In an era where some people bemoaned the lack of great music in the country format, 2015 really seemed to feature a resurgence of quality — with the top four albums on this list feeling like obvious choices on anyone’s list. But it’s not just the critical darlings you expect that ranked among Billboard.com’s best country albums of the year: A trio of the format’s most dependable veterans figured into the list, along with one of country’s top newcomers and a pair of male acts who always manage to come up with a unique angle on their sound.
10. Storyteller, Carrie Underwood
So, you think you know the platinum-selling star? On this album, Underwood shakes things up a little bit. “Smoke Break” alerted fans to a less-polished approach to her sound, with tracks like “Mexico” and “Choctaw County Affair” revealing a different side of the “All-American Girl.”
9. The Underdog, Aaron Watson
There may not have been a more appropriately titled album this year than this one. Long known and hailed as one of Texas’ best, this album netted the singer a No. 1 debut on the Top Country Albums chart in March — leading to a lot of discussion on just how important radio is to an artist in 2015. Whatever your opinion is on that matter, the music backs Watson up here, with the tender “Bluebonnets” being a favorite, “That Look” channeling the great era of ’80s country, and the title track being one of inspiration to anyone who has ever felt the odds stacked against them. In this case, the “Underdog” finished first.
8. Southern Style, Darius Rucker
Perhaps inspired by the success of “Wagon Wheel,” Rucker went for more of an organic feel on this album, and the result was his best disc as a solo artist yet. There’s plenty of fare that works well at radio, such as the title cut, but also material like “You Can Have Charleston” and the amazing “So I Sang,” which stand with the best compositions of his career.
7. Cold Beer Conversation, George Strait
When you are George Strait, not only are you competing against the hottest artists of the day, but you also must dwell in your own shadow a bit. On his 29th studio disc, Strait reminded listeners of his eternal greatness with an album that sounded like you could place it in the middle of such classic discs as Ocean Front Property and If You Ain’t Lovin’ You Ain’t Livin’. He does it with as few bells and whistles as anyone, but he makes it work every time.
6. Start Here, Maddie & Tae
The Dot Records duo have become one of the most-talked-about newcomers in the format, thanks to the snappy “Girl In A Country Song.” But, what really sets these two apart is that their disc is one of the more traditional-sounding albums to come from a newcomer in quite some time, and in this crossover marketplace, that’s something to be admired. If you have any doubts about their ability to stay around for the long haul, listen to the spell-binding harmonies on “After The Storm Blows Through.”
5. Small Town Dreams, Will Hoge
They say that artists are best served to write about what they know, and in this case, the highly respected singer-songwriter did just that. Creating a series of songs based upon life in the once sleepy hamlet of Franklin, Tenn., Hoge captivated his audience with slices of real-life Americana, such as “Just Up The Road” and “Guitar Or A Gun.” He also pulled quite the emotional ballad out of this bag of tricks, with the soulful “All I Want Is Us Tonight.”
4. Pageant Material, Kacey Musgraves
If there’s ever doubt about whether Musgraves lives up to all the hype surrounding her, just give this Grammy-nominated album a listen. On cuts like “Biscuits,” “Good Ol’ Boys Club,” and “Family Is Family,” she continues to push thought-provoking lyrics in true Loretta Lynn fashion — and then turn on a heartbreaking dime on the stunning “Somebody To Love” and “Late To The Party.”
3. The Blade, Ashley Monroe
One of the most exquisite musical talents on the market today, Monroe strikes a blend of the mountain soul of Dolly Parton and the artistic integrity of Emmylou Harris. The title cut brims with anguish, and “Weight Of The Load,” which the singer co-wrote with producer Vince Gill, is simply a masterpiece.
2. Traveller, Chris Stapleton
What hasn’t been said about Stapleton at this point? He’s a favorite of fans, critics, and other artists — ranging from Adele to Lee Ann Womack to Luke Bryan. And, why shouldn’t they be? Stapleton is the best singer-songwriter to come down the musical pike since Jamey Johnson. There’s simply not one ounce of filler on this album, which is up for album of the year at the Grammys: each track stands on its own. In particular, listen to the incredible “The Devil Named Music.” Hell, Hank Williams would take his hat off in agreement.
1. Something More Than Free, Jason Isbell
You’re not going to put Isbell in a box. He won’t let you. With Dave Cobb behind the glass, the Alabama native delighted fans and critics alike with a disc that showcased the reason that the Americana format holds him in such high regard. Whether it be “Flagship,” “Children of Children,” or “Palmetto Rose,” Isbell managed to weave an album that left his fans mesmerized.