Top Five Albums Of 2015 – According to Us
December 8, 2015
Wow! It’s that time of year again. Holidays, travel, over-extended credit cards, dreaded extra pounds, a year-end break (hopefully), and… my annual declaration about albums.
I love the album.
When done well, an album is a journey you take with the artist who made it; a snapshot of where they were creatively at the time of its recording. As Taylor Swift referred to in her Wall Street Journal Op-Ed in July of 2014, a great album needs to hit you, “Like an arrow through the heart.” Some stand the test of time; others are great for just a short time.
In compiling my list of my top five albums for 2015 (listed below), the criteria remains the same: It has to be something that I keep coming back to for a long period of time, involuntarily. I know it’s a contender for my list when my favorite song on it is a moving target, and each listen reveals something new to me. Also, I need to want to hear the entire album, whenever I play it – not just a few tracks. It has to be a great listen in the car.
While I believe music can be powerful and have a deep, personal meaning for me, I don’t require all albums to save the world, or a genre. Some will make the list because they simply entertain me and make me feel good, over and over – and I think that’s OK. There are some people who demand that Country artists pay homage to the genre and previous, iconic music makers in this format.
I don’t think that’s realistic in 2015, almost 2016. This generation of young talent making Country music today are from the iPod generation, who listened to almost everything growing up. Rock, Country, Hip Hop, Soul, R&B – you name it. They gravitated to Country and are interpreting the format in their own unique way. They don’t see music categorized in rigidly defined genre silos like you and I did. To them, it’s all a bunch of great songs and sounds they absolutely love. Let’s be thankful their interpretation of all that is considered Country to them.
Those of you who would demand they do it the way Cash, Waylon, or Merle did back in the day are essentially handcuffing them creatively and putting them in a small, confined box. That’s not reasonable, or fair. That’s also not how great, innovative music was ever made – do you think Cash, Waylon, and Merle wanted to be boxed in? Allowed themselves to be? I don’t.
So here’s to diversity and variety. Here’s to the wild, wild west that is Country music in 2015. I say, let’s keep it coming. For those of you wary, afraid, or just plain cranky and skeptical, calm the eff down. This format has shown amazing resilience and sustainability for decades now. It has a crazy, uncanny way of self-correcting itself – that is, if we just stay out of the way.
There were some great albums this year, and for 2015, I wanted to include not only mine, but top five selections for the rest of the All Access Nashville editorial staff, Briana Galluccio and Monta Vaden. These are the ones that best fit the above description. Doesn’t make us right; it just makes it our list. As always, tell me yours too. Comment below, or email me direct here.
This will be the final ‘Ville of 2015, so let me take a moment to thank you for reading each week and always sharing your candid feedback.
Happy holidays to you and yours – talk to you on the other side of the break.
RJ Curtis – All Access Nashville Editor
1. Chris Stapleton – “Traveller” (Mercury Nashville): Three CMA wins, Four Grammy nominations, 373,000 albums sold since Wednesday, November 4th alone and every critic’s favorite – do you think for one millisecond I’m making any other album my #1? I was born at night – but not last night. Truthfully, its #1 ranking here has nothing to do with sales and accolades. We first heard this album at a listening event in historic RCA Studio A in the Spring. Even then, after one listen, I knew “Traveller” would be on this list. While not exactly in the iPod generation wheelhouse, Stapleton is part of the newer breed I mentioned earlier. His past musical iterations (The SteelDrivers, Jompson Brothers) reflect incredible versatility and his ability to make any kind of music he feels like, at any given moment. But he has pulled off an impressive double here: Interpreting traditional Country music his own way, while collaterally – and brilliantly – paying homage to the greats of our format; not just by covering the Dean Dillon/Linda Hargrove penned “Tennessee Whiskey,” first recorded by David Allen Coe and more familiarly, by George Jones in 1981 and ’83, respectively. “Parachute” and his current single “Nobody To Blame” sound like classic Waylon Jennings to me. “Might As Well Get Stoned” could be David Allen Coe. “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” is an absolute Country weeper that will slay you, while “Was It 26” is the kind of reflective, self-aware story song all the current batch of new Country music haters can’t and won’t help but love. This album is loaded with great songs and totally fulfills my expectation of a musical journey that is richer and deeper with each listen.
2. Old Dominion – Meat And Candy (RCA Nashville): A favorite of mine since before their signing with RCA Nashville, this band’s major label debut – the nucleus of which are three of Music City’s best songwriters – is simply fun to listen to, again and again, start to finish. Matthew Ramsey, Trevor Rosen and Brad Tursi know just how to craft clever, catchy, entertaining songs that become earworms – good earworms. Falling under my criteria of “Doesn’t have to save the world, or even a genre. Some make the list because they simply entertain me and make me feel good,” Old Dominion’s “Meat And Candy” provides plenty of Candy with current single, “Snapback,” “Said Nobody,” and “Crazy Beautiful Sexy.” No rocket science here, just pure entertainment. But there is some meat on the bone too, with thoughtful “We Got It Right” and “Til Its Over.” What’s the third single after “Snapback?” It doesn’t matter; every song here is radio friendly, will research well and become a familiar recurrent. Some want to analyze the album title – don’t overthink it. Just relax and enjoy this collection of tunes that will keep you smiling. In the process, maybe a little more smiling will help save the world anyway.
3. Thomas Rhett – Tangled Up (Valory Music Co.): At an industry listening event for “Tangled Up,” where Rhett gave us a personal, guided tour of the album, he told the audience, “I was born in the 90s, don’t hate.” He is exactly the kind of artist I mentioned in the open: raised with an iPod. But he was also reared by Rhett Akins, an artist with moderate success back in the 90s but since then, a songwriter who has helped shape the sound of Country music during the past five years. Rhett exposed his son to all kinds of music, and it’s on full display here. Sonically, thematically, the whole enchilada. “Tangled Up” is simply the party album of the year; the one you give to friends who defiantly claim to hate Country music. “Anthem,” “Vacation” (Be sure and check out the video to this one), “T-Shirt,” and “Tangled Up” are all fun, exuberant tunes that channel 70s pop, funk, and even disco sounds. There are plenty of songs just right for mainstream Country radio too, with “Crash And Burn” the lead single already hitting #1 and the beautiful, sensitive ode to his wife, Lauren, “Die A Happy Man.” That, and “The Day You Stop Looking Back” should allay any suspicion about Rhett only churning out party-central themes. The sound of this album as a complete entity will speak volumes about what influenced Thomas Rhett growing up – but stay til the very end of “Tangled Up,” because so will the final track, “Learned It From The Radio.” It’s a story song about small town growing up, and diminishing old school values that you may not expect from a guy in his mid-20s and no – it’s not a gratuitous nod to Country radio, designed to get adds. It’s real, and like the rest of “Tangled Up,” represents how Rhett’s generation views Country music right now.
4. Kelsea Ballerini – “The First Time” (Black River Entertainment): We’ve all been hoping for a female breakthrough, and we’ve got it with Ballerini. She’s more – much more – than her debut, #1 single, “Love Me Like You Mean It.” I think “Dibs” will be another hit, but so could “Looking At Stars,” “Peter Pan,” and “Yeah Boy.” Sleeper hit: “Second Hand Smoke.”
5. Don Henley – Cass County (Capitol Records): I heard most of this album for the first time when Henley played The Ryman Auditorium earlier this year, a show which ranks as one of the best I’ve ever seen. 100% true. Maybe Henley’s personalized intro and explanation of each song hooked me. But aside from Stapleton’s “Traveller,” this is probably the most “Country” album of 2015; Hell, it should be. Henley collaborated with Merle Haggard, Vince Gill, Trisha Yearwood, Jamey Johnson, Lee Ann Womack, Alison Krauss, Martina McBride, Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Dolly-Freakin’-Parton. Henley didn’t have to rely on this esteemed list of artists to make a fabulous Country album – he’s got a genuine, innate feel for the genre. Hey, some would say he and the Eagles made some of the best-ever Country music back in the 70s. Historically, some Pop and Rock stars have announced they’ll be making a Country album and the anticipation of what it will be is an event unto itself. Henley recorded “Cass County” without any fanfare that I recall – and delivered this masterpiece which easily makes my top five in 2015.
Zac Brown Band – "Jekyll + Hyde" (Southern Ground Artists)
Eric Church – “Mr. Misunderstood” (EMI Nashville)
Tim McGraw – “Damn Country Music” (Big Machine Records)
Monta Vaden – All Access Nashville Assistant Editor:
1. Chris Stapleton – "Traveller" (Mercury Nashville): The best all-around album of the year, without question or contest. I could bathe in this album.
2. Eric Church – "Mr. Misunderstood" (EMI Nashville): Three cords and the truth; story songs; real damn Country. Church never disappoints me, but this album is a complete picture, start to finish, of a life well-lived. Every emotion lives on this record, and it draws you in so completely that you feel compelled to listen from start to finish. This is the best our format has to offer in terms of artistic songwriting and expert musicianship. Every time I listen – which is several times per week, if we're being transparent, here – I want to give Chief one of those bro-hugs, where you go in for a handshake, then hug by giving each other two to three firm pats on the back. This whole record deserves a Chief sized bro-hug. Don’t ask me my favorite song; that’d be like picking your favorite child, and I’ve heard that’s a really tough thing to do. But if you don’t agree this is one of the best albums you’ve heard in 2015, I probably wouldn’t pick you as a favorite. With that, I think I’ll go pour myself some Jack and spin this one again.
3. Zac Brown Band – "Jekyll + Hyde" (Southern Ground Artists): Why aren't we nominating this album for awards? Dear Lord, this one hasn't left my car since it dropped.
4. Thomas Rhett – "Tangled Up" (Valory Music Co.): One of the most sonically diverse albums of the year, and an absolute joy, front-to-back.
5. Old Dominion – "Meat And Candy" (RCA Nashville): Still not sold on the album title, but holy hell, this is the best ear candy of the year. The most listenable record with easily the most radio-friendly tracks top to bottom.
Brett Eldredge – "Illinois" (Warner Music Nashville)
Don Henley – "Cass County" (Capitol/I.R.S. Nashville)
Kelsea Ballerini – "The First Time" (Black River Entertainment)
Briana Galluccio – All Access Nashville Editorial Assistant
1. Brett Eldredge – “Illinois” (Warner Music Nashville): I’ve been losing my mind over this album since the first single dropped, and have been hooked since Brett gave us a taste of it via Snapchat. “Illinois” showcases everything great about Brett Eldredge: his songwriting abilities and his vocal strength, and how far he can push the boundaries with both. This album is sexy, sweet, sentimental, soulful, and, to be honest, it’s like crack to me. Music is about being transported, being so immersed in the story, the melody, the moment—and this album does that. This is absolute fire, and, admittedly having listened to it at least once a day since its release, I will never get sick of it. There’s the funky collaboration with Thomas Rhett, the heat of “Fire” (not sure if the pun is intended), the nostalgia of the title track, and infinitely more to this album – I could go on forever. This is my top album of 2015 because I haven’t been able to stop listening to it.
2. Chris Stapleton – “Traveller” (Mercury Nashville): This album is a Renaissance, and Chris Stapleton is an artist.
3. Old Dominion – “Meat And Candy” (RCA Nashville): I’ve been excited about this album since the first time I heard Old Dominion sing "Snapback" at a show, and man, this album certainly did not disappoint my lofty expectations.
4. Thomas Rhett – “Tangled Up” (Valory Music Co.): This album is fresh and fun and cool and different and always immediately at hand on my ipod or in my car. LOVE!
5. Zac Brown Band – “Jekyll + Hyde” (Southern Ground Artists): An amazing combination of joy, authenticity and eclecticism; this album is brilliant and makes me happy.
Kelsea Ballerini – “The First Time” (Black River Entertainment)
Eric Church – “Mr. Misunderstood” (EMI Nashville)
Chris Young – “I’m Comin’ Over” (RCA Nashville)