It’s almost the end of June, which means we’re halfway through 2017. And as time continues apace, so does the release of country music records. There have been a lot of releases so far this year, but since we’re nearing 2017’s midpoint, it’s time to take stock of what country music has brought us.
I started this tradition last year, with a power ranking of the best country albums of the first six months of 2016, continuing the list at the end of the year with more conclusive thoughts.
This year, I started off with a list of the albums I was looking forward to the most in 2017. Most of the albums on that list are below. Some didn’t live up to the hype.
However, all of the albums below are proof that good country music does still exist. You’re just not likely to find it on the radio.
As with last year, keep in mind that this list isn’t conclusive and only includes albums I’ve actually listened to. If you think I missed anything, let me know here, through email at email@example.com, or on Twitter @jakeharris4.
10. “Vaquero,” Aaron Watson
For his 14th studio album (and second Top 5 debut on the country charts), the Amarillo native got cinematic, painting a picture of cowboy life and his simple values.
“The cowboy is timeless, and that’s what we wanted to portray in this album, that the values of the cowboy are relevant and still valued in country music,” Watson told me in an interview in February.
Favorite Song: Technically one sprawling song, the one-two punch of the instrumental “Mariano’s Dream” leading into “Clear Isabel” is Watson at his most ambitious, using Tejano music and country rock to tell the story of a Mexican lawman and his daughter running to the Texas border to flee a drug cartel.
9. “Tenderheart,” Sam Outlaw
Yes, that’s the California native’s real last name (kind of; it’s his mother’s maiden name), and no, his music doesn’t sound anything like “outlaw” country. Outlaw’s laid-back CaliforniCountry sounds on “Tenderheart” lure you in, and his insightful songwriting is what makes you stay. Also check out his stellar debut, “Angeleno.”
Favorite Song: “Bottomless Mimosas” is the perfect example of Outlaw’s blend of California vibes and thoughtful writing.
8. “Big Bad Luv,” John Moreland
The sparse arrangements and tragic characters of “High on Tulsa Heat,” In the Throes” and “Earthbound Blues” mostly give way to optimistic introspection and country rock in Moreland’s latest album. His songwriting has always felt like sitting in on a deeply vulnerable confessional; this time it just so happens to be a confession of hope. And how’s this for a couplet?
“I used to have a prisoner’s point of view
Now I only care for being seen by you.”
Favorite Song: “It Don’t Suit Me (Like Before)” is where that couplet comes from, and sees Moreland shedding “all these heavy anchors on my heart.”
7. “Colter Wall,” Colter Wall
The 21-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter’s barrel chested, world-weary voice is perfect for his subject matter, which is murder ballads, hobos, drugs and stories of the Canadian plains. Can’t believe this is only his first album.
More: Colter Wall’s music featured in Oscar-nominated ‘Hell or High Water’
Favorite Song: The tragic “Me and Big Dave” showcases Wall’s voice and his songwriting.
6. “Freedom Highway,” Rhiannon Giddens
Giddens, mostly known in the folk world, earned some new fans last year when she was featured on Eric Church’s “Kill a Word” from his award-winning “Mr. Misunderstood.”
More: Rhiannon Giddens blazes brightly with her band at ACL taping
An award-winning musician herself— she was the first woman and non-white musician to win the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass— Giddens is equally versed in American roots music and Gaelic instrumentation, and both feature prominently on “Freedom Highway,” a record that painfully examines America’s racist past while looking hopefully toward its future. This is a Gospel record, as far as I’m concerned.
More: ACL Fest 2015 review: Rhiannon Giddens busts outta the tent
Favorite Song: The rousing chorus of “At the Purchaser’s Option” belies the terrifying story told in the verses. “You can take my body, you can take my bones, you can take my blood, but not my soul” is the thesis statement for this album.
5. "Way Out West,” Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives
I have never done the drugs or pills Stuart describes in this indigo haze of an album. But after listening to his and his band’s blend of psychedelia, surf rock and Bakersfield country, I wouldn’t be opposed to taking one of those little pills from the title track. The soundscape the elder statesman of country cool creates here is as vast and untamed as the Wild West in the 1800s.
Favorite Song: The title track is the finest slice of psychedelic country I’ve herd since Sturgill Simpson’s “Turtles All the Way Down.”
4. “God’s Problem Child,” Willie Nelson
Willie’s 84 years old, but that don’t mean s---. He can still play with the best of them, and his songwriting skills on display here are the best they’ve ever been.
Catch up on all of your Willie news right here on austin360.com
“God’s Problem Child” finds him contemplating his own mortality, in ways both youthful (“Still Not Dead”) and wise (“Old Timer”). From start to finish, it’s fantastic.
Read our review: Willie Nelson’s new album proves how musically sharp he remains at 84
Favorite Song: “Still Not Dead” cribs Mark Twain’s quip about exaggerated rumors of demise and faces all of those Internet hoaxes about his age head-on.
3. “Songs From ‘A’ Room: Vol. 1,” Chris Stapleton
Yes, the ‘A’ does need to be capitalized, as this was recorded in Studio A of Nashville’s RCA Records. Stapleton’s sophomore solo effort just became country music’s first gold record of the year with hardly any radio airplay.
More: Country sensation Chris Stapleton to play Austin360 Amphitheater in October
It’s also the first part of a two-part series, so the nine songs here may not seem like a lot compared to his debut, “Traveller.” But there’s depth to be found here, as he doubles down on his voice for many of the songs.
ACL Fest 2016 review: Chris Stapleton keeps it simple on big stage
Favorite Song: Stripped down to just your voice and a guitar, there’s nowhere to hide. Either you can sing or you can’t. “Either Way” in the hands of many country stars would fall flat because of the raw vulnerability of the lyrics and the staging. Stapleton makes it sound effortless.
More: A tale of two concerts: Chris Stapleton and Hank Jr. on one bill is like night and day
2. “Trophy,” Sunny Sweeney
Sweeney was always known for the honest sense of humor she put in her songs (also often showcased on her Twitter feed). But with “Trophy,” she goes deeper and gets funnier at the same time. The wry title track sits right beside emotional cuts like “Bottle By My Bed,” which isn’t about the bottle you would think. Co-written with Lori McKenna, the whole album is a wordsmith’s delight.
More: Austin360 On The Record: Sunny Sweeney
Favorite Song: The raucous “Better Bad Idea” is a barn-burner.
1. “The Nashville Sound,” Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Isbell’s return to rock’n’roll with his band The 400 Unit just came out Friday, but fans and critics alike have been waiting for this album with bated breath. It is both more political than anything he has released thus far and more introspective, the recent joys of fatherhood having impacted his writing process. His wife Amanda Shires features prominently here as well, co-writing many of the songs and singing and playing fiddle.
More: Jason Isbell raises the bar for Americana at ACL Live
In the future, a lot of critics will point to certain pop culture as being “the movie/song/book of The Trump Era.” It may be too early to say this, but “The Nashville Sound” is one of the few pieces of media to earn that superlative. The songs here are about a Southern white man reconciling his (and his ancestors’) place in this country while never forgetting the working-class Alabama town he came from, all the while looking to human decency and compassion to make sense of it all, hoping that the world his baby daughter has been born into will be better off by the time she is old enough to inherit it.
Related: Jason Isbell will return to ACL Live for three nights in July
Regardless of your own political beliefs, that’s something anyone can relate to.
Favorite Song: Between NPR’s advance stream of this record and its release at midnight Friday, I’ve already listened to this album probably six times from front to back. I’ve only been able to bring myself to listen to “If We Were Vampires” twice. Isbell’s and Shires’ thoughts on the finite nature of life and love are haunting and gorgeous. If “Southeastern”’s “Elephant” made you cry, “Vampires” will make you tear up like a little kid whose dog just died.
That’s all I got. Again, if you think I missed anything (and I’m sure I have), give me a shout here, on email or on Twitter.
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