Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The 10 Best Albums of 2015

      As the sun sets on 2015, the inevitable "Best Of 2015" lists begin to appear.  2015 saw some great albums from big names in both the mainstream and independent country worlds.  Making a full album of great songs is still a major accomplishment.  While much of the music industry is seeming to move away from the album format, these artists still make a full collection of songs that matter.  These are your ten best albums of 2015.

First, let's give some love to the honorable mentions.  These albums were all fantastic in their own right, but just missed on the top ten.  Presented in no particular order:

Man of Constant Sorrow- Ralph Stanley & Friends (full album review here)
Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions- Robert Earl Keen (full album review here)
Holding All The Roses- Blackberry Smoke (full album review here)
Medicine- Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors (full album review here)
Small Town Dreams- Will Hoge (full album review here)
Second Hand Heart- Dwight Yoakam (full album review here)
Texas Like That- Zane Williams (full album review here)
Django & Jimmie- Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard (full album review here)
Pageant Material- Kacey Musgraves (full album review here)
Angels & Alcohol- Alan Jackson (full album review here)
So This Is Life- Courtney Patton (full album review here)
The Blade- Ashley Monroe (full album review here)
Faded Gloryville- Lindi Ortega (full album review here)
Squelch- Jason Boland & The Stragglers (full album review here)

10. Mr. Misunderstood- Eric Church (tie)

Yes, there is a tie for number 10.  This list was all but set to go, then Eric had to go and drop a fantastic surprise on us.  I couldn't knock one out, so the top 10 list is actually 11.  Sue me.  

After the mixed bag that was The Outsiders, Eric Church got back to doing what he does best.  Mr. Misunderstood is full of Eric showing off his songwriting skills.  He still gets a little adventurous, but he doesn't get as outlandish as The Outsiders did.  This album was dropped as a surprise during the CMA Awards.  It got a little lost in the shuffle of the Chris Stapleton victory tour that evening, but it is a worthy late-addition to the Top 10 and one of the best albums of Eric's career.

"Eric Church truly is a Mr. Misunderstood in country music.  He is too rock for country, too country for rock, too bold, too cocky, and too different.  Yet, he has tons of hits and packs arenas every night.  Mainstream fans love him, and traditional fans respect him. He is unconventional, but that's what makes him appealing.  Mr. Misunderstood brings us back to the raw talent that made Church a star and the honest songwriting that cuts straight to the heart of the matter.  Mr. Misunderstood was a surprise album, but it was a pleasant surprise.  Chris Stapleton may have stole the show at the CMA Awards, but Eric's been on my ears every day since then with this record. " (full album review here)

Standout Tracks: "Mr. Misunderstood", "Record Year", "Three Year Old", "Knives of New Orleans", "Holding My Own", "Mixed Drinks About Feelings"

"Mr. Misunderstood"

10. Angeleno- Sam Outlaw (tie)

Sam Outlaw got everyone's attention with his unique last name, but he kept it with his great sound.  This is not outlaw country, this is West Coast Cowboy music.  Angeleno comes across like a Gram Parsons mixed with Dwight Yoakam.  While country may have its roots in the East, the West has a huge influence on country as well, and this easy listening album has been in steady rotation all year.  It gets better with every listen.

     "Angeleno is a time capsule of an album with its variety of sounds and lyrics.  Sam Outlaw has done a heck of a job in creating an album that has a very unique sound that can stop you in your tracks.  He has immediately shot close to the top of artists to keep an eye on.  If you enjoy the smooth, classic country from the likes of Gram Parsons, John Denver, Glen Campbell, or Don Williams,  Angeleno is something you have to hear.  This guy is going to be a star.  He has the look, the sound, and the voice to make waves in country music.  Sam Outlaw may catch your attention with his name, but he will keep it with his talent." (full album review here)

Standout Tracks: "Country Love Song", "I'm Not Jealous", "It Might Kill Me", "Keep A Close Eye On Me", "Angeleno", "Love Her For A While"

'It Might Kill Me"

9. Cass County- Don Henley

Just as everyone expected, one of the best country albums of the year came from a rock and roll star.  While most of the washed up rockers come to country to crap on our beautiful genre and make a quick buck, Don Henley came here to honor a musical expression that has greatly influenced him.  Of course, Don is anything but washed up, and this collection proves it.  Whether covering classics, writing new standards, going solo, or inviting his famous friends, there are few missteps on Cass County.  This is how a crossover album should sound.

     "Nine times out of ten, outsiders to country music show up to carpetbag the genre and make a buck off of our traditions. Don Henley’s Cass County is an example of that rare instance when the artist really wants to explore his roots. While the “country” stars of today continue to make bad pop, it takes a rocker to show up and prove how it’s really done. I came into Cass County not expecting much, and I leave having listened to one of the best albums of the year. Check out Cass County to hear a great interpretation of country music from someone who appeared to be an outsider, but in the end understands country music more than most insiders do." (full album review here)

Standout Tracks: "The Cost Of Living", "When I Stop Dreaming", "The Brand New Tennessee Waltz", "Bramble Rose", "Praying For Rain"

'When I Stop Dreaming" (feat. Dolly Parton)

8. Start Here- Maddie & Tae

Wow, where do I begin?  If you asked me to point to one of the biggest reasons to not give up on mainstream country, these two girls would be at or near the top of my list.  While most ladies in mainstream country music seem to either waver on what their sound is or lack any sense of direction, Maddie & Tae loudly and proudly state exactly who they are.  They made a pop-country album that actually sounds like country music.  This album is as slick and commercial as you can get, but does a knockout job of sticking to the roots and traditions of the genre.  There is still hope for mainstream country!

     "To call Maddie & Tae a breath of fresh air is a giant understatement.  These girls are like a blast of 100% oxygen from a mask while choking in space.  Start Here is a clinic in how to make country music accessible and trendy enough for modern audiences and intelligent, heartfelt, and traditional enough for old school fans.  This is a healthy evolution of the genre.  Take note, men of country radio.  Maddie & Tae may have risen to the top with a kiss off song that was light-hearted, but that kiss-off may become all too real when these ladies start knocking you off your comfy roost with their biting wit and tight harmonies."  (full album review here)

Standout Tracks: "Girl In A Country Song", "Sierra", "Downside Of Growing Up", "After The Storm Blows Through", 'Shut Up and Fish", "Fly"

"Downside Of Growing Up"

7. Sonic Ranch- Whitey Morgan & The 78's

A lot of people who are unhappy with modern country miss the days of Waylon and Willie never holding back and telling it like it was.  Well, if that's your cup of tea, Whitey Morgan is here to give you something to care about again.  Sonic Ranch takes you on a round trip of every emotional state, from stellar highs to devastating lows.  This is good ole fashioned honky-tonk music with a modern spin.  

     "The flow of this album is one of its best features. Every song features twangy guitar, lots of steel, and an often under-used instrument, the piano. While each song has its own unique feel, they all fit together as a cohesive unit very well. One of the little nuances of music that can bring an album together is the track list. Whitey Morgan does a great job on Sonic Ranch of getting the tracks into a perfect order that extenuates the highs and lows of the songs. There are no jarring transitions or out-of-place tracks. Sonic Ranch is an album that needs to be listened to in one sitting straight through, and that’s the way it should be."  (full album review here)

Standout Tracks: "Waitin' 'Round To Die", "Still Drunk, Still Crazy, Still Blue", "Good Timin' Man", "Me And The Whiskey", "Low Down On The Backstreets"

'Waitin' 'Round To Die"

6. Adobe Sessions- Cody Jinks

Texas just knows how to produce great music.  Cody Jinks is another rising star in the Lone Star state that released great music in 2015.  Adobe Sessions is raw storytelling and country gold at its finest.  This album, much like Whitey Morgan's, takes you through many human emotions.  Four or five of these songs could have made my top 10 songs in any year that I've operated this site.  "David", a tale of two friends and the different paths they take in life, is a Song Of The Year contender.  Adobe Sessions is country music at its finest from front to back. 

     "Cody Jinks represents everything that is good about country music. His sound is reminiscent of our renegade heroes, his lyrics are both approachable and comprehensive, and he has a voice that cuts through the noise to make you stop and listen. What more could you ask for? Adobe Sessions is one of the best albums of the year, and a great representation of country music at its finest."  (full album review here)

Standout Tracks: "Birds", "David", "Rock And Roll", "We're Gonna Dance", "Cast No Stones", "What Else Is New"


5. Something More Than Free- Jason Isbell

Good luck finding any legitimate "Best Of 2015" list that doesn't feature this gem.  Jason Isbell is a master songwriter, and Something More Than Free is a perfect example of his unmatched skill.  Jason has a knack for finding poetic ways to tell real stories about real people.  This album lives on the edge of country, but it is still an excellent album to display the lyricism that country music was built upon.

    "Something More Than Free is a country album for thinkers and do-ers.  Jason Isbell's writing has never been better.  He really found a way with this release to create characters that are easy to relate to combined with beautiful melodies and masterful playing.  Each track plays out like its own mini-novel, leaving the listener with lasting impressions each go-round.  I would strongly suggest giving this album a listen.  Country music used to be the voice of the voiceless, and with records like this, I can see it regaining that title."  (full album review here)

Standout Tracks: "Something More Than Free", "If It Takes A Lifetime", "Hudson Commodore", "Speed Trap Town", "24 Frames", "How To Forget"

"If It Takes A Lifetime"

4. Hold My Beer Vol 1- Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen
Let's remember one thing here: country music is fun.  While it was created as a distraction to, and lament of, hard times, it is still perfect for unwinding with as well.  While most mainstream stars make fun albums that have shallow lyrics and rock and hiphop inspired backing tracks, Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen made an album of fun, traditional, honky-tonk jams.  Many expected this album to be a silly album full of novelty songs, but they were shocked to get one of the best traditional country albums of the year.  The protest song "Standards" and the fantastic "El Dorado" cap off a great listening experience.

       "Like a modern day Pancho and Lefty, Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers have a special bond that comes across through their music. These two guys understand country music and enjoy making it for the fans. This album is very clearly a labor of love. Many great albums still have that underlying notion that there was some grand idea or scheme behind the album. Hold My Beer has none of that. These two guys wanted to record some songs to make themselves and their fans smile. Mission accomplished. Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen have created one of the best albums in recent memory. Hold My Beer is a must have for fans of real country music."  (full album review here)

 Standout Tracks: “Standards”, “El Dorado”, “Reasons To Quit”, “In The Next Life”, “Lady Bug”, “’Til It Does"


3. The Underdog- Aaron Watson

If there ever was an album that truly lived up to its name, this is it.  The Underdog is an independent album from a regional star that went to the top spot on the Billboard Country Albums Chart. 2015 was a big year for small, independent artists, and Aaron Watson's The Underdog got that train rolling.  While many pointed to this album as a symbolic victory, which it was, it also featured some great music.  Aaron's sound is reminiscent of the cowboys of the early 90's.  The Underdog was the little album that could in 2015.

      "The Underdog is exactly the shot in the arm that mainstream country needs. It is accessible enough that it can fit in on radio, but still as country as can be. Aaron Watson isn’t a newcomer to people with good taste. He is a veteran of the stage and that could work wonders in helping his star rise. This isn’t some kid who just got a record deal. This is a bona fide Texas star who worked his butt off to build a passionate fan base. He knows how to work a room and a crowd. This experience is going to help his name continue to grow. If you like real country music with lots of heart and lots of fiddle, you need to check out The Underdog. While you’re at it, check out the rest of Aaron Watson’s catalog. You’ll find some great music."  (full album review here)

Standout Tracks: "Fence Post", "Family Tree", "The Underdog", "Bluebonnets", "That Look", "The Prayer"

"The Underdog"

2. The Turnpike Troubadours

The Turnpike Troubadours make high energy country music that anybody can enjoy.  These guys are primed to be the next big breakthrough act.  Their self titled album is easily the most accessible, gripping, and fun album this year.  If you like to have a song make you stop and think, they have it. If you want sorrow and sadness, they have it.  If you want to party, they have it.  They have stage presence like non other, and they stand out with their unique approach.  I've been on these guys' bandwagon for quite some time now.  If you are looking for the next breakthrough act, look no further.

"They start with some type of storytelling aspect. All of the songs are a story or introspective in some way. There are no laundry list songs or throwaway lyrics anywhere to be found. Even the fun, light-hearted songs pack a punch. They take those lyrics and perform them with the intensity and gusto of a punk rock band. Many of these songs would make excellent rock songs, as the band really excels at bringing the raw energy of a live show to the album format. However, the key third ingredient is their accompaniment. They have some loud, loud, loud guitars blaring throughout the album for sure, but never does that volume overpower the traditional instruments. This is a fiddle and steel based record. The result is something that the traditional country fans can go crazy for and that the modern crowd can get into as well. It has rock energy with country lyrics and instruments."  (full album review here)

Standout Tracks: "The Bird Hunters", "A Little Song", "Easton And Main", "Fall Out Of Love", "Bossier City", "Down Here", "7 Oaks"

"Easton & Main"

1. Traveller- Chris Stapleton

What can I say that hasn't already been said?  Traveller is a masterpiece of an album, there's no doubt.  Chris has a once-in-a-generation voice that shakes you to your very core when he opens up.  He is a maestro with the pen, writing lyrics that cut straight through the BS to get to the heart of the matter.  He backs this great voice and wonderfully written songs with some of the best country instrumentation you can find.  The biggest thing that separates this album from the field is the fact that others finally realized it.  Chris Stapleton shocked the world at the CMA Awards, sweeping every category he was nominated for, and upstaging favorites like Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, Sam Hunt, and Miranda Lambert.  Traveller jumped to the top of the charts and "Nobody To Blame" is making waves at radio.  It may be too early to tell, but Chris may have started a full blown traditional country revolution.  Of course, this fire has been growing for some time, but Chris Stapelton and Traveller's big victories may have been the catapult we needed to launch this movement into the mainstream.  When you release an album of this caliber that rattles the industry to its very core, you are more than deserving of such high honor.  Congratulations to Chris Stapleton for his 2015 Keep It Country, Kids Album Of the Year, Traveller!

     "If you can’t tell, I am ecstatic about this record. To have a guy with such a high standing in the mainstream world release a major label album of this kind of quality is unheard of. Chris Stapleton is following in Jamey Johnson’s footsteps from a few years ago as he establishes a true country sound among the mainstream crowd. I don’t want to hear people calling this “traditional country”, it is just “country”. This is what our genre should sound like. This album is 1955, 1977, and 2015 all wrapped up into one. It is traditional and forward thinking. Country music isn’t dead folks. Chris Stapleton just went and shocked it back into life. Go out and grab two copies of Traveller as soon as you can, as you will wear the first one out pretty quickly"  (full album review here)

Standout Tracks: "Parachute", "Daddy Doesn't Pray Anymore", "Whiskey And You", "Traveller", "Nobody To Blame", "Was It 26"

"Whiskey And You"


"Nobody To Blame"

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