This process made one thing clear: after another six months of great records (there are confirmed or speculated albums on the horizon from Noah Gundersen, Will Hoge, Chris Stapleton, David Ramirez, Iron & Wine, Tyler Childers, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Kelsea Ballerini, Brian Fallon, Frank Turner, Haim, Taylor Swift, Old Dominion, and Matt Nathanson), making my end-of-the-year list for 2017 is going to be murder. It's a good problem to have.
The Top 10
1. Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit - The Nashville Sound
Jason Isbell has a lot on his mind, and lucky for us, he's willing to let us pull up a chair. The Nashville Sound is Isbell's most personal collection yet, with its best songs built around his deep self-reflection on what it means to be a husband and a father in the current global climate. Given Isbell's status as a folk-leaning country singer, it's not surprising that he gets political here. Many of the songs were written after Trump won the election, and Isbell and his band went into the studio the week after the inauguration. But rather than let his songs get bogged down in Very Special Messages, Isbell lets his personal stories and character sketches carry his beliefs, statements, and questions for him. The result is a deep, nuanced, thought-provoking, and resilient piece of work, an album that I think I'll be mining for new details and answers for years to come. There has been no greater piece of art in 2017.
2. Steve Moakler - Steel Town
3. Natalie Hemby - Puxico
4. Colter Wall - Colter Wall
5. Chris Stapleton - From A Room: Volume 1
The sophomore slump is real in country music, largely because once labels smell a moneymaker, they micro-manage, over-produce, and second-guess until there's not much left of the authentic artist that fans fell in love with. These concerns were all very real for Chris Stapleton, who scored one of the biggest breakthroughs of the decade with his 2015 album Traveller. Traveller was unapologetic in its rejection of mainstream country radio trends, opting for a sound that blended classic country, outlaw country, soul, and Bob Seger-style rock 'n' roll. After that album won every award in the genre and went double platinum, I worried that Mercury Nashville might push Stapleton to write poppier songs or invite big name artists to guest on his record. I needn't have fretted. Stapleton's From A Room: Volume 1 is a low-key collection of soulful country songs, with masterfully concise writing, sharp melodies, and miraculous vocals. It's one of the least flashy albums ever to top the Billboard sales chart—and, probably, one of the best. In all likelihood, Volume 2 will only render the accomplishment more impressive.
6. The Menzingers - After the Party
I've been saying for years that I want a band from the punk/pop-punk/emo scene to make an album with some of the scale, ambition, and character of American Idiot. Not necessarily a rock opera, but a big, grandiose, deeply felt piece about growing up and finding your place in the world. More than any record I've heard from the "scene" in years, After the Party is that album. The Menzingers have, up until now, been a band that I've always liked but never loved. After the Party changes that with 13 songs worth of loud guitars, anthemic melodies, and shout-along choruses about that moment where you realize you somehow stumbled into adult. From Born to Run to American Idiot to American Slang, rock records that make these kinds of we-ain't-that-young-anymore sentiments ring with so much truth and lived-in depth frequently end up among my favorite LPs. After the Party is no exception.
7. Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness - Zombies on Broadway
8. Ryan Adams - Prisoner
Ryan Adams is in the midst of one of music's great second acts. After bursting onto the scene in the early 2000s with masterful records like Heartbreaker, Gold, and Love Is Hell, Adams struggled mightily to craft something cohesive and consistent. His albums were undone by his own inability to temper his prolific tendencies and wide-ranging musical interests into musical statements that were greater than the sum of his parts. Starting with 2011's Ashes & Fire and continuing with 2014's Ryan Adams, though, Adams has finally come into his own as an album maker, mastering the art of sonic cohesion and finally learning how to trim the fat. Prisoner isn't as strong song-for-song as Adams' self-titled record, but it might be his most forceful album-length statement yet, a cold, cutting divorce album with some of his most lonesome songs ever written. It's a Tunnel of Love for a new generation.
9. John Moreland - Big Bad Luv
10. Sam Outlaw - Tenderheart
The Honorable Mentions
Bleachers - Gone Now
A masterful, ambitious pop record that provides both undeniable singles and a cohesive start-to-finish arc. "Don't Take the Money" might just be the year's best pop song.
All Time Low - Last Young Renegade
One of the best pop-punk bands ever turns into one of the best pop bands of today with this wistful, insanely catchy summertime LP. Screw your "song of the summer 2017" debates if "Last Young Renegade" isn't in the running.
Luke Combs - This One's for You
Mainstream country with depth and feeling. Lead single "Hurricane" topped the country charts, and songs like "Memories Are Made Of" and "Don't Tempt Me" are catchy enough to follow suit, but it's ballads like "I Got Away with You" that show Combs' songwriting ability.
John Mayer - The Search for Everything
If Mayer hadn't botched the rollout for this record so badly, it might have pushed its way into my top 10. Even with a bad release strategy and some awful sequencing, though, Mayer's latest is stacked with great songs, such as "In the Blood" and "Rosie."
The Maine - Lovely Little Lonely
Over the course of six albums, The Maine have evolved from pop-punk also-rans to one of the most consistent rock bands of today. Lovely Little Lonely blends Third Eye Blind and The 1975 for an irresistible pop-rock cocktail.
The Steel Woods - Straw in the Wind
Scorching southern rock, prog metal, and down-home country all collide to form the one-of-a-kind sound of The Steel Woods. The entire record is refreshing, but the country-leaning songs stand out among some of the best of 2017—especially the escapist plea of "If We Never Go."
Fleet Foxes - Crack-Up
Dense and pointedly inaccessible, the long-awaited third album from Fleet Foxes is a lot to take in. It doesn't have the immediate stand-outs of the band's first two LPs, but every time I listen, it sweeps me away. I look forward to unlocking its secrets throughout the second half of the year.
Charlie Worsham - The Beginning of Things
Charlie Worsham's first album, 2013's Rubberband, was warm, mainstream-leaning country. His second is arguably the most versatile album I've heard this year, in any genre. Funny, heartbreaking, soulful, rootsy, catchy, political, personal, loud, soft, and occasionally even punk-ish, The Beginning of Things is a true musical roller coaster ride—in a good way.
Zac Brown Band - Welcome Home
After a record that incorporated elements of EDM, grunge, bossa nova, and prog rock into Zac Brown Band's country DNA, the group takes the back-to-basics approach. It's a welcome return to form, elevated by Brown's personal introspection about home and family and Dave Cobb's sparse production.
Japandroids - Near to the Wild Heart of Life
It ain't Celebration Rock, but at its best, Near to the Wild Heart of Life still beats with the double-time heartbeat of rock 'n' roll salvation. The title track is the highlight, spinning a last-night-in-town yarn for the ages.
Nashville has developed a bad habit of forcing young female artists to wait years before releasing their debut albums. Recent Grammy Best New Artists Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini have been huge successes, but they had to prove themselves on EPs before getting a chance to release their breakthrough full-lengths. Six of the 10 EPs listed below come from young female voices who are making some of the sharpest, most infectious music in Nashville today. Any one of them could be the next breakout success story. Add in short-form projects from Isbell, Rick Brantley, Ruston Kelly, and A Thousand Horses, and 2017 is already a banner year for the EP.
Bailey Bryan - So Far
Delta Rae - A Long and Happy Life
Jo Smith - Introducing Jo Smith
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit - Live from Welcome to 1979
Kalie Shorr - Slingshot
Lindsay Ell - Worth the Wait
Nikita Karmen - Nikita Karmen
Rick Brantley - Hi-Fi
Ruston Kelly - Halloween
A Thousand Horses - Bridges