By Brian DeSpain
A tough year of choices with established standbys like the Bottle Rockets & The Mavericks, those with follow ups to albums which solidified them (Jason Isbell & Lindi Ortega), the sad songs mafia of John Moreland & American Aquarium and the hard life lyrics of Allison Moorer & James McMurtry.
Raleigh’s American Aquarium tops the 2015 list. An album of introspection about overcoming addiction (the title track and Family Problems), blazing your own trail (Losing Side of Twenty-five and Man I’m Supposed to Be), heartbreak (Wichita Falls and End Over End) and the longing for home (Southern Sadness, Who Needs a Song, Old North State and Rambling Ways). Aside from seeing this band more than any other in 2015, the flow of the album from song to song had more alt-country appeal than the rest.
Very recently I heard great spin about the solo album of Joey Kneiser (of Glossary) and got to see him perform at Holiday Hangout in Little Rock & was floored. This was the caught-off-guard entry.
I’m thankful musicians like Chris Stapleton are challenging country turf. Sturgill Simpson was on my 2014 list. The Stapleton album runs a little outside my Americana sensibilities given that it is soul music at root with an infusion of twang, so the album lies just outside the top 10.
Two more obscure albums are spotlighted just below the top 10, those by the Haynes Boys and Sarah Morris. Haynes Boys are the four man country punk band, the Uncle Tupelo of central Ohio, which includes folk/Americana artist Tim Easton. The original self-titled 1996 album was released to vinyl this year. Morris’ “Ordinary Things” brings upbeat vocals and an ability to blur genre lines. This Minnesota songstress was announced this month as a NewSong finalist which brings a Lincoln Center performance in early January.
Brent Best of Slobberbone released a solo effort “Your Dog, Champ”* that is very dark and moving (also an HHO performer). Ocean Carolina “Maudlin Days” is the sophomore longplayer with musical roots from North Carolina via New York City.
The Lone Bellow gave a rousing performance at the Americana Music Awards in September. Our paths crossed in Columbia, Missouri later that month. It was the morning after the RootsNBluesNBBQ for me and a layover for the band on their way to Denver.
Nellie Clay, an Oklahoma native and up and coming artist inspired by hardscrabble life in Alaska, has brought her tales from newer digs in East Nashville.
If you are looking to cleanse the mental pallet of pedal steel, fiddle and acoustic stylings in a row with roots rock and haunting and sultry vocals, Pony Boy may be for you. I caught the band showcase at AmericanaFest.
Traditional cowboy music set to a frontier musical is the contribution made by Tom Russell. Musical folk operas are usually few and far between. Last year Hangtown Dancehall, a tale of the California Goldrush, was produced by Eric Brace and Karl Straub. Glad I caught mentions of the Russell project this month.
The list is rounded out by parts sugar and spice, sweet and sharp, with “The Blade” by Ashley Monroe, a challenger to the country status quo. This album is dialed back a bit from her previous release “Like A Rose” with a more even keel, continuing her musical path away from the flash of the trendy.
1. American Aquarium “Wolves”
2. Joey Kneiser “The Wildness”
3. Jason Isbell “Something More Than Free”
4. John Moreland “High on Tulsa Heat”
5. Bottle Rockets “South Broadway Athletic Club ”
6 The Mavericks “Mono”
7. Lindi Ortega “Faded Gloryville”
8. James McMurtry “Complicated Game”
9. Allison Moorer “Down to Believing”
10 Lucero “All A Man Should Do”
11.Haynes Boys s/t
12 Chris Stapleton “Traveller”
13. Lilly Hiatt “Royal Blue”
14. Sarah Morris “Ordinary Things”
15. Brent Best “Your Dog, Champ”
16. Brandi Carlisle “Firewatcher’s Daughter”
17. Ocean Carolina “Maudlin Days”
18. Mike & the Moonpies “Mockingbird”
19. Jill Andrews “The War Inside”
20. Kacey Musgraves “Pageant Material”
21. Dwight Yoakam “Second Hand Heart”
22. Lone Bellow “Then Came the Morning”
23. Nellie Clay “Never Did What I Shoulda Do”
24. Dar Williams “Emerald”
25. Pony Boy “Blue Gold”
26. Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors “Medicine”
27. Frankie Lee “American Dreamer”
28. Eileen Jewell “Sundown Over Ghost Town”
29. Tom Russell “Rose of Roscrae”
30. Amy Speace “That Kind of Girl”
31. Milk Carton Kids “Monterey”
32. Mike and Ruthy Band “Bright As You Can”
33. Ashley Monroe “The Blade”
* A 2015 dog theme with “Your Dog, Champ,” “Blue Healer” by Jimbo Mathus along with the track “My Dog” by the Bottle Rockets.