The year 2017 saw the meteoric rise of Luke Combs with This One’s For You and the domination of Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road.” Little Big Town hosted several celebrity guests and fans from all over the world at their year-long residency at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. Taylor Swift was awarded a symbolic $1 in a countersuit against a radio DJ after he groped her at an event. The court-ordered judgment aligned Swift with advocates of the subsequent #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault. Fifty-eight people and more than 850 folks were injured in a mass shooting during Jason Aldean’s headlining set at Las Vegas’ Route 91 Harvest Festival. The tragedy rocked the nation as the deadliest mass shooting in American history, impacted the lives of many and forever changed the music world.
Here are the country albums that defined 2017.
10. Highway Queen by Nikki Lane
Lane’s Highway Queen kicks every listener in the teeth from its first “Yippee Ki Yay.” When Lane isn’t holding court with her liberating outlaw country in the title song, “700,000 Rednecks” and “Jackpot,” she accurately captures the emotions involved in having to resurrect oneself from some of life’s painful situations. Lane recorded the album with producer and rocker Jonathan Tyler.
9. Life Changes by Thomas Rhett
The Tangled Up era marked a significant season of change for Rhett. He became a father for the first time after he and his wife Lauren adopted their daughter Willa Gray from Uganda. Then Lauren became pregnant with their second daughter, Ada James. Hence, his new private life became the natural inspiration behind the Grammy-nominated Life Changes. The platinum-selling album was arguably the most autobiographical album of his career at that time. It yielded five No. 1s, including the title track, “Marry Me,” “Unforgettable,” “Sixteen” and the Maren Morris duet, “Craving You.” He also received his first album of the year nominations from the ACM and CMA.
8. God’s Problem Child by Willie Nelson
Nelson showed no signs of stopping in 2017. By the time he released God’s Problem Child, an outlaw’s exploration of the concept of mortality, Nelson had released more than 110 albums (not counting his live sets and compilations), and still pretty much lived on the road performing more than 100 dates a year. One of the most interesting facts about this collection is that Nelson and his longtime collaborator Buddy Cannon co-wrote most of it via text message.
7. The Breaker by Little Big Town
The Breaker, Little Big Town’s eighth studio album, elaborates more on the progressive sounds the band established on Pain Killer and offers a consummate source of comfort for anyone who needs it. The group explores different aspects of breaking from the struggles of the past and moving on with the help of the unconditional love from lifelong friends and family. Taylor Swift contributed the Grammy-winning, “Better Man.” Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman immortalized their friendship by co-writing “Don’t Die You, Don’t Get Old” with “Girl Crush” hit-makers, Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose (Together they are the songwriting trio, the Love Junkies.)
6. Puxico by Natalie Hemby
Hemby could have recorded anything for her debut album. She co-wrote some of the decade’s biggest hits, including Little Big Town’s Grammy-winning “Pontoon,” and Miranda Lambert’s “Automatic,” which made Puxico one of the year’s most anticipated albums. Inspired by the Missouri town where her beloved grandfather lives, the nine-song collection is a companion soundtrack for the documentary of the same subject and title. Through Hemby’s mining of her musical heritage, all the songs get you back to your roots no matter where you call home. Highlights included “Return,” “Worn,” “Time Honored Tradition” and “This Town Still Talks About You.”
5. The Lonely, the Lonesome and the Gone by Lee Ann Womack
Offering heavy doses of hypnotic country soul and blues, Womack’s ninth studio album is an emotive ode to her East Texas roots. She and husband-producer, Frank Liddell, took a group of Nashville’s best musicians to the historic SugarHill Recording Studio in Houston, Texas to create the 14-song collection. Womack co-wrote six songs, including “All the Trouble,” “Hollywood,” “Mama Lost Her Smile” and “Someone Else’s Heartache.” With her cover of “Take the Devil Out of Me,” Womack gives a nod to George Jones, who got his start at SugarHill. Other standout covers are Brent Cobb’s “Bottom of the Barrel,” “Shine On Rainy Day” and Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil.”
4. On the Rocks by Midland
Chris Stapleton’s success with Traveller showed a fiercely loyal fan-demand for more artists representing traditional country realms. Midland’s Jess Carson, Cameron Duddy and Mark Wystrach fit the bill, and their 12-song debut serves an authentic expression of outlaw life in a riotous country-rock band. The success of On the Rocks included their No. 1 debut single “Drinkin’ Problem,” a performance at the all-genre Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival and nominations from the Recording Academy, CMA and ACM.
3. Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real by Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real
With the release of its 2017, self-titled debut, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real showed the world the band can tackle pretty much any music and execute it well. The 12-song collection has elements of gritty R&B, cinematic country and tripped out southern rock, all of which was influenced by years on the road with Neil Young and Nelson’s famous father, Willie Nelson. Lady Gaga can be heard on backing vocals on “Find Yourself.” Lucius’ Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig back Nelson on five songs, including the anthemic opener, “Set Me Down on a Cloud.”
2. This One’s for You by Luke Combs
Combs becomes more inescapable the more people discover his 2017 debut. The 12-song collection made Billboard history by claiming the No. 1 spot on the country albums chart for 50 weeks. The last album to achieve that feat was Shania Twain’s Come On Over. Five out of Combs’ seven No. 1s come from This One’s for You and the 16-track Deluxe Edition. They are “Hurricane,” “One Number Away,” “When It Rains It Pours,” “Beautiful Crazy” and “She Got the Best of Me.” This One’s For You also led to several awards for Combs from the CMA and ACM.
1. The Nashville Sound by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Isbell and the 400 Unit contribute a new interpretation of the Nashville Sound with their Grammy-winning fourth album. The title was inspired by a historic marker outside RCA B recording studio on Music Row that tells visitors of producer Chet Atkins and the legendary music by Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers and more that was made there. However, Isbell’s goal was to show listeners that there is a lot more to Music Row’s Nashville Sound than meets the eye by offering an album that highlights some of life’s inherent truths through storytelling that encourages others to be their own heroes. Timeless songs that stand out include “Last of My Kind,” “White Man’s World,” “If We Were Vampires,” “Hope the High Road” and “Something to Love.”