Country music spoiled fans rotten with some stellar albums in 2017. Among them were breakout releases by Natalie Hemby, Luke Combs, Midland and Carly Pearce; as well as bluegrass by award-winning pickers by Flatt Lonesome and The Grascals. That’s not counting the soul-stirring Americana by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Valerie June and Nikki Lane. Then Chris Stapleton continued to blow everyone away with his powerful voice and guitar playing on the 32 minutes of music on From A Room: Volume 2.
Here is a list of 17 personal favorites from CMT.com writers Alison Bonaguro, Ed Morris and Lauren Tingle (Honorable mentions we love but not listed include Little Big Town‘s The Breaker, Alex Williams’ Better Than Myself, Tyler Childers’ Purgatory and Gregg Allman‘s Southern Blood.):
This One’s For You by Luke Combs
I fell for Luke Combs’ voice after hearing his debut single “Hurricane” one time. It didn’t need to grow on me. It was love at first listen. And I feel that same way about the rest of his debut album. His voice is hypnotic. And his songwriting is right where it needs to be. Combs might be the first guy in a long time to be able to craft a song without the tired bro-country or pop-country themes. Instead, he paints pictures of real life. Besides his debut single and follow-up “When It Rains, It Pours,” the stand-out track is a conversation between a bartender and a day drinker in “Lonely One.” A.B.
Puxico by Natalie Hemby
Even though she’s been around the Nashville scene for more than a decade, writing some of the world’s favorite Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town, and Sunny Sweeney songs, country fans are just discovered Natalie Hemby the Singer for the first time with this album. She named her debut collection after the small town in Missouri where she spent her summers. And she kind of takes you there on every song. Maybe not to Puxico per se, but somewhere just like it. Each track has a way of sounding traditional without sounding like you’re dusting off an album from 1950s. Top tracks are “I’ll Remember How You Loved Me” and “Grand Restoration.” A.B.
On the Rocks by Midland
Thanks to this brand new trio, traditional country is cool again. Sexy, even. What Mark Wystrach, Cameron Duddy, and Jess Carson have done with their debut ballad “Drinkin’ Problem” is absolutely worthy of the first Grammy nomination, pedal steel and all. But it’s also reason to listen to the other 12 tracks on this well-crafted collection. Bonus points for having all three guys co-write on all but one song that Carson wrote alone. And while their authenticity as a Texas honky-tonk staple may be questioned, there is no doubting that regardless of what the three did with their yesterdays, the band’s future is locking down an ’80s country sound. Besides the lead single, “Burn Out” has to be the favorite of anyone who has ever been the last one drowning their sorrows in a bar. A.B.
Every Little Thing by Carly Pearce
She may look fresh out of high school, but Carly Pearce is 27. So if you were expecting pop-leaning country from an angsty teenager, Pearce ain’t that girl. Instead, she sings with a wisdom beyond her years, and with a range of emotions she’s willing to wear on her sleeve. Like on the title track, full of all the highs, hurts, shine and stings she’d rather die than remember. And the groove on her follow-up single “Hide the Wine” proves she’s got a range and subject matter that other newcomers cannot match. On another stand-out, “If My Name Was Whiskey” proves that Pearce knows how it feels to be someone’s second best. Her bluegrass background shows up on a few tracks, but in a subtle way that will fit in just fine on mainstream country radio. A.B.
The Rest of Our Life by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill
This album can easily be summed up in one word: Finally. Fans of Tim McGraw and Faith Hill have been eagerly anticipating this duets album since the husband and wife belted out their first song together more than 20 years ago. So if you liked “It’s Your Love” in 1997, you will get more of the same recording studio chemistry on The Rest of Our Life. There’s nothing overtly country about the album other than McGraw’s occasional twang, but their voices together almost transcend genre. Wondering what true chemistry sounds like in a song? Download their playful “The Bed We Made” or their brutally honest “Love Me to Lie.” Another stand-out is their upbeat (but mountain-high) tune “Telluride,” not to be confused with McGraw’s solo tune of the same name off his Set This Circus Down album in 2001. A.B.
Silence in These Walls by Flatt Lonesome
Like that other family act, Cherryholmes, Flatt Lonesome seemed to burst onto the national bluegrass scene fully formed. It wasn’t quite that simple, of course. The three Robertson siblings who are the nucleus of the band — a brother and two sisters — had early learned the trade through singing in their parents’ gospel group. The upshot is that Flatt Lonesome has won the International Bluegrass Music Assn.’s vocal group of the year trophy for the last two years. Their vocal harmonies are glorious. Sounding more cathedral than campground, they bring an elegance to bluegrass not generally associated with the format. Instrumentally, they’ve moved the dobro up in the mix while relegating the banjo to subdued but tasteful fill-ins. Among the most moving songs in this treasury are the aching “All My Life” and “It’s Just Sad” and the majestic “Draw Me Near.” As if to demonstrate they can do “hillbilly” whenever they decide to, the band tosses in that old lover’s lament, “You’re the Reason (I Can’t Sleep at Night).” Now that sounds campground. E.M.
Before Breakfast by The Grascals
Whether it’s true or not only their bus driver knows, but the Grascals sound like they’re having so much damn fun when they play. It’s not that their music is particularly lighthearted — the two opening cuts, “Sleepin’ With the Reaper” and “Demons,” will disabuse you of that notion. It’s more a matter of how emotionally invested they seem to be in the songs they pick, how they might, without the music, sound like they were engaging in intense conversation. For sheer dramatic power, “Sleepin’ With the Reaper” is the standout number in this collection. Others likely to become part of the bluegrass canon are the eminently danceable “Delia” and “Clear Corn Liquor” and the foreboding “Demons.” Old favorites included here are “Pathway of Teardrops,” a Webb Pierce/Wayne Walker song, made famous in bluegrass circles by the Osborne Brothers, and “He Took Your Place,” the Flatt & Scruggs jewel. E.M.
Southbound: The Orchestra Project by Mac McAnally
Surrounded at a banquet table by Nobel prize-winners, President John F. Kennedy famously cracked, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” And so it is with Mac McAnally, who, performing alone, is as radiant and spellbinding as a roomful of Grammy winners. While we enjoy the splendid Festival South Orchestra here that backs McAnally, appreciating its grand flourishes and subtle punctuations, the musical beacon is always McAnally, with his sure and sympathetic voice and agile guitar-playing. These are 16 of his most memorable compositions, among them “Back Where I Come From,” “It’s a Crazy World,” “All These Years” and the fiendishly infectious romp called “Zanzibar.” Thomas Jefferson was a fiddler, you know — but he was no Mac McAnally. E.M.
Breakin’ Easy by Donna Ulisse
Over the past decade or so, Donna Ulisse’s star has risen steadily in the bluegrass firmament, both as a singer and a songwriter. Last year, the International Bluegrass Music Association. proclaimed her its songwriter of the year, and this year her co-composition, “I Am a Drifter,” was voted IBMA’s top song. So it’s only to be expected that this album will glow — and it surely does. Ulisse wrote or co-wrote 10 of the album’s 12 songs, all of them quite personal. While this isn’t a concept album, it does seem to present Ulisse at life’s two extremes. There’s the Doleful Donna of “A Little Past Lonely,” “Drive This Cold Out of Me,” “Whatever Winter Brings” and the heart-crushing “Til I Fin’lly Let Go.” She’s matched by the Delighted Donna, who finds joy and refuge in recalling an idyllic childhood (“Back Home Feelin’ Again”) or taking comfort in long-term love (“Made for Each Other,” “We Are Strong,” “We’ve Got This Love Thing Figured Out.”). Also on the doleful side is her exquisite cover of Dottie West’s 1964 hit, “Here Comes My Baby (Back Again).” Every song leaves a mark. E.M.
A Tribute to John D. Loudermilk by Various Artists
This album was recorded live in front of the man who inspired it just months before he died — and droves of artists turned out to pay him homage. Not just a country songwriter, Loudermilk scored in all the pop music categories, examples of which abound in the 24 featured songs. Here, “Waterloo,” which launched Stonewall Jackson’s career, is covered by Ricky Skaggs and the Whites. “Indian Reservation,” of Paul Revere & the Raiders fame, comes to life anew via John McFee. Rosanne Cash turns in a vampy version of “Then You Can Tell Me Good Bye,” a hit for the Casinos and so many others. The great guitarist Tommy Emmanuel adds new layers of cool to the instrumental “Windy and Warm.” Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver virtually run the wheels off “Blue Train.” Harry Stinson, the drummer in Marty Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives, demonstrates that he’s also an astounding vocalist via the grief-stricken “Everybody Knows.” And the beat goes on. Other artists featured on this historical project include Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Lee Roy Parnell, Beth Nielsen Chapman and the prodigiously versatile John Jorgenson, formerly of the Desert Rose Band, who co-produced it all. E.M.
The Nashville Sound by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
What makes Isbell a master songwriter is his use of everyday language in his storytelling. He hopes that while explaining himself to himself and to the rest of the world, his songs inspire generations of music lovers to be a little more emphatic and compassionate. “If We Were Vampires” has a couple making the most of every minute they have with one another because life never lasts forever. There’s sharp honesty in his blues “White Man’s World,” a timely number that plays out like a call to action to be the change that makes the world a better place. “Something to Love” is a hopeful ending that encourages anyone listening to live a full life. The Nashville Sound was recorded at the historic RCA A Studio on Music Row. L.T.
Order of Time by Valerie June
The Order of Time continues to establish June’s art as the first of its kind. She is Dolly Parton, David Bowie and Sister Rosetta Tharpe all in one exceptional talent. Songs come to this Tennessee native in voices that sing in different styles and genres inside her mind, and all of them originate from different places and feelings. The finished product is a unique blend of country, blues, rockabilly and soul that is solely authentic to her. The songs for this collection were written over the course of 12 years and all of them involve the concept of time. The opener “Long Lonely Road” lists memories and sacrifices her family before her made to build a solid legacy for future generations. Vintage gospel organ and horns meet country pedal steel and rock guitar in “Love You Once Made,” which has her making peace with the feeling of loss. The main character in the lead single “Shakedown” declares she’s not going to waste time on just any ol’ body. L.T.
Highway Queen by Nikki Lane
Lane’s Highway Queen kicks the listener in the teeth from its first “Yippee-ki-yay.” Split into three movements, the album starts with songs of fierce independence before transitioning into themes of commitment. The final tracks “Muddy Waters” and “Forever Lasts Forever” explore letting go and moving on. With rock guitar by Kenny Vaughan, pedal steel by Ricky Ray Jackson and dreamy keys by Daniel Creamer, every note is seductive. L.T.
Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real by Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real
Years of touring and recording with Nelson’s father, Willie Nelson, and Neil Young have made Nelson and Promise of the Real monster musicians. The band’s 12-song self-titled release is a triumphant mix of cosmic country that is full of vivid storytelling inspired by loss, love, friendship, commitment in the country, moving on and living for high times. Lucius vocalists Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe lend powerful backing vocals throughout the collection, while Lady Gaga appears on “Carolina” and “Find Yourself.” The entire collection arrests the soul of anyone who listens from note one of the opener “Set Me Down on a Cloud.” Don’t miss this band live. Nelson can out solo music’s best guitarists by just using his teeth. L.T.
First Cigarette Travis Meadows
As a songwriter, Meadows is music’s William Faulkner. Live or on record, the listener hangs on every story he shares. First Cigarette offers songs of hope and nostalgia and serves as a departure from previous releases, which were written from the battles Meadows has lost and won, including his now seven years — and counting — of sobriety. Every passing line on First Cigarette encourages the listener to feel content in every moment in life — the good and the bad. A blend of confession and advice, the album opener “Sideways” moves the soul and explores what happens when emotion is stifled. “Pray for Jungleland,” “McDowell Road” and “Pontiac” offer steadfast advice and warm memories as hopes for young hearts. L.T.
From A Room: Volume 2 by Chris Stapleton
Stapleton’s voice is a gift, and it shows on his latest effort, From A Room: Volume 2. The 32-minute collection is the companion release to From A Room: Volume 1, both of which were recorded at Music Row’s historic RCA A studio with producer Dave Cobb. There aren’t many grand statements made on either collection, but rather they offer little moments, allowing each song to stand on their own and adding to the dialogue Stapleton has established with his fans. Southern rockers “Midnight Train to Memphis” and “Hard Livin'” are the fire to the acoustic “Millionaire,” “A Simple Song” and “Drunkard’s Prayer.” He closes the collection with a cover of Homer Banks and Lester Snell’s “Friendship,” a standard made famous by Pops Staples. L.T.
Beginning of Things Charlie Worsham
Worsham’s sophomore album Beginning of Things is an exploration in the musical geography that raised the Mississippi native. Growing up 100 miles south of Memphis and not far from Muscle Shoals, Worsham blends his southern soul tastes with influences of Roger Miller and John Mayer, creating a vulnerable collection that’s more nostalgic than throwback. He paints perfect pictures of the Delta that raised him in “Southern By the Grace of God” and “I-55.” He sings of taking it slow in “Old Times Sake,” which is one of the sweetest love songs in his catalog. “Cut Your Groove” is a solid reminder that no matter what happens in life, the world keeps spinning. Make every day count. L.T.