Top 10 country albums of 2017, according to Lyndon Bolton (@1LyndonBolton):
Steve Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers – ‘The Long-Awaited Album’
Martin and his band play a variety of instruments but the banjo defines them and this record. The album splits broadly into two; the songs and the soaring instrumentals. ‘For all round virtuosity it has to be ‘Angeline The Barista’. This is a “feel good” record; sure it’s fun but alongside that there is a lot of very serious musicianship.
Top tracks: ‘Caroline’, ‘All Night Long’, ‘Angeline The Barista’
Charlie Worsham – ‘Beginning of Things’
Worsham is an artist pursuing his aims with a quiet determination writing great songs that go far beyond the usual commercial fare. This second solo album highlights his beliefs and the challenges he has faced. ‘Please People Please’ is a message to himself, don’t keep trying to please everyone else at the expense of his own happiness. ‘Cut Your Groove’, a single, is another deep reflection. In a business noted for its impatience to get to the top Charlie Worsham won’t compromise his values and beliefs.
Top tracks: ‘Please People Please’, ‘Cut Your Groove’, ‘I-55’
Kate Ellis – ‘Carve Me Out’
Another debut, Kate Ellis sensitively weaves strands of country and folk throughout its ballads and higher tempo numbers in her velvety smooth voice. Influences such as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Gram Parsons, Gillian Welch and Nanci Griffith don’t lie too far beneath the surface but all these self-penned songs (some written with Andy Hobsbawm) are definitely Kate Ellis communicating directly with her listener. Neither purely country nor folk each is a subtle blend of both that allow full range to the versatility of her voice.
Top tracks: ‘I Believe’, ‘Carve Me Out’, ‘Night Before Dawn’
Kenny Foster – ‘Deep Cuts’
In his debut full length album Kenny Foster puts his powerful voice to good use digging into the human condition as well as songs about growing up in a smallish town, doing what we’ve all done. He shows that experiences don’t all have to be deep or life-changing. The Ol’Days’ illustrates this reflective theme, where Foster sings how we think about the good old days. Today will become a good old day so savour it now, don’t keep looking back. He just has a knack of putting these into perspective.
Top tracks: ‘Good Enough’, ‘Stand’, ‘The Ol’ Days’
Margo Price – ‘All American Made’
Margo Price’s second album is a perfect example of what country music does best, communicating from the heart. Price blends the deep traditions of country with her own originality. This is a big record that does not so much explore, but confronts some serious and sensitive issues. Price shows honesty and though there’s a lot of pessimism, she shows that facing problems head on as she has, is the only way. A highlight of the album is Price’s duet with Willie Nelson in ‘Learning to Lose’. A thoughtful ballad, it confirms that life’s lessons don’t come free, and who better to offer advice than the great man himself?
Top tracks: ‘A Little Pain’, ‘Learning To Lose’, ‘All American Made’
Whitney Rose – ‘Rule 62’
In Rule 62 Whitney Rose develops further her luscious Texas swing sound with a more assertive feel. She sings ballads with a voice that takes you right back to the 1950’s or 60’s but others are a lot more direct and reflect a young artist not at all happy with contemporary issues. Produced again by Raul Malo of Mavericks fame and Niko Bolas, backed by a band who redefine “tight”, in Rule 62 Whitney Rose has created her most complete recording to date.
Top tracks: ‘I Don’t Want Half (I Just Want Out)’, ‘Wake Me Up in Wyoming’, ‘Time to Cry’
Jade Jackson – Gilded
How do you blend Hank Williams with The Smiths? Listen to this debut from Californian Jade Jackson. This is a simmering pot of influences, largely the product of her dad’s record collection, where Jackson draws on some of country’s greatest to create an album of great originality. She sings in a velvety voice while the punk and country influences are a constant feature; ‘Motorcycle’ menaces, not just in sound but lyric, “Boy, it’s been fun, but my motorcycle only seats one”. ‘Troubled End’ is more rockabilly and ‘Finish Line’ has a beautiful country feel.
Top tracks: ‘Aden’, ‘Bridges’, ‘Finish Line’
The Orphan Brigade – ‘Heart of The Cave’
This isn’t really ‘country’ but it is roots, of the deepest variety. ‘Heart of The Cave’ is also the most original release I’ve heard this year. The Orphan Brigade are Ben Glover, Neilson Hubbard and Joshua Britt. Like the 2,500 year old caves that inspired them to record this, their second release, ‘Heart of The Cave’ has extraordinary depth in its lyrics and musical arrangement. This is a concept album, not in that description’s frequent association with complexity but in the originality of the idea and how whole project comes together. Moving from anthemic crescendo to simple tunes The Orphan Brigade have matched the mysticism of their subterranean surroundings with a series of equally deep reflections. If you’re on for something a bit different then try this.
Top tracks: ‘Osimo’, ‘Flying Joe’, ‘Sweet Cecilia’ (but you should listen to the whole record).
John Moreland – ‘Big Bad Luv’
After his acclaimed ‘High on Tulsa Heat’ two years ago, it was hard to imagine John Moreland doing anything better. He has now by adding a band to his gritty songs. Moreland writes with brutal honesty telling heartbreaking stories of incredible bleakness. The band only amplify his words. There isn’t a standout song because they all are but go to ‘Every Kind of Wrong’ to see what I mean. Don’t be duped by its upbeat tempo. Then just ‘Slow’ Down Easy’.
Top tracks: ‘Every Kind of Wrong’, ‘Ain’t We Gold’, ‘Slow Down Easy’
Tift Merritt – ‘Stitch of the World’
Tift Merritt describes this album as being different from her others in that it represents a period of great change. She had been through a divorce and had become a mother. Other inspiration came from the three locations she wrote the songs; the Texas landscape, California and New York City. For example, ‘Proclamation Bones’ is full of nature and references to an enchanting place while another new song, ‘Heartache is an Uphill Climb’ is just that, written while she had got lost hiking and was completely immersed in her surroundings.
Top tracks: ‘Dusty Old Man’, ‘Proclamation Bones’, ‘Love Soldiers On’.