2015 has been as good a year for Americana and roots music as any in recent memory. There was, as usual, the usual slate of excellent, if underappreciated, new releases from genre legends and exciting newcomers. But this year, Americana finally got its time in the sun, with Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton both notching #1 albums and artists like Sturgill Simpson and Shakey Graves selling out houses in record time, all on minimal airplay. All of that attention makes winnowing down any list of Americana albums to ten daunting. But these ten albums rose above the pack in some way. They represent the full diversity of Americana, with dashes of outlaw country, soul, rockabilly, and even some international flair.
10. Corb Lund- “Things That Can't Be Undone”
Americana's favorite Canadian teams up with the genre's hottest starmaking producer, Dave Cobb, to release his most sonically expansive album to date. Corb Lund doesn't lose his easy-going cowboy twang but mixes in just enough dashes of Muscle Shoals, rockabilly, and even a bit of 60's style psychedelic rock to keep things interesting. Cobb's strength is pushing artists' boundaries and he certainly did that with Lund.
9. Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard- “Django and Jimmie”
The few musicians who are still active at 80 are usually touring on their hits and staying out of the grind of the studio. But two of outlaw country's founding fathers, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, are still churning out relevant albums like they were twenty. Except “Django and Jimmie” could never have been made by those twenty year olds. There's a musical chemistry between Nelson and Haggard that could only come from decades of friendship and collaboration and it permeates every inch of “Django and Jimmie”, from the comic nostalgia of “Missing Ol' Johnny Cash” to the stoner buddy feel of “It's All Going to Pot.”
8. Houndmouth- “Little Neon Limelight”
Houndmouth is one of the most buzzed about young acts in Americana today, stealing the show at festivals like Bonnaroo and Americanafest in 2015 and releasing one of the most genre's most energetic entries of the year with “Little Neon Limelight.” Once again Dave Cobb, the busiest man in Nashville, works his magic in the studio and pulls of the nearly impossible feat of translating Houndmouth's electric live energy and stage charisma to a studio recording.
7. Los Lobos- “Gates of Gold”
It's been a good year for Los Lobos. Not only did it see the Los Angeles-based Latin rock pioneers grab a long overdue Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination and Americana Lifetime Achievement Award, it also saw them prove that they aren't just a legacy act with “Gates of Gold”, their first new release since 2010. “Gates of Gold” is full of wailing guitar licks and mysterious characters that beg to be explored. If this is what Los Lobos is capable of 40 years into their careers, the future looks bright.
6. Whitney Rose- “Heartbreaker of the Year”
2015 was the year when Canada reminded us all that Americana very much includes the northernmost nation in North America. Talented newcomer Whitney Rose exploded on the scene with “Heartbreaker of the Year” in 2015. Rose was ably assisted by producer Raul Malo of The Mavericks, who lend their fat guitar sound as her backing band, in producing an album that filters Rose's sweet Lesley Gore meets Loretta Lynn voice through a thoroughly millennial prism.
5. Chris Stapleton- “Traveller”
No one is the poster child for Americana's popularity explosion in 2015 more than Chris Stapleton. Stapleton is a hard guy to pin down, known previously both as the vocalist for bluegrass mainstays The Steeldrivers while also making a decent living penning hits for bro-country favorites like Eric Church and Darius Rucker. But on “Traveller”, Stapleton finally gets to tell his own story his way, putting aside both bluegrass and radio country to explore the areas of commonality between traditional country and Otis Redding style soul.
4. Rhiannon Giddens- “Tomorrow is My Turn”
Rhiannon Giddens has been a familiar name to Americana fans for years as a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist for Carolina Chocolate Drops, whose stock in trade was not only reviving the long forgotten black string band tradition but updating it for new audiences. For her solo debut, Giddens turned her historical ear to the women who influenced her. It's a diverse list, including of course country titans like Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline, but also delving deeper into the influence well with turns from Odetta to Geeshie Wiley to Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Throughout it all is the production magic of T-Bone Burnett, who wrings the maximum effect from Giddens' otherworldly classically trained voice to bring these old songs to life.
3. Della Mae- “Della Mae”
There's a stereotype of bluegrass music that it's the primary domain of elderly white men. If anyone needs to be disabused of that stereotype, point them toward Della Mae's self-titled 2015 album. The Boston-based ladies that make up Della Mae play with bluegrass' stereotypes throughout “Della Mae” in a way that is new while never being threatening to traditionalists. Nowhere is this duality between tradition and modernity more present than in album standout “Boston Town”, a fairly traditional labor ballad on its surface but with a youthful feminist twist that is rare from the genre. There's a jocularity on “Della Mae” that's impossible to miss and hard not to get caught up in. Even when the band is playing on serious subjects, such as in the album's sparse and haunting closer “High Away Gone”, there's a spark of life that shines through.
2. Alabama Shakes- “Sound and Color”
There are some who would argue that Alabama Shakes' second album strays so far into other territories as to not even belong on a list of Americana standouts anymore. But, quite the contrary, “Sound and Color” may be 2015's single best definition of Americana, which sometimes suffer from an “everything and the kitchen sink” crisis of identity. But Brittany Howard and company are a textbook example of why Americana's “big tent” philosophy can work. Throughout “Sound and Color”, the band flirts with the sounds of artists as far ranging as Prince, The Rolling Stones, and Rita Coolidge, all the while feeding it through Alabama Shakes' Swampers-style North Alabama Southern rock prism. When everything and the kitchen sink sounds this good and this cohesive, it's hard to argue.
1. Jason Isbell- “Something More Than Free”
The problem with releasing an Album of the Decade contender, as Jason Isbell did in 2013 with his newly sober rumination on life, “Southeastern," is that you eventually have to follow it up and the risk of a letdown from those lofty heights is high. Can Jason Isbell, now years sober and newly a family man with a baby on the way, find the depths of pain that brought instant classics like “Elephant” and “Live Oak” to life? The answer is no. Of course not. But that doesn't mean there isn't plenty of fertile soil for a writer as talented as Jason Isbell. “Something More Than Free” is considerably less bleak than “Southeastern” but no less brilliant. If “Southeastern” was a meditation on death and near death, “Something More Than Free” is a blinking emergence from the darkness into light and life, with the sense of awe, bewilderment, and slight “is this happening to me” skepticism that fit that narrative. From rebuilding broken relationships in “24 Frames” to avoiding toxic old ones in “How to Forget” to trying to make sense of those relationships that fit in the middle with “Speed Trap Town”, Isbell has a sociologist's eye for nuances of the human condition and a songwriter's ear for how to distill those complicated themes into three and a half minutes.