Exclaim!'s Top 10 Folk and Country Albums

Best of 2017

BY Exclaim! StaffPublished Dec 4, 2017

Last week, we began the annual rollout of our genre-specific album lists for the Best of 2017, including the Top 20 Pop & Rock Albums, our Top 10 Soul and R&B Albums and the Top 10 Metal and Hardcore Albums of the Year. Today, we start another week of lists detailing the best records of 2017, by genre. Below, we begin by counting down the best folk, blues and country albums of 2017.

Top 10 Folk and Country Albums of 2017:  
10. Julie Byrne
Not Even Happiness
(Ba Da Bing!)

American singer-songwriter Julie Byrne more than delivers on the promise of her raw, charming debut with the stunning Not Even Happiness. Her nimble, highly melodic finger picking is refined, the husky caress of her beautiful voice smoothly assured and the production clean and deliberate, with tastefully sparse supportive arrangements. Rooted in ruminations on humanity's connection to nature and deep, meditative self-reflection, Byrne's songs radiate a wistful sadness tempered by softly soaring beauty, giving voice to the lonely splendour of existence.
Byrne is a rare talent that should grow to stand alongside the lauded likes of Joni Mitchell and Laura Marling. Not Even Happiness marks the emergence of one of the great folk artists of our time, or perhaps any time.
Scott A. Gray
9. Margo Price
All American Made
(Third Man)

All American Made, the sophomore album by alt-country rising star Margo Price, conveys the struggles and disposition of Middle America with clarity, elegance, grit and grooves.
On the solemn, heart-wrenching title track, Price effortlessly weaves social commentary about the military-industrial complex and laments to bygone heroes like Tom Petty into an anthem for the disenfranchised and disillusioned. Powerful as that macro view is, she captures those themes all the more effectively through intimate metaphors and microcosms — from "Pay Gap," a waltzing first person account of a woman working her "fingers to the bone" to the triumphantly dogged, punchy "A Little Pain."
Americana fans can find solace in Price's fearlessly vulnerable masterpiece.
Kyle Mullin
8. Richard Dawson
(Weird World)

Richard Dawson has cobbled together a freak folk masterpiece for his sixth LP, on which he gives the subject of peasantry a romanticized treatment as a historical and cultural moment rather than a mere category of class. His first-person lyrical caricatures and baroque melodies come across as immersive without being quaint or patronizing, and he captures the ethos of a far bygone time period with a skill rivalled only by Joanna Newsom's most realized work.
The adventurous songwriting and intimate recording quality of Peasant thrust the listener through the fourth wall and into the fray, where frets buzz and boots stomp. It's nearly impossible to resist chiming in with Dawson and company's gang vocals when they reach their joyous apexes.
Cole Firth
7. The Barr Brothers
Queens of the Breakers
(Secret City)

Following the success of their eponymous debut album and 2014's Sleeping Operator, the Barr Brothers' had an easy opportunity to settle into a comfortable roots music pigeonhole and rest forevermore on their laurels. Luckily for us, the Montreal-based band pursued much more on third LP Queens of the Breakers.
By far the band's most ambitious album to date, Breakers' songs boast a superior quality in production. "Hideous Glorious" and the title track both emit a heartland rock vibrancy that elicits a nostalgic response from first-time listeners. The work feels warmly familiar in tone and stimulating in execution, with the band taking advantage of every cut, offering all things Americana — from swamp blues on "Kompromat" to homesick folk on "Song That I Heard." 
Mackenzie Herd
6. The Sadies
Northern Passages
(Dine Alone)

It remains a mystery of Roswellian proportions that the Sadies have not broken out to a bigger audience, but for those in the know, they're one of the best and most original bands around. Undaunted, they continue to release albums of a consistently high quality, and Northern Passages is one of their very best.
The tender balladry of opener "Riverview Fog," addressed to Rick White, gives way to the full-blooded romps and psychedelic country tunes at which they are true masters. The collaboration with Kurt Vile is a gem, and the album is dud-free. It's true that no recording can quite capture their dynamic energy live, but this one remains a winner.
Kerry Doole

5. Nicole Atkins
Goodnight Rhonda Lee
(Single Lock Records)

Goodnight Rhonda Lee evokes the feel of a classic '60s pop album drenched in country, rock and soul, in the vein of Dusty Springfield, Peggy Lee and Patsy Cline — with a light Lee Hazlewood haze. Recorded live-to-tape over the course of five short days, Nicole Atkins' fourth album captures the brilliant singer-songwriter in a period of personal flux; she moved from her hometown near Asbury Park all the way down to Nashville while coming to grips with her father's cancer diagnosis and her own struggle for sobriety.
Sometime thereabouts, her buddy Chris Isaak advised her to push toward songs that feature her greatest assets: her rich, classic voice and revelatory lyrics. On Goodnight Rhonda Lee, she did just that.
Alan Ranta
4. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
The Nashville Sound

Was Jason Isbell kidding when he decided to call his new LP The Nashville Sound? It certainly sounds nothing like the slick, twangy pop-rock being passed off as country in that increasingly infamous hit-making locale.
Instead, Isbell harkens back to the outlaw glory days of his genre, and even rootsier niches like bluegrass on the acoustic, soothingly upbeat The Nashville Sound closing track "Something to Love." He also rocks harder than Lynyrd Skynyrd on tracks like "Cumberland Gap" and "Anxiety," while grooving deeper than CCR on "Tupelo" thanks to his band the 400 Unit backing him up here.
Nashville should be listening carefully to Isbell's sound.
Kyle Mullin
3. Laura Marling
Semper Femina
(More Alarming Records/Kobalt Music Recordings)

In this garbage-fire year, Laura Marling's sixth album, Semper Femina, is a safe space. Amidst warmly intricate, folk-tinged instrumentation, Marling celebrates and explores femininity and friendship with unremitting curiosity and love.
On tracks like "The Valley" and "Nouel," Marling admires her friends; on the standout "Wild Fire," she is her own muse; and on the album closer "Nothing Not Nearly," Marling offers an apt review of 2017: "The only thing I learned in a year where I didn't smile once (not really) is: nothing matters more than love." It all makes for some of the finest songwriting of the year.
Laura Stanley
2. Mount Eerie
A Crow Looked at Me
(P.W. Elverum & Sun)

Times of crisis force us to re-evaluate what's important. To Mount Eerie's Phil Elverum, in the wake of his long-time partner Geneviève's passing, that meant turning what were once his private, loving thoughts into songs that, as he writes on his Bandcamp, "multiply my voice saying that I love her. I want it known."
The resulting album, A Crow Looked at Me, is a gorgeous but difficult listen, an empathetic balm for anyone grieving but also a stark reminder to any listener that while our love may last forever, life itself is short — or, as Elverum puts it succinctly in the opening line here: "death is real."
Stephen Carlick
1. The Weather Station
The Weather Station

On astonishing artistic statement The Weather Station, Tamara Lindeman homes in on her rebellious core to express some of the finest musical sentiments Canada has conjured. A mood and scene-setter, Lindeman delves into the complexity of interpersonal relationships and, in particular, the tricks and treachery of soul mate communication. It's not always easy, and neither is the Weather Station.
Often citing the writing of Steven Lambke, like he's a mentor, Lindeman approaches language like a dancing partner but also like a foe. Often, as on the flurry of imagery that propels "Thirty" or "Kept it All to Myself," she lets loose emotive lyrical torrents that haunt the listener.
Beyond her gift for phrasing and alluring voice, Lindeman also shows off an ear for arrangements and production here. The musicality is uniquely orchestral and sophisticated; the back-up vocalists are utilized with subtle strength. This is the Weather Station, ascending with the grace of a heron to full flight.
Vish Khanna

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