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.
Country music is well represented in the major categories – numerically, at least – and the overall nominee list proves once again that NARAS voters have the widest, most diverse, and yes, best taste of all industry award voters.
Here are this year’s nominees in the big four and all country and country-related categories. It’s worth noting that because Miranda Lambert won Best Country Album last year for Platinum, nothing from that set was eligible in any of the Country categories.
Punch Brothers The Phosphorescent Blues In reviewing their 2010 album, Antifogmatic, I noted that Punch Brothers were “rapidly evolving into a string-band version of Radiohead.” That assessment comes to full fruition on The Phosphorescent Blues, at once the band’s most obtuse and most accessible album. Opening with the 10-plus minute suite of “Familiarity,” Punch Brothers have never been so forward with their hybrid of classical sophistication with prog-inspired Bluegrass, as the track ebbs and flows between “Amen!” exclamations right out of high mountain gospel and intricate vocal harmonies that would fit seamlessly on Brian Wilson’s SMiLE. The band’s technical virtuosity is on full display on the instrumental performances of wondrously complex arrangements by DeBussy and Scriabin.
Telecast Winners: Best Country Album: Miranda Lambert, Platinum Album of the Year: Beck, Morning Phase Best New Artist: Sam Smith Record of the Year: Sam Smith, “Stay With Me (Darkside Version)” Song of the Year: “Stay With Me” – James Napier, William Phillips & Sam Smith Pre-Telecast Winners: Best Country Solo Performance: Carrie Underwood, “Something in the Water” Best Country Duo/Group Performance: The Band Perry, “Gentle on My Mind” Best Country Song: “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” – Glen Campbell and Julian Raymond Best American Roots Performance: Rosanne Cash, “A Feather’s Not a Bird” Best American Roots Song: “A Feather’s Not a Bird” – Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal Best Americana Album: Rosanne Cash, The River & the Thread Best Folk Album: Old Crow Medicine Show, Remedy Best Bluegrass Album: The Earls of Leicester, The Earls of of Leicester Best Contemporary Instrumental Album: Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer, Bass & Mandolin Read More
A Song About Time.
Here are the staff picks:
Tara Seetharam: “For the Good Times” – Jamey Johnson
About a man spending one last night with his lover, frozen in the “good times” instead of thinking about the pain that will inevitably ensue. There are plenty of versions of this song that I enjoy, but Johnson’s hits on the exact swirl of genres that just gets to me.
As Dan observed in his single review of “Up on the Ridge”, there was a noticeable decline in Dierks Bentley’s music after his well received Long Trip Alone album. It is purely speculative to suggest, but one can’t help but wonder if Bentley himself felt staleness creeping into his music as well. It’s not farfetched for the idea to be true, since Dierks has proven himself to be an astute artist in the past. So, why wouldn’t he notice if there was, indeed, a shift?
The 100 Greatest Albums of the Decade, Part 2
Miranda Lambert, Kerosene
On her first major-label album, Lambert reveals herself as a fiery, spirited artist with a lot to say, and a clever voice with which to speak. Her sharp songwriting skills, though a work in progress as we’d later learn, take her naturally from aggression to desolation and back again. But most notably, through Kerosene, Lambert got the traditionalists to pay a little more attention to mainstream country music and its more promising artists. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Kerosene”, “I Can’t Be Bothered”
Kris Kristofferson, This Old Road
This Old Road has not have received as much mainstream attention as Kristofferson’s recent appearance in Ethan Hawke’s Rolling Stone article; an unfortunate fact, given it was the legendary writer’s first album of new material in 11 years. With This Old Road Kristofferson shines a spotlight on the world much in the same his earlier writing shined a spotlight on himself. The result is an overtly political album with more depth than most modern attempts have been able to produce.- William Ward
Recommended Tracks: “The Last Thing to Go”, “Pilgrim’s Progress”
Interview emerging country music stars today and it may surprise you—especially if you listen to the radio—that they are all influenced by Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and (if they play mandolin) Bill Monroe. When you find that they also claim to emulate artists such as Garth Brooks, George Strait, Alan Jackson or whoever else has recently gone platinum (with the exception of the Dixie Chicks), it can be almost discouraging to consider that few are even that traditional.
This brings us to Sarah Jarosz, whose debut with Sugar Hill Records, Song Up in Her Head, presents a very different view of influences and a noticeably different performer in its eighteen year old co-producer.
Seven years ago, while requesting an autograph from Chris Thile, Sarah Jarosz, not yet a teenager, expressed interest in, someday, playing music with Chris Thile. Since then, she has added Darrell Scott, Tim O’Brien, Jerry Douglas, Aofie O’Donavan, and Abigail Washburn—all who appear on her album—to her most often quoted list of influences. As a result, we are presented with an impressive, but much less calculated list than one might expect from a newcomer. Given that these are some of my favorite artists, it also sets a high bar with this particular reviewer. Fortunately for this recent high school graduate who plays mandolin, guitar, clawhammer banjo, octave mandolin, piano, and toy piano (we will get to that) on her debut album, these lofty expectations are not beyond her ability.
Since the “indefinite hiatus” of progressive acoustic darlings Nickel Creek, despite a history of diverging solo work, releases from Chris Thile and Sean Watkins have been shackled by expectations of a Creek-like sound. Much like releases from her former band mates, Sara Watkins self-titled debut is not a surrogate Nickel creek album. Instead, it is an album that is purely individual, combining the talent that we have already witnessed with more than a few surprises.