This Englishman’s top five country music albums of 2015
Let me start this list of my top five country music albums of 2015 with a confession. Although country’s been by far my most listened to genre again this year, I haven’t listened to it as much as I have the past few years. In the latter part of the year, I’ve taken several musical diversions. The last one’s been Electric Light Orchestra, a band that I’ve loved since my teens. But, with the possible exception of their Wild West Hero, they couldn’t be further from county.
After last year I was determined to widen my country listening but there’s no doubt that this year’s list is still predominantly mainstream and Nashville focussed. I don’t think that there’s anything particularly wrong in that though. As long as the music’s good and I can sing along in my car or office, I’m happy. That said, there are a couple of new (to me) artists in the list this year, so without further ado, here are ‘this Englishman’s’ top five country albums of 2015:
5: The Music of Nashville: Season 4, Volume 1
Remember what I just said about mainstream, Nashville focussed, sing-along country? Well the first album in this year’s list is exactly that. For a reason that I can’t remember, my wife and I didn’t watch the first two seasons of the Nashville TV show, even though our friends told us we’d love it. When we started watching, we were immediately hooked on what is essentially a country music soap. You know what? I’m not embarrassed about that at all.
Nashville’s soundtrack has been consistently good across all four seasons, so this album’s entry to my list isn’t so much for its own songs but for the previous soundtrack albums for the series. Of course, who gets to sing most on an album is determined by whoever’s doing the most singing on the show. That’s why Jonathan Jackson’s Avery Berkley only gets to sing only once. Luckily then, his is the stand-out track, ‘History Of My Heart.’ I’m not sure how much these albums will mean to someone who doesn’t watch the TV show so is familiar with the characters, but they do contain great country song writing and performances.
4: Whitey Morgan and the 78’s’ ‘Sonic Ranch’
So much for me saying that this list was all about Nashville because the number four spot goes to a band from Michigan. Whitey Morgan and the 78’s have released three albums but I didn’t come across them until this, their third album ‘Sonic Ranch.’ Call it honky tonk if you like, alternative country or outlaw country, I just call it good country music.
‘Sonic Ranch’ is a mixture of original Whitey Morgan songs and covers that so well chosen that they blend seamlessly. The album kicks off with my favourite track, The Damn Quails’ ‘Me and the Whiskey.’ Their original knocks back shots but Whitey Morgan takes us to the dimmest, smokiest bar room and gives us a bottle. It’s not just that Whitey’s version is less reflective, it’s brilliantly defiant.
“I gave up on Jesus when Momma gave up on me. So much for family life, it’s just me and the whiskey.”
Whitey Morgan’s own ‘Low Down On The Backstreets’ continues the hard drinking theme before he growls through a version of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Waiting ’round to Die’ that’s the hardest I’ve heard. Three great tracks and we’re still only three songs into the album.
Despite the title, ‘Still Drunk, Still Crazy, Still Blue’ manages to lift the mood higher than Scott H Biram’s original. The remaining tracks on the album are each more upbeat but don’t lose their edginess. ‘Sonic Ranch’ ends with another fantastic cover, Tom T. Hall’s ‘That’s How I Got to Memphis’ but somehow I wish that the album had stayed defiantly drunk. If you like your country sounding like cheap whiskey and smelling like a bar room, you’ll love Whitey Morgan and the 78’s’ ‘Sonic Ranch.’
3: Kacey Musgraves’ ‘Pageant Material’
Kacey Musgraves’ first mainstream album ‘Same Trailer, Different Park’ topped my second This Englishman’s list in 2013 and it became a firm favourite. Her second album ‘Pageant Material’ definitely had some big ol’ rhinestone encrusted boots to fill.
My family and I saw Kacey play with Sugar & The Hi Lows in Manchester last month and her Country & Western Rhinestone Revue set included most of this new album. Having heard her previous set, based on ‘Same Trailer, Different Park,’ a few times, it was striking how the songs from ‘Pageant Material’ gave her new set a different feel. Live, the new songs felt slower, they almost lacked energy, but listening to the album again afterwards I feel differently about them.
On stage as well as off, it’s Kacey’s superb vocals that makes ‘Pageant Material’ such a good listen. The rhinestone revue country theme is a deliberate cliche, brought to life by guitar licks and sweeping steel guitar, but it never sounds cheesy. ‘High Time’ get’s things going and sets the tone for the album, but it’s ‘Dime Store Cowgirl’ where we really get to hear the direction this new album’s taking. The title track shows Kacey’s rebellious side and some brilliantly characterful low guitar work. Then it’s not until the laugh-out-loud funny ‘Family Is Family’ that things pick up again. It’s here where Kacey shows her incredible talent for rhyme:
Family is family, in church or in prison
You get what you get, and you don't get to pick ’em
They might smoke like chimneys, but give you their kidneys
Yeah, friends come in handy, but family is family.
Including the hidden duet with Willie Nelson, ‘Pageant Material’ includes fourteen songs, but for me it could’ve and maybe should’ve ended at twelve with ‘Cup Of Tea.’ Again it’s Kacey lyrics that make it piping hot:
Maybe you married the wrong person first
Maybe your hair’s way too long
Your sister’s in jail or maybe you failed
Out of college, but hey, life goes on
We’ve all got the right to be wrong.
One thing’s for sure, ‘Pageant Material’ is Kacey’s sound and song writing evolving and although it only made my top three this year, it’s a damn good listen.
2: Ashley Monroe’s ‘The Blade’
Ashley Monroe’s second solo album ‘Like a Rose’ was my number one album for most of 2013 and it was narrowly pipped for the number one spot by Kacey Musgraves’ ‘Same Trailer, Different Park.’ This year she narrowly missed out on the number one again, but boy-oh-boy is her ‘The Blade’ a cracking album nonetheless.
Ashley has one of the most evocative voices in country music and almost every track on ‘The Blade’ shows it. But it’s not just her voice but her lyrics on this album that tug on the heart strings, beginning with the title track:
I let your love in, I have the scar
I felt the razor against my heart
I thought we were both in all the way
But you caught it by the handle
And I caught it by the blade
One of the reasons I love country music is that occasionally a song gets so close to your feelings that it’s as if it were written for you. This album’s full of heart aching country songs so beautifully delivered; from ‘Bombshell’s’ “I can’t love you anymore” to ‘Weight Of The Load’s’ “The rocks that they’ve thrown are killing me now.”
My favourite song on this album comes at its mid-way point with ‘If The Devil Don’t Want Me’ but that doesn’t mean the second half is an anti-climax. Far from it. ‘The Blade’ is one classic country song after another and I can’t recommend that you listen to it strongly enough.
1: Chris Stapleton’s ‘Traveller’
Personally I prefer to still buy my albums as I want them, so I don’t use streaming services like Apple Music or Spotify. That said, I did try Apple Music during its three month trial and it was then that I first heard Chris Stapleton’s incredible debut album ‘Traveller.’ Chris isn’t new to country music and has co-written for a dozen Nashville heavyweights, but this was his year as a solo artist. He was the winner of new artist of the year, album of the year and male vocalist of the year at the CMAs.
‘Traveller.’ is a brilliant album in any genre, no two ways about it. Even if you’re not normally a fan of country music, I defy you not to love it. The title track sets the musical tone, but it’s the second track, ‘Fire Away’ where things really get started. When you think that things can’t get better, ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ is as smooth and sweet and warm as you could want. ‘Parachute’ picks up the pace, but then the haunting ‘Whiskey And You’ stops you in your tracks:
I’ve got a problem but it ain’t like what you think
I drink because I’m lonesome and I’m lonesome ’cause I drink
But if I don’t break down and bring it on myself
It’ll hit out of the blue
That’s the difference between whiskey and you
I could end this review there and be happy, but there are still nine more tracks on this album, every one as good as the one before. ‘Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore’ (“I guess he’s finished talking to the Lord”) and ‘Outlaw State Of Mind’ are brilliantly different. ‘Traveller.’ closes with ‘Sometimes I Cry’ but I guarantee you won’t want the album to end and you’ll loop right back to the beginning and play the whole thing over again.
So there you have it, this Englishman’s top five country music albums of 2015. If you use Spotify, with the exception of the most recent Nashville soundtrack (which is nowhere to be found) I’ve made a playlist that contains the albums on this list.
I hope y’all like ’em and y’all have a blessed day today and a very happy Christmas.