15: Jana Kramer - Thirty-One (Elektra Records Nashville)
The singer/actress brings more of herself to her sophomore album as she shows off why Elektra has stuck by her even as this album’s lead single “Love” and follow-up “I Got The Boy” first struggled to gain a foothold. With “Boy” now a standard of 2015 (and Gold-certified by the RIAA), Kramer’s pulls stories from her life with “Don’t Touch My Radio,” “Bullet,” and “Last Song” while “Dance In The Rain” and “Pop That Bottle” serve as strong radio-ready jams for listeners as does “Just Like The Movies.” She’s moved on from being just an actress who could sing to a full-fledged singer/songwriter with Thirty One and the album is one of 2015’s best.
14: Randy Rogers And Wade Bowen - Hold my Beer, Vol 1. (Lil’ Buddy Toons)
The longtime friends parlay their acoustic tour into a full blown duets record in the grand tradition of Merle and Willie. There’s humor here (“In My Next Life”), some humor (“Good Luck With That”) and songs about being who they are no matter what industry or others may think, “Standards.” These 10 songs are great representations of country music in modern textures and it all works.
13: Old Dominion - Meat and Candy (RCA Nashville)
After breaking out with “Break Up With Him,” Old Dominion delivers one of the best mainstream efforts of 2015 with a nice blend of charm, wit, melody and percussive feelings. This band of songwriters has melded a collection of eleven standout songs which all could conceivably be singles down the road, something that should make any mainstream album a part of a list like this. Standouts on Meat and Candy include (but aren’t limited to) “Said Nobody,” “Til It’s Over,” “Nowhere Fast,” “We Got It Right” and “Song For Another Time.”
12: Chris Janson - Buy Me A Boat (Warner Bros. Records)
After dealing with some issues that can derail many other artists, Chris Janson has persevered to bring this record, named after his chart-topping, RIAA-certified title track, to the world via Warner Bros Records, the same label who released his idol Randy Travis’ records. Standouts on the mainstream traditionalist’s debut full-length album include the title tune, “Holdin’ Her,” “Save A Little Sugar,” “Yeah It Is” and “Messin’ With Jesus,” a song featuring his mentor and champion Tim McGraw.
11: Cam - Untamed (Arista/RCA)
“Burning House” really is only the opening salvo on this record. The album feels what Shania Twain might’ve released had she still had a burning urge to write stellar songs as it blends contemporary rhythms and beats along with strong country melodies and stories. “Hungover On Heartache” is one such song where the buoyancy of the marriage of classic and contemporary takes over. “Village” is as strong a statement as “Burning House” and “Mayday” and “Cold In California” stunning. “Half Broke Heart, “Runaway Train” and “Want It All” are all worthy of being radio singles while “Country Ain’t Never Been Pretty” is quirky fun. This may be the last album we listened to prior to making this list but it is nonetheless one of 2015’s best country albums.
10: Ashley Monroe - The Blade (Warner Bros.)
Her third major label project (and second for Warners) blends her traditionalist sound with a little more mainstream approach on lead single “On To Something Good” and while that may have shocked some, it still is very much an Ashley Monroe song. Vince Gill and Justin Niebank once again help guide Ashley on this project and she showcases her Dolly-like songwriting on “I Burined Your Love Alive” “Bombshell,” “Winning Streak,” “Mayflowers,” and “It The Devil Don’t Want Me” and also, like Dolly, knows when to record outside material (from Jamie Floyd, Marc Beeson and Asllen Shamblin) on the heartbreaking and poignant title track “The Blade.”
9: Aaron Burdett - Tinderbox (Organic Records)
The talented singer/songwriter comes from the school of Crowell, Clark, Mac McAnally and John Hiatt to deliver one of the purest, most-artistic albums I heard in 2015. The melodies are strong, Burdett’s voice is strong and the singer/songwriter delivers lyrics worthy of listening to over and over again. Standouts include “Rattling Bones,” “Tinderbox Heart,” “Next Big Thing,” “Stark Raving Sober” and “Old Oak Table.” But really, there’s not a bad song on the album and it’s one that should be in your collection.
8: Maddie & Tae - Start Here (Dot Records)
The duo stormed the world in late 2014 with “Girl In A Country Song” and continued to “Fly” in 2015 with their sophomore hit chart-topping single and with Start Here, the young duo bring a blend of Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert attitude together with youthful vigor on this debut record (and the debut for the Dot label). “Waitin’ On A Plane” is a potential smash hit as is the pointed “Sierra” while the beautiful “After The Storm Blows Through” could be their big time moment in the future. “Shut Up And Fish” is as witty and fun as Girl In A Country Song” while their entire project showcases country music’s next big duo and clearly one of 2015’s best recordings.
7. Hailey Whitters - Black Sheep (Carnival Recording Company)
“Long Come To Jesus” is as strong an opening track from a newcomer as you’re likely to find on any record in any year. The album showcases a singer with a sound not all that dissimilar from Lee Ann Womack or Ashley Monroe and she co-wrote 8 of the 10 tracks on this fantastic album. There’s a strong strut on “City Girl,” honest lyrics on “Black Sheep” and “Late Bloomer.” “One More Hell” is a heartbreaking song about loss and learning from it to live a great life, even if it’s never a feeling that’ll go away. A smart record label would do well to take on the talented (and pretty) Whitters and give her a platform to break out even more in 2016 (She’s one of our ones to watch on that list for this reason).
6: Chris Young - I’m Comin’ Over (RCA Nashille)
Working with co-producer Corey Crowder has reinvigorated Chris Young. They balance Chris’ traditionalist tendencies with modern production sounds and techniques to bring his standout instrument, his voice, to the forefront with a blend of what fans have loved in the past with the kind of songs that get critical attention. Songs like “I Know A Guy,” “Underdogs,” “Heartbeat” and “You Do The Talking” work very well while “Alone Tonight,” the RIAA-certified #1 hit title track are stellar as well. Add in two fantastic and powerful songs like “Think Of You” (a duet with Cassadee Pope) and “Sober Saturday Night” (which features Vince Gill) and you have the best album of Chris Young’s career and the one which should take his stardom to that of superstardom.
5: Eric Church - Mr. Misunderstood (EMI Nashville)
The album he’s given away to his core audience has now become one of 2015’s strongest and not because of the way Eric and his team released the Jay Joyce-produced album but that it’s yet another strong album which suits Eric Church’s style and artistry to a T. The title track certainly gets things going while “Mistress Named Music” is as personal as that song is to Church. Mostly written within a single month, the album has strong moments like “Knives of New Orleans” that suggest a deeper songwriting depth with its storytelling while “Record Year” is quite self-aware. The closer “Three Year Old” is a great, great story song about his son and the true meaning of life while “Chattanooga Lucy” a rockin’ tune ready for Church’s live shows.
4: Fairground Saints - Fairground Saints (Verve Records)
I immediately grew smitten with Fairground Saints when listening to them perform a live set at Nashville’s The Basement prior to this album’s release and once I heard the whole project I knew that their collection of indie meets mainstream country songs was going to end up on my best of 2015 list. Marrying their gifts for melodies the trio (Mason Van Valin, Elijah Edwards and Megan McAllister) have worked with iconic producer Matthew Wilder on one of the best mainstream records the mainstream hasn’t heard. Perhaps that’s because there’s a slightly indie vibe about Van Valin’s lead vocals but this is the kind of band that Lady Antebellum (as great as they are) probably wishes they could be. “Ain’t Much For Lyin’” and “All For You” are great relationship-centric songs while “Can’t Control The Weather” is a jangl-y, sing-a-long ready jam that is just fun to listen to even if it’s a song of self-analytic lyrics. “Gossip Land” is a track which recalls Needtobreathe with songs about being known but not really known. Anyone who wishes they were someone or something else will likely relate to “I Wish I Was” while closer “Something From Nothing” a clear showcase of Megan McAllister’s lead vocal ability while Edwards takes his own lead vocal turn on “Made To Be Forgotten” and showcases an Ed Sheeran like ability with melody and lyric and has a beautiful falsetto of his own. Fairground Saints is quite simply a melodic delight from start to finish, a record of lyrical and vocal harmony that is rivaled by few.
3: Mac McAnally - AKA Nobody (Mailboat Records)
There’s not a better representation of what Mac McAnally does than AKA Nobody. The title itself is a joke on his a-list sideman status but his wit and humor is also present on the song “A Little Bit Better,” a song which is also a great outlook on life while “With A Straight Face” a poignant look about people trying to fit in to please everyone but themselves. It doesn’t judge or condemn. It just lays the story out there in an elegant, orchestral way. “Mississippi You’re On My Mind” is the first outside song of Mac’s career as a lead artist and it serves as a tribute to both the song’s late writer/original performer Jesse Winchester and their home state of Mississippi itself. “Zanzibar” is a fun tune while “Last But Not Least” is heartfelt in how it reminds the ones he loves the most, his wife and family that they may get the least amount of his time but that they’re never far from his mind and life. The record is a fantastic collection of melodies, tunes and styles but is grounded in Americana/country music and is well worth the time to seek out.
2: Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free (Southeastern Records)
Not content to follow the mainstream game, Isbell made a record that rivals Chris Stapleton’s Traveller (see below) as the best record of the year. There is the heart of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark in this record, which has sold over 100k since being released in mid 2015 without any real radio airplay. Standouts include the opener “It Takes A Lifetime,” the pointed “Children of Children,” “The Life You Choose” and “Speed Trap Town.” As great as those songs are, “24 Frames” is probably the one we’ll long remember years from now.
1: Chris Stapleton - Traveller (Mercury Nashville)
Long before he became a CMA Award-winning vocalist, new artist and album of the year winner, Chris Stapleton was delivering gems for other artists and in his former roots/bluegrass band The SteelDrivers. Now on his own as a solo act, he scrapped a bunch of recordings finding his footing with Traveller and working with Dave Cobb created the best album of 2015, bar none, in ANY genre. There’s just something about Traveller’s majestic melodies, lyrics and Stapleton’s fantastic voice that deserves our attention be it his own compositions like the hit “Nobody But Me,” future hit “Parachute” or covers like “Was It 26” and “Tennessee Whiskey.”
Other standout albums from 2015:
Note: these were all contenders for this list. They're all worthy of paying attention to.