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40 Best Country Albums of 2015

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

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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.

Dave Rawlings Machine, 'Nashville Obsolete'
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Dave Rawlings Machine, ‘Nashville Obsolete’

On Nashville Obsolete, Dave Rawlings Machine meld dreamy folk-pop with country instrumentation for an utterly immersive headphones album. Only the second release by the well-oiled Machine, singer-songwriter-producer Rawlings' ever-changing collective with his partner in music Gillian Welch (Zeppelin's John Paul Jones was once an onstage member), Nashville Obsolete spans just seven songs, with all but one extending well past the four-minute mark. Lead-off track "The Weekend" is rich with Rawlings and Welch's harmonies; "Short Haired Woman Blues" employs gorgeous strings; and the epic "The Trip," clocking in at just under 11 minutes, evokes the wandering spirit of Bob Dylan's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid soundtrack. With its earthy structure and hints of psychedelia, Nashville Obsolete is very much Dylan country — more representative of Nashville Skyline than anything coming out of Music City today. J.H.

A Thousand Horses, 'Southernality'
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A Thousand Horses, ‘Southernality’

A Thousand Horses' style borrows handily from the Stones, Skynyrd and, especially, the Black Crowes. But as tempting as it may be to write the Horses off as a rock band moonlighting in Nashville, the songs on their debut Southernality reinforce the group's country roots. Besides, as leader Michael Hobby sings in the swaggering album opener "First Time," "There's a fine line between love and crazy" — and, these days, between country and rock as well. Listen to "Smoke," which mixes a hypnotic country-radio beat with an electric-guitar riff that is a hook all its own. The Horses' Number One single is a clever dose of songwriting too, comparing a relationship to nicotine addiction. But Southernality doesn't aim for heady wordplay — it's at its best when the band is at their most primal. Like on the bombastic "Travelin' Man" and the rapid-fire title song, two tracks that prove these Horses can't be tamed. L.R.

40 Best Country Albums of 2015
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Kid Rock, ‘First Kiss’

"I'm in love with rock & roll," Kid Rock told crowds at who-knows-how-many shows this summer. "But I got little side pieces with hip-hop and country, if you know what I mean!" On First Kiss, he fully indulged the latter, dedicating songs to each of country's big three: Jesus, dad and Johnny Cash. (Jim Beam even makes an uncredited appearance.) Kid hit all the right notes: "Ain't Enough Whiskey" rumbles with indignation, righteous or not, but "Best of Me" is humble and gracious. And for all the regular-Joe realness, the album works because the artist behind it is one of the best straight-up entertainers we've got: He knows how to write, howl and sell song like few contemporaries – rock, rap, country or otherwise. N.M.

40 Best Country Albums of 2015
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Chris Janson, ‘Buy Me a Boat’

With Buy Me a Boat, titled after his breakout single, the cocksure Janson releases the ideal debut. Unlike some first-timers, who are so desperate for hits that they record whatever's pitched their way, the songwriter was adamant about cutting his own songs. It was the right move: While there are one or two lightweight tracks, the majority here is country gold. Janson is known for an impossible-to-follow live show and recreates that energy in the studio, on both the true story "Back in My Drinkin' Days" and the rapid-fire "Right in the Middle." Even "Under the Sun," a half-baked Chesney homage in lesser hands, crackles with verve. The album's centerpiece though is the honky-tonker "Yeah It Is," which boasts a sing-speak delivery that evokes George Strait's "Give It Away" and a boatload of steel. J.H.

40 Best Country Albums of 2015
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Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, ‘Django & Jimmie’

Who says lightning doesn't strike twice? On one of the year's best surprises, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard recreate the magic that sparked 1983's Pancho & Lefty. At this point in their careers, the two legends have nothing to prove, freeing them up to play it loose and have fun – starting with the hilarious marijuana tribute, "It's All Going to Pot." The ease with which the two friend trade barbs is laudable: "Well I thought I had found me a girl," Willie croons, "sweetest thing in the world, but all my jokes went up in smoke, when I caught her making eyes at Merle." But the duo does get serious trading verses on "Missing Old Johnny Cash." The loss of their friend is palpable, and as each verse comes to a close, we've gleaned an intimate detail of their friendship. L.R.

40 Best Country Albums of 2015
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Cam, ‘Untamed’

Fresh, fly, wild and bold, Camaron Marvel Ochs sings about bad decisions, heartache, nowhere relationships, lonely nights, even death (embracing a grieving friend on "Village") with an emotional honesty and clarity that's rare in any pop music. Untamed is one of the year's most impressive debuts – along with Chris Stapleton's Traveller – because Cam never uses her sunny charms and stunning voice to elicit easy sympathy. Though revenge songs are a grand tradition, "Half Broke Heart" just sticks to the facts and keeps it moving ("No need to give a bunch of lame half-assed excuses/Why this ain't love, I'm blonde, but I ain't stupid"). And on her breakout radio ballad "Burning House," she admits that she's the one at fault. For an artist at the start of career, Cam already sounds like one of the most secure in the game. C.A.

40 Best Country Albums of 2015
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Kacey Musgraves, ‘Pageant Material’

After the release of 2013's Same Trailer Different Park, fans wondered why radio wasn't interested in Kacey Musgraves. Follow-up Pageant Material suggested that it might be Musgraves who isn't interested in radio, the record's weightless arrangements a quiet but defiant rejection of the dense compression engineered into most contemporary hits. "Late to the Party," one of the year's tenderest love songs, put it plainly: This singer is going to arrive when she's ready, and with enough patience, even the wait can be a joy. "Biscuits" may not have cracked the Top 40 of Billboard's airplay chart, but it sounds better on the album anyways. The single's defiant individualism sits opposite the quiet empathy of "Somebody to Love." The conflict is that of country music itself, and Musgraves leaves it poignantly unresolved. N.M.

40 Best Country Albums of 2015
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John Moreland, ‘High on Tulsa Heat’

Like a wounded bear, humbled, bitter and stumbling, John Moreland sings as if he's about to lay down and die. His weariness seethes. Luckily, he writes with a nuanced touch that rivals his inspirations – Steve Earle, acoustic Springsteen, Townes Van Zandt. On beautifully lost songs like "Sad Baptist Rain," "Heart's Too Heavy" and the wrenching "You Don't Care for Me Enough to Cry," he crafts a delicate art brut country-folk that's all his own. A Minor Threat and Converge fan who once sang in hardcore bands, Moreland also has expressed affection for Creedence and the Band, so he could give his music any variety of shades and settings in the future. But on High on Tulsa Heat, he masterfully sketches a dusty, bleary and unforgettable blur. C.A.

40 Best Country Albums of 2015
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Will Hoge, ‘Small Town Dreams’

Few albums can sell small-town mystique vividly as Will Hoge's 10th, which feels like a glorious swipe of time-warp American nostalgia for a childhood we may never even have had. All without resorting to tired clichés. Hoge's had cuts by bigwigs like Eli Young Band, so he knows how to craft for radio – and though there's a slickness to tracks like "Middle of America," he chooses bitter honesty over fist-pumping anthems. "Little Bitty Dreams" flips the switch on the usual hometown paradox, wondering if sacrifice is the same as settling, and "Growing Up Around Here" could have been a massive hit if Hoge didn't admit he wasn't always so proud of his upbringing. Learning to love your roots is much more vital than pledging blind allegiance. M.M.

The Mavericks, 'Mono'
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The Mavericks, ‘Mono’

When they broke up in 2004, the Mavericks were Nashville's reigning neo-traditionalist heroes, a status they handily reclaimed upon reforming three years ago. The follow-up to their 2013 comeback, In Time, is even bolder and more sure-footed, equally at ease with the intense precision of Cuban clave, the pumping up-and-down of Tex-Mex rhythms, the closing-time sway of border ballads and good ol' swinging rockabilly. Lonesome accordion, percussive organ, warmly arranged horns and the chop-strum-and-wail of guitar all grab for attention. Yet front and center is Raul Malo's mighty voice, which rings out with as much sensual authority as ever, whether he's brokenhearted, seductive or proclaiming with chipper, existential assurance that "We're All Waiting for the World to End." K.H.

40 Best Country Albums of 2015
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Kristian Bush, ‘Southern Gravity’

Traditionalists may recoil at the phrase "pop country," but they'd be wise to check out Southern Gravity, the best overall collection of radio-ready songs this year. Bush, one half of Sugarland, makes great use of the duo's hiatus with an album that draws equally from his love of country music storytelling and the jangle of Southern alt-rock hooksmiths like R.E.M. and Big Star. And like those bands, he deftly disguises melancholy in bright choruses and unrelenting hooks. See "Feeling Fine California," in which the heartbroken narrator struggles to convince himself that everything's always sunny in Los Angeles. Or the beachy bait-and-switch of "Flip Flops," about stumbling home drunk. It's the empowering "Walk Tall," however, that gives Southern Gravity its weight — a cathartic anthem about unfailing perseverance that is a metaphor for Bush's own solo career. J.H.

40 Best Country Albums of 2015
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Maddie & Tae, ‘Start Here’

On the strength of their still-great debut single "Girl in a Country Song," Maddie Marlow and Tae Dye were hailed as the heirs to the strong female sensibility that ruled Nineties country. The young duo's debut album Start Here isn't far off the mark, with swaggering attitude one song and pensive restraint the next. Targets for ridicule include scheming, overdressed city boys ("Shut Up and Fish"), no good ex-boyfriends ("Your Side of Town") and one mean high school bully ("Sierra"). But Marlow and Dye can just as easily switch gears to misty-eyed sentimentality, dishing on the emotional rollercoaster of early adulthood in "Downside of Growing Up" and "Waitin' on a Plane" with surprising clarity. Much more than amber-encased hero worship, Start Here is thrillingly of the moment and its two talented creators are like the Dixie Chicks for the hashtag era. J.F.

40 Best Country Albums of 2015
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Dwight Yoakam, ‘Second Hand Heart’

Dwight went all out on his brilliant 2012 return-to-form, 3 Pears, which featured co-writing credits for Kid Rock and Ashley Monroe, a small army of L.A. session helpers and even handclaps from Beck. But this follow-up, which proves he's in it for the long haul, is stripped down to Bakersfield essentials. A four-piece band backs the lanky neo-trad veteran on these 10 excellent songs with guitars that jangle and twang, and beats that lope and swing – a sound that's often carefree but never careless. If you thought you never needed to hear another take on "Man of Constant Sorrow," the roughed-up and rocking version here will set you straight. K.H.

40 Best Country Albums of 2015
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Wade Bowen & Randy Rogers, ‘Hold My Beer, Vol. 1’

Texas mainstays Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers just might be country music's Run the Jewels, amplifying one another's strengths for some of the best work of their careers. Battle-scarred and exiled from the major labels without a hit single between them, the longtime pals cooked up a collection of tunes steeped in their home state's Red Dirt fiddle-and-steel aesthetic, but still catchy enough to satisfy fickle ears. What's immediately striking is how fun and playful the whole thing is – whether they're drinking off a hangover to the outlaw boogie of "It's Been a Great Afternoon" or talking shit about Nashville's A&R practices in the swingin' "Standards." But repeat listens reveal the refinement of their songwriting in more serious numbers like "El Dorado," an emotionally heavy tale of a weary cowboy coming to terms with his decisions and the fact that fortunes probably don't await – poignant from a couple of guys who seemed destined for life on the club and dance hall circuit. J.F.

Kip Moore, 'Wild Ones'
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Kip Moore, ‘Wild Ones’

Kip Moore's raspy vocals lend themselves nicely to the blue-collar heartland rock of his second album, the slow-burning Wild Ones. But while plenty has been written about contemporary country artists drawing inspiration from Springsteen, Moore leans more toward Mellencamp. Wild Ones, as tough as the Brando imagery it calls to mind, details the exploits of young rabble-rousers, "Jack and Diane" types who are both misunderstood and misjudged but who don't give a damn about who's doing the judging. Listen to Moore's que sera kiss-off in "That's Alright With Me" or the take-it-or-leave masterpiece "That Was Us." By the time he wraps up the record with the moody "Comeback Kid," he's tapped into the teenage rebel inside his listeners, reassuring underdogs that there's always a second chance. L.R.

40 Best Country Albums of 2015
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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.

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