Looking Back at The Top 20 Albums of 2015

Country Perspective's 2015 Most Essential Albums

Lately I decided to go back and take a look at all of the album grades I handed out last year. When it comes to grading albums, it can be very polarizing to say the very least and I know there are times when you flat out disagree with me. Other times we’re in complete agreement. One of the toughest aspects of grading is deciding what album is worthy of a 10/10. What constitutes a 10/10 can vary amongst people and I’ve found context is one of the biggest determining factors. Some view a 10/10 in a historical context, some view it in a yearly context, some in a genre context, etc. When it comes to a 10/10 to me, at its core it all comes to a feel for me. I can usually sense a 10/10 from my first listen and I know it’s the mark of a truly great album.

Another important thing I keep in mind when grading is not putting too much weight on the artist’s past material. It should be considered for in terms of comparison for their average sound and whether they deviate from it or not. But in my mind you shouldn’t knock a current album’s grade just because it isn’t as good as the last one in your mind. For example, it baffled me how so many people knocked their grade for Jason Isbell’s 2015 album Something More Than Free because it wasn’t as good in their mind as his previous album Southeastern, so therefore it can’t be a 10/10 if they gave Southeastern a 10/10 in their mind. I also consider it unfair to hold an album in a historical light right upon its release. In my opinion it takes years to determine how well it holds up historically, all-time. Finally I believe there’s no such thing as a perfect album. Every album has its little flaws and has areas where it could be a little better. So I think giving a 10/10 only in the case of it being “perfect” is a little absurd. But as they say it’s all subjective and I just wanted to clarify how I look at albums.

Without further ado I wanted to give you my thoughts on what I would grade albums I gave a 10/10 last year at this current time after having more time to digest and listen to them. Some have held up and some have not. Like I said at the beginning of the year when I announced we were approaching 10/10 grades differently this year, I gave way too many last year. So now I give you what I believe the true 10/10 grades, as well as what I believe didn’t hold up as 10/10. There probably won’t be another post like this next year because I’m being more focused on the grading this year and don’t have any regrets like last year. So here you go:

10/10

Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free

Whitey Morgan – Sonic Ranch 

Chris Stapleton – Traveller 

Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen – Hold My Beer 

Don Henley – Cass County

Turnpike Troubadours – Self-Titled

Houndmouth – Little Neon Limelight

Whitney Rose – Heartbreaker of the Year

Thoughts: Of course our album of the year choice is still a 10/10. I also still stand by my point that Something More Than Free is a better album than Southeastern, even though I’m aware this is unpopular. The key word here is album. If you asked me to pick the best three songs amongst the two albums, I’m probably picking them from Southeastern. But looking at both as whole albums, Something More Than Free is better because it flows better as a whole, thematically and sonically. I know people will disagree.

Of the others that hold up to a 10/10, I know there’s only three of them that some people would disagree. While Traveller being at 14 songs is not ideal and detracted from it in people’s minds, it ultimately doesn’t hurt the album’s overall quality in my opinion. Houndmouth may never put out a better album than Little Neon Limelight again, especially in light of the news of Katie Toupin departing from the band earlier this year. Her vocals were a big reason why I loved that album. As for Whitney Rose’s Heartbreaker of the Year, it just does such a great job of standing out and taking risks while remaining rooted in country. It’s why she won our Female Artist of the Year award.

9/9

Tami Neilson – Don’t Be Afraid 

Sam Outlaw – Angeleno 

The Malpass Brothers – Self-Titled

The Lone Bellow – Then Came The Morning 

Thoughts: So now we get to the albums where they didn’t hold up. Don’t Be Afraid ultimately doesn’t hold up for me because it just doesn’t follow the emotional punch of its title song all the way through the album. Angeleno was a big favorite in a lot of circles, but I just don’t get the same feeling as I did when I first listened to it. It just doesn’t sound as good hearing it back now, but it’s still a great album. The Malpass Brothers are an act I really enjoy, but giving 10/10 to an album mostly full of cover songs wasn’t the right choice. Then we have one of the big surprises for me of 2015 and that’s The Lone Bellow’s Then Came The Morning. A lot of people missed this one because it was a January release. It’s still a really really good album, but it just doesn’t make the cut in my mind for a 10/10, although it’s close.

8/8

Maddie & Tae – Start Here

Jonathan Tyler – Holy Smokes

Dwight Yoakam – Second Hand Heart

The Mavericks – Mono

Banditos – Self-Titled

Thoughts: This is where I know I’m ruffling feathers and people won’t like my downgrading. But I remind you this is just my opinion and not the end all be all. We’ll start with the elephant in the room: Maddie & Tae’s Start Here. I’m a big fan of this duo and that’s one of the things that ultimately clouded my final grade. There’s arguably no other act in mainstream country I want to see succeed more than these two. So I gave Start Here a grade it shouldn’t have received. There’s a lot of really good moments on the album, but it doesn’t follow that through on all of it’s songs. “Your Side of Town” is one song that brings it down, as well as “Right Here, Right Now” and “No Place Like You” for just not being memorable songs. I still say their best album will come when they finally get fed up of the games you have to play on a major label and leave to make their own records on Thirty Tigers.

My fandom also clouded my judgement on Second Hand Heart and Mono. Dwight Yoakam is a living legend and The Mavericks are perhaps one of the most underrated acts in music. Both delivered really good albums with some fun songs, but they’re just not 10/10 albums. Both needed more serious songs on the album to merit it. I enjoy Jonathan Tyler’s Holy Smokes and even bought it on vinyl, but I don’t know what I was thinking giving it 10/10. Maybe it was the summer heat? Ditto for Banditos’ self-titled album. Just a case of me going overboard.

Oh and one last thing. I wanted to give you what I considered a ranking of the top 20 albums of 2015. I think this will also serve useful to those who have just found the site and are looking for great music. These are albums you can’t go wrong with and you can’t go wrong with any of the ones I mentioned above too. My top 20 ranking is all albums reviewed, not just what I reviewed. If you have any questions about this, feel free to ask below.

  1. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
  2. Whitey Morgan – Sonic Ranch
  3. Chris Stapleton – Traveller 
  4. Turnpike Troubadours – Self-Titled (This one has gotten even better for me upon more listens)
  5. Wade Bowen & Randy Rogers – Hold My Beer
  6. Don Henley – Cass County (Still can’t believe the drummer for the Eagles made a top ten country album of the year)
  7. John Moreland – High on Tulsa Heat (This one has really grown on me)
  8. Blackberry Smoke – Holding All The Roses
  9. Houndmouth – Little Neon Limelight 
  10. Whitney Rose – Heartbreaker of the Year
  11. Eric Church – Mr. Misunderstood (Still not giving this a 10/10, Church fans. So don’t ask)
  12. The Lone Bellow – Then Came The Morning
  13. Sam Outlaw – Angeleno (This placing will get more complaints than you realize)
  14. Brandi Carlile – The Firewatcher’s Daughter (I hate myself for giving out 9.5/10 grades at one point)
  15. Cody Jinks – Adobe Sessions (Most under-the-radar debut of 2015)
  16. Gretchen Peters – Blackbirds
  17. Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material (Deserves a lot more credit than it received)
  18. Corb Lund – Things That Can’t Be Undone (Also deserved more credit)
  19. Tami Neilson – Don’t Be Afraid
  20. Will Hoge – Small Town Dreams (I always forget about this one, which is dumb)

Just missed the cut: James McMurtry’s Complicated Game, Tony Furtado’s The Bell, Justin Townes Earle’s Absent Fathers and Jami Lin Wilson’s Holidays and Wedding Rings.

6 thoughts on “Looking Back at The Top 20 Albums of 2015

  1. Zackary Kephart May 24, 2016 / 11:45 am

    Extremely interesting piece here Josh. As someone who’s grown to be more and more into albums than singles at this point, I can attest that grading is one of the most frustrating things for a critic. As a reader, I love grades. It gives you an insight into what truly is the best.

    On the other hand, as a critic I absolutely hate giving out grades. It’s just not something I’m good at. How am I supposed to know what numerical grade to assign? I believe more in letting the review speak for itself. However, I also need them because they make organizing year end lists much easier. Definite love/hate relationship for me. I can’t recall how many times I’ve deleted my grading system and inserted it back in haha. I also can’t recall how many albums I gave grades to that I ended up regretting later on.

    I don’t believe that a 10 has to be a perfect album, but I do have a high bar for it. As I look back on my own list, I can say that I overrated (and underrated) some albums. I still consider Gretchen Peter’s “Blackbirds” to be an absolute 10 (and honestly, a perfect album for me), however the only other ones I feel comfortable giving that distinction to are Complicated Game (James McMurtry) and Something More Than Free (Jason Isbell, as if you all didn’t know that….) I know I sang the praises of William Clark Green last year but to call it a 10 would be way too much. It still personally resonates me much more than it probably does with others but I can’t give it a 10. I was also unfair to the Turnpike Troubadours last year as well. I know I said their 2015 album had some filler tracks but honestly, they were lyrically lightweight tracks that more than made up for it with fantastic instrumentation and production (the tracks I mean are “Time Of Day” and “Down Here”).

    I know that Country Perspective gives out more 10’s than other blogs but I’ve never seen anything wrong with it. Were there a lot? Yeah. But still, I could always tell they were your individual thoughts Josh (and this also extends to Derek), and that’s what truly matters in the blogging world, not what grade you give something. Honesty is valued more than grades in my book (and that’s speaking as a reader)

    As of now, the only albums I consider 10’s for 2016 are Animal (Chris King) and Southern Family (Dave Cobb + others).

    Also, why do you hate yourself for giving a 9.5 to Brandi Carlile?

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    • Josh Schott May 24, 2016 / 12:13 pm

      It is very tough, but at the end of the day it does more good than harm because it’s important to draw lines between the music. One more thing I will add is it’s impossible to be completely unbiased when doing reviews. The way I approach a review is to be as fair to the artist as possible and to myself at the same time. For example, I may hate Blake Shelton, but when reviewing his music I keep an open mind and give it a fair listen before deciding my opinion on it. Now will my personal opinion of him further my hate towards the song if it’s bad? A little bit I will admit. But I think this also helps me write better. When I’m passionate about something (love or hate), I’m a better writer. So it’s important to strike a balance between honesty and being as fair as possible.

      I hate myself for giving out 9.5s to that album, as well as Allison Moorer because it’s just such a non-committal grade that sends a mixed message. Basically it says it’s a 10/10, but not really. How can something be .5 short of 10? It really can’t. I love the current grading system I’ve switched over to because it’s more concrete and yet it also still leaves wiggle room. Like sometimes it’s a light 7 or a strong 7, but I don’t indicate it. This leaves more room for imagination for the reader to figure out what I was thinking with the grade. Like I said above, this year I feel like my grading has been more on point and have no regrets. So in conclusion I would probably give the Carlile album a 9/10 now.

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  2. Derek Hudgin May 24, 2016 / 12:37 pm

    I think it’s good for self-reflection from time to time. Admitting to mistakes and evaluations help one improve! I know there’s been a few cases where I’ve let fandom dictate my reflection of an album – giving a extra point or something along those lines. And when I catch myself doing that, I usually try to avoid that mistake with the next review of an album where fandom might interfere.

    Of the three 10s I gave out last year (that’s all I could find, but maybe I missed some), Diamondwolf is the only one I would probably change to an 8 or 9. Blackberry Smoke and Gretchen Peters’ albums are both still 10s in my book. It’s hard to figure out what all goes into making an album a 10, but it’s something that hopefully gets easier the more we review. I think it’s difficult to do without comparing to other past 10s.

    And for the hell of it, I think I remember my top 20 albums from last year:

    1. Jason Isbell Something More Than Free
    2. Turnpike Troubadours
    3. Whitney Rose Heartbreaker of the Year
    4. Chris Stapleton Traveller
    5. Gretchen Peters Blackbirds
    6. Whitey Morgan Sonic Ranch
    7. Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen Hold My Beer
    8. Don Henley Cass County
    9. Houndmouth Little Neon Limelight
    10. Jamie Lin Wilson Holidays and Wedding Rings
    11. Blackberry Smoke Holding All The Roses
    12. Eric Church Mr. Misunderstood
    13. Will Hoge Small Town Dreams
    14. Lindi Ortega Faded Gloryville
    15. William Clark Green Ringling Road
    16. The Lone Bellow Then Came the Morning
    17. Cody Jinks Adobe Sessions
    18. John Moreland High on Tulsa Heat
    19. Hailey Whitters Black Sheep
    20. Tami Neilson Don’t Be Afraid

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  3. OlaR May 24, 2016 / 4:35 pm

    Not all tracks or the production must be perfect. It’s more of a feeling. Format star or unknown artist: the music, the story, the delivery must hit the right button. I don’t like the 0.5 steps. For me the difference between a 9.5 album & an album with a 10 is too small.
    Ep’s are tough. With only 4-5 tracks & radio-mix it’s like a snack. A showcase but not a full concert.

    My 10/10 albums so far (2016):
    Loretta Lynn – “Full Circle”
    Kaylens Rain – “In Our Blood”
    Margo Price – “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter”
    Not far behind are Mathew Ewing with “I Can’t Keep My Eyes Off Of You”, Doug Bruce with “Unsung: A Tribute To The Songs Of Buddy Bruce” & Bri Bagwell with “When A Heart Breaks”. (The album was released 2015 but i “discovered” Bri Bagwell in 2016).

    Best albums (& Ep’s) 2015:
    Don Henley – “Cass County”
    Tori Darke – “Silver Lining”
    Alee – “Say Hello To Goodbye” (Ep)
    Deep Creek Road – “I Wanna See Ur Crazy” (Ep)
    Drew McAlister – “Black Sky”
    Adam Harvey – “Harvey’s Bar…The Backyard Sessions”
    Small Town Pistols – “Pistology”
    Beccy Cole – “Sweet Rebecca”
    Roo Arcus – “Cowboys & Sunsets”
    Amber Lawrence – “Hometown Girl – Amber Lawrence Live”
    Aleyce Simmonds – “Believe”
    Troy Cassar-Daley – “Freedom Ride”
    Brett Kissel – “Pick Me Up”
    Hey Romeo – “Ride With Me” (Ep)
    And the Winner is: Australian country music.

    Charts Sneak Peek (according to Billboard Country Update):
    Billboard Country Airplay: Brett Eldredge – “Wanna Be That Song” (Hot Shot Debut – #58)
    Billboard Hot Country Songs: Adam Wakefield – “I’m Sorry” (Hot Shot Debut – #18)
    Billboard Top Country Albums: Jennifer Nettles – “Playing With Fire” (New – #2)

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  4. Cobra May 24, 2016 / 10:57 pm

    I like this revisiting. It made for a very interesting read. I still like “Southeastern” a bit better than “Something More Than Free,” but it’s a very close one.
    .
    Hard to disagree with most of the albums you chose on your Top 20 List (though one absence that I notice is Courtney Patton’s “So This Is Life” which I absolutely loved – even rank it slightly above “Holidays and Wedding Rings” – both just spectacularly good albums.

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  5. Ron May 25, 2016 / 7:51 pm

    A bit off topic but I still say Ryan Culwell’s “Flatlands” was one of 2015’s best. I never see it listed.

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