The lower half of our Best Albums of 2015 list includes the welcome return of an eighties lady, a return to country from a legendary Eagle, and no less than five Country Music Hall of Famers.
Check back tomorrow for our top ten!
Playing out like a piano bar set at an upscale lounge, Simply transforms Oslin classics from synthesizer-based eighties staples into timeless standards. Aiding the set along is Oslin’s wise curation of her own catalog. The revived songs truly are among her best, and the new track, “Do You Think About Me,” is worthy of inclusion alongside her greatest work. – Kevin John Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Do You Think About Me,” “Hold Me,” “New Way Home”
Of the seemingly endless cavalcade of neo-folk bands who emerged in the wake of Mumford & Sons’ commercial success, Humming House strike perhaps the most perfect balance between their outsized, unbridled joy and their real technical skill. They’re a talented bunch with a facility for traditional forms of folk and bluegrass and a wily, freewheeling streak that ensures their songs and performances aren’t beholden to those traditions. Songs like “Run With Me” and “Hitch Hike” teem with confidence and a palpable energy. Revelries is an album about feelings of empowerment that come from both individual and shared experiences, and its positivity and optimism are easy to embrace. – Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Great Divide,” “Hitch Hide,” “I am a Bird”
Jamie Lin Wilson
Holidays & Wedding Rings
Wilson has one of the most beautiful and unique voices in all of country music – a honeyed twang that quivers with emotion and honesty. Best known for her work with the luminous, harmony-heavy quartet, The Trishas, Wilson steps out on her own with a debut long-player that’s tuneful and deeply personal. The pride of D’Hanis, Texas, wrote half of the album’s 12 tracks on her own and co-wrote the rest. All of the songs are steeped in classic country textures and themes yet distinguish themselves as richly-detailed portraits of specific, messy lives. – Larry Rogowin
Recommended Tracks: “You Left My Chair,” “Yours and Mine,” “Roses By the Dozen”
Gretchen Peters had such success as a songwriter in the nineties that her albums from that time felt like demo collections, where the best tracks would be cherry-picked by the multitude of successful, compelling female country artists of the day.
Now that there are so few mainstream country artists that fit that description, there’s a thrill of discovery associated with a set like Blackbirds, where even Peters seems to understand that these will be the definitive performances of these songs, and arranges them to play to her strengths as a vocalist. That means a sound that is dark, foreboding, and drenched in melancholy, the perfect fit for the harrowing themes of abuse and mortality that permeate throughout. – Kevin John Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Blackbirds,” “The House on Auburn Street,” “The Cure for the Pain”
Love Somebody recaptures the gift that made McEntire such a remarkable artist – giving voice to relatable, fully drawn female characters as they navigate life, love and heartbreak. In a radio landscape that all too often ignores women over 35, it’s deeply refreshing to hear McEntire sounding so secure in her identity as a mature woman in country music. It’s not just her best album in years – it’s the return of an old friend. – Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “She Got Drunk Last Night,” “Just Like Them Horses,” “Love Land”
Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell
The Traveling Kind
The problem with a one-off project when it becomes a two-off project is that the magic that makes the first project work may not come back around the second time. That wasn’t the case in this collaboration between old friends and cohorts Crowell and Harris. The Traveling Kind nicely lives up to the high standards set by Old Yellow Moon. Harris and Crowell co-wrote a few songs on this project, and “The Weight of the World” and “You Can’t Say We didn’t Try” end up being highlights. The cover songs are brilliantly chosen, particularly their duet on Lucinda Williams’ “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad.” – Sam Gazdziak
Recommended Tracks: “Bring it on Home to Memphis,” “You Can’t Say We Didn’t Try,” “Just Pleasing You”
Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard
Django & Jimmie
Django & Jimmie is so ripe with Nelson and Haggard’s affection for each other that the music itself could have become peripheral to their dazzling chemistry. Thankfully, the pair handpicked 13 songs that feel fresh, engaging and imaginative, and approached them with renewed energy. Their signature craftsmanship impresses even after all these years, and you can’t help but be grateful all over again that country music was gifted these two characters. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” “Swinging Doors,” “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash”
When Don Henley announced a full fledged foray into country music, it was easy to doubt and even dismiss how committed he’d end up being to making a legitimately country album. However, in one of the quietest and nicest surprises of the year for country music, Henley fully delivers with Cass County.
While the album can boast a long list of respected musical guests, the real star of Cass County is its main singer and its well chosen and wonderfully executed songs. Moreover, Henley’s country music vision, which includes employing steel guitar and mandolin, works effectively with his signature laid back style. – Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Brand New Tennessee Waltz,” “When I Stop Dreaming” (with Dolly Parton), “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune”
Even at their commercial peak, The Mavericks never really cared for the conventions of commercial country music. Since their unexpected reunion, the band has drifted further afield of the norm, and they’ve never sounded better. Mono packs a heavy dose of Latin influences on top of 1950s and ‘60s country and pop sounds, making it a very difficult album to classify but a very easy one to enjoy. Raul Malo continues to have one of the premier voices in the industry, and this batch of songs gives his plenty of opportunities to soar, from the smoldering “All Night Long” to the shuffle of “Out the Door.” – Sam Gazdziak
Recommended Tracks: “All Night Long,” “(Waiting for) the World to End,” “The Only Question Is”
Watkins Family Hour
The debut album version of Sara and Sean Watkins’ popular, decade-plus L.A. variety show is a loose, eclectic celebration of roots music and the bonds it can foster. Family Hour, recorded live in studio, features regular Watkins guests Fiona Apple, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, pedal steel/dobro ace Greg Leisz, bassist Sebastian Steinberg and drummer Don Heffington. The set consists entirely of covers – songs by the likes of Robert Earl Keen, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead and Fleetwood Mac. Styles include Western Swing, blues, roadhouse stomps and oral tradition mountain jams.
Almost everyone takes a turn at lead vocals, with Sara handling five tracks. She’s never sounded better as a vocalist while, of course, gracing the proceedings with her fiddle. Her guitarist brother is beautifully rueful on his turns. Apple belts her way to a show stopper. Heffington is calmly hilarious. Really, though, the star is the group – the many moments of exquisite interaction between great musicians playing songs simply because they love them. – Larry Rogowin
Recommended Tracks: “Hop High,” “Where I Ought to Be,” “Not in Nottingham”