It must be noted that Country Exclusive did not come into existence until halfway through 2015, so many albums were not reviewed. Others may have been considered for this list if this site had been in existence longer. Having said that, when I thought back over the albums I’d reviewed, ten stood out to me, and two stand out which I didn’t review but which it would be criminal not to mention on a year-end list, so Country Exclusive is declaring twelve albums “most essential” for 2015. It should also be noted that some of these albums have had more sustainability for me than others, and therefore albums that were reviewed higher earlier in the year may still not have made this list.
#12: Courtney Patton–So This is Life
This album seems to be getting overlooked in a lot of year-end lists, and that is unbelievable to me. This album has some of the best songwriting I’ve heard this year, and many songs that stood out above everything else this year. A couple tracks kept it from being one of the best albums of the year, but the songs on So This is Life are truly some of the best of 2015. From one-night stands to prison to divorce, Courtney Patton tells the real stories of life and relationships, all in simple acoustic arrangements. This is country music at its finest. I mentioned sustainability, and this album has it–I find myself going back to Courtney Patton’s album more than many which are ranked higher on this list.
#11: Jason Boland & the Stragglers–Squelch
From the Texas country/Red Dirt scene came an album filled with politically charged material and social commentary. Jason Boland & the Stragglers have been a mainstay in the Red Dirt scene since 2001, and this album proves why. Much like Courtney’s album gave us some of the best songwriting, Squelch delivered some of the best instrumentation and production, making the political lyrics come to us in excellent ways. Even if you don’t like such material, you will find much to appreciate here, like the upbeat “Heartland Bypass” or the beautiful ballad “Bienville.”
#10: Kacey Musgraves–Pageant Material
Kacey Musgraves didn’t do anything spectacular with her second album–she just continued on a path that earned her success and plenty of hardware the first time. Though she has all but been blacklisted by country radio, Kacey Musgraves remains an important ambassador to the mainstream, and though Pageant Material is not the best album of 2015, it is certainly one of the most important. Kacey symbolizes the few artists still carrying a torch for traditional country and still being allowed to do so with mainstream success. It’s a solid album, and more than that, it’s the album Kacey Musgraves wanted to make. Not only that, but most artists these days are covering things like “Uptown Funk”–this album unashamedly features Willie Nelson and Kacey on a duet on one of Willie Nelson’s least-known songs.
#9: Blackberry Smoke–Holding all the Roses
This album is more rock than country–in fact, it only features a couple of straight country tracks. But that is part of what makes this album wonderful. It is an album that does not seek to blend genre all the time at the expense of the music. It knows what it is and does not pretend to be something else. Some songs are rock; some are country. Both styles are done flawlessly. When the styles are blended, such as on the title track, it is a sound unique to Blackberry Smoke. This album had the distinction in February of becoming the first album by an independent artist to top the Billboard Country Albums chart, and its importance here should not be overlooked. It’s not the album to buy if you want fiddle and steel, but it has still earned its place–also, this album was the first to earn a ten by Country Exclusive.
#8: Whitey Morgan & the 78’s–Sonic Ranch
This is the polar opposite of Blackberry Smoke’s album. If you want an album that is “stone cold country,” I refer you to this one. People who think Sturgill Simpson sounds like Waylon have obviously never listened to Whitey Morgan. Others would probably rank this album a bit higher even, and if you want an example of the best “country”–not Americana, not country rock, not pop country–album this year, it would probably be this one. Unfortunately, this was one album I did not get a chance to review–but if you miss the truly classic country sound and raw, honest songwriting of “outlaw country,” it is an album that should not be overlooked.
#7: Don Henley–Cass County
2015 has been the year of the washed-up rocker jumping on the country band wagon. In fact, I declared “B.Y.H.B.,” the first single from the “90’s supergroup” Uncle Ezra Ray, to be the worst song I’d ever heard. But then there’s Don Henley. He came to country to make an actual country record, one that would stand the test of time. This album features Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Miranda Lambert, Martina McBride, and interestingly, Mick Jagger–and all contribute to make Cass County a standout country album. This got a nine when I reviewed it, but I was reviewing the deluxe version–the original Cass County would have received a ten. Thank you, Don Henley, for showing all the rockers and most of mainstream country what country really should be.
#6: Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen–Hold my Beer, Volume 1
From the world of Texas country came a collaboration album in April. Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen are both forces to be reckoned with within the Texas country scene, but many underestimated this album–until the first single, “Standards.” “I don’t have hits, I’ve got standards” they sing–and the song became an anthem for Texas and independent artists and fans everywhere. This album is just fun to listen to. The friends have great chemistry throughout the record. And then when you think it’s all lighthearted fun, “El Dorado” comes on and takes your breath away. The best thing about this record is the “volume 1”; I look forward to many more of these collaborations.
#5: Chris Stapleton–Traveller
This is another album which I did not get a chance to review–but what would 2015 have been without Chris Stapleton? Traveller is an excellent album filled with influences from country, soul, and blues. Chris Stapleton’s voice is remarkable, and his songwriting is what made him this name in the first place. Tracks like “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” and “Whiskey and You” simply speak for themselves. And then there’s all the CMA nominations–Chris Stapleton is forever changing the course of history with his wins for Album of the Year, New Artist of the Year, and Top Male Vocalist. If there was ever a time when the comments, “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist,” rang false, it was the night Stapleton swept the CMA’s. Traveller is an excellent choice for Album of the Year, and the impact its success is having on country music only adds to the justification for it being on this list.
#4: Jason Isbell–Something More Than Free
Before everyone starts freaking out that Jason Isbell is fourth, let me say that any of the top seven of these could have easily claimed the top spot. Jason Isbell gave us an album full of his always excellent storytelling. This album, in my opinion, was miles better than Southeastern, as it is much more relatable. However, there are times when the beauty of the songwriting sacrifices relatability or the melody, and that is why I have ranked this album fourth. However, Something More Than Free, is, in some respects, the best album of the year, celebrating life and love in a raw, honest way. It went #1 on the rock, country, and folk charts, proving that Jason Isbell transcends genre. This is the album that made me, and will make many, a believer in Jason Isbell.
#3: Kasey Chambers–Bittersweet
Perhaps the most underrated, but one of the most relatable and sustainable, albums on this list. Kasey Chambers is Australia’s hidden gem. She’s been selling platinum records and winning awards there for over a decade. It’s time we appreciated her music worldwide. Kasey went into Bittersweet wanting to make an album with a live feel. She wanted the album to be “real” and “raw”–and that is what she delivers. It’s a simple album, with a banjo backing many of the tracks, and Kasey’s voice shines through beautifully. Her lyrics are some of the most honest I’ve seen; many of the tracks focus on what seem to be personal reflections on and struggles with God. “Real” is the best word to describe this record–we hear about love, heaven and hell, prostitution, etc. Kasey’s not afraid to say “whore, “bitch,” and “fuck” on this album either, and there’s something to embrace about the honesty of that. The best music makes you feel and relate, and that is simply what happens when you hear this album.
#2: Maddie & Tae–Start Here
Now, the same people that freaked out for Jason Isbell being fourth are going crazy that Maddie & Tae are higher. Well, I have spent many words on Maddie & Tae, and I’ll keep doing so. Maddie & Tae may have a slight pop influence, but that is simply it: it’s slight. When I listen to Start Here, I notice this: here is a debut album, by a young female duo, with mandolins, fiddles, steel, and banjos. Maddie & Tae are actually making it on the radio. They are the ones who can turn the tide of mainstream country back. In a world where the established acts like Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean and Blake Shelton can’t speak for themselves and sell out to trends, Maddie & Tae are carrying a torch for traditional country the size of Texas. They are doing it in a genius fashion; without a slight pop influence, their music wouldn’t have a prayer on country radio. Yet here they are, two new artists, females even, calling out the sexist lyrics of the bros and the use of drum machines. And Start Here proves it’s not just talk. With harmonies akin to the Dixie Chicks and relatable lyrics for today’s youth, Maddie & Tae are a force to be reckoned with.
#1: Turnpike Troubadours–The Turnpike Troubadours
This album is simply the best of 2015. There is quite simply nothing to complain about. The instrumentation is excellent, and I’ve never heard so much fiddle on any other album. The lyrics are incredible as well, from the five-minute opener, “The Bird Hunters” to the heart-wrenching “Fall out of Love.” “you bet your heart on a diamond, and I played the clubs in spades”–what a line! I would be hard-pressed to pick the best song on this album, and it has only gotten better with time. I don’t know what else to say, it’s just an excellent album from start to finish.