It has been a decent year for music, if not a vintage year. My one ongoing bugbear has been the lack of new product from many of my favourite female artists. It was an ‘off’ year for those still working, like Tift Merritt, Sara Evans, Martina McBride, Taylor Swift, Larkin Poe; and there was still no sign of anything from Faith Hill, the Dixie Chicks – and Trisha Yearwood has hidden her stuff away behind an ‘alternative’ non-iTunes service, and I just can’t be bothered to seek it out. As ever, I’m reluctant to sign up for yet another retailer who will bombard me with emails for my special valentine or dead relatives.
So it’s a male-heavy list you’re about to see, but not through any choice of mine. If there’s a story to this year it was the appearance of good music from people you’d long since have written off as retired or semi-retired. As with other years, it’s also the case that not everything I downloaded in 2015 dated from then. I recently discovered the Lo-Fi album, for example, which came out last year; and Jason Isbell’s earlier Southeastern came out in 2013.
10. Angels and Alcohol – Alan Jackson
Although this is not particularly memorable, and vied for 10th place alongside the not particularly memorable new one from Tim McGraw, I don’t think Alan Jackson can be faulted. His is a calculated sameness: each releases slotting in alongside the others, with similar production values, similar musicianship. A year down the line, you’ll be hard pushed to remember which album a particular track came from. His records still sound quieter than everyone else’s because he refuses to play the loudness game. Ten songs, a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Nothing to make you jump out of your car seat, but it sounds good. Three to download: You Can Always Come Home, Gone Before You Met Me, Angels and Alcohol.
9. Introducing Darlene Love – Darlene Love
I reviewed this not long ago. Produced by Steven Van Zandt, with songs by him, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, and others, this is a throwback in more ways than one. It’s a throwback to the Wall of Sound and Love’s belting vocals; it’s a throwback to the 70s, when Springsteen was a songwriter whose prolific writing was too much for his own needs, and so his songs would turn up performed by Robert Gordon, The Pointer Sisters, Southside Johnny, Patti Smith. This is a Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes album with guest vocals from the criminally overlooked Darlene Love, in the spotlight at last. Three to download: Forbidden Nights; Night Closing In; Just Another Lonely Mile.
8. 1989 – Ryan Adams
The bold stroke of recording the entirety of Taylor Swift’s recent 1989 garnered lots of column inches, but once the furore died down, was this album any good? Yes. Swift is a great songwriter, and while Adams is a limited performer in terms of his range and the speed at which he works (you can’t help thinking there might be some more creative arrangements here, given more time and a good producer), this is still one of the albums of the year.
Three Four to download: Welcome to New York; Blank Space; Style; Out of the Woods.
7. Southern Gravity – Kristian Bush
How long before an ‘hiatus’ becomes a permanent split? Thinking of the recent events in Paris at the Bataclan, you can imagine how traumatic events might take their toll. When several ‘VIP’ fans were killed at a Sugarland concert in 2011, it probably didn’t occur to many (concerned as they would have been with the victims and their families) to consider the toll on the band themselves. To feel any sort of responsibility for those tragic deaths must be hard. Maybe it is better for them to record apart? I thought at first that Jennifer Nettles’ baby and solo album would be it, matched with this outing from the prolific Kristian Bush. But now Nettles is in the release cycle of another solo set (first single just out). Just as the Courtyard Hounds once seemed to be a side project from the Dixie Chicks, it seems the Sugarlanders are now solo artists. This is a fine set, and certainly had a good summer vibe in the middle of the year. Bush is a good egg, too, and you can feel that through all these tracks. A Decent record from a decent human being. Three to download: House on a Beach; Giving it Up; Southern Gravity.
6. Pageant Material – Kacey Musgraves
I’ll say what I said before: I really like Kacey Musgraves. I like her vibe, her approach to music, and even tolerate her taste for kitsch and the Nudie-suited side of country music. She is a rhinestone cowgirl, through and through, with her own line in boots. After her well received debut, this is another solid set, though it doesn’t advance much in terms of sound or sophistication. But I can hardly criticise her for that when I praised Alan Jackson for taking the same approach. If you liked her first record, you’ll like this. Or start here, go backwards. She’s a Radio 2-friendly, globally oriented country artist who works hard and is reaping the rewards. (Some country artists don’t translate because their redneck anthems about trucks, beer, and girls, conceals a basic bigot.) Three to download: High Time; Pageant Material; Good Ol’ Boys Club
5. Cass County – Don Henley
Again, I reviewed this recently. I was completely unprepared to like this as much as I did. I’m a lukewarm Eagles listener at best. Never particularly liked their dry production sound or their 96-part harmonies (joke), but the occasional track breaks through: usually one with Henley on lead vocals. This is a great country album: feeling as effortless as you’d expect from a consummate artist like Henley, and with a surprisingly hip selection of songs, including a Tift Merritt track: and I do hope she’s making shedloads of money off the back of it. Three to download: Bramble Rose; No, Thank You; Take a Picture of This.
4. Second Hand Heart – Dwight Yoakam
This feels like a blast from the past: but it was only released in April. Recorded in LA, using the legendary Capitol Records echo chambers for reverb, this set sounds both contemporary and retro. Yoakam sounds ageless, still doing his thing and doing it well. Like Alan Jackson, he knows his sound and he knows his audience. All of which adds up, I think, to timeless music – which is precisely what Alan Jackson and Dwight Yoakam are aiming for. It’s that sense of timelessness that makes great country music great. He went through a few years in the doldrums, but looking back, I’d say his most recent releases are better in almost every way than even his early Pete Anderson-produced albums. He’s a better songwriter, a better guitarist, and a better producer. Three to download: V’s of Birds; Dreams of Clay; Second Hand Heart.
3. Something More Than Free – Jason Isbell
Isbell is one of the artists who is breaking through in spite of being completely ignored by US radio. He’s been on telly, though, and it’s odd to think that you’re more likely to catch good music on a mainstream talk show than on a specialist radio station. His brand of country-folk-rock is low key but appealing to a broad audience. Thoughtful, if gloomy, lyrics, good production, and a vocal that wanders between plaintive and indifferent, in tune with contemporary attitudes. A Ryan Adams who takes a bit longer between records, who takes more time over production? Maybe that’s it. Three to download: If It Takes a Lifetime; 24 Frames; Something More Than Free.
2. Traveller – Chris Stapleton
Yes, it’s here. Many column inches and stroked chins after his triumphant night at the CMA awards, but before that? Flying so low under the radar he was basically underground, Stapleton’s album garnered good reviews and zero airplay. The ‘tastemakers’ in radio, like Jon Snow, know nothing. Why not? Because they’re not tastemakers but corporate shills, playing what the conglomerates want them to play. Payola never really went away, did it? And the conglomerate behind Stapleton’s radio decided that he wasn’t pretty enough for radio? Or something. It’s hard to get your head around the logic. Established songwriter with an incredible singing voice; record company gives him a deal, records and releases an album, and then – nothing. It’s as if they wanted it to fail, so they could all agree that scruffy-looking male vocalists with beards just don’t belong in the modern music industry. Anyway, here it is, the almost-album-of-the-year.
Three Four to download: Tennessee Whiskey; Traveller; Fire Away; When the Stars Come Out
On To Something Good – Ashley Monroe
Inevitable, I suppose, given how much I played this both before and after it came out, that this would be my pick of the year. Another Vince Gill-produced mini masterpiece. The slickness of this production may not appeal to everyone (especially those who come to country for ‘authenticity’), but this sounded so good to my ears that it became my go-to album for testing out wireless speakers in shops (something of an obsession). Because of the beautiful sound mix and the smooth, rolling rhythm section on the title track in particular, I just love hearing this played through a decent set of speakers. Since my oldest was a toddler I’ve actually not had anything resembling a hi-fi in my house, and as she approaches that time when she’ll actually be leaving home, I’m becoming more and more obsessed with having something to play music on. This summer, you could find me in Fnac, trying out rows of Bluetooth speakers at various sizes and price points*, playing the title track from this. This album in particular fuelled that obsession. I want to play it, and because it sounds so good it feels wrong to play it on a shitty speaker, or even through headphones.
Three Four to download: On To Something Good; Weight of the Load; If Love Was Fair; The Blade.
- The best? I think probably the Marshall Action comes a close second to the Nad Viso. But that may be because I’ve got a soft spot for the Nad brand, it having been my late lamented hi-fi, semi-destroyed by my daughter and sold on.
(I have a set of Wharfdale Diamond speakers in the loft, bought a good ten years ago and only ever used for a few months when I was first experimenting with music technology/recording and my current plan is to get a bluetooth-equipped amp to pair with them, but the cost would be the same as for the Marshall or the Nad, so no diff.)