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 

Country Perspective’s 2015 Song of the Year Nominees

A great song is a complete package. Poetic, thoughtful lyrics that evoke emotion and reaction from the listener, a fitting production that amplifies the emotions, and a vocal delivery that drives the feelings straight to the heart of the listener. Happy, sad, positive, negative, it doesn’t matter. Songs are great because the reactions they draw from the listener and not because they sold so many copies or charted for a certain number of weeks. The nominees for Country Perspective’s 2015 Song of the Year all touched Josh or myself in some fashion. These are the songs that we connected with over the course of the year; the songs that most impacted us.

Ultimately, Josh and I will determine the song of the year from this list of finalists. However, we will take reader opinion and feedback into consideration when it comes time to determine the winner. So I encourage you to comment below and share your thoughts. If we left your favorite song off this list, that doesn’t necessarily mean we hated the song. There’s a ton of music released every year, and we had to cap the final list at some point.

For your listening convenience, I’ve complied all the songs into one Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

Song of the Year Nominees (in alphabetical order)

  • “The Bird Hunters” by Turnpike Troubadours“The song tells an intriguing love story that I’m sure many could connect with. And not only are the lyrics good, but also the fiddles are loud and proud too.” The way in which the story is told is not an easy achievement; “The Bird Hunters” is a well structured story with an excellent country production.
  • “Burning House” by Cam –  The lone acoustic melody on the introduction combined with the opening line of “I had a dream about a burning house” sets the mood perfectly for the sadness to come. The phrase “less is more” couldn’t be more relevant to “Burning House.” The simplicity of the three instruments allows the listener room to breathe and focus on the story.
  • “Clean Up on Aisle Five” by Mo Pitney – The steel guitar and fiddle return, as their featured prominently throughout the song. While the traditional approach is great, it’s really Pitney’s voice that leads the song. The instrumentation is great, but it’s kept quieter allowing his voice to shine…The lyrics really do an excellent job of conveying the feelings of the situation. It’s a real gut punch to anyone who’s experienced this, as it’s easy to connect with.
  • “David” by Cody Jinks – The man talks about all of the memories and how they grew up into different people, but still as things change, the more they stay the same. Up until the halfway point of this song, the listener will think this is just a nostalgia tune. But instead it takes a tragic turn; something the listener will feel when it happens. Jinks’ storytelling chops in this song are fantastic.
  • “Diners” by The Lone Bellow – The lead vocals on this song are spectacular and really set the emotion. The setting of this song takes place in a diner late at night where a man laments letting love, using comparisons to jukeboxes. And of course the harmonies are stellar again.
  • “El Dorado” by Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen – ““El Dorado” is a cowboy ballad that puts you in a Western state of mind. From the instrumentation arrangement to the vocals of Bowen and Rogers to the lyrics, the song does a great job of creating a Western feeling in the listener.” From the instrumentation to the lyrics and vocals, “El Dorado” is the whole package.
  • “Guitar or a Gun”  by Will Hoge – “Guitar or a Gun” tells “the story of a teenager deciding between buying a guitar or a gun unresolved. The comparisons drawn between the two and the pictures painted about the life that would come from them are excellent.”
  • “Jubilee” by Gretchen Peters – Told from the point of view of a person on their death-bed, this song focuses on final thoughts and gearing up to go to heaven. This is a beautiful, gospel like song, with a piano driving the song and excellent vocals from Peters.
  • “Just Like Them Horses” by Reba McEntire – This is the song that Reba sang at her fathers funeral. What a beautiful song…lyrically and vocally. I can’t imagine how a live performance of this song would affect other’s emotions because hearing this song gives me goosebumps. It’s well-written and Reba’s voice makes this song so emotive and heart wrenching.
  • “Just Some Things” by Jamie Lin Wilson (feat. Wade Bowen) – A heartbreaking song about two lovers both in an affair. The duo sing the respective parts of the cheaters, who both regret and feel distressed after betraying the ones they love. As hard as they wish things could be different, they know what they did was wrong and can’t be undone. 
  • “One More Hell” by Hailey Whitters – A song written in the wake of her brother’s death, the song details how she wishes to raise one more hell with him before going to heaven. The lyrics are painfully honest with the first verse essentially ripped out of her personal diary. I applaud the brutal honesty in the lyrics because that’s what makes the story connect.
  • “Record Year” by Eric Church – “Record Year” is about a man who has just broken up with his girlfriend and turns to his vinyl collection to heal his heart. While he plays these records he slowly heals and not only gets over his heartbreak, but also rediscovers himself and some great music along the way. More than anything it’s a song about finding your way in life when things are at your darkest. When Church releases this as a single (it has to be a single), I predict it will be the biggest hit of his career and will go down as one of his signature songs. This is a special song that hits a home run in every department.
  • “Roses By The Dozen” by Jamie Lin Wilson – As Josh praised in his top ten post: “Roses By The Dozen” is a chilling murder ballad that gave me goosebumps on the first listen. It’s not completely obvious the wife in the song murdered her husband until midway through the song, but when that obvious moment emerges it blows the listeners’ minds.
  • “So This is Life” by Courtney Patton – Youthful dreams of fairytale marriages are abandoned as a young mother and father work to make ends meet. As time goes on and more children are in the picture, he works long days and she’s left to tend to the home and all the chaos of raising children. It’s not the life either of them planned, and when separately dealing with this life has taken its toll, divorce is the only answer they find. It’s a heartbreaking song, but so vividly told and sung by Courtney Patton.
  • “Something More Than Free” by Jason Isbell – The album’s title track to me is the crown jewel of the record. From Isbell’s soaring vocals to the poetic lyrics to the instrument arrangement, this song has everything I want in a country song. Isbell sings of being thankful for the work and how he strives to get something more than free. It’s a beautiful song.
  • “Standards” by Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen – It’s rightly being praised too, as it’s a brilliant country music protest song…..What makes this one so great though is the fact that it’s not in your face, but rather has a matter of fact, cool attitude. A country label big wig tries to get Bowen and Rogers to record a song about a dirt road, but they refuse at his every attempt because it’s just not for them. As they say, “I don’t have hits, I’ve got standards,” a statement that means so much.
  • “Still Drunk, Still Crazy, Still Blue” by Whitey Morgan – Everything in this song works so well together that I liken it to a well-oiled machine. You couldn’t make it any better. The punctuating moment of this song is when Whitey croons out, “Well I’m still drunk, still blue, I’m still all fucked up over you/I’m still stoned, I’m still alone.” It really helps paint the picture of a heartbroken man drinking himself silly. It may seem like a simple song, but the emotions and instrumentation really make this song special.
  • “When I Stop Dreaming” by Don Henley (feat. Dolly Parton) – “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 duet that sends goosebumps down your spine.
  • “Whiskey & You” by Chris Stapleton – Stapleton’s recording is the best. It’s not just because he wrote the song too. It’s the fact that Stapleton delivers the emotion of this song so much better than those two. He does this by stripping this song down completely and only using an acoustic guitar for instrumentation, allowing his voice to tell the story of the song. It’s raw and grips your attention from start to finish. Stapleton absolutely nails this song.

The Hodgepodge: The Lost Art of Albums

Albums are an important art form lost in a digital realm demanding instant gratification. Most music listeners don’t want to think about music as anything more than a soundtrack for life. It’s background noise to improve mundane activities and dance to at parties. Now combinations of music and dance is a different art form in itself. But an album can be an equally great, sometimes overlooked expression of art. Albums can tell stories. They can draw out feelings from deep inside the listener, feelings that you may not even realize you could feel at that moment.

Albums were a big talking point in Country Perspective’s first podcast episode. If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to give it a listen. Josh did a great job with the first installment of our new weekly feature, and the podcast will only improve. In the first episode of The Country Perspective Show, and in the subsequent comments, points were raised about how albums in country music today are nothing more than a collection of single-worthy, radio driven songs. No care is given to the idea of an album being meaningful. All that matters is that there are 10-13 songs of various themes and genres, ready for whatever road country radio turns down next.

Take Eric Church’s The Outsiders. This jarring album had Eric Church ready for just about anything: rock (“The Outsiders,” “That’s Damn Rock & Roll”), pop-country (“Give Me Back My Hometown,” “Talladega”), and R&B influence (“Like a Wrecking Ball”). Listening to it as an album, The Outsiders is a jarring, sporadic listen with no cohesive theme or style to latch onto. However, the variety of musical stylings and genres has sustained Eric Church with a few successful radio singles and long-term album sales. Luke Bryan’s Crash My Party and Brantley Gilbert’s Just As I Am are two other albums that have sustained long-term success through building the albums with hit single after hit single.

With a big enough name, labels can build albums with songs ready to keep radio relevancy alive through long stadium and arena tours. The trade-off, though, is the concept of crafting an album that flows from start to finish: an album with cohesive themes and productions, a conceptual story, and even a creative cover to compliment the musical offerings.

Cover Art

blackbirds600-550x550
Click to enlarge

Good cover art on an album can subtly add to or allude to the music heard. Take Gretchen Peters’ Blackbirds for example. The cover isn’t complicated, but the simplicity is detailed and tells quite a bit. Gretchen is raising her arms up, draped in the cloth from her black dress. As a result, she looks like she’s raising black wings. The surrounding brush and shrubbery are brown and dying, with the grim, gray sky above. The image implies darkness, death, emptiness. The cover art (correctly) suggests that the album will be dark, grim, and uneasy.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

William Clark Green’s Ringling Road cover is an illustration of the title track. While it’s not a direct reflection of the entire album, in listening to “Ringling Road,” you can see the characters and situations described. On Wanted! The Outlaws you have Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser depicted on an old Wanted! flyer you’d find in an old western town. The album adds to the “outlaw” depiction of the four artists. Outlaw meaning going against the grain of Chet Akins’ Nashville Sound and creative control, in favor for self-control of the music.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

The point is, there was thought and effort put into these cover photos in order to add to the album as a whole. Nowadays, with albums simply being a random assortment of made-for-radio singles, you see Luke Bryan and Thomas Rhett simply posing as JC Penny Catalog models. Most of mainstream country’s album covers add nothing to the, well, nothingness you’ll find in the album. The album cover is essentially a means to an end nowadays.

Cohesive Themes

When it comes down to it, what makes an album a true album is cohesiveness and flow from start to finish. When previewing and gearing up for the release of Uncaged, Zac Brown Band multi-instrumentalist Clay Cook told Taste of Country, “This is the first record that we’ve made from start to finish in one thought…The previous albums have been a collection of songs … this is an album.” If you listen to the album in its entirety, you can hear and feel the flow from one song to the next. It’s smooth, it’s focused, and even the inclusions of rock, reggae and R&B feel grounded in the Zac Brown Band country sound. The Foundation and You Get What You Give, while great, are the type of song collection albums you see today more-so than albums that flow.

Will Hoge’s Small Town Dreams has several songs that deal directly with the dreams of small town people: big city dreams vs. settling down with a family (“Little Bitty Dreams”), trying to make ends meet and sustain a family life (“Desperate Times”), and everyday life in small town U.S.A. (“Middle of America”). Back to Peters’ Blackbirds, the dark themes of death and life’s struggles are found in every song. The tone and the lyrics set the mood as depicted in the cover. Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is as true an album name as you can get. The songs, rooted in traditional country outlaw sound, are mixed with modern effects and sounds to create something new for the country ear. The metamodern sounds and lyrics challenge the modern: modern country sounds, modern views. It’s a theme, it’s a description of an album, and it’s cohesive and consistent when listening to the album.

These themes and feelings are lost when you rope together various songs of various styles and genres with nothing holding them together. That’s why Jekyll + Hyde is such a mess, especially compared to Uncaged. The Zac Brown Band, again, dip their toes in various genres, but it’s too extreme and jarring to flow as an album should. Jekyll + Hyde showed no grounded cohesion for the tracks to be grouped together through an album lens. This cohesion is what makes good albums great, and it’s the type of feature you’ll find in pretty much every album we’ve graded an 8 or higher here on Country Perspective.

Concept Albums

Concept Albums take albums a step further, and tell one story over the course of the songs. This practice is rarer in country music compared to other genres like rock or indie. But one of country’s most famous albums is a concept album. Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger is an album where an outlaw finds himself running from the law after murdering his wife and the man she had an affair with. Using songs and brief reprises of various sections of those same songs, Nelson tells the story beautifully. A move unheard of in country music in 1975, but Nelson’s risk paid off and launched his country music career, making him the legend he is today.

We may soon be treated to another concept album in country music with Brandy Clark’s next released. She’s hinted that it’ll “have a bit of a concept.” Concept albums can be great because it’s truly a unique way to tell a story. Arguably the most famous concept album in music, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, is a detailed rock opera that was even adapted into a live action movie. Concept albums are more difficult to pull off because it takes thought and effort to craft a single flowing story from track one until the album ends.

All in all, with the demand for singles and instant satisfaction, mainstream country has lost its grip on the power an album can have. There are plenty of artists outside the mainstream realm that appreciate and understand the importance of the album as a whole. These are just a few example of my favorite and recent albums that I believe hit these points well. There are many more artists and albums that care about delivering the art of music in a way that’s deeper than a three-minute anthem with a 6 month shelf life. That’s how the Nashville producers see music today. Thankfully there are true musical artists who care enough to build their careers around albums for their fans who will buy those albums. Albums are where the magic of music truly lies.

Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases

  • Tomorrow Jason Isbell’s Something More Then Free and Alan Jackson’s Angels and Alcohol will be released.
  • Ashley Monroe’s The Blade will be released next week on the 24th.  The album is streaming on NPR First Listen until it’s release.
  • Will Hoge has debuted a new song called “Still a Southern Man.”  This is a song Hoge wrote in response the Confederate Flag debate that followed the church shooting in Charleston, SC. This isn’t the first time Will Hoge has been political with his music, releasing two EPs (2004’s The America EP and 2012’s Modern American Protest Music), as well as some album cuts of politically active songs.
  • The Band Perry has announced they’ll be releasing a new single on August 14th. No word on the title yet, but the band has been in the studio, so I can imagine an announcement for a new album will follow.
  • Thomas Rhett will have his new album, Tangled Up, drop on September 25. Apparently fans got to vote on which model pose Rhett used for his arbitrary album cover.
  • Fort Worth, Texas singer-songwriter, Matthew McNealreleased his debut album at the end of last month. Josh will have a review of that album soon.
  • Kip Moore will have is long-awaited sophomore album released on August 21st.
  • Maddie and Tae’s debut album will hit the shelves on August 28th.
  • The Eli Young Band have joined forces with Andy Grammer for a “country remix” of Grammer’s “Honey, I’m Good.” Spoiler alert: it’s not even close to a country song. Admittedly, I haven’t heard Andy Grammer sing before. However, with the use of vocal effects here, I’d have no idea Mike Eli was singing the second verse if no one had mentioned it.

Today in Country Music History

This is my addition to “The Hodgepodge” features. As I was thinking of an effective regular feature to pitch to Josh, before being handed the reigns of “The Hodgepodge,” I kept coming back to building it around a “this day in country music history.” So, now that I’m writing this column, I figured I’ll just tack this onto the rest of the sections here.

  • In 1990, Garth Brooks hits number 1 with “The Dance.” “The Dance” became Brooks’ signature song, and was the first of 5 straight number 1 singles for Garth in the early 1990s.
  • In 2012, Kitty Wells passes away from complications with a stroke. Wells was featured on last week’s Hodgepodge with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” Kitty Wells was the first female country music artist to have number 1 single.

Throwback Thursday Song

“17” – Cross Canadian Ragweed.  This Saturday, I’ll be going to see Cody Canada & The Departed at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, OK. In honor of the concert, my throwback song is one of the best songs Cody Canada has written, in my opinion. This is from the CCR era of Canada’s musical career. As hometown/small town country songs go, it doesn’t get much better than “17.”

*Also, if any of you readers are going to the show Saturday, feel free to reach out. I’d be happy to say hi.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week


Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear.  With today’s discussion of albums, it seems fitting to include one of my favorite non-country albums from this year. Father John Misty (an alter ego of Josh Tillman) wrote this concept album about himself, with many of the songs inspired from his wife and their relationship. This indie album has excellent songwriting!

Tweet of the Week

That’s a hell of a compliment to give any musician! But for it to come from Kris Kristofferson?! That adds much more meaning.

An iTunes Review That Will Make You Smile and Cheer!

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 2.29.20 PM

The review was left under Canaan Smith’s Bronco. As you’ll recall, that album faced heavy criticism from Josh. I personally love the Katy Perry comparison!

Country Perspective’s Best Country Songs of 2015 So Far

Just like country albums, there have been no shortage of great country songs released in 2015. But when it comes to the best country songs of the year, we’re not just talking about catchy and/or fun songs. No, when it comes to these song of the year candidates, these are the type of songs that you can feel. These are the songs that come straight from the heart and you feel it in your own. These are the songs where the artist dug deep into their own personal life and let it shine in their music. This the absolute best in songwriting. So without further ado here are the top 13 songs of 2015 so far and the top contenders right now for Country Perspective’s Best Song of 2015.

Whitey Morgan – “Still Drunk, Still Crazy, Still Blue”

Even though it’s hard to pick a favorite on an album as good as this one, “Still Drunk, Still Crazy, Still Blue” stands out a little more for me than the rest. Everything in this song works so well together that I liken it to a well-oiled machine. You couldn’t make it any better. The punctuating moment of this song is when Whitey croons out, “Well I’m still drunk, still blue, I’m still all fucked up over you/I’m still stoned, I’m still alone.” It really helps paint the picture of a heartbroken man drinking himself silly. It may seem like a simple song, but the emotions and instrumentation really make this song special. 

Click here for the full review of Sonic Ranch.

Chris Stapleton – “Whiskey & You”

You should recognize the next song, “Whiskey and You,” as Tim McGraw originally recorded it on his Let It Go album in the early 2000s. Jason Eady also recorded this song on his 2014 album Daylight & Dark. I can say with confidence out of the three, Stapleton’s recording is the best. It’s not just because he wrote the song too. It’s the fact that Stapleton delivers the emotion of this song so much better than those two. He does this by stripping this song down completely and only using an acoustic guitar for instrumentation, allowing his voice to tell the story of the song. It’s raw and grips your attention from start to finish. Stapleton absolutely nails this song. 

Click here for the full review of Traveller.

Jon Pardi – “Borrowed Time”

The last song on the EP is “Borrowed Time,” a song that explores how short life is and how we only have so much time before it’s all over. This might be Pardi’s best song yet, as everything in this song perfectly works together. The lyrics are honest, heartfelt and to the point. It has a very similar vibe to Dierks Bentley’s “Here on Earth.” This is a song I recommend you hear for yourself, as words don’t properly describe it. It’s the kind of song that will make people respect and appreciate Pardi’s talent.

Click here for the full review of The B-Sides, 2011-2014 EP.

Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen – “Standards”

“Standards” is the standout of the album and the song everyone will talk about the most from Hold My Beer. It’s rightly being praised too, as it’s a brilliant country music protest song. Now I know country music protest songs have started to become cliché themselves, especially coming from Texas country artists. What makes this one so great though is the fact that it’s not in your face, but rather has a matter of fact, cool attitude. A country label big wig tries to get Bowen and Rogers to record a song about a dirt road, but they refuse at his every attempt because it’s just not for them. As they say, “I don’t have hits, I’ve got standards,” a statement that means so much. This is a top contender for Country Perspective’s 2015 Song of the Year award.

Click here for the full review of Hold My Beer, Vol. 1.

Will Hoge – “Guitar or a Gun”

Following this is the rocking “Guitar or a Gun.” Hoge penned this tune with Gary Allan and Dylan Altman, and told Saving Country Music that he had actually written 12 verses to the song. Eventually the trio landed on two verses for the song and left the story of a teenager deciding between buying a guitar or a gun unresolved. The comparisons drawn between the two and the pictures painted about the life that would come from them are excellent; “Guitar or a Gun” is one of the album’s top tracks.

Click here for the full review of Small Town Dreams.

Zac Brown Band – “Bittersweet”

Finally the group delivers a beautiful song that showcases their great talent in “Bittersweet.” It’s one of the best written songs on the album, as it’s about a man losing his wife to a disease and how he’s reflecting on the fact that tomorrow she won’t be there with him. The songwriting evokes great emotion in the listener and might even bring a tear to your eye. The instrumentation is equally good and I love the guitar and fiddles crashing in at the end of the song to really punctuate the song. This is the Zac Brown Band I know and love on this song.

Click here for the full review of Jekyll + Hyde.

Reba – “Just Like Them Horses”

The next song is “Just Like Them Horses.” This is the song that Reba sang at her fathers funeral. What a beautiful song…lyrically and vocally. I can’t imagine how a live performance of this song would affect other’s emotions because hearing this song gives me goosebumps. It’s well-written and Reba’s voice makes this song so emotive and heart wrenching.

Click here for the full review of Love Somebody.

Gretchen Peters – “Everything Falls Away”

Following this song is “Everything Falls Away,” which is a despairing piano ballad about trying to move on after a loved one passes away.

This is probably one of the darkest songs I’ve heard this year and Peters brilliantly captures the mood of a person dealing with anguish and the feeling of helplessness after a loved one has died. The first time I heard it I got goosebumps and I’m still amazed every time I hear it. If you haven’t listened to this song or Blackbirds, you need to do it.

Click here for the full review of Blackbirds.

Mo Pitney – “Clean Up On Aisle Five”

I can see why when Pitney performed this song at the Opry last summer and he got a standing ovation. Maybe this song will be to him what “Long Black Train” was to Josh Turner. Pitney could be the next Turner type on radio and we could definitely use another artist like Turner at the moment. Pitney seems dedicated to the traditional sound and he has the chops and talent to pull it off. Keep giving him songs like this and he should be a household name in no time. In a perfect world this song gets a ton of radio play, but we live in a far from perfect world. Regardless, “Clean Up On Aisle Five” is a song that everyone should check out and give a listen. This may be one of the best songs we’ll hear from mainstream country music in 2015. 

Click here for the full review of “Clean Up On Aisle Five.”

The Lone Bellow – “Then Came The Morning”

The album starts off with the upbeat and gospel influenced “Then Came the Morning.” The combination of the harmony interludes along with the hints of horn production give this song an infectious harmony that makes you want to listen to it over and over again. It immediately draws the listener into the album. 

Click here for the full review of Then Came The Morning.

Justin Townes Earle – “Day and Night”

Earle goes dark and somber with “Day and Night.” It’s a more stripped down song instrumentation wise and once again let’s Earle tell a story with his brilliant voice. This is another song where Earle personally reflects on his hard life and all of the struggles he went through to get to this point, but he’s now happy because he has found the love of his life (his new wife he just married). Again the raw emotion Earle expresses in his voice is quite moving.

Click here for the full review of Absent Fathers.

Houndmouth – “By God”

“By God” is a rock country song with a rocking beat and a subtle, sinister undertone. It’s about a man who has things going wrong around him and insisting for them to “turn out the lights,” but to leave his “candle burning.” The harmonies are spot-on throughout. Everything in this song simply works to make for one of the best songs on the album.

Click here for the full review of Little Neon Limelight.

Ryan Bingham – “Broken Heart Tattoos”

Following up this track is “Broken Heart Tattoos.” I hear a ton of Bob Dylan influence in Ryan Bingham on this album, and this song is particularly evident of that influence. Here, Bingham is singing to his child. Children are born into innocence, without worry and without pain at first. However, this song encourages, “take your sweet time and walk a straight line. And don’t you be shy of your wilder side or be afraid to let loose with broken heart tattoos.”

Click here for the full review of Fear and Saturday Night.

 

Josh’s 2015 Mid-Year Country Music Outlook

Both Derek and myself are taking a look back at what we considered the highs and lows of country music in 2015 so far. You just saw Derek’s outlook and now I’ll give you mine. This will give you a good idea of our overall thoughts on the year. And of course be sure to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments below.

Chris Stapleton Traveller

Favorite Album So Far: There are so many choices for my favorite, but there are two in particular I would consider my favorites: Chris Stapleton’s Traveller and Houndmouth’s Little Neon Limelight. I knew Stapleton was going to have a good debut album, but I never thought it would be this good. At first I thought maybe 14 songs was too many, but after giving it several more listens I really have no complaints about the length. It feels just right actually. From the top-notch songwriting to the brilliant instrumentation to Stapleton’s bluesy, powerful voice this is enjoyable from start to finish. Little Neon Limelight is certainly not one of the most buzzed about albums in country music this year, but it should be. It has everything I want in an album and hooks you from start to finish. It also may be the most fun album of the year, as there are several rollicking tracks and you can tell Houndmouth had fun making it.

Favorite Song So Far: Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers’ “Standards” has been the standout song to me so far. It’s a song that perfectly sums up the state of country music right now. You’re either an artist with hits or standards. You really can’t have both. This is probably one of the most polite country protest songs ever, but I think this helps get the point across even more. Protest songs have pretty much become cliché themselves, but Bowen and Rogers get it just right here. “Standards” is one of many great songs on their new album Hold My Beer. Honorable mention goes out to The Mavericks’ “What Am I Supposed To Do.”

Thomas Rhett Crash and Burn

Worst Song So Far: Wow! We’ve reviewed a lot of terrible songs this year, but there’s one song in particular that annoys me the most out of all of them and that’s Thomas Rhett’s “Crash and Burn.” Where do you begin with this train wreck? First off it’s not country at all. It’s a blatant pop tune where Rhett tries to imitate Bruno Mars and fails miserably because Rhett doesn’t have near the talent or charisma of Mars to pull this type of song off. Number two he blatantly rips off Sam Cooke. Third it has an annoying ear worm that can haunt you for days. Fourth the smug arrogance of Rhett as he sings this type of song just pisses me off. Really this song epitomizes what mainstream country music is in 2015.

Biggest Surprise: The great amount of awesome country albums that have been released so far. This year the amount of quality music that’s being released is astounding and really a country music fan’s dream. 2015 will far surpass 2014 in terms of the quantity of quality. The race for album of the year will be as tight as possible and as Farce The Music said on Twitter it’s guaranteed there won’t be a consensus on best country album this year. There are too many choices for the top spot as it is and we still have several big releases to come.

Biggest Disappointment: Even though I’ve warmed up on it a little bit, Zac Brown Band’s Jekyll + Hyde album has to be the biggest disappointment of country music in 2015. There was such high hopes for this album and instead we got a hodgepodge of sounds that had absolutely no direction. While there were some good moments, this album was so all over the place it was hard to grasp what the band was going for here. At times it felt like a Zac Brown solo project and the band was completely buried in the background. I believe this wasn’t a sell-out moment though and I think the next album will be a return to their normal sound. I would chalk this up to a huge creative misstep.

Best Male Artist: Chris Stapleton without a doubt is the best male artist so far. He produced one of the best albums of the year in Traveller and continues to be one of the few writers on Music Row who can write creative songs.

Best Female Artist: In 2014 the female artists dominated our end of the year awards and produced some of the best albums of the year. In 2015 it’s been a slower start and we have yet to hear new material from some prominent female artists. But of the few that have released new music, Gretchen Peters has been the standout female artist. Her new album Blackbirds has been quietly one of the best of the year and arguably the darkest album in Americana. It’s full of emotional tracks that will rip your heart out and really make you listen to the music.

Breakout Artist: There have been several artists that have broken out in my eyes, but none more than Whitey Morgan. Coming into 2015 I wasn’t as sold on Whitey as some independent country fans, but he changed that with Sonic Ranch. It’s easily one of the best of the year, with its gritty, honky-tonk style. While there are a good amount of covers, he really makes these songs his own and puts his own spin on them. “Still Drunk, Still Crazy, Still Blue” and “Waitin’ Round To Die” are two of my favorite songs of the year. I hope this album makes Whitey a bigger household name because he deserves to reach higher heights with this album. I also give a special shoutout to Striking Matches, who completely surprised me with their debut album.

Worst Artist: I could choose so many different artists for the worst of the year, but I’m going with Derek here and giving it to RaeLynn. It’s 2015 and she is still a thing. RaeLynn is the only artist to receive multiple 0/10 reviews this year, with her Me EP and her single “For A Boy.” She also has the most 0/10 reviews all time on the site with three total. There are several talented female artists out there in the independent scene who deserve the shot RaeLynn got, but since they aren’t buddies with Blake Shelton they don’t get a deal. RaeLynn is nothing but a product of corporate executives and Blake.

Sturgill Signs With Atlantic Records

Most Anticipated Release in the Second Half of 2015: I could easily say July 17 is the day I’m looking forward to most (Jason Isbell and Alan Jackson’s new albums). But that would be a lie. The release I’m looking forward to most is Sturgill Simpson’s third album and his first under a major label.  This hasn’t been officially announced yet, but it’s highly speculated and Trigger at Saving Country Music has said multiple times it’s happening. Metamodern Sounds in Country Music was easily the best country album of 2014 and one of the best in country music the last several years. What’s scary is this third album could be even better! Along with Simpson and July 17, I’m also looking forward to Jamey Johnson’s return album. It hasn’t been officially announced yet either, but I’ll be shocked if it isn’t out by the end of the year.

The first half of 2015 has certainly been interesting in country music and can’t wait for the second half, where I’m sure there will be plenty more intriguing stories to come.