American Songwriter’s Top 25 Albums of 2017: Presented by D’Addario

This year’s edition of American Songwriter’s Top 25 Albums is presented by D’Addario.

 

25. Andrew Combs, Canyons Of My Mind

For his third solo album, Andrew Combs reaches inward for a set of deeply contemplative, ’70s singer-songwriter-influenced set of originals like “Heart of Wonder” and “Sleepwalker.” Sometimes, the result of Comb’s journey of self-discovery is a newfound sense of the world around him, most evident on polemics  like “Dirty Rain” and “Bourgeois King.” As he continues to move further away from the straight Tennessee country he first became known for, Canyons of My Mind is a crucial stepping stone in Combs’ ongoing search for his musical identity, a gorgeous collection of musings that ask questions instead of pretending to have answers. — JONATHAN BERNSTEIN

24. Perfume Genius, No Shape

Mike Hadreas has come a long way since first making his stark, heartbreaking debut with just piano and voice seven years ago. Since then he’s made a gradual effort to expand his arrangements and increase the glamour, reaching a new peak of pop artistry with fourth album No Shape. Hadreas balances the starkness of past glories, emerging from a minimalist chill on “Otherside” only to delve into a Kate Bush-style majesty on first single “Slip Away.” No Shape is the biggest and most confident that Perfume Genius has ever sounded, no longer standing on the shoulders of giants like Peter Gabriel and David Bowie, but donning their outsized epaulettes only to find they’re a perfect fit. — JEFF TERICH

23. Natalie Hemby, Puxico

Natalie Hemby is one of Nashville’s most treasured modern songwriters –- she’s been a part of such hits as Miranda Lambert’s “Baggage Claim” and Little Big Town’s “Pontoon,” but she’s also a formative artist with a voice all her own. Puxico, her long-awaited solo debut, is a storytelling feat of impressive atmospheric qualities: little details conjure hometown diners and idle gossip, and subtle guitar plucks paint pictures of disappointment, small town dreams and the shadows we leave behind. Hemby’s hometown comes alive on Puxico, through tattered bibles and the red blinking light of steel guitar-laced tracks like “Ferris Wheel,” that captures life in one beautifully poignant metaphor shaped at the county fair. “While you’re waiting at the bottom, dreaming of the top,” she sings, in that lethal combination of catchy and smart, “sometimes you want on it, sometimes you want off.”– MARISSA MOSS

22. The War On Drugs, A Deeper Understanding

No one has quite seen the influence and potential within Bob Dylan’s once loathed and now beloved ’80s records like Adam Granduciel and The War On Drugs, and the Philadelphia-based outfit’s newest LP, A Deeper Understanding, morphs that era into a perfectly modern incarnation of emotive synth-pop that still manages to ring distinctly as rock and roll. Even on songs like “Thinking of A Place,” which is 11 minutes in length (11:11, to be exact), nothing ever gets so gauzy that it veers out into space – maybe it’s the certain scruff of Granduciel’s voice, or maybe it’s how his furious and inventive guitar, a precious rarity these days, still plays front and center, always driving the ascent. — MARISSA MOSS 

21. Lee Ann Womack, The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone

Lee Ann Womack returned to her home state of Texas for the follow-up to 2014’s The Way I’m Livin’ and came away with an album arguably better than that watershed release. As this disc’s title implies, she explores the darker, sadder side of life, romance and, in her stunning version of the classic “Long Black Veil,” death. Her smooth, occasionally searing vocals compliment the sparse accompaniment as husband/producer Frank Liddell frames these emotionally poignant songs with subtle tension. Womack notably co-wrote nearly half the selections, infusing passion to lyrics that envelope you like the wispy smoke from the cigarette on the dramatic cover photo. — HAL HOROWITZ    

20. The Killers, Wonderful Wonderful

Being grandiose in ironic times ensures that The Killers will always have doubters. Those folks are missing the unapologetic peaks of Wonderful Wonderful. Producer Jacknife Lee provides the luscious gloss, while Brandon Flowers pushes every melody to the rafters so he can hang out up there with Bono. “The Man” expertly mimics Freddie Mercury’s cheeky bravado, while “Rut” soars out of one via the strength of its will. Mark Knopfler and Woody Harrelson make appearances, because, why not, and the closing track somehow overcomes the Manilow-esque title “Have All The Songs Been Written?” Grandiose, yes, but mostly plain grand. — JIM BEVIGLIA

19. Nicole Atkins, Goodnight Rhonda Lee

The titular Rhonda Lee is Atkins’ alter-ego, the one-time alcoholic she leaves behind on this stunning, almost wincingly personal set. Her fourth album, three years in the making, was worth the wait. Atkins has never been a traditional singer-songwriter. Here she shifts to full chanteuse mode, mixing countrypolitan with a ’60s, Phil Spector-styled approach that sounds like nothing else in contemporary music. It’s big, bold, cinematic and manages to be both sprawling and introspective. She combines Patsy Cline with Nancy Sinatra, k.d. lang and Chris Isaak, the latter who contributes songwriting to a spectacularly original, compelling work that is exhilarating and timeless. — HAL HOROWITZ

18. Ron Gallo, Heavy Meta

Anyone who thinks the days of glam, garage and blistering rock and roll are relegated to classic rock “deep tracks” satellite stations hasn’t spun Ron Gallo’s solo debut. The young ex-Toy Soldiers guitar-slinging singer-songwriter brought his tough Philadelphia bona fides when he relocated to Nashville, churning up a rugged racket of riveting riffs without the tentative self-consciousness you might expect from a first album. When he closes the set asserting “All the Punks are Domesticated,” with a laconic talk-sung sneer, it’s clear he won’t be ending up there. These songs, full of sweat and swagger, show why. — HAL HOROWITZ   

17. Caroline Spence, Spades & Roses

On her second album, Nashville singer-songwriter Caroline Spence serves up a soft, spectral folk-rock that seamlessly fits with the devastating tales of restless hearts, self-destructive vagabonds and lonely wanderers that populate her songs. Highlights like “All the Beds I’ve Made” and “Southern Accident” showcase Spence’s graceful vocals and haunting lyrical details that invite listeners into her tales of trouble and turmoil. On “Softball,” she spins deft music biz allegory; on “I Can’t Complain,” she steps away from her troubles while nodding to East Nashville pioneer Todd Snider. Spence’s latest is an open-hearted, intimate singer-songwriter collection that’ll hold up for decades. — JONATHAN BERNSTEIN

16. Steve Earle & The Dukes, So You Wannabe An Outlaw

Being a musical outlaw isn’t about attitude. It’s about a combination of talent, authenticity and artistic freedom, something Steve Earle shares with Willie Nelson, who duets with him on the title track, and Guy Clark, who’s on the receiving end of the touching tribute “Goodbye Michelangelo.” Earle has always been a little too versatile to be hemmed into even a cherished genre like “outlaw country.” Hence you also get from this collection both Zeppelinesque crunch (“Fixin’ To Die”) and heartbreaking balladry (“News From Colorado.”) Outlaw wannabes can take notes, but they’ll still fall short of what Earle accomplishes effortlessly here. — JIM BEVIGLIA

15. Algiers, The Underside Of Power

In 2017 it seems all music is political, but few albums captured the angst of a world on the brink of a new fascism with as much soul and fire as Algiers’ sophomore album. Building on the hybrid of post-punk and gospel that marked the sound of their excellent debut, Algiers broaden their reach with an almost frightening level of intensity on The Underside of Power. They invoke the words of Black Panthers on the industrial-trap opening of “Walk Like a Panther,” mourn for the lost lives of Black Americans at the hands of police in “Cleveland” and turn revolution into a Northern Soul standout in the title track. It’s the sound of uprising and rebellion—and you can dance to it. — JEFF TERICH

14. Hurray For The Riff Raff, The Navigator

Alynda Lee Segarra’s latest album is her most fully-realized work to date, part concept album, part socio-political masterwork, part quarter-life identity crisis, part coming-of-age autobiography. Taken as a whole, The Navigator is a powerful opus that provided a guiding light of collective persistence in a year when that message felt more urgent than ever. Segarra rides a fresh hybrid of New-Wave, disco-punk, salsa, folk, and doo-wop in one of 2017’s greatest musical fusions. The album’s centerpiece, “Pa’lante” is a chilling declaration that encapsulates everything the New Orleans songwriter has been working towards artistically over the past ten years. — JONATHAN BERNSTEIN

13. Julien Baker, Turn Out The Lights

“When I turn out the lights,” Julien Baker sings on her stunning second album, “there’s no one left between myself and me.” Baker’s latest offering penetrates deeper than her piercing 2015 debut Sprained Ankle, delving headfirst into questions of spiritual and mental health with Baker’s newfound attention to songcraft and wordplay. The 22-year-old songwriter also paid more attention to production choices this time, using expanded tools like pianos, strings, and double-tracked vocals to seamlessly match form and content on this emotionally wrenching release, a profound statement that preaches the relentless pursuit of joy in a world overrun by pain. — JONATHAN BERNSTEIN

12. John Moreland, Big Bad Luv

There’s always an element of apprehension when an artist morphs and evolves beyond the way we’ve come to know and love them –- and for John Moreland, and his two albums of raw, guttural heartbreak –- that meant embracing a sound bigger than he’d broached before. And it also meant letting a few cracks of light in, amongst the internal unrest he so vulnerably has shared on songs like “You Don’t Care Enough For Me To Cry” off High On Tulsa Heat. And thus was born Big Bag Luv, an album that finds a more rocking Moreland, tapping into not only the emotive power of his voice but in chugging percussion and lyrical piano riffs –- but never straying too far from where he began. “There’s a neon sign that says ‘big bad luv,” Moreland sings on the swampy rock of the album’s opener “Sallisaw Blues.” “And a noose hanging down from the heavens above.” Moreland’s moved on from eternal sadness, but he still sees danger and desolation dangling overhead: and that’s what makes this progression so potent. — MARISSA MOSS

11. LCD Soundsystem, American Dream

Without a doubt, LCD Soundsystem delivered one of the best live shows in Nashville in 2017. We’d caught them earlier in the summer at Forecastle Fest, amid Louisville’s oppressive heat, and that show was a high-water mark of the weekend. But James Murphy and co.’s new album, American Dream, their first in six years, is more than just fodder for an exemplary live show — it’s a work of art unto itself, a masterly produced treatise on 21st-century ennui and absurdity, delivered with humor and conviction. — CAINE O’REAR

10. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.

For a half-decade Kendrick Lamar’s steadily been making a convincing case for being the best rapper of the 21st century — or at least the ‘10s. DAMN. is simply further evidence, a dizzying, thrilling and thought-provoking ride through the triumphs and conflicts of a talent that never stops moving. Kendrick isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, both celebrating and mourning a history of Black culture on “DNA.” while getting comfortable in his position at the top on “HUMBLE.” And though the production is considerably more restrained than the psychedelic jazz arrangements of 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly, DAMN. sounds consistently magnificent. He couldn’t have picked a better title. — JEFF TERICH 

9. Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom Highway

Folk, jazz, blues and mountain music conjoin in Giddens’ second solo stab away from the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Her debut featured covers of songs written by women, but on Freedom Highway, she writes or co-composes all but two of the ten tunes. The Staple Singers’ title track, a duet with tour mate Bhi Bhiman, is a synopsis of a set that focuses on struggles — in love, social injustice and life in general — generally faced by minorities. Giddens’ striking, instantly recognizable voice is the sound of strength, determination and a fight-the-power attitude that makes this a galvanizing listening experience. — HAL HOROWITZ

8. St. Vincent, MASSEDUCTION

For a minute it looked like Annie Clark was indulging in a Lady Gaga-style post-modern art project: fake press conferences, garish colors, disembodied legs and bright-pink thongs. This strange sensory experience comprises a necessary part of St. Vincent 5.0 wherein vanity, indulgence and excess are the norm. Clark navigates this modern hellscape through upbeat synth textures and a self-awareness that finds her critiques aimed as much inward as they are to society at large. When she shakes off the plastic exterior, as on standout “New York,” the result is some of her most affecting work yet. But even when piling on the effects on a track like “Fear the Future,” it’s still one hell of a spectacle. — JEFF TERICH

7. Robert Plant, Carry Fire

Led Zeppelin’s golden-haired frontman could retire without having to release another album or tour to audiences hungry to hear the occasional rearranged gem from his old band. Instead he pushes boundaries, creating daring new music that’s as bold, incisive and genre-pushing as anything in his catalog. Folk, rock, organic electronics and world sounds are stirred into a fertile stew that’s as dangerous and sizzling as the album’s title. He also dips into politics but balances that with a classy, edgy and inspirational set, raising the bar on what aging classic rockers can, and should, aspire to. — HAL HOROWITZ  

 

6. The National, Sleep Well Beast 

Their consistency is such that they sometimes get taken for granted, but Sleep Well Beast insists that you regard The National as if they were new kids on the block. The experimental ephemera floating about some of the songs lends the familiar elements, like Bryan Devendorf’s herky-jerky drums and Bryce Dessner’s live-wire guitar, even more impact. And singer Matt Berninger’s world-weary stream of consciousness is equally at home in this milieu, whether he’s displaying punkish energy (“Turtleneck”), brooding intensity (“The Day I Die”) or despairing heartache (“Guilty Party.”) Some exciting deviations from formula, but overall the same old excellence. — JIM BEVIGLIA

5. JD McPherson, Undivided Heart And Soul

Over the past five years, JD McPherson has emerged as a thrilling ’50s stylist with a modern sense of pop-craft and genre fusion. On his tour-de-force 2017 release, the Oklahoma singer finetunes his blend of blues boogie, r&b, rockabilly, and alt-rock that would make Jack White, Pokey LaFarge and the Black Keys all proud. The result is the defining visceral record of his career, with slow-aching ballads like “Hunting For Sugar” balancing out fast-paced barnburners like “On the Lips” and “Under the Spell of City Lights.” On Undivided, McPherson proved he’s one of roots music’s most exciting young revivalists. — JONATHAN BERNSTEIN

4. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Soul Of A Woman

The hardest working woman in show business? Sharon Jones fit that bill as she shook, shimmied and bumped across stages, at least until the cancer she fought for years finally took its toll in late 2016. But not before the irrepressible singer laid down tracks for her final album, released posthumously nearly a year after her passing. The appropriately titled disc expands her vision into more string and orchestrated territory, yet still crackles with the power and exuberance Jones brought to everything she touched. It’s a fitting final bow from one of contemporary soul music’s most daring, dynamic and unforgettable artists. — HAL HOROWITZ    

3. Angaleena Presley, Wrangled

Angaleena Presely doesn’t open her sophomore solo album with a message of empowerment: instead, she offers the cold, hard reality. “Dreams don’t come true,” she sings on the track written with her Pistol Annies bandmates Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe. She’s right. Dreams don’t come true, but they’re also complex, morphing things — and the very nature of our failures and aspirations are what she explores on the biting Wrangled, which is both funny and heartbreaking all at once. And though the Nashville Machine is the thematic target, particularly on tracks like “Outlaw,” “Country” and “High School,” it’s a record for anyone who spends a life beating upstream in search of better waters — and Presley’s no floater. Bejeweled with “Cheer Up Little Darling” – Guy Clark’s last co-write – Wrangled may not play the Music Row game. But if country music’s about honesty, then there’s nothing more country out this year. — MARISSA MOSS

2. Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound

Had Jason Isbell been born a bit sooner, The Nashville Sound would have been his Hard Promises or The River, that album where the Top 20 hits catch up with the critical acclaim. As it is, he’ll have to settle for it being his most accessible album, with his keen insight and writerly turns of phrases fitting snugly into invigorating rockers like “Molotov” and “Hope The High Road.” Once those tracks hook you, you dig deeper and find hushed moments like “If We Were Vampires” and “Chaos And Clothes” leaving equally indelible impressions. The era’s finest songwriter does it again. — JIM BEVIGLIA

1. Margo Price, All American Made

“You say that we live in the land of the free,” sings Margo Price on All American Mades cutting assault on wage inequity, “Pay Gap.” “Well, sometimes that bell don’t ring true.” 2017 was a year of instability — of political unrest, of protest and a feeling that the very fibers of what it means to be an American were in jeopardy. And Price, a songwriter with boundless empathy, introspection and bite, was a salve on that bitter wound. Her sophomore effort for Third Man Records, All American Made was recorded at Sam Phillips in Memphis with co-writing from her husband Jeremy Ivey and vocals from the McCrary Sisters, and though Price’s profile has only risen since her breakthrough debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, she uses her voice to feel more connected to the plight of the common man and woman, not less. Second albums often feel safe — you want to keep and cradle the fans you carefully cultivated. Price doesn’t play that game. Instead, she doubles down on her beliefs, sonic ambitions and lyrical explorations, and comes out with a jackpot. — MARISSA MOSS