the-best-country-of-2015
Chris Stapleton

The Best Country Music of 2015

In country music, the old and the new are never that far away from each other. They’re at least on speaking terms.

As one year among the many in country music’s timeline, 2015 didn’t offer anything particularly brand new, having much in common with the last few years. Many of the year’s biggest hit songs came from albums released the year before. There continues to be more big solo acts, commercially and in critics’ eyes, than superstar groups. Our “best country” list this year has one proper duo and two collaborations among solo acts; the rest of the albums each sport one person’s name on the cover. Like last year, two of the top three albums on our list were by female artists. Yet the biggest-selling acts of the year were mostly men.

That doesn’t mean in 2015 the genre didn’t have anything interesting to offer. The list we came up with — which, as always, is just scratching the surface of the year in country music — includes plenty of deep and surface-level pleasures for fans of country music, no matter how rigidly or loosely you define the genre. Want cowboy hats and beards? More fresh-faced dudes throwing some R&B rhythms into their country? Legends in relaxation mode? Newer artists making an initial impression? Critically acclaimed singers/songwriters deepening their approach? It’s all here.

The number one and number three albums on this 2015 list are by women who were two and three on our 2013 list, for their previous albums. Country’s present and future lie with them. But there are others on our list who have been making music for decades. Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard are the most obvious examples. Their album together is on our list, yet they each appear on other albums on the list, in voice or in song. In country music, the old and the new are never that far away from each other. They’re at least on speaking terms. — Dave Heaton

 

Artist: Sam Outlaw

Album: Angeleno

Label: Six Shooter

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Sam Outlaw
Angeleno

Sam Outlaw’s surname might suggest that he’s a hard honky-tonking rebel, but the classic sound that Outlaw harkens to is instead a relaxed, balmy So-Cal countrypolitan. With pedal steel, piano, and nary a drum loop, Outlaw combines Glen Campbell’s ‘70s crossover-country, James Taylor’s breeze-borne melodicism, and George Strait’s neotraditional ranch-hand aesthetics into a laid-back blend at odds with anything on today’s hit-country radio. Angeleno came about after Outlaw caught the ear of guitar master and musicologist Ry Cooder, who produced and played on the album and also recruited cream-of-the-crop pickers like Dawes singer/guitarist Taylor Goldsmith, Punch Brothers fiddler Gabe Witcher, and My Morning Jacket keyboardist Bo Koster to join in. With such personnel, you know the record sounds terrific, but sealing the deal are Outlaw’s own wry, astute tunesmithing and handsome vocal character. Outlaw proves to be one romantic cowboy, as on the easy shuffle of “Love Her for a While”, but he’s also willing to put an elbow to the ribs of current country darlings with songs like “Jesus Take the Wheel (And Drive Me to a Bar)”. — Steve Leftridge

 

Artist:Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard

Album: Django and Jimmie

Label: Legacy

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Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard
Django and Jimmie

This is the seventh Willie Nelson album Buddy Cannon has produced in the last seven years. It’s been a fruitful creative endeavor, Cannon essentially helping give this phase of Nelson’s career its own demeanor, one based on simple pleasures, including the aesthetic surfaces of Nelson’s guitar and voice. The same personality was brought to the latest album-length collaboration between Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, their first as a duo since 1987. Django and Jimmie clearly has one eye looking backwards: the titular reference to their influences, their memorial song for Johnny Cash, a Bob Dylan cover, a tropical-tinged song about a hippie/groupie and new versions of a couple of their own older songs. That looking-back brings along with it a certain amount of forlorn longing related to our own mortality. On the whole the album feels frivolous, with touches of sadness; not a bad combination in their hands. — Dave Heaton

 

Artist: Brett Eldredge

Album: Illinois

Label: Atlantic

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Brett Eldredge
Illinois

Among the legion of solo male country acts this year, tourmates Thomas Rhett and Brett Eldredge stood out for their playful integration of other musical styles — R&B, dance-pop — into accessible, mainstream country sounds. On his second album Illinois, Eldredge leaned slightly more towards R&B, giving his generally light and pleasant songs an extra dose of gravity. Illinois contained some of the best surface pleasures of the year, through great melodies sung well, and also a heady atmosphere of romantic wish fulfillment. Two great singles projected infatuation; “Wanna Be That Song” should be the third, considering how well it uses songs to personify these longings. The album title and title song reflect another sentimental longing: for his home state. — Dave Heaton

 

Artist: Maddie and Tae

Album: Start Here

Label: Republic

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Maddie and Tae
Start Here

Maddie and Tae made a big impression in 2014 with their clever hit “Girl in a Country Song”, giving voice to the voiceless female figures in all those hit bro-country anthems. Their debut album Start Here rather smartly avoids trying to replicate that song’s success, instead focusing on building great harmonies, atmosphere and feeling within more straightforward songwriting — with still occasional dips into clever-for-clever’s sake. They excel at present-tense takes on the fleetingness of youth: the “Downside of Growing Up”, as they call it on the final track. Start Here is clearly concerned with introducing the duo as a strong force, above and beyond a song that could, in the commercial country world, be considered a novelty. — Dave Heaton

 

Artist: Eric Church

Album: Mr. Misunderstood

Label: EMI

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Eric Church
Mr. Misunderstood

That “Jeff Tweedy is one bad mother” line in the title track might be just a bit of ass-covering so that Tweedy doesn’t play Tom Petty to Eric Church’s Sam Smith over Wilco’s “Misunderstood”. Nevertheless, it turns out that Tweedy wasn’t the only one capable of an excellent surprise this year. Following up last year’s arena-rumbling album The Outsiders, Church dials things back with the on-the-sly, no-hype Mr. Misunderstood. Church, as the title indicates, continues to position himself as a Nashville renegade, and in terms of his songwriting on this record, he indeed combines enough tough and tender originality to make him a Music City outlier. Backed by his fierce road band, the album cooks hot at times, but Church is one of the few Nashville cats who can kill with just his acoustic. He’s a terrific singer, employing a heartsick tenor on “Mixed Drinks About Feelings” alongside Susan Tedeschi, a swamp-funk falsetto on “Chattanooga Lucy”, a resolute holler on “Knives of New Orleans”, and the conversational confessions of “Holding My Own”. Holding his own? Understand this: With Mr. Misunderstood, Church proves that he’s well ahead of rest of the pack. — Steve Leftridge

5 – 1

Artist: Dwight Yoakam

Album: Second Hand Heart

Label: Warner Bros.

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Display Width: 200Dwight Yoakam
Second Hand Heart

Back in the Aughts, Dwight Yoakam appeared to have an elusive relationship with his songwriting voice, as most of that decade consisted of cover albums that felt a thousand miles from Yoakam’s hitmaking late ‘80s/early ‘90s heyday. It’s safe to say that Dwight is back, hitting an impressive resurgence with 2012’s widely acclaimed 3 Pears and now this year’s Second Hand Heart. Backed by his slick-picking, hard-hitting touring band, Yoakam wrote every song here except for the chugging, rocked-up take on “Man of Constant Sorrow” and Anthony Crawford’s winsome album-closing “V’s for Birds”. Elsewhere, like its predecessor, the new record scores not by attempting to replicate the Bakersfield redux of his glory days, but by lending that signature pliant whine to new tapestries of sound, bringing in everything from power pop influences (“She”), fuzzed-out Elvis boogies (“The Big Time”), reverby ‘65-Beatles romps (“Liar”), and dreamy folk-rock (“Believe”). Dwight purists need not panic — see the Telecaster twang of “Off Your Mind” — but Second Hand Heart moves the needle impressively in the career of a great American artist. — Steve Leftridge

 

Artist: Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen

Album: Hold My Beer, Vol. 1

Label: Lil’ Buddy Toons

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Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen
Hold My Beer, Vol. 1

With Lloyd Maines producing and playing in the band, Texas singers, and frequent touring companions, Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen sound like they’re having a blast running through old honky-tonk sounds on Holy My Beer, Vol. 1, a collection of originals, plus a couple Merle Haggard songs and one by Joe Ely. The general story told is here’s some musicians who live to tour and record country music, no matter how successful they are (“I don’t have hits / I’ve got standards”, goes one chorus). I might cast this aside as too purposely ‘real country’, if this wasn’t such a loose yet impeccable recreation of sounds and themes essential to the genre. There’s a song about spending all your time hanging out in bars, and that’s the sound they pursue and achieve on Hold My Beer, Vol. 1; music made by, and for, folks used to hanging out in country and western bars. — Dave Heaton

 

Artist: Kacey Musgraves

Album: Pageant Material

Label: Mercury Nashville

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Kacey Musgraves
Pageant Material

There’s some real Nashville-songwriting-factory brilliance going on here, built around the stage persona of Kacey Musgraves, which has a dose of small-town-country-girl-gone-celebrity, some smart-ass or not Miss Manners-style advice and a truckload of sentimental cliches, often sung so we can’t 100% tell if she knows they’re cliches, though we suspect she does. It’s strange the extent to which reviews and Internet fan talk have used her as an example of “real” or “authentic” country music, considering the way she plays every angle at once and puts a gorgeous sheen on it. The title track may make fun of the idea that she’d be “pageant material”, but this album is pushing her further into the mainstream, through music built to take pleasure in, whether it’s a tune, a clever turn of phrase or the polished, pretty sound of the album we’re enjoying. Those neon cactuses she likes to put on stage are for me the visual embodiment of this album – a bit kitschy yet filled with their own emotional and historical resonance. — Dave Heaton

 

Artist: Chris Stapleton

Album: Traveler

Label: Mercury Nashville

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Chris Stapleton
Traveler

Did Chris Stapleton single-beardedly make contemporary country music, well, countrier in 2015? The long-term effect of Chris Stapleton’s recent star-making appearance on the CMA Awards is yet to be seen. Still, on his solo debut, the former SteelDrivers singer flexes his formidable talents on a range of smart, old-school country that refuses to kiss a square inch of new country-radio butt. That Traveller is a number one album (across all genres) in 2015 is a remarkable shot in the arm that proves there’s still plenty of room for 1978-style outlaw country in today’s mainstream landscape. The slow-baked version of George Jones staple “Tennessee Whiskey” might be the breakout cut, but everything else here showcases Stapleton’s peerless gift for melody and trademark chainsaw vocals: the smoldering “Fire Away”, the driving “Parachute”, the drain-the-cup ballad “Whiskey and You”, the Willie-esque “The Devil Named Music”. The Best New Artist award is silly, as Stapleton has been around for years, but as a killer back-to-basics country reboot, Traveller deserves its many accolades. — Steve Leftridge

 

Artist: Ashley Monroe

Album: The Blade

Label: Warner Music Nashville

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Ashley Monroe
The Blade

Once again working with Vince Gill and Justin Niebank, who also co-produced 2013’s Like a Rose, Monroe, for The Blade, expands her musical range on 13 stellar new songs, all co-written by Monroe herself. On The Blade, Monroe at turns evokes ‘80’s-era crossover Dolly (“On to Something Good”), sassy honky-tonkabilly (“Winning Streak”), and throwback fiddle-and-steel waltzes (“I’m Good at Leavin’”). In doing so, the Knoxville knockout continues to prove her singular knack for bringing contemporary crackle to classic country arrangements. Throughout, especially on the ballads, like the gorgeous “Bombshell”, Monroe demonstrates her remarkable gifts as a singer: In this era of country bluster, she serves the songs with unerringly great vocals–lovely, nimble, nuanced–while refreshingly avoiding strident bombast. As a result, the total product–the graceful production, the first-rate playing, the near-perfect cycle of songs, Monroe’s superb performances–makes The Blade the year’s most-satisfying and timelessly great country collection. Steve Leftridge

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