What were our favourite twenty new releases of 2017?
By Rob Dickens
Welcome to the Best Albums volume five. Yes, the fifth edition. Heading toward a gold watch, maybe?
By my reckoning I have listened to about 250 new releases this year. At least once per album, a couple of times or more is the norm. Some have been physical editions purchased or supplied, some digital downloads or streams, via iPod, bluetooth. Once upon a time, you had it all before you in cases on shelves, now you have to be nimble as to where and how you listen to the new offerings. Anyway, I guess that is a reasonable palette from which to select the preferred twenty.
It’s been a busy and pleasurable twelve months with plenty of highs. Roots music to mine ears continues to thrive – in fact, maybe we are living in a golden age where Americana, folk, alt. country and soul music is never-ending, uplifting, inventive and downright excellent. (Blues and bluegrass tend to be less expansive as if going outside the usual parameters is anathema – there are some beautiful infidels though – see below). Perhaps it is the internet age of easy information sharing whereby exposure to the tribal traditions has never been greater. Maybe that old-time band on one side of the Blue Ridge Mountains is now hearing what they are doing over that ridge and liking to put their own spin on things. The merging of genres has been a glorious thing and a boon to artists, managers and publicists in the race to coin a new musical direction which is in fact usually an old one.
The Year of Living Digitally
MP3s (just) and WAV files (better) are filling up my storage space. Easily deleted of course in theory. But someone has put their time, heart and soul into that collection of tunes and is waiting to hear something positive back. I can’t throw out any of my CDs so why think that pressing the delete button is any different? I am not happy with the proliferation of digital music, particularly for reviewing. But I need to move on and accept that, for many new releases, I either listen to them digitally or not at all. No choice really. But for those that want to promote their music on this site, physical copies will get a lot more attention.
Having said all that, there are more favourites in my top twenty albums of 2017 that have been sent across the ether than physical albums. The first time.
Two deep-rooted rock and roll legends passed away in 2017. Chuck Berry and Fats Domino just about cover the whole field with their deep shadows. Tom Petty‘s death had a profound impact, perhaps due to its (public) suddenness. On my four-week music pilgrimage to the USA in September/October I lost count of the number of Petty covers from an incredible variety of performers from rock to blues to folk to bluegrass, such is his influence.
Gregg Allman‘s departure wasn’t as unexpected given his tough troubadour existence, but nonetheless it was the end of a remarkable journey of the best Southern rock and blues. (well, almost the end as we were privileged to have his final musical gift available posthumously).
Somewhat surprisingly, the one that hit me the most was Glen Campbell. Maybe it was his presence writ large on my formative years, perhaps it was the slow, public diminution of his spirit or could it be that I have come to cherish his great songwriters – Jimmy Webb and John Hartford over the years. Certainly, seeing his daughter Ashley and best friend Carl Jackson perform recently added to the pathos.
All Seats Taken
These are the ten collections, all highly regarded but would not quite squeeze into my very best. I would commend all these to you nonetheless. In alphabetical order:
Amanda Platt & The Honeycutters – Amanda Platt & The Honeycutters (Organic) – Full Review Here
Chris Milam – Kids These Days (Namesake) – Full Review Here
Darrell Scott – Live At The Station Inn (Full Light) More Info Here
Rachel Baiman – Shame (Free Dirt)
Raised By Eagles – I Must Be Somewhere (ABC/Universal)
Sam Baker – Land of Doubt (Blue Limestone) – Full Review Here
Scott MIller – Ladies Auxiliary (F.A.Y.) – Full Review Here
Suzanne Santo – Ruby Red (Soozanto) – More Info Here
Tyminski – Southern Gothic (Mercury)
Willie Nelson – God’s Problem Child (Legacy)
No one gets to listen to every new release each year and, with no question, I have missed some that should have been given proper consideration. I have researched some of those and their reviews to enable me to do two things. One, is to bring them to your attention immediately and the other is for me to pursue their acquisition in no uncertain manner over the next twelve months. They have appeared in at least four other best-ofs to warrant their inclusion below. Here are the top-rated releases that have neither crossed my desk nor my ears:
Alison Krauss – Windy City
Angaleena Presley – Wrangled
Lee Ann Womack – The Lonely The Lonesome & The Gone
Midland – On The Rocks
Natalie Hemby – Puxico
Steve Earle & The Dukes – So You Wanna Be An Outlaw
Amidst the constant stream of new releases and accompanying hype and expectations, it is important every now and then to take a look in the rear vision mirror. Perhaps to catch some of last year’s new releases that were simply unattainable in time (William Bell) or maybe delve back into the annals of classic releases, essential for every record collection no matter how old (Folk Anthology, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Bill and Doc) or perhaps seeing someone live during the year has reshaped and elevated your past opinion (Parker Millsap) or perhaps finally grabbing hold of something that has been on your to get list for ages (Chris Smither) or maybe discovering some enormous talent through the year (Will Kimborough) or listening to something for the first time that was interred in your digital collection that blows you away (Mel Parsons).
Here is ten of my favourite albums that I heard during the year with a release date pre-2017. All highly recommended! In alphabetical order:
Bill Monroe & Doc Watson – LIve Duet Recordings 1963-1980 (1993) Smithsonian Folkways
Chris Smither – Hundred Dollar Valentine (2012) Signature Sounds
Kieran Kane – Somewhere Beyond The Roses (2009) Dead Reckoning
Mel Parsons – Dry Land (2015) Cape Road Recordings
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – Will The Circle Be Unbroken Vol. Two (1989) Universal
Parker Millsap – The Very Last Day (2015) Thirty Tigers/Okra Home
Various – The Anthology of American Folk Music Boxed Set (1952) Folkways Recordings
Will Kimborough – Sideshow Love (2014) Daphne Records
William Bell – This Is Where I Live (2016) Stax
Willie Sugarcapps – Paradise Right Here (2016) BCPR
Looking back over the past, here are the published number one release of past years, just for a bit of perspective:
2016 Darrell Scott – The Couchville Sessions
2015 Chris Stapleton – Traveller
2014 Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
2013 Jason Isbell – Southeastern
Best of 2017
20. Gregg Allman – Southern Blood (Rounder)
A final testament from an artist whose contributions have truly shaped rock & roll throughout the past four decades.
It is Gregg Allman’s first all-new recording since 2011’s Grammy-nominated solo landmark Low Country Blues, with the new album among the most uniquely personal of the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer’s career. It is a collection of songs written by friends and favorite artists including Jackson Browne, Willie Dixon, Jerry Garcia, Robert Hunter, Lowell George, Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn, and is meant to serve as a salutary farewell to devoted fans and admirers.
Allman collaborated on his closing project with manager and friend Michael Lehman and Grammy-winning producer Don Was, a longtime acquaintance and staunch supporter.
It is an emotional roller coaster. Making the final recording must have been a hell of an experience, not just for Allman reflecting on a full and successful life but for those contributing to this final statement. One of the songs chosen was Browne’s “Song For Adam” which has obvious parallels with the death of brother Duane so long ago. The wearisome voice cracking during its recording says it all.
Key Tracks: “Song For Adam”, “My Only True Friend”, “Willin'” More Info Here
19. Ray Wylie Hubbard – Tell The Devil I’m Gettin’ There As Fast As I Can (Bordello)
Ray Wylie Hubbard is a seventy-year old Oklahoma-born troubadour, now a resident outside of Austin Texas. He is not slowing down, or mellowing with age.
His wry observations and sharp wit, combined with a glorious rocker’s sensibility have fueled his career for many years, earning him a devoted cult following with covers of his songs (eg the driving and gritty “Snake Farm”) filling up the airwaves and stages in many a place.
Produced by Hubbard himself at The Zone in Dripping Springs, Texas, with his lead-guitar playing son Lucas, drummer Kyle Schneider, Jeff Plankenhorn (dobro and mandolin), Bukka Allen (B3 organ), Mike Morgan and Pat Manskee on bass.
The wonderful array of guests includes Lucinda Williams, Eric Church, Patty Griffin and psych-rockers Bright Light Social Hour.
Gruff, darkly humourous but above all rocking. Hubbard has put together a sharp gem.
Key Tracks: “Tell The Devil I’m Getting There As Fast As I Can”, “Lucifer and the Fallen Angels”, “In Times of Cold” More Info Here
18. Tyler Childers – Purgatory (Hickman Holler/Thirty Tigers)
“…It’s not about rock, or grass, or country…it’s just hollerin’ in the mountains and stirring shit up!” so says Tyler Childers, so delivers Tyler Childers.
Hailing from East Kentucky, Childs provides a ten-song album that sounds fresh and vibrant. It was recorded at Nashville’s The Butcher Shoppe studio and was produced by Sturgill Simpson and David Ferguson.
In addition to Childers (vocals, acoustic guitar), the album features a variety of world-renowned musicians including Simpson (acoustic guitar, background vocals), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Miles Miller (drums, background vocals) and Russ Pahl (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, pedal steel, Jew’s harp) among others.
Whoop it up!
Key Tracks: “Whitehouse Road”, “Universal Sound”, “Lady May”
17. Chuck Prophet – Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins (Yep Roc)
Chuck Prophet described his new album Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins as “California Noir,” an album inspired partly by the mysterious death of rocker Bobby Fuller in LA in 1966. Gritty and jangly, Chuck’s new album features thirteen original works that explore doomed love, loneliness and fast-paced violence via Chuck’s muscular songwriting craft. They include songs about Fuller, the death of David Bowie, and the killing of a San Francisco security guard named Alex Nieto that drew international headlines as “Death By Gentrification.”
The album was cut to tape at Hyde Street Studio in San Francisco, which also happens to be the same studio where Prophet did his very first recording session, while still in high school. Chuck brought out his ’64 Stratocaster for the sessions, conjuring a sound that Jonathan Richman once described as “gasoline in the sand, like a motorcycle at a hot dog stand.” He’s backed by The Mission Express, a band featuring his wife Stephanie Finch (vocals, keyboards, guitar), Kevin White (bass), Vicente Rodriguez (drums, vocals) and James DePrato (guitar).
Lead single “Bad Year For Rock and Roll” is a timely homage to rock greats lost in 2016
Key Tracks: “Your Skin”, “In The Mausoleum (For Alan Vega)”, “Alex Nieto” Read Full Review Here
16. Rose Cousins – Natural Conclusion (Old Farm Pony)
I am beguiled by a golden voice. She’s Canadian. A native of Prince Edward Island who now lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Cousins is a JUNO and Canadian Folk Music Award winner.
Produced by Grammy Award winner and one of the most in-demand producers around Joe Henry, whom Cousins befriended in 2012, the album was born of a deliberate break from her active touring schedule during which she traveled widely, connecting and collaborating with fellow artists, writers and producers—with no intention of producing a new album of her own.
But it was through that process that the songs of Natural Conclusion began to take shape. What a pure and invigorating group of songs they turned out to be. Somewhat reminiscent (to these ears at least) of the great Patty Griffin, her voice ebbs and soars with great magnetism.
“Chosen” is a powerful opening track about the fear of commitment, self-doubt (“dodging my heart”) and not being able to live up to being a “statue”. There is plenty of emotive piano in “Like Trees”, “White Fla”’, “Tender Is The Man” and “Coda”. “Chains” is more up-tempo, a tight rocking journey with an easily recalled chant. “The Grate” is tender and dramatic. The short, sultry but questioning “My Friend” is gripping. The jazz-infused “Lock and Key” is a triumph with its overwhelming vocals, reflective lyrics and astoundingly good arrangement, the contagious melody run in “Grace” and the evocative “green of Ireland” in “Donoughmore”. The second single “Freedom” is a proud, defiant tale.
Cousins and Henry have created an emotional landscape full of beauty and conquest. It is formidable.
Key Tracks: “Chosen”, “Chains”, The Grate” Full Review Here
15. The Ahern Brothers – The Ahern Brothers (Independent)
Both highly respected solo artists and songwriters in their own right, Australians Josh Rennie-Hynes and Steve Grady formed The Ahern Brothers after an impromptu trip to the United States in 2016. Staring with a few days in San Francisco, they packed the car and set off. For the next three weeks they travelled throughout Northern California and Oregon taking in national parks, small towns, cities and stories along the way, documenting the experience by writing an album’s worth of songs.
Upon returning to Australia, they locked in studio time with renowned Melbourne engineer and producer Roger Bergodaz in his newly built Union St Studio. The album was tracked completely live over two days in mid-December of 2016. There was an emphasis placed on capturing the spirit and true performance of each song, with strictly no overdubs.
It’s easy to talk about the similarities with some giant artists – Simon and Garfunkel, The Everley Brothers and, more recently, Milk Carton Kids. The gorgeous harmonious certainly are up in the heavens with class. The Ahern Brothers also put their own stamp here, with lean and clean arrangements, soulful guitar picking and songs that cast glorious images. The lyrics, full of Australian places and mannerisms, provide another mark of distinction. The package contained here is exemplary.
Key Tracks: “Comb That River”, “Bury Me Here”, “Your Name” Read Full Review Here
14. Rodney Crowell – Close Ties (New West)
His artistic body of work continues at a supreme level. Over a dozen solo albums, plus many recorded collaborations, Rodney Crowell songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, George Strait, Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, Etta James, Van Morrison and Bob Seger. He is a Grammy award winner, a member of the Nashville Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, recipient of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting from the Americana Music Association and the subject of an autobiography (Chinaberry Sidewalks).
Crowell’s latest Close Ties is a ten-song collection and his first solo album in over three years.
Co-produced by Jordan Lehning and Kim Buie, the album features a duet with Sheryl Crow (“I’m Tied To Ya”) and “It Ain’t Over Yet”, a mighty vocal collaboration with Rosanne Cash and John Paul White. It is the first time Crowell and Cash have appeared on record together since their 1988 duet “It’s Such A Small World” which was also Crowell’s first hit.
Crowell has a courageous ability to apply the blow torch to himself. He can take aim at other things as well and delivers his opinions with a biting accuracy. Here is no different. The subject matter in Close Ties ranges from songs about Crowell’s childhood in Texas (“East Houston Blues”) to songs about arriving in Nashville as a young songwriter (“Nashville 1972”) to songs about friends (“Life Without Susanna” – Guy Clark‘s partner) and lovers lost (“Forgive Me, Annabelle”).
Key Tracks: “It Ain’t Over Yet”, “Reckless”, “I Don’t Care Anymore” More Info Here
13. Old 97’s – Graveyard Whistling (ATO)
Acclaimed Texas alt-country rockers Old 97’s released their eleventh album Graveyard Whistling, recorded in the same Tornillo, TX studio as their (now legendary and reissued) 1996 stunning major label debut Too Far To Care.
“[Too Far To Care] is the sound that best defined us,” says Rhett Miller, lead singer and primary songwriter. “It was a really magical time, and we go back to it a lot in our collective memory.” So when it came time for the band—which still consists of the same four members: Miller, guitarist Ken Bethea, bassist Murry Hammond, and drummer Philip Peeples—to record their newest endeavor, “we knew instantly that it was the perfect move,” says Miller.
While there are new collaborators on Graveyard Whistling, including Nicole Atkins, Butch Walker and Brandi Carlile, there aren’t many bands who can claim to have an intact, unchanged line-up as they celbrate twenty-five years together.
Key Tracks: “Don’t Wanna Die In This Town”, “Jesus Loves You”, “Good With God” Read Full Review Here
12. Jason Eady – Jason Eady (Thirty Tigers)
The album contains ten songs which rely on that voice and the strength of his songwriting. The arrangements are classy but stripped back to spotlight the hard-edged grace of the material which sound, thankfully, more like a live band at a country dance than one with lavish production values. The only electric instrument used is a steel guitar.
To add some sonic depth, the album features Vince Gill, Tammy Rogers (from driving bluegrass outfit The Steeldrivers) and wife, singer/songwriter Courtney Patton. The result is a wonderfully engaging and consistent record.
Originally from the lower Mississippi delta, Eady has always been attracted to country music and has been performing since the age of fourteen. A move to Nashville and then back to Jackson followed with him now playing a pivotal role in the Fort Worth Texas music scene.
Jason Eady is a follow-up to 2014’s well-received Daylight/Dark and again teams up with producer and talented singer/songwriter Kevin Welch. There is not one misstep here. Eady and his contemporary Sam Outlaw are bringing us some of the most refreshing and marquee country music around.
Key Tracks: “Barabbas”, “Waiting to Shine”, “40 Years” Read Full Review Here
11. Dori Freeman – Letters Never Read (Blue Hens Music/MRI)
The successor to her ground-breaking debut. A hard act to follow but this talented young woman from the small, music tradition-drenched town of Galax Virginia does it with ease. This time around, Freeman has assembled ten tracks, six of them originals. The balance is made up of the traditional tune “Over There”, Jimmy Reed‘s “Yonder Comes a Sucker”, Richard Thompson‘s “Bright Lights” and a song from her own grandfather, Willard Gayheart – “Ern and Zory’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog”.
Freeman again turned to Teddy Thompson to produce and contribute musically. It also features guest appearances by his dad the aforementioned Thompson senior, as well as Aiofe O’Donovan, Canadian psych-folk duo Kacy & Clayton and fellow musician and partner Nick Falk (who plays drums and banjo on the album). It was recorded at Brooklyn Recording and The Bass Station. Other luminaries contributing include master guitarists Neal Casal and Jon Graboff, Dave Speranza on bass and Roy Williams on keyboards.
Perhaps Letters Never Read is a more mature and carefully considered collection than its predecessor. It is a wonderful gumbo of great country songs, raw emotions, studied arrangements, Appalachian traditions and one of the most glorious voices you could want to hear.
Key Tracks: “Make You My Own”, “Cold Waves”, “That’s All Right” Read Full Review Here
10. Chris Stapleton – From A Room, Volume 1 (Mercury)
Like its multi-award winning predecessor (Traveller), the tracks were recorded in a significant room indeed – Nashville’s historic RCA Studio A. which was recently saved from development in the Music Row area of Nashville. Dave Cobb once again is at the production desk for Volume 1, which features eight original songs as well as a cover of “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning” which was made famous by Willie Nelson.
Stapleton is on vocals and guitar, with Cobb on acoustic guitar and Morgane Stapleton on harmony vocals. Long-time band members J.T. Cure (bass) and Derek Mixon (drums) are featured, along with Mike Webb (keys), Mickey Raphael (harmonica) and Robby Turner (pedal steel).
THE VOICE strikes again. He and Jason Isbell are sharing the same rarefied Nashville air these days after Stapleton’s first solo album Traveller burst out of the blocks. Pared back, haunting arrangements with the best soulful country going around.
Key Tracks: “Broken Halo”, “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning”, “I Was Wrong” More Info Here
9. Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives – Way Out West (Superlatone)
Produced by Mike Campbell (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) Way Out West is an homage to the American West and the highly spiritual world of the Mojave desert.
The Superlatives are well named – master guitarist Kenny Vaughan, drummer Harry Stinson and bass player Chris Scruggs as they strut their stuff with majesty. Contents include hallucinatory overtones, Indian chants and desert atmospherics. Add brilliant, evocative instrumentals, jangling guitar narratives and large characters abounding which shakes and resonates.
“Lost On The Desert” revisits Marty Robbins, a tale of dying on the hot sand, being pursued, with no respite. The title track is a profound out-of-control tale of various pills and the dangers therein. There are references to Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, and sunny California, all under swirling, soaring harmonies.
“El Fantasma Del Toro” flashes its Mexican heritage, a little Calexico and a touch of Morricone, with Vaughn hypnotizing all senses with his magic playing. “Time Don’t Wait” provides a shift – a driving rhythm, chord-laden sound wall and captivating bass lines. “Quicksand” is another compelling, riff-driven instrumental which includes a blazing guitar solo. It is brief, but powerful.
“Air Mail Special” has a hurried, locomotive tempo where the Superlatives stretch out their considerable talents and “Please Don’t Say Goodbye” is a well-constructed, plaintive love story. “Desert Prayer – Part 2” is another short, gorgeous song, this time with Beach Boys harmonies, and ‘Way Out West (Reprise)’ could fit a Western movie soundtrack perfectly, with its sweep, drama and emotion. It is a perfect book-end to this terrific collection.
Way Out West is an evocative treasure.
Key Tracks: ‘Mojave’, “Way Out West”, “Time Don’t Wait” Read Full Review Here
8. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound (Southeastern)
Jason Isbell‘s presence in the Americana and in fact Nashville music scene is now large and formidable. His breakthrough album Southeastern (2013) was a landmark, cathartic release which will stand the test of time. It coincided with his departure as the third string in Drive-by Truckers, a relationship with Amanda Shires and abandoning alcohol – the raw emotion in that record was palpable.
Something More Than Free followed and, while not having the dramatic impetus of its predecessor, was another worthy songwriting achievement in its own way. The magic continues with The Nashville Sound and puts Isbell into a special category, as it hard to imagine a better trio of releases, a run that is simply remarkable, perhaps reminiscent of some of Lucinda Williams’ earlier releases.
Influenced by the soul music so intrinsically tied to his homeland of Northern Alabama as well as the more traditional country and folk staples, the songwriting of Isbell is rich and powerful. His sixth solo album The Nashville Sound debuted at #4 on the US Billboard 200 chart, also topping the US Country, US Folk and US Rock charts. Little wonder.
Key Tracks: “White Man’s World”, “If We Vampires”, “Hope The High Road”
7. David Rawlings – Poor David’s Almanack (Acony)
Another entry in the can-do-no-wrong category.
David Rawlings and Gillian Welch do not mind sharing musical space, with the former taking more limelight lately. But it matters not. Whatever projects they work on, they infuse it with dollops of loving collaboration, talent, a folksy charm and wonderful economy.
The third album from Rawlings but the first without the Dave Rawlings Machine badge, it has ten tracks laid down on analogue tape during a week of sessions at Nashville’s Woodland Sound studios. As well as lyrical and vocal contributions from Welch, other key collaborators include Willie Watson (ex Old Crow), Paul Kowert (Punch Brothers), Brittany Haas (ex Crooked Still), Ketch Secor (Old Crow) and Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith (Dawes) to produce a highly distinctive collection. Five of the songs were penned by Rawlings and Welch and five by Rawlings alone.
Key Tracks: “Cumberland Gap”, “Come On Over To My House”, “Guitar Man”
6. Valerie June – The Order Of Time (Caroline International)
Memphis-bred, Brooklyn-based songwriter Valerie June is one of a kind. The Order of Time follows June’s 2013 breakout release Pushin’ Against a Stone that established her as one of the most interesting artists going around. The old-time blues aesthetic and quirky, but riveting, stage presence are hard to ignore. Her song stories are full of vivid and personal portraits of Southern life.
There are twelve original songs evidencing her stripped-back blues chant style. What is different here, though, is that we have essentially a soul album, but one with a difference. There is an Eastern drone that overlays the album which provides for a quite hypnotic, even meditative style.
The opener “Long Lonely Road” and “Love You Once Made” set the scene with June’s vocals intense but measured. “Shakedown” is fascinating as the most urgent song on the collection – a hill country blues foundation with a rustic doo-wop overlay. There’s the mystic chanting of “If And” and “Man Done Wrong”, and the ethereal, attractive spirit of “The Front Door”. “Two Hearts” is lilting and catchy, while we have the yearning “Just In Time”, the folky, string-laden “With You”, the slow building “Slip Slide On By” and low-key soul track “Got Soul”.
The new album was produced by Matt Marinelli and features appearances from June’s family – her father, Emerson Hockett and brothers, Patrick and Jason Hockett.
The Order of Time is a bold offering. While the vocal style on display here may not be to everyone’s taste, this is an impressive release, cementing Valerie June as an artist that requires constant watching and investigation so we can revel in her uniqueness.
Key Tracks: “Shakedown”, “With You”, “Got Soul” Read Full Review Here
5. Margo Price – All American Made (Third Man)
Margo Price and her partner reportedly sold their car to finance her first record Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. It was worth the risk. Under the wings of Jack White‘s Third Man Records, her star has risen quickly.
The second offering takes more courageous steps than her debut and therein lies its attraction to this listener. It touches on topics in a direct and candid way that other artists might shy away from. In fact it is one of the most political country records I have heard in a very long time. Poverty, inequality and sexism feature often (“Women do work and get treated like slaves since 1776“), (“We’re all the same in the eyes of my God/But in the eyes of rich white men, I’m no more than a maid to be owned like a dog”). Its unapologetic too with more than a touch of Loretta Lynn‘s sassiness.
The closing title track lays it all on the line.
With Willie Nelson, the jazzy duet of “Learning to Lose” is a treat.
Key Tracks: “Pay Gap”, “Loner”, “All American Made”
4. John Moreland – Big Bad Luv (4AD)
Oklahoman John Moreland released his seventh studio album Big Bad Luv, a follow-up to the intense and sparse High On Tulsa Heat (2015).
The new album was recorded at Fellowship Fall Sound in Little Rock, Arkansas and was produced by Moreland. This time around, he steps away from the solo persona to a fuller sound with rocky instrumentation which suits the material well. Moreland seems in a better space with the new collection, perhaps due to his recent marriage. Don’t get me wrong, he still has that brilliant way with words to make a point and to turn the spotlight on to regular subjects such as love and religion, but he doesn’t seem to be so damn sad about it. Concerned yes but not crushingly so.
There is a not a song on Big Bad Luv that doesn’t hit the high-standard spot. Don’t you love when a collection of songs is so complete that the temptation of fast forwarding through the odd track never enters your mind.
Key Tracks: “Lies I Chose To Believe”, “No Glory In Regret”, “Latchkey Kid”
3. David Luning – Restless (Blue Rose)
David Luning is a former American Idol contestant. His performance at Music City Roots in Franklin Tennessee last September sure caught my attention.
Restless features unique rocking storytelling from this man from California’s Sonoma County. Covering fast and slower material with aplomb, he has that knack that the best comedians have when telling a joke – using space and timing to gripping effect. The thundering “Bet It On Black”, the pleading “Danger” and the reflective and majestic conversation with his father “Be Like Gold”. Go see him or buy his album Restless – or do both.
Key Tracks: “Bet It All On Black”, “Be Like Gold”, “Different Piano Song”
2. Billy Strings – Turmoil & Tinfoil (Apostol)
It hits you part way through track 2 – ”Meet Me At The Creek” – over nine minutes of intense, frantic and sparkling playing. If I’ve heard something this good and unsullied, well I don’t remember it. Add to that a masterful duet between Strings and one of the great bluegrass guitarists of a generation Bryan Sutton (on the visceral “Salty Sheep”) that captures the bold craft, speed and accuracy of the finest and clearly original bluegrass music. Throw in the hypnotic, almost Middle Eastern picking of the title track and you have your reward for the price of admission already.
Not only is there bluegrass lineage, but throw in the Grateful Dead and other psychedelic influences – take note of the other worldly, ‘multi-versal’ ”Spinning” and the courageous inclusion of a non-track, ”107”. Plenty of hiss and hum as knobs are manipulated to provide a counterpoint and relief from the audacity of much of its length. His vocals show a maturity, in timbre and content, way beyond his years.
Turmoil & Tinfoil is a find, refreshing and mesmerizing. Billy Strings is as exciting an artist that has come onto any scene for a while.
Key Tracks: ”Meet Me At The Creek”, “Salty Sheep”, “Turmoil & Tinfoil” Read Full Review Here
1. Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway (Nonesuch)
Rhiannon Giddens, vocal linchpin for the authentic and engaging trio Carolina Chocolate Drops, set the bar high with her first solo release Tomorrow Is My Turn (2015). Giddens is a Grammy winner (as a member of the Drops) and was Grammy nominated for her solo debut.
Freedom Highway includes nine original songs Giddens wrote or co-wrote, along with a traditional tune and two civil rights–era songs. Giddens co-produced the album with multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell in his Breaux Bridge, Louisiana studio, with the bulk of recording done in wooden rooms built prior to the Civil War, over an intense eight-day period. Together they assembled the players, which included her touring band, local musicians from the bayou, a soulful horn section from New York, and talented family members.
You can hear the result. It sounds more personal and raw than its predecessor, which contained only one original song.
The opening track is a slow banjo piece “At The Purchaser’s Option”, a co-write with Joey Ryan of Milk Carton Kids, which is a powerful damnation of a slave’s life. “The Angels Laid Him Away” (by Mississippi John Hurt) is another sparse arrangement, with guitar this time, about a poor young boy who was shot. “Julie” is again lean in instrumentation but heavy with emotion as a banjo enjoys a little embellishment with violin.
“Birmingham Sunday” is a civil rights epic song dripping with meaning as it vividly depicts tense historical events in Alabama. “Better Get It Right The First Time” is the first fully fledged arrangement – brass, electric guitar, chorus – a full gospel treatment with an effectively different rap section from Gino Abel Terry. “We Could Fly” passes down the generations the spirit about hope and better days. “Hey Bebe” is a joyous event with the most alluring trumpet you will hear for a while – over a percussive underlay, Gidden’s vocals and Alphonso Horne’s trumpet perform a heady duet. ‘Come Love Come’ is a love tale with an electric guitar and banjo intertwining with pronounced effect, while “The Love We Almost Had” has a smooth, jazzy vibe. “Baby Boy” is a masterful lullaby of love and support with added vocals from Lalenja Harrington and Leyla McCalla – the effect is truly hypnotic. “Following The North Star” is a jaunty banjo instrumental and the Staples Singers’ “Freedom Highway” closes proceedings, another powerful civil rights song that commands much respect, with an important contribution from Bri Bhiman.
Her emotive, powerful voice and her grasp of music traditions are potent weapons. But add to those, her understanding of the struggles of minorities and their peace-loving unwillingness to be spiritually subjugated and you have a glorious set of statements that demand respect and reflection.
Freedom Highway is a glorious testament.
Key Tracks: “At The Purchaser’s Option”, “Better Get It Right The First Time”, “We Could Fly” Read Full Review Here
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