After Ballerini’s catchy debut record, Unapologetically is a wonderful surprise. The album isn’t country in the traditional sense of the word, but the lyrical improvement from Ballerini’s first record to this one is striking. On songs like “Graveyard” and ‘Machine Heart,” she explores the complexity of love, and she reminiscences on “High School.” Ballerini tells her story, from heartbreak to happiness.
Key tracks: “Graveyard,” “End of the World”
Angaleena Presley’s album is unapologetically her in a way that Kelsea Ballerini never will be. Presley sings about failure of love in “Mama I Tried" and the harsh realities of the music business in “Dreams Don’t Come True." But it’s not hopeless, it’s just honest. She’s given up, but only in trying to be like everyone else. She’s now moving forward, but on her terms. No one else’s.
Key tracks: “Mama I Tried,” “Dreams Don’t Come True”
Price has never been one to shy away from politics in her music. It makes her stand out from the countless artists that ardently refuse to be political. But what Price gets that those artists don’t understand is, if you’re writing about real life, you should be writing about real life issues. Besides the content, Price continues to build on her classic country sound on All American Made, while solidifying her place as a rising opinionated traditionalist in the country music sphere.
Key tracks: “Pay Gap,” “Weakness”
The listener begins Gilded expecting an alt-country/pop rock record based on the opener, "Aden," and the visuals. But deeper in the album, you find a treasure trove of traditional country songs and incredibly written lyrics. The lyric that kicks off the record, "I grew up my father's daughter / he said don't take no shit from no one" is only the beginning of the emotional journey of this dark, but beautiful record.
Key tracks: “Bridges,” “Motorcycle”
In 2005, the late Joey Feek recorded an album of solo material that was never released. After her tragic passing in 2016, her husband Rory decided to work on releasing the album that she had recorded all of those years ago. That album is If Not For You, and it’s a beautiful picture of Feek’s life and her lovely perspective on the world. Feek’s memory is preserved so beautifully in this excellent record.
Key tracks: “Strong Enough to Cry,” “Nothing to Remember”
We’ve been hearing Liz Rose’s songwriting on country radio since 2003. But 2017 was the first time we’ve heard Liz Rose on her own. Swimming Alone is Rose’s first record, and it’s full of songs that tell incredibly personal stories. The album feels like a diary, with each song telling a specific story about a specific moment in Rose’s life. These are Rose’s stories, and no one else could have told them better than she does on this record.
Key tracks: “Swimming Alone,” “Grocery Money”
There is no one who did country pop better in 2017 than Lauren Alaina. After the 6 year lull between her debut record and this one, it seemed logical that she would go pop, because she has the voice for it. But we were all pleasantly surprised by how traditional she went at moments on this record. The album’s pop-country sound, with emphasis on the country, as well as the uber-personal lyrics, really jump-started Alaina's career again. She found her voice on this record.
Key tracks: “Three,” “Doin’ Fine”
While Natalie Hemby is known for being an incredible songwriter, she’s also amazing at making records. On Puxico, released at the beginning of 2017, Hemby tells the story of her grandfather’s hometown of Puxico, IL. It’s this year’s Big Day in a Small Town, with a little more specificity and a little less Brandy Clark-style sass. This isn’t a record of love songs, but rather a record of life songs.
Key tracks: “Cairo, IL,” “Time Honored Tradition”
2016 was her daughter Aubrie Sellers’s year, and this year is Lee Ann Womack’s year. Despite the gloomy title of the record, this isn’t a gloomy record. The album is full of songs meant to provide hope to those people living in the depths of lonely. On this record, Womack acknowledges the troubles of life, but also provides solace to people struggling.
Key tracks: “Mama Lost Her Smile,” “Shine on Rainy Day”
Caroline Spence is an independent artist. No major label backing, no major songwriting cuts for country superstars, just an incredible voice and a knack for writing songs. Her second record Spades & Roses is one of the most cohesive and well-rounded albums of the year. The topics of the songs range from heartbreak to feminism to dealing with the everyday struggles of life, making this album a perfect representation of real life.
Key tracks: “Softball,” “All the Beds I’ve Made”