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 more 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
For 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 ESSENTIAL – Michael Monroe Goodman – The Flag, The Bible, and Bill Monroe
The 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
Sometimes 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
“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 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
If 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
Like 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 Omenleaves 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
Beneath 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
Yes, 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
Fear 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
Regardless 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
The 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)