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40 Best Country Albums of 2015

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

Country

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
14

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
13

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.