Saving Country Music’s 50 Essential Albums for 2015

2015-essential-albums

In no particular order, aside from the first dozen or so records being considered the “Most Essential,” here are the 50 albums Saving Country Music deems it necessary you at least give a sniff if you want to get the full musical experience in 2015. That doesn’t mean these are the only worthy country music albums. They are presented in the spirit of filling in the holes between what you may already know about, not to reinforce how you already feel about certain albums or artists. As always, readers are strongly encouraged to share their thoughts on 2015’s most essential albums below.

PLEASE NOTE: This list only includes albums that have been reviewed so far. There are a moreother good and important albums from 2015 that have yet to be reviewed, and that will hopefully be reviewed shortly and added to this list if deemed fit.

PLEASE NOTE: None of the Album of the Year Nominees are included on this list, so look over there before complaining about omissions.


MOST ESSENTIAL – John Moreland – High on Tulsa Heat

john-moreland-high-on-tulsa-heatFor those tragic songphiles who were done with popular music by late adolescence, started rummaging through their parents’ record collections and taking suggestions from older siblings and cousins about what was cool, and seem to be engaged in a lifelong pursuit of the essence of the listening experience this is the manna, this is the potent stuff that still makes you feel like a listening virgin when you’ve built up such an insatiable tolerance and addiction over the years so that only the purest stuff will puncture you with its raw emotion.

John Moreland is a great songwriter, and High On Tulsa Heat is a great album that will be hard to top in songwriting in 2015. And that’s why it’s worth criticizing, and why Moreland’s music is worth an extra effort to have it be heard. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIALMichael Monroe Goodman – The Flag, The Bible, and Bill Monroe

michael-monroe-goodman-the-flag-the-bible-and-bill-monroeThe Flag, The Bible, and Bill Monroe isn’t a bluegrass album, it is a Michael Monroe Goodman album. Like all albums that distinguish themselves from the herd, Goodman draws from his own narrative for the inspiration, story lines, and the sound in what turns out to be a deep and compelling work, while still overall resulting in one hell of a good time.

With harmonious lead guitar lines, the super tasty steel guitar, some really well-placed female harmonies in a couple of spots, Goodman really went all out on this one and really up’d his game as someone folks show be paying much closer attention to in the classic country realm. It also helps that he’s such an astute guitar player himself. From the heart, from the home, and from old Kentucky, The Flag, The Bible, and Bill Monroe marks one of the standout classic country efforts in the entirety of 2015. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Sarah Shook & The Disarmers – Sidelong

sarah-shook-disarmers-sidelongSometimes it takes a bad seed to make good country music. That’s just the way it is. Just how bad Sarah Shook is probably depends on your perspective, but she was born into a good Christian home and raised in a wholesome manner that taught her to do everything in virtually the exact opposite way she eventually did it. Home schooled and only exposed to worship music at an early age, Sarah rebelled when she got the chance and her first band was named “Sarah Shook & The Devil.” Sorry mom and dad, but there was something inside Sarah that had to come out, and though this isn’t devil music by any stretch, it’s certainly not scriptures.

Who knows what whims govern the exiled ghost of authentic country as it scans the fruited plain looking for souls to possess? But it found Sarah Shook in North Carolina, and her destiny was inescapable. Sidelong may find itself in a dark and troubled place much of the time, but it’s good old country music at its heart. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Jason James – Self-Titled

jason-james-album“Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?” was the question George Jones once asked. Well he may only have two feet, and those might be mighty big shoes to fill and there’s plenty of pairs of them laying around to boot, but Jason James isn’t afraid to try and slip his hooves into some vacated footwear, or at least make music that reminds us of the many greats who’ve passed on and whose legacies are slowly growing dim in the minds of many.

Jason James isn’t afraid to to pen a song in a traditional style and then challenge himself to sing it with the same heart and passion as one of the old greats. Nobody will ever replace George Jones or ‘Ol Hank, but that doesn’t mean others can’t try to reach for that same level of excellence, and pay forward the traditions of country to a new era of listeners who still find value in the classic modes. This is what Jason James does, and with an almost eerie expertise at evoking the styles and sounds of the old greats. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Daniel Romano – If I’ve Only One Tim Askin’

daniel-romano-if-ive-only-one-time-askinDaniel Romano delivers the classic country gold in the present day context just as good, if not better than anyone else around can. And when I say “classic country gold,” I’m not talking hard-twangin’ honky tonk, I’m talking Golden Era Countrypolitan stuff

Maybe Daniel Romano is a Canadian weirdo who veers towards having a superiority complex and only shops organic fair trade. But screw it, I don’t care. His music hits on things many of those hard country twangers can’t touch, and like the Golden Era classics he looks to emulate, Daniel’s music has the quality necessary to be timeless. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Jamie Lin Wilson – Holidays and Wedding Rings

jamie-lin-wilson-holidays-and-wedding-ringsIf your perspective of the world is run through the thematic view of American mainstream country music, you will come to the precise conclusion that life starts at age 16, and ends abruptly at 24. Whether it’s celebrating those years with mindless and self-absorbed partying, or reminiscing back on those times in sepia regurgitations of Seger and Mellencamp, mainstream country makes sure to let you know that once you wear the cap and gown at college graduation, slip on a wedding ring, or see the plus sign on a paternity test, you’re irrelevant.

Life tends to transpire over a span of 80 years, not just eight. And every moment, every era can be marked by enchantment, discovery, and the poetry of life being recited to the soul as it unfolds in a never ending ribbon of emotional moments. This is the wisdom shared and won by listening to Jamie Lin Wilson’s Holidays & Wedding Rings. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL Rachel Brooke & Lonesome Wyatt – Bad Omen

lonesome-wyatt-rachel-brooke-bad-omenLike an ancient family photo happened upon in an old box in an attic, with gaunt faces from the late 1800’s all Stoic and staring forlorn into the distance with blurry eyes from being unable to sit still as the exposure took, Bad Omen leaves you with a foreboding feeling well after you’ve left its presence simply from the knowledge that such a haunting thing exists. It unsettles you, but in an way you strangely crave from the juices it stirs.

Aside from some warnings about feyness, this album comes very recommended, and might set the standard for country music artistry in 2015 after all applicants have been heard. Rachel Brooke and Lonesome Wyatt uphold the standards they set with their first record, while evidencing growth as part of the new effort as well. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Roo Arcus – Cowboys and Sunsets

roo-arcus-cwoboys-sunsetsBeneath the surface of Australian country, traditional artists still fight for attention and find it amidst both Australian and international listeners. Roo Arcus is one of those traditional country artists, and one who can quiet American naysayers arguing an Australian can’t birth authentic country songs, and not just from the songs that his life has inspired, but the country lifestyle Roo Arcus leads.

Forget the country of origin, Cowboys and Sunsets is one of the best traditional country albums released so far this year, and reminds you of a time when country music gave you a warm feeling, not just from nostalgia, but through speaking straight to your heart about life’s joys and obstacles in a manner that will never go out of style. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Blackberry Smoke – Holding All The Roses

blackberry-smoke-holding-all-the-roses-coverYes, yes, and yes. Blackberry Smoke comes rip rearing out of Atlanta, GA with their asses on fire, delivering this power packed, rockin’, country-fried brand new offering called Holding All The Roses that doesn’t let up, doesn’t give in, and keeps spitting out flavorful hooks, delicious riffs, and infectious grooves one after another, all adding up to one hell of a good time worthy of immediate repeat and strong recommendations to friends and loved ones.

Maybe not as much country as some will hope for, but as many good times and as much good music as you can expect from any outfit, Holding All The Roses stands out as simply one of the most enjoyable listens this cantankerous and hard-to-please critic has had the pleasure in listening to for a long while. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Ryan Bingham – Fear and Saturday Night

ryan-bingham-fear-and-saturday-night1Fear and Saturday Night might be Bingham’s best album yet. This is an album of all peaks and no valleys. As the perfect experience for the classic rock buff hiding in every country and Americana fan, Bingham scrapes the grime off the sweaty denim of 70’s Stones and douses it with a little Dylan poetry set to grooves left in the residue of a Faces studio session and articulated with riffs that awaken the spirit of a freer time in music. Though more interpreting than original musically, Bingham puts a personal stamp on the material by bringing his own experiences to the lyricism, while the infectiousness of the guitar licks make just about everything hard to hate.

It’s hard to not think of Ryan Bingham as new because he comes from the next generation of Americana performers. But he’s proven over the last eight years, he’s not an upstart anymore, he’s a stalwart of the subgenre. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Kacey Musgraves  – Pageant Material

kacey-musgraves-pageant-materialRegardless of how you feel about Kacey Musgraves, her music, her politics, or the ideologies she espouses, she symbolizes nothing short of a victory in the effort to save country music. To have a major label artist release an album like Pageant Material, full of traditional country leanings and songwriter-based material, is a sizable leap forward for the genre. And this is not just from some 2nd or 3rd-tier star who is destined to be on the wrong side of seeing the attention she deserves come to fruition. Forget about mainstream country radio, Kacey Musgraves is a perrenial Female Vocalist of the Year candidate now, and a former winner for Album of the Year and Song of the Year from the industry’s highest institutions.

Pageant Material feels like the album Kacey Musgraves wanted to make. No compromise, no half measures. Pageant Material is a solid effort, and delivered slightly above expectations. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Brandi Carlile – The Firewatcher’s Daughter

brandi-carlile-the-firewatchers-daughterThe Firewatcher’s Daughter is the best album Brandi Carlile has ever released, and one of the best albums of 2015. Chalk it up to finally having the unfettered creative freedom of an independent label partner, the lapse in time between releases that reached its most elongated point in her now decade long career to allow the songs to maturate naturally, or just blame the fire of inspiration burning brighter than ever, but this record is an energetic and engaging effort of songwriting and spectacular performances and production from cover to cover. It’s a career-defining record.

The Firewatcher’s Daughter may not be classified as country, but it could be, and probably should be, or at least should set a standard for how to take country and roots music in a new direction without clipping the ties to the original roots of the music, and doing so in a way that inspires and enhances the feelings of life, instead of automating them into mundane audio patterns. (read full review)

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***REMEMBER: Album of the Year Candidates are not included on this list***

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Eric Church – Mr. Misunderstood

eric-church-mr-misunderstoodEric Church got back to being Eric Church. Perhaps his big Album of the Year win at the CMA’s with Chief put a chip on his shoulder, or made him feel like he had to come out with some big, sweeping project to impress everyone and outdo his previous efforts. But the greatest artists aren’t always the ones who can expand their horizons, but can instead refine what they do best, and turn even more inward, get more personal, and more vulnerable and uninhibited with sharing their innermost thoughts. And once again, this is what we find Church doing in Mr. Misunderstood.

Overall, Mr. Misunderstood is a success, and it’s brought on by Eric Church emphasizing what he does best, and not giving into his sometimes hyper-driven ego, or his propensity to go off the page because of misguided notions on musical progress. Maybe this is an album constructed on a lark; almost like a side-project. We’ll have to see. But it has Eric Church once again back on the positive side of Saving Country Music’s humble opinion. (read full review)

Brennen Leigh – Brennen Leigh Sings Lefty Frizzell

brennen-leigh-sings-lefty-frizzell-001By smartly selecting songs that are worthy of being heard again, but are not the obvious “Greatest Hits” of Lefty’s legacy, Brennen avoids the common pitfall of tribute records. Even yours truly hadn’t heard a few of these songs before. And making her renditions that much more compelling and unique is the fact that she’s a woman singing these songs. That feminine voice and perspective naturally makes these songs something different from what they were before, even juxtaposed in certain circumstances to make the meaning of the song something different. And of course Brennen sings these songs with such exquisite love and passion, so if nothing else, this album makes a brilliant vessel for her voice.

Something else making Brennen Leigh Sings Lefty Frizzell more than your average tribute is the team she assembled to bring this album to life. She didn’t just walk into the studio with her road band and call it good. If she was going to do it, she was going to do it right. This record was a family affair, and every string was pulled to make sure each specific part was up to the standards Lefty’s original recordings and legacy set. (read full review)

Willy “Tea” Taylor – Knuckleball Prime

willy-tea-taylor-knuckleball-primeWhere before Willy had to rely on the sheer power of his words, Knuckleball Prime allows arrangement and instrumentation to help tell some of the story. And unlike some top flight songwriters of the past who found the process of producing their songs foreign, and the results fairly underwhelming or even counterproductive (see: Townes Van Zandt), the marriage of Willy songs and wise studio work results in a rising action of Willy’s expressions as opposed to a smothering of them.

It’s the same old Willy Tea, but now the songs are allowed to blossom in a way they never would have before. Knuckleball Prime is an excellent songwriters album, maybe one of the tops of 2015. (read full review)

The Wood Brothers – Paradise

the-wood-brothers-paradiseThere’s something really smart going on in Paradise that listeners must not overlook, while the Wood Brothers don’t forget that it’s their job to get you moving and feeling something so that you’re open and receptive like the petals of a Lotus flower to the wisdom they look to impart. And though this is a thematic album, a song like the simple and sweet “Touch of Your Hand” can still work on its own. It’s just when it’s placed beside the other songs, it says much more than a sweet love song.

Paradise should be considered a progressive roots album with electric enhancements, and not a country or bluegrass or blues album. But approached with the right mindset and an open heart, a lot of enjoyment and comprehension can be gained though this record. (read full review)

The Supersuckers – Holdin’ The Bag

supersuckers-holdin-the-bagGoing back to what the Supersuckers do best, which is come out kicking with a shit eating grin, and then hitting you in between the eyes with something meaningful when you least expect it, this raucous group sets you right about what is real and raw about country punk roots. Putting an extra bit of meaning behind this record is the fact that Eddie Spaghetti was recently diagnosed with Stage 3 throat Cancer, and had to undergo surgery and radiation treatment.

In a rather pedestrian year for music that has included some high-profile letdowns, Holdin’ The Bag holds up to the “punk gone country” legacy the Supersuckers started some nearly 20 years ago. (read full review)

Jason Boland & the Stragglers – Squelch

jason-boland-squelchAngry, subversive, pointed, and powerful, the eighth album from one of the few performers left who can call themselves Red Dirt and nobody will cry foul is a lot to digest, and hard to leave behind. Squelch is what Jason Boland and his backing band The Stragglers chose to name this work, which is the same name given to the knob that truckers use to eliminate the static and idle chatter that sometimes comes through the speakers of their CB radios. Once a more common article for truckers and civilians alike, the CB is now a relic, along with the squelch knob. But never before has the static and idle chatter been so loud, and the need to squelch it so necessary.

This is unlike any other country album you might hear, though some may hear similarities to Sturgill Simpson’s recent questioning of values and beliefs. Squelch is traditional country to the ear, whose lyrics aggressively tear away at the morass of modern reality. Usually this business is reserved for punk music or political folk. But Boland believes country can be a worthy vessel for social disobedience too. (read full review)

Mike and the Moonpies – Mockingbird

mike-and-the-moonpies-mockingbirdWho knows what chemical equations and algorithmic anomalies go into deciding what bands and artists launch into the stratosphere strait out of their first few practice sessions and opening slots, and which ones are destined to slag it out on a slow build spending umpteen hours in a smelly tour van. All I know is I’ve seen Mike and the Moonpies get name checked by Sturgill Simpson in front of a sold out crowd of thousands, and open for the Turnpike Troubadours on numerous occasions, and never did their music strike me as second class.

While many of the most successful artists in the country realm are making a mockery of the traditions and sounds, Mike and the Moonpies are singing their praises, and the rest of us should be singing the praises of Mockingbird as one of the strongest authentic country efforts released this year. (read full review)

Eric Strickland – Relevate

eric-strickland-relevateThere’s a bad misconception that the more country an album is, the better it must be, but you still have to start off with good songs, fresh ideas or perspectives, and talent that is singular in a scene stacked to the ceiling with bad impressionists. This is where an artist like Eric Strickland comes in. He was born to sing, and The ‘B’ Sides were born to back him. It isn’t just REAL country, it’s real good.

It’s the combination of Strickland’s songwriting, and his amazing North Carolina-bred country voice that give you that tingle only true country music knows how to evoke. (read full review)

Lucero – All A Man Should Do

lucero-all-a-man-should-doWhere would the current generation of alt-country and Americana artists be today if it weren’t for Ben Nichols and Memphis-based alt-country band Lucero? The band’s influence is smattered across stages, interwoven into lyrical runs, and mashed into the melodies of so many bands who had Lucero records blaring from their speakers during their formative years of music discovery that the music of today wouldn’t be nearly as potent without them. Lucero’s new album from ATO Records called All A Man Should Do finds the band in prime form. That’s easy to do when you’ve had virtually the same basic lineup since inception.

Perhaps still too young and hungry to regard as legends, but wildly influential in the alt-country/Americana field and beyond, Lucero is a must for your audio library, and All A Man Should Do is another worthy addition. (read full review)

Barrence Whitfield – Under The Savage Sky

barrence-whitfield-under-the-savage-skyUnder The Savage Sky is the reason you can’t ever let a release from Bloodshot Records pass under your nose without at least a sniff. From being the first to pick up on Justin Townes Earle, Ryan Adams, and so many more, to maintaining a home for artists like Wayne Hancock and Dex Romweber, if you want to listen to the music that influences others, this is where to look.

Barrence Whitfield is not a name you’re going to see praised to the rafters or land on every end-of-year “best of” list, but his influence and the power of his music is unwavering, and Under The Savage Sky is as good of a place to start discovering his genius as any. (read full review)

Whitney Rose – Heartbreaker of the Year

whitney-rose-heartbreaker-of-the-yearI don’t know what they’re lacing the Canadian municipal water supplies with these days that allows the great frozen north to churn out authentic country and roots artists worthy of ears in bumper crop fashion, but they better import some of that concoction down here to the States post haste because Canada is kicking our ass in cool new country artists per capita.

If Whitney Rose has written or sang a bad song, you won’t hear it here. Sultry, dynamic, spicy in the way it slides between styles yet continues forward cohesively, Heartbreaker of the Year is quite the exhibition of Whitney’s talents. (read full review)

Maddie & Tae – Start Here

maddie-tae-start-hereStart Here is not a solid victory in the fight to save country music, but it’s a start, and a much better option to root for compared to Kelsea Ballerini, and some other upstart female talent out there. Who knows, maybe Music Row is hedging their bets on a more traditional sound coming more into favor with very young artists like Maddie & Tae and Mo Pitney, and we may be looking at what will become the next generation of traditional contemporaries in the future.

Whether you like the album or not, Start Here is a sign of the tide starting to change, for women, for traditional instrumentation, and for quality songwriting. And whether it’s just a sign, or the marker for a true sea change, there’s no harm in acknowledging and celebrating it. (read full review)

Lindi Ortega – Faded Gloryville

lindi-ortega-faded-gloryvilleToday in country music, a big topic of discussion is how to solve the lack of female representation in the genre. Special programs have been set up, dedicated features are done on many of country music’s budding female stars in major periodicals. But so many of those efforts focus on female artists who are unproven, and inexperienced in connecting with audiences on a nightly basis.

Meanwhile out there on the club and honky-tonk circuit are women with skins on the wall, proven talent, and built-in fan bases that go regularly overlooked as options to bring compelling female voices to the big leagues of country. One such artist is the Canadian-born Lindi Ortega. For those seeking the beauty lurking between the margins, for those who appreciate the value of the treasures one can find on the road less traveled, Lindi Ortega has already attained iconic status. (read full review)

Daryle Singletary – There’s Still A Little Country Left

daryle-singletary-theres-still-a-little-country-leftBeset on all sides, lampooned regularly by popular media, bastardized by its own sons and daughters in the mainstream, sold out by corporations and their governmental cronies, America’s rural culture is under siege by the heartless and misguided march of time like never before. But traditional country artist Daryle Singletary is here to remind you there’s still a little country left, and we’re not talking the artificial fairly-tale tailgate caricaturist version they sell to you on 98.1.

Not necessarily a concept album, but an album that has something to say and is willing to say it forcefully, Daryle Singletary’s There’s Still A Little Country Left rolls up its sleeves and shakes it fists at the onset of cultural erosion happening in and around small towns across the country. (read full review)

Samantha Crain – Under Branch & Thorn & Tree

samantha-crain-under-branch-thorn-treeSamantha Crain’s gift has always been the ability to marry succulent and infectious melodies in a strikingly appropriate manner to the sentiment she is looking to convey. Her melodies can be these sugar-filled grooves, or the haunting night creatures, but either way they inspire the brain to ask for repeated moments with her music, and can awaken certain moods dormant inside listeners for many moon cycles, if they had ever been awakened before.

Like “Big Rock” alludes to, because of the principles Samantha Crain has adhered to in her career, and because of the way the current world is ordered, people who are unwilling to bend tend to become isolated, have to learn how to be resourceful and get by with less. But what they find is that within those limitations is a sense of fulfillment that alludes others with earthly goals and untold resources. (read full review)

Ashley Monroe – The Blade

ashley-monroe-the-bladeThere is no need to grade Ashley Monroe on a curve. There’s no reason to rig the system to make her seem like something more than she is. She’s a multi-tool performer who can write songs, sing the hell out of them, perform with feeling, and is easy on the eyes. Name recognition is no issue either since Ashley’s had some big success with The Pistol Annies and as a guest on hit singles by Blake Shelton and others. Yet her own singles show up nearly dead on arrival, and there seems little hope she will break out into that top tier of country women that incidentally is looking for women to step up and fill vacant slots.

Ashley Monroe clearly has the stuff to fill the open slot(s) at the very top of female country music, and The Blade reinforces this opinion. And she might be willing to bend just a little bit to be more open with her sound. But she isn’t willing to break, and while that might endear her to Americana and classic country listeners, it also may be what keeps her at arms length from the mainstream distinction her music deserves. (read full review)

Alan Jackson – Angels & Alcohol

alan-jackson-angels-and-alcoholAs long as Alan Jackson is around and relevant and releasing records, then country music still has a fighting chance. They may squeeze country music through the sausage press and stamp the country label on all manner of crazy-ass hip-wiggling pseudo-rapping modern techno EDM mumbo jumbo in a desperate attempting to sell the audio equivalent of pet rocks to the prattling, gullible public. But if Alan Jackson is still booking studio time, the true essence of country music will never slip through our fingers. A link to the past, and a strong voice in the present, hopefully Jackson’s future output never falters because once he’s gone, it will be impossibly hard to replace.

Angels & Alcohol has a few bumps in the road some songs that maybe could have benefited from borrowing a line or two from a co-writer and then the album has few really good ones. And overall, with that classic voice backed by traditional sounds, there’s just something about an Alan Jackson album that puts a smile on your face, and makes you hope new Alan Jackson albums don’t go away anytime soon. (read full review)

The Malpass Brothers – Self-Titled

the-malpass-brothersTo believe Blake Shelton, Florida Georgia Line, Darius Rucker and others, nobody wants to listen to new music that sounds old. But to the nobodies that actually prefer their country music to sound like country, thankfully there are still artists and bands around who do their best to keep the music close to the traditions; artists like the North Carolina-based Malpass Brothers.

Trying to keep the traditional sounds of country music alive is a constant war of attrition, and it’s important that young men step up to the fight and help preserve and pay forward the roots of country music. With their self-titled album, The Malpass Brothers do their part and then some. (read full review)

Philip Bradatsch When I’m Cruel

philip-bradatsch-when-im-cruelIn 2013, one of the biggest and most unlikely musical takeaways for this particular music junkie was a breakneck, high-octane bluegrass band from Germany called the Dinosaur Truckers. The fascination with the band started with their speedy and adept instrumentation that would outpace most of the bands stateside, but when their self-titled LP arrived, it was the songwriting of frontman Philip Bradatsch that might have been most surprising.

It’s so easy to consider our overseas country music brethren as second-class, or curious in their fascination with a foreign art form. But with When I’m Cruel, Philip Bradatsch doesn’t just announce himself as an accomplished roots-leaning singer songwriter living on foreign soil, he announces himself as one of the strongest voices in songwriting at this particular moment, regardless of the country of origin. (read full review)

The Deslondes – Self-Titled

the-deslondes-albumWe’ve been wearing out the records of neotraditional roots bands for years, but we’ve never heard one like this. This is a new way of making old music. When the first song “Fought The Blues and Won” starts out with a Fats Domino piano rhythm indicative of the song “Blueberry Hill,” you have the sense immediately this is something a shade different. New Orleans never gets fair credit in the country world for being one of the essential origination points of the music, but when it comes to The Deslondes, this knowledge is baked right in, and pushed to the front.

A lot of artists and bands reach for that plateau of originality, but The Deslondes actually have achieved it. But even more enchanting is the acute sense that the best from this band is yet to come. (read full review)

Sam Outlaw – Angeleno

sam-outlaw-angelenoSam Outlaw is not his real name. Well, not really. His real name is Sam Morgan. But his mother’s maiden name is Outlaw, so it’s close. But he’s not a real Outlaw. Nor is he a real cowboy, even though he apparently owns a fine collection of over half a dozen Stetsons. The 32-year-old Sam Outlaw was an advertising salesman up to a few months ago. He’s from Los Angeles, and has lived there ever since he was 10-years-old. And now he’s one of the most highly-buzzed country artists in Americana.

Sam Outlaw’s sound really isn’t Bakersfield, though there’s certainly some of that influence. It’s just as indicative of Countrypolitan, and maybe more indicative of L.A. than anything. It’s the haze that creates a sepia hue over everything in the city; it’s the way the streets are so full of electricity and desperation all at the same time. If you listen intently, this is what you will hear beneath Sam Outlaw’s music. There’s a glamor and a slickness, but also a desert emptiness and a forlorn contemplation of vacated dreams. (read full review)

Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard – Django & Jimmie

willie-nelson0-merle-haggard-django-and-jimmieYou look at these two guys, and it is living history right in front of you. But they aren’t living history museum pieces. They are lucid, active participants in the music community, still writing and singing songs, still with the fire inside them to contribute to the genre they helped create, and pay country music forward to yet another generation of loyal and appreciative fans. There’s a better than average chance this new album from Willie and Merle will hit #1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart when it’s all is said and done, besting a younger major label artist in Billy Currington. Willie & Merle aren’t out to pasture, they’re still riding high in the saddle.

These are the moments we should take in with an open heart and revel in now, because eventually the oldest generation will give way to a newer one, and the newer ones will never be a worthy replacement for country music titans such as these two. (read full review)

Charlie Parr- Stumpjumper

charlie-parr-stumpjumperAmidst the graveyards of American dreams is where you’ll find the grey, bent, and wiry folklore rhythm master known as Charlie Parr nosing around, looking for his next discovery. With a resonator on his knee, and a tapping foot you could calibrate a Swiss timepiece to, Mr. Parr bends his back to looking for the perfect rhythm or melody for a mood like an archeologist looks for a lost civilization’s prized possession. And many times, Charlie Parr finds it.

By holding the roots of American music in his hands with the same care a new father holds the head of his newborn, Charlie Parr crafts an appeal for his music that crosses party lines. Stumpjumper shows that Parr is not interested in just keeping the status quo rolling along like so many artists do 15 years into their careers, but is willing to push himself and his audience to discover new avenues of expression to continue to grow in what has already become a verdant musical legacy. (read full review)

The Honeycutters – Me Oh My

the-honeycutters-me-oh-myIt’s not that The Honeycutters’ previous projects undercut Amanda Platt’s abilities by any stretch, but Me Oh My is the 14-song testament that you sense could be the centerpiece of her career when it’s all said and done. And though you might think of Amanda Platt as a songwriter first and then a singer, when she does give herself a chance to step out, like when she tests her range on “Wedding Song,” she shows herself more than just capable.

Whether by design or dictation of circumstance, Amanda Platt steps into the role as premier songwriter in Me Oh My, and The Honeycutters are better off for it.  This is a band, an album, and a songwriter that both the Americana and country world should pay greater attention to. (read full review)

Them Duquaines – Star Spangled Rodeo

them-duqaines-star-spangled-rodeoRich with excellent guitar work, great singing, and those little elements of spice that make Texas country unique like accordion, backing chorus singers, and even saxophone, Them Duqaines capture an authentic country spirit that makes you go, “Yes, this is what I’ve been looking for!”

Amidst the Californication of central Texas and the Live Music Capital of the World, Them Duqaines are keeping the spirit of authentic Texas country music alive not just for Austin, TX, but for all the fans of true authentic country across the country and world. This one is very enjoyable. (read full review)

Mandolin Orange – Such Jubilee

mandolin-orange-such-jubileeThe genius of Mandolin Orange is in the subtle but intelligent way they compose their tunes, and the tenderness and care with which it is all delivered. It’s quiet, it’s careful and calculated, but it’s not eepish or hipsterish by being too lilting or stylized as you can sometimes find with duos. Mandolin Orange has its own little crevice, and in that crevice these enchanting melodies thrive and these harmonies blend expertly, enhanced by these slight but important chord changes that create curiosity in the music without confusing the ear.

As a two-piece duo that isn’t prone to veering too much off their path or putting any acrobatics into their music to gain attention, there will always be a certain capacity to the crowd it will draw. But Such Jubilee adds to the sweet little legacy of music that doesn’t just set heads to bobbing and limbs twitching, but fills the spirit with a light that glows long after the music ceases. (read full review)

Todd Grebe & Cold Country – Citizen

todd-grebe-cold-country-citizenAlaska via east Nashville is not a narrative you normally see play out in the itineraries of country records. But who would question whether the wilds of Alaska have enough wide open spaces, scenic vistas, or snarly honky tonks and hard times to inspire a good country song? Nobody would after listening to Todd Grebe & Cold Country’s new record Citizen.

Citizen reminds you that no matter what may be happening in the mainstream, in the far recesses and crevices of society, from the Florida Keys to the cold wilderness of Alaska, authentic country music is alive and well in the hearts of those who would never let it die, and would play it until 2 a.m. even if nobody was listening. (read full review)

William Clark Green – Ringling Road

william-clark-green-ringling-roadWilliam Clark Green is the best of both worlds in many respects. He can sit in a songwriting round with wily veterans and go toe to toe with them with his curiously-aged wisdom, yet find appeal from a younger audience by bringing his own real world struggles that parallel their own to his material.

Traditionalists will be left wanting, and will tune out almost immediately on a song like “Symapthy.” But make no mistake, Ringling Road is a big record packed full of months, maybe years of enjoyment like a loaded up circus car, and it should launch William Clark Green into the rafters of fame in Texas country and beyond. (read full review)

Dwight Yoakam – Second Hand Heart

dwight-yoakam-second-hand-heartSecond Hand Heart was hailed ahead of the release as a return to the halcyon days of Dwight’s cowpunk past. I don’t hear a particular song that may end up on the short list of Dwight classics in the long term, and the track “Believe” seems to borrow a little to much in the melody from other works, but Second Hand Heart otherwise is a cover to cover listen, and one that matches the standards Dwight has set for himself over a solid, 30-year career.

In an era dominated by either singing lightweights or technically perfect singers with no style, thank the country music gods we still have Dwight around to entertain us. Dwight Yoakam is the King of Cool in country music, and Second Hand Heart helps to continue that legacy. (read full review)

Pokey LaFarge – Something in the Water

pokey-lafarge-something-in-the-waterSome 70 years behind the times and yet still cooler than the rest of us, Pokey LaFarge is like the musical equivalent of the Austin Powers character brought out of cryogenic freeze to do battle with the forces of bad music by reminding the world of a time when popular songs still embodied taste, composition, and a timeless charisma instead of the diarrhetic pap dictated by the fickle tastes of 15-year-olds that we suffer from today.

Pokey traces the lineage of some of America’s best audio styles and eras back to the breadbasket, and back to the time when the region was the gateway to the West, a romantic notion in the minds of Easterners, and a harbor for a hodgepodge of music styles carried on the backs of people searching for a place to plant their dreams. Something in the Water is a real hoot, a toe tapper, and a good time that also eases into a little heartbreak in spurts. It’s old music for old souls, those lost in time, and those fond of flyover country. (read full review)

Sarah Gayle Meech – Tennessee Love Song

sarah-gayle-meech-tennessee-love-songSarah Gayle Meech released her debut album One Good Thing in 2012, and it was a testament to her growing place as one of the leading women in traditional country. But it was a prototype; a starting point in what you knew was going to become a long career contributing a legacy of original songs to country music’s library.

Tennessee Love Song is about establishing Sarah Gayle Meech as a neotraditionalist standard bearer for the new generation of artists. After Lower Broadway went from slum to tourist trap in the 90’s and the whole neotraditionalist thing with BR549, Wayne Hancock, and Hank3 scored its high water mark and the question was, “Who is next? Where do we go from here?” ”¦the answer for the here and now is Sarah Gayle Meech. (read full review)

Grandpa’s Cough Medicine – 180 Proof

grandpas-coung-medicine-180-proofCombining the meticulous and highly-skilled artistry of authentic bluegrass traditions and modes with a punk-ish attitude and tempo, and adding a little bit of ribald and offbeat humor in their lyricism, Grandpa’s Cough Medicine combines many of the best elements of both traditional and contemporary bluegrass into music that above all is just a really fun listen.

The three-piece outfit calls it “outlaw bluegrass” ”¦.or at least they were the first to gobble up that URL before anyone else, and this is probably the best way to describe their version of old time string band traditions served with a rambunctious kick. Real deal bluegrass artistry with a little bit of offbeat fun and fast tempo make Grandpa’s Cough Medicine’s 180 Proof a really enjoyable listen. (read full review)

Slackeye Slim – Give My Bones to the Western Lands

slackeye-slim-give-my-bones-to-the-western-landsLike many of the leathered-skinned, sand-blasted, sullen and desperate characters which populate his stories, Slackeye Slim seems more apparition than man, shifting in and out of the material consciousness, showing up when you least expect him, and disappearing for years at a time in between. After the release of El Santo Grial, Slackeye Slim did not go on an extended tour or take a victory lap. He virtually disappeared, eventually moving from the upper Midwest to a ranch in Western Colorado, where he hunkered down amidst the wide landscapes and inspiring vistas, and wrote what eventually became his masterpiece followup Giving My Bones to the Western Lands.

Such an endless possibility of creative feats awaits the listener if they decide to venture off the page of professional music and discover the crafters who fit their musical pursuits between other priorities in life. It’s not for the faint of heart, or for those too impatient to search for the hidden meaning or melody in music. Slackeye Slim remains a stalwarts of the dark unknowns who harness the raw inspiration right out of the ground and air, and impart it to hard scrabble clans of informed listeners who’ve learned how to spy that gem in the rough. (read full review)

Cody Jinks –Adobe Sessions

cody-jinks-adobe-sessionsLooking like a hippy, writing like an Outlaw, sounding like a Texas country stalwart, and touring like there’s no tomorrow, the name Cody Jinks belongs smack dab in the mix when you’re speculating on who is the best and the brightest in the current crop of insurgent country songwriters.

Adobe Sessions is a really solid album, and one that some are saying marks an early entry for Album of the Year. I would like to see a more consistent effort before handing out such accolades. Jinks, though very much a mature artist, feels like he needs to decide between being sensible or being substantive. Trying to play the lines between the two could mean he never really appealing in large part to either. What’s hard to deny however is his hunger for songwriting that is exhibited heavily on Adobe Sessions, and is worth a strong consideration even if nothing else is. (read full review)

Justin Townes Earle – Absent Fathers

justin-townes-earle-single-mothersSee, this is why we’re fans of music. Because there’s something about the perseverance of the human spirit wrapped in every single piece of audio material, and every single album, regardless of how good it is. We have artists that we follow, that we’re fans of, not just because they do things that seem esoteric, but because they’re human and apt to fail, and then right when you start to doubt them, they will prove to you why you believed in them from the beginning and dove head first into their music, listening to everything you could get your hands on, driving too far see them at a show on a Wednesday night two towns over and paying for it at work the next day from lack of sleep.

There didn’t really seem to be any sizable push for the album. No excitement. Then you start diving into Absent Fathers, and just when you’re about ready to stick this CD in your drawer of coasters, that brilliance, that magic that made you a Justin Townes Earle fan to begin with, and stick with him even though the revelations about personal demons and the reality that he really isn’t country anymore, reveals itself with shimmering brilliance. (read full review)

Rhiannon Giddens – Tomorrow Is My Turn

rihannon-giddens-tomorrow-is-my-turnIt’s not that the Carolina Chocolate Drops hadn’t lent to Giddens being able to showcase her voice and spirit before, but this new, unbridled material was something on an entirely new level. The boldness evidenced, from even starting a band like the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and to bearing yourself in such naked compositions like “Waterboy” and “Cry No More” shows incredible resolve and courage that is unfortunately so fleeting throughout the music of today.

What we shouldn’t ever forget henceforth is what a singular, spirited singing talent Rhiannon Giddens is, with strong roots and wide branches that reach beyond the shade of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and comprise her own beautiful blossoming tower of verdant talent. (read full review)

George Strait – Cold Beer Conversation

george-strait-cold-beer-conversationStrait knows his audience and what he does best, and if nothing else, you can be guaranteed he’s not going to stray too far off of that path. You can call him King George, or you can call him Captain Consistency. Strait is never going to lay a stinker, and he’s never going to deliver you some creative masterpiece. But you can be assured if you put a George Strait record on, it will stay on because it will be entertaining enough to not give you a reason to turn it off, and few, if any within ear shot will find themselves offended.

Radio may have stopped paying attention, but the country fans that matter stopped paying attention to radio years ago. George Strait is now in the tender care of grassroots and loyal listeners who buy records in whole and don’t wait to be instructed by radio jockeys, because they know an investment in George Strait is never going to let them down. Not a bad effort, George. (read full review)

Kay Berkel – Self-Titled EP

kay-berkel-you-erased-me-from-your-worldLike a treasure tucked away in a time capsule from being too precious to only be enjoyed by one time period, the music of Kay Berkel’s You Erased Me From Your World (When You Drew Her In) EP transports you back to the most revered era of country music when the sentiments were pure, the sound was fresh and foreboding, and the modes proved to be timeless.

Daniel Romano takes a heavy hand in this effort, writing all four of the songs and producing the session that sees him singing close harmonies with Berkel through many stanzas, but Kay matches Romano’s ability to capture a reminiscent sound and mood and rekindle a style of country that captivates audiences thirsty for a more classical approach. (read full review)

Honorable Mention

(albums that received reviews at or above 1 1/2 Guns Up (7/10), but could not be fit in the Top 50)

  • Urban Pioneers- Vehicle in Transit
  • Suzy Oleson – Self-Titled
  • Dash Rip Rock – Wrongheaded
  • Jim Ed Brown – In Style Again
  • Steve Earle – Terraplane
  • The Mavericks – Mono
  • Darci Carlson – Release Me EP
  • Jon Pardi – ‘B’ Sides
  • Allison Moorer – Down To Believing
  • Chris Isaak – First Comes The Night
  • Hellbound Glory – The Black Mass / The Excavators
  • Electric Rag Band – My Side
  • Corb Lund – Things That Can’t Be Undone
  • Luke Bryan – Kill The Lights (just kidding)