Looking Back at The Top 20 Albums of 2015

Country Perspective's 2015 Most Essential Albums

Lately I decided to go back and take a look at all of the album grades I handed out last year. When it comes to grading albums, it can be very polarizing to say the very least and I know there are times when you flat out disagree with me. Other times we’re in complete agreement. One of the toughest aspects of grading is deciding what album is worthy of a 10/10. What constitutes a 10/10 can vary amongst people and I’ve found context is one of the biggest determining factors. Some view a 10/10 in a historical context, some view it in a yearly context, some in a genre context, etc. When it comes to a 10/10 to me, at its core it all comes to a feel for me. I can usually sense a 10/10 from my first listen and I know it’s the mark of a truly great album.

Another important thing I keep in mind when grading is not putting too much weight on the artist’s past material. It should be considered for in terms of comparison for their average sound and whether they deviate from it or not. But in my mind you shouldn’t knock a current album’s grade just because it isn’t as good as the last one in your mind. For example, it baffled me how so many people knocked their grade for Jason Isbell’s 2015 album Something More Than Free because it wasn’t as good in their mind as his previous album Southeastern, so therefore it can’t be a 10/10 if they gave Southeastern a 10/10 in their mind. I also consider it unfair to hold an album in a historical light right upon its release. In my opinion it takes years to determine how well it holds up historically, all-time. Finally I believe there’s no such thing as a perfect album. Every album has its little flaws and has areas where it could be a little better. So I think giving a 10/10 only in the case of it being “perfect” is a little absurd. But as they say it’s all subjective and I just wanted to clarify how I look at albums.

Without further ado I wanted to give you my thoughts on what I would grade albums I gave a 10/10 last year at this current time after having more time to digest and listen to them. Some have held up and some have not. Like I said at the beginning of the year when I announced we were approaching 10/10 grades differently this year, I gave way too many last year. So now I give you what I believe the true 10/10 grades, as well as what I believe didn’t hold up as 10/10. There probably won’t be another post like this next year because I’m being more focused on the grading this year and don’t have any regrets like last year. So here you go:

10/10

Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free

Whitey Morgan – Sonic Ranch 

Chris Stapleton – Traveller 

Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen – Hold My Beer 

Don Henley – Cass County

Turnpike Troubadours – Self-Titled

Houndmouth – Little Neon Limelight

Whitney Rose – Heartbreaker of the Year

Thoughts: Of course our album of the year choice is still a 10/10. I also still stand by my point that Something More Than Free is a better album than Southeastern, even though I’m aware this is unpopular. The key word here is album. If you asked me to pick the best three songs amongst the two albums, I’m probably picking them from Southeastern. But looking at both as whole albums, Something More Than Free is better because it flows better as a whole, thematically and sonically. I know people will disagree.

Of the others that hold up to a 10/10, I know there’s only three of them that some people would disagree. While Traveller being at 14 songs is not ideal and detracted from it in people’s minds, it ultimately doesn’t hurt the album’s overall quality in my opinion. Houndmouth may never put out a better album than Little Neon Limelight again, especially in light of the news of Katie Toupin departing from the band earlier this year. Her vocals were a big reason why I loved that album. As for Whitney Rose’s Heartbreaker of the Year, it just does such a great job of standing out and taking risks while remaining rooted in country. It’s why she won our Female Artist of the Year award.

9/9

Tami Neilson – Don’t Be Afraid 

Sam Outlaw – Angeleno 

The Malpass Brothers – Self-Titled

The Lone Bellow – Then Came The Morning 

Thoughts: So now we get to the albums where they didn’t hold up. Don’t Be Afraid ultimately doesn’t hold up for me because it just doesn’t follow the emotional punch of its title song all the way through the album. Angeleno was a big favorite in a lot of circles, but I just don’t get the same feeling as I did when I first listened to it. It just doesn’t sound as good hearing it back now, but it’s still a great album. The Malpass Brothers are an act I really enjoy, but giving 10/10 to an album mostly full of cover songs wasn’t the right choice. Then we have one of the big surprises for me of 2015 and that’s The Lone Bellow’s Then Came The Morning. A lot of people missed this one because it was a January release. It’s still a really really good album, but it just doesn’t make the cut in my mind for a 10/10, although it’s close.

8/8

Maddie & Tae – Start Here

Jonathan Tyler – Holy Smokes

Dwight Yoakam – Second Hand Heart

The Mavericks – Mono

Banditos – Self-Titled

Thoughts: This is where I know I’m ruffling feathers and people won’t like my downgrading. But I remind you this is just my opinion and not the end all be all. We’ll start with the elephant in the room: Maddie & Tae’s Start Here. I’m a big fan of this duo and that’s one of the things that ultimately clouded my final grade. There’s arguably no other act in mainstream country I want to see succeed more than these two. So I gave Start Here a grade it shouldn’t have received. There’s a lot of really good moments on the album, but it doesn’t follow that through on all of it’s songs. “Your Side of Town” is one song that brings it down, as well as “Right Here, Right Now” and “No Place Like You” for just not being memorable songs. I still say their best album will come when they finally get fed up of the games you have to play on a major label and leave to make their own records on Thirty Tigers.

My fandom also clouded my judgement on Second Hand Heart and Mono. Dwight Yoakam is a living legend and The Mavericks are perhaps one of the most underrated acts in music. Both delivered really good albums with some fun songs, but they’re just not 10/10 albums. Both needed more serious songs on the album to merit it. I enjoy Jonathan Tyler’s Holy Smokes and even bought it on vinyl, but I don’t know what I was thinking giving it 10/10. Maybe it was the summer heat? Ditto for Banditos’ self-titled album. Just a case of me going overboard.

Oh and one last thing. I wanted to give you what I considered a ranking of the top 20 albums of 2015. I think this will also serve useful to those who have just found the site and are looking for great music. These are albums you can’t go wrong with and you can’t go wrong with any of the ones I mentioned above too. My top 20 ranking is all albums reviewed, not just what I reviewed. If you have any questions about this, feel free to ask below.

  1. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
  2. Whitey Morgan – Sonic Ranch
  3. Chris Stapleton – Traveller 
  4. Turnpike Troubadours – Self-Titled (This one has gotten even better for me upon more listens)
  5. Wade Bowen & Randy Rogers – Hold My Beer
  6. Don Henley – Cass County (Still can’t believe the drummer for the Eagles made a top ten country album of the year)
  7. John Moreland – High on Tulsa Heat (This one has really grown on me)
  8. Blackberry Smoke – Holding All The Roses
  9. Houndmouth – Little Neon Limelight 
  10. Whitney Rose – Heartbreaker of the Year
  11. Eric Church – Mr. Misunderstood (Still not giving this a 10/10, Church fans. So don’t ask)
  12. The Lone Bellow – Then Came The Morning
  13. Sam Outlaw – Angeleno (This placing will get more complaints than you realize)
  14. Brandi Carlile – The Firewatcher’s Daughter (I hate myself for giving out 9.5/10 grades at one point)
  15. Cody Jinks – Adobe Sessions (Most under-the-radar debut of 2015)
  16. Gretchen Peters – Blackbirds
  17. Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material (Deserves a lot more credit than it received)
  18. Corb Lund – Things That Can’t Be Undone (Also deserved more credit)
  19. Tami Neilson – Don’t Be Afraid
  20. Will Hoge – Small Town Dreams (I always forget about this one, which is dumb)

Just missed the cut: James McMurtry’s Complicated Game, Tony Furtado’s The Bell, Justin Townes Earle’s Absent Fathers and Jami Lin Wilson’s Holidays and Wedding Rings.

The Hodgepodge: Artistic Expression vs. Profit

Moneymusic

When it comes to singers and bands, there seems to be a general consensus of either making songs that are radio hits, or album cuts that are more rich in artistic expression. I think you can make the argument for any genre with a radio outlet that there are songs written and recorded for the sheer purpose of making money without any regard for the content of the song. If it’ll sell, it’ll be made. This has been the idea in country music for years from the Nashville sound of the 60s and 70s to bro-country and metro country today, producers and labels cater to the hot trend and nothing else. In the minds of the label executives and producers, making music for profit and making music on the basis of artistic expression seem to be mutually exclusive values.

Dierks Bentley’s new song, “Somewhere On a Beach,” hits all the checklist points of a cater-to-the-radio-trend single. After announcing an album that promises to be a personal one about relationships, a screw-you single is a release way out of left field. It’s not hard to imagine that this Dierks Bentley playing give and take with his label and producers. Dierks wants to release an album with heart and soul. His label says yes, but you must record this song so we can have a guaranteed radio hit from the album. Dierks comprises. Riser was an album full of heart written in the wake of Bentley’s father passing on. Singles like “I Hold On” and “Bourbon in Kentucky” and album cuts like “Here on Earth” were responses to that tragedy. Dierks also had balled singles from “Say You Do” and “Riser” while party songs like “Back Porch” and “Pretty Girls” were left on as mere album fillers. If anything, Riser proved that an album in this decade and era of country music could be filled with soulful radio singles and remain mildly successful, even if “Bourbon in Kentucky” and “Riser” didn’t make the desired chart impact.

Did every country fan in 2013 really want to listen to 15 remakes of “Cruise”? Were producers naive to think that they, too, could have a country/rap crossover hit? Or did label executives see an ignorant fan base and take advantage of the listeners’ blind acceptance of music on the radio? Whatever the reason for the sudden rise of bro-country and its lingering effects, artistic expression in mainstream country music was a victim.

The approach to country music for the past couple of years has been radio hits. That’s why we get albums with 90% radio ready hits: some bro country, some slow jam inspired ballads, club-like jams, etc. They’re not albums in the artistic sense; they’re collections of songs. Committees are brought into the music lab to write, mold, listen, create, and conjure up the perfect song for radio to go on the perfect album. This album will sustain the artist through a long tour with at least four singles ready for whatever radio trend they predicted to arise.

But country music was built on artistic expression. Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Waylon, Cash, Yoakam, all our country music heroes are icons because these are the artists who dug deep, allowed themselves to be vulnerable, and put their hearts and souls into the music. These guys have the reputation of fighting the establishment because they’re not just singers, they’re artists. They have a voice, a purpose, and story to tell. Most singers on the radio today are just that: singers. They’re not artists with a story to tell. They are merely singers whose sole purpose is to make money.

Every now and then, these producers realize that they need to remind these radio listeners that country singers are artists. They try to convey a facade of artistry with a committee written ballad. The result of which are contrived songs like “Confession” and “You Should Be Here.” These songs are labels trying to convince fans that Florida Georgia Line and Cole Swindell aren’t just party animals, but also “deep” artists. This is the problem though, when you create a persona through several singles than try to backtrack and reset the image. They want these singers to seem deep, but they can’t compromise any chance of losing traction on radio in the process. So throwaway lines about cold ones and cold beers are thrown in to remind the fans that it’s still a party.

The artistic expression of mainstream country is lost. Maybe it wasn’t the best option for Bentley to go back-to-back with ballads as singles, but was “Riser” such a bomb that Bentley’s label had to back track to a generic, soulless song? Or are label executives just afraid to let their singers dig deep and actually be artists? And the real victim of it all is the general radio fan of country music. These are fans who probably don’t know that there are singers like Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and Tami Neilson out there making some of the best music today. Instead, these fans are subjected to party anthems, classless revenge sex songs, and half-assed ballads. And because of this, songs like “You Should Be Here” and “Die a Happy Man” are praised as deep, thoughtful, expressive ballads. And that’s exactly what will happen when you put three people in a room to conjure up a hit ballad. However, true artistic songs are ignored. Songs which are true expressions of the artists’ heart. Song which required the writer to be vulnerable and dig deep within him or herself, sometimes in the most painful places, to find the words. Those are the real, powerful songs country music needs. You don’t get a song like “Cover Me Up” from a committee writing session.

Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases

  • Aubrie Sellers, daughter of Lee Ann Womack, will release her debut album New City Blues on January 29. Sellers recently released the music video of her single “Sit Here and Cry.”
  • Tomorrow, The Cactus Blossoms, will release their album You’re Dreaming. 
  • Bluegrass and Americana artist Sierra Hull will release her new album, Weighted Mind, on January 29. 
  • “Humble and Kind” is officially Tim McGraw‘s next single.
  • Another 90s rock act has gone country. Sister Hazel will release a country album called Lighter in the Dark on February 19.

Throwback Thursday Song

“Reno” by Nic Cowan. Nic Cowan (now officially named Niko Moon) is a Georgia based singer/songwriter who has collaborated with Zac Brown on many songs for the band’s albums. The narrator meets a singer and a painter and is mesmerized by their creative passion. In light of today’s post on artistic expression, this song seemed appropriate. “What is it that drives you to create? She said ‘I never had a choice to make. It chose me long before I wrote a song. It’s what I feel, boy.'” That first chorus says it all.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week


Daughter Not To Disappear. This English indie folk trio released their second album last week. Lead singer Elena Tonra’s voice is quiet, yet haunting as she sings her songs of loneliness, love gone wrong, and even a mother dealing with Alzheimer’s. The album is hindered by a production monotony among several of the songs, but poignancy of the music and lyrics are worth giving this album a listen.

Tweet of the Week

I certainly hope that “if” becomes a “when” because an Isbell – Simpson collaborative album would be incredible!

Two Simple, But Great iTunes Reviews 

Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 12.13.18 PM Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 12.12.49 PM

The effective review of “absolute garbage” was left on Drew Baldridge’s EP. If you don’t know who Drew Baldridge, he’s a pop/dance/disco singer being passed off as country. Do your ears a favor and take this reviewer’s for it.

The eloquent “pure unadulterated garbage” was left under The Raging Idiots’ kids’ music EP (The Raging Kidiots). It’s children’s music so it’s meant to be goofy, but the EP popped up in the country section in iTunes, so why not put it here. Who would want to pass up a chance to make fun of Bobby Bones?

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 Female Artist of the Year Nominees

Over the course of 2015 we saw many talented female country and Americana artists put out fantastic albums. Determining who will win Country Perspective’s 2015 Female Artist of the Year award will be no easy feat. The main guidelines for determining who should win are the following: the quality of music they’ve released in 2015, the impact they have made on the genre over the course of the year and the amount of growth they made as an individual artist.

Derek and myself will ultimately determine which artist will win, but we also want to hear from you the readers who is deserving of the award. Your comments will be highly considered for determining who wins and you could possibly sway who should be the winner. So be sure to sound off in the comments! Without further ado the nominees for Country Perspective’s 2015 Female Artist of Year (in alphabetical order):

Brandi Carlile

Brandi Carlile

One of the most underrated albums of the year has to be Brandi Carlile’s The Firewatcher’s Daughter. Blurring the lines between country, rock and Americana Carlile delivers music that touches the mind and heart. She’s a truly great artist that deserves more attention. As I said in my review of her newest album:

The Firewatcher’s Daughter is an album you’ll need to hear multiple times to fully grasp, but trust me it’s well worth it. Carlile’s dynamic voice and the cornucopia of genres mixed together make for one hell of an album. While Music Row continues to push cookie cutter female artists who produce music that panders to the latest fad, there are talented female artists outside that bubble like Carlile making innovative music. Some people will call this album a rock album. Others will say it’s alternative or a country album. Does it really matter though? This is just great music that any music fan can appreciate.

Kacey Musgraves

Kacey Musgraves Pageant Material

I feel like Kacey Musgraves sort of got lost in the fray in 2015. Throughout 2013 and 2014 she received lots of critical praise and awards from multiple outlets for her major debut album Same Trailer, Different Park. One of the big reasons why I think this happened is because her sophomore album Pageant Material didn’t have the incendiary political commentary that attracted so many outside fans and media outlets with her first album. That’s a damn shame because I felt like Pageant Material was not only a better album, but a big step forward for Kacey. I don’t think she liked all of the political attention, even though it really helped elevate her close friends Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark. Kacey considers herself just a “dimestore cowgirl” who loves to make authentic country music and that’s the place she wants to be going forward. And she’s still having plenty of success without any support from country radio.

Lindi Ortega

Lindi Ortega Faded Gloryville

Like Kacey Musgraves, Lindi Ortega has generated her own critical buzz in recent years. Her previous album Tin Star was called by many one of the best country albums of 2013. So the anticipation and hype going into her new album this year was certainly high. While Faded Gloryville didn’t quite live up to its hype, it was still a very good album full of solid music. While many mainstream female country artists love to sing about pleasing their man, Ortega sings about what pleases herself and doesn’t pander to stereotypes. She goes against the grain and sets a great example for young female listeners everywhere. Not to mention, she wrote a great piece on women in country music after the TomatoGate incident.

Tami Neilson 

Tami Neilson Don't Be Afraid

For the second straight year Tami Neilson finds herself on many of our year-end awards list. And for great reason, as she once again delivered one of the best country albums of the year. Don’t Be Afraid copes with the loss of a loved one (Tami’s father) and how to deal with this heartache and the memories you had of them. Neilson’s big and dynamic voice is capable of belting out the loudest and softest of songs, conveying the perfect amount of emotion to connect with the listener. While I don’t think many music outlets in the U.S. give her the respectable amount of attention she deserves, her home country New Zealand certainly does. Not too many artists can deliver great albums in back-to-back years, but Neilson has done it and that makes her favorite to win this award.

Whitney Rose

Whitney Rose Heartbreaker of the Year

We saw a lot of great new artists burst onto the scene from country and Americana this year. One of the best was undoubtedly Whitney Rose. Hailing from Canada, Rose teamed up with smooth-voiced frontman of The Mavericks, Raul Malo, to make her sophomore record Heartbreaker of the Year. And when you combine two great minds like this, magic happens. Heartbreaker of the Year is one of the most uniquely sounding and creative country albums I’ve heard this year. Infusing retro pop with classic, traditional country, Rose delivers stirring love ballads and quirky stories. She more than holds her own singing next to Malo on “Be My Baby” too. What’s crazy is I don’t think this is even her best work and it’s still yet to come.

Who do you think should win? Be sure to comment below. 

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.