The Best Country Albums of 2015 So Far

So we’re close enough to the half way pole in 2015 to start thinking about what the best has been so far, and to get ready for what is sure to be a pretty exciting second half of 2015 for album releases. There’s been some big surprises, a few letdowns, but overall 2015 so far has been a pretty varied season for releases.

The first albums highlight should be considered early candidates for Saving Country Music’s “Album of the Year,” while everything else highlighted should be considered coming highly recommended.

PLEASE NOTE: This only includes albums that have been reviewed by Saving Country Music so far. Just because an album is not included here doesn’t mean it’s not good, or won’t be reviewed in the future.

Recommendations and opinions on albums is encouraged, including leaving your own list of favorite albums in the comments sections below. However, please understand that nothing is “forgotten,” and nobody’s list is “illegitimate” just because one particular album is left off, or a certain album is included. The point of this exercise is to expand the awareness of great music, and that is how it should be approached by all parties.

Also, the albums are listed in the order they were reviewed (mostly). No other order was implied, or should be inferred.

Chris Stapleton – “Traveller”

chris-stapleton-travellerIt’s a national embarrassment that an artist, singer, and songwriter like Chris Stapleton is just now getting his feet onto the ground floor of stardom while the morons he’s penning super hits for are out there starring in their own prime time televised specials. Forget the reams and reams of songwriting credits Stapleton’s accrued for a second; this dude can sing the pants off of anyone else mainstream country music can shove out on stage right now. Anyone. And yet he’s been pulling desk duty for the last half dozen years. Thank goodness Mercury Nashville finally pulled their head out of their ass and got this record out.

All the years of anticipation, all the showcases and live shows where people walked away in shock or in tears, all the stutter steps as Nashville tried to figure out what the hell to do with him, it was all fulfilled, and it was all worth the wait for Traveller. The only question left now is, with the raw power of Chris Stapleton finally captured and out there on a wide release, will the Nashville machine once again drop the ball, or will they do his talent justice and push him as the preeminent country music artist of this generation that he is? (read full review)

Whitey Morgan & The 78’s  – “Sonic Ranch”

whitey-morgan-78s-sonic-ranchOf the underground and independent honky tonkers I’ve had the pleasure of covering over many years, nobody has worked harder, and nobody has put in more miles than than Whitey. There’s been some that have shot to major fame seemingly overnight like Sturgill Simpson, others that seem to ride a boom and bust pattern like Leon Virgil Bowers, but Whitey Morgan is a case study all to his own.

Like rolling Buick sedans off the assembly line in Flint, Michigan one after another, day after day, year after year, not stopping to take breaks or reveling in little victories, but winning fans over one at a time, night after night, tour after tour in America’s derelict honky tonks until the word of mouth grew into a rumble, the crowds went from nearly empty to nut to butt, Whitey Morgan is now like a locomotive at full speed barreling down the tracks. Get in his way, and you’re liable to get trucked.

Named for the legendary studio compound outside of El Paso, TX known for coaxing some of the best recordings out of artists in their career, Sonic Ranch is the missing piece in what was already a well-apportioned arsenal of honky tonk firepower. (read full review)

Yelawolf – “Love Story”

yelawolf-love-storySo what is Saving Country Music’s interest in this new Love Story record? The serious threat of country rap seems to have waned significantly in the rise of Bro-Country, and country music faces much bigger problems now. But what Yelawolf has done with Love Story is pulled the curtain back and exposed the sheer lack of talent in the ranks of country rappers and other misguided genre benders by putting out an album that sets a creative high watermark, and bucks the narrative of commercial pandering and derivative cliché in the space between country and hip-hop. Love Story is bursting with creative vision, respect for art forms, and most importantly, it is an album that tells a very personal, self-reflective, and at times vulnerable and self-deprecating story. It is Yelawolf’s opus.

Yelawolf’s Love Story could very well be a landmark American album, and could go on to influence countless other artists and albums in the coming years. And in this transfer of influence, there will be the bits of traditional country that are instilled in this record. I cannot assign a grade Love Story because I’m not a hip-hop critic, and therefore am not qualified to rate it on certain merits or against its peers. But will this record still be standing at the end of the year when the entire recording industry gathers to consider who released the most important and influential works? There’s a chance it might be overlooked or misunderstood. But it probably deserves to be. (read full review)

Rachel Brooke & Lonesome Wyatt – “Bad Omen”

lonesome-wyatt-rachel-brooke-bad-omenGranted, this is not your everyday listening fare, and a familiarity with Rachel Brooke, Lonesome Wyatt, and the approach of Gothic country is important, if not required for the listening experience to reach the full fulfillment level, if not just for the music to be fully understood. This is an artistic expression of the classic American experience, not rhythm candy or catchy grooves, though with the right calibrations of the mind, you will find this music nothing short of overwhelmingly immersive in a way most music beyond classical or jam band epics could never come close to achieving. Bad Omen will make you feel moods you’ve forgotten in the recesses of your memory, if you’ve ever felt them before.

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)

Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen – “Hold My Beer”

randy-rogers-wade-bowen-album-hold-my-beer-vol-1Boy howdy did Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers absolutely clobber the ball out of the park with this one. When I first heard they were making a studio version of their laid back, and sometimes poorly-promoted and hastily-booked “Hold My Beer and Watch This” acoustic shows annually embarked on between bigger tours, I thought we’d get a bunch of stripped-down covers, a few acoustic collaborations, and maybe a studio track or two; something more for the serious Red Dirt fan as opposed to a wide swath of the country music population. Instead we get a completely fleshed out album full of original songs that rival or potentially surpass the work either of these Texas country stalwarts have done on their primary projects, or any traditional country album released in a while.

And when I say traditional country, I’m not speaking in hyperbole or close approximations. I’m talking steel guitar and fiddle, I’m talking twang and texture, with really no departure from the traditional approach at any point. But if you come for the music, you stay for the songs, and Hold My Beer Vol. 1 showcases some of the best writing you can find in the achingly bereft country music landscape of today.

Beyond whatever assurances to prospective country music purchasers of this music that I could convey, or whatever superlatives might be levied in support of this effort, what Wade Bowen and Randy Roger do in Hold My Beer Vol. 1 is offer hope for the future of authentic country music, and once again prove that Texas does it better. (read full review)

Roo Arcus – “Cowboys & Sunsets”

So far 2015’s biggest surprise!

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.

Beyond the authenticity and the clear rudimentary study of country music that Roo displays in his music, Cowboys and Sunsets is remarkable in how it sounds just like some lost album from the sweet spot of the career of Alan Jackson or George Strait, or even a little bit of James Hand when they were still young and hungry and trying to prove themselves.

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)

Brandi Carlile – “The Firewatcher’s Daughter”

brandi-carlile-the-firewatchers-daughterAn injustice has been done friends and neighbors. Though there’s nothing but happiness flowing towards Brandi Carlile for finding herself with the #1 album at the top of Billboard‘s Top Rock Albums chart, and having arguably the most successful release of her career despite making the switch from major label Columbia to indie label ATO, still this unapologetic country music advocate is left wondering why Carlile’s services have been abdicated from the country realm when she clearly resides more firmly in that world compared to others, and could be such an asset to this crestfallen and female-deprived genre.

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)

James McMurtry – “Complicated Game”

james-mcmurtry-complicated-gameVenturing into ramshackle dive bars and overturning the stones of socioeconomic depravity to unearth the forgotten refugees cast off from the American dream and escaping the enslavement of technology by hammering out livings on the outskirts of society, Texas singer and second generation writer James McMurtry pens odes to the marginalized inhabitants of the margins, meticulously chiseling out curvatures with such intimate understanding and attention to detail that he eventually reveals canonized demi-heroes of everyday forgotten life tied to the land and living like prose in their tacked together existences while the masses speed past on the highway unbeknownst.

Six long years it took, and it may be six more before a fresh new batch arrives. But James McMurtry delivers on the promise of being one of our generation’s preeminent songwriters who can say the things that twist the rest of our tongues, create characters we never knew but feel hauntingly familiar, and fill us with and appreciation of life, both the good and the bad, and understand it is all part of the brilliant tapestry we’re all embedded in and unrolling before us. (read full review)

Ryan Bingham – “Fear & 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)

Other Albums Highly Recommended:

” Jamie Lin Wilson –  Holidays & Wedding Rings (read review) – Great songwriting.

” Charlie Parr – Stumpjumper (read review) – Deep blues at its best.

jon-pardi-the-b-sides-2011-2014” John Pardi – The B-Sides (read review) – Best of the mainstream.

” The Honeycutters – Me Oh My (read review) – Songwriter Amanda Platt’s coming out party.

” Them Duqaines – Star Spangled Rodeo (read review) – Not to be overlooked honky tonk from Texas.

” Mandolin Orange – Such Jubilee (read review) – Sweet Americana.

” Todd Grebe & Cold Country – Citizen (read review) – Alaska country via east Nashville.

john-moreland-high-on-tulsa-heat” John Moreland – High On Tulsa Heat (read review) – Despite the morons who will tell you they read my review and I panned this record, it still remains one of the best songwriting efforts so far this year in my opinion.

” William Clark Green – Ringling Road (read review) – Excellent Texas country. He’s one to watch.

” Dwight Yoakam – Second Hand Heart (read review) – Dwight is back!

” Pokey LaFarge – Something in the Water (read review) – Great throwback record. Pokey’s best!

sarah-gayle-meech-tennessee-love-song Sarah Gayle Meech – Tennessee Love Song (read review) – The new Queen of Lower Broadway blossoms.

” Grandpa’s Cough Medicine – 180 Proof (read review) – Excellent high octane bluegrass. Fun album!

” Steve Earle – Terraplane (read review) –  Steve Earle’s got the blues.

” The Mavericks – Mono (read review) – Solid effort from an SCM Album of the Year alumni.

” Aaron Watson – The Underdog (read review) – Extra credit awarded for hitting #1 on the charts, and sending reverberations throughout the mainstream.

blackberry-smoke-holding-all-the-roses-coverBlackberry Smoke – Holding All The Roses (read review) – Best Southern rock album so far this year.

” Jim Ed Brown – In Style Again (read review) – It’s Jim Ed Brown for crying out loud.

” Slackeye Slim – Giving My Bones to the Western Lands (read review) – For those looking for that lonesome, Western sound, from another former winner of the SCM Album of the Year.

” Kay Berkel – You Erased Me From Your World (read review) – Throwback EP produced by Daniel Romano.

cody-jinks-adobe-sessionsCody Jinks – Adobe Sessions (read review) – Excellent album sitting right on the bubble to be considered an Album of the Year candidate.

” Justin Townes Earle – Absent Fathers (read review) – Justin Townes Earle at his best…again!

” Roger Alan Wade – Bad News Knockin’ (read review) – Wade can’t be denied. Released in late late 2014, but will be considered with the 2015 class.

Other Albums Recommended But Not Reviewed Yet

Note: Just because an album has not been reviewed yet doesn’t mean it won’t be in the future.

  • Ray Wylie Hubbard – The Ruffian’s Misfortune
  • Robert Earl Keen – Happy Prisoner
  • Woody Pines – Self Titled
  • Bloody Jug Band – Rope Burn
  • Paige Anderson & The Fearless Kin – Foxes in June


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