The Best Albums of 2015, Part Two: #10-#1

The Best of 2015
Albums Part One: #20-#11 | Part Two #10-#1
SinglesPart One: #40-#21 | Part Two: #20-#1
The Master List | Individual Rankings

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.

Allison Moorer Down to Believing

Allison Moorer

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”


Punch Brothers The Phosphorescent Blues

Punch Brothers

Phosphorescent Blues

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”


Alan Jackson Angels and Alcohol

Alan Jackson

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”

Kacey Musgraves Pageant Material

Kacey Musgraves

Pageant Material

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 Start Here

Maddie & Tae

Start Here

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”

Eric Church Mr Misunderstood

Eric Church

Mr. Misunderstood

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.”

Rhiannon Giddens Tomorrow is My Turn

Rhiannon Giddens

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”



Ashley Monroe

The Blade

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”

Chris Stapleton Traveller

Chris Stapleton


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”

Jason Isbell Something More Than Free

Jason Isbell

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”


  1. Even though I disagree with a lot of the selections, I appreciate the CU effort on the top singles and albums AND the Master list – it was good to know what was considered.

    My top 5 albums for 2015:
    1. Don Henley – Cass County
    2. Western Swing Authority – Now Playing
    3. Middleman Burr – I Like the Sound of That
    4. Striking Matches – Nothing But the Silence
    5. Adele – 25

    I also bought Ashley Monroe’s “The Blade” which I liked and Chris Stapleton’s “Traveller” which I was disappointed in, especially considering all the hype it got.

    The album I most look forward to in 2016 is Brandy Clark’s “Big Day in a Small Town” which I read is due for release on April Fool’s Day.

  2. Excellent list! Isbell was my top choice as well, and most of your top 10 mirrored my personal list. My top 10:

    1. Something More Than Free – Jason Isbell
    2. Mr. Misunderstood – Eric Church
    3. Ringling Road – William Clark Green
    4. Traveller – Chris Stapleton
    5. Blackbirds – Gretchen Peters
    6. Angels and Alcohol – Alan Jackson
    7. Class County – Don Henley
    8. Start Here – Maddie & Tae
    9. Sonic Ranch – Whitey Morgan and the 78’s
    10. Wild Ones – Kip Moore

    Honourable Mentions to Turnpike Troubadors – Self-Titled and Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material.

  3. Though ‘Southeastern’ was in my Top 10 in 2013, I don’t get the fuss over ‘Something More Than Free’ (I’ve really tried). Strongest songwriter today with a connection to country music? Not hearing it. Gretchen Peters, John Moreland and James McMurtry each moved me much more deeply in 2015. At this point, I’ll take current Drive-By Trucker Patterson Hood’s solo albums over Isbell’s. Talk about an underrated writer.

    I also found the statement that ‘Down to Believing’ is Allison Moorer’s “fourth unqualified masterpiece” to be a bit overboard. To me, such a record would be a five-start classic. That’s something I don’t think Moorer has ever given us. I love ‘The Hardest Part’ and consider it her best album, but I’m not sure I would call it a masterpiece. Those records are few and far between, especially these days.

    Listed alphabetically by artist, here are the 10 albums from 2015 that I like the best. Not a country list, per se, though all titles besides the first would merit consideration for country airplay if radio had an interest in moving the genre forward.

    FAVORITE 10 ALBUMS: 2015
    A Light That Never Dies – KaiL Baxley
    The Firewatcher’s Daughter – Brandi Carlile
    Small Town Dreams – Will Hoge
    The Sacred Heart Sessions – The Lowest Pair
    Complicated Game – James McMurtry
    Pageant Material – Kacey Musgraves
    The Blade – Ashley Monroe
    High on Tulsa Heat – John Moreland
    Blackbirds – Gretchen Peters
    Traveller – Chris Stapleton

  4. Looking over these choices and the comments, I am thrilled to see in total how much great country music emerged from this past year. Some of the artists picked are ones with whim I have been delighted to become familiar during 2015 such as Alison Moorer. Both she and her sister, Shelby Lynn, have never really received the attention they warrant even with much critcal acclaim. I’ll have to confirm here though my top two choices. I’ve rocked back and forth on these. I’m still tentative. It’s not that there are not other albums and artists that provided equivalent performances with their artistry and enjoyment levels – my gosh, Alan Jackson, Reba, George Strait, Carrie Underwood, and the like, yet two albums stood out for what they represent for the future of country music: those by Maddie and Tae and by Ashley Monroe. Of the two, I’ll go with the Blade as the year’s top album. Ashley’s gorgeously fragile and warm voice, the incredibly deep lyrics and emotions accompanied by often a minimalist background seem to leave the listener unable to focus on anything else. Music historians will look back on her as of the finest country voices of her generation, if not of all time. (I really think that the Blade will go down in country history as one of the best songs ever.) Now, Maddie and Tae. Wow. If they remain true to their country roots, then country music has a spectacular future. Given their young ages, they have a long future ahead of them. Happily. Their almost perfect harmonies, lyrics and gutsy but very feminine approaches to their music provide a listening delight.

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