Home Music Music Country Lists

30 Great Country Albums of 2015 You Probably Didn’t Hear

From the bright country-pop of Kristian Bush’s ‘Southern Gravity’ to the defiant reinvention of Allison Moorer’s ‘Down to Believing’

Kasey Chambers and Butch Walker

Kasey Chambers and Butch Walker are two artists with new albums that shouldn't be overlooked.

Lisa Maree Williams/Getty; Scott Legato/Getty

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. 

Spirit Family Reunion, Hands Together
12

Spirit Family Reunion, ‘Hands Together’

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.

John Moreland, Tulsa Heat
11

John Moreland, ‘High on Tulsa Heat’

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.

Sam Outlaw, Angeleno
10

Sam Outlaw, ‘Angeleno’

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.

Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, Medicine
9

Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, ‘Medicine’

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.

Will Hoge, Small Town Dreams
8

Will Hoge, ‘Small Town Dreams’

Will Hoge solidifies the years of John Mellencamp comparisons with an album that paints cinematic pictures of his upbringing in the small town of Franklin, Tennessee — in which the now Nashville resident realizes he wasn't really confined but rather inspired to make the kind of music that's earned him a Grammy nod and loyal following. Tracks range from the carefree to the profound, with songs such as the barroom stomping, hangover-ignoring "Til I Do It Again" giving as much of a glimpse into Hoge's Franklin-reared persona as the thoughtful "Guitar and a Gun" — a Gary Allan co-write about a boy making a life-altering decision in a pawn shop. But wholly encapsulating the album's theme is anthemic opener "Growing Up Around Here," which finds the artist embracing his roots after "17 years trying to find my way out." B.D.

Honeyhoney, 3
7

Honeyhoney, ‘3’

Recorded at the tail end of their two-year stay in Nashville, Honeyhoney's third album finds the duo mixing the stomp of Americana with the swagger of indie rock. Suzanne Santo has never sounded better, her voice alternating between the husky huffs of a soul singer and the ballsy acrobatics of a bar band frontwoman who's slammed just enough shots to convince her to try all of those difficult runs. Matching her pace are bandmate Ben Jaffe — the calm, steady anchor to Santo's stormy seas — and producer Dave Cobb, who keeps the mood raw and rough-edged by capturing everything in a handful of first takes. A.L.

Andrew Combs, All These Dreams
6

Andrew Combs, ‘All These Dreams’

If the legendary Quonset Hut Studio, recording den for Simon & Garfunkel, Patsy Cline and others, never closed, Combs' All These Dreams is the kind of work that would be currently pouring out of it. But don't be mistaken — the sophomore LP from the Nashville-based singer-songwriter is no retro revival; it's just built in the spirit of an era where lush orchestrals and strong narrative songcraft were the keys to the castle, not Autotune or hip-hop infusions. Countrypolitan may have been a dirty word in its day, but this is its modern incarnation — layered, evocative arrangements over lyrics much more interested in telling stories than treating music as a confessional both. Holding it all together is Combs' stellar, gravelly-soul vocal, which can be perfectly delicate on songs like "Strange Bird" or as worn as a tarnished heart on "Month of Bad Habits." M.M.

Allison Moorer, Down to Believing
5

Allison Moorer, ‘Down to Believing’

Moorer pours heartbreak, rage, bitterness, regret and hope into the most exquisitely crafted album of her distinguished career. Although most of the record deals specifically with her divorce from musician Steve Earle and their young son's autism diagnosis in one way or another, Moorer is Everywoman. She's a wife and mother faced with adversity and moving forward the only way she knows how, by channeling her emotions — and that soul-grabbing Southern voice — into a mesmerizing collection of songs to which we can all relate. Like her sister, Shelby Lynne, who released the fantastic I Can't Imagine this year, Moorer holds nothing back. Every aching note and every pointed lyric is a revelation. S.B.

Glen Campbell – I’ll Be Me
4

Glen Campbell, ‘I’ll Be Me’

Country legend Glen Campbell had already been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease when he made his final album, I'll Be Me, revisiting his hits and adding a few touching chapters to his remarkable story. Brutally honest about what's happening to him, some songs (like "I'm Not Gonna Miss You") border on the morbid, but this project was incredibly important to do. Live versions taken from his final tours ("Witchita Lineman" and "A Better Place") stand beside a heartening re-work of the classic "Gentle on My Mind" by the Band Perry, while Campbell's daughter Ashley proves she's a talented artist of her own, delivering a devastating farewell to her father in "Remembering" (sample lyric: "Daddy don't you worry, I'll do the remembering"). While his own memories will tragically fade, this album cements the Rhinestone Cowboy's unparalleled legacy. C.P.

Butch Walker, Afraid of Ghosts
3

Butch Walker, ‘Afraid of Ghosts’

Between his time fronting late-Nineties Atlanta pop band Marvelous 3 and a lot of his production/writing/sideman credits (everything from Taylor Swift to Fall Out Boy), Butch Walker is best-known for projecting brash exuberance. But he was after something a lot more subdued and vulnerable with his seventh solo album, the aptly titled Afraid of Ghostsover which Walker's late father (who passed away in 2013) casts a heavy shadow. Produced by Ryan Adams with appropriately folksy sparseness, Ghosts is steeped in bittersweet melancholia — 10 quiet, reflective, bare-bones songs, and they leave an impression that lingers long after the fade-out. The centerpiece is the penultimate track, "Father's Day," an aching and brave lament for Walker's dad "Big Butch." Go see him live nowadays and he'll probably play that one at the end of the set, in the dark, tears streaming down his face. D.M.

Wade Bowen/Randy Rogers, Hold My Beer
2

Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers, ‘Hold My Beer, Vol. I’

If it's hard to tell which one is Waylon and which one is Willie, which is Hall and which is Oates, which is daft and which is punk, that may be because Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers' joyous partnership is wholly authentic — and perhaps even wholly original. On Hold My Beer Vol. 1, the Texas stars don't need to play archetypes, they simply play themselves: two singers who have been dropped from their respective labels and decide to celebrate with the informal LP of road sagas and Merle covers they could never have recorded otherwise. "We wanted to make a country-ass record," Rogers told Rolling Stone Country earlier this year.  "We wanted it to be a throwback, to lean heavily on the music we liked as kids. The music our dads would jam to. We wanted lots of fiddle. Lots of steel." Mission accomplished. N.M.

James McMurtry, Complicated Game
1

James McMurtry, ‘Complicated Game’

It's a crime against the arts that McMurtry isn't more widely recognized as the superior songwriter he is — or, for that matter, widely known at all. But his under-the-radar mystique provides that much more satisfaction to those who do stumble onto the Texas treasure. Hearing Complicated Game, McMurtry's first album of original material in six years, for the first time is like discovering Americana fire. Evocative songs like "Carlisle's Haul" and "Forgotten Coast" burn rich with imagery, and McMurtry's gruff delivery cements every line he sings. Like its title suggests, the album is not an easy listen — McMurtry rarely indulges in anything that can be considered "feel good" — but it's probably the most brilliant release of 2015. J.H.

Show Comments