Top 10 Country Albums of 2015

Top 10 Country Albums of 2015

2015 may be in your rearview mirror, but you can still take one last glance back at the top albums, songs and videos of the year as selected by Nash Country Weekly. It’s worth another look, we promise.

Uncork the champagne and get the black-eyed peas off of the stovetop. It’s time to celebrate the Top 10 Albums of 2015, and we like to do it with a glass of bubbly and a plateful of prosperity.

10. Meat and Candy by Old Dominion

Album cover art for Old Dominion''s "Meat and Candy", ca. 2015 cr. courtesy EB Media FREE

RCA Records Nashville

With their debut album, Meat and Candy, Old Dominion mixes good humor with clever songwriting, creating an end result that will leave you smiling. Lighthearted and full of hooks, the album speaks the lingo of youth while distilling its sound from ’90s alternative rock and current country. “Break Up With Him”—their chart-topping debut single—introduced the band’s smirking sarcasm, and there’s plenty more where that came from. Edgy but inviting, Old Dominion seems like one of the most promising new country groups since Zac Brown Band.

9. Untamed by Cam

Cover art for CAM's debut album "Untamed", release date 12/4/2015. cr. courtesy SONY Music Nashville FREE Arista/Nashville RCA

In a year filled with conversations about lettuce and tomatoes, Cam burst onto the scene—ignoring the salad bar brouhaha—with one of the strongest country albums of the year. Versatile, infectious and compelling, Untamed showcases a young and competent songwriter, a unique and confident vocalist and wise producers—Jeff Bhasker and Tyler Johnson—who knew when to step up and when to back off. Untamed revisits a brand of country music that isn’t completely unfamiliar but hasn’t been heard in quite a while.

8. Django & Jimmie by Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard

willie-nelson-mergle-haggard-album-django-jimmie-2015-06
Legacy Recordings

Legends Willie and Merle salute musical pioneers Django Reinhardt and Jimmie Rodgers in their 2015 duet album. For the concept alone, this should rank among the year’s finest and most important records. Thankfully, the material lives up to the premise, with standouts like “It’s All Going to Pot,” “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash” and the swinging title track. Plus, the rhythms and melodies sound as fresh and mesmerizing as anything out there in the mainstream. In an industry that seems more and more obsessed with youth, it’s nice to see a couple of alpha stags showing the young bucks how it’s done.

7. Damn Country Music by Tim McGraw

Album cover art for Tim McGraw's "Damn Country Music", ca. 2015 cr. courtesy BMLG FREE
Album cover art for Tim McGraw’s “Damn Country Music”, ca. 2015
cr. courtesy BMLG
FREE

Big Machine

More than 20 years and 14 studio albums into his career, Tim McGraw’s Damn Country Music proves the country icon is still a hungry young artist at heart. Avoiding middle-of-the-road syndrome, the album stays sonically relevant with propulsive beats and electronic exploration, but it’s still built on the raw emotions and down-home sounds that define country. “Top of the World” and “Humble and Kind” deliver doses of positivity in a turbulent world, while “Don’t Make Me Feel at Home” revives the barroom weeper. The title track stays ahead of the current songs-about-songs trend, and “Here Tonight” features Tim’s daughter Gracie for a touching duet. He’s earned the right to coast at this point, but where’s the challenge in that?

6. Tangled Up by Thomas Rhett

thomas-rhett-album-tangled-up-1k
Valory Music Co.

Forget blazing a trail—Thomas Rhett built a superhighway between country and R&B with his second album, Tangled Up. Heavily produced with artificial instruments, booming beats and party-centric lyrics, it’s more Bruno Mars than Bill Monroe, and TR wears his mashup crown proudly. “Crash and Burn” brings the chain gang to country radio, while “South Side” and “Vacation” are straight-up dance-club bangers. His roots poke through, too, as “Die a Happy Man” may be the “most country” thing he’s ever done. It’s not for everyone, but as the country tent continues to expand, artists like TR will help it keep from fluttering away in the breeze.

5. Second Hand Heart by Dwight Yoakam

dwight-yoakam-album-second-hand-heart-1k
Warner Bros. Nashville

Dwight’s Second Hand Heart is a menagerie of inspirations: Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison in “Dreams of Clay”; The Ramones and Bill Monroe in “Man of Constant Sorrow”; Johnny Cash and Roger Miller in “Off Your Mind.” And that’s just for starters. Listen closely and you’ll hear The Beatles, The Byrds, The Everly Brothers and The Beach Boys. Dwight stands on the shoulders of his musical giants, hooting and swaggering like only he can. Within that cadre of influences and songs, there’s an encompassing sense of hope in Dwight’s distinctive Kentucky croon, from the resilient opening track “In Another World” to the poetic, Faulknerlike “V’s of Birds,” which closes the album. The 10-song offering—of which Dwight wrote eight—is proof positive that the honky-tonk hero has lost none of his country cachet in the 30 years he’s been making records.

4. Something More Than Free by Jason Isbell

jason-isbell-album-something-more-than-free-1k
Southeastern Records

It can be a daunting task to follow up a work of art like Jason’s 2013 album, Southeastern. Fortunately, Jason has a poet’s gift for beautifully crafted lyrics and a painter’s eye for detail—plus, he’s a damn gifted musician. The singer/songwriter’s 2015 record, Something More Than Free, offers haunting, empathetic stories about people: a teenage mother in the delicate “Children of Children,” an exhausted but undefeated blue-collar worker in the moody title track and a troubled old flame in “The Life You Chose.” Jason’s hurricane-like voice can both crush you in the swirls (“If It Takes a Lifetime”) and calm you in the eye (“Flagship”), and in the aftermath, Something More Than Free is as real as it gets.

3. The Blade by Ashley Monroe

ashley-monroe-album-the-blade-2015-1k
Warner Bros.

The Blade, Ashley’s follow-up to 2013’s critically acclaimed Like a Rose, is as sharp as its title suggests. The 13-track offering, featuring 12 songs co-written by Ashley, is emotive country music—full of fiddle, steel and keys and bursting at the seams with beautifully written lyrics. Ashley cuts to the core of country music with generous helpings of the grit, humor, vulnerability, torch and twang that we have come to relish from this songbird, as evidenced in the forlorn “Buried Your Love Alive,” the implosive “Bombshell” and the piercing title track. Like many of the legendary ladies of country who have preceded her, Ashley’s comprehensive collection of bona fide country music will make you feel something. A laugh. A tear. A thought.

2. Mono by The Mavericks

The Mavericks, Mono, album artwork, ca. 2014FREE
Valory Music Group

Call in Latin-infused country, Tejano, world music or whatever designation you like. The fact is, you can boil down The Mavericks’ appeal to one simple sentence: they make great music. On Mono, the band continues its fascination with danceable Latin rhythms mixed with a sense of country-style fun, beginning with the pulsating opening track, “All Night Long.” Their beat-heavy, instrumentally diverse music is unlike anything else you’re hearing on country radio these days (not that The Mavericks get even token airplay), but it’s certainly not over people’s heads. As the title implies, Mono was recorded in monaural sound, mixed in single-channel audio, making every lick and riff sound crisp and clear, as if you were in the studio with the guys. When listening to Mono on your home sound system, every seat is the best seat in the house.

1. Traveller by Chris Stapleton

Chris Stapleton, Traveller, album artwork, ca. 2015 FREE
Mercury Records, UMG

For years, Nashville has been singing the praises of Chris Stapleton, a gifted songwriter and the formidable former frontman for The SteelDrivers. In May, in a release calendar full of overproduced, pop-infused, urban-influenced country albums and singles, Chris released the raw and gritty Traveller, and it stood as a beacon to what is true, honest and good about country music. The 14-song offering, of which Chris penned 12, is a cross-country journey of varying speeds, bookended by the optimistic title track that starts the trip and the live recording of “Sometimes I Cry,” which serves as the road-weary destination point. In between, Traveller is full of hard drinking (“Whiskey and You”), good women (“More of You”) and bad choices (“Nobody to Blame”) that highlight Chris’ compelling songwriting, musicianship and vocals.

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