnpike Troubadours, A Long Way From Your Heart

Cooking Vinyl

The Turnpike Troubadours continue setting themselves apart with A Long Way From Your Heart. Through a series of rural vignettes, Evan Felker and company take you on a journey through the small dive bars, backwoods campgrounds and country fields scattered across their Eastern Oklahoma backdrop. The setbacks and tragedies of “The Housefire” and “Old Time Feeling (Like Before)” are character sketches of hardened individuals who find their way when adversity strikes. The warm farewell of “Pay No Rent” and the down-home casualness of “A Tornado Warning” are comfortable, lived in tales that further add to the Turnpike lore. — Thomas Mooney

Zephania Ohora, This Highway

Last Roundup Records

You’re forgiven if you missed the best new traditional country record in years. After all, it came from a New York City-based artist originally from New Hampshire who bears the name Zephaniah OHora. A great name, but perhaps not one you’d immediately peg as a Merle Haggard aficionado and dedicated student of vintage country cool. On his debut This HighwayOHora and his band the 18 Wheelers captured the spirit of what makes the type country music we all get so nostalgic for while making it sound fresh and full of new life. If you’re feeling blue that country music just doesn’t sound the way it used to, put the needle down on this record right away. — Matt Alpert

WATCH: Story Behind the Song: “Old Time’s Sake” by Charlie Worsham

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