Achingly real, passionately delivered, What Else Can She Do is short in length, but long on heart. From the broken relationship of “It Won’t Always Be This Way” to the familial sorrows of “Blood,” Kaitlin’s voice is a warm hand holding ours as we walk through a bleak landscape of addiction, bad jobs, and lost dreams. Despite that dour description, it’s somehow an uplifting journey.
2. 49 Winchester - Fortune Favors the Bold
The future is now as 49 Winchester delivers on all the buzz with this boozy, honky tonk banger. There are party tunes that don’t make you feel pandered to and tearjerkers that aren’t paint by number. I started to list the standouts, but realized that most of Fortune Favors the Bold's 10 songs fit the bill.
3. The Vandoliers - s/t
Mixing Red Dirt, pop punk, and other influences, Vandoliers have quickly become one of my favorite bands. Their ear-pleasing, danceable music sounds like nothing and everything you’ve heard before. A well oiled live act, they bring that vibrant sound to their records better than most, and this album’s no exception. More than most bands in the “scene,” Vandoliers sound like they ought to have big hits… somewhere, somehow.
4. Big Thief - Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You
Sprawling, weird, messy, endearing. From the title to the run time to the occasional vocal idiosyncrasies, Dragon can be a beast to get into for the musically unadventurous, but it’s well worth your time. Equal parts folk, country, and indie rock, the album is an epic listen that somehow leaves you wanting more. The melodies are the heart, and the lyrics are the soul - sometimes abstract, sometimes hilariously to the point.
5. Ben Chapman - Make the Night Better
This is an album you could put on at a party and not a soul would complain, despite nobody having any idea who’s singing. There’s the fun Brad Paisley-esque humor of “10 Feet of Regret,” the soulful barroom sadness of “Strangers,” the welcoming mid-tempo swagger of “Kentucky Deluxe,” and everything in between you could ask for. It’s a songwriter’s record, in the Nashville sense of that description, but it’s as big in message as it is in wordplay.
6. Ian Noe - River Fools & Mountain Saints
Sounding as mystical and eternal as the Appalachian mountains, Ian has another winner with River Fools. It’s timeless stuff, digging into your soul with Noe’s Dylan-with-vocal-lessons delivery and setting the hook with the lived-in stories. There’s an undeniable magnetism in this music that’s both hospitable and intimidating at once. Ian’s a force of nature.
7. Aaron Raitiere - Single Wide Dreamer
Another songwriter’s record, Single Wide Dreamer isn’t afraid to get silly and grimy, like the seedier side of Kacey Musgraves’ trailer park. Drawing from influences like Prine and Roger Miller, and backed by some of Nashville’s finest, Raitiere sings with a conversational tone, a knowing wink, and a hinted at darkness. Hilarious and comfortably cynical, Single Wide Dreamer is a nimble look into the mind of one of Nashville’s best ‘unknown’ writers.
8. The Wilder Blue - s/t
Those harmonies. That’s all you need really, but then there’s the expert musicianship and resonant songs to go along with those spine chilling vocals, and The Wilder Blue have a true gem of an album. The bouncy 70s vibe laden “Feelin’ the Miles” is the standout for me, but there’s not a clunker in the bunch. These guys deserve a shot in the upper pantheon of Americana, and one of these days they’ll get it.
9. Miko Marks & The Resurrectors - Feel Like Going Home
Bursting with country soul, Feel Like Going Home will take you from church to the blues dive with a stop at the country store along the way. Feel Like Going Home sounds like the best parts of 70s AM radio (when they played all genres on the same stations) put together on one record. Miko sings wonderfully, the band kicks ass, and the songs are thrillingly moving. Memphis, the Delta, Nashville, New Orleans, Muscle Shoals - Feel Like Going Home finds its heart at the midpoint of these legendary music towns.
10. Michaela Anne - Oh to Be That Free
To these ears, the prettiest album released this year, Oh to Be That Free sounds blissful and even wistful, but there’s plenty of depth to be had here. “Chasing Days” documents Anne’s move toward settled independence after a chaotic childhood. “Mountains and Mesas” seeks solace in a darkening world. Michaela’s writing reveals complex emotion with simple words, often bringing to mind Robert Frost’s conversational tone that hides meaning in plain sight. It’s a beautiful album with so much more to offer in repeated listens.
16. Kelsey Waldon - No Regular Dog
17. Amanda Shires - Take it Like a Man
18. Tami Neilson - Kingmaker
19. Band of Horses - Things Are Great
20. Plains - I Walked With You a Ways
21. John Fullbright - The Liar
22. Willi Carlisle - Peculiar, Missouri
23. Bri Bagwell - Corazon y Cabeza
24. Randall King - Shot Glass
25. Courtney Patton - Electrostatic
Honorable Mentions: Zach Bryan - American Heartbreak, The Sheepdogs - Outta Sight, Jason Scott & The High Heat - Castle Rock, Pusha T - It’s Almost Dry, Hailey Whitters - Raised, Drew Kennedy - Marathon, American Aquarium - Chicamacomico, Whiskey Myers - Tornillo, The Cactus Blossoms - One Day, Sunny Sweeney - Married Alone, Randy Rogers Band - Homecoming, Emily Nenni - On the Ranch, Charley Crockett - The Man From Waco, Kendell Marvel - Come on Sunshine, Red Clay Strays - Moment of Truth, Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway - Crooked Tree, John Calvin Abney - Tourist.