Every year I hear hundreds of albums, many of them very good. And it’d be easy to make a list of 100 great albums from 2017 but I must draw a line somewhere for “Best of the Year” lists such as this and so we’ve got 25 of our favorites. Please note that I have not listed any order to the albums on this list as that would be an impossible task for the me to do. I spent a majority of 2017 listening to these records and I suspect I’ll spend a lot of 2018 doing so as well. I hope you’ll find this list of great projects useful.
Aaron Burdett - Refuge (Organic Recordings)
Aaron Burdett’s made our list before (2015’s fine Tinderbox) and he’s on it again with a collection of story songs that rivals anything from the likes of other songwriters who made our list this year, including Travis Meadows, Chris Stapleton, James LeBlanc, Rodney Crowell and Jason Isbell. Take a special look at songs like “Pennies On The Tracks,” “Poor Man,” “Wolves At The Door” and “It’s A Living.”
Travis Meadows - First Cigarette (Blaster Records)
Released in late 2017, First Cigarette is Meadows’ first widely-released album after a handful of great DYI projects including Killin’ Uncle Buzzy, the album which brought the talented songwriter to the A-list. Meadows delivers gems throughout the entire album, songs that can only come years of hardscrabble living and many twists and turns. This man’s life is a movie waiting to happen and this is his soundtrack.
The Mavericks - Brand New Day (Mono Mundo Recordings/Thirty Tigers)
For their first all-new studio album as wholly independent band, The Mavericks deliver much of the same that we’re used to from them. That is to say there’s a blend of danceable, classic-sounding songs that blend sounds from all over the musical planet. Standouts include “Rolling Along,” “Goodnight Waltz,” “I Wish You Well” and “Brand New Day.”
Thomas Rhett - Life Changes (The Valory Music Co.)
This record is a record that bears repeated listening. Yes, it’s a pop country record but it’s a damn good one. Rhett has developed into quite the songwriter but the moments which make the most excitement on the record are the places where he emotes vocally in a way that previously had only been hinted at (“Craving You,” “Sixteen,” “Marry Me” come to mind). The album is full of radio singles and he could score a crossover with “Leave Right Now” if he wanted and there are moments of Ronnie Milsap-like slow jam soulful tunes (“Kiss Me Like A Stranger”) blend in with 90s country throwbacks (“Drink A Little Beer) and modern jams.
Midland - On The Rocks (Big Machine Records)
They seemingly came out of nowhere to deliver one of the most delightful country records of 2017. They somehow broke out into the mainstream with “Drinkin’ Problem” and it’s easy to see they worship the note bending altar of George Strait and 80s/90s country. “Lonely For You Only” opens up the tightly-produced album while “Make A Little” and “Check Cashin’ Country” get playful and honest. Eagles-like Harmonies join the melodies of this delicious record which only leaves us wanting more.
Lee Ann Womack - The Lonely, The Lonesome, & The Gone (ATO Records)
With her second act as an alt-country and Americana icon cemented, Lee Ann Womack went back to Texas to record the follow-up to The Way I’m Livin’ to make a record that actually eclipses that one. This one finds spirited newly written songs like opener “All The Trouble” while smart covers of “He Calls Me Baby,” “Long Black Veil” and “Take The Devil Out Of Me” are balances with breezy statements like “The Lonely, The Lonesome and the Gone” and “Shine On Rainy Day.”
Luke Combs - This One’s For You (River House/Columbia)
One of 2017’s breakout stars delivered a fully-satisfying record. A blend of the country rock of Brantley Gilbert and the charming swagger of Justin Moore, Luke Combs has rockstar like moments on the record including “One Moment Away” and “As Long As We’re Out There.” Country story songs like “Beer Can” and #1 hit “When It Rains It Pours” certainly speak to an artist who knows who he is. “I Got Away With You” and “Out There” are two more worthy of paying attention to here.
Charlie Worsham - Beginning Of Things (Warner Bros.)
The melodies are ambitious, the lyrics are heartfelt and the guitar playing is top notch. It took four years for Worsham to come out with a sophomore album but as one of Nashville’s best-kept secrets, he had his moments of doubt and instead of giving up, he channelled those doubts into this wondrous record. Standouts include “Please People Please,” “Only Way To Fly,” “Cut Your Groove,” “I-55”, “Call You Up” and “The Beginning Of Things,” the latter two two of my favorite tracks of 2017.
RaeLynn - WildHorse (Warner Bros.)
It took a few years and a record label change but the former The Voice contestant finally released her debut album in March of 2017. The 12 track album started off with “Love Triangle” and showcased a singer who belongs all over the radio. She’s grown into her uniquely raspy voice and wrote the majority of this fine record with her team of co-writers delivering a record which suits her (and features cousin Leeland Mooring on “Young” and Dan+Shay on the duet “Say”) and her growth as a young woman and artist. Standouts include breakout hit “Love Triangle,” “WildHorse,” “Graveyard,” “Insecure” and “The Apple.”
Chris Stapleton - From A Room: Volume 1 & From A Room: Volume 2 (Mercury)
These records may have worked better as a longer single disc than two shorter projects but Stapleton remains one of country music’s finest artists. An artist more concerned with making great records and that means these are both treats. His cover of Kevin Welch’s “Millionare” is a highlight of the second volume along with “Midnight Train To Memphis,” a song he originally did while in The Steeldrivers. Volume 1 features standouts like “Broken Halos,” “Either Way” and a stellar cover of “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning.” What it adds up to is over one hour of great music.
Sons of the Palomino - Sons Of The Palomino (3 Ring Circus/The BFD)
Jeffrey Steele’s new band is an under the radar country delight. This collection of traditional country music features A-list studio cats as members of The Sons of the Palomino band and they include Paul Franklin, Gordon Mote, Shannon Forrest, Larry Franklin, Joe Spivey, Glenn Worf, JT Cornflos and Brandon Hood. Guests featured include John Rich, Vince Gill, Gretchen Wilson, Emmylou Harris and Jamey Johnson. As star-packed as this project is, it’s a damn good album regardless. Goosebump-inducing tracks include “When Lonely Calls,” “Whiskey Years” and “Unbroken People.” Pointed songs include “Out Of This Town,” “Lie” and “Used To Be Country Town.”
James LeBlanc - Nature Of The Beast (Dreamlined)
A songwriter’s songwriter, James LeBlanc’s latest record is raw emotion set to music, not unlike Travis Meadows. “Nature Of The Beast” sets the tone for a mighty fine record and features a stellar duet with Angela Hacker called “I Ain’t Easy To Love” while also including strong country songs like “Bottom Of This,” “Answers” “Mean Right Hand,” “My Middle Name” and “Anchor.”
Little Big Town - The Breaker (Capitol)
They make great records and since partnering with Jay Joyce, their records have only gotten better. “Happy People” may have failed to ignite country radio but it doesn’t matter as the song is pure Little Big Town. Harmonies always take up a lot of space on these records and the country quartet delivers delightful harmony with songs like “Night On Our Side,” “When Someone Stops Loving You,” “Rollin’” and the massive #1 hit “Better Man.”
Jerrod Niemann - This Ride (Curb)
After a couple of years away, Jerrod Niemann returned to market with This Ride, his fourth album, and it found the singer making diverse and modern country music, just like we've come to expect from him since he broke out with Judge Jerrod & The Hung Jury. With 13 tracks, the album features a couple guests in Lee Brice (on the hit "A Little More Love") and Diamond Rio on the fun 90s throwback "I Ain't All There." Standouts include"Whiskey Waitin' On Ice," "The Regulars," "This Ride" , the emotive "Comeback," the rollicking "I Got This," and the heartfelt "God Made A Woman."
Jason Isbell / The 400 Unit - The Nashville Sound (Southeastern Records)
Jason Isbell is one of the best songwriters in any genre, recalling John Prine. The Nashville Sound is his latest record, a record which had fans buzzing everywhere as Isbell found his place in the mainstream of country music with a CMA Awards nomination for Album of the Year and while he didn’t win, Isbell and his band certainly gained a few more fans along the way. “If We Were Vampires” is perhaps the standout of a 10 track collection of standouts.
Carly Pearce - Every Little Thing (Big Machine Records)
Long a favorite of the local Nashville scene, Carly Pearce finally had a breakthrough in 2017 and scored as one of only two female solo artists to hit the #1 slot on the country charts in 2017 with the sublime title track. Other standouts include the fun opening track “Hide The Wine,” the emotive “If My Name Was Whiskey” and attitude-filled “Everybody Gonna Talk.” Pearce is an artist worthy of becoming a big star and hopefully this record gets her there.
Rodney Crowell - Close Ties (New West Records)
A masterful songwriter has become an even better singer as he’s aged. This record is definitely a continuation of the records he’s released throughout the past 20 years, songs which are honest to his life and tell stories that just breathe life into speakers. Standouts include “East Houston Blues,” “Storm Warning,” “Forty Miles From Nowhere,” “I Don’t Care Anymore” and “Forgive Me Annabelle.” Closer “Nashville 1972” tells a story about a ragtag group of dreamers who all became the standard bearers for songwriters in Nashville and beyond.
Mac McAnally - Southbound -- The Orchestra Project (Mailboat Records)
Known more for his work as a sideman and producer, Mac McAnally nonetheless is one of the best artists working in Nashville. While he tours with Jimmy Buffett and plays CMA Award-winning guitar on albums as a ‘day job,” this record, an orchestra-backed collection of his best songs from the entirety of his forty-plus year career, showcases why Mac McAnally is one of America’s masters. “Miracle,” “Southbound” “All These Years” and “Back Where I Come From” are each classics recorded and released by other artists but here they are brilliant pieces of work.
Lee Brice - Lee Brice (Curb Records)
After a couple of years away, Lee Brice has a stunning collection of 15 diverse songs. everything is here. Atmospheric production, emotive lyrics and stories about life. Everything that makes great country music. “What Keeps You Up At Night,” “Boy,” “Songs In The Kitchen,” “Rumor,” and “You Can’t Help Who You Love” are some of the record’s best songs but “The Locals” and “The Best Part Of Me” have the potential to be career changing for him. The former as a radio-ready party anthem while the latter song is an emotionally honest statement song ripped from his life.
LeAnn Rimes - Remnants (RCA/Thirty Tigers)
It’s been a few years since she released Spitfire but in that time LeAnn has signed to a new label (RCA in the UK) and went on to record this sonically diverse collection which blends rootsy pop and rock with strong lyrics. It may be a stretch to call the album a country album but when you listen to some of the other records released in the genre in 2017, it’s not hard to see this one as a country one too. Standouts include “Mother,” “How To Kiss A Boy,” “Learning Your Language,” “I Couldn’t Do That To Me” and her powerful cover of Brandi Carlisle’s “The Story.”
Lindsay Ell - The Project (Stoney Creek Records)
It’s taken a few years but Lindsay Ell’s The Project is the work of a major artist ready to break out on the charts. One of the best guitarists in the world, Ell worked with Sugarland’s Kristian Bush to create one of the year’s best records. Ell blends soul, roots and rock into a delicious musical stew and with “Criminal” she shows why she’s been “Worth The Wait” and the rare belief by Stoney Creek in her potential as a star. “Mint,” “Wildfire,” “Space” and “Champagne” all showcase why Ell and The Project are ready for prime time.
Old Dominion - Happy Endings (RCA Records)
They write some of country music’s best melodies and this record is no different. Add in some unique lyrical stories and you have a second record making a list like this. The record is full of hits including “Shoe Shopping,” “Hotel Key,” “Written In The Sand,” and “Stars In The City.” Finally, “Not Everything’s About You” joins the list of the year’s best songs with harmonies leading the way with a retro-like a cappella intro serving the song up on the T. If they keep making records like this, chances are Old Dominion will be on lists like this for years to come.
Tyminski - Southern Gothic (Mercury)
He released one of the most surprising and sonically pleasing and diverse records of the year. Blending some EDM grooves with strong lyrical stories, the roots music icon delivers one of the most out of left field albums of the year. Standouts on a record that only gets deeper with each listen include “Southern Gothic,” “Devil is Downtown,” “Bloodline,” “Numb” “Wailing Wall” and “Perfect Poison.”
Darius Rucker - When Was The Last Time (Capitol)
Darius Rucker has been making country records for nearly a decade now and each of them have their moments but When Was The Last Time may be the 50 year old star’s best to date. The album’s title track opens the project and it is a standard modern country single (with fiddles) but features some strong, uniquely country lyrics while “If I Told You” was one of the very best singles to come out in the past few years. One of country’s best vocalists, Rucker delivers sultry classic sounding vocals on “She,” “Another Night With You” and ”Story To Tell. “Straight To Hell” has some mega star power with Luke Bryan, Charles Kelley and Jason Aldean joining Rucker on a future hit (should it be released).
Drew Kennedy - At Home In The Big Lonesome (Atlas Aurora)
An American treasure delivering some great 70s inspired singer/songwriter fare, this record is easily the best-sounding Drew Kennedy has ever sounded thanks to steady production from Dave Brainard. Vocals, Lyrics, Melodies. At Home In The Big Lonesome has it all. There’s not a bad song on the album but if you want standouts, I’ll give ‘em. “When I’ll Miss You The Most,” “24 Hours In New York City,” “Cream And Sugar,” “Scratch And Dent” and “My Love Will Never Change” are amongst the best.