As always, for me, a great album is one that stirs something deep and moves me emotionally; reaching in and drawing out feelings whether it's pure joy, big crocodile tears or something in between. Like last year, I listened to my fair share of albums, both for review and pleasure; so in order to narrow down the pool, there were no live albums, EPs, reissues, or compilations included in this list. The albums you find below all had that special something that drew me to listen to them consistently and repeatedly. Let me know if you agree, disagree, and, of course, what I might have missed.
1. Sean McConnell (Self-Titled)
The accomplished tunesmith (who has written too-numerous-to-count songs which others recorded) released his self-titled Rounder debut in July. The immaculately produced ten-song collection immerses the listener in McConnell’s honest, emotional songwriting and understated, flawless vocals on an album replete with poignant lyrics and unforgettable melodies that leave you with a palpable sense of McConnell’s gratefulness for the past, happiness with the present, and anticipation for the future. Although the incredibly moving stories are his, they are utterly identifiable and absolutely resonate. Fave tracks: "Running Under Water", "Beautiful Rose"
2. Ryan Beaver 'Rx'
Another accomplished songwriter, Beaver's May release, anchored by the hopeful resilience of “Dark” and the melancholy nostalgia and idealism of “If I Had A Horse,” is a collection of songs that are lyrically and sonically compelling, interesting, effective, and universally relatable. Beaver, who co-wrote nine of the twelve tracks, brings insight to a myriad of emotions including sentimentality, innocence, and longing and merges them with a welcome, edgy frankness; successfully conveying sentiments to either male or female in “a-ha” moments that have you realizing he nailed it. Fave tracks: "Rum and Roses", "Gravedigger"
3. Elise Davis 'The Token'
Released in September, Davis' The Token is a painstakingly honest look at the female struggles intertwining love, relationships, and commitment that, imbued with the matrix of emotions that often accompany those things, makes for a record that captures something raw, real and responsive that often hits too close to home. Fave tracks: "Pretty Girl", "I Go To Bars and Get Drunk"
4.Butch Walker 'Stay Gold'
Not your average choice for an Americana/alt-country/country blog but hell, Walker's album is killer; lyric-driven pop/rock that's overflowing with infectious hooks, boundless energy and emotional ballads, including one with Ashley Monroe. Fave tracks: "Irish Exit", "Can We Just Not Talk About Tonight"
5.BJ Barham 'Rockingham'
While Barham's songs for American Aquarium have always been personal and genuine - readily connecting with the listener - those traits have never been felt more strongly than on his solo effort which was released in August. Rockingham paints a picture of home - North Carolina, but really anywhere in small town USA - in substantive snapshots of the lives of the everyman and woman who reside (and try to get by) there with a dark realism, emotional depth, and authenticity that's unmatched. Fave tracks: "O' Lover", "Unfortunate Kind"
6. Kelsey Waldon 'I've Got A Way'
Honest to God country music in a beautifully classic, truly traditional collection of ten songs (eight originals, and two covers) that showcase a woman who is independent, honest and assured, creating music that is meaningful, touching and timeless. Fave tracks: "You Can Have It", "I'd Rather Go On"
7. Lori McKenna 'The Bird & The Rifle'
Incredibly impactful storytelling (and you'd expect nothing less from one of Nashville's most highly regarded songwriters), on ten tracks that mine the facets of relationships including love, heartache, and hope. Fave tracks: "Wreck You", "Old Men Young Women"
8. Randy Rogers Band 'Nothing Shines Like Neon'
Released in January, RRB delivers an album of traditional country that includes both heartbreaking and swoonworthy ballads, a hint of the blues, and some rebel rousing barroom sing-a-longs with guest spots throughout from Jamey Johnson, Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, and Jerry Jeff Walker (as well as a tune penned with McConnell). The album's earnest, introspective lyrics, tender and spirited melodies, as well as precise musicianship, make it a record that shines brightly indeed. Fave tracks: "Tequila Eyes", "San Antone"
9. Jamestown Revival 'The Education of A Wandering Man'
Good Lord this record. The Austin-based duo's latest will feed your spirit and soothe your soul with stories that detail the working man, the push and pull of love, and the desire for the road all the while blending blues, country, and soul in perfect proportion. Fave tracks: "Airliner", "Almost All The Time"
10. Reckless Kelly 'Sunset Motel'
In their 20th year, Reckless Kelly continues to do what they do best on the recently Grammy-nominated (Best Recording Package) album. Balancing country and rock, their songs center around affecting songcraft, rousing and emotional melodies, and dynamic musicianship that never fails to satisfy. Fave tracks: "Forever Today", "One More One Last Time"
And the Best of the Rest:
11. Dolly Shine 'Walkabout' - It was over just as it started to get going, but before disbanding Dolly Shine left us with one of the best records of the year.
12. Vandoliers "Ameri-Kinda' - Who knew punk and country would mix so well? If you're looking for something gritty, rootsy, and incredibly fresh, look no further.
13. Jared Deck (Self-Titled) - A soulful dose of heartland country-rock dealing with hurt, struggle, and strength is delivered on Deck’s debut, a stellar offering heavy on intimacy, truth and heart. Remember Deck's name.
14. Jesse Dayton 'The Revealer' - Emotional ballads, rousing rockabilly numbers, sharp instrumentation, and lots of humor..... where else are you going to find songs like "3 Pecker Goat", "Take Out The Trash," and a rendition of "I'm at Home Getting Hammered (While She's Out Getting Nailed)." Dayton wraps it all up in a damn near perfect collection.
15. The Honeycutters 'On The Ropes' - Amanda Anne Platt and her band deliver an album focusing on personal trials, persistence, introspection and self-awareness that mark her as one of the strongest and prolific songwriters in any genre. It's a solid, steady, and energized offering that proves they're ready to go a few more rounds.
16. Erik Dylan 'Heart of A Flatland Boy' - The songwriter's full-length debut reaches into exactly what that is in stories of Middle America, the people, and their stories of resilience and perseverance.
17. Alejandro Escovedo 'Burn Something Beautiful' - The well-respected and influential artist teamed with Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck on his latest, and one of his strongest outings to date, which finds Escovedo in top form from the blistering opener, "Horizontal" to the celestial closer, "Thought I'd Let You Know."
18. Rob Baird 'Wrong Side of The River' - Baird delivered a set balanced with thoughtful ballads and Memphis blues-infused gritty rockers that have plenty of heart and soul.
19. Darrell Scott 'The Couchville Sessions' - The singer-songwriter's first solo album in years is understated and completely moving.
20. Chris Stalcup and the Grange 'Downhearted Fools' - Heartache never sounded so good on Stalcup's latest record that hits that country-rock sweet spot.
21. Cody Johnson 'Gotta Be Me' - Johnson proves staying true to yourself in this business is possible as he sees his success grow wildly outside of Texas in no doubt fueled by his latest which injects humor and heart in songs that are pure country.
22.Green River Ordinance 'Fifteen' - Together for fifteen years (hence the title), GRO's January release is one of those records that just fills you with happy - insanely catchy melodies, relatable lyrics, and a welcome positivity.
23.Colvin & Earle (Self-Titled) - Two iconic voices blend together seamlessly in an album featuring originals as well as a couple covers, including "Ruby Tuesday."
24. Zane Williams 'Bringin' Country Back' - And that Williams does on a thematically varied collection that's country to the core.
25. Karen Jonas 'Country Songs' - Wrapping fiddle, steel, organ, and guitar around inspired storytelling, Jonas is all at once insightful, honest, tenacious, and vulnerable.
26. Chris King 'Animal' - On the recommendation of friends, I went out and purchased three albums - and King's was the only one I kept. Reflective and sometimes dark, these country rockers connect.
27. Hayes Carll 'Lovers and Leavers' - Incredibly personal, thoughtful, and intense, the quietness of the ten songs pack an emotional punch.
28. Aaron Einhouse 'It Ain't Pretty' - Einhouse pulls no punches on his latest, honing in on his sound with confidence, vigor, and a bit of attitude; crafting songs with the crystal clear realization that sometimes life ain't pretty, but it's those highs and lows (and places in between) that make life what it is....and people who they are.
29. Shovels and Rope 'Little Seeds' - The husband and wife duo take on life and death on their latest which tackles history, current events, and personal themes in pulsating rockers and emotional ballads.
30. Whiskey Myers 'MUD' - On what's only their fourth record, Whiskey Myers has managed to refine - yet simultaneously expand (with the addition of two new full-time members) and perfect - their sound into something that is grounded by a one-of-a-kind versatility, intensity, and diversity.
31. Blackberry Smoke 'Like An Arrow' - Southern rock and roll lives, and thrives, here.
32. Paul Cauthen 'My Gospel' - The former Sons of Father member's solo debut has depth, grit, and heart which paired with Cauthen's full, soulful baritone make him a strong contender to fill the shoes of the greats.
33. Miranda Lambert - 'The Weight of These Wings' Miranda mines heartbreak, grief, love, and more on a low-key bold double album that delivers.
34. Sturgill Simpson 'A Sailor's Guide To The Earth' - What more is there to say about the universally lauded album from someone who is insanely creative and constantly breaking new ground doing things his way.
35. Austin Lucas -'Between The Moon and the Midwest' - Known to many, but new to me, Lucas' latest will win you over with his moving storytelling, warm vocals, and a sincerity that flows through the entire record.
36. Jeremy Nail 'My Mountain' - The beautifully told personal stories of struggle, perseverance, gratitude and hope Nail weaves on My Mountain reflect his own journey, and leave you thinking about his story and reexamining your own.
37. The Wild Feathers 'Lonely Is A Lifetime' - Indie rock with big guitars, amazing harmonies, and lush melodies - their latest outing showed no signs of the sophomore slump.
38. Levi Lowrey 'Roots and Branches' - Lowrey shows great reverence and respect for his past while continuing to grow his own boughs into a tree blooming with songs filled with emotion, insight, and indelible melodies on this double disc set.
39. Flatland Cavalry 'Humble Folks' - The Lubbock-based band's latest project is energetic and sincere; it's one of those records that will move your feet as well as your heart.
40. Aubrie Sellers 'New City Blues' - Self-described garage country, Sellers' debut has crunchy guitars, pulsating drums which alongside her striking vocals, emits an intense energy and an attitude that's sassy, sweet and full of swagger.
41. Parker Millsap 'The Very Last Day' - The soulful, young singer-songwriter sets forth a brief yet dynamic set that deals with life, death, and love.
42. Nudie 'Everything's Different In The Night' - Well done rockabilly and classic country relating those famliar topics of heartache, love, and longing.
43. Western Centuries 'Weight Of The World' - Songwriting, musicianship, and three lead vocalists (Cahalen Morrison, Ethan Lawton and Jim Miller alongside Rusty Blake and Dan Lowinger) make this a standout country album you might have bypassed - or not have heard of - but should definitely give a spin.
44. Brent Cobb 'Shine On Rainy Day' - Gentle melodies, impactful lyricism, and Cobb's familiar vocals make this record something that's simply lovely.
45. Loretta Lynn 'Full Circle' - What an inspiration to be releasing albums at 84. The thirteen track album (14 if you count the spoken introduction) includes tunes inspired by Appalachian folk songs and newer versions of hits as well as duets with Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello.
46. Big Shoals 'Hard Lessons' - A realistic take on life’s highs and lows shared with maturity and insight only experience can provide.
47. M. Lockwood Porter 'How To Dream Again' - Porter questions the promise of The American Dream, examines prejudices, and appreciates the importance of an open heart and mind on his debut which may make some listeners uncomfortable but will also make you think - and that is a good thing indeed.
48. Wheeler Walker, Jr 'Redneck Shit' - Love him or leave him, you have the give the guy credit for thinking outside the box and making a brazen, sonically country, record that will either leave you laughing or seriously offended.
49. Brandy Clark 'Big Day In A Small Town' - While she leans more radio friendly with this release, the storytelling makes the record shine.
50. Jack Ingram 'Midnight Motel' - Mature and confident, the stories are delivered in an intimate manner that makes it all the more authentic.