10 Favorite 2017 Albums

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Over the course of 2017 there were plenty of albums that I listened to (over 20,000 minutes of music) according to Spotify. However, there were plenty of great releases that slipped through the cracks during an extremely busy and complicated year for me. That’s why instead of doing a best of 2017 list I thought it would be more appropriate to list my favorite albums of 2017. Here are my favorite albums of this year, 1 year after I created Critically Country.

Very Honorable Mentions: Puxico (Natalie Hemby), At Home in the Big Lonesome (Drew Kennedy), Hell of a Highway Ep (Jake Worthington) and Canyons of my Mind (Andrew Combs

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10. The Nashville Sound (Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit) My favorite Jason Isbell project that tackles topics like politics, love and race. Sharp, honest songwriting and a lively sound.

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9. Purgatory (Tyler Childers) Many people’s pick for album of the year, this album has sharp songwriting and represents traditional/independent country well. I love the instrumentation on this album.

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8. Rule 62 (Whitney Rose) I have yet to hear a bad song from this Canadian born artist through 3 albums and an ep. A throwback sound with a modern spin.

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7. Chris Stapleton (From a Room Volumes 1 and 2): Chris Stapleton is one of the top vocalists and songwriters in all of music. My biggest criticism of these albums is that there aren’t enough new songs and it would have been better to just have one album with the best of Volumes 1 and 2.

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6. Vaquero (Aaron Watson) Pleasant is the best word that comes to mind when discussing Vaquero. The albums lead single “Outta Style” is also Watson’s first career top 10 song on the Media Base country chart.

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5. Trophy (Sunny Sweeney) My number 1 album for much of 2017 Sweeney delivers her best album making the album that she wanted to. Sweeney’s cover of “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” is one of the best songs of the year.

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4. On The Rocks (Midland) I couldn’t care less about any authenticity concerns. Midland’s music is the real deal traditional country sound that is completely missing from the airwaves in 2017.

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3. A Long Way From Your Heart (Turnpike Troubadours) Was there any doubt that this would be an absolute masterpiece? A Long Way From Your Heart further cements the Troubadours as country musics best and most consistently great band.

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2. Silence in These Walls (Flatt Lonesome) This Bluegrass group gets better with each album. This heartbreak album came out during a particularly difficult time of the year for me making this album so relatable.

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1. Tenderheart (Sam Outlaw) My favorite album of 2017 and without a doubt one of my all time favorite albums. This smooth California country album never gets old despite being released way back in April.

 

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Top 10 Current Country Artists

Since I am currently all caught up with the albums that I want to cover this week (next week is another story) I was thinking about different lists that I could make. I think lists can be fun to make and can be useful for the readers. So, I decided to make the least objective list that I could possibly come up with and do a top 10 list of current country artists. Now, I don’t want this to just be a list of all time greats like George Strait and Dolly Parton. I understand that they are still making music however, I wanted this to be a list of more current artists. For the purposes of the list, whether or not the artist is mainstream or independent is irrelevant. The only qualification is that they are a country artist who is semi current. This is just my personal top 10 artists at the moment so there was plenty of artists who could have been swapped. Feel free to comment, agree/disagree. Enjoy!

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10. Josh Turner: One of my all time favorite artists. The mainstream has certainly chased it’s share of trends over Josh Turner’s career however he has stayed true to his neo-traditional sound through it all.

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9. Miranda Lambert: Before The Weight of These Wings was released I would not have had Lambert on this list. However, when you combine her past work with the Weight of These Wings, it’s hard to argue that there are many better artists in the mainstream.

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8. Eric Church: Is there an artist in the mainstream that releases as many quality singles as Eric Church? Sure he’s not a traditional artist but, he makes great, modern country music and he actually has something to say!

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7. Aaron Watson: Perhaps the biggest country artist in Texas and for good reason. Watson does a fantastic job of combining radio sensible songs and powerful songs with a message in his albums. Even in his more modern sounding songs you can still hear tons of country instrumentation.

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6. Kacey Musgraves: Radio doesn’t deserve Kacey Musgraves. A fantastic neo traditional artist who refuses to compromise her art for the radio machine.

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5. Flatland Cavalry: The closest comparison to Flatland Cavalry would be the Turnpike Troubadours and boy is that a hell of a compliment. After only releasing about an album and a half’s worth of songs, they have already established themselves as one of country’s best groups.

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4. Sunny Sweeney: It’s hard to argue Sunny Sweeney isn’t one of country music’s best after her most recent masterpiece Trophy. The neo traditionalist is extremely honest and relateable in her music with loads of traditional instrumentation.

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3. Chris Stapleton: The biggest, most important moment in country music in recent memory was Chris Stapleton performing alongside Justin Timberlake at the 2015 CMA Awards. Stapleton has since become the biggest selling star in country music with perhaps the greatest voice in the genre. He has helped to prove the irrelevance of radio and the fact that people will pay for good music.

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2. Cody Johnson: Cody Johnson is country music. It’s rare that I go a day without listening to a Cody Johnson song. A true cowboy who mixes heartbreak and uptempo tracks with an undeniable country sound.

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1.  The Turnpike Troubadours: The Turnpike Troubadours are the greatest group/artist in country music. Their songs are written so brilliantly it makes you wonder how anyone could have written such brilliant songs. Musically lets just say if you don’t love the fiddle you may want to stay away from this Oklahoma based group.

This Month’s Rigmarole Featuring Country Music Minds

Hello everyone! Leon of Country Music Minds and I decided to do this collaboration piece to discuss the month of March in music as well as any other notable news. Below you will find the transcript to our conversation. Enjoy!

 

Alex: I’ll start with the first thing I covered this month. I know we both covered the Nikki Lane album. What were some of your thoughts about it?

 

Leon: I honestly thought it was pretty good. It didn’t quite click with me as “great”, but it’s a very fun album. I think the beginning is definitely very strong. The middle sort of winds down, and it ends on a high note with “Forever Lasts Forever”. I’d still say for me it’s a 7.5 but again, fun album

 

Alex: Yeah, for me it kind of fits in where a lot of albums have for me so far this year and that is the B+ 8/10 range. So pretty good but I wouldn’t call it great.

 

Alex: I feel like I give too many albums that grade sometimes but, I think it’s accurate

 

Leon: You know, that’s what I’d say about a lot of albums this year. Pretty good, maybe even great, but not something I may return to all that often. There really hasn’t been a consensus “excellent” album other than maybe Sunny Sweeney’s latest, but even that’s subjective

 

Alex: Right. I think it’s been a down year for albums but I expect big things from Stapleton and the Zac Brown Band later in the year. I think the independent side is lacking compared to the last couple years

 

Leon: I get what you mean though. 7 is probably my most common grade this year (or 8), and it might seem stingy, but at the same time, it makes it more worthwhile when you get an album that DOES blow your mind, you know?

 

Alex: Speaking of albums that blew my mind we have to talk about Breaking Grass

 

Alex: I didn’t expect a random bluegrass find to be an album of the year contender for me

 

Leon: Zac Brown has the potential to be great, and Stapleton could be as well. With those two though, I feel like we’re going to get a ton of slower songs, and that’s fine, but at the same time I hope neither project bores me.

 

Leon: I’m actually covering Breaking Grass right now. I have the review about 50% done, so I’ll probably release the review Tuesday.

 

Alex: Oh great! Would you say its an AOY contender for you?

 

Leon: In all honesty, no, and you’ll see why later, but I definitely think it’s on the “great” end. I have to say though, it’s cool that you discovered them. How did you find out about them?

 

Alex: Well, I was looking at the different Bluegrass charts (like all the cool kids do) and I stumbled across this Bluegrass band that I had never heard of. I decided to listen to the album (not expecting much) and I was shocked. I was surprised not only at how great it was but, some of the lyrics left me wide eyed

 

Alex: Lots of murder songs and creepy songs on this one

 

Leon: Definitely, I don’t know when you’ll publish this, but I’ll spoil it anyway – I think the first half of the album is great. The more experimental side really shines through in the lyrics and instrumentation. I just don’t personally think it holds up as well in the 2nd half, with the tone shifting more towards traditional bluegrass (not a bad thing though), and the themes not being as interesting save for “Faith Moved A Mountain”. I’d still say it’s pretty great though – probably a 7.5 or an 8 (speak of the devil, haha)

 

Alex: Ha! And I can hold off publishing this until you release your review

 

Alex: The album I struggled with most this month and this year was definitely Rhiannon Giddens Freedom Highway.

 

Leon: No problem. It’s fine with me. It’s just my personal opinion anyway. That brings us to an interesting point though – reviews. I don’t like to call what I do “reviews” so much as just a music fan expressing what they thought about a piece of work. With “reviews” you feel as if you’re supposed to say everything the album supposedly stands for/is about and give an accurate representation of how the crowd might perceive it. I don’t like it. What do you think?

 

Leon: I understand that. You and Megan Conley of Country Exclusive (look Megan I’m quoting you again). That’s the beautiful thing about having so many blogs – you see different opinions. Is something good or bad? Who knows? I don’t like it when there’s music you feel like you have to either like or dislike just because of what others have said. That’s something I’m doing much better with this year

 

Alex: I struggle most with giving grades honestly. There’s a lot of second guessing on my part with that and I take that seriously. And yes I’m not sure what I do is necessarily a review either. I try to give an overview of the album and give my thoughts

 

Leon: You and Megan said the same thing I meant

 

Alex: I’ll respond to what Megan said by saying absolutely. Even though I still stand by the idea that some music is bad, I do think a lot of it is subjective. Especially in regards to grades because not everyone even grades the same way

 

Leon: For me, grading is a curse and a blessing. On one hand I do like to have a stamp in time of what I thought of a piece of work, but again, one point in time. It could change at any point. Marty Stuart’s new one has only gotten better while ironically enough I haven’t returned to Rhiannon Giddens as much. For me, it would take an act of God for me to grant a 10. I’m not an asshole (well, maybe I am), but you really know that certain grade. it belongs to the albums that have stirred you the most. 9’s for me are what you’d call the contenders. They’re excellent, but might not have that transcendent quality I’m looking for (I’ll send this now so you can see, but I’m not done)

 

Alex: I like grades because I feel that should be part of a review. It certainly helps at the end of the year when you are deciding what was the best music of the year. But it’s definitely for me difficult to give grades

 

Alex: I have second guessed my perfect grade for Sunny Sweeney and that is my favorite album of 2017

 

Leon: 8’s and 7’s are tough for me. They’re what separate great from good to me. It’s tough to make that judgment call. Again, sometimes you feel like you’re being stingy, but it’s just grades anyway. As you said, not everyone grades the same way. 6’s and 5’s are merely decent to “eh”, as you’d expect. I haven’t given a ton of grades below that, but I rarely go below 2/10. I often try to find even the slightest good in something, or even judge it on a scale. For example, this is terrible, but not as terrible as THAT. You know?

 

Alex: I have only given 1 album less than a 7/10 because I don’t even want to waste my time with albums that are below that. It takes a lot of time to do album reviews so if it’s not worth my time I don’t do it

 

Leon: Sunny’s is excellent IMO. It’s ten tracks that don’t waste time (hint to you artists – killer, no filler). But for me, it doesn’t transcend to that top place for me. There’s nothing wrong with it, and I can’t pick out a flaw. I just also can’t “feel” that 10. It’s weird. Just me though.

 

Alex: That’s why I gave it a perfect grade because I couldn’t find a flaw and I loved it. Represents country music well

 

Leon: I hear you. Last year I don’t think I graded anything lower than a 7. I get it. I do now, but that’s because my personal philosophy has shifted over the course of this blogging journey…many times.

 

Leon: And that’s perfectly fine. What defines a perfect album is different for all of us. It’s the one grade I do care about for me since I don’t want to go overboard with it, but again, for ME

 

Alex: To put into perspective the work I do for album reviews I have done 2 pages of notes on the first 6 songs on Dailey and Vincents new album lol. It’s 16 songs!

 

Leon: Actually, I have a note on negative reviews, and it might get cynical…

 

Leon: I have to give Dailey and Vincent a listen. 16 tracks though…Woah boy, haha.

 

Alex: 2 songs do not have lyrics but still lol.

 

Alex: Let’s get cynical go ahead!

 

Leon: Well, you know that piece from LA Weekly that criticized Americana acts? I don’t disagree with the spirit of that. I disagree that most of the criticisms devolved into name calling and other unnecessary remarks, but I do agree there’s a sense of elitism hidden in the entire independent side (not just Americana). The writer just did a piss poor job of expressing that. (Cont.)

 

Leon: Anyway, the reason why I started doing negative reviews again was because, it helps the honesty shine through. With mainstream albums I have no problem detailing what’s wrong or saying that something is absolute shit. With independent albums though, there’s this sense of “oh, this is SO much better”. In other words, it has to be great. I’ve unfortunately contributed to that by being swept away with it, but there’s some of it that’s absolute shit, some even worse than the mainstream. That brings me to another point (cont.)

 

Alex: I did read that. They weren’t wrong about everything they said but, the name calling in my opinion was just to rile people up to get views.

Alex: And for me I don’t care if it’s mainstream or not. That doesn’t have anything to do with how much I like something. Either it’s good or it’s not

 

Leon: Remember that piece about my contact page? I’ve had a few submissions here and there, and most of the time it’s to get an artist a review. But come on, what’s a review really mean? Honesty or good publicity? Plus, you’re getting this music for free, so obviously you owe them right? Screw that. I think it’s time to take that same mindset I take with mainstream albums and apply it to everything. Blogs are often praised for “telling it like it is”, but is that the entire truth? That’s a question about quality though, so it’s tricky to answer.

 

Leon: Oh yeah, I don’t meant to accuse you of anything, just a general observation about the entire scene. I just think there’s nothing wrong with negative feedback (just my personal philosophy). If you don’t, it creates echo chambers I think

 

Alex: I’m new so I haven’t had too many pitches but, I assume if someone asks me to cover something they expect a ringing endorsement of the work. If it’s not good and they ask me to cover it I won’t cover it because I won’t lie

 

Alex: Even though my major is PR I don’t do PR for them lol

 

Leon: Good on you. I’ve had that, and I’ve stuff pitched that wasn’t good. I just ignored them since I didn’t know what to say. That could be a good segue into another topic – blogs, and the personal pressures and drama and bullshit that come with it (as Josh Schott said). What do you think about the number of blogs shutting down lately?

 

Alex: It’s honestly pretty sad to see Country Perspective go. Josh and Trigger at Saving Country completely changed me as a music fan and that’s not speaking in hyperbole. When I was in High School and younger I listened to what was on the radio because that’s all I knew existed. When I found Country Perspective and Saving Country it changed the whole ball game. Heck if it wasn’t for Josh I probably would never have created a blog. He was a great inspiration and his work will be greatly missed.

 

Alex: You and Megan at Country Exclusive summed up my thoughts pretty well in your farewell letters

 

Leon: Agree 100%. Those were the first blogs I discovered as well. It’s sad to see, but I get it. Josh addressed the “drama and bullshit” of running a blog on his Twitter letter, and I get that. It’s hard to know what to do with a blog. In the end you have to do what makes you happy. Both on the blog and outside of the blog. You know, I’ve been rude. I’m the one asking the questions right now instead of you. What else did YOU want to discuss, friend?

 

Alex: I want to talk about Deep South before we sign off but that brings me to something I have been thinking about lately. Do you think that your excitement for new albums is being taken away to some extent when basically half the album is being released before the album? For example, I should have been over the moon excited when Josh Turner’s new album came out after 5 years. But, because I had already heard half the album the excitement wasn’t really there. Maybe this doesn’t matter but, it’s something I have been considering.

 

Leon: Good topic. In all honesty my answer would depend on the album. For some albums, if the song is really great it can get you excited for the rest of it. For example, I had no plans to cover the new Mavericks album since I found their last album pretty boring, but then I heard “Damned If You Do” from their new one, and now? I’m looking forward to hearing the album. It works the other way though. You can be disappointed as well. It’s probably not good – after all, it sets up pre-expectations, something that probably isn’t good haha. In terms of excitement, yeah, I can totally see that. At the very least, it makes some albums easier to cover since you’ve already focused on particular songs so many times

 

Alex: From a writing perspective it definitely makes it easier to review when you heard 5 songs already but from a fan perspective I have noticed a clear lack of excitement when I have heard a good deal of the album already

 

Alex: But anyway speaking of Deep South what were some of your thoughts about it?

 

Leon: Deep South? Hmm, in all honesty it hasn’t held up as well for me. I still find the title track to be a guilty pleasure, and songs like “Hometown Girl”, “Lay Low”, “Hawaiian Girl” and “Never Had A Reason” are definite highlights, but other than that it’s just pretty boring. I used to think “Wonder” was the standout, but even that I think works better as a ballad. But in terms of albums that haven’t held up well I could give you a list of albums this year. Still, happy he’s back.

 

Alex: Josh Turner could sing the alphabet and it would sound great to me but yeah his new album was disappointing

Leon: Anything else man?

 

Alex: Is there anything else you wanted to talk about or do you want to give a preview for what you will be covering in April?

 

Leon: April? Hmm….lots of stuff – Chris Shiflett, Jason Eady, Angaleena Presly, Charlie Worsham…just a few names that could make the month great. You?

 

Alex: I’ll b covering Charlie Worsham, Brad Paisley, Jason Eady and Dailey and Vincent for sure. I’m sure other things will pop onto my radar also… Hopefully I can find another gem like Breaking Grass! Haha

 

Leon: Oh yeah, Dailey and Vincent are a group I want to get to as well. This week I’m covering Steve Moakler, Breaking Grass and hopefully Trace Adkins and the Mavericks. I’ve also got some other pieces in the works (including fake news haha).

 

Thanks to Leon at Country Music Minds for joining me for this collaboration piece. It was a lot of fun having this conversation and I hope you guys found it to be interesting as well.

 

Sunny Sweeney Trophy Album Review

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My first introduction to Sunny Sweeney was back in 2010 when she released her single “From a Table Away” to Country radio. Back then, Sweeney was signed to Republic Nashville as the first artist on the new label which was part of Big Machine. “From a Table Away” was the lead single to Concrete which produced 3 top 40 singles including the top 10 hit “From a Table Away.” After a couple disappointing single performances Sweeney was let go from her label and after which time she signed with the independent label Thirty Tigers with whom she has released her last two albums with. Sweeney’s last album Provoked was a really good album from the Texas singer which gave me high hopes for her newest album Trophy.

Highlights: This album for me is full of highlights so let me start with what I think is the best song on the album which also happens to be the final song. “Unsaid” is about someone that you love dying suddenly and you regretting all of the things that you didn’t get to say to them. The person in this song didn’t get to say she was sorry for whatever she did to the deceased and didn’t get the opportunity to say goodbye. What adds to a well written song is the instrumentation on this song. It starts off with a very subdued acoustic guitar before the chorus transitions to an orchestra sound with drums in the background. Another powerful song on this album is “Bottle By My Bed” which feels extremely personal to Sweeney. As she gets older all of her friends are having families and children and they all are jealous of the life that their friend gets to live. What they don’t know is she would trade all of it to have a bottle by her bed. More than anything in the world, she wishes to have a child of her own. It reminds me a little bit of “Pushing Time” from Miranda Lambert’s new album. The music on the cover “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” is incredible. It starts off with a harmonica and then the heavy peddle steel comes in and steals my heart before a fiddle comes in. The story is told from a male point of view and tells the story of the woman calling up the man on the phone and telling him that it’s over. The narrator describes how they play different music depending on what type of mood they are in and tonight, they feel like listening to Hank Williams. “Pass the Pain” starts off with some more heavy pedal steel and details the interaction between the woman and the bartender. The bartender is concerned with the amount of alcohol the woman is drinking but, she knows exactly what she is doing. She has been at the bar all day and knows the alcohol isn’t getting rid of her pain yet, she continues to order more alcohol. She tells the barkeep that if her money is still good to just do your job and pass her the pain.

Other Notable Songs: The albums lead single is a fun song called “Better Bad Idea.” She doesn’t want to play it safe she wants to get loaded and follow her bad idea. The opening fiddle play on “Nothing Wrong With Texas” made me love the song after about two seconds. It feels like another autobiographical song that describes what Sunny and other Texas artists go through after they try to make it in Nashville before heading back to Texas. “Spent so much time running around in that big old Pontiac. Time to go back to where I learned what respect is, there’s nothing wrong with Texas.” In the albums title track the narrator describes the situation between her man, his ex and her. The ex never treated him right and now blames the other woman for taking her boyfriend. The truth is however that the ex is just a jealous fool and now her ex has a trophy (her) for putting up with the ex’s nonsense. “Why People Change” is another song that reminds me of Miranda Lambert’s album The Weight of These Wings. In the beginning of the song Sunny is giving the guitarist instructions on when to come in in the song which adds to the organic, old school feel. The song begs the question of why people change so drastically. She was once in a relationship that she thought would last forever before the relationship unraveled.

Final Thoughts/Grade: If the year ended today this would be my album of the year. I have waited for an album to blow me away in 2017 and even though there have been plenty of albums that I have liked this year, this is perfection. This album is my favorite not only as a critic but as a fan. I would also say that “Unsaid” is probably my song of the year up to this point as well. The mix of Traditional country, outlaw and Americana makes the album feel shorter than it really is. There is no point during the album where you feel bored or feel that a song doesn’t belong. What a tremendous album by a tremendous woman. My grade for the album is an A+