As we began the task of weeding down the two dozen or so excellent possibilities to our ten favorite Americana albums of 2017, a couple of themes emerged. The first was that the protest album, a staple of the '60s folk revival, is enjoying new life in Americana music. Many of the artists represented here found fertile songwriting soil in political and social upheaval. Second, 2017 was the year of the woman in Americana. Seven of our ten best Americana albums are by female artists or female-fronted bands.
10. Angaleena Presley -Wrangled
There was no shortage of artists willing to speak out on the major current issues and no one in Americana did it as forcefully as Angaleena Presley. As country label executives and stars made headlines with controversial statements about women in the industry, Presley released Wrangled, a no holds barred collection of songs that tackled serious subjects with a dose of humor. From the hypocritical morality of a small town (“High School”) to a well-worn Southern phrase turned on its ear (“Bless My Heart”), Angaleena Presley proved that you can protest injustice and still have a sense of humor.
9. I Draw Slow - Turn Your Face to the Sun
While the genre might be named Americana, some of its best artists aren't from America. So it is with the sibling duo Dave and Louise Holden, who form the core of I Draw Slow. The Irish group's American label debut Turn Your Face to the Sun meld the easy harmonies of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings with the family-band closeness of The Carter Family. But it is in their ability to find new ways to look at familiar subjects that I Draw Slow shines. Nothing here is new, but everything is fresh.
8. Willie Watson - Folksinger, Vol. 2
Nothing about Willie Watson is flashy. So it's no surprise that his brilliant new album goes by the rather generic sounding title Folksinger, Vol. 2. But that lack of show is exactly why Willie Watson belongs on this list. There is no more faithful or more rock steady chronicler of folk music's tradition than Watson. While the Americana community tried to find new ways to talk about class struggles and economic disparity, Watson proved everything is cyclical by singing about those exact same themes through the lens of century-old songs about steel drivers and laborers at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.
7. All Our Exes Live in Texas - When We Fall
Australian quartet All Our Exes Live in Texas exited the 2017 Americana Music Festival as one of the most talked about new groups, which brought renewed attention to their debut album When We Fall, which was released in March. All four of the members of All Our Exes Live in Texas are skilled instrumentalists and lead vocalists, giving a tight harmony to their folksy dark pop ballads like “The Devil's Part” and the a cappella earworm “Cadillac” that is the envy of artists years their senior. While a relatively new band, having only formed in 2014, they are one of the genre's most promising talents.
6. Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn - Echo in the Valley
If any other artist had blended jazz, Appalachia, rock, and Chinese melodies on just two banjos, they'd likely be lauded as the next big thing in Americana music. For husband and wife duo Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, it's just another day at the office. The pair have done more to push the boundaries of what a banjo is capable of than anyone since Earl Scruggs and, on Echo in the Valley, they challenged themselves even more by using no other instruments and no studio tricks. Every breathtaking moment on the album can and is translated to their live environment. And while the banjos are the stars, Washburn's Bejing meets Blue Ridge vocals are also on point.
5. Margo Price - All American Made
After her 2016 album Midwest Farmer's Daughter made her the 2016 Americana Music Awards' Emerging Artist of the Year, Margo Price did the near impossible and actually bettered herself with her next album, All American Made. Rather than play it safe with another autobiographical album, Price turned her gaze outward with songs like “Pay Gap”, which belongs alongside Loretta Lynn's “The Pill” in the pantheon of great female country artists getting their own and the title track, an almost whispered acoustic ballad that intercuts lyrics about welfare recipients with soundbites from various Presidents. Even when she looks inward, Margo Price produces “Weakness”, with a catchline “Sometimes my weakness is stronger than me” that is so strong you can't believe no one in the history of country ever thought of it before.
4. Whitney Rose - Rule 62
Whitney Rose released two new albums in 2017 and both were in the running for this list. But in the end, while her love letter to her new adopted home South Texas Suite was brilliant, it was an EP and surpassed by her full-length album Rule 62. With a voice that sounds like it came straight from a '60s girl group and a fiery spirit that evokes memories of Wanda Jackson, Whitney Rose takes the next step in her evolution as a songwriter on Rule 62. She takes on story songs (“Trucker's Funeral”), anxiety (“Can't Stop Shakin”), and relationships (“You Don't Scare Me”) with a maturity that earns her a place alongside her more experienced peers, including the album's producer Raul Malo.
3. Colin Hay - Fierce Mercy
People who only know Colin Hay as the former vocalist for early '80s hitmakers Men at Work are missing out on the second chapter in Hay's career. Or should that be the third? While Hay has been making somewhat rootsy albums for more than a decade, his debut for Compass Records, Fierce Mercy, is the first to put him firmly in the Americana camp. While his trademark humor is on display with songs like “Blue Bay Moon”, perhaps Americana's first song about a UFO sighting, it's in his more socially conscious songs like “I'm Walking Here” and the touching tribute to his mother “She Was The Love of Mine” that he truly propels himself to a top three album in a competitive year.
2. Rhiannon Giddens - Freedom Highway
Sometimes, circumstances and time change opinions on an album. In our mid-year listing of Americana albums, we had Rhiannon Giddens and Colin Hay flipped in the rankings. But as the year wound on and racial tensions continued to fill our news feeds, songs like “At the Purchaser's Option” and “Julie” came more and more into focus until it became clear that Rhiannon Giddens belonged in the 2 spot. Her past work was largely cover songs, but Freedom Highway is filled with Giddens' own words. While many of her songs speak to America's past, especially slavery and the civil rights movement, they are written in such a timeless way that the songs become some of the best protest songs of the 21st century so far.
1. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - The Nashville Sound
“Mama wants to change that Nashville sound, but they're never gonna let her.” So go the words from “White Man's World” that give the new album from Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit its title. But Isbell and his band including wife Amanda Shires, the “mama” from the song's lyric, are doing just that. Ironically, Isbell is changing country, or at least the Americana side of it, with his most rock-centric album yet. After two mostly acoustic and intensely personal albums, Isbell put his band The 400 Unit back on the album cover and turned them loose on The Nashville Sound, with wailing guitars on songs like “Cumberland Gap” and the Tony Iommi-esque menace of “Anxiety.” But that doesn't mean Isbell has abandoned his soulful acoustic songs either. He and Shires blend their voices beautifully on the haunting “If We Were Vampires.” At this point in the game, it would be more significant news if Jason Isbell didn't produce the best album of the year anytime he puts one out. He's become Americana's most consistently excellent artist, improving his game with each new release.
Not familiar with some of the albums on this list? Check out a selection of songs from them and other Americana artists who just missed the Top 10 on our Americana 2017 Spotify playlist below.