Chris Stapleton, From a Room, Volume 1. Look, he’s a blues musician. I know he wears cowboy hats and sells hits to country stars in Nashville, but he’s a blues musician. He’s got a blues musician’s voice and plays a guitar that has more sustain than twang, and you can hear the weary life stories in his voice. This album features all those talents, even on fun little tossaways like “Them Stems.” He’s a big-time star.
Ray Wylie Hubbard — Tell the Devil I’m Gettin’ There As Fast As I Can. I’ve been pulling the title track, with Eric Church and Lucinda Williams singing harmonies and a subtle little mandolin part, into all of my playlists. The other songs also are classic RWH territory — a little about living, a little ruminating about death, quite a few call-outs about cool guitars and amps. The guy’s a treasure.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit — The Nashville Sound. Some day, Isbell is going to make a “meh” album, I suppose. This isn’t it. The album takes turns being snarling and soft, and if you are not affected by “If We Were Vampires,” you are dead inside. But “Hope the High Road” is an anthem of both rage and defiance over our current political situation, with a reminder that “there can’t be more of them than us.”
JD McPherson — Undivided Heart and Soul. It works the straight rockabilly line a little harder than his last two efforts, but I love his voice and his songwriting and he remains far more than some mere traditionalist.
Hayes Carll — Lovers and Leavers. He released this in 2016, but I didn’t get around to listening to the album until this year, and I immediately regretted waiting for so long. There is a sad worldliness about this album, particularly “Sake of the Song,” (my favorite song this year) that I just find overpowering.
Nikki Lane — Highway Queen. I often tell this story at my own gigs: The first time I saw Nikki Lane in person (the very night when this photo was taken), she was wearing this top (Nikki is on the left; Shelly Colvin is on the right and the namesake is in the middle):
If you’re going to open an album with a song titled “700,000 Rednecks,” you’d better have some attitude and some chops. Nikki Lane has ‘em. “Jackpot” is another favorite single of the year for me.
(Side note: Most of this video was shot in downtown Vegas, just east of the Fremont Street Experience where all of the tourists go. This is a very cool area, with lots of locals’ bars, restaurants and the funky old El Cortez hotel. Check it out.)
But when it comes down to it, the album below is easily my favorite of the year. If it was an LP, I would have worn it out already:
Valerie June — The Order of Time. It’s just trance-inducing (in a good way), super-cool and the perfect music to play at 2 a.m. after a gig. Her voice is unique and the riffs that support her songs are just irresistible. This album melds into one long, trippy, beautiful dream.