Campfire Tales: Albums of the year 2017
You might well notice that the 2017 version of our Campfire Tales albums of the year list is a little longer than usual. In 2016 we stuck to 13 records, in 2015 we had 16, and 2014 there were just 10. This year we've broken one of our own rules, Little Bandit, Alex Williams and Sunny Sweeney don't have official UK releases. Anyhow, that means we've got a monster 23 records for you this year, and that doesn't include the two best of the year, Hurray For The Riff Raff and Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit's fantastic records; they're in our main Albums Of 2017 list.
So, in no particular order, a retrospective of our favourite Campfire Tales albums of 2017.
After wowing the hell out of critics and fans in 2016 with her debut, Midwest Farmer's Daughter, the Illinois born singer-songwriter returned quickly with more of the same musically. But All American Made was more outspoken in its lyrics ('Pay Gap'), more pointed in its criticisms ('All American Made'), and even more beguiling because of this, just listen to the wonderful duet with Willie Nelson, 'Learning To Lose'. It’s a triumph of writing and singing, all backed up by one of the best bands around.
The latest in an ever-growing list of Nashville songwriters that are stepping out of the shadows. Chris Stapleton and Brandy Clark blazed the trail, now artists like Missouri native are building on that. Puxico, so named after Hemby’s hometown, is a perfect set of tales of smalltown America. It perfectly captures an old-time feel, with timeless lyrics, heartfelt and honest. Standouts are many but the opener ‘Time Honored Tradition’ and closer, the uplifting ‘Return’ are surefire classics.
You might not have heard of Kashena Sampson despite Rolling Stone magazine and American Songwriter being fans. And that's despite her debut record being a stunner. Lead single 'Greasy Spoon' was a rollicking honky tonk-er, painting a technicolour picture of Nashville's famous Biscuit House, but the tone of Wild Heart is more considered and softer. 'She Shines' is a beautiful take on untapped potential, and 'Motherless Child' will make you weep. Come for 'Greasy Spoon', stay for the peerless voice. Read our interview with Kashena.
If you're in the UK you're out of luck with this one. Breakfast Alone isn't available anywhere. It just doesn't exist. Apart from on Amazon; everything's on Amazon. And that's great for the Brits as Alex Caress has created something completely unique with Little Bandit's debut, something country, something funny, something traditional, something unrepentantly un-traditional. Listen to 'Nashville', or 'Money', or definitely 'Drinkin' At The Bar'.
Wow, OK, so where to start. 'Bottle By My Bed' maybe? The single most heartbreaking and heartfelt song of 2017. Or 'Nothing Wrong With Texas'? The Texan moved home after time in Nashville and this is her ode to falling in love with her home state again. Possibly 'Trophy'? The best bitch slap committed to record. How about 'Better Bad Idea'? A tricksy, riff-happy three minutes of fun. Whichever way, you get the idea. Trophy is full of cleverly written, perfectly delivered, songs, from the heart, from the head, and from dark places. Outstanding.
We were big fans of Razor Wire, Hannah Aldridge's debut so had high hope for its follow-up and boy did it surpass them. Aldridge told us she prefers to think of herself as rock, and that's why Gold Rush is such a triumph; it's roots rocks with no inhibitions. 'Aftermath' is pure down the line rock, 'Burning Down Birmingham' brings the roots, 'Living On Lonely' riffs to the heavens, and the title track is beautiful simplicity. A stone cold classic. Read our interview with Hannah.
Rule 62: Don't take yourself too damn seriously. That's the mission statement from Canadian country singer Whitney Rose's second record. And despite tracks with titles like 'You Don't Scare Me' and 'Time To Cry' almost everything is laced with a healthy dose of smarts. Some tunes are outright funny, 'Trucker's Funeral' is a story of two families, 'I Don't Want Half (I Just Want Out)' is a twist on the traditional breakup song, and 'Can't Stop Shakin'' is just fun to the core. Likely the most traditional and most entertaining record of 2017. Read our interview with Whitney.
“I don't wanna be an outlaw / I don't wanna be a renegade”. The opening lines from ‘Outlaw’ might be what Presley wants but we can’t change who we are, and this third of Pistol Annies is all the better for being herself. If you thought her debut, American Middle Class, was honest and soul-baring you really hadn’t heard anything. Wrangled finds the Kentucky singer laying out her criticism, insecurities, anger, and sadness, for all to hear. It’s a breath of fresh air that won’t win her any friends on Music Row but songs like the title track and ‘Good Girl Down’ will win her a mass of goodwill and fans. Keep being you Angaleena.
There isn't a more reliable artist in country music right now that Chris Stapleton. If following his breakout 2015 wasn't going to be hard enough he announced that two records would be coming in 2017. Both volumes of work taken from his sessions at Nashville's RCA Studio A, cut live by Dave Cobb with songs from Stapleton's notebooks from years of living as a songwriter rather than singer. It's exactly what you'd expect, that wonderful voice, some terrific songs (standouts: the rambunctious 'Midnight Train To Memphis', chilled out weed hymn 'Them Stems'), and the feelest good record of 2017. Real music for the soul.
A big favourite for UK audiences for a while, it's been a long wait from 2013 for Charlie Worsham's second record. And it might be a cliche, but it's sooooo worth the wait: Beginning Of Things was the most wonderful record of 2017. Whether he's painting pictures of Southern life (the wistful 'Southern By The Grace Of God' or the playful 'Lawn Chair Don't Care'), or writing the saddest story (the heartbreaking 'The Beginning Of Things'), or maybe the cleverest lyric ('Take Me Drunk'), the 13 tracks here are full of wonderment and wide-eyed storytelling. Never glib or angry, this is truly heartwarming music.
The King of honky tonk and his backing band of fleet-fingered magicians conjured up something a little different on Way Out West: a smokey drug-hazed trip through the desert. This homage to California has a little of everything, some 60s pop sounds, the usual slathering of country, and a touch of the Ennio Morriconi's. Stuart and his sidemen are so at ease with each other, and in tune with each others fingers everything feels effortlessly cool.
There probably wasn't a more divisive act in country music in 2017. Some people genuinely hate the trio, some people genuinely loved them and will defend them to the hilt. It's all fascinating to read but really their mainstream success will hopefully open more doors, as the truth is their music is as traditional as you can get from Music Row. Backed by uber-songwriter Shane McAnally and Taylor Swift's record label Big Machine they've got the grunt to be a success, but it's their delivery that seals the deal. Mega-smash 'Drinking Problem', 'Check Cashin' Country' and 'At Least You Cried' are crackers. Are Midland authentic? Whether you care or not is up to you. On The Rocks though, is as authentic as it comes.
On her sixth album Courtney Marie Andrews finally broke into a wider consciousness. Having had US success in 2016, 2017 saw her come to Europe. Her sweet voice contrasts with the bittersweet songwriting to deliver thoughtful songs like 'Table For One' and 'How Quickly Your Heart Mends'. That's not to say Courtney Marie can't do uptempo as 'Irene' and its tale of unrealised potential proves. Read our interview with Courtney Marie.
News flash, not every is going to be a fan of Valerie June. She has a unique voice, and her lyrical content can be a little, um, out there. 'Astral Plane' is an example of the slightly trippy lyrics that June can write, it also happens to be the best thing on the record. Though there's enough choice, the wistful opener 'Long Lonely Road', the groove-filled put down 'Man Done Wrong', the brass filled blues of 'Slip Slide On By', and more. It really is her patented mix of styles, genres, and rhythms.
If it's out and out roots rock you're hankering after then the raw guitar and striking voice of Terra Lightfoot is gonna satisfy. From the opening stonker 'Paradise' through the beautiful tribute to 'Norma Gale' and riff-heavy 'Slick Back Kid' this is head-shaking stuff. New Mistakes also shows significant growth in confidence from the already fab Every Time My Mind Runs Wild. Read our interview with Terra.
Another from the Big Machine Records stable, Alex Williams is doing his own thing on a major label. Going big with steer guitar and heavy with his accent Better Than Myself is more subtle than that might sound. Tracks like 'Hellbent Hallelujah' and 'Freak Flag' hold up the traditions of decades of real country music. With a voice you'd trade grandma for, and songs like 'Week Without A Drink', Williams has created a beast of a debut.
Records released in January always have a harder time making on to "best of" lists, but Aaron Lee Tasjan made it easy. When you've got an opening triple hit like the slinky 'Hard Life', Beatles-esque groove of the wonderful 'Little Movies', and retro touch of 'Memphis Rain' it makes it a shoo-in. Delve deeper and the grunge-y Americana of 'Refugee Blues' and simple brilliance of '12 Bar Blues' seal the deal. Unexpected and marvellous.
You could have expected Dori Freeman to bask in the glory of the critical acclaim for her 2016 debut a little while longer than a little over 12 months. Thank goodness the Virgina born singer didn't; Letters never Read is even better than her self titled debut. If the marching beat and floating vocal of 'Lovers On The Run' or 'I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight''s yearning melody aren't enough, there are the Appalachian originals, 'Em & Zorry's Sneakin' Bitin' Dog' and 'Yonder Comes A Sucker' which, quite frankly, are bloody marvellous.
Another act following up a breakthrough record, John Moreland won props from a bunch of his contemporaries for his fourth solo record. Kicking off with its best track, the rocking 'Sallisaw Blues' is a brave move but the quality doesn't dip, from the acoustic 'Every Kind Of Wrong', while the Tulsa resident channels Springsteen on 'Lies I Chose To Believe'. The progress each record delivers is impressive, Big Bad Luv is his best yet.
In recent years there has been more discussion than ever about gender equality, and the abuse (physical, mental, and verbal) that women (in particular) have to bear. It felt like Hollywood and the entertainment industry finally caught up in 2017. Rhiannon Giddens has been way ahead of that curve for a while, but it only feels right that she releases her masterpiece in 2017. And that's not overstating the quality of Freedom Highway. Opener 'At The Purchaser's Option' is more relevant at the start of 2018 than it was in 2017: "I've got a body dark and strong / I was young but not for long / You took me to bed a little girl / Left me in a woman's world". It's powerful stuff. Giddens also turns on the groove on 'Better Get It Right' and the swagger on 'The Love We Almost Had'. This is a ust listen, for its message and its music.
Being a Californian country artist isn't what it used to be in these days of questioning authenticity. Jade Jackson answers that with songs with lyrics like "Boy, it's been fun / But my motorcycle only seats one" ('Motorcycle') and guitar licks sweating pure country juice ('Finish Line'). It's a confident debut, and live she's already playing new songs that show progress. Roll on record #2.
If you were a betting person it's pretty likely that you'd have found ridiculous odds on former American Idol contestant Lauren Alaina releasing one of the top albums of 2017. Five years after her Idol-tastic debut. But she has. And then some. So what is that makes Road Less Travelled so good? Well basically it's the honesty. And the tunes. Though it's filled with quality, 'Three' and its honest take on the sacrifices of a working musician, 'Same Day Different Bottle' about her fathers battle with alcoholism, or the opening lines of the opening track: "Daddy got sober, Mama got his best friend / I've cut down crying to every other weekend" It's brutal, yet framed and sung with no regret, no self-indulgent wallowing, just uplifting and life lessons learnt. Read our interview with Lauren.
A refugee from 2016, Shine On Rainy Day still manages to charm over 18 months after release. The slacker-country of Cobb (produced by his cousin, uber-producer Dave) heralds the laidback riffage of the marvellous 'Black Crow', the moonshine adventures of 'Down In The Gulley', and the watchin'-the-world-go-back-chit-chat of 'Solving Problems'. It's chilled and riveting.
After crashing onto the scene with Tennessee Mojo, The Cadillac Three underwhelmed somewhat with its follow-up Bury Me In My Boots. Forget that though as the trio are back on form, in fact better than before with Legacy. If tributes to their home state on 'Tennessee', Hank Williams and Jesus on 'Hank & Jesus' and roping Lori McKenna in for a duet weren't enough, they've created their own bonafide anthem: 'Long Hair Don't Care'. A legacy indeed.