The Alternate Root Top 100 Albums of the Year 2015 is ready for viewing. One hundred albums is a large list, though the amount of music and talent in the American Roots community certainly has enough sources to draw from to get to the one hundred mark, and we could have easily gone over. Drawing from the available American Roots styles, we have gathered music from Folk, Blues, Soul, Americana, Alt Country, Bluegrass, Classic Country as well as any and all hybrids. So yeah, one hundred…no problem. Songs and artists from around the country and around the globe, the sound of Roots digs in and reaches out. It is infectious and universal in its moods and melodies. The year 2015 saw new artists and seasoned performers putting out full album listens. Our list for the year honors the album, full albums listens for the artists. Albums signify a record in time for musicians time and art, and we are happy to offer the albums that got our attention, became friends, and are now part of the family.
01 – Kasey Chambers (from the album Bittersweet on Sugar Hill Records 7-24-16) - Kasey Chambers and producer, Nick DiDia (Bruce Springsteen, The Wallflowers, Pearl Jam), crafted an album that tags heritage with the teasing bite of her characters that brands Kasey Chambers and the Roots instrumentation that surrounds her stories. The album, recorded in seven days, stamps a freshness to the tunes that is present on each listen. Kasey relates that for her, she ‘wanted to have an experience making a record that I have never had before. I wanted to challenge myself and I wanted to be excited’.
02 Chris Stapleton (from the album Traveller on Mercury Nashville 5-4-15) - The songs on Traveller crawl up on you like a low slung guitar, bobbing and weaving with footwork that steps to match the moods the stories conjure. A bottle and a wedding ring sit on the table as Chris attaches weight to both, gauging the differences between “Whiskey and You”. Traveller makes its case the perfect pack for a long road trip as Chris steers the songs swaying to the string strums on “More of You” in harmony with wife Morgane Stapleton, shrugs and lights up “Might As Well Get Stoned” with electric guitar chords that strut into the room like a smoking caterpillar pied piper.
03 Glen Hansard (from the album Didn’t He Ramble on Anti- Records 9-18-15) - Didn’t He Ramble enters on a determined whisper as confession becomes commitment as “Grace Beneath the Pines” sets the bar for hurdles that have been jumped. Audio vignettes scroll by on the album as a backdoor Romeo asks the morning birds to grant him one more ‘two step around your front room’ from “Her Mercy”, a scratchy beat tumbles along a get-away path with the “Lowly Deserter”, and quiet to hear the memories rising up , over, and back under “McCormack’s Wall”. Glen Hansard began busking at the age of thirteen on the street of Dublin, Ireland after he quit high school. Didn’t He Ramble still plays to the passersby, drawing them in with words, melody, and magic of hearing exactly what you needed while waiting for the light to change.
04 Punch Brothers (from the album The Phosphorescent Blues on Nonesuch Records 1-27-15) - That style that The Punch Brothers have nurtured is silhouetted against the soft glow of their recent T-Bone Burnett-produced release, The Phosphorescent Blues. The overall sound of the album brings is orchestrated Bluegrass. The magic of The Punch Brothers music is that they can appeal to diverse audiences from mainstream to deep Indie, Bluegrass purists and Americana torch-bearers. They are traditionalist innovators that encompass classical orchestral sweeps the blends with their mountain music on The Phosphorescent Blues.
05 Jason Isbell (from the album Something More Than Free 7-17-15) by Michael Verity - Jason Isbell offers ten strong narratives of the common man’s experience of faith, family and the temporal matters of life with which every grownup must contend on Something More Than Free. The middle half dozen songs on this recording -- from the haunting solo piece of time and travel called “Flagship” to the epic song of a family’s history (“Children of Children”) to the closing chapter of another family’s history (“Speed Trap Town”) -- are among the finest six songs to have been recorded this year. By Michael Verity
06 Steve Earle and the Dukes (from the album Terraplane on New West Records 2-17-05) - Terraplane offers album space to a variety of Blues- based rambles as it shuffles on a front porch rhythm about a New York City woman in “Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now”, corrals a Chuck Berry groove for a raga romp in “Acquainted with the Wind” and uses a rock’n’roll blade made of riffs to carve out a return to fashion for “Go Go Boots are Back”. Steve Earle and the Dukes never line up for one style stamp though they manage to infuse every track with the roots grit falling from their collective boots. Soul pumps the harmonica and the rhythm of its Blues on album opener “Baby Baby Baby (Baby)”, stripping any shred of humility away as it heralds the birth of “King of the Blues”.
07 Kacey Musgraves (from the album Pageant Material on Mercury Nashville) 6-23-15 - Kacey Musgraves has a knowing for how songs should sound; delivered with a wry sense of humor and a big beating heart gives Kacey the crown of Cool Country. Pageant Materialchews a hole back fence gossip making “Biscuits” burn with ‘mend your own fences, and own your own crazy, mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy’. Smart stories stand by the lives they live, and Kacey Musgraves teases the tales with vocals that profess views without preaching positions.
08 The Milk Carton Kids (from the album Monterey on Anti- Records 5-19-15) - The Milk Carton Kids maintain a huge amount of warmth and believability as they gently pick and pluck notes from the air, digging through pockets of Folk to find the quiet nestled just a stone’s throw from silence. The hushed delivery compliments the humor of The Milk Carton Kids banter as well as the microscope they use to script emotion in their songs. The Milk Carton Kids seal songs in amber waves of notes and sepia-toned stories under “Asheville Skies” as the trees spread color into the November fall, mournfully asking in a whisper to “Sing, Sparrow, Sing”, and sway with soft ocean breezes lapping against land as the road calls in the title track.
09 Leon Bridges (from the album Coming Home on Columbia Records 6-23-15) - Leon Bridges uses Coming Home to masterfully moves Soul back to mainstream, guiding Coming Home with one hand on the wheel and two feet planted firmly on a groove.
10 The Turnpike Troubadours (from the album The Turnpike Troubadours 9-18-15) - The musical backing for the Roots of Turnpike Troubadours is a non-stop motion machine. Bobbing and weaving under the stories are teasing fiddles, guitar crunches and a determined rhythm section that give the tunes on The Turnpike Troubadours solid footing. The foundation the band creates make it possible for the stories to ramble, walking to the edge of emotion or reason to find the love left lying on the corner of “Easton and Main” as they provide the only safe spot for the man sinking fast below the poverty line in “The Bird Hunters” while they follow the boy heading down to “Bossier City” to drink and gamble his cares away.
11 Nikki Lane (from the album All or Nothin’ on New West Records 5-6-15) - Nikki Lane caught the ear of her producer Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys enough to get his studio for free. All or Nothin’ is a sweeping soundscape filled with varied styles and takes on Roots music presented from the perspective of kaleidoscope Country singer, Nikki Lane
12 The Black Lillies (from the album Hard to Please10-2-15) - The Black Lillies open Hard to Please with the title track. It is a tough call whether the song is to a lover, or a higher calling, and it is certainly possible that the band were aiming the title phrase at the music industry that are constantly looking for labels to attach to their artists, or asking them to define themselves in one or two words. Musically, there is no other definition needed than that they are a band making a record, letting the way they hear each song tell the tale of how the music will back the story. On “Hard to Please”, the title track chugs and stomps as a playful twang lightly tags the persistent rhythms that set the pace for its song followers on the recording. “Fade” quietly aids the exit with a love request, bordering album opener with heartfelt pleas.
13 Dave Rawlings’ Machine (from the album Nashville Obsolete on Acony Records 9-18-15) - Dave Rawlings’ Machine is the driving wheel as they guide Nashville Obsolete gracefully through its stories, introducing characters and wearing a skin that remembers, relates, and exposes their tales. “The Last Pharaoh” is a seeker, possibly tracking down a royal line, or maybe looking a Faro card game, the most popular pastime on an American frontier in the 1800’s that stretched Deadwood to Tijuana, Reno to Natchez, New Orleans to St. Louis. Faro tables were familiar sights and sounds in every saloon and become the stage set for the tale.
14 Barrence Whitfield and the Savages (from the album Under the Savage Sky on Bloodshot Records 8-21-15) - Barrence Whitfield and the Savages give their latest Bloodshot Records release, Under the Savage Sky, the identical treatment they have offered with their music since 1984…one hundred and ten percent commitment. Under the Savage Sky is Rock’n’Soul on steroids; Barrence Whitfiled and the Savages a chainsaw to cut through the wall of sound full of the crass representations passing for rock in 2015.
15 Anne McCue (from the album Blue Sky Thinkin’ 2-3-15) - Blue Sky Thinkin’, Anne McCue’s 2015 album release, and the seventh in her catalog, is a satisfying sheaf of twelve new original tunes that speak to her love of music from the 20s, 30s and 40s while demonstrating her sizable skills as a singer, songwriter and guitarist. (Michael Verity)
16 Ray Wylie Hubbard (from the album The Ruffians Misfortune 4-7-15) - Ray Wylie wanted to have a Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood-type of two guitar backing, bringing in Gabe Rhodes and his son, Lucas Hubbard, for The Ruffian’s Misfortune. The twin guitars share space as they propel across a fast-train ride rhythm “Down by the River”, snake underneath “Chicksinger Badass Rockin’”, snap at the white lines trailing below “Bad on Fords”, and drift like six-string ghosts as they tumble with a fiery fiddle calling out “Jessie Mae”. The Ruffian’s Misfortune opens to righteous Blues preaching on “All Loose Things”, as it hums a Kevin Welch tune.
17 Uncle Lucius (from the album The Light 6-9-15) - Uncle Lucius have always had salvation in their songs, sitting comfortably as a sideman for the electric chords and beats. Uncle Lucius turn on The Light and watch its songs go into dark corners, shadowy hallways, and travel one lane roads as they search, seek and provide answers for how to walk a little prouder. The hint is that you can feel a little better about yourself by taking control of your own life.
18 John Moreland (from the album High on Tulsa Heat 4-21-15) - John Moreland songs began to form when a ten years old John and his family moved from Kentucky to Tulsa, Oklahoma. He heard his songs against a punk rock back beat throughout high school, ut and pasted on his dad’s Creedence Clearwater Revival, Neil Young, Tom Petty and Steve Earle records. John recalls that ‘I think what appealed to me about it was lyrics. In hardcore, there might be great lyrics in a song but you have to read them off a piece of paper to know it. I was 19 in 2004, and Steve Earle had put out ‘The Revolution Starts Now,’ and I remember hearing the song ‘Rich Man’s War’ and totally feeling like somebody just punched me in the chest.’
19 Lilly Hiatt (from the album Royal Blue on New West Records 3-3-15) - Royal Blue moves with a pulse pumping a heart aware that things work out in equal measure, sometimes going belly up. Lilly Hiatt doesn’t drown in the ocean she is swimming as she claims the skin of “Somebody’s Daughter”. She is taking the reins, unsure of the hows and whys yet very clear on the end results working out, knowing ‘I’m gonna be fine’. Royal Blue keeps a Modern Beat with a 60’s sci-fi rumble as it reads a broken heart note signed “Too Bad”, “Heart Attack” runs on a David Lynch sound track with its dream-induced beat zig zagging on a ghostly groove, bounces off a rock’n’roll jangle trying to “Get This Right”, and uses tight drum beats to corral the wobbly guitars running “Off Track”.
20 The Grahams (from the album Glory Bound 5-18-15) - If you are looking for a song on Glory Bound to make you feel worse about your day…move along. The Grahams are never far away from waving the banner of the road though they change the mood of their songs like the scenery flying by outside a southbound boxcar. Glory Boundis a light burning bright for taking chances and listening to the voices in your head.
21 The Wood Brothers (from the album Paradise 10-2-15) - Chris Wood uses an electric bass for the first time in Wood Bros. studio recordings on Paradise. The heavier thump grounds tracks like “American Heartache” giving a rock heft to the natural power of The Wood Brothers. Oliver Wood’s voice cries for salvation with the soul-searching of a zealot, as the songs offer inspiration within reach. The ways to plow through the middle of issues is covered in the challenging advice of “Singin’ for Strangers” with additional experiential advice on how to swim upstream on a“River of Gin” to get some kind of ‘amen’ as The Wood Brothers quiet to a hush to sing a “Heartbreak Lullaby” for love sick boys.
22 Della Mae (from the album Della Mae on New Rounder Records 5-12-15) - Della Mae fires its opening salvo with a pro-union and pro-women’s rights song that demands ‘pass me a match and we’ll strike it on the ground, and we’ll head back down to Boston town’. The women of Della Mae stand tall and proud as they challenge workers to take control of their lives and hold on to their dignity.
23 Shelby Lynne (from the album I Can’t Imagine on New Rounder Records 5-4-15) - Shelby Lynne songs sink into your senses with familiarity by the end of the track. “Son of a Gun” slows its pace to save its energy as it ‘walks through the noonday sun’, “Back Door Front Porch” swings with the decisions of its story, and “Better” drifts on clouds of amplifier rings, rising and falling with a delicate grace.
24 Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell (from the album The Traveling Kind on Nonesuch Records 5-12-15) - Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell are no strangers to being a part of one another’s story line. The add accent and emotion, Continuing that model on The Traveling Kind. There is a beauty to the intimate moments that feels like a new page for the Harris-Crowell songbook. Rodney joins Emmylou as they offer a toast to fellow troubadours in the title track before circling back to just two folks looking for a dance floor as they exit The Traveling Kind on a ‘le bon temps roulé’ with “Le Danse de la Joie”.
25 JD McPherson (from the album Let the Good Times Roll on New Rounder Records 2-10-15) - Reverbed chords rotate over Let the Good Times Roll like the blades of an oscillating fan. JD McPherson is not claiming purist or avant garde status….he is just playing it as it lays. Let the Good Times Roll sets the guitar sound in line with the upright bass and rattles with layered reverb in “Precious”, double times a rubbery chord strum to tumble “Head Over Heels” and blows breath beats out on a groove primed by a low riding saxophone pumps. Let the Good Times Roll lays Rhythm over its Blues for R&B circa 2015.