It’s time again to take stock of the best music of the year, as curated throughout the course of 2015 on the list below. You’ll recognize a few names familiar to the GSD list (Radical Face, The Infamous Stringdusters), but there are plenty of new ones, too (Lera Lynn, The Railsplitters). As always, this is a smorgasbord of artists and genres, signifying more than anything else the mark they’ve left on me personally throughout the course of the year. And as always, I missed a few in 2014 (Nikki Lane, The Barr Brothers) so they are also included here because—as Marty McFly knows—time is not linear anyway.
This year, the list is arranged in the spirit of Senior Class Superlatives to counteract my inarticulate writing and lack of time, with the occasional video or commentary where warranted.
As always, please feel free to point out what I got wrong. I’m sure there’s plenty. — JG
For a look at the top songs, including a lot of the folks below, check out our Best of 2015 YouTube playlist here.
Album of the Year
Dave Rawlings Machine – Nashville Obsolete
I’d like to think that it’s not necessarily automatic that a new DRM album is my favorite album of the year, but so far he is two-for-two. Fans of the live show (both Dave’s and Gillian’s) will recognize some of these as they have been road staples of late. Despite the number of songs (seven), each feels complete; some are even in the 8-10 minute range. It was tough to improve on A Friend of a Friend, which is nearly perfect, but this at least as good. 2015’s must-have album. Highlights: The Weekend, The Trip
Best Acoustic Album of the Year
Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys – Ionia
A soulful, upbeat Americana record recorded right in the Ionia, Michigan, living room where the band resided at the time. Filled with interesting arrangements and beautiful playing and writing. A band of people who seem to click together perfectly. Highlights: Hot Hands, Here Between
Most Overall Spins in 2015
The Steel Wheels – Leave Some Things Behind
My favorite album so far from one of the best acoustic bands in the country. It didnt come out of the living room CD player for months and was my undisputed summer soundtrack to 2015.
Trad+ – Interference
Infamous ‘Duster Chris Pandolfi’s side project was on loop in my late-night work headphones for half the year. Hypnotic and unearthly and beautiful.
Album Which Should Serve as the Standard for All Modern Appalachian Music Henceforth
Anna & Elizabeth – Anna & Elizabeth
Category name says it all.
Best Bluegrass Albums
The Railsplitters – The Faster It Goes
An auspicious pre-show drink at the 2014 International Bluegrass Music Awards and my charming wife with similar career paths as a band member led me to a professional relationship with this band prior to the release of The Faster it Goes. It’s not a requirement to enjoy the music made by bands for whom one creates some artwork, but it sure helps. There seems to be a buzz around the Colorado band these days among my music-minded friends—which is saying a lot, since most are way out here in the Eastern time zone.
Della Mae – Della Mae
No one in bluegrass is doing anything better than Della Mae right now.
Robert Earl Keen – Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions
Exactly as good as it sounds. If you can catch REK live while he is still doing his bluegrass thing (with a band that includes the likes of Danny Barnes), do it.
Best Road Trip Album of the Year
Nora Jane Struthers & The Party Line – Wake
There’s nothing I can say about this album that wasn’t more eloquently stated in this glowing review by American Songwriter, but their phrase “brimming and bustling with life” best defines it. Non sequitur post script: the band stayed at my house once and they are really excellent humans and my poor dog has never had that much attention, before or since. Highlights: The South, Dreamin
Best Covers Project
The Infamous Stringdusters – Undercover EP
So glad to see the ‘Dusters in studio to record some of the songs they are well known for in their legendary live shows, like “Don’t Think Twice” and “American Girl.” This EP is a particularly satisfying release to tide us rabid fans over until the next full-length release. Highlight: Dont Think Twice
Shovels & Rope – Busted Jukebox Vol. I
Best Utterly Unclassifiable Album of the Year
Punch Brothers – The Phosphorescent Blues
I didn’t think “Movement and Location” (from Who’s Feeling Young Now?) could be topped as an album lead-off song, but “Familiarity” comes close. Also, “Julep” is one of the most touching songs of the year. Highlights: Julep, Familiarity, My Oh My
Best New (to me) Artists
Lera Lynn – The Avenues (2014)
Like many recent fans I got the album after watching HBO’s True Detective Season 2. Hate to have missed it in 2014 but glad I had it in 2015. Highlights: Out to Sea, La Di Da
Oh Hellos – Dear Wormwood
Best Spiritual Medicine
Rhiannon Giddens – Tomorrow is my Turn
Best Country Albums of the Year
Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers – Loved Wild Lost
Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
Chris Stapleton – Traveller
Turnpike Troubadours – ‘Turnpike Troubadours’
Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material’
Is there such a thing as a country music earworm? If so, “Biscuits” is it for 2015.
Pourin’ salt in my sugar won’t make yours any sweeter / Pissin’ in my yard ain’t gonna make yours any greener
Blackberry Smoke – Holding All the Roses
Most Instantly-Likable Album
The Wood Brothers – Paradise
There has always been something “above-the-fray” about this band. The Wood Brothers have a knack for showing off their insane skills as musicians, singers and live performers without seeming like they are showing off at all. Makes all their albums, Paradise included, stand up well over time. Highlights: Singing to Strangers, Never and Always
Best Happy-Then-Sad-Then-Happy Drinkin’ Album of the Year
Josh Ritter – Sermon on the Rocks
Highlights: Birds of the Meadow, Henrietta, Indiana
Best Songwriting Albums of the Year
Ana Egge – Bright Shadow
Fantastic collection. Backed by the exquisite band The Stray Birds. Highlights: Rock Me (Divine Mother), Jenny Run Away
Jeffrey Foucault – Salt As Wolves
James McMurtry – Complicated Game
Yet Another Hypnotic and Beautiful Radical Face Project
Radical Face – The Bastards (EP Vol 1-4)
I wanted to include all of these EPs (released 2013-15) together since I understand Volume IV from 2015 will be the last of The Bastards EPs. These songs have made me a Radical Face fan and I suggest you check out some of his music here.
Best Shake Yer Ass in a Juke Joint Album
Pokey LaFarge – Something In The Water
God I love Pokey LaFarge. I love his style, I love that I thought he was Billie Holiday when I first heard his voice, I love his live show, and I really love the video below. If you dig what you hear, also check out his excellent self-titled album from 2013. Highlights: Something in the Water, Actin’ A Fool
Relaxing on the Ethereal Plane Album of the Year
José González – Vestiges & Claws
Some of my favorite music in the past decade has been made by Gonzalez. This rivals 2003’s Crosses as my favorite. If you are not acquainted I suggest giving him a listen. It’s easy to enjoy the haunting melodies and cyclical guitar without even delving into the lyrics. But you shouldn’t; free thinkers the world over should make a point to listen to Leaf Off/The Cave (video below). Highlights: Leaf Off / The Cave, Let it Carry You
Best Rock Albums of the Year
The Barr Brothers – Sleeping Operator (2014)
Another one I missed from last year. I bought Sleeping Operator once they were booked at my local venue (Harvester Performance Center). It’s unlike anything else I’ve heard or seen live; harpist Sarah Page is a major reason why. Read up on their fascinating band backstory here. Highlights: Half Crazy, Little Lover
The Lighthouse And The Whaler – Mont Royal
Eternal Summers – Gold and Stone
Great Lake Swimmers – A Forest of Arms
Most Deserving Rise in Fame Album of the Year
Old Man Luedecke – Domestic Eccentric
I almost named this album Best Record for Young Parents; The Early Days will immediately resonate with with that lot. But I am happier that it is getting more widespread acclaim for a talented musician and storyteller who I’ve followed for years and now seem to be seeing everywhere.
Best Song of the Year
Rayland Baxter – ‘Mr Rodriguez’ (from Imaginary Man)
Really cool to learn that this catchy song is a tribute to Sixto Rodriguez, the cult-hero at the centerpiece of the Oscar-winning documentary film “Searching for Sugar Man”. But it’s Song of the Year because I can’t seem to get it out of my head.
Best Cure for the Blues
Tim O’Brien – Pompadour
The latest release from Tim continues to solidify his spot as today’s John Hartford, mixing tender songwriting, satire and political commentary in with acoustic innovation, and this record even includes an awesome James Brown cover.
Best Duo Album
Iron and Wine & Ben Bridwell – Sing Into My Mouth
Hiss Golden Messenger & Michael Chapman – Parallelogram
Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield – Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliot Smith
Stellar Group Collaboration
Watkins Family Hour – Watkins Family Hour
Best Album Art
Wilco – Star Wars
Best Album for Indictment, Resilience, Recovery
Justin Townes Earle – Absent Fathers
Outlaw Country Badass of the Year
Nikki Lane – All or Nothin’ (2014)
Another I missed from 2014; Nikki shouldn’t have a problem being a badass for two consecutive years.
Vocal Album of the Year
Mandolin Orange – Such Jubilee