It’s been a stellar year for new music. Looking beyond the output of the mainstream artists has been a rewarding experience. The talent pool is extremely encouraging, especially with artists who have no input from mainstream record labels.
It’s not hard to discover performers who have released great music without any significant financial backing. Why is it that our premier league country music stars who have the pick of the best songs and the best producers regularly put out substandard albums?
These are my pick of the best 10 albums of the year. They are in no particular order. It’s impossible to pick an absolute favourite, but they have all helped to pass away the many motorway miles that we all do to see our favourite performers.
JOSH KELLEY – ‘NEW LANE ROAD’
This album was released in April. He had a pedigree of releasing good albums but this one was special. I have re-read the review that I prepared at the time. It didn’t do the album justice. These songs have become standards for me. Unfortunately, it was overlooked by US country radio and sales were modest. A massive disappointment as Josh Kelley’s album was better than his brothers.
We had the great pleasure of meeting Josh in September after his London show. He was a funny, intelligent and witty guy who charmed his audience. Difficult to pick out standout tracks but ‘Life’s Too Short’, ‘New Lane Road’ and ‘Take It On Back’ are magnificent. ‘The Rock Who Found A Rollin Stone’ is a contender for my song of the year.
DRAKE WHITE – ‘SPARK’
Drake White has had a great year. I came across this guy in late 2015 when he released his ‘It Feels Good’ EP, although he had been around for a couple of years building up his reputation. We reviewed his live EP in February and ended the review by saying “Not many people know about Drake White. They soon will”.
It helps when Zac Brown is on your case. Zac took White out on tour and this increased his exposure. However, he had to do the business and he more than impressed. I always return to the ‘Jam In The Van’ performance on YouTube. If you haven’t seen it, check it out. It’s a perfect showcase for White and his band’s immense talent.
He had to deliver when releasing his first album. He did so, hugely. ‘Making Me Look Good Again’, ‘Back To Free’ and ‘Living The Dream’ are the obvious highlights but just play it from start to finish. He will be at C2C next year and will be an artist I can’t wait to see.
SISTER HAZEL – ‘LIGHTER IN THE DARK’
In the dark days of February, I had the pleasure of hearing this album for the first time. Sister Hazel were a rock band. They didn’t do country music. Well they do now. They actually recorded an album that I just had to include in my best of the year. It might have taken them nine albums to see the light but I’m glad to introduce them to the fold.
I’m amazed that ‘Karaoke Song’ was never released as a single. This duet with Darius Rucker would have been a huge hit. ‘Prettiest Girl At The Dance’ and ’Let’s Get Lost Tonight’ are Eagles-like in their brilliance. This album has been a mainstay on the car player this year.
CODY JINKS – ‘I’M NOT THE DEVIL’
One of the best albums of 2015 was Cody’s ‘Adobe Sessions’. It was hard to follow. He not only followed it but surpassed it. The album has everything a country fan needs. Great songs and instrumentation. We need a visit from Cody Jinks. My hope for 2017 would be to attend a Cody Jinks live show. Standout tracks are ‘The Same’, ‘Give All You Can’ and the obvious masterpiece ‘I’m Not The Devil’.
WILLIAM MICHAEL MORGAN – ‘VINYL’
There really isn’t too much to say about this album that hasn’t already been said. I reviewed his EP in March and was blown away by the quality of the songs. It was the most-played release of the year for YLIAS. We have mentioned this guy more than anyone else on this blog this year and don’t apologise for doing so. His album cemented his reputation as one of the best up and coming artists in country music and he is already becoming a star.
The only minor gripe was that the album contained all of the EP tracks, so for those like us who were familiar with his music, it felt like half an album. He’s another guy we really need to see in the UK.
YARN – ‘THIS IS THE YEAR’
I knew nothing about Yarn before this album. They had already released 7 albums but hadn’t registered on our Richter Scale. We were late to the party but I’m very glad to have discovered this gem. 12 songs that get into your consciousness and remain there; I just had to include this in my top 10.
They are a band that probably won’t extend their horizons beyond touring in the US. Mainstream will almost certainly elude them. They are a good example of the huge talent that exists just beyond the surface. You won’t see them on any CMA awards show but they have given a huge amount of music pleasure to me this year.
Standout tracks are ‘I’m The Man’, ’Carolina Heart’ and ‘Love Hate’, which reminds me of Zac Brown at his most eclectic.
THE HONEYCUTTERS – ‘ON THE ROPES’
Amanda Anne Platt is another of those hugely multi-talented artists that don’t get anything like the credit or rewards that they deserve. She is the lead singer and main songwriter for The Honeycutters, another band that have provided the musical background to my year.
‘Blue Besides’ is a superb song. If it was recorded by Miranda Lambert, it would go to number one. It will remain an album track because that’s the way of the world. They are dominant in their field. Underground Americana that seems to be gravitating towards Asheville in North Carolina which happens to be The Honeycutters’ home town.
Other significant songs are ‘On The Ropes’, ‘Let’s Get Drunk’ and ‘Useless Memories’
BRANDY CLARK – ‘BIG DAY IN A SMALL TOWN’
I know that Dan has included this album in his list and considers it to be his album of the year. I wouldn’t argue with that.
As a songwriter, Brandy Clark probably impresses me more than anyone else. She tells stories and has the voice to convey her message across in a very special way. I had the pleasure of seeing her full band show in North Carolina and her acoustic show in Birmingham when she came to the UK. She is a hugely unappreciated talent and it’s a complete mystery why mainstream country in the US don’t seem to see that. It’s a relief that the Grammys have recognised her this year and we at YLIAS will be rooting for her.
There aren’t any highlights. All of the songs are superb.
COURTNEY MARIE ANDREWS – ‘HONEST LIFE’
She will be paying us a visit in February next year. Three dates in England and two in Scotland appearing with fellow Americana artists The Handsome Family.
The universal acclaim that this album has received is fully deserved. She has a vocal style that draws comparisons to Joni Mitchell and her songs are built on personal experiences. Female performers have gradually made a significant return to country music, and it’s another album that has consistency throughout.
Standouts are ‘How Quickly Your Heart Mends’, ‘Table For One’ and ‘Rookie Dreaming’.
WILLIAM CLARK GREEN – ‘LIVE AT GRUENE HALL’
I don’t usually enjoy live albums. They rarely convey the experience of the guys who were there. Emotions that you felt standing in a concert venue are unique to the moment. That guitar solo which sounded great live isn’t always something that you would appreciate listening to at home. The studio version is usually the one you want to hear.
However, if I am going to make an exception, there is no better example than this album from Texas artist William Clark Green. Recorded over two nights in this legendary venue, there is only one emotion that I feel when I spin this…I wished I had been there.
The country/rock vibes sound superb and credit has to go to the sound crew who recorded this masterpiece. Green and his band absolutely nail these shows and it’s obvious that the audience lapped it up. It’s probably more rock than country but is damn enjoyable. I said in my original review that it has to be heard in its entirety without picking highlights. I stand by that, but also commend it as one of my best albums of the year.
BRENT COBB – ‘SHINE ON RAINY DAY’
When I reviewed this album in October I thought that it was definite contender for my album of the year. I confirm it here. Brent Cobb is a future star. He’s another who we need to see in the UK. A great songwriter and singer who provided us with a massively consistent album that deserves all of the plaudits it has received.
The traditionalists have embraced the music on this album and 2017 hopefully will be the breakthrough year for Brent Cobb. Highlights have to be ‘Travelling Poor Boy’, ‘Down In The Gutter’ and the title track.
So that’s it. My top 10 choices. Hardly any mainstream artists. This is a year when we have had releases from Dierks Bentley, Keith Urban, Blake Shelton, Kenny Chesney and Garth Brooks, and they haven’t really floated my boat. Consistency is lacking and they don’t come close to the albums on this list for me. Miranda’s album almost did, and I also rated Jake Owen’s new album which surprised many.
An album that I have played constantly for the last few weeks is Justin Ryan’s that I reviewed last week. It almost made the list but not quite.
I also should mention that I don’t include any UK artists here. There is still a serious lack of album releases by the guys we see and support regularly. Special mention has to be given however to Thorne Hill’s album which came out in February and was showcased extensively this year. We need more for 2017 guys!