The 10 best country albums of 2015 | The music

Despite all the criticism leveled at country music this year, the genre had an undeniably excellent 2015. In the indie world, artists stopped figuring out if they were called “country” or “Americana” and just started making the records they wanted. On both sides of the mainstream/indie spectrum, people cheered on the success of Chris Stapleton, which broke out in huge fashion at the CMA Awards. And, best of all, listeners around the world were blessed with good, honest music that wasn’t hard to find. I mean seriously good music. I’m so excited about the albums on this list that I can’t contain myself. Country music is alive and well, folks!

So with all the usual caveats firmly in place (of course I haven’t heard every album released this year…of course these rankings are subjective…of course some people will say that some of them don’t shouldn’t be called true “country” albums) here are my 10 favorite country albums of the past year.

1. Kacey Musgraves – Pageant gear

Musgraves’ sophomore album is sweetness personified — not the bland kind that conjures up images of vanilla lattes and Everybody Loves Raymond. It’s enjoyable in the same way that the company of an old friend is enjoyable, since Pageant Material’s confident and laid-back presentation of life and all its messiness makes a listener feel known and understood. I wrote in March that “Musgraves has a way of making people feel special…reminding them that no one really is,” and that’s exactly what expert songwriting on this album does so effectively. Songs like Biscuits and Cup of Tea ask people to mind their own business and be themselves, clearly. “We all have the right to make mistakes,” she reminds us ironically.

It’s credit to producers Shane McAnally and Luke Laird that the album’s sound, which is often as lush and charming as a Hawaiian beach, helps that message get across easily. Family is Family and Dime Store Cowgirl marry Musgraves’ outspoken spirit with the whimsical music of classic Disney songs, creating a sense of camp around Pageant Material that’s more disarming than entertaining, though it’s not Tinkerbell we’re listening to. here. The album ends with a rhythmic punch in the breakup track Fine and the Willie Nelson duet Are You Sure that are as incisive and charming as any of the great classics of yesteryear. Pageant Material is like a beauty queen that you can really relate to. It’s a career-boosting achievement that proves Musgraves’ Same Trailer Different Park was no fluke.

2. Toll Troubadours – Toll Troubadours

After years of buzz on the independent circuit, the Oklahoma natives, the Turnpike Troubadours, are ready for their big shot. The band challenges the assumption that making real country music in 2015 is somehow outdated or uncool, and their fiddle-laden Red Dirt compositions resonate with a new generation of country music fans. The Troubadours’ self-titled third album demonstrates a perfect balance between old-school instrumental music (the sound of real drums is so sweet to ears too accustomed to electronic drum beats) and memorable melodies with lyrics by vocalist Evan Felker. and bassist RC Edwards who offer an intelligent view of life, seen through the eyes of young men who spend most of their time in smoky bars.

Fall Out of Love contains what might be the smartest line of any song I’ve heard this year: “Well you bet your heart on a diamond/And I played the clubs in spades”, and the single Down Here is a beautiful song about friendship that features the encouraging chorus, “You’ll be fine, you’ll be fine / You can have a penny of my last dime.” The album has a laid-back, earthy quality to it that makes it an unassuming, crowd-pleasing listen, and that’s good because there are so many crowds out there who will want to keep listening to these rising country stars on the go. ‘to come up.

3. Eric Church – Mr. Misunderstood

Surprised on CMA Awards night, Church’s latest album, a collection of songs about the star’s love of music (see Record Year, Mistress Named Music) and family (see Holdin’ My Own, Three Year Old), is his best work to date. While The Outsiders made occasional forays into hard rock and heavy metal, Mr Misunderstood is a more focused album that mixes country music with heart rock and, thanks to some excellent production choices from Jay Joyce, makes Church something of a modern-day Bruce Springsteen. Too many stars in Nashville are desperately trying to maintain their relevance, but Church acts like an industry leader. It’s a career album that deserves to be heard. (I’ve written a lot more about it here.)

4. Leigh Nash – The State I Am In

No album surprised me more this year than Leigh Nash’s superb set, The State I’m In, on which the Sixpence singer None the Richer took a complete leap into country music and reflected on her Texas homeland. . This year marked a resurgence of the “country and western” sound once popularized by artists like Gene Autry, and The State I’m In has so many beautiful moments of solitary mariachi and pedal steel that you can almost see the sun. of the desert lie behind a cactus while listening.

Nash’s soaring voice is as vulnerable as it is seductive on songs like Spider and the Moth, where she shyly explains to an ex: “I’m sorry, so sorry I came/Like a spider to a moth/I just can’t turn it off like a light. Thematically, the album deals with homesickness and grief, addressing both with calm humor and wise reflection. “Tell me now, Tennessee / Do I have anything left?” Nash wonders at one point, offering a glimpse into the mind of an artist who weaves her moments of insecurity into musical gold.

5. Chris Stapleton – Traveler

What more can be said about Chris Stapleton at this point? He’s the real deal – a man who wrote hits for half of Nashville, won numerous CMA awards, collaborated with Justin Timberlake, scored the No. 1 album in the country and, overnight, became the coolest man in country music. (Fun fact: Adele had a head start. She covered Stapleton’s If It Hadn’t Been For Love on the 21st.)

At the heart of Stapletonmania is the fact that Traveller, his debut album as a solo artist, is a tremendous collection of songs dazzlingly carried by Stapleton’s throaty, soulful voice. He conveys fearsome swagger on tracks like Outlaw State of Mind and Was It 26, but reveals desperate sensibility on Whiskey and You and Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore. They’re songs by songwriters who don’t try to say too much – and they’re topped off with expert production by Dave Cobb that adds a vintage feel to the whole thing.

6. American Aquarium – Wolves

Self-hatred never sounded so hopeful as on the North Carolina Troupe’s latest outing, a beautifully understated Southern rock album that finds frontman BJ Barham expressing gratitude for his stable place in life. (and its sobriety too) after years of hard life on the road. Losing Side of 25, my favorite song of 2015, is worth the price of admission alone. It illustrates the duality of insecurity (“Every week at the Food Lion/Every other parents brag”) and the hope (“There are different roads to happiness/I took a different path I guess/I came out the other side just fine”) that makes this album so special . Other songs, like Who Needs a Song and Man I’m Supposed to Be, live in the same space, and they’re backed by intricate arrangements that make the band more than just a showcase songwriter.

7. Sam Outlaw – Angeleno

A former Los Angeles-based advertising pro, Sam Morgan, 30, took a sharp left turn two years ago to pursue his one true passion: music. Taking his mother’s maiden name, he entered the music business as Sam Outlaw, and frankly, we’re all better off for his decision. His debut album is a polished, cosmopolitan version of traditional country country (he calls it “SoCal country”) with songs that are both brooding and ironic. A chorus begins memorably: “Jesus takes the wheel/And drive me to a bar. There are also mariachi elements here, which heighten the enchanting melancholy of the whole affair and sell the Angeleno concept.

8. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free

Hey look, another album produced by Dave Cobb! (There’s a reason guys like Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton flock to him. He’s so good.) Isbell followed up his Southeast success with another set of songs that grapple with the difficulties and complexities of the life. Something More Than Free has a strong musical backbone thanks to Isbell’s band and his wife, violinist Amanda Shires, but overall it opts for a rather stripped-down sound and relies primarily on its lyrics, written by Isbell alone, to carry the emotion. .

Fortunately, Isbell has the writing chops to make this strategy work. The remarkable track 24 Frames describes life’s curved balls thus: “You thought God was an architect, now you know / He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to explode.” On Children of Children, Isbell reflects on the struggles young mothers face when raising their children, lamenting, “All the years I took from her / Just being born.” The songs on this album worship people who put in long hours and work hard, a lifestyle that both makes them and breaks them.

9. Maddie & Tae – Start Here

When Maddie & Tae burst onto the scene with their hilarious protest track Girl in a Country Song last year, some saw the duo as a novelty act – a pair of young women above their heads in their quest to bring fiddles and comedy back to country music. But those critics were effectively silenced by Maddie & Tae’s excellent debut album, a confident, outspoken ensemble about the pursuit of dreams and young love that conjures up the best Dixie Chicks material.

They showed comedic wit on tracks like Sierra and Shut Up and Fish, and they proved equally effective on elegiac efforts like After the Storm Blows Through, a song about helping a friend through. a tragedy. Their harmonies are often exquisite, and their instrumental choices are reminiscent of the jovial pop-country sounds of the 1990s. Maddie & Tae have that in spades. (More information here.)

10. Andrew Combs – All These Dreams

Andrew Combs’ second album is filled with well-led waltzes and country ballads from his restrained croon, who often adds a touch of drama to these beautiful songs. Sweet 1970s inflections of pedal steel and acoustic guitar give the album a dreamy quality that makes tracks like Strange Bird and Slow Road To Jesus sound like jukebox songs that could play in bars on rainy nights. Combs writes about the world with a patient and inquisitive candor, and it’s a pleasure to hear his thoughts presented so simply.

Honorable mentions: Everything listed in the old columns here and here and here. Not everything is country per se, but country fans will absolutely appreciate it.

Toya J. Bell