We've officially made it through the first half of 2015, and country music has already seen an incredible amount of solid releases. This year, many artists are steering back toward more traditional styles and honest storytelling while keeping their own unique sounds and attitudes front and center. Whether it's coming from Tennessee, Texas or California, country music is definitely being well represented.
Favorite Albums of 2015 So Far
Kacey Musgraves, "Pageant Material"
Sam Outlaw, "Angeleno"
Sam Outlaw's Angeleno is a fresh and exciting slice of modern California country. His debut album is one of the rare releases that is accessible to both traditionalists and those who like a little more edge to their country. With accompaniment from some of alt-country's best and brightest, including members of My Morning Jacket, Dawes and the Punch Brothers, and the help of innovative producer Ry Cooder, there's a unmistakably modern mixture of sounds heard behind Outlaw's mellow vocals. Outlaw infuses his sense of humor and wit into songs like "Jesus Take The Wheel (And Drive Me To A Bar)" that keeps his music fun and accessible to all types of country fans.
Chris Stapleton, "Traveller"
Chris Stapleton reinvented the term "authenticity" in country music with his album, Traveller. There are no cliches or predictable lines about trucks, tailgates or cutoffs here. Even when he hits familiar topics like recalling his young and crazy years ("Was It 26"), bitter heartbreak ("Whiskey and You"), or even pot smoking ("Might As Well Get Stoned"), he does it in his own voice. 37-year-old Stapleton has seen and accomplished a lot in his life already, it shows in each of his deeply personal tracks. The album features just the right balance of production that allows Stapleton's full voice to stand as the core attraction in this landmark release.
Aaron Watson, "The Underdog"
Aaron Watson finally moved from being a household name in Texas to an artist known industry-wide with his independently released album, The Underdog. His traditional Texas country sound is one that's gained a lot of momentum nationally in the last year, and his fifteen years of experience in the genre helped guide him to the top of the charts. You could argue this is his most mainstream-oriented release so far. Tracks like "Getaway Truck" or "Freight Train" could easily be molded into a Luke Bryan hit with the right production, but Watson keeps his feet planted in the red dirt sound throughout the album. Overall, The Underdog is one of the most important albums of the year because of its widespread appeal that helped it break through the genre without following the crowd.
Wade Bowen & Randy Rogers, "Hold My Beer, Vol. 1"
Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers are both strong Texas country artists in their own right. It only makes sense that an album from the two longtime friends and collaborators would result in greatness. Hold My Beer Vol. 1 doesn't disappoint with its stream of steel guitar, fiddle and incredible lyrics that culminate in one of the most fun albums of the year. Tracks like the western ballad "El Dorado" and the dance-hall anthem, "Standards," are true standouts in a complete package of great music. The album wraps up with a killer version of "Reasons to Quit," a track that originally appeared on Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard's album Pancho & Lefty. Overall, Hold My Beer is one of the strongest country collaborative efforts that has been released in recent years.
Andrew Combs, "All These Dreams"
Singer-songwriter Andrew Combs provided one of the most beautifully-produced, alt-country albums of the year with All These Dreams. Even though some of his lyrics spiral into darkness, there's a vintage, reflective feel to the entire album that never lets up. The hypnotic melodies and bouncing guitar on the radio-ready "Foolin'" will put a spring in your step, although his smoky voice truly packs the most punch in quieter gems like "Pearl" or "Slow Road to Jesus." Combs' laid back style of crooning is overlaid with lush, layered production that will send you into a daydream-like state as you listen through. This solid release only clocks in at about 40 minutes, and will have you hitting the repeat button over and over again.
Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, "Django and Jimmie"
There isn't a lot of explanation needed when it comes to picking Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard's long-anticipated joint album. Django and Jimmie is a wistful and nostalgic album that recalls memories from their decades-old friendship. There is an ease and understanding between the two that is incredibly rare and only comes from years of playing and learning each others' strengths and weaknesses. "It's All Going to Pot," is the kind of comedic track you'd expect from the rebellious duo, while the incredible ballad, "Unfair Weather Friend," is a beautiful testament to their bond.
Zane Williams, "Texas Like That"
Texas country artist Zane Williams is a storyteller at heart. His fifth album, Texas Like That, is a collection of story-songs that cover everything from heartbreak, long-lasting friendship, and staying true to yourself. The album features an array of story-songs, from sweeping romantic ballads ("She Is") to a surprising narrative written in part by his fans ("Jayton and Jill"). Even though there are times when the sound gets a little over-produced, Williams' lyrics and ability to speak from the heart pull you back in. It's a solid effort that signifies an important time in Williams' life when he returned to his Texas roots, but didn't forget the modern Nashville influences that led him to where he is today.