This is one of my favorite parts of the year. I love looking back on the incredible music that helped to define the year. While many of these lists include big time acts, you’ll only find two really big national names here. Most of these artists are flying completely under the radar, so it does them (and us!) a huge benefit if you share this with a friend or ten. Thanks so much for reading and enjoy the tunes.
10) National Park Radio – Old Forests
-If you are a fan of brilliant harmonies and quality Americana songwriting, you need to find this album. This is what I wish country music radio sounded like, honestly. There’s a genuine traditional element to it, but the sound is engineered with modern “bells and whistles” so to speak, making for a full and enjoyable modern folk sound. The lead male vocal is strong, allowing for the female highlighting vocal to nestle in nicely. If you only have time for one, start at the beginning with “Might Mountains.” All you Avett fans out there give “The Way It Always Has” a spin for some throwback similarities to the Avett sound.
9) Canyon City – Constellation
-Regular readers of the site probably already knew this was coming. Canyon City’s atmospheric pop folk music continues to resonate deeply with me. The layers of keys, guitar, and a subtle but powerful vocal really work toward a captivating sound. One of the things I like most about Canyon City is that he has a true signature sound. The two albums he has released in the past year both reflect the same gorgeous color balance in the audio mix, creating an ambiance from the music that is equally good for listening carefully or for putting on in the background. Sometimes romantic, other times just contemplative, but always music with a message that is worth your time. If you only have time for one, try “Find You.” If you’re looking for more of a pop single style, definitely spin “Midnight Flight.” For fans of Coldplay.
8) Grace Freeman – Shadow
-Every once in a while I find a songwriter who is so unlike anything I’ve ever heard that it just floors me. Grace Freeman is that kind of songwriter and singer. Her voice… wow… is worth a write up all in its own. She has this gorgeous articulation that reminds me of an old fashioned singer from the 1930s or something, while yet having a powerhouse independence in her vocal that feels very much modern. The title track “Shadow” features prominent piano work and the stunning delivery thoughtful and moving lyrics. If you were worried that real music is dead, please listen to Grace Freeman and return your faith in music today. If you only have time for one, make it “God Forbid” or “Shadow.”
7) The Talbott Brothers – Gray
-Every time I’ve written about the Talbott Brothers, I’ve compared them to Needtobreathe. It’s still fair. You might also compare them with Green River Ordinance. You get the idea, right? They are amazing. The sibling harmonies here are no joke. The lyrics on these songs are really powerful and inspiring. This is one of those “faith in humanity restored” albums that helps me forget that people are literally poisoning and murdering each other in the streets. It’s nostalgic and a bit of gospel, making for this rich and satisfying mixture that will have you singing along after a few listens through. There’s not a single “skip” track on the album, which is what moves it into my top 10 for the year. The lead track “We Got Love” is a great taste of the sound and if you have time for a second, try “Love Again.”
6) Sammy Brue – I am Nice
-I sometimes hesitate to use the word “virtuoso” or “prodigy” with music, but Sammy Brue really deserves the description. Something about him reminds me a little of Elvis Costello. He’s got this sort of punk Americana ethos that I really enjoy a lot. His whole style is endearing while also shouting “devil may care” in its own way. The syntax and style of his writing doesn’t sound like anyone else, which is really superb. His lyrics are often punctuated and direct, reflective of the dynamic emotions of late teen and early 20s with love. It’s an album that makes me feel plenty of different emotions. There are some vintage sounds on this that will make you think you parents would like it, but it has a modern sheen to it that feels positively perfect for this generation. The best snapshot of his sound is “I Know,” but if you want something a bit more soulful, go with “I Never Said.” Personally, I can’t get enough of “Once a Lover,” a poetic lament that connects with me in the recesses of my soul.
5) Mac Ayres – Drive Slow
-I know you shouldn’t judge an album by its cover… so when you see a white minivan on the cover of this album, just… wait for it. Also the first section is a sample from his grandma, which has a completely different vibe that the music itself. When “Calvin’s Joint” starts off, you immediately sink into your chair, melted by the pure soulful beauty of some chord magic. When Ayres begins to sing it’s just another level. His song “Easy” absolutely flew up the charts this year, but don’t restrict this album to that single. There are several killer tracks on this, showing a rapidly rising star in the soul scene. My order of preference is “Easy,” “Calvin’s Joint,” and the title track “Slow Down.” Ayres writes music that will appeal to fans of throwback Stevie Wonder style soul and more modern DeAngelo style R&B. If you didn’t expect him to be on a folk blog, just keep in mind how impressive the songwriting and performance has to be for him to transcend genres. He is a must-know, must-listen, must-own kind of artist.
4) Anna Tivel – Small Believer
-Anna Tivel’s songwriting crushed me with this album. She has two songs that are absolutely incredible on this album, “Dark Chandelier” and “Illinois.” Tivel is adding her name to a legacy of singer songwriters that includes the likes of Bonnie Raitt and Allison Krauss. She’s that good. If you think I’m exaggerating, just listen to this album. Set yourself aside an hour and listen to every song on this track. You will be a believer by halfway through the first song, trust me. The poetic lyrics carry a ton of weight, speaking for common people. This is not the kind of music that will fly over your heard about life in fast places with fast people. This is complicated music about simple people, deeply satisfying in the truth and the grit and the mire. Tivel’s vocal tone is perfect for the kind of music she sings. She demands your attention.
3) Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
-If you’re cruising the end of year lists, you’ll see Jason Isbell’s name a lot. But I’ll tell you what, having covered him since Southeastern floored the lot of Americana media, I look forward to Isbell’s writing like a kid on Christmas Eve. I have to say this album filled that legacy quite well, using more of the autobiographical content that his fans love about his sound and songwriting. He feels like the last good country singer, even though most of his music is probably more accurately described as rock. No matter what you call it, this narrative folk rock style is infectiously enjoyable. Each track will portray an image in your head, just like a great storyteller does. Isbell reflects a great deal on his identity and role with songs like “Last of My Kind” and “White Man’s World.” His social justice perspective is something we love here at ETTG. If you only have time for one, we recommend “Hope in the High Road,” but “Anxiety” and “If We Were Vampires” are the ones that were promoted and they are excellent as well.
2) Ryan Adams – Prisoner
-I know. I know. How cliche that a folk and rock blog has Ryan Adams ranked in the top 10. But holy shit this album is so good I would write about it on an anime blog. I mean seriously who wouldn’t like this? The opening track “Do you still love me?” makes me feel like… I don’t know… really good. It makes me feel like I don’t even have words for how much I love Ryan Adams. Everything about his quirky demeanor and songwriting brilliance make me love his music even more. It’s like he just listens to classic and alternative rock and is like “you know what? I’m going to borrow that” and he does it, but he has this uncanny ability to make it sound like it’s his. He reinvents music with every note on his guitar. Then his unassuming vocals soar over the whole damn thing, making you feel like he is creating rock n’ roll in front of you the way the chef cooks your food at those amazing Japanese steakhouses. For my money, “To Be Without You” is one of the best songs I’ve heard in years and is a must listen. “Do You Still Love Me?” has one of the best rock hooks I’ve heard in a long time, too. But really just listen to the whole thing, okay?
1) Jeffrey Martin – One Go Around
*Full disclosure: As I said in my full review of the album, I was a Kickstarter supporter on this album. I do not receive royalties and this is my fair, unbiased opinion as an editor. I mean, but I do love his music, so maybe it’s not TOTALLY unbiased. But he’s not paying me to say any of this.
-I listen to Jeffrey Martin’s music so much that YouTube just knows to recommend his songs to me as soon as the Internet finds them. I had been listening to a version of “Poor Man” for a few years before I heard the studio version that leads off this incredible album. In fact, after a personally difficult 2016, this was a bit of a theme song for me. I was in love with the album after the first thirty seconds, but it continued to get better. What makes Jeffrey Martin so good is that he combines a contemplative acoustic guitar style with an English teacher’s love for literature. His gift for turn of phrase and inflection is second to none in music today. If you are a fan of folks like David Ramirez or Noah Gundersen, you have to give Jeffrey Martin a spin. The powerful lyrics come out of the experiences of common people, poor people, ordinary folks who have a bad run of luck. Even his songs that address social justice do so with a “salt of the earth” sincerity rather than some top-down self righteousness. You really need to hear this whole album, but my favorites are probably “Billy Burroughs,” followed by “Poor Man,” and the John Prine homage “Time Away.” I don’t know if he was trying to sound like Prine, but it sounds so much like him I could cry. This is the most powerfully emotional album I’ve listened to in a few years, moving me through a variety of emotions every time I hear it.