The Bitter Southerner’s Annual, Highly Opinionated List of the South’s Best Music
Warning to would-be listmakers: Doing this kind of thing can eat you alive.
We did The Bitter Southerner’s first list of our favorite Southern albums of the year back in 2013 more or less on a lark. Because, why not?
Last year, having noticed how much attention the previous year’s list drew, we got serious. Here’s what serious looks like:
At the beginning of the year, you try to discipline yourself to reading AllMusic.com’s weekly new-releases newsletter, trying to ferret out the records made in the South or by Southerners working elsewhere.
You dump every Southern album you can find into a playlist that will grow to massive proportions by the end of the year.
About three months before the end of the year, while you’re still adding to the playlist, you notice how many records on it you haven’t yet listened to.
You spend the final quarter of the year on sort of a forced march of music listening. You try to put a star rating by every single song on that list. More than 1,000 songs.
So yes, be warned. This ain’t easy.
It is, however, worth it. Y’all seem to count on us for this every December, and when The Bitter Southerner Family is counting on us, we do our best to deliver.
It is also rewarding, because it reminds us anew how incredibly diverse is our beloved South’s music. Yes, we know the argument that all good music finds its threads weaving through the South in one form or another. And we agree with that argument completely. But to see it in the moment, in the now, is to be encouraged. To hear the angry punk rock, the songwriter’s gentle guitar and the fantabulous wordflips of Southern hip-hop — coupled with incisive lyrics that address everything from the state of our nation to the state of a single human heart — is to be excited.
Through the listening, we become proud all over again to live in this region, where musical threads from everywhere tie themselves, as they have for centuries, into the prettiest knots you ever saw. So herewith, The Bitter Southerner Crew offers you its opinions — as well-considered as we could possibly make them — about the best 25 Southern albums of 2015.
— The Crew
Future: “Dirty Sprite 2”
Release Date: July 17, 2015
Future (née Nayvadius Wilburn of Atlanta’s Kirkwood neighborhood) seems to have his fingers in every piece of hip-hop that matters these days. “DS2” hit the Billboard charts at No. 1 back in July. Thanks in part to the deft hands of young producer Metro Boomin, “DS2” is state-of-the-art hip-hop. It is also an NSFW extravaganza of drugs, guns and sex. The dean of all rock critics, Robert Christgau, wrote in Noisey that “DS2” is a “miserable minor masterpiece” and "all the proof we needed that money can't buy happiness." All of which is true, but it still feels exactly right to drive through the A with “Where Ya At” booming. This is the 2015-model sound of our home city.
Ruby Amanfu: “Standing Still”
Release Date: August 28, 2015
Born in Ghana, raised in Nashville from age 3, and trained at Boston’s venerable Berklee College of Music, Ruby Amanfu first caught our attention as part of Jack White’s road band. Her new solo outing — with one exception, an album of beautifully chosen cover songs — first wins points for sheer sonic gorgeousness. Her collaboration with recording engineer and producer Mark Howard, who has worked with musicians as diverse as Bob Dylan, R.E.M. and Willie Nelson, began when Howard saw her perform Dylan’s haunting “Not Dark Yet.” Their version of that song here is remarkable, with Amanfu’s pitch-perfect and wonderfully nuanced vocals set amid Howard’s spare arrangements. But our favorite tune here is “Cathedrals,” a welcome resurrection of a late-1990s song by the much beloved and sadly under-recognized Charleston band Jump Little Children.
Sam Gleaves: “Ain’t We Brothers”
Release Date: November 13, 2015
Wythe County, Virginia / now Berea, Kentucky
Sam Gleaves is a young Virginian you’ve never heard of. Back in September, an email from a publicist arrived and said: “Sam Gleaves is a rare bird. Hauntingly talented songwriter, deeply traditional picker and singer, historian of Appalachian lore. And he's part of another community that doesn't get a lot of attention in that area of the world: Sam is openly gay.” Well, we figured, we at least need to listen to that record. We had no idea deeply how Gleaves’ music would plant itself in our heads. The power of this album comes from the fact that Gleaves has the courage to claim the mountain-music traditions in which he was raised as fiercely as he claims his equality as a human being. Here’s what Sam does: He writes songs that hew strictly to the spare instrumentation and archaic lyrical phrasings of the purest Appalachian music. Mountain love songs, just like all the others you’ve heard. But, you know, different. Consider “Two Virginia Boys”: “If two Virginia boys can fall in love / I reckon that’s just what we’ll do / In my heart you are my darlin’ / At my gate you’re welcome in / At my door I’ll always greet you / You’re the one I long to win.” By the time you reach the album’s 11th cut, it sounds entirely appropriate to hear Gleaves duet with his partner on the Carter Family’s 1936 chestnut, “My Dixie Darlin’.” The record is a hell of a step forward by a very talented young man.
Ashley Monroe: “The Blade”
Release Date: July 24, 2015
Knoxville, Tennessee / now Nashville
We about lost our shit back in 2012 when we first heard Knoxville-born Monroe’s song “Weed Instead of Roses”; it was a song from a woman who damned sure knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to say what it was. It gave us hope: specifically, that it would be women who’d ultimately reclaim Nashville’s foremost musical form from the bro-country hucksters. Three years later, she's back with “The Blade.” Producers Vince Gill and Justin Niebank are again at the helm, and the sound is about as close to high-integrity country music as you’re likely to hear these days from a major label. The highlight here for us is “Dixie,” written from the point of view of a woman who's just sick to death of the battles, personal and economic, that face the rural poor in the South. She sings, “It was the mines that killed my daddy / It was the law that killed my man / It was the Bible belt that whipped me when I broke the Fifth Command / I don't hate the weather / I don't hate the land / But if I had my way I'd never see this place again.”
Jon Latham: “Real Bad News”
Release Date: October 16, 2015
Atlanta / now Nashville
This first album by Atlanta-born, Nashville-residing Jon Latham kicks off with the singer asking the recording engineer, “What do you want out of this?” The engineer answers, “A little more Steve Earle, a little less heroin.” And sure enough, they kick the album off with a rocker called “Major Key” that would do Earle proud. But the answer to the engineer’s question also describes the range that Latham’s songs cover. He can rock just fine, thank you, but he can also bring the real bad news quietly. The anchors of this album, for us, are a pair of songs — “Conversations at the Wedding” and “Conversations at the Funeral” — positioned halfway through and at the end of the album. The first dives into the sad situation of a man at his lost love’s wedding to another, and the second assesses the life of a grandfather on the day of his funeral. “What goes in this ground? On this pile of dirt? / You’ll find 82 years of a life of worth / Driving a truck on the local route / Taught me everything I know of what life’s about.” Latham is 32 — old for a first album by the record industry’s standards. But folks like us, who tend to care more about the heart in the song than the pretty face on the writer, welcome Jon Latham’s impressive debut.
Lilly Hiatt: “Royal Blue”
Release Date: March 3, 2015
Some of us have reached the age where the children of people we listened to in college are putting out their own records. This pains us, of course, like sciatica does, but we smile at the trailing rewards of life anyway, because that’s what we do. And the achievements of our friends’ children often reward us. Such is the case with Lilly Hiatt, the Nashville-raised daughter of the great John Hiatt, one of the sharpest songwriters of the last quarter-century. If bloodline counts for anything, then Lilly obviously had a head start. On “Royal Blue,” her second album, she seems to be coming very much into her own. She’s definitely got her daddy’s wit, “Jesus Would’ve Let Me Pick the Restaurant” being the prime example here. But Hiatt seems to have broader sonic ambitions than her father, and “Royal Blue” offers what our friend Holly Gleason at Paste called “a glorious tumble of influences.” That’s probably evidence of Hiatt’s ongoing quest to find her sound. What comes next promises to be even more interesting than this excellent sophomore effort.
Iris Dement: “The Trackless Woods”
Release Date: August 6, 2015
Paragould, Arkansas / now somewhere in Iowa
There is no voice like Iris Dement’s. She wouldn’t brag about it like Walt Whitman, but her voice contains worlds. So what a treat it was this year to hear the Paragould, Arkansas, native tackle something entirely different — setting to music the translated words of the late Russian modernist poet Anna Akhmatova. The genesis of the album came quickly. Jonathan Bernstein in American Songwriter, described it this way: “One afternoon back in 2011, Iris DeMent sat down at her living room piano and began flipping through a book of poetry her friend had lent her by the late Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. By the time she finished reading the first poem that she had flipped to, DeMent had already turned it into a song.” What’s remarkable is how Akhmatova’s words fall so perfectly into Dement’s gentle, country melodies. “Like a white stone deep in a draw-well lying / As hard and clear a memory lies in me / I cannot strive, nor have I heart for striving / It is such pain and yet such ecstasy.” To hear Dement take the universal emotions contained in Akhmatova’s poems — particularly those about the power and pain of memory — and put them in settings that sound so at home in the South is to understand once again how, for all our weirdnesses, we ain’t that different from anybody else.
Bryson Tiller: “T R A P S O U L”
Release Date: September 25, 2015
So let’s explain it for the uninitiated. There is a thing called “trap music.” Editors at Wikipedia continue to scrap over how precisely to define it. About the best they can come up with is that it originated in the South in the 1990s and is “defined by its ominous, bleak, gritty and belligerent lyrical content.” More simply, it’s hip-hop that portrays life in those places your addicted friends call “dope traps.” Kentuckian Bryson Tiller has decided to push trap music to a new place, where it cross-pollinates with soul music. And the young man has the goods to make it work, moving effortlessly from fast and furious raps to singing passages in ways that sound completely right. The best example here is “Exchange,” Tiller’s take on one of soul music’s most reliable tropes: I know I screwed up last time, baby, but would you please give me one more chance? “Lord please save her for me, do this one favor for me / I had to change my player ways, got way too complicated for me / I hope she's waiting for me.” Tiller makes the sentiment sound like Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” for a new generation.
Raury: “All We Need”
Release Date: October 16, 2015
One doesn’t hear too many records like “All We Need,” from Atlanta’s Raury Tullis. Raury was signed to Columbia Records last year at age 18, and his debut album is a wild mix of soul music, hip-hop and, here’s the kicker, folk music. It’s almost as if Raury is determined to turn himself into the Richie Havens of Southern hip-hop. In what we think is the best song on the album, “Peace Prevail,” Raury raps expertly about his youth — “Grillin' with aluminum foil in my mouth / From the South, bitch, I'm so icy / And I was 9 back then, now I'm 19 / Wonder how I'll look when I'm 90” — and then drops into a sung, folksy chorus that marks the spot where his heart really is: “May peace prevail, on this earth / May peace prevail, on Atlanta / May peace prevail, on your soul / May peace prevail, prevail, prevail.” Young Mr. Tullis is extraordinarily talented, capable of mixing and bending musical genres to his own, larger purpose. May peace prevail, indeed.
Leo “Bud” Welch: “I Don’t Prefer No Blues”
Release Date: March 23, 2015
Bud Welch spent most of his 80-plus years of life logging and farming around Bruce, Mississippi, southeast of Oxford. Earlier this year, The Bitter Southerner ran a film from director Brent Foster that captures Welch on the cusp of this album’s release. We thought it was wonderful aplenty that a Mississippi bluesman — or anybody for that matter — could release his first album at age 83. Then we heard the record. Have mercy. Right now, all over America, there are people in their 20s or 30s recording blues records that will never come close to the unstoppable fire contained in “I Don’t Prefer No Blues.” With a rhythm section anchored by Oxford musical savant Jimbo Mathus and Drive-By Truckers’ Matt Patton, Welch’s album just flat knocked us on our collective asses. Welch found the album’s title after he told his preacher he intended to make a blues album. The preacher replied, “I don’t prefer no blues.” Well, preacher, you’re wrong on this one. We do.
Release Date: June 2, 2015
Atlanta / now London and Paris
The three members of Algiers — Franklin James Fisher, Lee Tesche and Ryan Mahan — came together in Atlanta in 2009. Since, they’ve decamped for Europe. The move makes sense, because the roots of Algiers’ sound lie in the angular, funk-based songs of British post-punk outfits like the Gang of Four and the Pop Group. But on top of that base, they effortlessly reflect their roots in the grittier sides of Southern soul, blues and gospel. This album is as militant and insistent as the British records of 30 years ago that inspired it (and which also inspired many of the early-1980s Athens, Georgia, bands). But its ire isn’t focused on Margaret Thatcher; it’s focused on the race and class issues that seem to be tearing America apart. If you want to hear a lyrical screed that offers a no-bullshit assessment of the African-American perspective on our history, you’ll hear nothing harder or more direct than this album’s “Blood:” “Four hundred years of torture / Four hundred years a slave / Dead just to watch you squander / Just what we tried to save / Now death is at your doorstep / And you're still playing games / So drown in entertainment, ’cause all our blood is in vain.”
Jimbo Mathus: “Blue Healer”
Release Date: April 21, 2015
The nation first took notice of Jimbo Mathus when he led North Carolina's Squirrel Nut Zippers, who had an unlikely hit single with a song called “Hell” back in 1996. Now firmly planted back in his native Mississippi, Mathus has turned himself into a sort of Southern music chameleon. On this album, Mathus takes on a new character who is, in Mathus’ own words, “a man in a Southern landscape who is swept insanely apart by internal and external winds.” This man seeks answers from a mysterious woman called the Blue Healer. Through this conceit, Mathus is able to turn himself into a character much like Mac Rebennack’s Dr. John. Mathus is just as steeped in the particular musical voodoo of Mississippi as Dr. John is in the music of New Orleans — but both share a taste for psychedelia. This set of songs takes the listener along on a weird, only-in-Mississippi journey. Jimbo Mathus at this point in his career is one of the South’s greatest musical treasures. Plus, he played on Bud Welch’s kick-ass blues record. So there’s that, too.
Rhiannon Giddens: “Tomorrow Is My Turn”
Release Date: February 10, 2015
Greensboro, North Carolina
The fact that Rhiannon Giddens is one of the South’s most talented musicians is not in dispute. From her earliest recordings with the Carolina Chocolate Drops to her participation in T-Bone Burnett’s “New Basement Tapes” project, her ridiculously thorough grasp of American musical forms and her expressive, versatile voice always made her the brightest light in the room. But this record seals the deal. Giddens explores the legacies of great singers and writers whose shoulders, as Giddens puts it, she stands upon today. She thoroughly inhabits the spirits of women from Geeshie Wiley and Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline. Certainly, the most joyous song here is Sister Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head.” And the prettiest is “Tomorrow Is My Turn,” her amazing take on Nina Simone’s interpretation of the song by French singer Charles Aznavour. But through every single tune on this album, Giddens’ talent just floors you. There are many great musicians. But only a few people in the world seem magically to ooze music from every pore. Giddens is one of those.
James McMurtry: “Complicated Game”
Release Date: February 24, 2015
One Sunday night a few years ago, we got to sit about three feet in front of James McMurtry as he played in the gallery above Austin’s Continental Club, and we realized something that hadn’t dawned on us in 20 years of listening to his music: James McMurtry writes characters. Real characters, as real as the ones brought to life by great screenwriters. Characters as sharply defined as the ones his daddy, Larry, brought to life in “Lonesome Dove.” It’s no trouble to find quotable lyrics in McMurtry’s songs; they’re all quotable. You don’t have to go any farther than the first two lines of this album’s opener, “Copper Canteen,” to know you’re about to meet somebody with an interesting story: “Honey, don't you be yelling at me when I'm cleaning my gun / I'll wash the blood off the tailgate when deer season’s done.” The song goes on to describe the gritty lives of a couple married too young and stuck in a life they don’t really want anymore, but still hanging tightly to each other. “We grew up hard, and our children don't know what that means / We turned into our parents before we were out of our teens / Through a series of Chevies and Fords, the occasional spin round the floor at the Copper Canteen.” Every song is a two-hour movie, each with different characters filled with sharp dialogue, crammed into a handful of verses and five minutes. Not many folks can do that. James can — when he’s not out hunting.
Deerhunter: “Fading Frontier”
Release Date: October 16, 2015
It was a rough year for the leader of Atlanta’s Deerhunter, Bradford Cox. A year ago in December, he was hit by a car and suffered some serious injuries. “Fading Frontier” clearly has the stamp of the new perspective that a brush with death can bring. Like Deerhunter’s music over the past decade, “Fading Frontier” defies easy categorization. They’re a rock band, yes, but one with many influences — and one that is determined to follow its own particularly weird creative path. In what we think is the album’s finest cut, “Breaker,” Cox offers this cryptic assessment of his recent accident: “Jack-knifed on the side-street crossing / I'm still alive and that's something / And when I die there will be nothing to say / Except I tried not to waste another day / Trying to stem the tide.” And in that lyric lies something we’ve always loved about this band: its willingness to ride the waves of fatalism in grand style, like a modernized, Southern version of T. Rex.
Natalie Prass: “Natalie Prass”
Release Date: January 27, 2015
If you worship Dusty Springfield’s immortal 1969 “Dusty in Memphis,” then Natalie Prass’ first album could very well be your favorite record of the year. But Prass’ debut has even larger ambitions. Prass also filters the likes of Irving Berlin and Stephen Sondheim through gorgeous Southern settings. She collaborated on the album over several years with childhood friend Matthew E. White and his crew of like-minded musicians at Spacebomb Studios in Richmond. Spacebomb, an old-school studio complete with its own house band, just like Stax, has become a magnet for ambitious Virginia musicians. Prass worked with the Spacebombers to build grand string and horn parts for these songs, all shockingly well-arranged. The horns echo the arrangements that Memphis’ James Mitchell draped so beautifully around the songs of Al Green. And the string arrangements are as shiny as the glory days of Hollywood. The first tune, “My Baby Don’t Understand Me,” sounds like classic Southern soul made grander than you thought possible, with Prass’ appealing, whispery voice perfectly singing, “Our love is like a long goodbye / We keep waiting for the train to cry.” But our favorite here is actually the most un-Southern song on the record. The final tune, “It Is You,” is a grand waltz that would sound completely at home on the Broadway stage. “Sandy glass, stained with red / Birds with porcelain wings / In a house filled with books / That nobody reads / So many things will fill my life / But only one will do / It is you, it is you, it is you.” Move the furniture. It’ll have you twirling in circles on your living room floor.
Kacey Musgraves: “Pageant Material”
Release Date: June 23, 2015
Last year, Kacey Musgraves hit the top of the country charts with an album that openly addresses sexual roles, questions the value of religion and asserts the value of a little recreational marijuana use. That kind of thing is not supposed to happen, you know, but it did. Here’s how Musgraves explained it to The Wall Street Journal’s Megan Buerger last year: “The things I’m singing about are not controversial to me. … I talk about things that have made an impression on me that a lot of people everywhere are going through. … When Hank Williams sang about addiction and cheating and heartbreak and hating his life, he wasn’t being rebellious, he was being real.” Amen, sister. This year, Musgraves followed up with an album whose insight and quality rivals last year’s “Same Trailer, Different Park” (and which has the bonus of a surprise duet with Willie Nelson). In the song’s title track, Musgraves immediately makes clear who she is: “My mama cried when she realized I ain't pageant material / I'm always higher than my hair.” But our favorite track here, “Somebody to Love,” is a less aggressive song where Musgraves displays her most remarkable talent as a lyricist, the ability to sum up the human condition in a few neat lines: “We're all good, but we ain't angels / We all sin, but we ain't devils / We're all pots and we're all kettles / But we can't see it in ourselves / We're all livin' till we're dyin’ / We ain't cool, but man, we're tryin’ / Thinking we'll be fixed by someone else.” That about covers it, right?
Jason Isbell: “Something More Than Free”
Release Date: July 17, 2015
Green Hill, Alabama / now Nashville
Don’t hit us. We know there are many of you who believe that if Jason Isbell makes a record, it should be on the top of this list and every other list. But just because we happen to think he didn’t make the best Southern album of the year doesn’t mean we don’t know he made a hell of a record. If “Southeastern” was the remarkable document of a man crawling out of the bottle and learning how to live a new way, “Something More Than Free” is the sound of that man becoming a good bit more comfortable in his own boots. “I got too far from my raising, I forgot where I come from,” he sings in the album’s opening track. “And the line between right and wrong was so fine / Well I thought the highway loved me, but she beat me like a drum / My day will come, if it takes a lifetime.” There is optimism, persistence and wisdom in such lines. The bonus is that Isbell is now also spreading his gaze beyond himself, obliquely addressing big, intractable issues, even (to our ears, anyway) the threat of terrorism. In “24 Frames,” maybe the album’s greatest song, Isbell sings, “You thought God was an architect, now you know / He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.” Sadly, we do live in a world where, in too many twisted minds, God takes shape in the form of explosives and weaponry. Happily, we have songwriters like Jason Isbell to offer us perspective and a little solace. For that, we should all be grateful.
Scotty ATL “The Cooligan”
Release Date: September 28, 2015
This is, hands down, our favorite hip-hop album of the year. Scotty ATL started getting the attention of the hip-hop world with his mixtapes about four years ago. On “The Cooligan,” he hits his stride beautifully. After a stint playing basketball at Savannah State, Scotty wound up back in Atlanta and, by his own admission, lived the street life for a while. But if “The Cooligan” is about anything, it’s about the chance to envision and then pursue a better life. At Scotty’s website, a single lyric floats in large type over an image of the rapper; it says, “I’m only focused on one thang …” The lyric comes from the song that sounds to us like the album’s true masterwork, a sweeping rap epic undergirded by gospel piano, called “N***a Concentrate.” What he’s concentrating on is travelling a more productive path. “I was chasing every president on Mount Rushmore / Went from bullet holes in my truck door / That street shit, I wasn’t cut for / I was sellin’ like 20 pounds a week, shit, I thought I was a drug lord / Fuckboys always wanna ruin a nigga’s day / I just wanna wake up happy, so I bought a crib in Lovejoy / I used to catch MARTA to wash dishes at this restaurant / I was the true definition of a busboy / Now, I give you them same tokens / Stay focused, nigga / I knew when I was driving that Bronco one day, I’d be Range Rovin’ / Feels good ridin’ in luxury cars that ain’t stolen.” With this record, Scotty ATL does what the greatest rap acts from Public Enemy to Killer Mike have always done: They show us hope and initiative in places where we too quickly assume there is none.
Release Date: May 4, 2015
Macon, Georgia / now Brooklyn, New York
Mackenzie Scott, who records under the name Torres, has issues. Specifically, Macon issues and Baptist issues. Of “Sprinter,” Scott has said, “I wanted something that very clearly stemmed from my Southern conservative roots but that sounded futuristic and space-y at the same time.” If that was the intention, she’s hit the mark squarely. The title track finds Scott reassessing her religious upbringing after a certain hypocrisy is uncovered. “Pastor lost his position / Went down for pornography / So I found myself some ground to stand / Bound to be the better man.” The song begins with angry, whirling synthesizer and guitar sounds then winds its way toward a softly presented ending in which Scott concludes, “There's freedom to, and freedom from / Freedom to run, from everyone / While what I did is what is done / The Baptist in me chose to run / But if there's still time to choose the sun / I'll choose the sun.” Scott is only 24 years. She has plenty of time to choose the sun, and we’re glad to bear witness to the process.
Chris Stapleton: “Traveller”
Release Date: May 4, 2015
Lexington, Kentucky / now Nashville
Kentucky boy Chris Stapleton had already hit the songwriter jackpot in Nashville, penning No. 1 hits for the likes of Kenny Chesney, Darius Rucker and Josh Turner. In other words, he didn’t have to make a solo album — and he certainly didn’t have to make a solo album like this one, which dispenses with almost every characteristic of modern country radio hits in pursuit of a harder and deeper brand of country. “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” is hands-down the country song of the year for us. We had to pull off the road and cry the first time we heard it. And his re-interpretation of “Tennessee Whiskey,” which was a hit for both David Allen Coe and George Jones, is a masterpiece. He turns the country chestnut into a soul song that sounds like something from the heyday of the Muscle Shoals sound. And “Might as Well Get Stoned” sounds like a great, lost Lynyrd Skynyrd song. “Now every time I watch the TV, another soldier dies / Another brother’s gone, another mother cries / Now I know they’ve got a job to do, but if I had one wish / I wish they’d all come home, so we could all get stoned.” Amen, brother.
John Moreland: “High on Tulsa Heat”
Release Date: April 21, 2015
This Kentucky kid cut his teenage musical chops playing punk rock in Tulsa, where his family moved when he was 10 years old. But when he was 19, something changed. “I’d just overexposed myself to punk and hardcore to the point that it just didn’t do anything for me anymore,” he says. So he forsook the loudness for quiet songs with quiet guitars. “I think what appealed to me about it was lyrics,” he says. “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.” That’s the way we feel now when we hear “High on Tulsa Heat.” Moreland’s songs are like salt in your deepest emotional wounds. It’s an album full of standouts; it’s hard to pick a favorite, but we do keep hitting the repeat button on “American Flags in Black and White,” a song about an Oklahoma man deep into a life of trying to protect himself and his family from the tornadoes that too often ravage the state. The song enters the man’s life at the point when he can no longer hold back the emotion and is digging into his past for memories to hold onto. “The well that held those tears couldn't make it one more year / I guess there's a loser in every fight / Your favorite version of the past, you found in a photograph / American flags in black and white.”
Andrew Bryant: “This Is the Life”
Release Date: January 27, 2015
Water Valley, Mississippi
You’ve probably never heard of this guy, either. Maybe you’ve heard of the band of which Andrew Bryant constitutes one third, the Water Liars. We love the Water Liars, but we didn’t quite know what to expect when Bryant released this solo album early in the year. But when we heard it, we liked it right off. Since we like turning y’all on to music you haven’t heard, we even bought several copies for our General Store. We still have a few, but we expect they’ll be gone soon after you read this. Here’s why: “This Is the Life” is the record we just couldn’t escape this year. It was an earworm of the best kind, letting us find something new inside it every time it went back on the turntable in our office, which was often. The record sounds to us like what might happen if one of our favorite Southern songwriters — say, Guy Clark — wound up fronting a garage band with loud guitars and an old Farfisa electric organ. Then, as the record sucked us into paying close attention to its lyrics, we gave up all resistance. While James McMurtry can write a movie in 10 verses, it seems Bryant has the ability to do it in three. His songs are tight vignettes of life’s pieces and episodes. One of the greatest examples is “Friendly Cops,” in which Bryant returns home to find his old friends have become cops. They pull him over for a routine stop. “And that’s when they found the guns / And I decided not to run / And that’s when they found out who I was / And I decided not to run.” Songs that can sucker-punch you like that — and do it with such economy of language — are rare in this world. Plus, it seems Bryant is handy with advice, too. The first song on the album concludes, “You were made to do what you love. So do what you love.” In a fragmented world of deep economic instability, that advice seems more than just profound. It seems handy.
Leon Bridges: “Coming Home”
Release Date: June 23, 2015
Fort Worth, Texas
Leon Bridges’ rise to stardom this year — complete with an appearance on “Saturday Night Live” and Apple Inc. calling on him to license his album’s title song for a commercial — was shocking in its speed. Now, lots of worthless, crappy music gets attention every year, but sometimes, the marketplace does indeed reward great work. Yes, “Coming Home” is by anyone’s definition a “retro” kind of soul album, but haven’t you ever wondered why the Southern soul music that rose up in the 1960s is always labeled “retro” when it’s used as a reference point? That dynamic doesn’t hold in jazz, for instance, where no one ever get dissed for playing trumpet like Miles Davis in the 1960s. Great forms of music are born and then evolve in myriad ways, but those who preserve jazz in the various states of its evolution — and do it well — usually win praise. The same should hold true for soul, we think. So it’s high praise when we say that the spirit of Sam Cooke has clearly come to live in the 24-year-old Texan body of Leon Bridges. Like Natalie Prass’ record, “Coming Home” was recorded in an indie-spirited studio — this time a place called Niles City Sound in Fort Worth — on vintage equipment. More importantly, Bridges has the kind of voice that makes soul music come fully alive. It’s expressive, sprightly and, when warranted, dramatic. We have heard few songs this year that move us quite so much as the final cut, “River.”
Alabama Shakes: “Sound & Color”
Release Date: April 21, 2015
When “Sound & Color” came out early this year, it just took one listen before we thought, “There’s no way this isn’t the best Southern record of the year.” As countless competitors appeared on our list, and as we continued to listen to Brittany Howard and crew’s second album, our initial judgment stuck. With their first album, the Shakes also presented themselves as something of a soul-revival band, and they did it well so we respected them for it. But we had no idea they had within them an album of the depth, breadth and ambition that characterize “Sound & Color.” Boston Globe critic Sarah Rodman nailed it when she wrote, “Anyone who has experienced the raw power of the band’s live show and Howard’s gale-force howl learned that the hype was earned, and ‘Sound & Color’ makes clear this success was not a fluke. This is the sound of a band that’s in it for the long haul, amplifying what worked the first time, and stretching in new directions to challenge both the performers and their listeners.” This record veers from soul to psychedelia to rock with complete effortlessness. Howard’s lyrics, wavering as ever between desperation and hope, now have musical settings that truly merit her adventurous, exploring spirit. Folks, this really is about the best thing a music fan can hope for: to have a favorite band with seemingly infinite talent and to have absolutely no clue what they will do next with it. Alabama Shakes have become that rarest of musical beasts: a band that keeps you guessing, but never fails to enthrall.