Because why not eight?
8. The Lone Bellow — Then Came the Morning. My favorite moment on Cayamo this year was watching this band launch into “Heaven Don’t Call Me Home” at their first show in a crowded room. You literally could see the sweat flying off of them. That’s not typical Lone Bellow stuff, but it does illustrate the range of this band. I thought this was a significant step up over their first already-great album, and you really do have to see this band perform live.
7. The Black Lillies — Hard to Please. Here’s another band you need to see live to appreciate, but this studio album does a good job of broadcasting that live energy. A minor knock: I suspect some of the songs were written under a heavy deadline, and there were a few cliched lines (including almost all of the song “Dancin'”) that made me groan because they compared so poorly to the album’s best efforts. But this is just grumpy whining on my part. This is a band that still is growing; I’m proud to say I helped crowdfund this album (along with several others that didn’t make my list).
6. JD McPherson — Let the Good Times Roll. It’d be easy to shove McPherson into the rockabilly box and keep him there, but he’s far more than some mere nostalgia revivalist. Listen to “Bossy” — simple in its construction, elegant in its execution — and you get at McPherson’s talents. And I love his voice. And he kills it live.
5. The Watkins Family Hour — Yes, this is an album of covers by a group of musicians fully capable of producing wonderful original music. But reinterpreting covers is half the fun of this side-project band for Sean and Sara Watkins, and their band on this gig also includes Fiona Apple, of all people (and she’s really great). They also put on a tremendous live show when I saw them this year.
4. The Mavericks — Mono. I’m not thrilled about the fact that they actually recorded this album in mono, but here we have a group of veteran musicians who still crank it with an energy and feeling that is hard to match. And really, is there anyone anywhere who can sing better than Raul Malo? Their show at the State Theater a few months ago was my favorite show of the year.
3. The Decemberists — What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. I worry that the band occasionally drifts into pretentiousness, the kind that might deserve a little mocking (see “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” which opens this album) but they are just so powerful and their best lyrics are a cut above everyone else in the pool. There are also a hefty 14 songs on here, and “Till the Water’s All Long Gone” is one of my favorite songs of the year.
2. Jason Isbell — Something More Than Free. I honestly don’t know how Isbell could have written another album that reaches the level of “Southeastern,” and yet he’s done it. It’s hard to pick out a favorite cut in this effort because they are all so strong, and they show even more maturity than Southeastern’s offerings.
This album would have been my favorite in almost any other year (and I might be grading this below what it deserves because “Southeastern” is my favorite album of the decade so far), but in 2015, my favorite is:
1. James McMurtry — Complicated Game. It’s great to see McMurtry come out with another studio album after too many years. In many ways, I think of his cuts as short stories accompanied by music — but he’s such a powerful instrumentalist that this description sells him short. He keeps down the instrumental gymnastics on this mostly-acoustic effort, and it’s his ability to write so insightfully about such a broad spectrum of characters that really makes you stop and listen. And he’s stretching his voice on this album; I didn’t know he had this kind of range in him. Buy this already. Also: Best line to open an album ever (“Honey, don’t you be yellin’ at me while I’m cleaning my gun.”)