Wednesday, June 28, 2017

My Favorite Albums of 2017 (So Far)

How are we already six months into 2017?! It feels like only yesterday that I was putting the finishing touches on my Top 40 Albums of 2016 list for Now, here we are, in the last days of June and diving back into mid-year coverage. Some publications were inexplicably ready to reflect on the year's mid-way at the end of April, but in their defense, 2017 has already been jam-packed with more than enough great albums to fill a list. My top 10 alone is already on the same level of the 10 records that topped my year-end list last year. On top of that, I couldn't help but include a few honorable mentions that I couldn't fit into my top 10not something I normally feel inclined to do at mid-year.

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

Despite the fact that it was only five songs long, Steve Moakler's self-titled 2016 EP got more play time from me last year than any record that wasn't Butch Walker's Stay Gold. The charms of that five-song setmade up of catchy, relaxed pop country jamswere perfect for windows-down summer drives and reflective summer nights alike. Steel Town takes those five songs, adds another six of the same caliber, and ends up being one of the most purely enjoyable albums I've heard in a long while. Moakler's tunes aren't overproduced or dressed to the nines in pop sheen like most of his mainstream-leaning contemporaries. Instead, they wear their sunny hooks, deft thematic songwriting, and dusty, rootsy character proudly, making for an album that splits the difference between the immediate returns of pop-country and the deeper soul of alt-country. There's a reason I haven't listened to any 2017 release more than this one.

3. Natalie Hemby - Puxico

Puxico, the debut LP from standby Music Row songwriter Natalie Hemby, sounded terrific when I first heard it in December. But this record wasn't made for winter, and it frankly sounds immaculate now that the weather has finally warmed up. On a recent evening walk around my neighborhood, I put on Puxico, and I marveled at how well the songs fit the lilting, lazy atmosphere of a muggy summer evening. A kaleidoscope of Ferris wheels, carnival lights, young love, sunsets over deserted highways, and small town grandeur, this record does world-building as well as any LP released in 2017. It's a beautiful, honest piece of workthe kind of record that becomes a sleeper classic after a year or two. Jump on the bandwagon now, before it's the "cool" thing to do.
4. Colter Wall - Colter Wall

At this point, it's almost a foregone conclusion that Dave Cobb will produce the breakout country songwriter record of the year. In 2013, it was Jason Isbell. In 2014, it was Sturgill Simpson. In 2015, it was Chris Stapleton. In 2016, it was Lori McKenna. And for 2017, it's Colter Wall, a 21-year-old wunderkind from Saskatchewan who sounds like he's at least two times his age. Wall's songs sound like they come from a different era, to the point where it's almost weird to hear them coming out of an electronic device. His characters are outlaws, cowboys, killers, jealous lovers, and heartbroken fools, hopping train cars, drinking too much, or sitting in their prison cells regretting past mistakes. Listening to their woes feels like being transported to the back of a smoky western saloon, where some bourbon-drunk troubadour is spilling hit guts. In a year that's brought so many demoralizing headlines already, the time-traveling escapism that Colter Wall provides is, frankly, nothing short of a godsend.

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 chartand, 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

There are only a few people in the music industry right now who write pop songs with the effortless grace of Andrew McMahon. With Zombies on Broadway, McMahon makes his poppiest album yet, an album jam-packed with hooks, synth and piano lines that will adhere themselves to the side of your brain, and arrangements so glossy and maximalist that they could land at least a few of these songs in clubs. But Zombies is also heartfelt, honest, and openly autobiographical, chronicling everything from McMahon's infatuation with New York City to the ache of having to leave his family behind to go on tour. McMahon dropped Zombies in the dead of winter, but at its finest moments, the record sounds just as much like a sweltering, whirlwind summer as Everything in Transit did. In other words, this one is about to surge back into regular rotation.

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

John Moreland is finally getting the attention he deserves. The Oklahoma singer/songwriter was recently proclaimed as "the New Face of Folk Rock" by GQ, and that's a deserved title for someone who writes and sings with more honesty and feeling than 99.9% of artists in the music industry. Never mind that Moreland's latest album, the road-tripping, full-band-driven Big Bad Luv, is a noticeable step down from 2015's High on Tulsa Heat, one of the decade's genuine country music masterpieces. That album plumbed the depths of Moreland's own heartbreak and desolation, somehow making complete loneliness sound a little less lonely. Big Bad Luv is brighter, bolder, louder, and more optimistic, with shades of bar-band blues and E Street swagger mixed in with its introspective balladry. It's proof that Moreland has the talent to move your feet as well as your heart and soul.

10. Sam Outlaw - Tenderheart

Sam Outlaw's debut, 2015's Angeleno, was an enjoyable if old-fashioned country record, enlivened by exotic mariachi horn arrangements and flickers of pedal steel as pretty as a postcard. Tenderheart takes Outlaw's sound and realizes his potential, providing a more modern feel without losing the timeless heart of his sound. In that regard, it's similar to Dawes' Stories Don't End, another palate-expanding record from another California country-folk act that had previously been accused of being stuck in the past. Tenderheart actually kind of sounds like a Dawes record, incorporating similar Laurel Canyon folk influences for a fun, modern twist on 1970s soft rock. (Fittingly, Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith sits in to play guitar.) But while the music is aesthetically gorgeous enough to conjure up thoughts of Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, and James Taylor, the album ultimately transcends thanks to Outlaw's wry sense of humor and his unique outlook on well-trodden subjects like masculinity, life on the road, and the flickering brevity of human relationships.

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 2017especially 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 ridein 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.

The EPs

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

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