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.
More than the juvenile jokes telegraphed by the colorful, Blink 182-aping cover art, Old Dominion have a razor-sharp sense of songcraft that stems from professional songwriting pedigrees. Lead single "Break Up With Him" depicts a hushed, late night phone conversation that sounds creepy but is really about a guy finding the courage to express his feelings. "Said Nobody Ever" and "Half Empty" find new and clever ways to employ overused turns of phrase and "Beer Can in a Truck Bed" finds some imaginative uses for a couple of country music's most overused clichés. Of course, pop-country was never really the enemy — it's just that most artists can't pull it off with the breezy confidence of Old Dominion. J.F.
Can any country singer, living or dead, match this legend's unruffled calm? Strait's 29th studio album, his first since he retired from touring (and set himself up with a Vegas residency), is a master class in how to take life as it comes. Whether he's basking in the shit-shooting camaraderie of the title track or endorsing acceptance in lyrics of homey everyday wisdom on "Let It Go" (written with his son Bubba), he's so determined to regulate his blood pressure that it feels like a spiritual achievement. He doesn't even break a sweat on the Western Swing numbers that fit him like a favorite pair of old jeans. And unless you listen real close to "Take Me to Texas" (written by cream-of-the-Music-Row crop Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally), you might not realize he's singing about death. K.H.
John Anderson provided one of the most welcome comebacks of 2015. Not that the tireless touring artist ever disappeared completely, but it was a long nine years in between studio albums. With Goldmine, he proves that it was time well spent. One of country's most unmistakable working vocalists, second only to Willie Nelson perhaps, Anderson brings his high lonesome singing style to a swampy batch of new songs, from the glowing title track to the barroom shuffle of "I Work a Lot Better." As such, it's his most rewarding project in years. Anderson even comes close to recapturing the lightning in a bottle of his 1983 hit "Swingin'" with the goofy but glorious "Magic Mama," a song written especially for the Florida native by Merle Haggard. J.H.
Born from the same vibrant New Orleans scene as Hurray for the Riff Raff, the Deslondes put a distinctly Big Easy spin on country music on their self-titled album. A walking piano bass line underpins the optimistic "Fought the Blues and Won," connecting dots to Fats Domino and the rich musical history of their adopted hometown. Similar references to traditional strains of music (early R&B, rockabilly, gospel, country) abound: "Time to Believe In" mixes in desolate Spaghetti Western soundtrack flourishes, while "Heavenly Home" marries heartbreak to glistening guitar and the eternal "Be My Baby" drumbeat. The party ends in the wee hours, with the woozy piano melody of "Out on the Rise" signaling last call and a staggering, lonely walk home. It's the kind of stuff you might expect to hear in a Wes Anderson movie — offbeat and from some unidentifiable point in time. J.F.
Literary detail and kick-ass country rock collide on the dynamic third album from this Oklahoma-spawned quintet. Singer-songwriter-guitarist Evan Felker has the soul of a poet but the plain-spoken gifts of a man who has seen his share of heartache and hard times. Whether channeling his inner Paul Simon on the tender prairie folk of "A Little Song" or cranking it up to 11 with a fiery Neil Young-style fervor on "Down Here" (where the view from the bottom never looked so good) the Troubadours are never less than sure-footed. The album's masterpiece, "Long Drive Home," simultaneously details the dissolution of a relationship and the striving for success, bringing Felker's way with a story and the band's way with a song to a stunning apex. "They all want to be Hank Williams," he sings. "They don't want to have to die." S.R.
Mike Harmeier, the singer-songwriter-producer who fronts this hat-clad, Austin-based sextet, spent his youth soaking up the classic country, western swing and southern rock pouring out of the jukebox of his grandfather's favorite honky-tonk. He and his bandmates serve it back up on their third album, toasting influences that range from the Allman Brothers to George Strait. Whether he and his Moonpies are seducing boots to the dance floor with the sprightly shuffle of "Say It Simply," staring down the bottom of an empty glass on classic barroom weeper "One Is the Whiskey" or picking through the wreckage of a broken heart on the gutting "I Don't Love You," Harmeier writes with a storytelling skill and specificity his heroes would appreciate — and the musicians play with the fire of the hard-touring band that they are. S.R.
With producer Brendan O'Brien reining them in, Georgia country-rockers Blackberry Smoke emphasize taut songcraft over loose instrumental breaks on their fourth studio full-length – their sharpest to date and their first to top Billboard's country charts. Frontman Charlie Starr, who wrote all the material here (with just a single co-writing credit for Travis Meadows), sings with unstrained soul and his guitar intertwines assuredly with Paul Jackson's own, their licks adding heat or wit as required. Keyboardist Brandon Still provides color and detail and the rhythm section of brothers Brit and Richard Turner flat-out cooks. They're neither hell-raisers or laid back softies, just down home fellas with a dozen songs to sing and more than enough chops to put 'em across. K.H.
"I guess it's alright to be an asshole," sings Jason Boland on the track of the same name, "if you're good." It's two minutes of explosive rockabilly honky-rock in pure baritone, delivered with the energy of a group of high-schoolers fixin' to win the battle of the bands. This isn't the first rodeo for Boland, who has been releasing albums since 1999 – but it might be the first time his breed of classic (not retro) country has found such a timely niche, fitting next to Kacey Musgraves' dreamy weedscape and Sturgill Simpson's trippy turtles. Boland has a fiercely devoted fanbase, but Squelch is less of an album for them than one to fire up a bigger audience, with messages layered beneath the tried and true scorchers. "Fat and Merry" is a cutting swipe at an America where butts are as big as bank accounts, and "Asshole" targets those who use genius as a carte blanche towards jerkdom. M.M.
Asleep at the Wheel leader Ray Benson has been celebrating the inventor of western swing with his crack band of virtuosos since the Nixon administration. Here they're joined by a cast of top-shelf guest vocalists, a trick Benson last used (though not quite this brilliantly) on Ride with Bob in 1999. Singers span generations, from seasoned old-timers like Willie and Merle to relative young'uns like the Avett Brothers and the Wheel's current house vocalist, Emily Gimble. Everyone sounds right at home, but standouts include Elizabeth Cook's "I Had Someone Else Before I Had You," Buddy Miller's "Time Changes Everything" and Brad Paisley playing guitar all over "My Window Faces South." K.H.
Based on his early hits "Redneck Crazy" and "Whiskey in my Water," Tyler Farr was filed among the bro-country ranks and hit with commensurate scorn. But second album, Suffer in Peace, proved he was much more versatile than his detractors thought. Sure, Farr is perfectly comfortable in the role of a Beech-Nut-spittin', Truck-Nutz-swingin' hillbilly (as on album opener "C.O.U.N.T.R.Y.") but he can also do every shade of love like a seasoned vet. Hit single "A Guy Walks Into a Bar" mixes an unlucky loser perspective with stadium-sized hooks, "Withdrawals" pummels harder than most rock bands and "Better in Boots" makes just-the-way-you-are romance into an irresistible R&B-flavored jam. But it's on the title track — an epic of exquisite, suffocating heartbreak — where Farr stakes his claim as one of country's most gifted stylists. J.F.
While country music increasingly incorporates hip-hop, EDM and metallic guitar riffs, there's a warming trend that's taking it back to basics – or at least to the Seventies. Daniel Romano, whose If I've Only One Time Asking leans heavily on the Countrypolitan sound of yesteryear with a plaintive, heart-on-sleeve vocal style. Album opener "I'm Gonna Teach You," is a classic revenge-on-a-bully song; which balances a heavy message with a light-but-tight feel, thanks to a tinkling honky-tonk piano and glittering string section. The mid-tempo charmer "Strange Faces," is propelled by a shuffling beat and twanging guitar, while the title track morphs from a gently rolling acoustic number to more assured alt-country. But neither compares to "The One That Got Away (Came Back Today)," which uses Jordanaires-esque backing vocals and a horn section to set the retro tone. L.R.
Lindi Ortega's edgy lyrics are often hard, speaking of drug deals and interventions, messy break-ups and missed opportunities. Yet her torchy, noir-ish twang can cast a soft, vulnerable light, especially when the tremolo in her vocals kicks in. "You're too clean-cut with polished shoes, I like 'em rugged with tattoos," she trills on "I Ain't the Girl," one of the album's highlights. She may not know what she wants, but she knows emphatically when it isn't right. L.R.
Flick a cigarette in East Nashville and you'll probably hit someone schlepping a Gibson in denim-on-denim, working toward the throne of the Next Guy Clark or Townes Van Zandt. Texas-born Andrew Combs was well on his way with his 2012 debut, Worried Man — it was sweet, slick folk with a hopeless wit and soulful, scruffy croon. But for All These Dreams, he polished up, not down, weaving Countrypolitan touches alongside stories of quirky but beguiling lovers and painful breakups that not even the best intoxicants can heal. It's not easy to blend that sort of orchestral-laced sheen with twang (even Dolly Parton has failed sometimes), but it's gorgeously formed here without ever ringing as decadent. Songs like "In the Name of You" boast piano over pedal steel and put his gritty but glorious pipes on display, while "Nothing to Lose" focuses as much on Paul Simon-inspired instrumentals as wordplay. Combs is more interested in craft than any sort of inherited crown. M.M.
Ballerini isn't just one of the few women to break into the country radio bro club: "Love Me Like You Mean It" made her the first female solo artist to land a debut single at the top of the country charts in nearly 10 years. That flirty ultimatum to an immature hunk tempers its demand for commitment with a charm that she amped up a few more notches on the even perkier "Dibs." The rest of her debut album ably fleshes out that winning persona, establishing Ballerini as her own woman, coy yet self-assertive, with precisely the amount of production gloss such an act requires. K.H.
Well for sure Hank never done it this way. If you were suspicious about the poppy, chart-topping "Crash and Burn," a slinky loser's lament with borrowed Sam Cooke "Chain Gang" ooh-ahs, wait till you try to line-dance to "Tangled," a tribute to Zapp-style Eighties funk that proves Thomas Rhett is more Bruno Mars than Florida-Georgia Line. He sings a big ballad with Jordin Sparks, jokes around with retro R&B goofball LunchMoney Lewis, and samples War's "Low Rider" while drawling "Pour a little liquor in my coconut water." "Everything I need to know/I learned it from the radio," Rhett boasts on the album closer. You can tell that when the country station went to a commercial break he went searching to hear what else was on the dial. K.H.
Luke Bryan knows exactly why he's the biggest star in country music: Who else could sell an opener like "Kick the Dust Up,' an unselfconscious assemblage of arena-banjo, hip-hop sound effects and backwoods double-entendre? Or, one song later, "Kill the Lights," with its funk groove, disco strings and backwoods double-entendre? And then "Strip It Down," which combines lurid narration, an orgasmic guitar solo and, well, you get the idea. This album wasn't great because it showed some sort of newfound maturity; it was great because it didn't need to. Bryan is serious about not taking himself too seriously, and he understands that good country music doesn't have to sound like the good country music that came before. N.M.
Since she keyed a cheating bro's car on 2005's "Before He Cheats," Carrie Underwood has steadily outstripped her lot as Nashville's wholesome mini sex machina to become country's most powerful feminist avenger. And her self-possession has earned fans as lofty as Loretta Lynn, a visionary wrecker of stereotypes. Underwood's all-elbows fifth album further axes coyness and genre limits – "Heartbeat" inches toward Sam Hunt's R&B sway (he sings on the track); "Like I'll Never Love You Again" unwinds with honeyed majesty; "Church Bells" and "Choctaw County Affair" boast a swampy Seventies swag. But first single "Smoke Break" is the beast, instantly reverbing and compressing the ever-lovin' crap out of its drawled defense of working stiffs blowing off steam. "I don't smoke, but sometimes I need a long drag," she belts with a defiance that'd shrivel up Kid Rock's bawitdaba. C.A.
Until 2015, the Zac Brown Band had molded themselves as this generation's Alabama, a tight crew of Southern rockers always prone to jam. On Jekyll & Hyde, they seemed to ask themselves, "What if we could also be this generation's Audioslave? And Rednex? With Irish flute and bagpipe? And a Tony Benett-style duet?" It's hard to tell whether the resulting record is an answer or just an extension of the question. The song-to-song style-hopping is often baffling, especially because the band seems to feel the same way about transitions as they do about razors, but the tracks themselves are some of their sturdiest ever. "Bittersweet" adds new melodrama to country's Chesney-dominated beach-bum sub-genre, and "Dress Blues" amplifies a Jason Isbell protest song for new audience. N.M.
On his first album in seven years, James McMurtry explores the aftermath of the Bush years he once protested against with such ornery thoughtfulness. His Americans are tired yet restless, like the discharged vet who returns to South Dakota and sees more of a future fighting overseas than scrabbling for work at home. However, most of these sharply observed songs are more personal than political, telling the stories of disillusioned grown ups still looking for love with varying degrees of success — old enough to be aware of their shortcomings, doubtful of their ability to change them. "At the end of the rope, there's a little more rope most times," he sings. That's just about as optimistic a lyric as 2015 deserves. K.H.
As an ex-marketing executive dwelling in the shadows of the Hollywood Hills, Sam Morgan took on his stage name not to connect with Waylon or Willie, but as a soft tribute to his recently deceased mother: Outlaw, her maiden name, Scottish in ancestry. His debut album, Angeleno, is a soft tribute too, with more complicated roots than meets the eye. It's country, but seen through a gauzy lens of late-afternoon L.A. light, where the mariachi horns of the east side and the desert vibes of the Mojave all sweep together in the same Santa Ana breeze. Produced by Ry Cooder, Angeleno opens with the glossy Tejano shuffle of "Who Do You Think You Are?" – it's a song about a girl that plays double duty, because that's surely a question Outlaw, with his cowboy hat but Cali zip code, has encountered before. And Angeleno, in all its weird, waltzing-western glory, is a perfectly suitable answer. M.M.
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' 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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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'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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.