21 Savage: “ISSA Album”
Roots: Atlanta. Home: Atlanta.
At age 25, Shayaa Bin Abraham-Joseph — aka 21 Savage — has lived a life you don’t want to live. He watched his best friend die in a shooting on his birthday. The laptop he made his first music on was pierced by a bullet in a drive-by. And he winds up on this list with his second album because his unflinching recounting of those memories puts him in the upper echelon of the sub-genre known as trap music. Yes, issa album, but also, issa nightmare trip into a part of our society we don’t like to look at, unless we have to because we live there. And if you lived there, you might also rap, “I see dead bodies when I close my eyes.”
Our favorite track: “Close My Eyes”
The Hernies: “If You Can't Think, Then You Cannot Be Afraid of the Consequences of Your Actions”
Roots: Athens, Georgia. Home: Athens.
The young four-piece rock band truly represents the second generation of the early-1980s Athens music scene, inhabited as it is by the children both of David Barbe of Sugar and Mercyland and Greg Reece of the Primates. This record is full of popalicious hooks and delightful lyrics from the first song onward.
Our favorite track: “Padawan of Your Love”
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit: “The Nashville Sound”
Roots: Green Hill, Alabama. Home: Nashville.
We clearly don’t love this record quite as much as our readers, who placed “The Nashville Sound” firmly at No. 1 in our first readers’ poll this year. But to our ears, the album falls short of the standards Isbell himself set with “Southeastern” and “Something More Than Free.” But it certainly made us proud to see “The Nashville Sound” hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts with absolutely no help from country radio. Isbell and others are leading a movement to change that Nashville sound, even if Nashville doesn’t want it.
Our favorite track: “Tupelo”
Roots: Atlanta. Home: Atlanta.
Like it or not, the sound of Nayvadius Wilburn, aka Future, is the sound of hip-hop in 2017. He emerged from Atlanta’s legendary Dungeon Family collective and is a cousin to Rico Wade of Organized Noize, the production trio that put Southern hip-hop on the map in the early ’90s. Future ruled the Billboard charts this year like the Beatles did in 1965. “HNDRXX” debuted at No. 1, knocking his own, self-titled “Future,” which he had released one week earlier, out of the top spot.
Our favorite track: “Solo”
Lilly Hiatt: “Trinity Lane”
Roots: Nashville. Home: Nashville.
In 1987, when he was 35, Lilly Hiatt’s father, the now legendary songwriter John Hiatt, released the album that cemented his place as a master. It was called “Bring the Family,” and its best song, “Your Dad Did,” contained this lyric: “And the Mrs. wears her robe slightly undone / As your daughter dumps her oatmeal on your son.” The 3-year-old oatmeal dumper in question was Lilly. Now, she’s 32. On “Trinity Lane,” she finds her own voice, full of twang, fury, and relentless honesty. Produced by Shovels & Rope’s Michael Trent, the album rocks hard as Hiatt delivers lines like, “‘You women go crazy’ / That’s what you fuckers say / For loving someone the right way / Let me tell ya something, I’ve had it up to here with that.”
Our favorite track: “Trinity Lane”
Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires: “Youth Detention (Nail My Feet Down to the Southside of Town)”
Roots: Birmingham. Home: Birmingham/Atlanta.
The Glory Fires return after their 2014 masterpiece, “Dereconstructed,” with a furious two-album set of unreconstructed Alabama punk rock. If you’re a fan of slamming rock and roll, we recommend a drive down a two-lane country road with “Youth Detention” cranked way up. But if you want to find this record’s true brilliance, you need some time on the couch with the lyric, where you find Bains working out his frustrations with the state of the South and standing for the power of music to alter the spirits of the young. “Don’t tell me it’s only rock and roll,” he sings, “when I’ve seen it wrestle truths from noise.” This album reminds me repeatedly of Hüsker Dü’s monumental 1984 set, “Zen Arcade.” For punk rockers of my generation, that’s the highest possible compliment.
Our favorite track: “Sweet Disorder”
Billy Strings: “Turmoil & Tinfoil”
Roots: Ionia, Michigan. Home: Nashville.
William Apostol, 25, is a third-generation bluegrass picker whose guitar skills, even at his young age, are already in Doc Watson territory. And indeed, this is a bluegrass album, solidly traditional in its instrumentation. But in no other way is “Turmoil & Tinfoil” a typical bluegrass record. First off, Apostol writes all the songs himself. You’ll find no bluegrass standards here, and the lyrical content is more akin to punk rock. “You know I don’t want your opinion,” he sings. “I just wanna blow out your brains.” And then, at the album’s end, when you least expect it, Apostol throws out an original called “These Memories of You” that you’ll swear you heard on an old Stanley Brothers record. Just to show us that he can. Young Billy Strings is a major talent.
Our favorite track: “Meet Me at the Creek”
Chris Stapleton: “From A Room, Vols. 1 & 2”
Roots: Paintsville, Kentucky. Home: Nashville.
The first thing you need to understand about Stapleton’s 2017 output is that the title is not meant to imply just any old room. Instead, he’s referring to the “A Room,” or Nashville’s legendary RCA Studio A, where both these albums, released about six months apart, were recorded. Throughout both, Stapleton chooses cover songs that demonstrate his masterful blending of hard country with R&B — standouts like Stax writer Homer Banks’ “Friendship.” But to our ears, Stapleton saved the best original songs for Vol. 2. His “Drunkard’s Prayer” will rip out your heart: “I wish that I could go to church / But I’m too ashamed of me / I hate the fact it takes a bottle / To get me on my knees.” In the piteous-alcoholic slice of country music, it’s right up there with the Louvin Brothers’ classic “Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea.”
Our favorite track: “Midnight Train to Memphis”
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah: “The Centennial Trilogy: Ruler Rebel / Diaspora / The Emancipation Procrastination”
Roots: New Orleans. Home: New Orleans.
It seems that every quarter century or so, a trumpeter emerges from the Crescent City to make a major imprint on jazz. The last time around, it was Wynton Marsalis, whose primary goal seemed the preservation of classic jazz compositions and styles. This time, we think it’s Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, and he will be the one to push jazz toward a stunning future. This trilogy of albums, each released in rapid succession this summer, couples jazz instrumentation with the beats of trap music and creates something we’ve never heard before — and can’t wait to hear more of.
Our favorite track: “New Orleanian Love Song II”
Big Boi: “Boomiverse”
Roots: West Savannah. Home: Atlanta.
Of course, we all keep hoping for that next Outkast release that may not ever come, but that doesn’t weaken the power of Big Boi’s latest solo album. With production duties handled mostly by his Dungeon Family crew mates, Organized Noize, this record will feel like home to any Southerner who grew up on the ’Kast. Big’s rapidfire flow is as fresh as ever.
Our favorite track: “All Night”
Mavis Staples: “If All I Was Was Black”
Roots: Chicago. Home: Chicago. Absolute and total honorary Southerner.
It’s a damned shame that Mavis Staples, at age 78, still has to sing songs that keep us marching on, looking ever forward down the “freedom highway,” as her Mississippi-born Pops called it. But God knows we still need her. Teaming up with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who wrote or co-wrote with Staples every song the album, she delivers once again. And as always, she focused on the work at hand. “We've got no time for crying / We've got work to do / We've got no time for tears / We've got work to do / People are dying / Bullets are flying.” I called our old friend Kelly Hogan, a Southern woman with an angelic voice who decamped for Chicago 20 years ago. She sings background vocals on this album. I asked her what it was like. “I always say she's the sun,” Hogan told me. “Mavis is the sun. There is some sort of inner power coming out of her.” We are blessed, in these troubled times, to still have Mavis’ unflinching spirit.
Our favorite track: “Peaceful Dream”
Margo Price: “All American Made”
Roots: Aledo, Illinois. Home: Nashville.
Margo Price made a big splash with her “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter” album last year, which debuted in the Top 10 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart. With “All American Made,” she steps fully into her persona as a bold woman willing to challenge Nashville’s image of what a female country star is supposed to be. Songs like “Pay Gap” are unlikely to find favor among country-radio programmers: “We are all the same in the eyes of God / But in the eyes of rich white men / No more than a maid to be owned like a dog / A second-class citizen.” Like Isbell and Sturgill Simpson, she’s staking out critical new ground for those of us who like our country music with some bite.
Our favorite track: “All American Made”
David Banner: “The God Box”
Roots: Jackson, Mississippi. Home: Jackson.
Veteran Mississippi rapper David Banner begins “The God Box” by engaging a magnolia tree in conversation: “Then she started to tell me / How she was used in the lynching of blacks / Branch cracked, broke her arms so his neck wouldn't snap / And if I wouldn't rap I'd probably meet the same damn fate / From the same damn rope, I'm ’bout the same damn weight.” From there you get 14 more tunes that masterfully challenge the institutional racism and inequity his community faces. It’s been seven years since Banner’s last studio album, and “The God Box” is worth every bit of the wait.
Our favorite track: “Evil Knievel”
2 Chainz: “Pretty Girls Like Trap Music”
Roots: Atlanta. Home: Atlanta.
If this list was for Best Marketing, Tauheed Epps — aka 2 Chainz — would be No. 1, without question. Epps, at age 40 one of ATL’s hip-hop elders, painted an old house on Atlanta’s Howell Mill Road a shocking pink, with the word “Trap” spray-painted in black above the front porch. If we had a dollar for every white kid’s Instagram in which that house appeared, we’d have stacks. The man dead serious one second, funny as hell the next: “See, my mom was an addict / And my dad was the dealer / And their son is that n***a, I'm no black activist / I'm a black millionaire, give you my black ass to kiss.” Dude’s sorta irresistible.
Our favorite track: “Realize”
The Mountain Goats: “Goths”
Roots: Bloomington, Indiana. Home: Durham, North Carolina
After living here, there, and everywhere, musician and novelist John Darnielle has finally settled himself and his band in the South. Perhaps he found the truth here, and it made him odder than he already was. The only guitar you’ll find on this album is a four-string bass. What might be lost with their gained is replaced — and then some — by exquisite woodwind orchestrations. There must be more oboe on “Goths” than any other record one might classify as “rock and roll.” The album’s theme is to mine the perspective of kids who grew up obsessed with heavy metal and goth rock, but the lush arrangements and skewed lyrical perspective reminds me continually of Steely Dan’s “Aja,” which I am unashamed to admit is one of my favorites.
Our favorite track: “Wear Black”
Faye Webster: “Faye Webster”
Roots: Atlanta. Home: Atlanta.
Faye Webster a few years ago was the 15-year-old aspiring folksinger who showed up with her guitar at acoustic venues all over Atlanta, always studying, listening, and writing. But more recently, Webster is gaining broader notice for making choices atypical of the folk-song grind. Nylon.com wrote this year that “Webster is rewriting the definition of It Girl” by moving comfortably between Atlanta’s hip-hop and folk-music communities. She’s become widely known for her photographs of local rappers, and this debut album was issued by Awful Records, probably the most avant-garde indie label in Atlanta’s hip-hop community. The counterintuitive narrative continues upon listening, when you learn there is not a speck of hip-hop on the album. Is it a pop record? Is it a folk record? A country record? You can’t say exactly where Faye Webster fits, which is part of what makes this coming-out album a standout.
Our favorite track: “She Won’t Go Away”
Scott Miller: “Ladies Auxiliary”
Roots: Swoope, Virginia. Home: Swoope.
Twenty-five years ago, Scott Miller led a sharply dressed little rock outfit from Knoxville called the V-Roys. Now that he’s back home running the family farm as his parents age, he’s still practicing the songwriting craft. And we’d stand in the Grammy Awards conference room in muddy boots and declare that Scott Miller has made the best “folk album” of the year, even though they didn’t nominate him. For his whole career, he has been a crafty and witty songwriter, unafraid of merging the surreal with the all too real. Check this: “Tall midgets drink hot tea in the desert ’round here / And talk about how hard they’ve had it ’round here / They raise taxes on all the hillbillies ’round here / To put camels through the eyes of big needles ’round here.” If we lied and said Bob Dylan wrote that line, you’d believe us, wouldn’t you? This is the best record of Miller’s career, and more folks need to hear it.
Our favorite track: “Middle Man”
Roots: Nashville. Home: Nashville.
Bandleader and songwriter Alicia Bognanno moved south from Minnesota to study audio engineering. Music writers have variously tried to label Bully a “punk” band, a “grunge” band, and even a “grunge-pop” outfit. But labels are crap, anyway. This is a fierce rock and roll record about the anxieties of a woman in her 20s. Bognanno’s skills at the soundboard serve her beautifully here. Unlike many rock producers, who crank the levels into distortion throughout an album, Bognanno understands the power of dynamics. In other words, she’s a master of creating quiet, throbbing verses that allow you to hear her words, followed by choruses that whack your head with a two-by-four. Without a doubt, “Losing” is our favorite straight-up Rock Record this year.
Our favorite track: “Running”
Gregg Allman: “Southern Blood”
Roots: Macon, Georgia. Home at death: Savannah, Georgia.
It would not be right to expect any 68-year-old musician in the middle of a long, losing battle with cancer to go into a studio and make one of the most brilliant albums of his career. But Gregg Allman did. He knew he was on his way out, so he went to the spiritual center of Southern music, Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to make his swan song. He wanted to capture the sound of his soul — a big soul that recognized no color, but knew every thread of our region’s musical culture. And he did. “It feels like home is just around the bend / I’ve got so much left to give, but I’m runnin’ out of time, my friend / I hope you’re haunted by the music of my soul, when I’m gone.” Then, he left, and here we remain, haunted by his music. Always will be.
Our favorite track: “My Only True Friend”
Roots: Atlanta. Home: Atlanta.
No song ruled the nation’s airwaves more than Migos’ “Bad and Boujee,” which rocketed to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 and stayed on the chart for 36 weeks. What does that mean? To white parents, it means your teenage children spent the whole year bouncing to a song that begins with this couplet: “You know, young rich n****s … you know, so, we ain't really never had no old money / We got a whole lotta new money though, hah!” Is this a bad thing? Well, I expect Roy Moore’s supporters would say so. But I would argue that if one of their friends hit it big in business and picked up a diamond necklace and a sweet ride, they wouldn’t begrudge them the luxury. I kinda think they owe Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff the same courtesy. Besides, most of the favorite music in my life was made with the intention of shocking old white men like me.
Our favorite track: “Bad and Boujee”
Roots: Nashville. Home: Los Angeles.
If you pay the least bit of attention to celebrity news, you know about Kesha Rose Sebert. These days, you can’t avoid anyone with 30 million Facebook followers. But what you probably don’t know is that her mother was a Nashville songwriter, Pebe Sebert, who penned “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You)” for Dolly Parton. Pebe’s kid is now one of pop culture’s central figures — not as a corporate creation, but as an immensely talented songwriter and musical mind with the skills to rise completely above genre. This album begins with a little country number called “Bastards,” then it veers to a screeching rocker with the Eagles of Death Metal backing her. From there, Kesha brings the exquisite sound of the Dap-Kings horn section to a sassy R&B number called “Woman,” whose slamming chorus begins with a hearty, “I’m a motherf**kin’ woman, baby, all right!” Before it’s over, she’s teamed up with Dolly herself for a grand, Sgt. Pepper-esque cover of her mother’s “Old Flames.” In 40 years, we might be talking about this brash, confident young woman the way we talk about Dolly today.
Our favorite track: “Woman”
Rapsody: “Laila’s Wisdom”
Roots: Snow Hill, North Carolina. Home: Raleigh, North Carolina.
Marlenna Evans, aka Rapsody, proudly represents her little North Carolina hometown every chance she gets, but what’s more important is that she is a strong voice for women in hip-hop, where lots of albums get “10 points off for misogyny,” as our contributor Dr. Joycelyn Wilson puts it. This album, named for her grandmother Laila, is the only album by a woman up for a Best Rap Album Grammy. And leave it to Evans to challenge her male counterparts to set their eyes on a prize that’s higher than diamonds and cars: “You all about the Benjamins, I'm all about the family / I got the fellas rockin’, see, we working on a dynasty / Black and ugly as ever and still nobody fine as me.”
Our favorite track: “Jesus Coming”
Rhiannon Giddens: “Freedom Highway”
Roots: Greensboro, North Carolina. Home: Greensboro and Limerick, Ireland
One does not win a MacArthur Genius Grant unless one is, well, a genius. So, it was no surprise when Giddens won, because her genius has always been to travel into dark places in Southern history and shine the light of her wondrous voice upon them. On “Freedom Highway,” we see Giddens for the first time as primary songwriter, instead of interpreter, and she is once again remarkable. Consider “Come Love Come,” where she inhabits the character of an escaped slave recounting her losses. “When I was 12, my father dear / Was strong of arm and free of fear / Until the day he raised his hand / Then he was sold to Alabam’.” Ending the album with a cover of Pops Staples’ immortal “Freedom Highway” is the perfect finale to an almost perfect album.
Our favorite track: “Come Love Come”
Tyler Childers: “Purgatory”
Roots: Paintsville, Kentucky. Home: Lexington, Kentucky.
This young songwriter attracted the attention of fellow Kentuckian Sturgill Simpson, and the album that emerged under Simpson’s production will slap you silly, what with Childers’ incredibly clever lyrics and the perfect instrumental backing they get here. This record moves with ease from a warped bluegrass number where Tyler chases a Catholic girl, figuring that Purgatory would suit him better than Hell, to a tune about meditating on a mountaintop: “I think about tobacco juice and Mason jars of shine / I think about the vices I’ve let take me over time / I recall when I's a baby, I didn’t need nothin' around / But a little bitty rattler and the universal sound.” Childers’ talent is remarkable.
Our favorite track: “Whitehouse Road”
CyHi the Prynce: “No Dope on Sundays”
Roots: Atlanta. Home: Atlanta.
Most people know Cydel Young for a decade of impressive guest spots on rap records with the likes of Kanye West. But now, with his first studio album, CyHi the Prynce displays why he’s a secret weapon for other rappers. “Cydel Young, got my rap name from sellin' loud / ’Cause Cyhi got a ring to it like a wedding vow / I grew up stealin' money out my momma purse / Now I'm buying everything I promised her.” On this record, CyHi is just as likely to quote scripture (and give you the citations) as he is to drop rhymes like, “It's hard to celebrate Christmas as a black man / ’Cause like ornaments on trees, that's just how we was hung up.” This is not a “Christian rap” album. Rather, it’s a deep look at stark choices in his community.
Our favorite track: “No Dope on Sundays”
Valerie June: “The Order of Time”
Roots: Humbolt, Tennessee. Home: Memphis.
In journalism school, they train you never to use the word “unique” unless the thing it refers to it is truly one of a kind. There’s no such thing as “kinda unique.” Something is unique, or it is not. Valerie June is unique. There is no one in the music business doing what she does. Her voice itself has a delicious twang unlike any other voice I’ve heard. Her music seems to amalgamate every musical thread that winds through West Tennessee, North Mississippi, and North Alabama. That genius makes her music almost unclassifiable, which probably explains why she doesn’t get the attention she deserves. Help remedy that, y’all.
Our favorite track: “Slip Slide on By”
John Moreland: “Big Bad Luv”
Roots: Tulsa, Oklahoma. Home: Tulsa
John Moreland is an unlikely rock star, what with his big old belly and worn-out ballcap, but damned if he doesn’t remind us of Bruce Springsteen on his fourth album — his best yet. His power as a lyricist keeps getting stronger, but this time his lyrics are shot through with the power of love and confidence. In addition, Moreland is now surrounded by a band with all the tools to translate his insights into music that amplifies them. Writing like Moreland’s is hard to come by: “Bring me all your questions, bring me all your doubts / Don’t let me meet the devil
that I sang those songs about / ’Cause the hounds of youth are howling, and you’re all I’ve got to trust / With heaven’s lonely ghetto up there crying down on us.”
Our favorite track: “Sallisaw Blue”
Run the Jewels: “Run the Jewels III”
Roots: Atlanta/New York City. Home: Atlanta.
Killer Mike and El-P released this album on Christmas last year, after our 2016 list was out. But the fact that this is technically a ’16 model record won’t keep this urgent — and urgently needed — record off our list. We’re at a loss to explain how they do it, but Mike and El keep making better records every time they walk into a studio. If Mavis Staples is making the music that keeps our heads up while we march, RTJ makes the music we need to fire us up in the first place, to get our lazy asses off the couch and into the streets. “Ghosts are walkin’, ghosts are talkin’, everything gon' be different, mane / Shh, karma's comin’, ain't no runnin', death gon' deal with the guilty, mane / The universe curses the killers, mane / Can't keep killin' God's children, mane / A pound of flesh is what you owe. Your debt is due, give up your ghost.” Consider yourself warned.
Our favorite track: “Down”
Angaleena Presley: “Wrangled”
Roots: Beauty, Kentucky. Home: Nashville.
Angaleena Presley can’t get no satisfaction. She’s one of those woman Isbell refers to when he sings, “Mama wants to change that Nashville sound, but they ain’t gonna let her.” She is the real deal: literally a coal miner’s daughter who learned Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” on the guitar at age 15 and was off and running. Still, beyond her work in the Pistol Annies with Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe, she’s been another woman banging unsuccessfully on the door of Nashville’s gatekeepers. But with “Wrangled,” she brings a sledgehammer, breaks down the door, and proceeds to lay complete waste to the tropes of “bro country.” If there is a country record that goes with the #metoo movement, “Wrangled” is it. And just to prove that Presley has the credibility as a writer, this record showcases the final co-write of the late, great Guy Clark. When the god of country songwriting chooses you as his final co-writer, that means something. Angaleena Presley is viciously funny, tremendously talented, and a total badass.
Our favorite track: “Country”
Big K.R.I.T.: “4eva Is a Mighty Long Time”
Roots: Meridian, Mississippi. Home: Atlanta.
The first time I listened to “4eva” straight through — all 22 songs that make up this 85-minute masterpiece — I felt strangely haunted as I spent a few minutes trying to rescue my jaw, which had dropped to the floor. I knew, sometime back in my own musical journey, I’d felt the same awe. Then, I figured it out: I felt just like I did the first time I heard Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” Like that landmark, Big King Remembered In Time, aka Justin Scott, has made a record that seems somehow to capture every concern of his community at a critical moment in history. I could blather on, but the only way to understand this record is to sit down and give it your full attention for an hour and a half. You will be shocked and inspired. You will want to dance. You will be filled with knowledge, and you will know joy.
Our favorite track: Impossible to choose. All 22 are stellar.