10. Sara Evans, Words
One of Country Music’s most-beloved artists of the past two decades rolled the dice, and established her own record company. Her initial release was a set that could easily stand with any of the best work of her RCA years.
Highlight: “Letting You Go.” If you can make it through this song about a child leaving home without a few tears in your eyes, you’re a bigger person than us.
9. Lee Brice, Lee Brice
The singer-songwriter has enjoyed his share of success over the years, but at the same time, has never gotten his true measure of respect from the industry. This album deserves to be the one to take him to that next level -- with a variety of tracks and moods that showcase his incredible range.
Highlight: “Story To Tell.” As you can imagine, having Warren Haynes and Edwin McCain on a track definitely gives this cut some attention, but take a listen the soulful cut, and we think you’ll agree that it’s well deserved.
8. Kelsea Ballerini, Unapologetically
?For her sophomore album, the Tennessee-born songstress raised the stakes, delivering an album that showed deep and personal growth as both a singer and a songwriter. Here’s an early prediction for 2018: Ballerini for female vocalist of the year at either the ACMs or CMAs, if not both. We feel pretty strongly placing our bets on her.
Highlight: “I Hate Love Songs.” Simply said, should Black River release the track as a single, watch this one become her biggest hit thus far.
7. Lady Antebellum, Heart Break
You know, it might not be a bad idea for an act to take some time away from the spotlight. It definitely worked in the case of Lady A, as the trio released their best album in years with a disc that showed them sounding a little more loose and energetic than they have sounded in a while. Quite possibly the best record for cruising down the highway in 2017!
Highlight: “Hurt.” Ballads have always been a hallmark of the Lady Antebellum sound, but this stunning ballad is one that deserves a shot at single status at some point in the album cycle.
6. Chris Stapleton, From A Room, Volume 1
The second solo project from the reigning CMA Male Vocalist of the Year was a bit more introspective and moody than the wide-ranging Traveller, but still – Stapleton singing the plumbing section in the Yellow Pages would be enough to make this list. The singer/songwriter delivered the goods once again on an album that shows just why he is as respected as he is.
Highlight: “Up to No Good Livin.” For all of his blues stylings, this traditional-sounding track evokes memories of some of the best work of Hank Williams, Jr. or Merle Haggard.
5. Lee Ann Womack, The Lonesome, The Lonely, and The Gone
Her style might not be in demand at Country Radio these days, but the songstress demonstrates a creative flair that is as sharp as ever -- with an album that proves that her style of music remains timeless. Newcomers, take heed: This is how it is done.
Highlight: We could say the whole album, but “Hollywood” has such a late-1960s Capitol Records / Hollywood vibe to it that is undeniable. You almost can see the yellow and orange on the vinyl copy!
4. Brantley Gilbert, The Devil Don’t Sleep
Gilbert continues to make music that resonates with his core audience -- and hopefully those numbers will continue to grow in the coming year. It’s easy to look at the tattoos and the chains and dismiss him, but there’s a lot more to the new father than what you see. What you hear is pretty captivating at times, and just might take you by surprise.
Highlight: “Three Feet Of Water.” An inspirational song from one of country's "bad boys" might be somewhat of a tough sell, but somehow Big Machine needs to think of a way to get this song -- and performance -- some well-deserved attention. It’s a jaw-dropping cut that just might open people’s eyes to Gilbert’s vastly-underrated depth as an artist.
3. Darius Rucker, When Was the Last Time
Since he began making country music about a decade ago, it can be argued that no artist has been as consistent as the Hootie & the Blowfish frontman. That certainly goes for the singer’s latest album -- which resists making a major musical statement, in favor of continuing to do what the Grand Ole Opry member does best -- at a very high level.
Track from When Was The Last Time that needs to be heard: “Twenty Something.” The singer reflects on the passing of time and how priorities change over the years. Though he didn’t pen the song, Rucker makes you feel that he identifies with each and every line.
2. Midland, On the Rocks
Take away the fact that one of the members was a model at one point. Take away the fact that another is a successful music video producer. Take away the fact that they dress the part of '60s/’70s country-rockers from California. This album would still make our list, solely because of the music. The trio could very well be one of the most important new artists to come along in a decade, with a sound that is sure to influence others to record in a throwback style.
Highlight: “Burn Out.” The harmonies and the production of this track are undeniable, and sounds like it could have been a George Strait album cut from # or Ocean Front Property. Needless to say, that’s a pretty cool thing!
1. Lindsay Ell, The Project
After searching for a signature sound the past few years, Ell turned to Kristian Bush to steer the musical ship from the producer’s chair -– and the Sugarland member wisely stepped out of the way and simply let Ell present her music the way that she has always wanted to. The writing and the performing were first-rate, but listen to those guitar riffs – they don’t come from seasoned Nashville veteran players, that’s the artist herself. There are few acts out there as deserving or as hard-working as Lindsay Ell, and she deserves this time in the spotlight.
Highlight: “Space.” Walking the fine line between loneliness and longing is a tough place to be, but on this standout track, Ell makes it sound effortless.