Sunday, July 2, 2017

That Nashville Sound's Top Albums Of The First Half of 2017

2017 has been a decidedly interesting year when it comes to measuring the divide between what's defined as commercially and critically acclaimed.

On one hand, you have terrestrial radio which continues to put out male-dominated uptempo numbers that borrow more from pop rock production than they do the steps that the founding country mothers and fathers laid down for them to get there. That's not to say that everything on the radio is that way or everything on the radio is bad. There's some terrific songs receiving airplay that will certainly be on our Top Songs of 2017 list that will be coming out later. It's just that we lament their lack of diversity. Country casts a huge shadow across a number of different sub-genres including bluegrass, Red Dirt, Americana, Countrypolitan, traditional, inspirational and more. As this list below will show, there are contributions that are incredibly powerful beyond the narrow boundaries of that radio dial.

To prove this point, recent best-selling albums that have led the charts include Chris Stapleton, Joey Feek, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Willie Nelson- all artists with virtual no radio support. There's still an audience for all everything under the country umbrella.

The amount of great music that has been released into 2017 has been nothing short of remarkable, however. We live in an incredible time. The internet, YouTube and digital platforms give independent artists a more playing field to get their music heard than ever before and as a result, we have more options at receiving that music than at any time in our history. But a handful of those releases stand out above all others. That's where this list comes in. Through the first half of 2017, these are the albums that struck an emotional chord and moved this listener to fall in love with their projects over and over again.

1. Jason Eady - Jason Eady - Any casual reader of this site has heard us pontificate at the genius of Eady's storytelling on TNS favorite albums like When The Money's All Gone and AM Country Heaven. And while Money still resonates as one of THE great albums of the last decade, Jason Eady might be its equal. Eady finds inspiration- and passes it along in his storytelling- in 10 songs about the ups (and mostly) downs of love and life. Words and lyrics aren’t just spoken, they’re painted on a auditory canvas. Feelings bleed their way throughout the album like an emotional blanket. It’s storytelling depth with an eye for detail hardly seen across any genres in modern music. Tracks like "Barabbas," "Black Jesus," "Not Too Loud," and "Where I've Been" are modern-day Don Williams-like crafts of art. But its "Waiting To Shine" that stands out above all others. The ultimate singer-songwriter sings of chasing the ultimate song and it's absolute perfection. Eady has done it again with a project that digs deep with a production that allows that storytelling to breathe.

2. Sunny Sweeney - Trophy - Sunny Sweeney is the daylight AND the dark on this incredibly crafted album that has our favorite song of the year on it.  There's an incredibly open and honest depth and brazen authenticity to this project that connects straight to your soul. While Sweeney wrote with her longtime favorites including Monty Holmes, Buddy Owens and Jay Clementi, she has expanded her circle of collaborators in recent years including co-writes with Lori McKenna, Caitlyn Smith, Heather Morgan. It resulted a decidedly female percentage of voices and a collection of songs that are more profound than any found on Sweeney's previously outstanding two projects. What stands out as her most astounding musical achievement is the heart-wrenching, emotional powerhouse, honest and autobiographical "Bottle By The Bed." Written about her battle with miscarriage and difficulty conceiving, it easily shows how tragedy can transform a piece of art and give it a substance filled with pain, guilt and regret that oozes from every pore of this song. It makes you ache listening to this song.

3. Various ArtistsGentle Giant - The Songs of Don Williams -  It becomes clear from the very first song that this tribute to country music great Don Williams including performances by Pistol Annies, Brandy Clark, Lady Antebellum, Dierks Bentley, Chris Stapleton, Alison Krauss, John Prine, Jason Isbell, Trisha Yearwood, Keb' Mo' and Garth Brooks is going to be special.  The ties that bind are the incredible stories and songwriting that the severely underrated Don Williams has crafted over many decades of performances and for the most part, the list of artists invited to cover his songs do a masterful interpretation. Sidenote: Williams' longtime producer and friend Garth Fundis produced the tribute album.

4. Jason Isbell and the 400 - The Nashville Sound - Without exaggeration, Jason Isbell has become one of the most respected and celebrated songwriters of his generation. He possesses an incredible penchant for identifying and articulation some of the deepest, yet simplest, human emotions, and turning them into beautiful poetry though song. Isbell sings of the everyday human condition with thoughtful, heartfelt, and sometimes brutal honesty, and the new album is no exception. He alternates between lovely, pensive ballads (The Last of My Kind, If We Were Vampires), guitar rockers (Cumberland Gap, Hope The High Road), and in-betweeners (White Man's World, Molotov). All the while, Isbell's lyrical blend of introspection, social consciousness, hope, despair, love, fear, and beauty, encompasses what the best music was made to do: stir up as many emotions as possible.

5. Various Artists - Outlaw - Celebrating the Music of Waylon Jennings - On July 6, 2015, a collection of music's legendary outlaws and rising superstars came together for a once-in-a lifetime concert in Austin, Texas, to celebrate the life and music of country music legend Waylon Jennings. The concert featured performances by Chris Stapleton, Shooter Jennings, Jessi Colter, Bobby Bare, Lee Ann Womack, Buddy Miller, Sturgill Simpson, Kacey Musgrave, Jamey Johnson, Robert Earl Keen, Kris Kristofferson, Ryan Bingham, Alison Krauss, Toby Keith, Eric Church, and Willie Nelson. It's completely as bad-ass as it sounds. The only criticism is that it took nearly two years to get in our ears.

6. Chris Stapleton - From a Room, Volume 1 - One of the hardest things to do in entertainment (and sports) is to follow-up an amazing performance/project with another one- particularly when that first one is a your solo debut like Traveler was for Stapleton. That's where the story is wrong, however. Stapleton is can't suffer from the sophomore slump because he's a seasoned pro with bands like the Steeldrivers and Brothers Jompson under his belt. This project doesn't transcend Traveler, but it certainly extends that story, delivering emotive fare with that distinctive delivery that is pure Chris Stapleton and no one else. "Second One To Know" and "Either Way" stand out as favorites on the project.

7. Glen Campbell - Adios - In the throws of his well-documented early diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease three years ago, Campbell entered the studio with family at this side and made a final album filled with songs that unintentionally say goodbye.  Produced by Glen's longtime banjo player and friend Carl Jackson, the album features Glen singing four Jimmy Webb songs that Glen never recorded but always loved, including the title track. Adios features songs written by Roger Miller, Bob Dylan, Dickey Lee, Jerry Reed, Fred Neil, and includes a duet with Willie Nelson on "Funny How Time Slips Away" - and special guest Vince Gill on harmony vocals in "Am I All Alone (Or Is It Only Me)." The album is a true family affair as Glen's daughter Ashley and sons Cal and Shannon, all perform on the record.  "Just Like Always" is among his very best work of his career.

8. Willie Nelson - God's Problem Child - At 84, his voice is diminished and that distinctive guitar play on old Trigger isn't as nimble as it used to be. But Nelson's ability to craft and select songs is better than ever. Cover to cover this album speaks to the soul. Mickey Rachael's harmonica work glows throughout the recording beautifully. It's an album about mortality but done "Willie-style" with lots of silly humor and even some pathos for the loss of his good friend, Merle Haggard. "Old Timer" reflects on his age incredibly well and "Delete and Fast Forward" and "Your Memory Has A Mind of It's Own" stand out as tracks for the ages.

9. Natalie Hemby - Puxico - She's written songs for Lee Ann Womack, Eli Young Band, Toby Keith, Miranda Lambert, Sunny Sweeney and Little Big Town- but it wasn't until she used her hometown as inspiration, that Hemby has let her own voice rise through her debut project. The songs are stripped back, often with sparse instrumentation to leave room for Hemby's lilting vocals to permeate the track. Her lyrics offer depth and thoughtful imagery, avoiding the cliches of many songs in the country world. They recognize the details of growing up as a child and paint an imagery that's incredibly easy to see in the mind's eye. Hemby references specific families, places and memories of the town her grandfather lived in and on which he left a lasting effect. And yet, the songs paint a landscape to which anyone who longs for open spaces, peace and the beauty of rural life can relate.

10. Angaleena Presley - Wrangled - If there’s a pedigree for a modern country music star, then Angaleena Presley fits all of the criteria: a coal miner’s daughter; native of Beauty, Kentucky; a direct descendent of the original feuding McCoys; a one-time single mother; a graduate of both the school of hard knocks and college; a former cashier at both Wal-Mart and Winn-Dixie. Her sass shines through as 1/3 of the supergroup Pistol Annies and it bleeds over on this project as well. Each song on this album features sharp lyrics, sublime melodies, strong performances and appropriate production, with Presley cool, calm and collected at the center of it all.

11. Tony Jackson - Tony Jackson - This album belongs on this list, if only for his soulful cover of George Jones' "The Grand Tour."  It's sublime. The rest of the project find squarely in the traditional country genre and fits Jackson's tenor and voice perfectly. Check out "Old Porch Swing" and the dedication to those artists that inspired him to get into music, "They Lived It Up."

12. Alison Krauss - Windy City -  From the minute that Krauss opens her mouth on the first and title track, she has you hooked. Quite honestly, she could sing the phone book with that ethereal voice of hers and I just might have to sit down and listen. Her voice caresses the mic with the tender touch of a velvet glove. It’s expressive. It’s personal. And it draws you in like a whisper on a wind. That fragility is transferred best to songs that share the same sense of frailty.  The lyrics she sings and inquiries she pose hang there in the air like a ghost to the ears.

13. Charlie Worsham - Beginning of Things -  The clever, quirky Beginning of Things comes as a surprise to some, but a long-awaited delivery from those of us that fell in love with 2013's Rubberband.  Worsham indulges in being a little bit all over the map as he shifts directions from song to song, moving from gentle fingerpicking folk to simmering soul- throwing in a good measure of his trademark humor along the way.

14. Brandy Clark - Live From Los Angeles - It seems only appropriate that Clark's old-school approach to songwriting would result in this, a Record Store Day project that was only available in vinyl. This live album features recordings from one of Clark’s acoustic shows at The Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles and features a total of 11 songs off of her previous albums 12 Stories and Big Day in a Small Town. While it doesn't feature anything new, the stripped down acoustic set and audience interaction/stories make it a delightful listen from someone who is at the very top of her craft when it comes to telling a story.

15. Jason Eady and Courtney Patton - Something Together - Thoroughly enjoyable duets by two incredible talents. These new acoustic recordings are familiar but have a new sound and feel, and remind that it is a joy to have this married couple collaborating together. There's not much new here, but the interpretations and singing on each other's "fan favorites" like "Lonesome Down & Out," "Man on a Mountain," "So This Is Life."and "Cry Pretty" give them a new auditory feel not heard on their first album release.

16. Darin and Brooke Aldridge - Faster & Farther - The North Carolinian husband and wife team have hit their stride with this outstanding new bluegrass release filled with incredible musicianship and rich harmonies. Faster and Farther, their sixth project for Mountain Home Music, has an infectious energy that has so much to like. Yet it's the soaring and impeccable vocals of Brooke Aldridge that are the repeated highlights of the album. Her voice is commanding and match the production perfectly. Taking nothing away from Darin's tracks, each time Brooke takes the vocal reins, her beautiful delivery delivers on nearly every song. All in all, this is a project that delivers incredibly well and should be in a music collection for anyone who is a fan of modern bluegrass.

17. Joey Feek - If Not For You - This album belongs on this list if almost only for sentimental and historical reasons. Feek's well-documented lost battle with cancer last year sets the stage, but it's this "lost" album that was never released on a short-lived solo major-label signing that takes the spotlight. Feek's vocals shine like they always have as part of Joey + Rory and she sings to us from the other side with stunning tracks like "See You There" and "Southern Girl."

18. Jake Worthington - Hell of a Highway - I have to admit that I'm not a fan of NBC's The Voice and as a result, hadn't had an opportunity to hear young Worthington sing until I hosted him at my Golf & Guitars Music Festival in Sacramento in May. Shy and unassuming, this Texan blew away the crowd in our singer/songwriter night with a deep holler voice that reminds of Randy Travis and Mark Chesnutt and a delivery that has an ability to wrench every drop of emotion out of every single line of lyric. I do not overstate the fact that his performance wowed/stunned the first night audience and that was with incredible songwriters performing with him by the likes of Jack Ingram, Jamie Lin Wilson, Drew Kennedy and more. Worthington is the absolute real deal and this EP balances equal parts traditional honkytonk dance numbers and weepers. He nails them both. Our only criticism is that it being an EP, there's just not enough songs on the project. More Jake is a very good thing. 

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