Music

The 17 Best Southern Albums of 2017

This year has been a fruitful one for Southern music—and we’ve got the record collection to prove it. Rhiannon Giddens pulled from centuries of history for a release that firmly belongs in the present. Gregg Allman delivered a gripping farewell. Margo Price reminded us of country music’s heart, and Curtis Harding imbued new energy into old-school soul.

As we get ready to say goodbye to 2017, we’re celebrating seventeen of the year’s best albums. They span a range of genres, with sounds that harken back to decades past and point toward the future. And though we may not have been able to include every worthy Southern release, the selections encompass both familiar names as well as some under-the-radar gems that deserved more attention. We hope you’ll discover something new, and here’s to more great Southern music in 2018. Happy listening.

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All American Made
Margo Price

Margo Price’s 2016 debut, Midwestern Farmer’s Daughter, served as her warts-and-all memoir. On her second album, she plants a flag for the common man (and woman). From Price’s viewpoint, a lot of people are getting screwed: a family ruthlessly gamed by the system on the title track, or women still fighting for equality on “Pay Gap.” Her band offers her a richer sonic foundation, and a handful of songs swell with dramatic guitar work along with some soul and gospel flourishes (courtesy of the McCrary Sisters). Price is a rare talent with razor-sharp lyrics, a keen sense of melody, and abundant empathy. Good thing she’s only getting started.

Essential tracks: “Pay Gap” and the aching duet with Willie Nelson, “Learning to Lose.”

Southern Blood
Gregg Allman

Southern Blood is Gregg Allman’s last musical will and testament, a spellbinding attempt by the late icon to tie up loose ends, make peace, and move on after his valiant struggle with cancer. Recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals (where his brother, Duane, was once a session player), the album opens with the soaring lament “My Only True Friend;” tackles covers of songs by Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and Johnny Jenkins; and concludes with the benediction of “Song for Adam,” a poignant duet with longtime pal Jackson Browne. Allman’s gravelly voice conveys every creak and emotion of his 69 years, and Southern Blood will send shivers down the spine of everyone who was touched by the man and his music.

Essential tracks: “My Only True Friend” and the haunting fuzzy crawl of Jenkins’ “Blind Bats and Swamp Rats.”

Turn Out the Lights
Julien Baker

On her nervy 2015 debut, Sprained Ankle, Julien Baker wrestled with the demons of mental illness and substance abuse, a collection of songs that begged the question: “Is she OK?” Don’t worry, the 22-year-old Memphis native is just fine. Turn Out the Lights is a haunting collection of songs that are still filled with raw elbows but gurgle with feelings of defiance and spiritual awakening. A wise-beyond-her-years singer, Baker supplants the rawness of Sprained Ankle with shimmery guitars and delicate piano while wringing every bit of emotion out of her lyrics.

Essential tracks: The whisper-to-a-scream title track and the defiant “Sour Breath.”

Roll and Tumble
R.L. Boyce

A protégé of Mississippi Fred McDowell, R.L. Boyce is one of the last of the true Hill Country bluesmen, a line that includes McDowell, R.L. Burnside, and Junior Kimbrough. His free-spirit and personality ooze throughout the album’s ten songs, filled with plenty of jokes and cackling laughter. And Boyce isn’t shy about showing his cards early: The opening cut, “R.L.’s Boogie,” is a nine-minute master class in the Hill Country blues’ hypnotic sound.

Essential tracks: “R.L.’s Boogie” and the humid, slow groove of “Been Around the World.”

Freedom Highway
Rhiannon Giddens

Any album that shares a title with a Staples Singers civil rights anthem has a lot to live up to, and Freedom Highway, from MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner Rhiannon Giddens, approaches the challenge masterfully. The opener, “At the Purchaser’s Option,” takes its name—and its narrator—from a 19th century advertisement for a female slave. Giddens’s take on “Birmingham Sunday” is a chilling reminder of more recent atrocities, and up-tempo horns belie a grim warning about police brutality on “Better Get It Right the First Time.” But Freedom Highway is hopeful, too, from the romantic New Orleans sound on “The Love We Almost Had” to the hymn-like “We Could Fly.” It’s essential listening for our time.

Essential Tracks: “At the Purchaser’s Option” and the understated picking of “The Angels Laid Him Away.”

Face Your Fear
Curtis Harding

The Michigan-born singer Curtis Harding got his start traveling with his mother Dorothy’s gospel group, eventually settling down in Atlanta and singing back-up for artists including Cee-Lo Green. But if his sophomore release, Face Your Fear, is any indication, Harding’s true calling is as a frontman. The album undeniably draws inspiration from ’70s soul, and Harding’s distinctive falsetto shines on songs like “On and On” and “Need Your Love.” Meanwhile, tracks like “Go As You Are” and “Dream Girl” integrate cosmic sounds, too, rendering the album both a nod to soul icons past and an embrace of music’s genre-blind future.

Essential Tracks: “On and On” and the mellow post-breakup jam “Ghost of You.”

Puxico
Natalie Hemby

An album named after a tiny town in Missouri, with songs about tradition and gossip, could easily drift into clichéd territory. Not for Natalie Hemby, who has made a career in shaking up those narratives, penning hits for the likes of Miranda Lambert and Little Big Town in the process. The secret is in the details: Hemby plucks small moments, like summers working the IGA checkout, or holding hands at the homecoming parade, and uses them to conjure a deeper magic.

Essential Tracks: The album’s ambling opener, “Time-Honored Tradition,” and the nostalgia-tinged “Lovers on Display.”

Trinity Lane
Lilly Hiatt

Produced by Shovels & Rope’s Michael Trent, Trinity Lane is garage rock with twang—heavy on guitar and energetic in pace. But Lilly Hiatt’s vulnerable lyrics and gripping voice temper the album’s rougher edges and make her an endearing narrator. “I spent all those nights feeling so guilty for letting you near the ugliest parts of me,” she sings on “Everything I Had,” an anthem that tackles sexism, insecurity, and heartache. “I think it’s time I stop feeling stupid for that.” Hear, hear.

Essential Tracks: “Everything I Had” and the heartbreaker “All Kinds of People.”

The Nashville Sound
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit

“One of my beliefs is that I have to talk about my beliefs,” Jason Isbell told Garden & Gun in an interview a couple of months before the release of The Nashville Sound, a fearless album that after a couple of records’ absence gives equal billing to Isbell’s sizzling backup outfit, the 400 Unit. The title certainly makes a bold statement, but Isbell delivers with roaring rock songs combined with tender moments, each steeped in the power of his literary wit and keen observations.

Essential tracks: “White Man’s World,” a tense examination of white privilege, and “If We Were Vampires,” a powerful duet about mortality with his wife, Amanda Shires.

The Order of Time
Valerie June

Valerie June is a savvy vocal contortionist, with a Memphis drawl that can both coo and wail. The singing fireworks match The Order of Time’s eclectic, superb genre-bending songs, which range from spaced-out country to slow-building soul numbers along with a dash of good old gut-bucket blues. It’s an intoxicating mix from one of the South’s rising talents.

Essential tracks: The rolling and tumbling “Shakedown” and the simmering slow jam “The Front Door.”

Not Dark Yet
Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer

Although they’ve had successful music careers independently, Not Dark Yet marked the first collaboration between sisters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer, and the result—which is largely a covers album—was certainly worth the wait. Tracks like the Killers’ “My List” and Nirvana’s “Lithium” soar with the sisters’ powerful harmonies, and new interpretations of songs by Jessi Colter, Merle Haggard, and Bob Dylan will certainly appeal to lovers of traditional Americana. The sisters’ songwriting prowess shines through, too. A co-written original, “Is It Too Much,” closes out the album with a question: “No one else hears the rain fall. No one else hears the ghosts at all. Is it too much to carry in your heart?”

Essential Tracks: “My List” and the the Louvin Brothers classic “Every Time You Leave.”

Undivided Heart & Soul
JD McPherson

An Oklahoma native, JD McPherson moved to Nashville before the recording of his excellent third album, and once settled, he picked up some serious rock chops to add to his bag of 1950s roots music tricks. Sounding like they belong at a sock hop at the Devil’s joint, songs like “Lucky Penny” and “Desperate Love” have his searing tenor riding a wave of wobbly guitar fuzz. McPherson also demonstrates he’s a serious crooner on the album’s slow jams, with a voice capable of breaking hearts all the way back to Oklahoma.

Essential tracks: “Lucky Penny” and the waltz-like slow burner “Hunting for Sugar.”

Big Bad Luv
John Moreland

Like Julien Baker, John Moreland has plumbed some dark recesses on his first three albums. He’s still fearlessly vulnerable, but hope also shines through on his transcendent fourth effort, Big Bad Luv. The sound is also fuller, with turned-up guitars and driving percussion backing his deep baritone voice and spot-on lyrics.
Essential tracks: The chugging “Sallisaw Blue” and the bluesy “Ain’t We Gold.”

 

After Laughter
Paramore

This Nashville band made its name on Music City’s underground punk scene, and the group’s thirteen-year career has been riddled with drama (mainly due to various lineup changes). On Paramore’s fifth and best album, After Laughter, the band continues to evolve, leaving the roaring guitars for a funky ‘80s New Wave vibe. The musical shift is a winsome change driven by lead singer Hayley Williams’s dynamic charisma. She’s a consummate show woman whose bubbly voice masks heady lyrics.

Essential tracks: The Talking Heads funk of “Hard Times” and the seething “Idle Worship.”

You Don’t Own Me Anymore
The Secret Sisters

Anything from Muscle Shoals sisters Laura and Lydia Rogers is sure to stand out for its breathtaking harmonies. But on the Brandi Carlile-produced You Don’t Own Me Anymore, the Secret Sisters’ expert vocals are matched with equally deft songwriting. Harrowing murder ballad “Mississippi” surprises by taking the killer’s point of view, while “Kathy’s Song” is a heartfelt message to a faraway lover. The duo says they almost called it quits on music; we’re sure glad they persevered.

Essential Tracks: “Mississippi” and the catchy-yet-regretful “He’s Fine.”

ism
Steelism

If you’ve listened to much music out of Nashville in the last few years, Spencer Cullum Jr. and Jeremy Fetzer have probably had a hand in it. The duo met playing back-up for Caitlin Rose and have worked with everyone from Andrew Combs to Miranda Lambert. Steelism is where their own talents take center stage. The result is a largely instrumental catalog that sounds like the soundtrack to a rollicking road trips film or a trippy surf movie. The few vocals on ism, the pair’s sophomore release, come from talented fellow Nashvillians: Ruby Amanfu soars on “Roulette,” Andrew Combs and Jessie Baylin pair up for a sweet duet on “Lonely Game,” and Tristen’s ethereal vocals glow on the groovy “Shake Your Heel.”

Essential Tracks: “Lonely Game” and the sweeping instrumental opener “Re-Member.”

The Lonely, the Lonesome, and the Gone
Lee Ann Womack

For her ninth album, Lee Ann Womack went back in time, to her own Texas roots and to the country music icons that came before her. Prioritizing classic sounds and strong lyrical storytelling, The Lonely, the Lonesome, and the Gone channels Tammy Wynette and Charley Pride on countrypolitan tracks like “Hollywood,” and does George Jones justice on a cover of “Take the Devil Out of Me”—a song that was recorded for the first time in the same room at SugarHill Studios where Womack sang it decades later.

Essential Tracks: The buoyant foot tapper “End of the End of the World” and the ominous album opener “All the Trouble.”