Country Perspective’s 2015 Album of the Year

When determining the best album in country and Americana in 2015, opinions have been scattered across the board. Throughout 2015 a few albums put itself ahead of the rest of the field and have been the popular choices. For months we knew there wouldn’t be a clear cut winner and every aspect would be taken into consideration when determining Country Perspective’s 2015 Album of the Year. When it come down to it, there was one album Derek and myself kept coming back to as the favorite. It was expected to be an album of the year candidate when it was announced to be released and upon the very first listen it lived up to my expectations. I knew I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be the best of the year. Lo and behold it is the best. The 2015 Country Perspective Album of the Year winner is Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free.

Jason Isbell Something More Than Free

Of the eight albums nominated for Country Perspective’s 2015 Album of the Year award, we ended up narrowing it down to three. What ultimately put Isbell’s Something More Than Free over these other albums for us is the deep and rich songwriting that permeates through this album. Each song is written and laid out with the utmost love and care. You know you’re listening to a special album when you can’t pick the best song on it. This is no surprise considering Jason Isbell is hands down one of the greatest songwriters of this generation and arguably the very best. There are very, very few songwriters that match or top Jason Isbell.

Something More Than Free is an album about life. You fall in love, you get your heartbroken, you lose a loved one, you work to put a roof over your ahead and you do a lot of crying and smiling along the way. Isbell explores these themes with not only an intuitive mind, but a mind that has lived through all of this many times over. He’s been at the very bottom and the very top. This album followed his 2013 album Southeastern, his return album after being in rehab. That album explored dark themes and had a reflecting somber tone. With Something More Than Free, Isbell celebrates life and the joys you can experience when you free your mind from the demons that poison it. And I think that’s why a lot of people considered Something More Than Free a lesser album than Southeastern. While a dark and sad album can seem more interesting, that doesn’t mean you should dismiss a happier album. Really after giving it more listens I think Something More Than Free tops Southeastern. Something More Than Free may not quite match the peaks of Southeastern, but the album as a whole is more cohesive and complete in every department.

Look at a song like “24 Frames.” Upon the surface it seems like a relatively simple song, but really it is so much more. The overriding message of it is that life can change in a moment. One minute your friends with someone or you’re having the best day of your life, then the next day it could all change. Not only could it change, but your life may never be the same, for better or for worse. Life is so simple, yet so volatile. Isbell builds upon this more on “Children of Children” where he reflects on how much his mother’s life changed when he came into her life. He compares it to today where he and his own wife Amanda Shires have their first child. Then there’s the saddest song of the album “Speed Trap Town,” which explores death and reflecting back on a loved one’s life. The song on the album that encapsulates it all is the title track, “Something More Than Free.” You strip away all of the outside stuff in the world around you and really what we’re all wanting in life is something that can’t be bought. You can’t borrow it and you can’t fake it either. It’s something you earn and find. It’s love. It’s freedom. It’s happiness. As Isbell says it’s something more than free.

Something More Than Free reached #1 on the country, rock, folk and Americana charts. I find this the most appropriate for this album and Jason Isbell. His music and this album transcends genre lines. It can resonate with anyone who has a true appreciation for music and life. While Jason Isbell may have not been the flashiest or most critically acclaimed or even the best-selling artist in country and Americana this year, he had himself a great year. Despite these accolades and praise, Isbell would probably tell you his greatest accomplishment this year was becoming a father. You can tell he’s a truly happy man who is winning at life. This shines through on social media. This shines through in interviews. This shines through in his demeanor. And it shines through on Something More Than Free. That is why it is Country Perspective’s 2015 Album of the Year.

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 – Jason Isbell’s ‘Something More Than Free’ Celebrates Life & Love

Jason Isbell Something More Than Free

Well it’s here. The day many country and Americana fans have been waiting months for: July 17. Today Alan Jackson and Jason Isbell released their new albums, two of the most highly anticipated of the year in the genre. Isbell’s new album, Something More Than Free, was probably one of the most anticipated in all of music this year. After all his previous album Southeastern he released in 2013 was one of the most critically acclaimed of the year and for some the outright best (debatable between it, Sturgill Simpson’s High Top Mountain and The Mavericks’ In Time). It won numerous awards at the Americana Awards this past year and it should have at the very least been nominated for Best Americana Album at the Grammys. Out of all the albums I’ve heard in the past five years, it’s near the top of my must-listen list in all genres. So I was pretty excited myself to hear Something More Than Free. Once again Dave Cobb returns as producer, so you knew this would be another must-listen. Everything Cobb touches seems to be golden. And after listening to it thoroughly I can say it not only lived up to expectations, but surpassed them. Isbell has once again delivered a masterpiece.

Something More Than Free opens with “If It Takes A Lifetime,” a song about finding your happiness in life. Whether this takes a lifetime or not, Isbell is determined to find that day. The song has an easy-going attitude with some nice guitar play. After such a dark album in Southeastern in 2013, this song is a good indicator of how this album is the aftermath of this pain and moving on in life past that darkness. The first track released off this album, “24 Frames,” is next. I was impressed when I first heard this song. I was impressed when I heard it live and I’m still impressed now with it. This song is very catchy on the surface, both lyrically and instrumentation-wise. When you delve more into the song though, you realize how deep it goes. The song is about how short life is and how everything you know now could be gone in an instant. It’s hard to pick favorites on an album like this one, but this one certainly stands out.

Isbell is well-known for his heartbreak/sad songs, but they forget how great he is at love songs too. He reminds us with “Flagship.” It has an almost haunting tone about it, with a simple acoustic guitar and the dynamic voice of Isbell. This is one of those songs that are hard for me to explain and something you need to hear for yourself. The brilliant songwriting of Isbell is truly one of a kind. One of the more upbeat tracks on Something More Than Free is “How To Forget.” Just like “24 Frames,” this is another song you can get stuck in your head quite easily. Of course this isn’t a bad thing at all. The instrumentation on this song could not be any better. As someone who has seen the 400 Unit live, they’re one of the top bands in the country and this song clearly showcases it.

With Isbell having his first child on the way, you kind of knew he would have some songs about raising children on the album and we get that with “Children of Children.” He reflects on his own upbringing by his mother, who had Isbell when she was just a teenager and the impact that made on her life. Like every great Isbell song, it really makes you think. And then you want to listen to it again and again. Each time I feel like I pick up something else from the song. You get the picture. “Life You Chose” reflects on the choices you make in life and questioning if you’re where you’re supposed to be. I love how prominently Isbell’s wife Amanda Shires is featured on the chorus of this song, as it really elevates it and gives it a punch. Then again any time these two sing together will catch your attention. This is a song that will vary with each listener and have a different meaning to him or her.

I said before that it would be impossible to choose a favorite on this album, but I take that back. 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 and without a doubt one of my favorites of the year. “Speed Trap Town” is another shining example of Isbell’s brilliant storytelling abilities. He seems to flawlessly be able to craft a story that hooks you from the start and keeps you intrigued until it finishes. The story told in this song is about a boy growing up in a little town and watching his father die in a hospital bed. The boy reflects on his dad’s life and saying goodbye for the last time. While this album is overall happier than Southeastern, this song is the tear-jerker of Something More Than Free.

The 400 Unit really gets to shine on “Hudson Commodore.” The instrumentation is just exceptional, not to mention we also get to hear some top-notch fiddle play from Amanda Shires. Hearing her fiddle play will never get old to me. This is the type of song that will be a treat for live crowds, as it has a cool sound. The gritty, southern rock-influenced “Palmetto Rose” follows this. Once again you get to hear the 400 Unit at their best on this song. The song itself is homage to working class people and South Carolina, as Isbell refers to as the “Iodine State.” Charleston, South Carolina also gets mentioned in the song, as the palmetto rose is the subject of it. These woven roses are a staple of the city. It’s a nice shout out to a city that has gone through so much heartbreak and pain in recent months. The album closes out with “To A Band That I Loved” and it’s another song where I’m mesmerized by the sheer talent of Jason Isbell. His haunting vocals pierce through to your ears like a cool, gentle breeze. This song lures you in and doesn’t let go until it finishes. I think this is the best vocal performance by Isbell on the album and it’s a fitting way to close it out. If you can’t feel a song like this one, I’m not sure what it would take to touch you. It really sums up the whole album to me.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, this album is fantastic and I highly recommend getting it. 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. The bar was set earlier this year by Chris Stapleton and Whitey Morgan. But Jason Isbell just topped it and set it even higher. Something More Than Free is one of the best of the year to me so far and you would be wise to seek this album out and listen to it over and over. I know I am.

Grade: 10/10