I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a music year quite like 2017. In terms of personal classics, it didn’t stack up to my favorite music years on record, like 2004 or 2015. But for maybe the first time ever, I would have been comfortable putting just about any album from my top 30 in my top 10. Indeed, every record up to about 19 or 20 was ranked in my top 10 for at least one draft of this list. Clearly, the breadth of good music from this year was stunning, and I feel fortunate to have been able to experience it.
Above all, this year was one of huge discovery for me. Of the 40 artists featured below, only 18 have made year-end lists of mine in the past. A few of the remaining 22 were artists I’ve known for awhile who realized their considerable potential in 2017. Most, though, were completely new finds for me, and a fair handful released debuts. Looking at those numbers, I can’t wait to see what new things will grace my ears in 2018. For now, though, I’m bidding farewell to 2017 by recounting the music that played as my life soundtrack during it. Here’s hoping my discoveries can become yours.
Below is a playlist that includes my favorite song from each of the 40 records listed here, sequenced in the order they appear on the list. In addition to those 40 songs, the playlist includes 25 more songs I loved from albums or EPs not featured here. Feel free to listen along as you read!
1. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
On The Nashville Sound, Jason Isbell writes songs about politics, alcoholism, family, fatherhood, classism, mental health issues, marriage, and death—among other things. All these topics have been broached before by other artists. None have been written about in quite the same way that Isbell writes about them here, or with quite the same sensitivity to small, personal details. I’ve said before that Jason Isbell is the most talented songwriter of his generation. On this album, he makes a pretty decent argument for himself as one of the 10 or 20 best of all time. The most obvious case study is “If We Were Vampires,” a love song so profound that it effortlessly captures the scope, magnificence, and tragedy of a long-term relationship—not an easy thing to do. But “Vampires” is just the tip of the iceberg. These songs also see Isbell reckoning with the privilege he built his career on (“White Man’s World”), the fear and doubt he feels as a reformed alcoholic with a stable life and family (“Anxiety”), and just how much 2016 fucking sucked (“Hope the High Road”). Remarkably human and unflinchingly brave, The Nashville Sound is a mature proclamation from a landmark artist who just seems to be hitting his stride. It’s not his best record: for the time being, that title still belongs to Southeastern, his 2013 breakthrough. But The Nashville Sound thrives on immense quantities of nuance and grace, a monumental songwriting achievement from a guy who probably has another dozen or so up his sleeve. We’ll all be lucky to have front row seats to the next few decades of his career.
Key track: “If We Were Vampires”
2. Natalie Hemby – Puxico
Puxico is like the summer vacation you just don’t want to leave behind. Everyone has that summertime getaway place they love to reminisce about. For some of us, it’s a place we go every year. For others, it’s a place we used to go as kids and haven’t seen in at least a decade. The greatest thing about this record—a gorgeous, sepia-toned instant classic—is that it takes you back to those places. Natalie Hemby is writing about her summertime getaway on this record, but the songs leave enough room for listeners to fill them with their own experiences. The songs capture falling in love on a summer night (“Lovers on Display),” cruising down the highway as the sun disappears on the horizon (“Cairo, IL”), missing old friends who made lives elsewhere (“This Town Still Talks About You”), and the humble, dusty, gritty resilience of rural America (“Worn”). More than any other album this year, Puxico felt like home to me, it’s stories and lilting melodies capturing a piece of who I used to be. Or maybe it’s who I still am. After all, on “Return,” Hemby sings about the welcoming, wide open arms of a familiar place—and about how that familiarity never fades, even if you’ve been gone for years. In Hemby’s songs, you can always go home again.
Key track: “Cairo, IL”
3. Travis Meadows – First Cigarette
Travis Meadows has lost just about everything in his life. He lost his childhood to his parents’ divorce, his leg to cancer, and a big part of his life to addiction. Rather than give up and cash out, though, the 52-year-old Meadows is taking his shot at something greater. The result, First Cigarette, is the year’s most stirring and redemptive LP. Half of it is the sound of Meadows exorcising the ghosts of his past, like on “Sideways,” about the futility of trying to hide your weaknesses, or “McDowell Road,” about regretting the roads not taken. The other half is about looking forward to a brighter future, as on “Pontiac,” a song about holding onto your roots and defining experiences even as you wander far away from them, or “Underdogs,” about embracing the things that make you weird and putting them on display for every goddamn person in the world to see. The album has every right to be a demoralizing heartbreaker, but it isn’t. Instead, Meadows surrounds the dejected slow-burns with lively, resolute numbers about the beauty of life. “Pray for Jungleland” is about the unpredictable, romantic summers of youth that “leave a dent” for life, while “Long Live Cool” is a blues-blasted album closer about keeping the young and reckless side of you alive. After years of letting a bad hand beat him, Travis Meadows is ready to pick up his cards and plaay. Hearing him make real-time resolutions on that front is nothing short of thrilling.
Key track: “Pontiac”
4. Steve Moakler – Steel Town
Steve Moakler’s self-titled EP was one of my favorite releases of 2016. It racked up more plays for me than any other record from last year (save Butch Walker’s Stay Gold), despite being only five songs long. As it turns out, the EP was merely the first half of Steel Town, which allowed Moakler to dominate my listening for the second year running. More than maybe any other artist in country music these days, Moakler tows the line between mainstream pop-country and soulful Americana. His songs are catchy enough for any mainstream radio station, but his voice has more of a weathered drawl than your average country star, and he lets the production on his songs breathe rather than compressing the hell out of everything. The result is that his songs really feel like the dusty streets of small towns, rather than just paying tribute to them. They feel like summer nights spent out on the beach, just you and the girl you love, instead of drunken invocations to summertime shouted from a neon-lit amphitheater stage. They feel like they’ve been earned over years of life and living, instead of being spit out by the Nashville song machine in an afternoon. On songs like “Steel Town,” “Just Long Enough,” “Summer Without Her,” and “Wheels,” Steve Moakler pens what, for me at least, has been a life soundtrack two years running. I can’t wait for the next chapter.
Key track: “Wheels”
5. Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Volumes 1 & 2
It didn’t take us long to start taking Chris Stapleton for granted. Two years ago, publications (especially those focused on country music or the pure craft of songwriting) were tripping over themselves to anoint Traveller as one of the year’s best. American Songwriter called it the album of the year. So did Taste of Country. It was a close contender for the lists on Rolling Stone Country and Saving Country Music, too. Fast-forward two years and country enthusiasts are trying to argue that, maybe, the Stapleton hype isn’t justified. American Songwriter didn’t even put either of Stapleton’s 2017 records in its top 25. Frankly, it makes sense. In a genre where the biggest sellers have overshadowed the surest craftspeople for so long, it’s almost second nature to want to take the winners down a peg or two. The thing about Stapleton, though, is that he’s the real fucking deal. Most other artists couldn’t release two albums in a year, and if they did, they’d drip with filler material and reek with over-indulgence. Chris Stapleton avoids all the common double album pitfalls by keeping his head down and not believing his own hype. The two records we get as a result play well separately, but work even better as a pairing, showcasing the concise economy of Stapleton’s songwriting, the bare bones beauty of his band (and Dave Cobb’s production), and the grizzled splendor of his voice. There are immediate standouts, sure: the vocal fireworks of “I Was Wrong”; the creeping dread of “Scarecrow in the Garden”; the radiant optimism of “Millionaire”; or the emotional wrecking ball of “Either Way.” Most of the time, though, Stapleton writes songs that you’ll like the first time you hear them, love by the tenth, and swear are transcendent by the hundredth.
Key track: “Either Way”
6. The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
One of my fondest music memories this year came in the early morning hours of Labor Day. I was in my car, driving from Detroit to Grand Rapids after one of U2’s Joshua Tree anniversary tours (another of my favorite music memories of the year). The adrenaline of the big rock show was wearing off and I was starting to get a little tired. My GPS telling me I wasn’t going to get home until about 2:15 a.m. wasn’t helping. Luckily, I had two things to keep me awake. The first was the lukewarm Mountain Dew in my cup holder, which wasn’t very good but at least put some caffeine in my bloodstream. The second was A Deeper Understanding, playing so loud that I felt like I was still in Ford Field listening to U2. If you don’t own a car, A Deeper Understanding probably sounds like a perfectly good guitar rock record to you. The guitar solos are magnificent (and numerous), to the point where I think just about anyone could at least appreciate this record. But I don’t think you can really get The War on Drugs—this album especially—until you climb into a car and play it full blast on a solitary road trip. As the only one on the highway, way too late at night, I heard these songs in a new light. The skittering synths of “Holding On”; the interstellar guitar melody on “Strangest Thing”; the long, desolate expanses of “Thinking of a Place”; cathartic, harmonica-assisted crescendo of “You Don’t Have to Go.” These moments appealed to me from the first time I heard the album, but they sounded so much more epic that night in the car. No album made me feel more invincible in 2017.
Key track: “Holding On”
7. Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness – Zombies on Broadway
Andrew McMahon is so dependable that people have started to take him for granted. Such was the case with Zombies on Broadway, an album that probably didn’t get as much attention as it deserved. Part of it was McMahon’s stubborn refusal to make a less-than-stellar record. The other part was release timing, since Zombies is a bulletproof summertime record that dropped on February 10th. Still, despite the early release date and suboptimal seasonality, this album stuck with me all year, each song finding some way to worm its way into my consciousness. The first half of the record is McMahon showing that he can hang with the big stars in terms of pop songs. With a bigger label push, “Fire Escape,” “So Close,” and “Don’t Speak for Me” would have been hits. It’s the second half of the record where McMahon really lets his artistry shine, though: the late night, street light memories of “Walking in My Sleep”; the Caribbean-flavored “Island Radio”; the big city romance of “Love and Great Buildings”; and “Birthday Song,” a stoic rumination on touring lifestyle that builds from a slow piano ballad to a big, epic conclusion. The album artwork repeatedly shows Andrew in astronaut garb, which is fitting since the climax of “Birthday Song” sounds like a spaceship blasting off into the stratosphere. After years of writing songs that reference spacemen, McMahon finally managed to make an album that makes you feel like one.
Key track: “Walking in My Sleep”
8. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing
Country music has a woman problem. Specifically, country radio does not like to play female artists. You can probably count on one hand the number of women who managed top 10 hits on the country charts this year. Add the fact that the top country song for most of the year was Sam Hunt’s gross “Body Like a Backroad,” a case study in objectifying women, and it’s easy to see mainstream country music as the most backwards, misogynist place in the industry right now. Thank god, then, for Carly Pearce, who managed a sleeper number one hit with the title track from her long-awaited debut album. “Every Little Thing” does not sound like a modern country hit. It’s a slow, sad, stripped down piano ballad in a genre where most of the big hits are upbeat, overproduced anthems. Pearce’s record is actually stacked with songs that fit the mainstream country bill right on the dot, from the propulsive “Careless” to the luminescent “Honeysuckle”—a song I’ve already got earmarked for my 2018 summer nights playlist. But Pearce is at her best in ballad territory, where the tuneful ache of her voice can really shine. Prime examples include “If My Name Was Whiskey” and “I Need a Ride Home”—both of which epitomize the ability of country music to tell universal stories in interesting, unique ways. Pearce is also just really good at capturing the feeling of a specific moment. Take closing track “Dare Ya,” which perfectly recreates the quivering anticipating and desire that precedes a first kiss.
Key track: “If My Name Was Whiskey”
9. Turnpike Troubadours – A Long Way from Your Heart
“I can live on so much less, this much I’ve been learning.” Turnpike Troubadours frontman Evan Felker sings those lines in the chorus of “The Housefire,” the first song from A Long Way to Your Heart. In a year where greed and selfishness seemed to be staring at us from every angle, those words—delivered in a track about losing all material possessions and discovering what really matters—felt like a profound comfort. The rest of the record is no different, plumbing the depths of the human condition with humor, wit, and heart. Felker is one of country music’s most talented songwriters, and that fact shows time and time again throughout these songs. Sometimes, he does it by being wildly inventive, as on “A Tornado Warning,” a romantic love story that just so happens to be set in the midst of a cataclysmic storm. Other times, he does it by choosing the simplest, least guarded words, as in elegiac “Pay No Rent.” “We all know that you gotta go/But does it have to be so soon?” he sings in the latter. Who hasn’t thought something similar after losing a loved one? As on their last album, 2015’s self-titled album, Turnpike Troubadours prove to be a band that tells universal truths in unique ways. That balancing act isn’t an easy one to strike, and the fact that Felker and company do it so consistently makes A Long Way to Your Heart one of the year’s foremost songwriting accomplishments. The fact that the band is one of the most technically skilled outfits in music only elevates the record higher.
Key track: “The Housefire”
10. Jon Latham – Lifers
“Lord, ain’t it funny what rock ‘n’ roll can do?” Jon Latham comes back to that refrain over and over again in “Yearbook Signatures,” the centerpiece cut from his masterful sophomore LP. Like most of the songs on this record, it’s a long, dense piece of writing, wrapping it’s themes in other themes and creating a whole world of meaning. On one level, it’s a song about being a teenager—awkward, foolish, hopeful, naïve—and leaning on music as a crutch to get you through the tough days. On another level, it’s a song about looking back at your high school days and all the people who played a role in them: the ones you loved, the ones who were your best friends, and the ones you were always destined to forget about after graduation. Nearly a decade removed from high school myself, this song crushed me with its flickers of hindsight wisdom, tender regret, and fond memories. The rest of the record is nearly as stunning, from the red herring opening track (“First in Line,” a rollicking generational anthem in the midst of seven thoughtful ballads) to the tortured “Old Man in the Sea” (told from the perspective of a father trying to come to terms with his own son’s adulthood). I’m not sure I’ve ever found a songwriter who conveys the exquisite pain of nostalgia quite as well as Latham, and that fact will likely keep me coming back to this record even after some of the flashier discs from this year fade.
Key track: “Yearbook Signatures”
11. Tyler Childers – Purgatory
Records about youth typically view the past through rose-colored glasses. There’s lots of romanticizing and mythologizing about the way things used to be, from old stomping grounds to best friends and former flames. On Purgatory, Tyler Childers writes about his youth with a wry fondness, but he’s careful not to sand off the edges. Because let’s be honest: “growing up” for many of us involved doing a lot of stupid, reckless shit. Here, Childers comes clean about his bad behavior. He does a lot of drugs. He drinks moonshine liberally. He almost blows his chances with a religious beauty when he shows up at her house stoned out of his mind. He counts on a Catholic girl’s prayers to get him into heaven, rather than cleaning up his act and getting in on good behavior. There’s grit and guts to these stories. They make Purgatory feel lived-in and true, the rare “growing up” album that seems to paint youth in its warts-and-all glory. Childers is just as candid about where he grew up: Lawrence County, Kentucky, an Appalachian county that still prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages until 2014. Like many parts of rural America, the community where Childers grew up has been ravaged by the opioid crisis. Talking with The Fader recently, Childers spoke of the job shortages, manual labor injuries, and desperate drug addiction problems he’s seen in his hometown. That desperation seeps in to the songs on Purgatory, like on “Banded Clovis,” where the narrator robs and kills his best friend so he can afford to buy more pills. As Childers charts his coming-of-age tale, he reckons with what his future could look like if he never gets out of this town. Instead, Childers grows up, settles down, falls in love, and gets a handle on his vices. But it’s the harrowing journey through bad decisions and dark fates that makes Purgatory’s conclusion feel hard-fought and earned.
Key track: “Feathered Indians”
12. Noah Gundersen – White Noise
Noah Gundersen could make a great folk record in his sleep, but he’s not content to phone anything in. After two consecutive masterpieces—2014’s Ledges and 2015’s Carry the Ghost—Gundersen was restless to try something new. That impulse to burn the map leads to White Noise, an ambitious, loud, weird record that flits back and forth between Gundersen’s wheelhouse and places he’s never gone before. It’s not always welcoming, and Gundersen’s experiments don’t always pay off. “Cocaine Sex & Alcohol” is saddled with an avant-garde jam section that, frankly, sucks, while “Bad Actors” is a dull slog of a piano ballad that sounds like a Radiohead C-side. When White Noise hits, though, it hits hard. Side one—“After All,” “The Sound,” “Heavy Metals,” and “Number One Hit of the Summer”—is one of the strongest runs of songs anyone put on a record this year. Each track takes Gundersen’s sonic palette to a new level, from the slow build of the opener to the electro-tinged “Heavy Metals.” Deeper in the tracklist, meanwhile, listeners will unearth some of the prime treasures of Gundersen’s burgeoning catalog. “Fear and Loathing” is a yearning ode to a dying small town; “Bad Desire” is a smooth, soulful ballad as potent as a shot of bourbon; and the closing one-two punch of “Dry Year” and “Send the Rain (To Everyone)” serves up a torrent of emotional force. The album itself is overlong, occasionally misguided, and easily Gundersen’s weakest. Still, there are more perfect songs or near-perfect songs on White Noise than on any other record I heard this year, including the ones at the top of this list. My bet is that, once Gundersen works through some of the growing pains of his sonic evolution, he’ll get back to the business of making masterpieces.
Key track: “Send the Rain (To Everyone)”
13. Will Hoge – Anchors
Will Hoge is an underdog. That element is what drew me to his music in the first place, and it’s what makes Anchors, his tenth album to date, such a pleasure. On his past two records, Hoge was making a clear pitch to stop being an underdog. Those records sounded like plays for mainstream success, and while I was completely ready to watch one the good guys win—especially with Never Give In, which I initially named my album of the year in 2013—I can’t help but be selfish about Hoge’s return to a more stripped back sound. Anchors is sparser and grittier than its immediate predecessors, like Hoge let some dust and dirt fall back into the record grooves. The result is an album built for backroads and dusty two-lanes, in the same way that 2015’s Small Town Dreams felt built for epic highway drives. Songs like “This Ain’t an Original Sin,” “Anchors,” “17,” and “Young as We Will Ever Be” offer small town yarns that feel a lot more lived-in than the ones on Small Town Dreams. That record was a celebration of the idea of the small town, while this one feels like a celebration of the people who live there. They aren’t perfect; they aren’t glamorous; they make mistakes and bad choices; they chase dreams they’ll never reach. But they are also real, honest, hardworking folks, with plenty of heart and enough drive to take the bad with the good. In other words, on this record, Hoge is singing about himself, and it’s a pleasure to hear that after a few records where it sounded like he was trying to sing for everyone else.
Key track: “Anchors”
14. Kelsea Ballerini – Unapologetically
With her smash 2015 debut, The First Time, Kelsea Ballerini was labeled the heir apparent to Taylor Swift’s throne. The comparison made sense: Swift had left country music behind the year before, and Ballerini’s brand of pop-country recalled the youthful innocence (and hooky tunefulness) of Taylor’s first two records. When Ballerini notched three straight number on hits on the country charts, it seemed like the prophecies might end up ringing true. Unapologetically, Ballerini’s sophomore follow-up, certainly sounds like a Taylor Swift record, landing somewhere between the poppier pop-country of Speak Now and the coming-of-age tales of Red. It’s a major evolution for Ballerini, who, at 24 years old, has done a lot of growing up since she was anointed as country music’s next big thing. Where the songs on The First Time were largely about teen issues—intoxicating crushes, lousy boyfriends, fake IDs—Unapologetically is markedly more mature. There was no doubt last time that Ballerini had it in her to write deep, reflective songs. The first album’s best song was “Secondhand Smoke,” a frank look at what being the child of divorce does to you. This time, that promise is revealed more fully, especially on songs like “In Between,” about not quite feeling like an adult, but not quite feeling like a kid either; or “High School,” about a hometown hero who can’t let go of his glory days. There are still shitty boyfriends, but instead of waiting for them to pull into the driveway, Ballerini is serving up scathing kiss-offs, like the rapid-fire “Get Over Yourself” or the sassy “Miss Me More.” And there’s still the sweet intoxication of romance, but instead of “calling dibs” on boys, Ballerini writes her sharpest, wittiest barbs ever on “I Hate Love Songs,” a song that functions both as a rejection of romantic clichés and a lovelorn embrace of them. Time will tell whether Ballerini can keep scoring hits (or manage an iota of Taylor Swift’s crossover success), but it’s already clear that her evolution as an artist is going to be fun to watch.
Key track: “High School”
15. U2 – Songs of Experience
U2 are a band forever associated with big, bright, bold, inspirational arena anthems. It could be the technicolor lightshows of their concerts or the atmospheric sparkles of the Edge’s guitar, but many a U2 song has been tagged with adjectives like “colorful,” “optimistic,” and “uplifting.” The band’s very best music, though, has always been tinged with darkness. Specters of death, economic woe, and spiritual uncertainty hung over The Joshua Tree, while Achtung Baby scuzzed things up like the inside of a thumping, dirty discotheque. On Songs of Experience, the band seems more at home in the shadows than they have in 20 years. The album begins and ends amidst haunting ambiguity, on the foreboding “Love Is All We Have Left” and the hopeful but uncertain “13 (There Is a Light).” It addresses the Syrian conflict on “Summer of Love” and “Red Flag Day.” It surveys the earth from the edge of the apocalypse on “The Blackout.” It expresses frustration at shattered American idealism on “American Soul.” And it stares death and mortality straight in the eye on “Lights of Home” and “The Little Things That Give You Away.” It’s a thrilling, unsettling journey, a more complete and cohesive listen than U2 has delivered in many years. But it’s only when the light finally breaks through the clouds, on the penultimate “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way,” that the darker hues of Songs of Experience really come into rich and vibrant focus. The light makes the darkness more beautiful, and vice versa.
Key track: “The Little Things That Give You Away”
16. David Ramirez – We’re Not Going Anywhere
A lot of songwriters went political this year, whether out of anger, sadness, morality, or some mix of all three. On We’re Not Going Anywhere, David Ramirez made one of the year’s most striking and resilient politically-fueled LPs. Ramirez, a Mexican-American by heritage, titled the album as a response to Donald Trump’s crusade to build a wall on the border. The album itself isn’t always pointed in its politics. The pseudo title track, “I Ain’t Going Anywhere,” doesn’t even address the same subject as the album title, instead taking a stark look at mortality and spirit. Many of the highlights, meanwhile, are classic relationship songs, like “Watching from a Distance,” the yearning lead single, or “People Call Who They Want to Talk To,” a cutting number about the fracturing of a long-distance relationship. When Ramirez does get explicitly political, though, the album becomes incendiary, haunting, and fierce, as on the opener “Twins,” about how 9/11 fucked up an entire generation’s viewpoints on security and freedom, or “Stone Age,” a brutally honest look at the “melting pot” of America circa 2017. In the song’s bridge, Ramirez paraphrases the poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Well give me your tired, your poor, your masses yearning to be free/The homeless, the tempest tossed, send them all to me/All the wretched refuges of your teeming shore.” Then he delivers the scathing punchline: “And I’ll blow out their flame and show ’em the goddamn door.”
Key track: “Watching from a Distance”
17. Kip Moore – Slowheart
Kip Moore sounds a lot like Bruce Springsteen, a point of comparison that was both a blessing and a curse on Moore’s last LP, 2015’s Wild Ones. On the one hand, he captured the vulnerable masculinity of Born in the U.S.A. probably better than any other artist of his generation. On the other hand, his songs sometimes sounded imitative, occasionally leaning on nostalgia as a substitute for substance. Slowheart is a more fully realized record, where Moore keeps the classic rock sound of his previous LP but comes more into his own as an artist. The songwriting reaches a higher level on songs like “Guitar Man,” a weathered ballad about the sacrifices musicians make for their craft, or “Blonde,” a scathing indictment of a girl who turns her back on her roots when she finds fame and success. Even when he’s writing more conventional meat and potatoes rock songs, though, Moore does so with plenty of grit and heart. Songs like “Bittersweet Company,” “Sunburn,” “Last Shot,” and the hit “More Girls Like You” have sharp hooks and lively, organic arrangements. Moore, who recorded and produced most of Slowheart by himself, wisely avoids the toxic overproduction that is so common in both modern country and modern rock music. The result is one of the year’s most classic-sounding LPs, a wistful and resonant record that draws inspiration from the past, but never gets stuck there.
Key track: “Last Shot”
18. The Killers – Wonderful Wonderful
For a long time, I didn’t think we’d ever hear another Killers album. After an underrated fourth album, a premature greatest hits collection, and a long hiatus, it seemed like they didn’t have anything else to prove. Not so. Wonderful Wonderful is a moving and surprisingly restrained project from a band that was once a go-to source for hedonistic, danceable pop music. Flowers wrote many of the songs about his wife, who struggled with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts a few years ago. Reckoning with something so serious grants this record a sense of urgency and vulnerability that hasn’t been there on any prior Killers LP. When Flowers and his kids sing together at the end of the gorgeous “Some Kind of Love,” it’s an incredibly small-scale human moment from a band that has traditionally traded in larger-than-life gestures. The record still gets big from time to time: “Rut” and “Life to Come” form two parts of a U2-esque suite; “Run for Cover” is kinetic and jagged like the best songs from Sam’s Town were; and “Tyson vs. Douglas” is a towering rock song that, despite its silly title, is an affecting rumination on watching your heroes fall. With key band members opting not to continue touring and guitarist Dave Keuning hardly audible for the majority of the record, Wonderful Wonderful feels like it might be the last gasp of the Killers. If it is, though, at least they end on a high note.
Key track: “Some Kind of Love”
19. Ryan Adams – Prisoner
Back in the 2000s, Ryan Adams was arguably the most prolific songwriter in the business—at least in terms of widely recognized names. He made a ton of records, even going as far to release three in a single year (one of which was a true blue double LP) in 2005. A lot of the albums he made never even saw the light of day. Somewhere around the turn of the decade, though, Adams slowed down and focused himself. The bad news is that we get less music from Adams than we used to, but the good news is that the albums he’s been making are his most consistent and cohesive yet. Prisoner, Adams’ latest, is the single most complete album he has ever made. I personally prefer 2014’s self-titled effort, a similar album in sound, color, and influences. However, Prisoner is so effective at charting the wreckage of a long-term relationship—Adams wrote it in the wake of his divorce from Mandy Moore—that it simply overwhelms you. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Ryan peppers the tracklist with some of his best songs ever, from the harmonica blasts of “Doomsday” to the cold, forlorn strains of “Shiver and Shake.” If you love late night driving albums, you can’t afford to miss this one.
Key track: “Shiver and Shake”
20. Colter Wall – Colter Wall
Blood, bullets, snow, dust, and dirt litter the world of Colter Wall, the year’s most authentic-sounding country album. Wall is a 22-year-old singer/songwriter who hails from Saskatchewan, but he sounds like a classic American country star. His big, booming baritone is a big part of the reason, and Dave Cobb’s sparse, haunting production doesn’t hurt either. Ultimately, though, it’s Wall’s songs that mark him as an artist to watch. Gripping story songs like “Kate McCannon” and “Bald Butte” are the album’s anchors, bloodstained ballads that succeed because of their unhurried patience. The former is a murder ballad, which uses a steady crescendo and a chaotic instrumental break to achieve unsettling, manic intensity. The latter is an epic cowboy song, which charts a screenplay-ready western over six minutes of well-chosen words and snapshots. The narratives are Wall’s sweet spot, but even when he’s going more impressionistic (the gorgeous “Codeine Dream,” a dizzyingly great tune about loneliness, heartbreak, and emptiness) or exploring words that aren’t his own (“Fraulein,” a traditional German folksong that he sings here with Tyler Childers), Colter Wall is a performer with the maturity and instincts of someone three times his age.
Key track: “Kate McCannon”
21. Lindsay Ell – The Project
While working on The Project—her long, long-awaited debut album—Lindsay Ell was told by her producer to pick her favorite album and record a version of it herself. The goal behind the project (which may or may not have given this album its name) was to give Ell a better sense of the kind of record she wanted to make. The album she chose to cover was John Mayer’s Continuum, and one listen to The Project should make that fact very evident. Ell is a whiz of a guitar player, and what makes her album sound like Mayer’s is her ability to play Mayer-style licks all over the tracks. The result is a pop-country album with a little more attitude and a lot more soul than we’ve been taught to expect from pop-country. A few of the songs legitimately sound like long-lost Continuum b-sides, like the hard-grooving “Castle” or the sunny single “Waiting on You.” But Ell is more than just a copycat. “Criminal” is a pop number that does the mix of hooky and menacing better than anything on Taylor Swift’s Reputation, while “Just Another Girl” has some of the spunk of early No Doubt. The closing track, meanwhile—a co-write with Travis Meadows called “Worth the Wait”—is the album’s finest moment, a patient ballad that manages to put the focus on Ell’s voice, guitar skills, and vulnerability, all at once. As the capper for one of the year’s most promising debut albums, it feels like a promise of great things to come.
Key track: “Worth the Wait”
22. The Maine – Lovely Little Lonely
Eight years ago, I caught The Maine twice on one of their first big live tours. They were one of maybe four or five different acts on the bill with Boys Like Girls, and I knew nothing about them other than the fact they were a pop-punk band. Compared to other acts on the tour—A Rocket to the Moon, VersaEmerge, Cobra Starship—The Maine were easily the best. The lyrics were a little shallow and juvenile, but the show was entertaining and the songs were catchy. Still, I expected to forget about The Maine, just like I forget most opening acts I see. Instead, The Maine kept cropping up. Black & White, Pioneer, Forever Halloween, and American Candy were all solid albums with a few great songs apiece. Furthermore, each record evolved The Maine’s sound further, moving them away from the immature pop-punk of their debut and toward some reclamation of 1990s radio rock glory. Lovely Little Lonely is the full realization of all that potential, evolution, and longevity. It’s the best album The Maine have put out yet, blurring the line between Third Eye Blind (“Don’t Come Down,” “Do You Remember”) and The 1975 (“Lost in Nostalgia,” “Lonely”). More than any other album this year, this one captured the vibe, sound, and spirit of the music I loved when I was growing up. Albums like these are special, ones that can make you nostalgic for memories that predate the songs by a decade. But there I was every time “The Sound of Reverie” played, taking a trip back to the summer before my senior year of high school. “It may be bittersweet/’Cause we’re no longer 17” the chorus goes. When I pushed play on Lovely Little Lonely, I was 17 again, and I loved that feeling.
Key track: “The Sound of Reverie”
23. Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger in the Alps
It’s easy to love Stranger in the Alps, just because the music is so beautiful and serene. Bridgers’ voice is about as pure as they come, and it makes these songs yearn and ache in all the best ways. It says something, then, that the most impressive thing about Stranger in the Alps is the boldness of the songwriting. Phoebe’s songs are beautiful, but what makes them transcendent is her willingness to complicate that beauty by singing about things that are ugly. Serial killers. Scars from childhood abuse. Burning trash out on the beach. Murder and execution. Drug overdoses. These songs are violent and provocative, and the clash of the words and themes with the purity of the music makes for an electric and haunting listen. At 20 years old, Bridgers already has a sense for detail that can turn a pleasant song into a visceral gut-punch. One example is “Funeral,” where the narrator battles with depression against the backdrop of a friend’s recent passing. She’s defensive about her own mental health (“Jesus Christ, I’m so blue all the time/And that’s just how I feel”), but she also struggles with the feeling that her emotional turmoil is trivial given the recent tragedy in the lives of the people she knows (“Wishing I was someone else, feeling sorry for myself/When I remember someone’s kid is dead”). It’s a complex and deeply sad song about how mental health issues are often stigmatized or treated as an inconvenience, even by the people closest to us. Very few songwriting accomplishments from 2017 are on the same level.
Key track: “Funeral”
24. John Mayer – The Search for Everything
John Mayer set himself up to fail with The Search for Everything, or maybe he had one plan and his label had another. In any case, it’s impossible to talk about this album without talking about the rollout. On the first day of the year, Mayer announced The Search for Everything, proclaiming that it was going to consist of four songs every month for the entire year. If he had followed through with that plan, we would have gotten 48 songs—four albums worth of material. Instead, Mayer released two four-song “waves” and then dropped the full-length album in April. The waves stopped, Mayer went on tour, and his total output for the year ended up being a quarter of what he had supposedly promised. It was an odd, misguided promotional strategy that Mayer has yet to explain candidly. Stripped of the disappointment, though, the songs that make up The Search for Everything are pristine, honest pop confections from a guy who seemingly left pop behind seven years ago. At its heart, Search is a breakup album, from the Fleetwood Mac groove of “Helpless” to the forlorn regret of “Never on the Day You Leave.” As the album moves forward, Mayer gradually claws his way toward acceptance—epitomized on the wise, resigned closer “You’re Gonna Live Forever in Me.” Before he gets there, though, Mayer reckons with pain, doubt, and deep self-consideration, as on the brilliant, reflective “In the Blood.” It’s one of the best songs that he’s ever written, and a reminder that, while Mayer may be a bizarre, sometimes crude Twitter personality, he remains one of our most thoughtful and gifted songwriters.
Key track: “In the Blood”
25. John Moreland – Big Bad Luv
I like John Moreland best when his songs are nothing more than acoustic guitar and voice. Big Bad Luv, his latest album, is largely not that. More fleshed out across the board than its predecessor, 2015’s masterful heartbreaker High on Tulsa Heat, Big Bad Luv plays as a rollicking road trip album. The record bursts out of the gate with “Sallisaw Blue,” a harmonica-blasted road house rocker so instantly catchy that it’s almost guaranteed to get your foot tapping. That accomplishment is substantial in and of itself for Moreland, who was more likely on previous records to make you cry than he was to make you dance. But Moreland seems to have spent at least a few weeks binging the bar band rock side of Bruce Springsteen while recording this record, as evidenced on barnburners like “Amen, So Be It” and “Ain’t We Gold.” He can still write tearjerkers when he wants to: “Lies I Chose to Believe” is a melancholy number for the miles on the road trip when the rain starts to fall, and “No Glory in Regret” is the kind of darkened-stage barfly ballad that made High on Tulsa Heat so emotionally raw. What’s great about Big Bad Luv, though, is how it widens the canvas of what Moreland can do as a writer and performer. Just like Ryan Adams before him, Moreland could have made a career out of writing sad songs. His decision to diverge from that path makes things infinitely more interesting for his future chapters.
Key track: “No Glory in Regret”
26. The Menzingers – After the Party
The “maybe we ain’t that young anymore” album is one of my favorite rock ‘n’ roll rites of passage. Springsteen made one with Born to Run. The Killers made one with Sam’s Town. The Gaslight Anthem made one with American Slang. And The Menzingers made one here with After the Party. Coming-of-age albums are thrilling because of how they capture their creators reeling in the waves of a million different emotions and opportunities. But I’ve always been more drawn to the albums that come after—the ones that look back and say “those were the days.” On After the Party, The Menzingers cast one last wistful look in the rearview mirror before driving off into the sunset. “Where we gonna go now that our twenties are over?” asks the chorus of “Tellin’ Lies.” The album doesn’t serve up the answer—at least not right away. Instead, After the Party is the sound of missing what’s gone. It’s the sound of looking at old pictures of you and your friends, from when you had a little more hair and a little less waistline. It’s the sound of remembering when you could stay out at the bars until closing (and thinking about how much you’d pay for it the next day if you tried to do that now). It’s the sound of old flames who seem like different people when you see them again after many years. It’s the sound of looking back fondly on things that shouldn’t seem appealing—like being broke as hell, sleeping on friends’ couches, and realizing your college degree is worth less than the paper it’s printed on—but still finding the romance there. Ultimately, it’s the sound of realizing how much time has passed since your glory days, but also how much life is still left to live. What the hell are you supposed to do with all that time? Based on how reckless and raucous the good old days sound on this record, it’s tough imagine the next chapter being anything but grayscale malaise. Thank god for the title track, then, which finds the silver lining: “After the party, it’s me any you.” Life is never going to be as loud or as crowded with characters as it is when you’re young. But if you have the right person there with you when the noise subsides, maybe getting old doesn’t have to be so bad.
Key track: “Lookers”
27. Luke Combs – This One’s for You
Ever since I really got into country music, I’ve relied on the genre to deliver my summer soundtrack. The past two years, it’s followed through in spades. From the shimmery hooks of pop-country to the tipsy drinking songs of southern rock all the way to the dusky vibes that run through so many alt-country albums, country did its job in 2015 and 2016 to build me the ultimate summer playlist. This year, it faltered. The majority of the year’s most readymade summer albums—Thomas Rhett’s Life Changes, Old Dominion’s Happy Endings, Kip Moore’s Slowheart, and Carly Pearce’s Every Little Thing—arrived either as summer was dying or firmly into fall. Thank God, then, for Luke Combs, whose debut LP This One’s for You was precisely the type of soundtrack I needed for scorching hot summer days. There was no album I played more on my summer runs, thanks to the boat-sized hooks on songs like “Memories Are Made Of,” “Don’t Tempt Me,” and “When It Rains It Pours.” These songs are mainstream country wheelhouse: the first is about reminiscing about summers spent with high school friends; the second is about raucous parties—the heir apparent, it seems, to Eric Church’s “Drink in My Hand”; and the third is about hitting a streak of good luck after a breakup. Combs is capable of more depth when he wants to be. The title track is a poignant thank-you to everyone who helped Combs realize his dreams, while “I Got Away with You” is one of the most brilliant pieces of songwriting in country music this year. Even when he’s just indulging in more surface-level charms, though, Combs is an indelible songwriter with the hooks and the heart to go the distance.
Key track: “I Got Away with You”
28. Old Dominion – Happy Endings
Old Dominion don’t take things too seriously. That much was clear from the band’s debut album, 2015’s ultra-catchy Meat and Candy, where even the breakup songs felt like breezy, lighthearted fare. The band’s second album, called Happy Endings, is a tad weightier, dropping listeners in the middle of heartbreaks that still seem raw (“Not Everything’s About You,” “So You Go”) and even taking on glimmers of Trump’s America (“No Such Thing As a Broken Heart,” “Be with Me”). “What am I gonna tell my kids when they see all of this bullshit that goes down on TV?” goes the verse on “No Such Thing,” while “Be with Me” wraps its feminist message in a lighthearted, romantic vibe. In lesser hands, those two songs—or, frankly, most of the tracks on this record—might come across as cloying or opportunist. But Old Dominion’s commitment to being a laidback, beach-ready band instead of self-serious stadium fillers actually makes the messages seem more genuine. In a cynical year, it was nice to have an album so devoid of cynicism to find solace in. It doesn’t hurt that the songs are jam-packed with some of the year’s stickiest hooks, or that “Still Writing Songs about You” is arguably 2017’s most masterfully written jam about being hung up on an ex.
Key track: “Still Writing Songs about You”
29. Thomas Rhett – Life Changes
I only listened to Life Changes because I felt duty-bound to do so. Thomas Rhett’s previous album, 2015’s Tangled Up—was largely not my speed. It struck me as a pandering attempt at mainstream success from a guy who didn’t have the voice or writing chops to justify his inevitable monster smash, the inescapable “Die a Happy Man.” But the album’s final track, called “Learned It from the Radio,” was just the kind of wistful, clever songwriting that made me fall for country music in the first place. So, when Life Changes came around, I gave it a shot just to see if there was something like “Radio” that could grab ahold of my heart. I was pleasantly surprised. Life Changes is not a perfect album. It’s a disjointed grab bag of different styles and influences, and it’s probably too long, weighed down by a few tracks that just plain miss the mark. But Rhett’s songwriting is surprisingly honest and sneakily moving. “Unforgettable” is an infectiously catchy vignette about the night Rhett met his wife. “Sixteen” is a song about how growing up often feels like a race to reach the next milestone, when what you should be doing is cherishing the freedom and possibility of youth. “Life Changes” is a near-complete autobiography of Rhett’s life, from college until now, squeezed into a hooky three-minute pop song. And then there’s “Marry Me,” an aching ballad about watching the person of your dreams say their vows to someone else. Mainstream country may often lack the depth of the left-of-the-dial stuff, but that doesn’t mean it’s missing the heart or sense of craft.
Key track: “Marry Me”
30. Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life
For whatever reason, Near to the Wild Heart of Life didn’t capture the indie rock zeitgeist quite like Celebration Rock did. Maybe it was the fact that it released in January, the least Japandroids-y month of the year. Maybe it was that the album arrived a week after the inauguration, when just about no one was in the mood for this brand of high-octane rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe it was that the band traded in some of the reckless party vibes of Celebration Rock for a more grown-up LP about falling in love, settling down, and starting families. Whatever the reason, Near to the Wild Heart of Life didn’t make the impact on listeners that I expected it would when I first heard it. Certainly, it doesn’t quite match the grandeur of its predecessor. On the contrary, it buckles a bit under the weight of five years of restless anticipation for a Celebration Rock follow-up. The running order is all wrong, too, shuffling all the ballads (as well as the overlong “Arc of Bar”) into the midsection. At its best, though, Near to the Wild Heart of Life is thrilling, big-hearted, and epic. The title track is every last night in town cliché channeled into a timeless anthem, a song so evocative that it seems destined to one day soundtrack the opening scene of a Dazed and Confused style coming of age classic. “North East South West” is every road trip cliché channeled into another timeless anthem, one that makes you want to drive faster and further than you’ve ever gone before. And “In a Body Like a Grave” is an inspirational rock commandment in an era where those songs don’t seem to exist anymore, a song so bracingly optimistic that it seems impossible it could have come out in 2017.
Key track: “Near to the Wild Heart of Life”
31. Taylor Swift – Reputation
This album was a challenge for me, I must admit. In a way, it’s my biggest disappointment of the year, just because I know Taylor Swift is capable of so much and I don’t think Reputation reflects her strengths all that well. Send Taylor to RCA Studio A with Dave Cobb for a week and I guarantee she cranks out an album twice as good as this one. Even when Taylor is playing against what she does best, though, she’s too talented not to make it work. Teased as a fire-and-brimstone revenge album—between the random snake gifs and the dramatic lead single “Look What You Made Me Do,” Reputation is actually a dark, often downbeat, and surprisingly intimate record from an artist who has never been afraid to shine the flashlight on her personal life. There are songs that reflect the edgy bombast of the lead single—most of them clustered in the inferior first half. But it’s in act two, where Swift starts singing about doomed and maybe-not-so-doomed relationships, that things take flight: the intense romantic crush of “Gorgeous”; the off-the-rails love story of “Getaway Car”; the foreboding sense of dread that creeps into the strains of “Dancing with Our Hands Tied”; the sultry come-ons of “Dress”; the head-over-heels confessions of “Call It What You Want”; and the in-it-for-the-long-haul sentimentality of “New Year’s Day.” Taylor can’t help but throw a few tabloid-fire-stoking anthems into the mix—like the bombastic, Annie-aping “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” an almost disturbingly gleeful kiss-off directed at Kanye West. But Reputation is at its best when it shows Taylor Swift away from the spotlight, just living her life and falling in love like normal people do.
Key track: “Getaway Car”
32. Charlie Worsham - The Beginning of Things
By all accounts, Charlie Worsham should be one of the biggest names in country music. He’s a little poppier than the fringers like Isbell and Stapleton, but he’s also a little more traditional than the mainstream stars like Keith Urban and Thomas Rhett. Worsham embraces his in-between situation on The Beginning of Things, a fascinating album defined by its contradictions. The first track is a 14-second ditty called “Pants,” with the lyrics “I got out of bed, put on my shoes/Headed out the door/I turned around, went back inside/Took off my shoes/And put on my pants.” (It’s the “Built This Pool” of 2017 country music.) The title track, meanwhile, is a gutting narrative about the women who get left behind by irresponsible, wandering men. Elsewhere, Worsham explores big pop-country hooks (the should-have-been hit “Cut Your Groove”), swampy bluegrass (“Southern by the Grace of God”), country-punk (“Birthday Suit”), radiant heartland rock (“I-55”), and half a dozen other little wormholes of his own making. The result is a deeply strange album—one that bounces from tongue-in-cheek humor to sincerity and vulnerability repeatedly over its 13-song tracklist. It’s markedly less accessible than Worsham’s debut—2013’s Rubberband, an album that got more play for me this summer than virtually any record that actually came out this year—but it’s also complex, nuanced, provocative, and deeply funny. It’s the sound of a true artist finding his feet.
Key track: “The Beginning of Things”
33. RaeLynn - WildHorse
I gave this record a shot on an NPR First Listen feature back in March, not expecting to think much of it at all. The only RaeLynn song I’d ever heard was her hit “God Made Girls” from a few years ago, a shockingly ghastly tune given the presence of co-writers like Lori McKenna and Liz Rose. But the big, grand hook of leadoff track “Your Heart” lured me in. As I delved further into the record, I was even more impressed—especially by the single, “Love Triangle.” A sparse acoustic ballad about being the child of divorce, “Love Triangle” is a gorgeous, devastating, and ingeniously constructed song that flawlessly captures what it’s like to be torn between two parents. No song on WildHorse quite lives up to the depth and honesty of that one, but there are a few that come close. “Lonely Call,” about a girl trying to convince herself not to answer the phone when her ex calls, sounds like Speak Now-era Taylor Swift. “Trigger” and “Graveyard” are surprisingly dark and edgy tracks for a mainstream country record—especially one coming from a one-time Voice contestant. And closing track “Praying for Rain” is dusty, desolate Americana with subtle pop touches, striking a more compelling balance between traditional textures and modern flourishes than most artists currently playing the pop-country game.
Key track: “Love Triangle”
34. Christian Lopez - Red Arrow
Tyler Childers got a lot of attention this year for his record about the recklessness growing up, and for good reason. On Red Arrow, though, Christian Lopez charts similar territory in a more mainstream palatable package. The result is a breezy and exceptionally catchy record that is in turns blisteringly funny and gorgeously heartfelt. Lopez is only 22 years old, but he oozes charisma and charm throughout the 11 tracks that make up this disc. It’s tough to pick a favorite, between the propulsive opener “Swim the River,” the handclap-driven “Don’t Wanna Say Goodnight,” the James Taylor-esque “All the Time,” or the lingering closer “Still on Its Feet.” No matter which track you point to as a highlight, though, a few things are certain. First, Lopez has a knack for melody, falling somewhere between turn-of-the-century heartthrob pop (John Mayer’s Room for Squares is a definite point of reference) and Laurel Canyon folk. Second, the record sounds gorgeous. Lopez is probably poppy enough and charming enough for mainstream country, but he and producer Marshall Altman cling hard to organic instrumentation, leading to one of the year’s most obviously well-played records. Third, Lopez is an engaging songwriter, whether he’s penning straightforward love songs or couching his meanings in metaphor. All told, these strengths amount to a strong album from a young songwriter who probably has even better days ahead.
Key track: “Swim the River”
35. Lukas Nelson & The Promise of the Real - Lukas Nelson & The Promise of the Real
From the first time Lukas Nelson opens his mouth to sing on the gospel-laced “Set Me Down on a Cloud,” it’s clear who he is. Lukas Nelson’s voice is a mirror image of his old man’s, and you’d be hard-pressed to make it through a single song without thinking about Willie. Rather than follow directly in his dad’s footsteps, though, Lukas Nelson cultivates a dynamic collection here that hits everything from rootsy folk ballads to blues-rock rave-ups. Nelson’s backing band, The Promise of the Real, is a true force of nature behind him, turning songs like “Set Me Down on a Cloud” and “High Times” into some of the year’s most potent bursts of roots rock. The best tracks, though, see Nelson on the quieter side of the dial. “Just Outside of Austin” shows that Nelson has inherited his dad’s penchant for writing bulletproof road trip songs, while “Forget about Georgia” is a luscious electric guitar lullaby that justifies every second of its 8:17 runtime. At 84, Willie Nelson is still trucking along—and writing stellar albums, as evidenced by this year’s God’s Problem Child. Still, for posterity’s sake, it’s comforting to know that he passed a lot of his chops on to his son.
Key track: “Forget about Georgia”
36. Sam Outlaw - Tenderheart
On early spring evenings, walking around my neighborhood as the last winter breezes blew away and warmer temperatures started to take hold, few records sounded better to my ears that Tenderheart. A sophomore release from a dynamic California country talent, Tenderheart sounds like an instant classic. That fact is owed in part of the influences, as Sam Outlaw is clearly not afraid to show his affinity for the likes of Tom Petty and Jackson Browne. The opening chord progression from the title track is even lifted directly from “Free Fallin’,” and that’s not a complaint. The reason Tenderheart soars, though, has more to do with Outlaw’s songwriting chops than it does with his idols. This guy can flat out write a song, whether it’s a thoughtful ballad about getting off the road after a long touring cycle (the stunning slowburn opener, “Everybody’s Looking for Home”) or a humorous twist on the classic country standard, like “She’s Playing Hard to Get (Rid Of).” The pleasant dusky country and soft-rock arrangements of the songs frequently mask writing that is surprisingly thought-provoking and complex. “Bottomless Mimosas” sets a detailed, vibrant scene and then threads it with metaphor, and “Say It to Me Now” is so ambiguous that you could hear it as either a smitten love song or a wrenching breakup ode. Outlaw could do with a few more rockers, both because “Trouble” is one of the year’s most infectious jams and because the mid-tempo back half runs together from time to time. At its best, though, Tenderheart shows off a promising young artist who I fully expect will make a masterpiece next time around.
Key track: “Trouble”
37. Julien Baker - Turn out the Lights
From the first notes of her debut album, 2015’s Sprained Ankle, it was clear that Julien Baker was a songwriter with the talent to break listeners’ hearts. She carries that talent forward on Turn out the Lights, yet another album of intense loneliness and heartache. The songs this time are more fleshed out and ambitious than they were on Ankle, often building to massive crescendos of instrumentation. Pianos, electric guitars, and even woodwinds and strings flow through the backdrops of these songs, creating dramatic swells at just the right moments. Still, it’s Baker’s voice that is her secret weapon. Capable of conveying both unveiled vulnerability and soaring, bombastic defiance, Baker’s voice is the perfect vehicle for the stories told in her songs. Largely, this record is about reckoning with loneliness, heartbreak, and depression, but finding a way to live with it. The album’s closer, the stark “Claws in Your Back,” is a remarkably candid depiction of mental illness and suicidal thoughts, but it doesn’t give into the darkness. Instead, the album ends with Baker shouting “I wanted to stay,” vowing to stand and fight rather than surrender. The album that gets us to that point is often harrowing. It’s a heavy listen, and it’s not always easy to get through it in one sitting. Given the right mood, though—the right night, the right drink, the right emotional melancholy—the rich beauty and complexity of these songs springs to the forefront.
Key track: “Appointments”
38. Danielle Bradbery - I Don’t Believe We’ve Met
Danielle Bradbery’s I Don’t Believe We’ve Met might just be the year’s most deeply felt breakup album. At this point, it’s tough to break new ground when it comes to writing and singing songs about fractured relationships. That’s probably doubly true in country music, where the trope has been done to death and back again. With her latest, album, though, Bradbery (a one-time teenage Voice champion) delves into the wreckage of a relationship in a way that is fearless, vulnerable, and empowering. Lead single and opening track “Sway” is a red herring, a catchy, soulful sing-along about getting lost in your favorite song. The rest of the record is emotionally downbeat and musically chilly, bearing more influence from modern pop and R&B than from Bradbery’s wheelhouse Nashville twang. “Potential” is about being so in love with who you think a person could be that you don’t realize you’re not in love with who they actually are. “Messy” is about the collateral damage that comes from breaking off a relationship that has intertwined not just two people but also two families. And “Human Diary” is about how naked you feel when the one person who knows all your stories and your secrets walks out the door. By the time the album reaches its finale, Bradbery is ready to wave the white flag and nurse her wounds, on the gorgeously defeated “Laying Low.” What makes I Don’t Believe We Met such a stirring, evocative listen is her willingness to show those wounds to everyone in her songs.
Key track: “Laying Low”
39. Niall Horan - Flicker
Full disclosure: I have never listened to a full One Direction album. Full disclosure #2: I thought that the Harry Styles record from this year, including the much-hyped lead single “Sign of the Times,” was thoroughly mediocre. And full disclosure #3: I had no idea who Niall Horan was before this album was suddenly at the top of the charts. I probably wouldn’t have even listened to Flicker if there weren’t a duet with Maren Morris, one of my favorite breakthrough artists of the last few years. But man, I’m glad I did. The Morris feature, “Seeing Blind,” is just one of the draws here. There are shades of John Mayer’s Continuum on soulful tracks like “Since We’re Alone,” “On the Loose,” and proper album closer “You and Me.” but most of the record sees Horan exploring classic folk-rock textures with surprising authenticity. The title track is a gorgeous, softly strummed ballad with a weightless wintry charm, while “Fire Away” is a smooth, chill number that sounds like the golden days of Ray LaMontagne. There are expectations of what the post-boy-band solo debut is supposed to sound like. On Flicker, Horan subverts every one, to stunning effect.
Key track: “Flicker”
40. Iron & Wine - Beast Epic
Sam Beam lost me on Iron & Wine’s last record, 2013’s dull, soul-aping Ghost on Ghost. On that record, Beam’s sonic palette—which he’d been expanding and experimenting with since 2007’s superb The Shepherd’s Dog—finally got the better of his songs. It’s a pleasant surprise, then, that Beast Epic seems to rewind the clock a bit on his career. This record is largely acoustic and mostly refrains from indulging Beam’s more eccentric tendencies. The result is a disc that, while it doesn’t reach the heights of The Shepherd’s Dog or 2004’s superior Our Endless Numbered Days, at least feels like it was made by the same guy. The high points—the lovely, dusky “Call It Dreaming,” or the smoky “Thomas County Law”—recall the unhurried pacing that made those first few Iron & Wine records linger for so long. Beam’s lyrics don’t quite capture my soul like they did in the past, on songs like “Fever Dream,” “Passing Afternoon,” or “The Trapeze Swinger.” Musically, though, I’m not sure he’s ever sounded better. His voice is smooth and beautiful, the arrangements sound rich without being overwhelming, and Beam’s years of experimenting with pop, soul, and 70s AM rock ‘n’ roll have reconfigured his tastes as a melody man. Take “About a Bruise,” a genuine earworm that never would have worked on those first few albums, but which sounds completely at home here.
Key track: “Call It Dreaming”
One of the biggest frustrations for me in recent years has been the way that Nashville forces up-and-coming female artists to prove themselves with EPs before letting them make full-length records. While the EP can be a full artistic statement in and of itself, country music views it as the Minor Leagues. (Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini are both examples of young, breakout successes who had to release EPs before their labels let them make albums.) This year, Bailey Bryan, Delta Rae, Jillian Jacqueline, Kalie Shorr, and Jo Smith all released collections filled with hooks and great songs, and all would have stood a shot at making my top 40 if they were full-lengths. Here’s hoping that at least a few of these artists will get the chance to release full projects next year.
Also on this list: an EP that included some of Coldplay’s best, most adventurous writing in years; a loose covers EP from Jason Isbell and his band (released as an RSD exclusive); an infectious, lighthearted collection from the pop-country band Levon; and an EP from Rick Brantley, which put maybe my favorite song from 2016 (“Hurt People”) alongside a handful of other terrific tunes.
The most frustrating inclusion was Bridges by A Thousand Horses, the follow-up to one of my favorite debuts of 2015. These guys do southern-tinged country rock better than just about anyone, and I was looking forward to their sophomore album soundtracking my summer like their debut did. Oddly, the band made the decision to do an album that was half new material and half live versions of old songs. Five of the six new songs were great, but it seems like it wouldn’t have been that hard for the band to record another three or four tracks for a proper full-length.
(If you can’t tell, I don’t care much for EPs, but the 10 releases below are all worthy of your time.)
- Bailey Bryan – So Far
- Coldplay – Kaleidoscope
- Delta Rae – A Long and Happy Life
- Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Live from Welcome to 1979
- Jillian Jacqueline – Side A
- Kalie Shorr – Slingshot
- Levon – Levon
- Rick Brantley – Hi-Fi
- A Thousand Horses – Bridges
- Jo Smith – Introducing Jo Smith
The 2016 Re-Rank
The headline jump here is Maren Morris, whose debut album stayed in my regular rotation through most of this year while other albums from 2016 became more occasional listening. I felt the replay value of her record merited the number two spot on my re-rank (even though I still really love that Jimmy Eat World record). Yellowcard and Green Day dropped out, just because that brand of rock music wasn’t really where my tastes were this year. The Miranda Lambert and Brothers Osborne albums continued to have surprising life for me, as did the Vince Gill record, which I had initially ranked at number 30. But no one could dethrone Butch Walker, whose bright, anthemic Stay Gold remains my favorite LP of the decade so far.
- Butch Walker – Stay Gold
- Maren Morris – Hero
- Jimmy Eat World – Integrity Blues
- Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
- Lori McKenna – The Bird & The Rifle
- Dawes – We’re All Gonna Die
- Parker Millsap – The Very Last Day
- Brian Fallon – Painkillers
- Miranda Lambert – The Weight of These Wings
- Brothers Osborne – Pawn Shop
HM: Vince Gill – Down to My Last Bad Habit
The 2007 Re-Rank
Of all the years of the 2000s, 2007 is the one where my retrospective musical opinions have shifted the most. For 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, and 2009, I’ve hardly wavered on my album of the year picks since those years ended. My 2007 album of the year has changed hands at least four times in the past decade. This year, writing about some of these records for their 10-year anniversaries, I realized that Some Mad Hope held the most meaning for me personally. Every album on this list takes me back in time, though, and I still adore each of them to this day.
- Matt Nathanson – Some Mad Hope
- Jimmy Eat World – Chase This Light
- Will Hoge – Draw the Curtains
- Cary Brothers – Who You Are
- Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova – Once
- Jon McLaughlin – Indiana
- Motion City Soundtrack – Even If It Kills Me
- Bruce Springsteen – Magic
- Moses Mayfield – The Inside
- Emerson Hart – Cigarettes & Gasoline
HM: Jesse Malin – Glitter in the Gutter
The end? Thanks to those of you who have read my stuff this year, or sifted through some/all of the 12,000 words written above. I hope your New Year is filled with great life experiences and a perfect soundtrack.