Trail Mix: Essential Record of 2017

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Check out these must-hear albums from acts who hail from the Blue Ridge region.



In the R&B-flavored “Got Soul,” the closer on The Order of Time, June is truthful when she says she “could sing you a country tune” and “play you the blues.” The record is indeed a fertile blend of roots music, covering the aforementioned genres and more. The Tennessee native ruminates on the rhythm of life as she moves between gritty juke-joint blues (“Shakedown”), gospel-hued slow jams, (“If And”), and banjo-led primal folk (“Man Done Wrong”). The one steady constant is June’s dreamy voice, an irresistible spirit guide in every tune.



Written following the dissolution of his marriage to actress Mandy Moore, Prisoner is Adams’ most focused and cohesive set of tunes to date. The record chronicles the stages and emotional fallout of a failed relationship, covering blame, anger, sadness, and hope. From the hard-charging heartland rock opener, “Do You Still Love Me?” to the icy ballad “Shiver and Shake,” Adams keeps the arrangements lean and spacious, and by the time his voice fades in the closer, “We Disappear,” he’s delivered a timeless break-up album.



Following up his Grammy-winning Something More Than Free, Isbell went back to recording with his long-time band, the 400 Unit, to make a hard-hitting album that blends amp-cranked guitar edge with Isbell’s deeply personal songwriting. With an earnest Southern drawl, the Americana tunesmith laments restless thoughts in “Anxiety” and ruminates on mortality in the poignant ballad “If We Were Vampires.” But optimism also shines through, especially in the gritty highway cruiser “Hope the High Road.”



From the expansive literary mind of John Darnielle comes another curveball in the catalog of North Carolina folk-punk cult favorites the Mountain Goats. This bold concept album—from a guy who has also framed records around Bible verses and pro wrestling—offers observations about old-school goth culture. The music in no way matches the subject matter. From the dark and theatrical “Rain in Soho” to breezier pop songs (“We Do It Different on the West Coast” and “Unicorn Tolerance”) Darnielle uses dramatic piano chords and orchestral flourishes to tell detailed tales with obscure historical references and humanizing observations about navigating life as an outsider.



Adam Granduciel, leader of Philadelphia-based indie outfit the War on Drugs, took his deepest dive in the studio yet, meticulously adding instrumental layers to create an emotionally colorful rock epic. With lyrics steeped in redemption, delivered with a weary folk drawl, Granduciel blends reverence for unchained arena-ready power with obsessive sonic detail. A best example: “Holding On,” a driving anthem that takes shape from the 80s heartland heyday but sounds freshened with shiny modern synths and perfectly placed ascending guitar notes.



Waxhatachee’s Out in the Storm offers another look at bad love. Katie Crutchfield, who named the band after a creek near her old home in Alabama, leads a cathartic power-pop romp that seems to shed frustration with each distorted riff. She shares a ton about self-doubt and being mistreated, but she never wallows in melancholy. In songs like “Silver” and “Never Been Wrong,” the open-hearted admissions are delivered with melodic guitar squalls that get inside your head and stick around.



Jersey-bred, Nashville-based singer Nicole Atkins has the voice of an angel but she’s saying goodbye to devilish behavior in Goodnight Rhonda Lee. The album, a meditation on growing up and putting away a good-time alter-ego, is an honest statement filled with retro grace. Atkins made the album at Niles City Sound in Ft. Worth, Texas, with the crew that crafted Leon Bridges’ Coming Home, so the vintage vibe is well dialed, covering a range of sounds from classic soul to Brill Building pop. Key track: “Listen Up,” a personal wake-up call through vintage dance-ready R&B.



After beefing up with extra backing musicians and detouring with duo projects with Ben Bridwell and Jesca Hoop, it’s great to have Sam Beam back in the confines of his hushed acoustic roots. Beast Epic is an engaging return to form, with Beam, who’s been delivering poetic alt-folk as Iron and Wine for the past decade and a half, letting his lullaby melodies do all the heavy lifting. With mostly just his gentle voice and relaxed strumming, the songwriter—born in South Carolina and now living in North Carolina—offers allusions to the afterlife (“Thomas County Law”), romantic pleas (“Last Night”), and introspection on his native South (“About a Bruise”).

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