Best Music of 2017

This has been a great year for music.  So much, in fact, that it's almost impossible to narrow it down to just a handful of great albums and songs.  That's why I've prepared a playlist with 75 songs--more than four and a half hours of music--over on my Spotify account for your listening pleasure. It runs the gamut from country to rock to hip hop to Americana and even some pop that might surprise you (a couple really surprised me, but they're really fine songs), but I've chosen the songs by being honest about what tunes stuck in my head, resonated with me, or moved me, whether that be by bringing a tear to my eye or making me want to dance.  They're in no particular order so I suggest putting it on shuffle and just letting the songs play. I hope you'll let me know anything that you discover on there that you end up loving.

But that list is made up of favorite songs and as we all know, albums are very different animals.  Albums are like novels.  A great album is one you can put on and listen to beginning to end and never get tired of it.  I've done the hard task of choosing my favorite albums of the year below and including my reasoning for eleven of them.  I hope you find something you love to listen to on the playlist.  Here's to 2018 being another great year of music.

My favorite songs of the year--all 75 of them:



And, my favorite albums of the year:

Not Dark Yet by Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer is exquisite beauty.  It's dark and sad, but always full of light and hope, too, much like the title track, written by Bob Dylan.  I love the vocals, the arrangements, the production (by one of my all-time favorite singer/songwriter/
producers, Teddy Thompson) but I also love it because it perfectly captures the tone of these dark days when we are so often trying to make sense of what's happening to our country and trying to find the light. The songs have been perfectly chosen and these sisters sing together in ways that can tear you down and lift you up all at the same time.  I love everything about this record.   I also love this short film about the album that was done by Bitter Southerner, so please check it out.  And you also will want to see the sisters covering my favorite Tom Petty song, which can't even be ruined by that one asshole who won't stop talking (pardon my language, but there's always that one asshole at a live show who thinks everybody cares about hearing him talk as loudly as possible, isn't there? People who talk at live shows and movies need to be tarred and feathered.  Just sayin'.)

I kind of worship Feist.  I have loved every album she has ever made, and this one takes her to new heights.  It's not full of singles like her famous "1234" and that's the point.  It's an album that needs to be listened to from beginning to end and in doing so you realize that her main goal is in creating something sonic, and something that doesn't sound like anything else out there right now.  There is something deeply moving about every word she sings--she gets to the bare heart of emotion with perfectly chosen lines sung with deep mourning and wonder.  Put on your earbuds and turn it up as loud as you safely can to hear every layer of songs like the title track, "Any Party", "Century" (most interesting video of the year), or any song on the album.  Also, if you ever get a chance to see her live, do it.  You'll see a true musical genius on stage who will make everyone in the room feel her deep love for music.

Yes, it's different than Southeastern.  Because artists are supposed to evolve and change.  So I'm kind of tired of folks who say they don't like this album as much as Isbell's earlier efforts.  Isabel isn't trying to be clever in his lyrics, he's trying to tell a story, and again, this is an album that is perfect for this moment.  It's about people who are trying to be the best people they can, often making mistakes, but in the process, loving in a big way, working hard, giving their all.  There's "Cumberland Gap," which perfectly captures this moment in Appalachia, "Anxiety," which perfectly captures, well, anxiety.  There's "If We Were Vampires," which is one of the best love songs I've ever heard.  I dare you to listen to it closely and not get a knot in your throat.  Song after song, Isbell is at the top of his form here, I think, and I love this whole record.

I love to hear Andrew Combs sing.  I love the way he puts an album together.  I love every track on this.  I'd listen to him sing the phone book.  And he can flat out write a song, too.  This isn't as great as his prior effort, 2015's "All These Dreams", but it's still one of the best albums of the year.  Select tracks:  "Dirty Rain", "Blood Hunters" (in a "Stranger Things" inspired video).  Personal favorite:  "Better Way".

Full disclosure:  Jim James is a friend of mine.  He's one of the sweetest souls I know.  His music is also at the heart of my new novel, Southernmost, which comes out in June. But despite all of that, I would still love this album.  All of his sweetness, hope, defiance, and strength comes through on this album of covers made famous by people like Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Glenn Campbell, or more obscure gems by under known artists such as Al Bowly, who was once one of Britain's biggest stars but is now widely unknown.  On every track Jim James is showcasing his deep love for music.  He does it in long piano intros, in winding trills, high howls and warbles, in meditations on the lyrics, drawing the words out so we might recognize their full beauty and power.  Continuing the theme of music that speaks to our national moment, this album is no exception.  James told this to Billboard recently:  "It's a really crazy time in the world right now, a lot of negative energy in the air.  A lot of the songs I feel are dealing with that, reflecting on the sadness of that.  But also, a part of me likes to remember that life can also be beautiful."  Listen to the lead single.

Sometimes you just need a good album to dance around the house to, or to drive to, or to work in the yard to.  Well, this energetic, pumping album is good for all of those things, but don't mistake it for just a feel-good dance album.  It's also full of thoughtful lyrics that shows Ditto--former lead singer of the now defunct Gossip--letting her Southern flag fly with vocals that showcase her Arkansas twang and fire.  Every single song will have you tapping your foot, singing along, and thinking about identity and family.  If you can sit still to "Oh La La" I'll give you a dollar.  If you can listen to "Clouds (Song for John)" without eventually singing along, I'll give you another one.  Not really.  But you get my point.  You'll also want to check out this NPR article about the record.


Sometimes it's countryfied-soul, sometimes it's retro-soul, but always, on every song, it works.  This album is straight-up enjoyment.  Auerbach, half of The Black Keys, wrote the title track for the album with one of his heroes, John Prine, and it's a pretty perfect composition and production.  The whole album manages to be a nod to the past while also being completely original and new, never falling victim to becoming derivative.  You can find out more about the album and watch several of its videos by going to this link.  Favorite tracks:  Title song, "Never in My Wildest Dreams", "Malibu Man", "Shine On Me", "Stand By My Girl".





This concept album is a powerhouse, as is this band and it's defiant, strong, outspoken lead singer, Alynda Lee Segarra.  It's structured like a Broadway musical, if a Broadway musical ever got written by a working class Puerto Rican girl who grew up in a rough part of New York City.  The songs are presented in two acts and are from the point of view of just such a character.  Dang, it's good.  Give it a listen.  Favorite tracks:  "Hungry Ghost" , "Living in the City".









The album cover tells you just about everything you need to know.  There she is: beautiful, strong, ready to fight back, bound and gagged.  That's the story Angaleena Presley is telling on the country album of the year.  The album received no airplay on country radio or awards attention yet it's on dozens of critics' lists for top albums of the year and she's a darling of most anyone who listens to alt-country or Americana.  Presley is one of our best songwriters (she wrote one of my all-time favorite songs, "Better Off Red," on her last album) and here she's showcasing some of her best work on songs like "Dreams Don't Come True", "High School", "Only Blood", "Bless My Heart"...well, I could go on but I'd end up naming every song on the album.  Give her a listen.  Instead of adopting an "if you can't beat them join them", Presley has instead decided that since the country establishment won't accept her she'll just flip them a defiant middle finger (listen to the angry and hilarious song "Country" for proof of that).  This coal miner's daughter native of Beauty, Kentucky is a powerhouse.  So is this album.

True blues.  Great songwriting.  Vocals sung from a place of real hurt.  There is nothing to not love about this album.  Every song is great, but you should especially give a listen to cuts like
"It Don't Suit Me (Like Before)" and "Sallisaw Blue".









Imelda May is one of my favorite singers, and I love this whole album from beginning to end.  This is the most underrated album of the year, without a doubt, and I can't stop listening to it.  I love all of the songs on here, but especially "Should've Been Me," which is my favorite song of the year, period, with a deeply moving video.  May wrote the song during the demise of a serious relationship while being fed up by legislators who refused to give women's issues the respect they deserve.  By the time the song had been recorded it had also become a commentary on the national conversation surrounding the elevation of men who brag about sexual assault yet get voted into the highest offices of power anyway.  Watch the video, please, and also give "Call Me" a listen while you're at it.

One of the best singer-songwriters out there puts out another gem of an album produced by Teddy Thompson.  Standout track:  "If I Could Make You My Own" and her exquisite cover of "I Want to See The Bright Lights Tonight." 
Taft Merritt continues her long streak of lovely work with Stitch of the World, full of equal measures of beauty and grit.  I especially love "Dusty Old Man" because it captures everything you need to know about Merritt, especially that husky/sweet/strong/enchanting vocal delivery.  
 Daniel Martin Moore's Turned Over to Dreams was designed to calm listeners down.  This is a risky move for any musician but Martin has never let any challenge get in his way of his art and he proves to be the victor here with a collection of sweet songs that are a welcome respite from the busy and tumultuous lives so many of us find ourselves living. "You Are Home" is about as perfect as a song can get.   
 Many lucky folks have long known the power of Joan Shelley's singing and songwriting but this eponymous album, produced by Jeff Tweedy, brings her to a much wider audience.  Put this one on with earbuds and listening to her and wonder why she isn't one of the best-known singers out there today.  She should be, and if we lived in a world that had better taste, she would be.  My favorites:  "We'd Be Home" and "Where I'll Find You". 
 Lillie Mae's Forever And Then Some was produced by Jack White and you can hear it clearly but Mae makes her own sound, as well.  I found myself putting this album on again and again, sometimes for my honky-tonk fix, sometimes for that fiddle and those guitar licks, and sometimes to listen for the hundredth time to "Honest and True".
More full disclosure:  I wrote the liner notes for this record, and one thing I said in them is this: "Those who understand the culture, those like Ratliff, know that Appalachia is a place thrumming with the eclectic, with the dark and the light.  A complex place and people.  Many have tried to capture it, but only a handful have succeeded.  With Gone Boy, Ratliff becomes one of the few."  

I taught in Scotland three weeks this summer and I heard Lucy Rose constantly: on the radio, in every record store I went into.  I found this to be a mesmerizing dream of a record that contains one of my very favorite songs:  "Strangest of Ways". 

I've long loved Ben Sollee as a person and as a musician.  He always keeps pushing the boundaries of his music and that's on fine display here with his album with Kentucky Native. A stand-out track: "Pieces of You". 

Thank you, and happy listening.









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