Few genres spark the kind of divisive, derisive, and demanding conversations the way country music does. If you were raised with an affinity for working class values and a pastoral landscape, then succumbing to the genre’s charms probably came naturally. However, plenty of people describe themselves as country converts, or initial haters who saw the error of their ways, recanted, and now preach the gospel of the banjo with sheepish aplomb.
Whatever the case may be, the boundaries of country music are more flexible than fixed, and increased national attention has allowed more fans than ever to find a home here. While the charts, radio programmers, and industry executives constantly tell us that female artists aren’t appealing to listeners, I’d offer this list as a rejoinder along with a question: Are they really listening? Here’s the 20 best country albums of 2015.
20. Zac Brown Band — Jekyll + Hyde
Zac Brown and his band have a knack for injecting a jet-fuel spike of exhilaration into their southern fried country rock, an eclectic maximalism that never overshadows their core emphasis on great songwriting. Brown isn’t afraid to dial it back either, slipping their version of a long-overlooked Jason Isbell number “Dress Blues” onto Jekyll + Hyde, right alongside a feature from Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, and a soft-pop duet with Sara Bareilles. Brown and his band hit hardest when surging through familiar country funk like the seven-minute chug of “Junkyard” or even a hat-tip to EDM influences on album opener “Beautiful Drug.” Sure, the album swings wide between extremes, but Brown is the meticulous mad scientist behind it all, orchestrating a heady mix of unexpected country chemistry.
19. Jana Kramer — Thirty One
Jana Kramer switched gears in her mid-20s, leaving behind a very successful career as an actress to fearlessly stomp her way into the music industry. Even the title of Kramer’s sophomore album is a slow middle finger to the idea that age is something for women to shy away from. Accordingly, 31 is both Kramer’s age and a testament to the blessings of maturity; there isn’t a hint of the demure here. “Don’t Touch My Radio” is a commanding, brazen anthem that puts a woman firmly in the driver’s seat, “Bullet” rides a lyrical stutter to celebrate barely escaping a terrible relationship, and riff-heavy “Pop That Bottle” proves bro-country is not a gendered practice, after all. Kramer isn’t breaking the mold, instead, she’s refashioning it to suit her own needs. Or maybe, she’s proving it never existed at all? I’m looking forward to seeing what she does with the next thirty years–hey, Reba McEntire is 60 and she’s got a killer album out this year, too.
18. Toby Keith — 35 MPH Town
“Drunk Americans” is about as close to an apology for “Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue (The Angry American)” that we’re ever going to get. Since it’s been more than a decade since, perhaps it’s time to let Keith’s real legacy replace the furor that song invoked anyway. For over 20 years he’s left his mark on country music as a whole, infusing the genre with emotionally intimate songs about everything from the trials and triumphs of small town life, and drunken antics and the bars that house them, to love, desire, loss, and yes, red solo cups. 35 MPH Town is an easy distillation of all these things, and a hard, firm example of how influential Keith’s voice has been on country at large.
17. Luke Bryan — Kill The Lights
In my opinion, bro-country was never the problem. Bro-country is just another excellent subgenre in the wide, wonderful world of country music. There’s room for everyone here–except sometimes there isn’t. It’s after the 47-Luke-Bryan-wannabes are touted before an equally unproven female country duo like Maddie & Tae that bro-country becomes a problem. However, that kind of privilege is endemic to the civilized world, and mostly a product of how profit-at-all-costs capitalism and male privilege can stifle creativity. While all of this must inform your understanding of Bryan’s Kill The Lights, don’t let it stop you from engaging with his slinky, side-stepping foray into adult contemporary. Spring break is finally over, so Bryan is teaching himself the slow dance of a weekday party.
16. Carrie Underwood — Storyteller
Carrie Underwood is a woman happily settled into her roles as wife, mother, and firmly established country artist. So for Storyteller she plumbs the depths of romantic betrayal, imagines enough stress to need a “Smoke Break,” and fantasizes about a criminal escape. These are the belted out rockers that Underwood’s powerful range shines on, but it’s poignant ballads like “I Never Knew I Always Wanted” that display her full range. Ever the performer, Underwood can blitz domestic bliss with fiery, defiant anthems, and circle back to the cradle without blinking an eye.
15. George Strait — Cold Beer Conversation
George Strait never really took any extended breaks from the music industry. Since 1981 the veritable King of Country Music has regularly put out a collection of his subdued, Texas-hued songs. As the biggest stars are liable to do at a certain point in their career, Strait will perform a string of already-sold out Vegas shows next year. His latest album, Cold Beer Conversation, feels like both a precursor to this big top revival and the calm before the stadium storm. True to form these songs are conversational and sweet, locked in on how life’s tiniest moments become our greatest treasures.
14. James McMurtry — Complicated Game
Plenty of country singers go for full foliage richness, but James McMurtry’s voice is barren and skeletal. And it sound like he likes it that way, too. His writing style, however, is the exact opposite, wringing detail out of knick knacks and landscapes with the precision of a mercenary. Complicated Game chases this tension like a dog after its tail, praising life’s minutia in detailed, Celtic-leaning tracks like “Long Island Sound” or the weary and wise “These Things I’ve Come To Know.” McMurtry’s latest is a master class in restraint, Americana honed to a dazzling dagger point.
13. Kip Moore — Wild Ones
The first time I heard Kip Moore was when he performed at New York’s brand new country music festival Farmborough this summer, a rare live introductions to an artist who was immediately gripping. Wild Ones is Moore’s second album and the follow-up to his 2012 debut Up All Night. On this record he combines the exuberance of a rookie with the deft flourishes of a seasoned performer, building tension across dreamy verses that explode into confetti-anthem choruses without losing any of their country charm. See “Magic” for your New Years Eve kiss moment.
12. Reba McEntire — Love Somebody
I saw a hell of a lot of pieces about how women in country music are in jeopardy and almost none about how a 60-year-old multi-talented badass put out one of the year’s best country albums. In case you only know of Reba McEntire as a full-fledged sitcom star and fiery redhead country legend, Love Somebody reestablishes her as the iconic singer and songwriter she is. The clap stomp and banjo twinkle of sweeping title track “Love Somebody” goes toe-to-toe with any modern country radio fare, and album opener “Going Out Like That” tells of a woman who turns breakup tears into tequila shots. These are songs about what it feels like to be a strong, successful woman and still suffer the mundane melancholies of human existence. What makes them feel special, though, is that they are firmly aimed at women, and tell our stories in the way that only Reba always has.
11. Kelsea Ballerini — The First Time
Kelsea Ballerini made history this year by becoming the first woman in almost a decade to land a number one on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. “Love Me Like You Mean It” demands love with an understated determination that reminds me more of Cyndi Thomson’s early ’00s vulnerability than the overt religion in Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take The Wheel” — the last song to occupy this spot on the charts. The rest of Ballerini’s debut album The First Time hews close to hook-up lyrics and clever, colloquial phrases that go down easy. “Stilletos” is a welcome exception, a subtle, spectacular feat that flips high heels into a metaphor for maintaining a poker face while your heart is breaking. But whatever topic she’s singing about, Ballerini’s debut is strong enough to guarantee her many more chances to break through the petrified country charts.
10. Kacey Musgraves — Pageant Material
A sweet, shimmering follow-up to Kacey Musgraves’ breakout album Same Trailer, Different Park, but without the salt and sting that made that record such a stunner. Instead, Pageant Material plays a hand close to the chest, rarely gambling, but rarely losing either. Perhaps a placeholder album will allow Musgraves the time to rest on her laurels and pick up enough speed to chase down new territory. Or maybe she really does just like how it feels to be comfortable at home as a “Dimestore Cowgirl.” “Good Ol Boys Club” is the most direct challenge here, a tenderly sung kiss off to the dickheads who run Nashville. It rings out like a warning shot, giving me hope that her next album will contain more war cries and fewer biscuit puns.
09. Shelby Lynne — I Can’t Imagine
Shelby Lynne has lived more lives than a cat with bad luck. I Am Shelby Lynne remains her best-known album, a fifteen-year-old classic that saw reissue last year. I Can’t Imagine works like a bookend to that one, it’s a sweet, slowcore record that settles somewhere between folk, blues and country. Overall though, it swings closer to country because it’s just so goddamn ornery. On “Better” she celebrates clear-eyed gloom of loneliness, and “Back Door Front Porch” renders the love of a familiar place in its most obvious, unassuming pieces. “Son Of A Gun” is the clear centerpiece here, a gently rocking ode that comes to terms with restlessness and peacefully acknowledges all the bad and good that birthed us.
08. Old Dominion — Meat & Candy
Old Dominion prove that songs about wanting to hook up with women don’t have to be one dimensional and demeaning. Sure, I have a few qualms about the cover art for Meat and Candy, but these gorgeously arranged country-dusted tales of love and lust playfully balance respect and sensuality through masterful songwriting. Between the two of them, Matthew Ramsey and Trevor Rosen have written on at least one other country hit you already love (for me, it’s Rosen’s credit on The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two“), and all that experience comes through clearly on Old Dominion’s debut. Their first incessant monster single “Break Up With Him” borrows from Sam Hunt’s conversational sing-talk before launching into an unshakeable hook, but I love the careening bass line on “Snapback,” and how a hat marketed to men becomes the element that makes this crush unmissable. Meat and Candy is packed with country party songs about love that seems eternal–at least until morning. For once, though, the relationship’s transience feels mutual.
07. Allison Moorer — Down To Believing
Both Steve Earle’s ex-wife and his son put out albums this year, and neither paint him in a particularly pleasant light. Luckily, Allison Moorer has plenty more to talk about than just the ways Earle failed her, and even luckier, she’s not with him anymore. On Down To Believing she trades mysticism for demolition on “I Lost My Crystal Ball” and the title track finds her similarly grappling with faith and fear. Moorer faces down predators with her own sashaying, soulful funk on “Mama Let The Wolf In” and feels something beyond a trivial family connection on “Blood.” Down To Believing cuts to the bone and keeps going, exploring the twinning lush and sallow moments of grief and freedom.
06. Donnie Fritts — Oh My Goodness
Donnie Fritts has got a voice like a creaky rocking chair and a writing style that hugs along each story like a wraparound porch. Oh My Goodness is an album that evokes that kind of exclamation upon listening. Production was helmed by John Paul White (formerly a member of the besotted/embattled(?) duo The Civil Wars) and a congregation of notable Alabama alum gather round to frame Fritts’ sweet, sad carnival barker delivery. You hear John Prine all over the endearing, startling “The Oldest Baby In The World”–a track that paints a woman’s best and worst qualities into a gentle lullaby. Listening to a song that is so baldly aware of the subject’s flaws, and still deeply loving, is just about the only time I believe in love anymore. Like all the best country albums on this list, Fritts moves easily from upbeat funk to aching ballads, but unlike most, his voice remains unwavering in tone and pitch. It’s as though the entire song is erected and torn down around him, and he sits still and unmoved, singing his piece without a care. This is all on Fritts’ time, even if the sun goes down while we’re gathered around.
05. Maddie & Tae — Start Here
All the frustration at the fickle nature of country music’s current radio dial is contained in Maddie & Tae’s breakout hit “Girl In A Country Song,” then funny thing, it went to the top of the same rotation that prompted all this acerbic sentiment. These two sing sweetly enough to cloak their disdain in honey harmonies that are found all over their debut album Start Here, a great first lap for a duo with a marathon ahead of them. “Shut Up And Fish” steals a strategy out of Brad Paisley’s playbook, turning boat and pail misandry into something both enjoyable and wildly catchy. It’s the tender “Smoke” and territory-claiming “Your Side Of Town” that prove Maddie & Tae can take this country thing from any angle, and that they consistently sound incredible together. Their chemistry only fails once, on the catty, slut-shaming “Sierra,” a classic petty misstep for young artists, but a truly abysmal one. If we’re going to argue in favor of protecting girls in country songs, let’s not differentiate based on botox or boyfriends.
04. Ashley Monroe — The Blade
Ashley Monroe is a country star. If we lived in a different time she’d be as big as Dolly Parton, bestowing her lucid, crystal clear alto on an entire kingdom of listeners. Shelved for too long due to Nashville politics, Monroe found a feisty fairy godmother of her own in the unassailable Miranda Lambert, who gave Monroe the boost she needed via The Pistol Annies. After that, 2013’s Like A Rose and this year’s The Blade established Monroe as a star-in-the-making. She’s been waiting in the wings for a long time, though, so some of us are just hearing her limitless love stretch across years-old “Has Anybody Ever Told You.” Most of these songs are about leaving love’s boxing ring bloodied and bruised, or sliced as the case may be on the title track, and her wavering vocal style suits these heartbreakers perfectly. I like her best though, on “Dixie,” when she’s slamming the south with a smile on her face. Now that’s country.
03. Eric Church — Mr. Misunderstood
Eric Church went the surprise release route, but he did it the old-fashioned way. The first people to hear his mild-mannered masterpiece Mr. Misunderstood were members of the Church Choir–his fan club–and they got physical copies no less! I kind of predicted that most critics would miss this one’s glory, but that’s one of risks you run with a surprise release. It leaves everybody scrambling a bit. Given a few more months I’d guess these songs are going to seep into the country bloodstream in ways we still can’t really grasp, but everything about this album from the title track on down blew me away. “Round Here Buzz” and “Record Year” use drinking motifs to explore different ways of missing love, different ways of examining the nagging pain of watching yourself get old. “Mixed Drinks About Feelings” and “Kill A Word” both revel in one of Church’s greatest songwriting strengths — the power of puns and his love of wordplay. And while some hardened adults might find it easy to dismiss “Three Year Old” as corny, I’d ask if any of them have been around a toddler recently? That song strikes a chord in me every time I hold a tiny hand while we cross the street. “Chattanooga Lucy” and “Knives Of New Orleans” celebrate southern heritage with enough fanfare to please locals and tourists alike, but “Mistress Named Music” is the one that tells us about Church’s true love. This is one affair, at least, we’re all benefitting from. Crank that organ, I don’t want anyone to misunderstand which Church we’re worshipping today.
02.Chris Stapleton — Traveller
When you’re passionate about a genre that feels like it often gets maligned, you develop a fierceness over certain records. I remember this spring, the first time I heard Traveller and felt that fierceness well up in me. Everyone has to hear this record! I thought. So I wrote about it. And wrote about it. And wrote about it. I told anyone who would listen that this was the country record of the year, and though I got through to a few of them, it wasn’t until a few weeks ago on the night of the CMAs that I got full vindication. Traveller is the kind of record that can change a genre’s entire trajectory, and even the powers that be recognized that by awarding his spectacular songwriting and singing with not one, not two, but three CMA awards, including Best New Artist. Stapleton doesn’t need me to be his champion anymore, but his success has made everyone who was touched by this album feel like one. Still, “When The Stars Come Out” is such an utterly important song I’m including it below. Running on hope and a tank of gas / Like dreams ain’t just for dreamers. Anymore, they’re not.
01. Cam — Untamed
Of course the best country album of 2015 would sneak in just under the wire. At the tail end of the year Cam’s debut Untamed is not even out yet, and it’s still flat out the best one. More pessimistic critics than I have already noted that slotting Untamed midway through December feels like a slap in the face for one of country’s most promising female artists. But this album is so good it wouldn’t matter if it came out twenty years ago or twenty years from now. Women in country music didn’t need a savior, but we sure as hell needed someone to believe in. Cam is that. And for those who care, yes, she has songwriting credits on every single track here. She’d already racked up accolades for the stunning relationship disintegration anthem “Burning House,” the first song to effectively turn a building into a heart since Miranda gifted us with “The House That Built Me,” but miraculously, there are songs on Untamed that eclipse that one. “Country Ain’t Never Been Pretty” is an electrified, fuzzed-out clapback from a country mouse who taps into Dixie Chick raucousness but doesn’t entirely throw the city mouse under the bus, and “My Mistake” hits Faith Hill optimism, using it to reclaim our god-given right to one night stands. “Cold In California” beautifully carries a torch without ever stifling someone else’s flame, or there’s the flare-gun of “Mayday,” sounding the alarm on a relationship that’s fraying, strung on too long, inflicting casualties on both sides. It’s the final track on the record, though, that will end up being my choice for best track of the year. “Village” somehow channels Justin Vernon ghostliness into a story about our endless, enjoyable, difficult work in the hearts of those we love, and the incredible bounty we reap from being in relationship with other people. It’s a song about the ones who stick by you no matter what horseshit you get yourself into, and no matter what terrible trauma life dumps on you. It’s a song about community and loyalty and not giving up, and it’s exactly what women fighting entrenched sexism in country music need to hear. Hell, it’s what people fighting anything, anywhere need to hear. And it’s not out yet! But you can watch a raw live version below, and look forward to the release of Untamed on 12/11. I will wait with baited breath to see how the industry receives this fearless record. But I have hope. Country music is a village built out of love, too, and I’ve been working there myself.
UPDATE: Stream Cam’s full album below.