The Hodgepodge: Please Stop Making Albums Over 12 Songs Long

ZBB Jekyll + Hyde

There’s something that has been grinding my gears regarding albums for a while and lately it’s been bugging me more. And that’s the length of albums. More and more I’ve been seeing not just in country and Americana, but in all of music albums that are over 12 songs long. It’s now a common occurrence to see albums that are 14, 15 and even 17 songs long in the case of Randy Houser’s Fired Up. It drives me crazy because there’s simply no reason usually to have an album over 12 songs long.

Whenever I see an album over 12 songs long, I immediately roll my eyes if it’s an artist that isn’t at the very top of the genre because it’s probably got like five filler songs that are unnecessary. Sometimes even more. But I don’t blame the artist for this, but rather I imagine this is more on labels. Most don’t really care about the concept of an album nowadays, only singles. Hence why albums are 15 songs long because then they have a large list to choose from for singles and can also cover a variety of styles so that way the artist is prepared for any trends that may emerge over the course of that album’s era. Luke Bryan’s last album Kill the Lights is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. At 13 songs long you see a variety of songs on it. There’s bro country themed songs, upbeat pop leaning songs and even a couple of serious songs. It’s to set up him up for any trends that might emerge at country radio.

What really brings this attention to me is when I go back and listen to older albums from the 70s and 80s. This was back when artists and labels actually cared about albums and put more focus on them. No matter which genre I turn to, none of them have the problem I see today of overloading albums with pointless songs. Take for example George Strait, whose career began in the early 80s. His first ten albums were each ten songs long exactly. None of them came close to overloading. Almost every album released by legendary soul singer Marvin Gaye didn’t go over 12 songs. A modern example is Sturgill Simpson (who has cited Gaye as an inspiration), where each of his three albums hasn’t gone over 12 songs. Right now of my top ten country and Americana albums of 2016, none go over 12 songs. While there are plenty exceptions to the rule, it’s pretty well proven that if you care about putting out a quality album, you probably shouldn’t go over 12 songs.

There are many albums I can think of that have been released recently that could have benefitted from being culled down to a shorter length. One that immediately comes to mind is Zac Brown Band’s Jekyll + Hyde. It’s 16 songs long including the acoustic track, which is just ridiculous. There are undoubtedly some great songs on this album, but they get overshadowed by the bad and unnecessary tracks. If I had the power to cull it down, this is what the track listing for the album would look like:

  1. Homegrown
  2. Loving You Easy
  3. Remedy
  4. Heavy Is The Head
  5. Bittersweet
  6. One Day
  7. Dress Blues
  8. Junkyard
  9. I’ll Be Your Man (Song for a Daughter)
  10. Tomorrow Never Comes (Acoustic Version)

Try to tell me this isn’t a much better album after I cut out all of the EDM crap, the cheesy Mango song, the pointless island song and the fluffy songs that held down the backside of the album. This version of Jekyll + Hyde would have probably been one of my favorite albums of 2015. It’s really that simple. I’ll give you another example that’s more recent and that Florida Georgia Line’s Dig Your Roots. Here’s how I would trim that album down:

  1. Smooth
  2. Life is a Honeymoon
  3. H.O.L.Y.
  4. Island
  5. May We All
  6. Wish You Were On It
  7. God, Your Mamma and Me (I would cut out the Backstreet Boys)
  8. Music Is Healing
  9. While He’s Still Around
  10. Grow Old

It’s still not a great album of course. But after cutting out the five most annoying songs this album goes from really mediocre to around average. Really though the biggest way you could fix Florida Georgia Line into something more decent is getting rid of Joey Moi as producer, but that’s probably not likely to ever happen. One last example I will choose is Chris Stapleton’s Traveller. Now this is one of the most recent examples of an exception to my 12 songs rule. At 14 songs long, it’s still a great album and one of the best of 2015. However even this I would give a slight trim by taking out “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” and “Might As Well Get Stoned” because the first song has been done so much before and the second gets weighed down by the wedged in reference to the troops that isn’t bad, but feels pander-y. Of course this is just me really nitpicking because Traveller has launched Stapleton into the stratosphere and has netted him numerous awards.

I think I’ve gotten my point across thoroughly. While there are exceptions to the rule, at the end of the day an artist shouldn’t go over 12 songs on their album if they intend on it to be good. It’s a pretty established baseline that you shouldn’t go over unless you’re absolutely sure you can make a great long album. After all the longer an album is, the more chances an artist has of putting a bad song on it. At 12 songs or less, they can present a tight and cohesive album that is enjoyable for the listener every step of the way. So if you’re an artist making a new album and you can’t decide on the length of it, just remember less is more.

Upcoming/Recent Country & Americana Releases

  • Tomorrow Amanda Shires will release her new album My Piece of Land.
  • Next week there will be a plethora of new album releases:
    • Dwight YoakamSwimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars…
    • Reckless KellySunset Motel 
    • Kevin RoyHeartworn Highway 
  • David Nail’s next single is “Good at Tonight.” Excellent choice by Nail and his label. It was also the most added song at country radio this week.
  • Later this month George Strait is sending “Goin’ Goin’ Gone” as a single to radio. It coincides around the same time he’s releasing Cold Beer Conversation in vinyl. As for the single, it won’t do much most likely.
  • 99% of the time I don’t care about new Christmas albums (I prefer the classics), but there is one I’m interested in this year and that’s Kacey Musgraves’ first Christmas album, A Very Kacey Christmas. It’s out on October 28 and on November 18 in vinyl. It features Willie Nelson, Leon Bridges and The Quebe Sisters.

Throwback Thursday Song

George Strait – “Living For The Night” – All of this Strait talk inevitably makes me want to go listen to his music, so of course it’s in this spot this week. Most of my favorite Strait songs were released in the 80s and 90s, but this is hands down my favorite of his 2000s music. This is heartbreak music at it’s best. Even later into his career, Strait produces gold.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

Little Richard – “Good Golly Miss Molly” – People love to talk about how Elvis is the king of rock and roll, but he isn’t in my book (he built his career off covering other artists). The real king of rock and roll is Little Richard, who influenced some of the greatest artists of rock, R&B, soul, funk and hip hop. He’s an artist every music fan should familiarize themselves with if they haven’t already.

Tweet of the Week

https://twitter.com/planmymistake/status/774248484526559232

Why is Dustin Lynch solitaire a thing? Who would want this?

Accurate Review of 2016 Dierks Bentley

2016-dierks

I feel like one of the most under talked points of country music this year has been Dierks Bentley’s mediocre output. Black is hands down his worst album and is an obvious attempt at trying to become an A-lister. It’s disheartening and this Dierks fans sums it up pretty well.

Zac Brown Band Promise Return to Their Roots on New Album

Zac_Brown_USO_tour

On their latest album Jekyll + Hyde, Zac Brown Band certainly caught a lot of people off-guard with the new sounds and stylings presented on it. While there were some songs that stayed true to their usual sound, they also experimented with rock and EDM music. In my review of it, I had mixed feelings at best. At worst I was furious over there choice to make “Beautiful Drug” a single and to renege on their promise to not release this type of music to country radio. Well now the band is essentially saying that Jekyll + Hyde was a one-off. And they promise to go back to their roots.

Announced via Twitter and press release, Zac Brown Band first announced that Jekyll + Hyde has now been certified platinum and their debut album The Foundation has now been certified platinum five times by the RIAA. This segues right into the announcement by Brown himself that they’re getting set to make a new album. His exact words:

“We’re going in this winter to make a brand new ZBB record, straight back to our roots, Foundation style. It’s going to be an amazing album and we’re very excited to announce to you that we’re making the new one.”

You can see the video yourselves below. First snap reaction to this is this is great news on many levels. I was personally worried that Jekyll + Hyde would be the start of a new sound for Zac Brown Band. Luckily they’re going back to what made them big and so beloved in the first place. Brown going so far to say “Foundation style” is very encouraging and it should be a clear sign they’re not doing anymore EDM music, at least on their albums. While The Foundation wasn’t their best record, it was firmly grounded in a country and roots rock sound. It also put them on the map and on the path to becoming household names in music.

This isn’t just good move though from a critical and sound point of view. This is also pretty smart from a business point of view, as I think it’s safe to say the singles in the Jekyll + Hyde era have been the worst performing in the entirety of the band’s career (ironic considering how business-minded this album came off as). It got off to an excellent start with “Homegrown,” without a doubt the biggest hit off Jekyll + Hyde. It dominated both radio and sales, sitting at #1 on the airplay charts for multiple weeks and has nearly double the sales of the next closest single off the album. This was also the single closest to the band’s roots. The sophomore single “Loving You Easy” did pretty well at radio too, despite sales not being as strong. The third and most polarizing single “Beautiful Drug” took forever to climb the airplay charts to achieve a hollow-feeling #1 status. Surprisingly, this is the second best selling single from the album. Now the current single “Castaway” is struggling at radio and will be lucky to reach top ten, depending on how much the label wants to push it.

So no matter how you slice it, this is a great move for all parties involved. With the recording of this new album taking place this winter, it’s safe to say that it will be released sometime in 2017. If I had to guess it would be sometime in mid to late summer, with the lead single coming out sometime early in the spring. It’s highly possible there will be one more single released from Jekyll + Hyde (I’m predicting “I’ll Be Your Man”). When new details emerge on this album, we’ll let you know. In the meantime, what do you think of this news from the Zac Brown Band?

The Hodgepodge: Zac Brown Band and ‘Jekyll + Hyde’ One Year Later

It was one year ago today that the Zac Brown Band released their 4th studio album, Jekyll + Hyde. Released on the heels of Uncaged, the excellent third album from the band, and a four-song rock EP produced by Dave Grohl, expectations were high for this album. Initially, the album seemed to fall in line with the expectations. We learned that the band would be covering Americana star Jason Isbell, and had a duet with rock star Chris Cornell from Soundgarden and Audioslave. Early access to “Dress Blues” and “Heavy is the Head” along with the album’s lead single “Homegrown” showed promise for another stellar album.

Come April 28th, downloads from iTunes were available, the album was on the shelves in stores for fans to buy. Everyone loaded the album, pressed play for track one, and then heard the unexpected. Electronic dance music pulsed through the speakers as “Beautiful Drug” played to kick off the album. The name Jekyll + Hyde rang true.

Dr. Henry Jekyll from Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde conjures a potion that he hopes will suppress his evil thoughts and motivations. Much to his surprise, the potion acts in the opposite way, strengthening Jekyll’s evil alter ego, Edward Hyde. As the story goes, the evil Hyde continues to gain strength and overpower the good Dr. Jekyll. Jekyll and Hyde became synonymous with the good and bad in a person.

Zac Brown naming the album Jekyll + Hyde was perfect. He was completely aware of the content being released on the album, and the title could almost be an excuse or cry for forgiveness from the fans who were disappointed by the album. Those who were upset to hear not one, but two EDM-inspired songs on the album. The fans confused by the fact that the first six songs on the album jump around in six different genres: EDM, R&B, world-like, pop-country, big band/jazz, and rock. And those were the first six songs because those were the songs most we’re meant to hear. The band’s first four singles from the album (3 to country radio, 1 to rock radio) are found in this group.

Hearing Jekyll + Hyde for the first time was jarring. It’s an experimental album also meant to achieve commercial success. If you think the album was just a way for the band to try new things and have fun, they wouldn’t have released “Beautiful Drug” as a single. We had never heard Zac Brown Band sing an EDM/club song before, but they made sure we heard it, and they wrote it simple enough to take it to the top of the Country Airplay chart. Zac Brown saw dollar signs in the future, and he did everything in his power to stuff his pockets.

I was optimistic that the band’s Southern Ground strategic partnership with Big Machine et al. would result in some great opportunities for the band and the label’s lesser acts, all while Zac Brown maintained his creative vision. But Zac didn’t have a creative vision for his music, just a commercialized vision. Not two years after criticizing Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind Of Night,” Zac Brown eats his own words and released “Beautiful Drug” country radio. And I firmly believe that this was 100% the band’s idea. Take a look at this recent tweet from band member Clay Cook.

With a recent string of artists like Chase Rice apologizing for his new music, the Zac Brown Band are defending their crap. They’re happy to have written and recorded songs like “Beautiful Drug” because it was a successful experiment. A band who were once the outspoken gatekeepers calling out Nashville’s crap are now producing the same shit they criticized.

To an extent, you can’t blame a music artist for wanting to achieve a little more commercial success. But when that desire for more comes at the price of compromising the ground on which you once stood, it’s a disappointing transition. The desire for more money, the potion, brought about the band’s inner Edward Hyde.

It remains to be seen what the future will hold and how the band will follow this album era up. The Zac Brown Band island country staple, “Castaway,” is being released to country radio just in time for summer, which is almost guaranteed to help carry the song to another number one on the Airplay chart. With an album of 15 different songs, it’s possible that we could see a 5th single from Jekyll + Hyde be released to country radio. Maybe we’ll hear “Dress Blues” on radio after all, but time will only tell.

The past year has been disappointing in respect to the Zac Brown Band. They were one of the few mainstream artists leading the charge for quality music, and their foray into this EDM experimental world changed the minds of fans eager for something better than Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line. Some respect has been lost, but hope remains that Dr. Jekyll will win this time around.

Upcoming/Recent Country & Americana Releases

  • Tomorrow, Martina McBride’s Reckless will be released.
  • May 6 is a big release day for mainstream country and Americana.
    • Cole Swindell’s You Should Be Here
    • Keith Urban’s Ripcord
    • Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Things That We Are Made Of
    • Cindy Lauper’s Detour
    • Ryan Beaver’s Rx
  • Florida Georgia Line will release their debut single from their upcoming third album. “H.O.L.Y.” will be available tomorrow.
  • Maddie & Tae will release “Sierra” as their next single.

Throwback Thursday Song

Wade Bowen’s “One Step Closer.” I’ve mentioned a few times on this site about how highly I think of Bowen’s album Lost Hotel. This breakup song from the 2006 album is one his best songs, in my opinion. A great example of country music being modern without compromising the genre’s roots.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week


Fort Frances – Alio. Fort Frances is a Chicago-based indie rock band. There’s a hint of Americana roots in their sound and style, but Alio carries a dynamic rock sound throughout the album. The band has a big following in Lithuania, and are looking to expand their fandom with the new album. In Lithuanian, “alio” means “hello.” It’s a well produced album and quite honestly one of my favorite non-country albums I’ve heard so far this year.

Tweet of the Week

In the wake of the world learning of Prince’s death, a generic country account tweets lyrics to a Sam Hunt song. That deserves a bit more criticism, but Wheeler Walker Jr. did pretty well here.

iTunes Review of the Week

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 8.39.28 PM

A simple, yet effective review of Dallas Davidson’s new single “Laid Back.” Yes, the notorious bro-country songwriter has a country-rap single that includes vocals from Maggie Rose, Big Boi, and Mannie Fresh. Take this reviewer’s advice and don’t listen to it. Just say no.

 

Jekyll + Hyde: How One Album Turned Zac Brown Band From Heroes to Villains

Zac_Brown_USO_tour

“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” This is the famous quote uttered by Batman in the Dark Knight. It’s a quote people have used in situations hundreds of times and it’s a quote I feel applies to the current situation with Zac Brown Band, or more candidly frontman Zac Brown. He was once a beacon of hope for country music and someone we could count on to uphold the values and roots of the genre. It showed in his music and in his interviews. He practiced what he preached. Then everything changed. But I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s start from the beginning.

Zac Brown Band burst onto the country music scene in 2008 with their lead single “Chicken Fried,” a number one hit and double platinum single. It launched their careers and they’ve been an impactful force on the genre ever since, racking up ten more #1 hits on country radio. Now this first single was certainly not indicative of their full talent and they proved that with pretty much every single that followed it. Many consider “Chicken Fried” the worst single they have ever released, but it was excused because it was a foot in the door for them. Without this mega hit, we may have never gotten so many other great songs from them like the Grammy-winning collaboration with Alan Jackson, “As She’s Walking Away.” We wouldn’t have gotten what I consider one of the best country albums in the last decade, their 2012 album Uncaged.

Needless to say, any fair critic would say Zac Brown Band have produced their fair share of quality music. Not only that, but quality music that gets played on country radio. So up until this year, you could certainly call the majority of the music Zac Brown Band produced to be of high quality and something that respects the true intentions of country music. Zac Brown Band has certainly pointed out how they’re not strictly country, as they’re more in the vein of southern rock and country music has always accepted them. This is a fair and honest assessment. Speaking of fair and honest assessments, Zac Brown gave one in August of 2013. He was asked about what he thought of Luke Bryan’s newest mega-hit “That’s My Kind of Night” and the bro-country movement. Here’s a refresher on what he said (emphasis mine):

“There’s not a lot of the country format that I really enjoy listening to. If I hear one more tailgate in the moonlight, daisy duke song, I wanna throw up. There’s songs out there on the radio right now that make me ashamed to be even in the same format as some other artist.

“I love Luke Bryan and he’s had some great songs, but this new song is the worst song I’ve ever heard.”

“I see it being giant commercially, successful within what is called country music these days, but I also feel like that the people deserve something better than that.”

“I’m opinionated because I care so much about the music and the songs.”

This is was like heaven to the ears of disenfranchised country music fans everywhere who had grown disgusted and ashamed of the genre’s new direction. Finally, here was a mainstream artist standing up for them and being their voice of reason. This was an artist you could get behind and expect people to listen to them when they speak. Zac Brown Band was a group that made quality music and provided leadership to a genre that needed it. The criticism of course fell on deaf ears, but it was the attempt that meant so much.

That was the Zac Brown Band and Zac Brown of old times. Now let’s talk about the current Zac Brown Band and Zac Brown. The new Zac Brown Band began in the fall of 2014, when they announced they formed a strategic partnership with Big Machine Records, Republic Records and John Varvatos Records. Derek wrote an excellent piece breaking the deal down. It’s definitely worth a read if you haven’t read up on the details of it. At the time, I agreed with Derek that this would be a good deal for Zac Brown Band and didn’t necessarily mean they were selling out to Scott Borchetta, although Derek rightly pointed it out as something to keep an eye on (emphasis again, mine):

Admittedly, there is one aspect to be weary of with this partnership. Much like how we may see writers from Southern Ground getting songs cut by Republic and Big Machine artists, we may also see writers from those two labels getting songs cut by Southern Ground Artists. Scott Borchetta has a lot of power in country music. While I don’t think he’ll have the same level of control over Southern Ground Artists like he does his own, it’s possible he may find ways to influence Zac or other Southern Ground groups to record a Republic or Big Machine written song or two for future albums. And recently there has been some questionable songs coming out of these two labels, think “God Made Girls,” “Lookin’ For That Girl,” or “This is How We Roll.” Now, I have faith that Zac Brown won’t compromise his vision for the band or his label by recording songs like that, but it’s one thing to keep an eye on.

Derek expressed a faith in Zac Brown and the Zac Brown Band the majority of us felt at the time. There was no way he would let this new business situation affect the quality of their music. There was a proven track record to back this faith up. But it was really the first sign that change was coming to Zac Brown Band. We just didn’t want to see it. Another hint that things were about to change was a quote in an interview with Rolling Stone. Brown said this in the interview in November 2014:

Brown points to one new song titled “Beautiful Drug” as a step in this new direction. “Believe it or not, it’s about a girl,” says Brown. “But she’s the guy’s beautiful drug. I think that’ll be a big crossover tune for us.”

The words, “big crossover tune,” should have set off the alarm bells in our heads. But once again we reminded ourselves that Zac Brown Band are the “good guys” and we should have faith in them. A few months later this faith seemed to be confirmed, as they released the first single from the album, “Homegrown.” From my review:

I think this is a great choice of the first single from Zac Brown Band’s new album. It’s fun and vibrant, yet has a great sound (it sounds like it belongs in country music) and solid lyrics. “Homegrown” should get a lot of radio play and do well on the charts. I’ll be shocked if this isn’t a #1 hit. People in the industry love to talk about evolving the sound of country music with the incorporation of rap remixes and EDM elements, when really it’s just devolving it. If you want a true example of evolving country music, “Homegrown” is a perfect example. Incorporating rock elements into country music works well as long as it’s balanced and clearly Zac Brown Band know how to balance it.

This is kind of scary to read in hindsight, no? Not long after this it was confirmed that Zac Brown Band would be cutting “Dress Blues,” a Jason Isbell-penned song on their new album. And they performed it on national television. This was unbelievable. They released a quality single to country radio and cut a song from one of the most respected and beloved Americana artists in the country on their new album. This was like a love letter to the disenfranchised country music fan. This caused the hype for their new album Jekyll + Hyde to really go through the roof. Many people in the industry and country fans I knew were pre-ordering this album without hesitation, including yours truly.

ZBB Jekyll + Hyde

Then Jekyll + Hyde finally arrived to our mailboxes and we ripped off the plastic wrap as quick as we could for an album we all anticipated to be great. The first track on the album? The song Zac Brown predicted to be a crossover hit, “Beautiful Drug.” And then it happened. The moment Zac Brown Band took the metaphorical knife and stabbed it in our backs. Of course we didn’t recognize it yet, as the faith was still there, despite it being reduced. My ears didn’t know what to think. The rest of the album was rocky too. It took several listens for the anger and realization to sit in: Zac Brown Band cut an EDM song and blatantly led the album off with it. Betrayal and disappointment immediately came to mind. There were good songs on the album of course, but there were so many bad songs too. I ultimately deemed Jekyll + Hyde a mixed bag with no direction.

There was a lot of backlash online against these EDM songs, but eventually it died down. The reason? We all convinced ourselves that they wouldn’t release them as singles. Zac Brown and the group surely would see the criticism and choose to ultimately keep it away from country radio. After all they care about the music, as they feel the people deserve better. They ended up releasing “Loving You Easy” as the second single of the album, a Motown influenced song. While not one of the best songs on the album, it was a decent enough song and the band actually pulled off a Motown country song well, much better than Thomas Rhett. It’s not a terrible song and one of the better ones on country radio, which really isn’t saying much, but the point stands. As this song continued to move up the charts in the past few weeks, speculation began on what their third single from the album would be. “One Day?” “Castaway?” Nope. It’s “Beautiful Drug.”

To add insult to injury, this quote was uttered by Zac Brown Band member Clay Cook in an interview with The Boston Globe:

“With ‘Jekyll + Hyde,’ we were really starting to think of how this would play in a show,” he explains. “We’re not really an album band. The album is basically a business card to get people to see us play live.”

And with that the turn of Zac Brown Band to the dark side was complete. It was this quote that finally drove the point home. The Zac Brown Band that said they cared about the music and the fans deserving better than the stuff on country radio was gone. The faith of the fans in the band doing the right thing for country music has evaporated. Zac Brown Band is no longer in it for the fans, but rather the money and the business only. Scott Borchetta’s influence is as plain as day. The yearning for fame and crossover success is evident and the appeal to serve the roots of the genre has disappeared. “Homegrown” and “Dress Blues” were simply ruses to get us all to buy the album and dump EDM songs onto us. It was bait-and-switch advertisement at it’s finest. How is it not? When you dangle these two songs in front of fans they expect the album to be in a similar vein. When you for year after year release music that upholds the integrity of the genre, people expect to hear the same again. When you publicly admonish the trends plaguing country radio and your promise to make better music, the fans expect something good. They don’t expect EDM music. Zac Brown Band could have been open and candid about this change of direction, but instead they wanted to get your money first before springing this surprise on us. This is the definition of a crook and someone who values money over honesty.

“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Zac Brown Band chose not to fall on their sword, but instead surrender to the mainstream country agenda and laugh their way to the bank. They put their new suits on with a smile on their faces. While their wallets may have just gotten bigger, my respect for them had dwindled significantly. I no longer have faith in Zac Brown Band to do the right thing. They’ve now lived long enough to become the very thing they once spoke out against. Sure they can go back to their old sound on the next album, but they’re seemingly sterling track record and penchant for honesty through their music and words is damaged forever. This is a permanent scar on Zac Brown Band and possibly the sanctity of country music, something they may never live down again.

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.