The upper half of our albums list reflects the revitalization of country music in 2015, courtesy of mostly younger artists with fresh perspectives in their lyrics and arrangements. There is still a legend or two in the mix, but if this year has proven anything, it’s that the genre’s future is in good hands.
Down to Believing
Down to Believing ranks alongside The Hardest Part, The Duel, and Crows as the fourth unqualified masterpiece of Allison Moorer’s career. The tunefulness of its accessible country-rock style is deceptive: This is exceptionally dense, tricky stuff, as Moorer tackles such difficult topics as the dissolution of her marriage to Steve Earle and her son’s Autism diagnosis. Down to Believing invites and rewards multiple interpretations, and the album emerges as a fully-realized cycle of grief. Moorer explores both the sources of grief and the different ways people grieve with uncommon insight and unflinching personal detail.
Already one of the genre’s most gifted—and most underrated—talents, Moorer has never before pushed herself as a songwriter or a singer to such extremes as she does on Down to Believing, and it makes for a truly vital album that is a testament to what country music can accomplish at its very best. – Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Like It Used To Be,” “Tear Me Apart,” “Mama Let the Wolf In,” “Have You Ever Seen the Rain”
An awesome achievement for these “New-grass” masters. Blues is a sprawling feast of craft and imagination. Frontman/mandolinist Chris Thile and his acoustic cohorts – banjoist Noam Pikelny, guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Paul Kowert and fiddler Gabe Witcher – cycle through a variety of genres and styles. There’s alternative rock, classical, provocative pop, chamber pop and yes, bluegrass. The arrangements – which sometimes include producer T Bone Burnett on electric guitar and Jay Bellerose on drums – are complex and layered.
Yet the album is also quite easy on the ears, filled with melodies that resonate quickly as well as tantalizing vocal and instrumental interplay. A number of the songs ruminate on the nature of relationships in this ever-expanding digital age. The impressionist lyrics can be elusive, especially in the midst of all the bravura musicianship. Still, Thile’s highly emotive singing – and the band’s harmonies – inspire a deep connection with the material. The Phosphorescent Blues is an album to live with and listen to over and over – not to master it, but to bask in its intricacies and outsized vision. – Larry Rogowin
Recommended Tracks: “Familiarity,” “My Oh My,” “Little Lights”
Angels & Alcohol
Angels & Alcohol is Alan Jackson’s strongest straight up country album in a decade, which is saying a lot, considering he does not make a habit of recording bad albums. More than 26 years into his recording career, Jackson’s voice is as clear as ever and his songwriting and song choices are still impeccable. Angels & Alcohol expertly showcases easy, compelling songwriting, strong melodies and delightfully country productions that remind us why country music is so wonderful. – Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “You Can Always Come Home,” “Angels and Alcohol,” “Gone Before You Met Me”
The perfect follow-up to a universally-acclaimed commercial debut. Musgraves expands upon the winning template of Same Trailer Different Park with an even stronger and more varied set of songs bolstered by more fully realized arrangements and vocal performances. She continues to spin her own unique perspective on country music’s signature themes, layering the songs with intimate, first-person detail while connecting it with the commonality of the human experience. It’s a strong album in its own right, but one of its finest qualities is that it sounds like an album no one but Musgraves could have created. – Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Dime Store Cowgirl,” “Pageant Material,” “Good Ol’ Boys Club”
Maddie & Tae
Maddie & Tae first grabbed our attention last year with “Girl in a Country Song”, but one would be mistaken to think that that hit was the beginning and end of their artistry. Such is proven by their delightful debut, which offers heart and sass in equally welcome measures. Start Here boasts solid harmonies, pleasantly twangy arrangements, strong hooks aplenty, and a moderate feminist bent, but it’s the authentic, unmistakable perspective of two modern-day young adult women that truly makes the album hit home. – Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Waitin’ on a Plane,” “Shut Up and Fish,” “Downside of Growing Up”
His outsider persona still doesn’t jibe with the reality of a career that boasts a slew of radio hits and industry award nominations, but that failure to suspend disbelief is one of the few real knocks against Eric Church’s Mr. Misunderstood. Church’s rock star aspirations still play a prominent role in the album’s style, but his approach is more measured here than it was on the messy, over-reaching The Outsiders; the proggy interstitial on “Mistress Named Music” actually works in context, while “Round Here Buzz” is tailor-made for an arena full of raised smartphones shining with flickering flame apps. Both aesthetically and lyrically, the album is Church’s most mature work to date, as he considers the ways that music has enhanced his self-perception. From the title track to “Mistress Named Music” and “Record Year,” Church uses music to understand himself better, and Mr. Misunderstood is a smart, insightful album that invites its listeners to do the same. – Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Mr. Misunderstood,” “Chattanooga Lucy,” “Kill A Word,” “Record Year.”
Tomorrow is My Turn
Rhiannon Giddens, the front woman for Carolina Chocolate Drops, debuted her first solo album at the very beginning of 2015, but Tomorrow Is My Turn has easily kept a stronghold on our consciousness and our hearts all of these months later.
Not only does Giddens demonstrate a superb taste in music by the songs that she has chosen for this album, she reminds us, once again, of her outstanding interpretive skills. She masterfully conveys a spectrum of emotions from heartache to exuberance and many points in between. As a result, the typically reserved T-Bone Burnett matches his productions to her infectious spirit to make an album full of warmth and energy. – Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind,” “She’s Got You,” “Up Above My Head”
Much has been said about the progressiveness of 2015’s leading women, but on The Blade, Monroe is less interested in challenging the status quo than she is in tapping into her emotional intelligence. Content in her womanhood at 29, she weaves astute self-awareness and quiet confidence through the rich set of songs.
That’s not to say she’s mastered happiness; joy is rare on The Blade and bittersweet at best. Rather, she’s found meaning in and tolerance for the complexities of her life as a southern woman. The clincher is her warmth as a storyteller –driven by that beautiful, familiar, lilting voice– that makes her stories feel like our stories: We revel in her sins and bleed when she bleeds, like on the exquisitely devastating title track. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “The Blade,” “If The Devil Don’t Want Me,” “Winning Streak”
It comes as no surprise that Chris Stapleton’s Traveller is as good as it is. As a songwriter and as the lead vocalist for The SteelDrivers, Stapleton has earned a reputation as a top-tier writer with a voice that has few equals in the country/Americana realm. The surprise came when Stapleton walked away from the Country Music Association Awards show with three trophies — an almost unheard-of event for someone with next to no radio presence. Does Traveller mark the dawn of a new era for country music, where quality trumps superficiality and traditional country elements make their return to the mainstream?
Probably not. But let’s enjoy Traveler for what it is: a powerful, soulful gem that happily bucks every trend in today’s commercial country music. There’s nothing wrong with slick, polished records, but a little grit can be a good thing, too. – Sam Gazdziak
Recommended Tracks: “Fire Away,” “Tennessee Whiskey,” “Was it 26”
Something More Than Free
Jason Isbell is quite possibly the strongest songwriter today that shares even a tangential connection to country music. His talents go beyond simply craftmanship and even beyond his remarkable ability to write distinctive and believable characters. His true gift is to infuse those characters with a deep humanity, eliciting empathy for those with questionable actions by enlightening us with their intentions.
Such is the power of an effective internal monologue set to song, whether he’s telling the story of a day laborer too tired to go to church (“Something More Than Free”) or of a small town man abandoning his father in the ICU (“Speed Trap Town.”) Isbell doesn’t attempt to hide the flaws, nor does he try to justify them. He just tells their stories, and that’s justification enough. – Kevin John Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Speed Trap Town,” “The Band That I Loved,” “24 Frames”