Chris Stapleton took over, Josh Abbott broke our hearts, and Cam made a brilliant introduction. Our favorite 2015 releases, in review.
10. Maddie & Tae, Start Here
The spitfire duo of Madison Marlow and Tae Dye broke out in 2013 with their brilliant takedown of bro country “Girl In A Country Song.” The wait for their full-length was long, but worth it. The album bursts with side-eyed looks at the prom set (a world the just-out-of-high-school pair were still very much a part of while recording), charming tales of chasing dreams, and sweet odes to the unique bond between friends facing the “real world” for the first time together. The songcraft occasionally falls short of its potential, but that’s alright—these girls aren’t going anywhere. As they sang on their breakout hit, “I got a name/And to you it ain’t ‘pretty little thing,’ ‘hottie,’ or ‘baby’”—nope, but we could get used to calling them boss.
9. A Thousand Horses, Southernality
If Chris Robinson had procreated with Ronnie Van Zant instead of Kate Hudson and then hired The Allman Brothers as au pairs, their dinner-table conversation would have sounded a lot like A Thousand Horses. (As frontman Michael Hobby sings early in the 13-song set, “Don’t it feel like heaven is close?”) With swaggering guitars, barnstorming drum lines, and confident lyrics like, “I got a tall can, beer in my hand/Middle finger to the man,” the quartet’s debut flat-out rules.
8. Josh Abbott Band, Front Row Seat
The Texas country traditionalists and enormously popular touring act have made a living out of having fun. And while their fourth LP has plenty of fare destined for the dancehall, Front Row has bigger ambitions. Presented in five acts and inspired by the dissolution of Abbott’s marriage, the album unfurls the entirety of a wrecked relationship. Tipsy flirtations tumble into love, which leads, alas, to falling apart. Devastation follows, but that’s not the saddest part. It’s estrangement that will ruin you. Country has a lengthy tradition of great concept albums—peep the back-catalogs of Willie, Johnny, and Dolly—and this one’s up to snuff.
7. Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, Django and Jimmie
In their fourth collaboration together, the two legends reunite for a collection that reflects on their history together and in doing so, pays timeless tribute to country music itself. Over 12 tracks, the lines they trade are witty (“It’s All Going To Pot,” which is somehow a joke Nelson had not yet made) as often as wistful (“Unfair Weather Friend”). Sometimes, as they do on the Haggard-penned eulogy “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash,” they do it all at once.
6. John Moreland, High On Tulsa Heat
Moreland has been slinging good ole fashioned self-loathing country tunes since 2008, when he released his debut In The Throes, but his latest seems poised to be the one listeners will remember the 30-year-old Oklahoman for. Recorded over a few days at his parents’ house while they were on vacation, its 10 tracks boast both wisdom and weariness—not to mention an excellently stripped-down simplicity—that defies his age. The gruffness of his weathered tenor juxtaposed with delicately sad meditations creates a fascinating, if tenuous balance. The album’s masterpiece is “You Don’t Care Enough for Me To Cry,” on which he laments himself as a worthless addict and all-around bad bet. He bleeds, “Well I’m the kind of love it hurts to look at/Maybe we should take it as a sign.” She might, John, but there’s still not a dry eye here.
5. Kip Moore, Wild Ones
Moore’s music is rarely written about without including a rundown of his influences: Springsteen’s blue-collar fire, Mellencamp’s firebrand character studies, Seger’s preoccupation with relationships. Those writers aren’t wrong; but even the Boss had influences too, of course. And in the current country radio climate, which is more attuned to glossy pop influences than heartland grit, Moore’s allegiance to classic rock may actually hurt him more than help him. Even his most accessible anthems, like the reaching-for-the-rafters “Lipstick” and thumping “Come And Get It” have almost too much heft for airplay EP’s. In the end, he may have written his own best defense on the swampy kiss-off “That’s Alright With Me” when he growls, “Call me country, call me hippie/A wild cat from Dixie And if you do or don’t like what you see/That’s alright with me.” It’s more than alright, it rocks.
4. Cam, Untamed
The introduction of Camaron Ochs, who writes and records under the name Cam, came in the form of “Burning House,” a smoldering ballad on which love is a ruin and the party responsible for the mess is her—which is to say, the tune absolutely should have failed at radio. It didn’t, instead breaking into the Top Five, earned a Grammy nod, and out-sold every other single released by a female in 2015. And in a twist all too rare, the full-length that followed made good on all the single promised. Welcome to Cam Country, indeed.
3. Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free
Isbell arrived in 2013 with his massively acclaimed Southeastern. Written fresh from rehab, the former Drive By Trucker gave listeners a front-row seat to his struggle with sobriety. It was ugly, but gorgeously so. That narrative doesn’t carry over to his follow-up, but his legacy is better for it, proving Isbell a multifaceted talent. With lyrics like “You thought God was an architect, but now you know/ He’s more like a pipe bomb ready to blow” on lead single “24 Frames,” Isbell signed his own country-radio death certificate, and while you get the feeling that’s just fine with the 36-year-old, it still feels like a shame for listeners. On “Children of Children,” which ruminates on Isbell’s relationship with his parents—who were teenagers when he was born—the lyrics end halfway through and the sprawling fretwork that takes over is as fine as any you’ll hear. This is music that begs for a long drive; cue up your iTunes and hit the road.
2. Eric Church, Mr. Misunderstood
In a year of botched album releases, Church pulled off the impossible with his fifth LP, delivering Mr. without a hint of a tip-off in November. Fan club members received physical copies (vinyl, of course, lest you forget where the Chief stands on proper listening practices); the rest of us scrambled to find the set on iTunes. And what a treat it was. Over ten heartland-rock winners, Church unspools a delightfully tender love letter to music. The 38-year-old has never been shy about name-checking his influences, but he expands the list here, big upping the canons of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Elvis Costello, and John Lee Hooker as formative. But the album’s most affecting moments (“Mistress Named Music,” “ Holdin’ My Own”) are really just about the simple tug he feels to pick up his six-string.
1. Chris Stapleton, Traveller
Do you want a tale as old as time? One full of starry skies, lonesome fields, laments from the fallen faithful, wily devils, and wilier women, all bathed in Kentucky’s finest bourbon? Welcome to Traveller, the debut from one of Nashville’s premiere songwriters and former bluegrass-band frontman Chris Stapleton. But it’s not just his stories that sell the collection, it’s the roots-rocker’s telling—his full-bodied, bluesy baritone is both gut-wrenching and hell-raising. It is an instrument seemingly without parallel, and the 37-year-old has full command of it, moving between outlaw country, rock, and the blues. The result is soul music in the best, purest sense of the phrase.