The Best of 2015
Albums – Part One: #20-#11 | Part Two #10-#1
Singles – Part One: #40-#21 | Part Two: #20-#1
The Master List | Individual Rankings
Our singles list concludes with strong entries from new artists, established superstars, and alternative country stalwarts.
“On to Something Good”
Written by Barry Dean, Luke Laird, and Ashley Monroe
At face value, “On to Something Good” seems oddly ordinary for an artist of Monroe’s caliber, with its cheery adages and light, ‘80s country vibe. But that hardly matters: There’s truth in those familiar lyrics, spirit and hope in Monroe’s delivery, and momentum in the ever-joyful melody – optimism at its sweetest. – Tara Seetharam
Written by Chris DeStefano, Hillary Lindsey, and Carrie Underwood
Underwood clearly understands that, whether you’ve ever touched alcohol or tobacco or not, the need for a release from everyday stress and from the pressure of expectation is universally relatable. “Smoke Break” places Underwood’s signature sensitivity in a new, grittier sonic landscape, expanding her musical repertoire while still reminding her fans of why they became fans in the first place. – Ben Foster
Written by Casey Beathard and Eric Church
The title track from Church’s recent surprise album is a rousing musical origin story that feels autobiographical and mythic. The song’s masterstroke is the way Church frames it as a conversation with the “weird kid in your high-top shoes…Sittin’ in the back of the class…I was just like you.”
What could’ve been an ego trip turns into a gesture of mentorship. This is also Church the showman at his best – gamely playing with the song’s tempo and indulging in his customary arena-ready flourishes. “Mr. Misunderstood” is a bold, genuinely fun way to deliver a message of self-empowerment. – Larry Rogowin
“Like a Wrecking Ball”
Written by Casey Beathard and Eric Church
Country artists tend to be too clever by half when they go the romantic seduction route. Not Church. “Like a Wrecking Ball” is the most palpable country song about intimacy since “You’ve Never Been This Far Before.” – Kevin John Coyne
“Lonely” (featuring Marlon Williams)
Written by Jay Neilson, Ron Neilson, and Tami Neilson
The year’s most exquisite throwback, “Lonely” places New Zealand’s Tami Neilson in the company of the country genre’s greatest vocalists. Comparisons to Connie Smith and Patsy Cline don’t come easy, but Neilson’s extraordinary control, tone, and power all merit such praise. The song is haunted and melancholy, allowing Neilson to pay tribute to her late father, and Marlon Williams’ lilting tenor creates a spectral call-and-response with Neilson’s mournful narrator. Best of all are the single’s final eight bars, which are an example of simply flawless vocal technique. – Jonathan Keefe
“Little Toy Guns”
Written by Chris DeStefano, Hillary Lindsey, and Carrie Underwood
An epic tour de force about the destructive power of emotional abuse, with the powerhouse vocal and grandiose production that the lyrics deserve. One of Underwood’s finest moments in a career chock full of them. – Kevin John Coyne
“Shut Up and Fish”
Maddie & Tae
Written by Taylor Dye, Maddie Marlow, Pete Sallis, and Aaron Scherz
Maddie & Tae tell of a different backwoods romance: Girl takes boy to the lake, girl shoos off boy’s pesky advances in the name of fishing. It’s empowering and charming all at once, a combination the duo does better than any other act right now. – Tara Seetharam
Written by Jeff Bhasker, Cam, Tyler Johnson
Call it a triumph of counter-programming—one that was, admittedly, given a boost from the problematic On The Verge promotion— that Cam’s “Burning House” emerged as a bona fide hit. A spare, acoustic ballad on which a woman sings about a fully-drawn, mature relationship: It’s hard to imagine a single more out-of-sync with the reigning sounds and perspectives at country radio in 2015. But the simplicity of “Burning House” gives the single a timeless quality. With its ambiguous narrative that trades in loss and lovely vocal harmonies, “Burning House” gives Cam a signature record with just her second single, and it’s a hit that is certain to endure. – Jonathan Keefe
“The Life You Chose”
Written by Jason Isbell
Against a quiet shuffle, Isbell ponders the place where fate and choice intersect. Nostalgia has rarely been explored so intelligently. – Tara Seetharam
Written by Jonny Burke, Evan Felker and Kyle Wieters
Perhaps the best thing that can be said about “Down Here” by Turnpike Troubadours is that it sounds like a long-lost single from the mid-90s, splitting the difference between the traditional-leaning mainstream hits by Shenandoah and Diamond Rio and the more rough-hewn alt-country of Son Volt and The Jayhawks. The style is a flawless take on modern honky-tonk, but the melody and wordplay (“Well you shot the moon and you wound upset/Ain’t I taught you how to hedge a bet?” is one hell of an I Told You So) create hooks upon hooks upon hooks, making “Down Here” one of the year’s catchiest and most clever singles. “You’re all right / You’ll be fine / You can have a nickel out of my last dime” is a hook that doesn’t pull its punch. – Jonathan Keefe
“Something More Than Free”
Written by Jason Isbell
There has never been a shortage of songs about the plight of the American worker, and there never will be. The title track from Isbell’s fifth solo album is one of the best in recent years. “Something” has all the characteristics of a great Isbell story song – immediately compelling melodies, vivid imagery and that distinctive, honest, endearing voice. “Something” is uncanny in the way it captures the passage of time – how a life with limited options can grind down a body and soul.
But it’s not a depressing song. It’s ultimately about a man holding on to his faith and dignity, best embodied by the heart of the chorus: “Sunday morning I’m too tired to go church…But I thank God for the work.” As is the case with a number of songs on the album, the fiddle playing from Isbell’s wife, Amanda Shires, winds through “Something More Than Free,” enhancing the song’s swelling sense of inspiration and tragedy. – Larry Rogowin
“I Remember You”
Written by Kelly Archer, Ben Caver, and Brad Rempel
A lone guitar and cello are the only backing needed for Yearwood’s beautifully understated ballad of loss. Her subtle, nuanced delivery warmly conveys the pain of separation coupled with hope of a future reunion. – Ben Foster
“Little Red Wagon”
Written by Joe Ginsburg and Audra Mae
Even more impressive than Lambert’s good taste to cover “Little Red Wagon” is her ability to make the quirky, subversive Audra Mae and the Almighty Sound track her own. With a few subtle lyric changes and a vocal performance dripping with self-awareness and wit, and it’s hard to believe that Lambert didn’t write this herself. – Kevin John Coyne
Written by Chris Stapleton
With his robust, soulful grit, Chris Stapleton makes us feel as though we’re in the best church service ever as he sings of mortality and how we’re simply travelers through life. “Traveller”, with its memorable melody and engaging instrumentation, is a fine example of how to blend traditional country elements with a fresh , accessible sound. – Leeann Ward
Little Big Town
Written by Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna, and Liz Rose
Jealousy isn’t usually becoming, but it’s sublime in “Girl Crush” as Karen Fairchild imagines herself encountering the woman who took her place. The song’s imagery is provocative and the trio’s harmonies powerfully placed, but it’s Fairchild’s haunting, seductive, pulsating confessions –nearly three-dimensional in “I’ve got a hard rush” – that make this one of Little Big Town’s most memorable tracks to date. – Tara Seetharam
“It Feels Good”
Written by Derek George, Phillip Pence, and Drake White
The year’s best bit of pure escapism, Drake White’s “It Feels Good” is a reminder that songs that aim for little more than to “make you feel happy” and “make you move your feet” don’t have to be mindless or artless. Moreover, it reaffirms that any song that wants to “make you shake it, honey” had damn well give you a reason to do so. The song’s construction is airtight and its lyrics are at turns witty and playful, while the production incorporates traditional country instruments into a progressive, modern framework. White, for his part, works himself into a right and proper frenzy in an ingratiating, blustery performance that announces him as a major talent worth following. – Jonathan Keefe
“Dime Store Cowgirl”
Written by Luke Laird, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves
Musgraves presents a musical autobiography that comes across as personal to her and yet still accessible to listeners, soaring on a lilting melody and a shimmering arrangement. No other single released this year has made me sing along so loudly. – Ben Foster
“Send it On Down”
Lee Ann Womack
Written by Chris Knight and David Leone
There are some performances that demand that you lean into a song and feel all of the vulnerability, loneliness and desperation found in it. Lee Ann Womack’s recording of Chris Knight’s “Send It on Down” is a wonderful example of how a song can pull you into its grip before you even realize it’s happening. With the support of Buddy Miller’s stone country background harmonies and a seductive straight up country production, Womack allows herself to elevate a great composition to a sublime experience. – Leeann Ward
Written by Jason Isbell
Isbell promised a ‘90s-influenced sound for Something More Than Free, the follow-up to his breakthrough 2013 album Southeastern. He has delivered with “24 Frames,” the album’s first single. The song plays like it could’ve charted alongside the likes of REM and Pearl Jam, when alternative rock took over pop. While it represents a stylistic departure for Isbell, “24 Frames” also shares a kinship with the Muscle Shoals-bred singer-songwriter’s best songs.
It’s sharply melodic, easy to sing and yet disturbing – especially lyrics like, “You thought God was an architect…Now you know…He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.” This now-famous line touches a nerve in a year dominated constantly by headlines of terrorism and mass shootings. But “24 Frames” is also an intensely personal song. Isbell is clearly working through different emotions here – emotions related to marriage, family and career. The fleeting, often dizzying, completely random nature of life can wreak havoc on these bedrocks. It can also snap them into focus. “24 Frames” is a rarity among pop songs these days. It’s an exhilarating, irresistible piece of songcraft and a fascinating enigma. – Larry Rogowin
Written by Marc Beeson, Jamie Floyd, and Allen Shamblin
It’s a credit to Monroe that the central metaphor of “The Blade” – a dramatic one, to be sure – doesn’t devolve into hyperbole. Instead, she uses it to calmly explain to a former love how their break-up has wounded them differently. She does so with measure and maturity: Even as she describes the razor felt against her heart, she expects no apologies.
And then the refrain begins, and she bleeds. Through her reason and poise and dignity, she bleeds, because he caught it by the handle, and she caught it by the blade. Monroe has never sounded finer as an interpreter than she does when riding this swell of pain, and her blend of vulnerability and grace transforms “The Blade” into as devastating a depiction of heartache as they come. – Tara Seetharam
I pretty much agree with all of these except Little Red Wagon (I’m sorry, I just don’t think it’s a good song. Miranda is capable of so much more than LRW: Bathroom Sink / Hard Staying Sober would have been a better single choices)
“Bathroom Sink” is a single.
favorites on part two: Burning House, Blade, Lonely and Something More Than Free.
Excellent job with the list. If this was representative of a country radio playlist, I would start listening again (I haven’t done so in a long, long time).
So, after seeing the list of the singles for 2015…I took it upon myself to do my own personal top 30 for the year. And, I think I’ve been hanging around this website a little too much in the past year…nine of the top ten songs in your list made my top 16 (The one exception being Drake White). That tells me I’ve either got good taste, or I’m as warped as you people…still haven’t figured it out yet.
All kidding aside, there were a couple of songs I was a bit surprised to see didn’t make the list (And don’t take this as criticism…this is all about opinions, and I know a lot of work goes into this for you folks. I just did it for my own amusement, and it took me some time to even narrow the songs down to 30). But, I was surprised to not see:
1. “She Don’t Love You” – Eric Paslay – At first I thought this was released last year, and made the 2014 best-of list…but, I was wrong. It’s probably my favorite thing released this year to get actual airplay. Part of it is because it reminds me of Alabama’s “Lady Down On Love”, which is one of my favorite songs. But, Paslay takes it a step further…where “Lady” showed the female character being heartbroken in the moment, Paslay shows how his actions and mistreatment of his girlfriend have affected all of her subsequent relationships, until she’s just a completely broken soul. It’s a beautifully-written lyric, and the production is gentle and unobtrusive enough to let it shine.
2. “Bombshell” – Ashley Monroe – This is one of those songs that I can’t believe has never been written before. The idea that the main character is about to reveal that big message…that it’s over…and that she knows that it’s going to completely devastate the man she’s with….geez, that’s a metaphorical gut punch. You can see the internal conflict is crushing her, but she knows she has to do it. This is such a nuanced song, and you not only feel awful for the person she’s letting down…you feel awful for her. (Still…I can’t bust on you guys for not representing Ashley Monroe enough…lol)
At any rate, it’s always fun to read these lists, and I appreciate the hard work the writers put into them. I look forward to seeing the album list.
(Also, for what it’s worth…I had Lee Ann Womack’s “Send it on Down” at number one on my personal list.)
I love that The Blade was number 1, but I would have liked to see either Maddie and Tae’s “Fly” or Chris Stapleton’s “Nobody to Blame” on here. I would have taken off Little Red Wagon and Girl Crush (Just not a fan of it, considering it’s not a country song).
There were certainly many other worthy songs that could have been included here, and we enjoy hearing about what songs our readers would add to the list. What a year!
Great list as always! Personal favorited of this half are the Isbell tracks, Musgraves, Cam, Womack and Monroe.
Just out of curiosity, will the individual rankings be released?
Despite some controversies with various Country News and the sort, I thought this was one of the best years in recent memory. There were so many great songs this year and it gives me a cautiously optimistic feeling for next year.
We will post the individual lists after publishing the albums list.
Were any of Sturgill’s songs from Metamodern 2015 singles or were they all 2014?
@ Motown Mike
All three of the singles from Metamodern Sounds… (“Turtles All the Way Down,” “The Promise,” and “Life of Sin”) were released before 12/01 last year– “Life of Sin” ranked on our singles countdown for 2014, and “Turtles” just missed the cut!
Top Five for me: Chances Are, Lee Ann Womack (and from an album that crushed with every track); The Blade, Ashley Monroe (and also from an album that crushed with every track); Fly, Maddie & Tae (if they stay the course and follow good counsel, they are part of country music’s bright future); Traveller, Chris Stapelton; and Burning House, Cam (and I know this is not out there on the radio or on anyone’s list, but her album’s single, Cold in California, is fabulous. Is it not fabulous that there are so many great choices from this past year? And full disclosure from me: I heard Lee Ann and Cam sing their respective singles in concerts, both of which were breathtaking to hear.
I have to amend my list by adding a sixth that ties with my other five. My conscience allows nothing less!! Carrie Underwood’s Heartbeat has to be on the top 2015 singles list. I commented previously on this single in the Heartbeat review posted on this site. While I agree that it is not fully a country ballad, it is sung beautifully – brilliantly and movingly – by one of country’s top female artists, ever. Heartbeat has to be on this list. Merry Christmas to all!
At the end of each year, I make myself a mix CD of my 20 favorite songs of the past 12 months. I’ve been doing this for a long time. Here is my 2015 playlist (its title comes from a radio show I used to do). Though not country, per se, this year’s list in particular has lots of country content. From a songwriting standpoint, most of my favorite songs these days are strongly influenced by country.
My favorite song of 2015 is “In the During of a Moment” by male/female banjo duo The Lowest Pair. The first of their two 2015 albums, The Sacred Heart Sessions, is brilliant. And this comes from someone who didn’t think “banjo duo” would be his cup of tea. Rounding out the Top 5 in no particular order are The Eye, Slippery Slope, The Blade and Here Tonight. My favorite 2015 album is Gretchen Peters’ Blackbirds. A fine year, especially for the ladies.
BEST OF FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT: 2015
1. They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To – WILL HOGE
2. Dime Store Cowgirl – KACEY MUSGRAVES
3. Tell the Falling Sun – KAIL BAXLEY
4. The Eye – BRANDI CARLILE
5. Broken Heart Tattoos – RYAN BINGHAM
6. When the Stars Come Out – CHRIS STAPLETON
7. When You Comin’ Home? – GRETCHEN PETERS & JIMMY LAFAVE
8. Monday (Everytime I Turn Around) – BOTTLE ROCKETS
9. How’m I Gonna Find You Now – JAMES MCMURTRY
10. David – CODY JINKS
11. In the During of a Moment – THE LOWEST PAIR
12. American Flags in Black & White – JOHN MORELAND
13. Slippery Slope – DAR WILLIAMS & JIM LAUDERDALE
14. Burning House – CAM
15. Knives of New Orleans –ERIC CHURCH
16. 24 Frames – JASON ISBELL
17. The Blade – ASHLEY MONROE
18. Second Hand Heart – DWIGHT YOAKAM
19. Here Tonight – JAMIE LIN WILSON
20. All Your Favorite Bands – DAWES