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.

Country Perspective’s 40 Most Essential Country & Americana Albums of 2015

Country Perspective's 2015 Most Essential Albums

We’ve reached the end of 2015 and as you’ve seen over this last month there have numerous best of and worst of lists and everything in between. The “listpocalypse” as many dub it is finally ending and we can start focusing on new music really soon. But before we look forward to the new music of 2016, we want to look back one last time on the music of country and Americana in 2015. These are the albums we consider the absolute must listen albums of 2015 if you’re a fan of country and Americana. We should point out that this year’s essential albums list is different in that last year’s list was all albums that we ranked 8/10 or better. This year’s essential list only contains albums (and a few EPs) ranked 9/10 or better.

Originally we wanted to just have it narrowed down to 25 albums, but then it grew to 30 and then 35 before eventually 40. We wanted to make sure we go all of the great music on the list! Keep in mind if we didn’t put an album on this list it’s not because we’re haters or we’re attacking your favorite artist. Do not turn the comments section into “Well you didn’t put (insert name) on the list and you didn’t put this on the list, so I hate it.” Instead put together your own list in the comments if you want, as this is more constructive and creates more interesting conversation.

Now that I’ve gotten all of the ground rules out of the way, let’s get to the music. These are what we consider the 36 most essential country and Americana albums of 2015.

The Best of the Best

Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free

Whitey Morgan – Sonic Ranch

Chris Stapleton – Traveller 

The Awesome Ones

Don Henley – Cass County 

Tami Neilson – Don’t Be Afraid

Houndmouth – Little Neon Limelight 

Wade Bowen & Randy Rogers – Hold My Beer, Vol. 1

Turnpike Troubadours – Turnpike Troubadours

Sam Outlaw – Angeleno 

Jonathan Tyler – Holy Smokes

Blackberry Smoke – Holding All The Roses

Pretty Damn Great

Whitney Rose – Heartbreaker of the Year

Maddie & Tae – Start Here

Cody Jinks – Adobe Sessions

Eric Church – Mr. Misunderstood

Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material

Gretchen Peters – Blackbirds

Brandi Carlile – The Firewatcher’s Daughter

The Malpass Brothers – The Malpass Brothers

Rick Elliot – West of the Rockies EP

The Lone Bellow – Then Came The Morning

“I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair”

Dwight Yoakam – Second Hand Heart 

George Strait – Cold Beer Conversation

Alan Jackson – Angels & Alcohol

James McMurtry – Complicated Game

Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard – Django & Jimmie

Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – The Traveling Kind

A Little Bit of Everything

John Moreland – High On Tulsa Heat

The Mavericks – Mono

Banditos – Banditos

Corb Lund – Things That Can’t Be Undone

Lindi Ortega – Faded Gloryville 

Will Hoge – Small Town Dreams

Jon Pardi – The B-Sides, 2011-2014 EP

Jamie Lin Wilson – Holidays & Wedding Rings

Justin Townes Earle – Absent Fathers 

Tony Furtado – The Bell

Allison Moorer – Down To Believing 

Kasey Chambers – Bittersweet

The Black Lillies – Hard To Please 

Album Review – Banditos’ Self-Titled Debut Album Blends Southern Rock & Country Brilliantly

Banditos Album

Man am I glad I came across this band! They’re a fairly new group called Banditos, made up of six-members all in their twenties and originally from Birmingham, Alabama. The group formed back in 2010 and includes Corey Parsons (vocalist/guitarist), Stephen Pierce (vocalist/banjo player), Randy Wade (drums), Mary Beth Richardson (vocals), Jeffrey Salter (guitarist) and Danny Vines (bassist). They’re signed to Bloodshot Records and I have to share with you the story of how the label came to sign them, from the point of view of Bloodshot:

Back in March 2014 we found ourselves at one of those fly-by-night, hole-in-the-wall bars that sprout like skunkweed on Sixth Street in Austin, TX during the height of SXSW crazy. The only other patrons were Bud Light-swilling bros watching a blowout college basketball game; the sound system at this place was a painful mix of all treble and reverb; and the noises oozing out of the PA during another band’s set were not unlike the distorted echoes of the soundtrack to Suspiria (and not in a good way). We wish we were kidding.

Then the six-piece Banditos took the stage, and even though they themselves were a little intimidating – all hair, denim, and stoic determination – the sounds they managed to conjure from two overworked speakers were fresh, raw, and spectacular. We were instantly blown away and immediately started concocting ways to lure them into our fold…

That’s a pretty neat story and it’s always nice to hear stories like this where a label gives a band the shot they deserve. Despite being together since 2010, they just now released their debut album, which is self-titled. Previously they had released multiple EPs. The most simple way to describe their music would be a combination of southern rock and country music. But if you dig deeper you realize there’s a lot of genres influencing their music. You can hear influences from 60s blues, garage rock, bluegrass, soul and even some 50s doo-wop. This all comes together to create an absolutely thrilling album.

The album kicks off with “The Breeze,” which gives you a great taste right away of the fusion of southern rock and country music that the Banditos make. It’s fast-paced, rollicking and pulls you right in. Banditos showcase their bluegrass side with “Waitin’,” as a banjo helps play the song in. Mary Beth Richardson takes the lead on vocals on this song and her voice reminds me a lot of Shovels & Rope’s Cary Ann Hearst and a touch of Tami Neilson. Richardson’s voice is powerful, yet has a roughness that gives her voice character. You could pretty much throw any note at her and she could nail it. The next song “Golden Grease” is an interesting song about a man struggling with his inner self and wondering why a woman continues to be so cold to him. It certainly paints an interesting image in the listeners’ heads, making you wonder if the man himself or the woman is causing more pain to him. The instrumentation on this song is fantastic.

Remember before when I said Richardson is a talented vocalist? It becomes pretty clear on “No Good,” a song about a woman with a bad reputation that is beautifully written. Richardson’s vocals on this song are absolutely phenomenal and it’s just something you have to hear for yourself. Words cannot do it justice. This is arguably the best song on the album and one of the best performances I’ve heard from a female vocalist this year. “Ain’t It Hard” features more great songwriting and vocals. What impresses me so much about the songwriting not just on this song, but the entire album is how mystique surrounds each line and you don’t know what’s coming next. It’s especially evident on this song, with the instrumentation helping create a mysterious air throughout it.  

One of the most fast-paced songs on the album and really one of the most fun is “Still Sober (After All These Beers).” It’s about a man who wants to quit his lifestyle of getting wasted every night and waking up with a stranger in his bed after a one-night stand. It all started when he was 17 and it has spiraled out of control since then. Despite wanting to get on the path of the straight and narrow, he continues down the path he’s on. This is definitely one of my favorite drinking songs of the year. “Long Gone, Anyway” is a light-hearted tune about death. Yes, I know this is an oxymoron. But it makes sense. The moral of the song is death can come at any time, so it’s important to live life to the fullest and to not be afraid of death. It’s a short song with a simple point that is conveyed well.

Banditos Band

Richardson takes the lead vocals on “Old Ways,” a song about a woman waiting for a man to open his eyes after a night of passion. She’s hoping that he enjoyed the night as much as her and that he says she stayed until morning. By the end of the song, it’s revealed that the man had a trouble past and that this woman is here to wipe that away. It’s a unique love song that shows a lot of love in the lyrics and the vocals. “Can’t Get Away” is about a man on the road coming home to his love at home. He realizes after contemplating calling up some other girls that he’s already got a girl at home that he loves a lot. The instrumentation is quite catchy on this one and makes it easy to get this song stuck in your head. But this is a good thing!

One of the most country songs on the album is “Blue Mosey #2” and again I’m impressed with the songwriting. It’s a song about a man who has watched his friends move on, is alone and doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do next. Everything in this song works together well to create the perfect mood and feeling Banditos are going for on this song. Just like “Long Gone, Anyway,” “Cry Baby Cry” is a short song with a simple theme. It’s about a man helping a woman through a breakup by telling her all of the stuff she’s going to go through now and how tears will fall no matter how hard you try to hold back. It’s a fun song that is easy to get into. The final song on the album is “Preachin’ To The Choir.” And folks it’s another doozy of a song. It’s about a man who has clearly went through pain and he’s not in any mood to take advice from anyone, as by the end of the song he tells everyone they’re just preaching to the choir. He wants to deal with this his way and no one else’s way. It’s a powerful song and closes this excellent album out with a bang.

Banditos’ self-titled debut album is one hell of a way for this group to introduce themselves to everyone. It’s strong throughout, from beginning to end. It can be really easy to get wrapped up in the melting pot of instrumentation that is so great on this album. But then you would miss out on the best part and that is the lyrics. They are so well-written, but like I said if you don’t listen closely you could miss out on them easily. It took me a few listens to grasp them, but once I did I could feel this album. And it feels pretty damn good. I’m not sure what genre you should put them under, but who cares? This is just awesome music that you need to hear. I’m excited about this group, as I think their future is very bright. Banditos is one of my favorite discoveries of 2015 and you definitely need to check them out.

Grade: 10/10