My Top Ten CDs of 2017

These are my favorite CDs released in 2017. My tastes run to Americana, roots, alt country and folk. In the case of close calls, I am likely to err on the side of the lesser-known performers who need more exposure. It is a loose top ten with no real effort made to order them.

A Long Way From Your Heart by Turnpike Troubadours

 

I have been a Turnpike Troubadours fan for some time, especially songs like "Wrecked" "Morgan Street" and "Evangeline," but I really think "A Long Way From Your Heart" is their best effort, beginning to end, the excellence remains high from song to song.  

The CD comes complete with an anatomy diagram of a human heart on the disk with the hole smack in the middle of it.  It'd be hard to believe that would be by accident or lack of intent.

Evan Felker, the band's primary songwriter, and most often lead singer, knew that this batch of songs was going to be a little closer to heart and home.  

Closest to Felker's heart and home is the song, "Pay No Rent" written for a special aunt's funeral, a woman who owned a local tavern and was something of a mentor:
 

"Pay No Rent"

Are you cracking jokes
with the common folks?
Are you serving to the well-to-do?
Well I traveled round and I ain't found nobody quite like you
And is all this living meant to be or a happy accident?
But in my heart you pay no rent
Don't cost you nothing not a single cent
Time together well was time well spent

In my heart you pay no rent
In my heart you pay no rent

The band had a different producer this time around as well: Ryan Hewitt, whose previous credits include Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Avett Brothers and Lumineers.  The six-man outfit which sounds like they've played together forever felt like a seven-piece when Hewitt brought his talents to "A Long Way From Your Heart."

“He’s like another member of the band. He cares about the way a band sounds and representing the band’s sound with the recording,” Felker says of Hewitt.
 

A falling out with a friend over the direction of their lives and the resulting consequences years later spurred Felker to write:

 

"The Winding Stair Mountain Blues"

Well the sheriff came last night
Is everything alright?
Ask for any help that I can give
No we had a falling out
Well then what's this all about
They said the man who's shot is gonna live
Oh well you can curse your fiddle till it breaks down at the binding
Curse your locomotive off the rail
And all that trouble you've been looking for is easy in the finding
Well the devil's in the fine detail
Well the devil's in the fine detail

“Songwriting is the most important thing to me. Everything else comes second,” says Felker.

 "The Housefire"

Lord knows that I've been blessed
I can stand up to the test
I can live on so much less
This much I've been learning
Forgive my cowardice
I am fearful I'll confess
How am I to get my rest?
The house I built is
burning


Felker
says the band is not what Merle Haggard would call traditional country.  In fact, their CDs do very well on the country charts but also have topped the indie and folk charts.
This one is at the top of my chart for 2017.


Adios by Cory Branan



Cory Branan has called this CD his death record, but like all of Branan's mercurial work it's not exactly how he makes it sound. As funny and defiant as it is touching and sad, Adios doesn't spare its subjects or the listener.

"Yeah, So What?"

I was mindin' my own
Toastin' my health
With my bottle and my table and my heart to myself
Driftin' in and out of focus
Starin' into space
When I caught you noticin' me noticin' your face
Yeah, so what if I was lookin' at you?
Yeah, so what if I was lookin' at you?
What's a poor boy with exquisite taste to do?
Yeah, so what if I was lookin' at you?
Hey! You were smiling like a checkerboard and shining like a shoe
Can't believe I'm wasting' these lines on you

The subjects include his father, his childhood, his disillusionment and redemption, and all the former loves in between. Two of the standout songs involve looking back at his father:

"The Vow"

I could’ve curled up in one footprint,
One giant laugh, one giant hand
Until the sickness and the treatment
Shrunk him down to just a man
What did I know about it then?
What do I know now?
I have known the kind of man
It takes to keep the vow
To keep the vow
and

"My Father Was An Accordion Player"

Well, my father is an accordion player
And it’s a truth that some try to refuse
But what they don’t understand is I have seen it firsthand
The accordion play the blues

Throughout his career, Branan has been too punk for country, too country for punk, too Memphis for Nashville, and probably a little too Cory Branan for his own good. His trademark lyrical agility is mirrored in his music, from buzz to twang.

"Another Nightmare In America"

Ain't no use praying There's no soul there to save
Boy you're just the difference 'tween a hole and a grave
And that's exactly how they'll mark it
Even if a camera sees us
I'll fill out some paperwork and sleep like baby Jesus

Look away Look away
Move along, nothing to see here
Look away, hey you there Are you even supposed to be here
We don't need a reason
Keep your dreams where we can see them

Just like that, aww baby, right there
It's just another nightmare in America
It's just another nightmare in America



I call Adios Cory Branan's best CD so far. I can't wait to see what might be on a hereafter CD.


Ghost on the Car Radio by Slaid Cleaves



Along with John Prine, Chris Smither, Paul Simon and John Hiatt, Slaid Cleaves on my short list for all-time favorite songwriter. Cleaves' Still Fighting the War was included in my Top Ten CDs of 2013. Right now, to me, Cleaves seems like a songwriter in transition from speculative wisdom to ingrained wisdom from life and experience. Always a great storyteller, he appears now to have a broader palette from which to pick and choose song ideas.

"If I Had a Heart"

And in these times you remind me
Of the man I used to be
If I had a heart, you'd be breaking it now
You'll see truth, turned into lies
Light turned to dark, hearts broke in two
Just one thing, before I die
I want to make one lie
come true



On this new CD, I believe he may also have written the most heartfelt, uncomplicated love song that I've yet heard.

"To Be Held"

You don't need me to come round
Solving your problems
You need more than blankets in the cold
And all that you want
is a chance to get closer
To be held and to hold
To be held and to hold
Is all that you ask
And still sometimes I fail at the task
When all that you want
is a chance to get closer
To be held and to hold


“I don’t feel any connection to the Dancing With the Stars, National Football League or CMT country music,” he told Rolling Stone Country. “I feel like I’m sort of living outside my culture in this little Americana world that we have. It’s a tiny part of the culture, but it’s very vibrant and has everything I need in it.”

"Take Home Pay"

Schemers scheme around the edges
Dreamers dream of better days
Everyone knows what the catch is
It's all about the take home pay

I got some Oxy to keep me moving
It slowly takes some things away
The only thing I was scared of losing
She packed up and left today

Well I guess she got tired of waiting
For the man she thought I'd be
In the end you can't really blame her
We're all scrappin' for the do re me


“The old forms still work for me,” Cleaves says. “I don’t need the drum machine. I’m a throwback.”

It has been said that he spun his stories "with a novelist's eye and a poet's heart." He used to sign off on his website with: Slaid Cleaves. Grew up in Maine. Lives in Texas. Writes songs. Makes records. Travels around. Tries to be good.

"Already Gone"

One more town
one more job
another chance now
I'm down to muscle and nerve
May not have gotten all that I dreamed of
Pretty sure I got what I deserved



Last of the True by Ronnie Fauss


"I didn't want to leave anything on the table when I was recording this album," Fauss says. "With Last of the True, I tried to expand things even wider. I stretched myself in new ways."

"Big Leagues"

They say I had the talent
but they also say I didn't have the heart
they knew it from the start
it might seem that it don't faze me
but it's tearing me apart

"I played piano on a Bob Dylan cover. I wrote a polka song and a back-porch bluegrass number. I explored the Laurel Canyon sound, and I tried to shine a light on some of the artists who've influenced me, too. I cast a wider net this time because I wanted to capture more sounds I like."

"Saginaw Paper Mill"

Well, I'm driving down the road in a '57 Chevy
just looking for my peace of mind
Searching for some of that old-time religion
beneath them highway signs
Well, there's nothing like that engine humming
rolling on down the line
And if I don't make it to heaven, baby I will be just fine


It took a little double-checking to be certain, but it appears Fauss has a day job as the Chief Financial Officer of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks. He has been with the team since 1999 and was promoted to CFO in 2015.

"I Think We're Going to be Okay"

We've been a million places from Canada to Mexico
You stuck it out in Dallas when all you wanted was to go
with all those years behind us and nothing left unsaid
close your eyes now rest your weary head
Baby, I think we're going to be okay


Fauss has always impressed me with his ability to write songs filled with wry humor, which still convey important thoughts and emotions.

Tennessee Night by Ed Dupas



Born in Houston, Texas and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Dupas returned as a teenager with his family to the U.S., making their home just outside of Detroit, Michigan.

Dupas says most of this new CD was written in a cabin just outside Nashville and then recorded in about three days of mostly live tracking in a style he coins "garage country."

"Hold Me Tight"

Summer I turned eighteen I worked down at Rouge Ford
40 cars an hour we put out the door
I must have climbed in every one as they rolled down off the line
I was looking for something that I'm still trying to find


The record also was written after a difficult conversation and a crossroads moment back home. It all came pouring out of Dupas like a Tennessee Night.

"Two Wrongs"

The Danville Train used to run this way
now as they're pulling out the tracks
and hauling them away
they're leaving nothing behind
just the memories and scars along the line
when you found me I was less than I am
you were drowning in your tears
when you reached out for my hand
and the devil was shining in your eyes
and for a little while,
two wrongs made a right
yeah two wrongs made a right
in the darkest hour of night


"Was it risky recording that way?" Dupas wondered later. "But that’s life, and with increased risk comes the possibility of increased reward. In this case, the risk afforded us the opportunity to catch lightning in a bottle, and I think we did that."

"Too Big To Fail"

Take down that glass and pour me a strong one
'cause pretty soon they'll be choosing sides and I'll be on the wrong one
There's storm clouds, wind, rain and hail
but I still believe that love's too big to fail
We've been chasing down the dreams they showed us two
now the mercury is rising and we don't know what to do
yeah, there's times when the future seems so frail
But I still believe that loads too big to fail



I think Ed Dupas is one of the best secrets of the Americana musical genre. He is slowly becoming an example of an overnight success.


Bone on Bone by Bruce Cockburn

In 2014, Bruce Cockburn released a memoir about his long career with the perhaps tongue-in-cheek title, Rumours of Glory.

“All my creative energy had gone into three years of writing it,” Cockburn explained. “There was simply nothing left to write songs with. As soon as the book was put to bed, I started asking myself whether I was ever going to be a songwriter again.”

Cockburn has written more than 300 songs on 33 albums over a career spanning 40 years.

"Forty Years In The Wilderness"

Forty years in the wilderness getting to know the beast
Projected and reflected on the greatest and the least
Forty years of days and nights -- angels hovering near
Kept me moving forward though the way was far from clear
And they said Take up your load
Run south to the road
Turn to the setting sun
Sun going down
Got to cover some ground
Before everything comes undone
Comes undone



Cockburn boils his job down to "trying to trap the spirit of things in the scratches of pen on paper and the pulling of notes out of metal.”

"Looking and Waiting"

Looking and waiting -- it's what I do
Scanning the skies for a beacon from you
Shapes on the curtain, but no clear view Of you
You're a warm bright window lighting up the rain
I catch a glimpse of the glow but I still remain
Outside where the shadows pool and bleed
Chimney silhouettes semaphore in a code I cannot read


With the help of his longtime producer Colin Linden, Cockburn found out he did want to continue to be a songwriter. If he keeps returning to songs like these, I'll be watching intently for the next one.

"States I'm In"

One day fit and one day fat
One day flush and one day flat
Reality distorted like a sat-on hat
One day I feel like I'm in control
The next I'm suspended in a bottomless hole
A drunk trying to shinny up a greased pole
Oo-ee all the sights I've seen
In the depth of the world and the heart of a dream
Oo-ee all the places I've been
Each one reflected in
the states I'm in, uh huh
States I'm in

Trinity Lane by Lilly Hiatt



This record was written mostly in the summer of 2016 in my apartment off of Trinity Lane. A few tunes came out on the road as well.


 "Trinity Lane"

Gonna hang on a little bit longer
Sleep well, work a little harder
Put my faith in something' I can't see
Crack a window when it rains
This is livin' off of Trinity Lane
It's workin' all right for me


I thought about my sobriety, what that means to me, the struggles I'd had throughout the years, since I was a 27-year-old and hung up my toxic drinking habit. I thought about my mother, who took her own life when I was a baby, not far from my age at 30 years old, and I related to her more than ever. So after a while, I had all these songs to play, and wanted to share them. I wanted to get out of town to get some distance from everything, so after an ongoing conversation with Michael Trent, I took my band to Johns Island, South Carolina, and we holed up for a few weeks. I poured my heart out, and trusted them with it, and these guys gave it right back.

"Records"

I'll take lonely if it means free
It's never how you thought it'd be
But that record waited up for me
That record waited up for me
Lookin' out a window pane
Wonderin' why I still feel the same
I put the needle down, hey Mr. Young
You know our work is never done


"There is a lot of hope in the album," says Hiatt about the follow-up to her sophomore LP, Royal Blue. "There is a lot of pain, but this album is a more mature response to that pain." "Royal Blue" made my top ten for 2015.

"Sucker"

I never did set out to be a liar
Tryin' to keep it together
while my heart was on fire
I hear you're headin' back to the West Coast
I bet you're surfin' and eatin' burritos

There was countryside I wanted to show you
The farm I grew up on, the shit that we went through


Nashville Sound by Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit

"Jason Isbell is the best lyric writer of my generation. He lives at a level where even great writers can only visit." -- John Mayer

Despite my efforts to highlight new artists in my lists, Isbell and his band's Something More Than Free made my article "Top Ten CDs of 2015" as did Southeastern in 2013. You just can't keep this guy's work out of the top lists for most years.


"Something to Love"

I hope you find something to love
Something to do when you feel like giving up
A song to sing or a tale to tell
Something to love, it'll serve you well
I was born in a tiny southern town
I grew up with all my family around
We made music on the porch on Sunday nights
Old men with old guitars smoking Winston Lights


"Nashville Sound" won the Grammy Award for Best Americana Album and Isbell won Grammy Award for Best American Roots Song at the 60th ceremony. He also won a Grammy Award for his 2015 release, "Something More Than Free."

"Last of My Kind"

I couldn't be happy in the city at night
You can't see the stars for the neon light
Sidewalk's dirty and the river's worse
The underground trains all run in reverse
Nobody here can dance like me
Everybody's clapping on the one and the three
Am I the last of my kind?
Am I the last of my kind?


“I think the more honest you are with your audience, the more you’ll connect with them. People have heard so many songs and stories and for you to really get through and write something that means something to somebody on a personal level, you’ve got to let yourself be honest, even when it’s difficult."

"Hope the High Road"

I used to think that this was my town
What a stupid thing to think
I hear you're fighting off a breakdown
I myself am on the brink I used to want to be a real man
I don't know what that even means
Now I just want you in my arms again
And we can search each other's dreams


Big Bad Luv by John Moreland



On his website, it states that "Big Bad Luv" is the record John Moreland made after, after everything in his life changed, for the better.

"Every Kind of Wrong"

You’re talking with your mouth full of fury
And finding ghosts inside the dial
Running from the Armageddon jury
Born to put your love on trial
So darling, leave a key under the door mat
I’m coming blind around the bend
Soaked to the bone in revelation
Begging you to get me lost again


"I don't think I'm writing songs that are that much different," Moreland says. "It's always been a positive thing at heart, even if a song isn't sunshine and rainbows. At the very least my songs have been a way to exorcise negative feelings so that I can move on. And hopefully they provide that same experience to listeners. So that's what I'm still doing. I think it's a positive thing. I think this record, there's definitely a change in attitude, but it's the same point of view."

"No Glory in Regret"

I never meant to be
Your woe-is-me emergency
But I ain’t dead yet
And I know there ain’t no glory in regret
Don’t it feel like the truth
Comes at the price of your youth?
When the hell you’ve paid ain’t quite enough
And God’s been making deals
While we’re down here spinning our wheels


Recently. Moreland says he simply disregards the sad-bastard narrative and refuses to let it define his life or his art. "I’m a real person who is sad sometimes, and happy other times, and that’s how it is.”

"Old Wounds"

So don’t forget to love me in damnation
For the living I have earned on love gone wrong
And we’ll open up old wounds in celebration
If we don’t bleed, it don’t feel like a song


His raspy delivery is versatile enough to hold up well for laid-back ballads but also for growling rockers or punkish headbangers.

"Latchkey Kid"

Cause I’ve found a love that shines into my core
And I don’t feel the need to prove myself no more
And when I look into the mirror, now
I see A man I never knew that I could be


Moreland's CD, "In the Throes" was included in my top ten for 2013 and his "High on Tulsa Heat" made the honorable mentions in 2015.


Walk in the Dark by Rob Lutes



"This album, of all of them, was a journey into the unknown, which is why I like the title so much," Lutes says. "I went in to the studio to find these songs. And I really feel like we did that."

"Rabbit"

Running like a rabbit from a hedge to a hole
Fear is a hungry habit, that eats at your soul
Diving in a burrow, lying in a furrow, all you want to do is hide
Flitting and flying like a moth to a fire
Flapping in a fog of unremitting desire
Never face the quiet on my diet of flickers and flames
Ain't it funny, this life is free
But we will not let it be
We could float down river with love in mind
We chase the shadows 'til we're almost blind


After experimenting with jazz and blues styles from the early 20th century and some unique instrumentations on recent releases, Lutes seems to have returned to the interplay of his distinctive guitar picking with his voice and accompanying players.

It is not a surprise that Chris Smither says: ‟Great songs. I really like Rob's style.”

"Bigger"

Happy when I meet you in the morning
And I drop all my storylines
I know love is dangerous
but I do not heed the warnings
Or the fearful signs
And everyday my heart gets bigger
It's like I’ve opened up and paused
I hope I never shake these shivers
You have caused


Rob Lutes came down out of Canada in 2001 to win the prestigious Kerrville New Folk Songwriting competition in Kerrville, Texas, and a couple other songwriting awards, one in Philadelphia and another in Nashville or some such, and then he went back to Canada. I can't blame him. I'd live there, too, if I didn't have a wife and a family in the formerly good old U.S. of A.

"Walk in the Dark"

Living down here is an imperfect art
What is life but a walk in the dark
We hold it together and we fall apart
What is life but a walk in the dark
But won't you turn around
Look at all the love we found
Surely we can raise a smile
And carry on for one more mile


Tied for 11th:


First Cigarette by Travis Meadows

Letters Never Read by Dori Freeman

Careless Soul by Cale Tyson

Darkest Darks, Lightest Lights by White Buffalo