The great tragedy of music is that so many high-quality albums go unheard. Blame it on the glut of material released every year or the fact that the majority of artists don't have the big-budget promotional push to bring their records to the masses. With the year more than half over, we looked at LPs that deserve a second (or, in some cases, even first) listen, from big-name country releases like Dwight Yoakam's Second Hand Heart and Kristian Bush's Southern Gravity to the sublime singer-songwriter fare of Butch Walker and Kasey Chambers. Here are 30 albums from 2015 that you probably haven't, but really should listen to in their entirety.
Mandolin Orange is the deceptively straightforward duo of Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz, and Such Jubilee sounds like a couple facing each other and singing. That was basically how their fourth album came to be, and it lands in the same general sonic ballpark as Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Warm and inviting, Marlin and Frantz's harmonies are as soft and familiar as an old comforter. But where the change-ups come in is when you start paying attention to content, starting with the title — seems like Such Jubilee would be gospel. But it turns out that its devotional songs are to you rather than about you. Even when throngs are listening, Marlin and Frantz sound like they're singing privately, just for themselves. The album is a secret to share, and that's part of the charm. David Menconi
Dwight Yoakam has credited Beck for inspiring his lean, forceful new collection, but more than anything else, the 10 songs on Second Hand Heart sound like they were made for the stage. In his follow-up to 2012's Three Pears, the 58-year-old singer gets alternately mean, wistful and empathetic, then trades guitar solos and shouts "Whoo!" when the solos end. His new take on "Man of Constant Sorrow" begins with a Chuck Berry riff, and single "Liar" sounds rougher than anything he's recorded in decades. Sure enough, it was one of Yoakam's biggest hits at New York City's FarmBorough festival earlier this summer. New fans danced to its distorted guitars and quick beat while old ones wondered why they'd never heard him play it before. Nick Murray
BJ Barham has spent a decade howling his songs in a boozy, broken rasp, as though he's just choked down a whiskey shot and the glass it came in. With Wolves, though, he sings a surprisingly happier tune, spinning his recent marriage and cleaned-up lifestyle into music that's both focused and frenzied. American Aquarium's punky, pissed-off country-rock still packs a dangerous punch — just listen to the title track, which compares the frontman's vices to a pack of predators — but Wolves focuses on the promise of new beginnings rather than the drunken confusion of last call. Andrew Leahey
On paper, it sounds like the Pickin' On… album from hell: the Who's classic 1969 rock opera, but all-acoustic and played on bluegrass instrumentation. And yet this Appalachian take on Tommy — played on banjo, guitar, mandolin, doghouse bass and Dobro with nary a kickdrum or electric guitar in sight — is as awesome as it is audacious, a fully satisfying interpretation that walks a just-right line between homage and reinvention. Keith Moon's thunderous drums were such a key part of the original's percussive atmosphere that you wouldn't think a drum-free version could work, but the seamless arrangements deftly imply all the tempo flourishes you remember. Clipped strums substitute nicely for drumbeats, and Pete Townshend's steady rolling rhythm guitar transposes perfectly to banjo. Best of all, mandolinist/frontman Nolan Lawrence pulls off Roger Daltrey-style bellowing with operatic, lusty aplomb. D.M.
Smith finally makes the Nashville album he's always dreamed about, with help from Alan Jackson producer Keith Stegall, to radio-ready results. But the Georgia native refuses to stray too far from his DIY roots: he wrote every song on the 12-track project. Lead single "Feet Wet" may come across as a simple ode to chilling by the pool, but has more depth than the diving end of the in-ground. And the sympathetic "Bend" is a heartbreaker, written about a family member who just won't grow up. With a wealth of college-centric drinking songs in his back catalog, Smith can maintain a forever-young career for as long as he wants, but with While the Gettin' Is Good, he proves that his best work lies in adulthood. Joseph Hudak
If nothing else, William Clark Green's third album, Ringling Road, proves terrestrial country radio should make room for quality Texas-country artists. Featuring strong hooks and a twangy rock sound, Green's songs aren't so different from country's Top 10, just a little more unapologetic. Lead by distorted guitars and sturdy drums, Ringling Road is full of all the usual imagery — small towns, sweethearts, beers with the guys and drunk-dials after — but also unexpected nuggets dug up by Green's gravelly voice and knack for cinematic, sometimes hilariously profane lyrics. Not profane in a gratuitous, constant F-bomb way, just in a refreshing "this is how people actually talk" style. The title track imagines a circus train stopping to let the performers indulge their vices, "Sticks and Stones" delivers an outsider's anthem and "Creek Don't Rise" wraps an old-time saying with uplifting fiddles and the always-relevant promise of new love. Chris Parton
On its bracing sophomore release, the Brooklyn-based Americana trio ups the ante. The harmonies of Zach Williams, Brian Elmquist and Kanene Pipkin sound fuller and warmer; the musical tracks more richly varied; and the songwriting stands on even firmer footing as they sing, cry, stomp, shout and soar. Produced by Aaron Dessner of the National at his converted church recording studio in upstate New York, the band ably combines gospel fervor, soul fire and country flourishes on songs — the best of which are elegantly sad like "Marietta" and full of scene-setting detail like "Diners" — that favorably raise the specter of predecessors ranging from the Band to George Jones to the Staples Singers to the Avett Brothers. Sarah Rodman
There is a reason the gifted singer-songwriter's 10th studio album, and first solo album in five years, is already racking up awards in her homeland of Australia. Out just shy of a month in the U.S., Bittersweet finds Chambers stripping back to storytelling essentials: lissome melodies, simple instrumentation and her heartache of a voice. Whether she is musing on the nature of and need for faith ("Is God Real?"), entwining her voice with that of her musician-mentor father Bill's on the vintage-sounding "House on a Hill," or turning the tables and turning up the heat on a defiant stomper like "I'm Alive," Chambers is equally at home with tenderness and ferocity. S.R.
From Austin's fertile music landscape via the mountains of rural Pennsylvania come sisters Larissa Chace Smith and Brechyn Chace, indie-spirited folk singers with a quirky sense of humor and some spine-tingling harmonies. Highlights include a spooky-as-hell version of Jim Lauderdale's "What You Don't Know" and a sweet, twangy take on the Doris Day standard "Que Sera Sera," (a tribute to their grandfather, Ronald Chace, who sang with Day). But the album also boasts 11 impressive originals, all of them set to a cool Carter Sisters-meets-Indigo Girls vibe. Stephen L. Betts
With a voice as big as the Texas horizon, Ryan Culwell pays complicated tribute to the Lone Star State with this sparse, spirited record. He's both champion and critic, proud of his neighbors for their resilience and resolve, but also angry at the land they inhabit for whittling down its people's dreams into hard-pointed reality. You can hear that duality in the music, where gorgeous folk melodies and finger-plucked guitar chords give way to pissed-off statements like, "Amarillo is just a waste of time." Wrapped up in a landscape of oilfields, highways and a whole lot of dust, Flatlands is at once gorgeous and bleak. A.L.
Sugarland guitarist Kristian Bush crafted his first solo album in the wake of his divorce, band shakeup and a devastating tragedy — the 2011 Indiana State Fair stage collapse that killed seven people just seconds before Sugarland's set was to begin. Surprise: It's the happiest album of the year. The husky-voiced singer goes mostly uptempo in branching out on his own, with mood-lightening melodies and lyrical odes to good times ("Flip Flops," "Make Another Memory") good love ("Light Me Up," "Giving It Up"), and good morals ("Trailer Hitch," "Walk Tall"). Euphoric for listeners and therapeutic for Bush ("It's like sunshine into a cave," he tells Rolling Stone Country), Southern Gravity has an arguably unfitting title, given how far it'll lift you up. Beville Dunkerley
Those who dismiss the Boxmasters as a Billy Bob Thornton vanity project are missing out — as well as sorely misinformed. Thornton was humping it out on tour as a roadie and musician long before he realized any silver-screen dreams. This sprawling double album, which amazingly doesn't feel Use Your Illusion bloated, finds him and the ace 'Masters — who play the Grand Ole Opry on August 18th — mixing country noir with bright jangle pop. One disc is all Americana gothic, while the other is Nuggets by way of Liverpool. "Always Lie," from the twangy half of the project, is Thornton devilishly sharing his trick for dealing with the press and ranks with some of country's most honest songwriting. (Or does it?) J.H.
When two legends — and old pals and collaborators — team up to make new music, attention must be paid. And Django and Jimmie more than rewards that attention with songs that move easily from comic to poignant to reflective, revealing the depth of Nelson and Haggard's collective wisdom and the lightness of their collective wit. The duo blend their grizzled vocals on new originals and classic songs as well as making a trade of reverent covers, with Nelson applying his deft interpretive touch to "Somewhere Between" while Haggard expertly handles "Family Bible." The title track, a winsome waltz, pays endearing tribute to the album's namesakes, jazz guitarist Django Reinhart and fellow country legend Jimmie Rodgers. Bobby Bare joins the fun for a jaunty tip of the cap to another titan in "Missing Ol' Johnny Cash." And the winking, mariachi-flecked charmer "It's All Going to Pot," in which the pair and buddy Jamey Johnson bemoan the state of the world, is a high point. S.R.
There's good reason that most listeners haven't yet met The Drifter, the tremendous first-ever solo album by Hammond B-3 organ master Mike Flanigin — it isn't officially released until August 21st. We've been fortunate enough, however, to have spent the summer with the LP, a collection of alternatingly gritty and atmospheric Americana songs driven by the Texas musician's nuanced playing and some special guests from his home state. ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, guitar hero Gary Clark Jr. and punk godfather Alejandro Escovedo all make cameos, but even they can't overshadow Flanigin's B-3. It's the perfect record for late-night parties or all-day drives through the desert. J.H.
If you like the bluegrass sound but would prefer it with a bit more attitude, the SteelDrivers' latest album, The Muscle Shoals Recordings, is a near-perfect combination. The Nashville-based group has never really been strictly bluegrass — more like bluegrass-meets-gutbucket-blues — but this album adds a splash of swampy soul to their sound, courtesy of the Northern Alabama town that previously hosted sessions for Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, the Rolling Stones and countless others. Lead singer Gary Nichols grew up there, and on the new album pushes his forceful, husky vocals even further, shouting, howling and generally letting loose all over 11 tracks that range from dark to darker. "Here She Goes" is an oddly touching story about getting divorced, "Six Feet Away" reminds listeners that we're never too far from the grave and "River Runs Red" is a battle hymn about the Civil War. There are a few bright spots, though, like Tammy Rogers' versatile fiddle, which takes turns embodying sorrow and soaring with joy, two guest appearances by Jason Isbell as co-producer and slide-guitarist ("Brother John" and "Ashes of Yesterday") and "Too Much," an upbeat lament about how modern society kind of sucks. C.P.
Texas-country mainstay Robert Earl Keen reached across the roots-music aisle in February for a bluegrass-covers album, and the result was an interesting change of pace for fans of both. Keen's title says a lot about how he approached the project, and it's the perfect name. Not only is he having fun within the structural confines of bluegrass, he just can't sound sad — even on the darkest of murder ballads. Take "99 Years for One Dark Day," for example: The guy is locked up for killing his wife and has no hope for release from his personal hell, but Keen sings it like he just won the lottery. Similarly, the devastating no-win-situation in "Long Black Veil" sounds downright uplifting. Natalie Maines, Lyle Lovett and Peter Rowan offer guest vocals, and Keen's band is in fine form despite the unusual material, making the whole thing a weird, fun take on bluegrass that does justice to the tradition without being too serious. C.P.
Josh Moore first gained notice as the teenaged frontman of Beloved, an abrasive Christian hardcore band that had some success on the church-rock circuit before splitting up around the time Moore became old enough to legally drink. That was 10 years ago and Moore has been biding his time since then, moving to Carrboro, North Carolina, and eventually emerging as one of the area's best country-leaning artists alongside Mount Moriah, Hiss Golden Messenger and other local luminaries. Along the way, he wrote this quietly stunning collection of country-soul ruminations about going through changes — nine songs about what you have to give up to get on to the next thing. The combination of Moore's earnest, stoic quaver and the album's warmly airy arrangements recalls the Band at its earthiest. D.M.
Up until now, the husband-and-wife team of Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams have spent their careers in the roots-music shadows, happy as essential band members bringing soul and authenticity to the work of American icons like Levon Helm, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Emmylou Harris. In June, they finally pulled the trigger on an album of their own, and the self-titled project has the tight, in-the-pocket feel of seasoned operators baptized in the nectar of country, rock, blues and R&B. Obscure covers and standards abound (like the almost spooky "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning"), multi-instrumental melodies are the norm and Campbell and Williams' bold-yet-nuanced vocal blend is worthy of its own review. Helm even plays drums on one track, a pleading cover of the Louvin Brothers' "You're Running Wild," recorded during a session for one of his final albums. Delivered with an expert's appreciation for the traditions of American music, the project shines a long-overdue spotlight on two of the MVPs behind the greats. C.P.
New York City is no bible bet, but the gospel that Spirit Family Reunion preaches is one of musical inclusion on their second self-produced LP Hands Together. Like the album's title, the Brooklyn-based collective can inspire one to both pray and clap — hopefully at the same time — on songs like "It Does Not Bother Me" and "How Long to Take That Ride," which whirl like old-time classics but play off sidewalk grit as much as southern porches. Mixed by Paul Q. Kolderie (Radiohead, Pixies), there's a rock & roll chug on Hands Together — like Old Crow Medicine Show, they prove the art of the string band doesn't have to be one for grey-haired gatherings only. It can bring you to your knees. Marissa R. Moss.
Every few years, a new voice is anointed the "songwriter's songwriter," a flattering if not slightly amorphous expression meant to mean someone who might not be topping Billboard charts but is probably on constant rotation in the tour vans of artists themselves. Take Guy Clark, John Prine, Ron Sexsmith, for example. Oklahoma's John Moreland is certainly one of 2015's top contenders for the title with High on Tulsa Heat, which was produced and engineered bare-bones by Moreland himself. Like Tom Waits on "Waltzing Matilda" or Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, Moreland's a master of the eerily emotive, roots-rocking folk song, that all hinge on his uncanny ability to conjure lines that hit exactly in the most tender spots: loneliness, heartbreak, humanity. "I keep mining the horizon," he sings on "Cherokee," "digging for lies I've yet to tell." Moreland's been poked at for being overly somber, but it's not his fault that the truth hurts. M.M.
Los Angeles is no hotbed for country music, but it is a source of endless inspiration, if you know where to look. And Sam Outlaw, a former ad sales executive who ditched his gold card for a steady income of tip jar singles and a cowboy hat, certainly does. He pulls from California's Bakersfield past, the urban mariachi tradition of East L.A. and the broken fantasy of Hollywood life for Angeleno, the singer's Ry Cooder-produced debut. "Jesus take the wheel," sings Outlaw on the shuffling honky-tonk waltz of the same title, "and drive me to a bar" — there's plenty of weepy steel guitar here, but a sense of humor, too. After all, Outlaw knows he didn't grow up roping herds, but he proves on songs like "Angeleno" that there's a little bit of a restless cowboy in even the most diehard city slickers. M.M.
Inspired by everyone from Jack Keruoac to Tom Petty, Medicine feels like Drew Holcomb's ultimate road-trip companion. It's a mix of Seventies folk, stadium-sized Americana and California country-rock, with everything designed to churn up memories of the American landscape that Holcomb and his group of do-it-yourself road warriors have spent the past decade traveling. "Shine Like Lightning" swings for the fences, but it's the album's quieter moments — particularly the opener, "American Beauty" — that really connect. A.L.