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40 Best Country Albums of 2015

From Willie and Merle to Maddie and Tae, the year in travellers and storytellers


Illustration by Ryan Casey

Country in 2015 bent, blurred, ignored and imploded Music City's lines — and occasionally its bottom line too. Luke Bryan, the industry's biggest star, tinkered with disco strings and hip-hop noise. Superstars like Carrie Underwood and Tyler Farr leaned into R&B, while outsiders like Kid Rock and Don Henley made rootsy down-home statements. Blackberry Smoke made great Southern rock, Old Dominion's made great pop-rock and Eric Church name-checked indie-rock — but Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell did a lot of the heavy lifting to actually bridge the gap with rock listeners. Here are the 40 best country albums of the year.

40 Best Country Albums of 2015

Ashley Monroe, ‘The Blade’

This 29-year-old vet's captivating ache and affable intimacy is neither embraced nor rejected by Music Row's condo board, which might be maddening, but you'd never know it from her latest emotionally candid collection. Ranging slightly more widely than 2013's mesmerizing wince Like a Rose, she teases out familiar metaphors – the chorus to the title track, the only song she didn't write on the record, wounds like a relationship's final gash: "You caught it by the handle, baby, and I caught it by the blade" – then fearlessly trashes any romantic bunk about a rural southern Arcadia on the smoldering "Dixie." Like fellow resolute spirit Lee Ann Womack, Monroe creates her own easeful realm where country "tradition" simply means a passion for not being a phony. When she opens The Blade by crooning that "she's on to something good," you wanna follow. C.A.

40 Best Country Albums of 2015

Eric Church, ‘Mr. Misunderstood’

There's nothing to misunderstand: This is a record about Eric Church's fierce and fiery love of music, gifted to his most devoted fans (on their doorstep and on vinyl, no less) with zero notice. It was an act designed not as a marketing stunt, but to replicate the feeling so artfully conjured on tracks like "Mistress Named Music" and "Record Year" – those moments of discovery where the first notes of a melody strike in primal places. When Church sounds like Bruce Springsteen on the exquisite "Knives of New Orleans," it's intentional; when the title track references Wilco both lyrically and sonically, that's on purpose too. Even the cover art – a droopy kid in front of a chalkboard, sketching out song titles – is evocative of Pearl Jam's haunting video for "Jeremy." Except Church is saying that maybe if we all lost ourselves in art instead of hate (which he spells out in "Kill a Word"), there'd be a lot less suffering to go around. M.M.

40 Best Country Albums of 2015

Chris Stapleton, ‘Traveller’

Released in 1981 by original outlaw David Allan Coe and in 1983 by haunted master George Jones, "Tennessee Whiskey" was no country standard when savvy Nashville song-seller and onetime bluegrass frontman Chris Stapleton recorded it for his debut solo album. Now, it's his raison d'être. Stapleton's Stax-rasp version is riveting, redemptive soul, in which a man chooses a woman over booze, like Adele's "Someone Like You" set in a swirling honky-tonk of the mind. It's the centerpiece of Traveller, an assured, ballad-heavy set that recalls Jamey Johnson's 2010 double album The Guitar Song, another instance of a songwriting pro going sideways and deep within. Johnson's muse was scarred, unruly; Stapleton's been there ("Parachute," "Nobody to Blame"), but now he's the seasoned observer who'll sing you back home after the bar fight. And his voice is stronger than any hangover remedy. C.A.

Don Henley, Cass County

Don Henley, ‘Cass County’

Any misplaced gripes about the Eagles singer-songwriter Don Henley carpetbagging his way into Music City for a "country album" were silenced with his first solo release in 15 years. For those who might have forgotten the decidedly country and roots-based charms of the California rockers' early records, Cass County served as a potent reminder that Henley was no new kid in town. Born of the wide-ranging sounds he tuned into on his father's car radio and found in his family's record collection — from the Louisiana Hayride to the Great American Songbook — and featuring a star-studded cast of Nashville's best classic and contemporary artists, Cass County is suffused with beauty, grace and wit. Whether going toe to toe with guests Merle Haggard, Miranda Lambert or Mick Jagger, Henley's craggy croon cuts through on tunes that are both intimate and raucous, detailing the minutiae of long ago loves and pulling back cinematically to survey the wider screen of the sometimes sorry, sometimes glorious state of the world and his, mostly, contented place in it. S.R.

40 Best Country Albums of 2015

Jason Isbell, ‘Something More Than Free’

Nobody who sings, in a strained tenor, "You thought God was an architect, now you know/He's something like a pipe bomb, ready to blow," will ever be christened as Nashville's next savior. But the startling, literary shiver of that lyric (from "24 Frames") and others, which have become the trademark of Jason Isbell's acute, empathetic character studies, helped Something More Than Free debut atop the Billboard Country Albums chart. It's one of the year's most remarkable commercial achievements this side of Adele. Isbell earnestly tracks the everyday plodding victory of sobriety like a short-story sage (on "If It Takes a Lifetime," a guy claims that "working for the county keeps me pissin' clear"). But he never stoops to preach or grasps for platitudes. Influencing country while thriving outside of it, he just gives you more shivers. C.A.