Country Perspective’s 2015 Album of the Year Nominees

Throughout 2015 Country Perspective has had the pleasure to review a lot of music from country, Americana, folk and alt-country. There’s been a lot of good and a lot of bad too. The world is filled with a lot of average and at times downright terrible music. But this article is not about that music. This is all about the great music and not just the great music, but the very best of the best. While there are a lot of people in country music and really music in general that have forgotten about the art of an album, there are many out there who still appreciate the ability to make a project of 10-12 songs (or more) and make something special.

When deciding what album will win the 2015 Country Perspective Album of the Year Award, we will take into consideration some key aspects: songwriting, instrumentation, production, accolades, impact on genre, consistent quality in the album and how memorable they are. Derek and myself will both ultimately decide which album will win Country Perspective’s top award. But we’re not the only ones deciding. We encourage feedback from you the readers! Your comments and suggestions will most certainly be considered when determine who wins not only this award, but all the year-end awards here at Country Perspective.

One more thing: In order for an album to be eligible for Album of the Year, it must have received a perfect 10/10 rating in its review. No other albums are considered. Only the best of the best get a shot. There were several albums to receive a grade of 10/10, too many in fact. This is pretty much on me getting carried away in a few reviews and next year there won’t be as many 10/10 grades given out. After much discussion Derek and myself narrowed it down to the eight albums we believe that are most worthy of being considered for Country Perspective’s Album of the Year award. Here are the eight nominees (in no particular order)…

Tami Neilson Don't Be Afraid

Tami Neilson – Don’t Be Afraid

For the second straight year the New Zealand country artist is nominated for Album of the Year. Neilson has one of the biggest and most dynamic voices in country music and once again she demonstrates it beautifully. This album was dedicated to her late father Ron, who was also an artist and one of the main inspirations behind most of the songs on it. While last year this was Sturgill Simpson’s award to lose, this year it’s wide open and Neilson has a chance again to win our top award.

Tami Neilson is proof that artistry is alive and well in country music. She channels her emotion so well into Don’t Be Afraid and the end result is beautiful music that will touch the minds and hearts of all that listen to it. This album is a true picture of life and love that doesn’t shy away from reality. Everything about this album is flawless and at its absolute best. 

Bowen & Rogers Hold My Beer

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

Two of the brightest names in the Red Dirt/Texas Country scene united together to bring us an album that blew away all of our expectations. While a lot of people respect them and know they’re capable of good music, nobody expected them to deliver an album of this high of quality. Fans who were still wary of their music after both tried to cut it on Music Row were even more surprised. This collaboration reminded us all of the golden years of country music when legends like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard would get together and make an album.

Hold My Beer is simply put a fantastic album. There are no down moments in this album and it holds the listeners’ attentions the whole way through it. The rich and traditional instrumentation makes you want to listen to every song over and over again. I don’t think you can find too many pairs that would gel better than Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers either. This is a perfect example of why I want to see more collaborations in country music. On this album this two great artists in their own right came together and produced something amazing. I like how the full album name is Hold My Beer, Vol. 1. because that means this is the first of hopefully many more collaboration albums from these two.

Chris Stapleton Traveller

Chris Stapleton – Traveller 

There’s nobody in country music in right now hotter than Chris Stapleton. Really he’s one of the hottest artists in all of music, with only Adele eclipsing him in attention. The mainstream emergence of Stapleton occurred a few weeks back when he shocked the world winning three CMA Awards, including Album of the Year. While the rest of the world was introduced to Chris Stapleton that night, I knew back in May that his longtime coming debut album would be one of the finalists for Album of the Year. It’s hard to believe it took this long for Stapleton to put out a solo album, but as they say it’s better late than never. For many fans this is the album to beat.

I don’t think I could ask anymore from a country album than what I hear on this album. It has everything a country music fan should want in their music. What impressed me the most out of all is Stapleton’s voice. Holy shit I did not expect him to blow me away so much vocally. He’s easily one of the best in country music today. The songwriting is top-notch, but we knew that already. The instrumentation and production are spotless, as once again Dave Cobb is in top form. I have no complaints with this album, as Stapleton is a visionary.

Whitey Morgan Sonic Ranch

Whitey Morgan – Sonic Ranch

A lot of people love to anoint Sturgill Simpson as the modern-day Waylon Jennings, but if anyone deserves this comparison it’s Whitey Morgan. From his look to his music to the “Fuck Pop Country” shirts in his online store, Whitey Morgan is the modern-day Waylon. Sonic Ranch is his best work yet and for the first part of the year it was head and shoulders above the rest of the field. A lot more competition came about in the middle and latter part of the year, but this album is still one of the best and could easily be crowned the very best.

What makes this album stand out above a lot of other country albums released is how cohesive and tight-knit everything is on this album. The instrumentation and the production is flat-out perfect. The lyrics are emotional and tell brilliant stories throughout it. Morgan’s bellowing voice reminds me of a lot of Waylon Jennings and Sturgill Simpson, yet Whitey is much more gruff and gritty giving it a different texture compared to the likes of Jennings and Simpson. The album is the exact right length of 10 songs. It leaves no room for unnecessary filler that can bring the quality down. It’s straight, no-holds barred, outlaw-style country music that will leave you wanting more.

Don Henley Cass County

Don Henley – Cass County 

It’s 2015 and the drummer for the Eagles has released one of the best country albums of the year. If you had told me this back in January I would have questioned your sanity. But as this project came closer to release, the more my confidence grew in it. Henley brought together a top-notch group of country artists and put his full force of creativity behind it. The result is an album that is filled with memorable and emotional songs. Henley made a country album that many country artists who have been around for years haven’t come close to matching in quality.

Cass County excels in pretty much every area a country album needs to excel in. Henley’s voice is excellent, the songwriting is strong, the instrumentation even stronger and each of the guests on the album contribute something meaningful. It’s 2015 and Don Henley has delivered one of the best country albums of the year. Can you believe it? There have been a lot of pleasant surprises in country music in 2015, but this may be the biggest. Each time I listen to this album it gets better, which I think will allow this album to age well. It’s something you can play a couple of years from now and still sound just as good.

Jason Isbell Something More Than Free

Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free

The King of Americana has had himself one hell of a year. As usual he played in front of packed venues across the country, alongside his wife Amanda Shires, fellow critical darling Sturgill Simpson, legend Dwight Yoakam and a host of others. He followed up his critically-acclaimed 2013 album Southeastern with Something More Than Free, which reached #1 on the country, rock, folk and Americana charts. And he welcomed to the world his first child. It’s been a busy, yet really successful year for Isbell.

I didn’t think it would be possible for Jason Isbell to craft an album even better than Southeastern, but he’s done it with Something More Than Free. While Southeastern was the painful rebirth of Isbell, Something More Than Free feels like a celebration of life and finding your true happiness. There are still plenty of somber and sobering moments on the album, but I think it makes the bright moments feel that much brighter. It’s a true representation of the spectrum of life we live each and every day. I’ll admit that it took me a few listens to really get into this album, but trust me once it clicks you’ll fall in love with it.

Turnpike Troubadours Self Titled Album

Turnpike Troubadours – Self-Titled

The Oklahoma-based band made their long-awaited return to making new music in 2015 and they did not disappoint. Like the aforementioned Jason Isbell, the Turnpike Troubadours have made quite a name for themselves as independent artists. They’re proof you don’t need the support of country radio or mainstream country labels to be successful and prosperous. And while members of the band have come and go they’re still making great music.

With the return of the Turnpike Troubadours, marks the return of arguably the best Red Dirt group today. Really they’re one of the best groups in music today. This album is definitive proof of it and I hope we never have to wait three years for another album again. If you’re a fan of country music, this album is a must-buy. We can only hope that this album is what launches this group to even greater heights. You won’t find many better than the Turnpike Troubadours.

Houndmouth Little Neon Limelight

Houndmouth – Little Neon Limelight 

If you had to pick an underdog amongst these nominees, it would be newcomer Americana group Houndmouth. Based out of Indiana, this group was one of my favorite surprise discoveries of 2015. This group pretty much borrows from every genre and produces music that entertains and moves you. I feel like a lot of people have ignored this group, but you shouldn’t. And despite this they might just walk away with Album of the Year.

Little Neon Limelight is flawless in every aspect. Houndmouth’s vocals are dynamic and the harmonies will stick with you for a while. Each song tells a story or conveys some sort of emotion in the listener, which is what great music does. While there are a few somber songs, this album is mostly fun and even mixes in some good humor. This is an album I thinks some people might let slip through the cracks and miss out on. Don’t be one of these people. Anyone who appreciates great music should hear it.

That’s your nominees for Country Perspective’s 2015 Album of the Year award. Be sure to voice who you believe should win in the comments below. 

Album Review – Don Henley’s ‘Cass County’

Don Henley Cass County

Country music has seen a lot of outsiders come into gene and try their hand at making country music. The majority of course are doing it for a quick cash grab because their own careers are flailing and they see a financial opportunity with the current popularity of country music. In other words, no artistic thought is put into the music. But the big exception amongst these outsiders is Don Henley. The former frontman of the Eagles, who has had a successful solo career too, demonstrated up front that he was serious about his new album Cass County. He brought in top-notch country talent like Vince Gill, Jamey Johnson, Alison Krauss, Ashley Monroe, Lucinda Williams, Trisha Yearwood and a host of others. He also had this to say in an interview with Rolling Stone:

“I can truthfully say that I enjoyed making this record more than any record I’ve made in my career. And a lot of the reason is because of the people who participated. There’s some amazing musicians here and the best thing about it is, most of them are funny. So it was a real pleasure.”

These are encouraging words to hear about an album from any artist. So with this in mind I dug into Cass County expecting a good album. But it’s not a good album. It’s a fantastic album that surprised me with the amount of depth and artistry that is present throughout it.

Cass County opens up with “Bramble Rose,” where Miranda Lambert and Mick Jagger join Henley. It may sound like an odd trio on paper, but once you hear the song they work together quite well actually (Jagger sounds surprisingly great). The arrangement and instrumentation are spot on and really lets all of the artists shine. It should be also be mentioned this song was originally performed and written by alternative country artist Tift Merritt, so credit to Henley for picking this great song out to feature on his album. On “Cost of Living” Henley collaborates with the legendary Merle Haggard. The song is about how we all have to pay the cost of living eventually in life and dealing with getting older in age. It’s perfectly appropriate to have two old souls like Henley and Haggard perform this song, as these two know this lesson as good as anyone. (By the way notice how Henley teams up with Haggard and Jaggar to make great music, instead of just carelessly namedropping them)

“Take A Picture Of This” is about a couple reflecting back on the memories they’ve had together. But by the end of the song the man feels like he doesn’t know his wife anymore and decides to leave her, as he realizes he has been living in the past. It tells a good story and the swerve at the end of the song is a nice touch. The hook of the song is catchy and easy to remember too. Henley shows off his storytelling chops once more with “Waiting Tables.” The story of the song is about a young girl who grew up in a small town, got married to a “reckless fool” at too young of an age and ended up a single mother at 23 years old. Now she’s stuck waiting tables and biding her time, waiting to move on to bigger things. She thinks she might have found it when a “handsome man” comes along, but it just turns out to be a one-night stand and she’s left to waiting tables once more. The story told here is raw, real and brilliantly put together. More than anything the song is a lesson about how tough life is and having that everlasting hope that things will get better. This is undoubtedly a highlight of Cass County.

The rocking and catchy “No, Thank You” follows. It’s about not falling for the everyday bullshit thrown your way and how the world is constantly trying to get you to fall for the next big thing. As Henley succinctly puts at the beginning of the song, we have “space age machinery, stone age emotions.” It reminds me a lot of something Dwight Yoakam would cut on one of his albums. The pedal steel guitar heavy “Praying For Rain” is about farmers dealing with drought and hoping for rain soon. It’s a real throwback song in every way and Henley just hits it out of the park. The smooth, easy-going tone of the song combined with the simple storytelling of the lyrics makes for one great song.

“Words Can Break Your Heart” is one of the slower and more emotion songs of the album. It’s about how words can be so cutting and mean and can tear a person apart. Henley really captures how verbal abuse can hurt you and your relationship with someone. This is probably one of the less memorable songs on the album, but it’s still quite good. The lead single from Cass County, “That Old Flame,” is next. I reviewed this song when it first came out and my thoughts have remained largely unchanged, although I think I like it even more now. From my review:

The song is about a man who receives a message from an old friend who wanted to get back in touch. The man wonders what this woman wants after losing touch for so many years. He seems to think she wants to rekindle a lost flame, but he knows there is danger of getting burned in doing this. She knows this too and only wanted to reach out to let him know that she’s doing fine and to just reconnect with an old friend. Both wonder whether they miss each other or just their lost days of youth. It’s a well-written song that does a good job telling the story of long-lost friends and their days of romance long behind them. He’s joined on the song by Martina McBride, who always has and always will have a great voice. 

There are a lot of fantastic songs on this album, but none are greater than “When I Stop Dreaming.” Henley teams up with the iconic Dolly Parton to deliver an amazing song. Both bring out the absolute best in each other. Dolly’s vocals are goose-bump inducing and this isn’t hyperbole. This is one you just need to sit down and hear for yourself because I can’t do it justice. “A Younger Man” is about a young woman falling for an older man and believing she’s in love with him. But the older man assures her that he is not what she is looking for and that she’s looking for a younger man. The line that sums it up best is when Henley sings “You’re an angel from the future/I’m an old devil from the past.” This is just an example of the top-notch songwriting on this song and really the whole album.

One of the running themes of the album is looking back to the past and looking forward to the future, which is what “Train In The Distance” is all about. Henley reflects back on the simpler days of his childhood and now as an adult faces responsibilities, obligations and taking care of his family. But Henley reminds himself that there’s always that train coming in the distance. This is one of those songs makes you reflect on yourself and creates this mixture of nostalgia and hope. Cass County comes to a close with “Where I Am Now.” It’s definitely the most rock-influenced song of the album, but still maintains a country sound giving us a sort of Bakersfield vibe. The song itself is about Henley reflecting on his life and liking where he is in life right now compared to where he was. All of his experiences and places he has been have shaped him into the person he’s wanted to be. It’s a nice way to end the album.

Cass County excels in pretty much every area a country album needs to excel in. Henley’s voice is excellent, the songwriting is strong, the instrumentation even stronger and each of the guests on the album contribute something meaningful. It’s 2015 and Don Henley has delivered one of the best country albums of the year. Can you believe it? There have been a lot of pleasant surprises in country music in 2015, but this may be the biggest. Each time I listen to this album it gets better, which I think will allow this album to age well. It’s something you can play a couple of years from now and still sound just as good. This is undoubtedly an album of the year contender and a must-listen. If Henley wants to stick around and make another country album, that would be just great. I think country music suits Don Henley just fine.

Grade: 10/10

 

 

Review – Don Henley & Martina McBride Duet on “That Old Flame”

Don Henley
Photo Credit: donhenley.com

Throughout the history of American music, there are several big names and bands you can point to as the greatest influences on not just music from certain periods, but really all of music. One of the bands you can point to is the Eagles and its founding member Don Henley. They were one of the biggest bands in the world in the 1970s and one of the most recognizable rock acts ever. They’ve racked up numerous hits, awards, accolades and I’m pretty sure everyone who has ever listened to music has heard at least one Eagles’ song in their lifetime. Henley was a founding member as I said above and he not only attained great success with the Eagles, but with his own solo career. Some of his biggest hits were “The Boys of Summer” and “All She Wants To Do Is Dance.” To give you an idea of the success of Henley, back in 2012 he was the fourth wealthiest drummer in the world, only trailing Ringo Starr, Phil Collins and Dave Grohl. Quite a list, huh?

Now after years of making rock hits, Henley is trying his hand at country music. Of course one of the ongoing themes in country music in 2015 is rockers and pop artists trying their hand at the genre. Amongst them are Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, Poison singer Bret Michaels and some old, washed up has-beens from 90s pop music that call themselves Uncle Ezra Ray. The big difference between Henley and these cast of characters is that I believe Henley can make great country music and truly has his heart in it. The other artists appear to be in it only for the money and their last chance of 15 minutes in the spotlight. Henley didn’t need to make a country album, as he has plenty of money and is still touring with the Eagles. He wanted to make a country album because he actually wants to do it. This is what he told Rolling Stone about his new album Cass County, set to come out this fall:

“I’m associated with California a lot because of that other band that I play in, but I really and truly was born and raised in Cass County, Texas. I’m a Southerner and a Texan. I have ancestors in Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia. So this is a natural progression for me. It’s not me trying to do the ‘Don Henley country album.’ It’s who I am and where I come from.”

So essentially Henley feels like this is a natural progression in his career and not something outside of his comfort zone. It sounds like something he’s been thinking about doing for years. This is why I’m giving him a legitimate chance with his country music and not those other artists. His album is coming out on September 25 and features a big cast of notable names. So we have to wait a while for that, but luckily we get an early taste of it as Henley just released the first single from it, titled “That Old Flame.”

The song is about a man who receives a message from an old friend who wanted to get back in touch. The man wonders what this woman wants after losing touch for so many years. He seems to think she wants to rekindle a lost flame, but he knows there is danger of getting burned in doing this. She knows this too and only wanted to reach out to let him know that she’s doing fine and to just reconnect with an old friend. Both wonder whether they miss each other or just their lost days of youth. It’s a well-written song that does a good job telling the story of long-lost friends and their days of romance long behind them. Henley’s voice sounds fantastic, even in his older age and doesn’t sound worn down at all. He’s joined on the song by Martina McBride, who always has and always will have a great voice. McBride and Henley’s voices are cohesive and sound good together throughout the song.

The only quibbles I have with this song are some of the production and instrumentation choices. Towards the beginning of the song I would have had more acoustic guitar and no synth guitar. It also feels like the drums are dominating the sound too much. I just felt like this set the wrong tone upfront with a country song and felt more like an opener for a rock song. Luckily, the instrumentation gets better throughout the rest of the song. “That Old Flame” could have been a little better, but overall is a solid song. As I said both Henley and McBride both sound great and the lyrics are well-written. It’s a song worth checking out and makes me look forward to hearing more from Henley. If this is reflective of what Cass County has to offer, then we could be in for a very good album.

Grade: 8/10