In an ideal world, Jason Isbell would somehow be able to switch the titles of his two most recent albums. While his previous effort, Southeastern, chronicled his struggle toward sobriety and found liberation in the powers of redemption and self-worth, Isbell’s latest, Something More Than Free digs deep into the foundations of the contemporary South. In terms of tone and theme for each of these exceptional records, the titles would be more fitting were they swapped, and it’s simply remarkable that slight misnomers are as close as Isbell comes on either album to striking a false note.
Alan Jackson Angels and Alcohol Alan Jackson is known as reliably country and not one to chase trends, but rather, somebody who holds steady as a standard-bearer for modern traditional country music. Even so, in an effort not to become stagnant, he has kept us intrigued by also taking some detours into other genres along the way, which have included adult contemporary, bluegrass, orchestral Christmas and two gospel albums. With these career detours notwithstanding, we still reflexively know that when he announces that he’s releasing a country album, it’s guaranteed to be exactly that, which is what we get with Angels and Alcohol.
Kristian Bush Southern Gravity Although there is already a long list of great albums that have been released this year, Southern Gravity, Kristian Bush’s first solo album apart from Sugarland, just may end up being the most pleasant surprise of 2015. First of all, lets address some of the elephants in the room. Frankly, the biggest surprise of the album is the discovery that Kristian Bush can actually sing. Without the long shadow of the Powerhouse Jennifer Nettles, Bush has a chance to find his literal and figurative voice and it’s a good one. Additionally, whether it was deserved or not, Bush had developed the reputation of being the intense, mysterious half of Sugarland. So, another surprise is that the album is relaxed and accessible and avoids drowning in over thinking or overproduction. With that said, the final surprise is that the album is more country than we had heard Read More
Reba McEntire Love Somebody This is the strongest album Reba McEntire has released in more than twenty years. Listening to Love Somebody is hearing a legend of the genre rediscover her own voice. She’s always been an excellent singer, but after making her name as both a heartbreak queen and the common folk’s Everywoman, she had tremendous difficulty navigating the post-Shania Twain landscape of female empowerment anthems.
Ralph Stanley & Friends Man of Constant Sorrow Perhaps the uninitiated may have “discovered” Ralph Stanley through his participation in the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, For those who have spent their lives appreciating the man and his music, Ralph Stanley is a certified living legend — not to mention one of the last remaining links to that first generation of bluegrass musicians who blazed the trail for newgrassers and traditionalists alike. Even though he threatened retirement not long ago, the 87-year-old singer is back with a new duets album, available through Cracker Barrel stores.
Aaron Watson The Underdog The narrative surrounding Aaron Watson’s The Underdog makes it an album that is easy to root for: Buoyed by more than a decade of goodwill and fan support and a deft pre-release promotional push, the album surprised many with its #1 bow atop Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, surreptitiously around the same time that erstwhile Sony Nashville CEO Gary Overton made his controversial remark about how artists who don’t get played on country radio “don’t exist.” The Underdog, the twelfth album from a traditional-leaning Texas singer-songwriter known as much for his humility as for his music, provided a perfectly timed counterexample to Overton’s short-sighted arrogance.
The Mavericks Mono For all of their commercial successes and industry recognition, The Mavericks were never a band that bowed to popular trends in country music. On Mono, the second album of their full-fledged revival, they play even faster and looser with genre conventions than ever before. The result is an album that, if not necessarily their best—What a Crying Shame and 2013’s In Time set particularly high standards— may be the most purely fun album of The Mavericks’ career.
Gretchen Peters Blackbirds More so than her artfully-turned phrases and her novel, evocative imagery, perhaps Gretchen Peters’ greatest gift as a songwriter is her mastery of perspective. Peters’ ability to shift her narrative voice to create fully realized, authentic characters whose emotions and experiences drive her songs has very few peers, and that particular skill serves her well on Blackbirds. A meditation on mortality, Blackbirds highlights a variety of experiences and points-of-view on matters of death and loss, and it’s that multifaceted perspective that gives the album such remarkable depth.
Kimmie Rhodes Cowgirl Boudoir Though she’s recorded steadily since the late 80s, Texas singer-songwriter Kimmie Rhodes hasn’t enjoyed either the commercial or critical cachet of many of the other alt-country and Americana acts. Both Wynonna and Trisha Yearwood have recorded her songs, but she hasn’t been a steady go-to songwriter like, say, Gretchen Peters or Kim Richey. That’s largely the result of how unassuming Rhodes’ work routinely is: Her songs are never less than well-constructed and are always observed in plainspoken but effective lines, while her singing hinges on her gentle, wispy voice.
LeAnn Rimes All-Time Greatest Hits In the eleven years since the release of LeAnn Rimes’ first Greatest Hits package, she’s certainly released enough material to fill out a second installment. But the song selections of her new All-Time Greatest Hits clearly position it as a replacement rather than a continuation, with 13 of its 20 tracks having already appeared on her original 2003 retrospective.