I’ve been writing about music for nearly 25 years and can’t recall a year with so many exceptional Southern albums, songs, and artists (and I don’t think it’s my old-man selective memory). From Americana to Atlanta hip hop and everything in between (hello, outlaw country!) the music of the South has never sounded more vital, challenging, but most of all, ALIVE. Here are my picks for the very best of 2015.
Album of the Year: Alabama Shakes Sound & Color
If the Shakes had stayed the course with the brand of retro blues of their 2012 debut, Boys & Girls, no one would have thought any less of them. But instead on Sound & Color, they went all psychedelic soul-jam on us, creating a mix of trippy slow-burners along with stompers like “Don’t Wanna Fight” in which lead singer Brittany Howard coaxes and teases with an otherworldly falsetto. Instead of playing it safe, the Shakes have become one of the most captivating, dynamic American rock bands going.
Song of the Year: Kacey Musgraves “Biscuits”
Forgive her for the cornball Hee-Haw title; Musgraves is one of country music’s smartest songwriters. “Biscuits” is a sly, cheeky order to be what you want and not worry about the naysayers. In simple but nuanced lines like, “Mind your own biscuits, and life will be gravy,” Musgraves serves up a twenty-first-century anthem about the power of thinking for yourself.
Best Album You Might’ve Missed: Deerhunter Fading Frontier
If the Alabama Shakes are the mainstream rock kings, Deerhunter are the undercard darlings. With each of their seven albums, the Atlanta-based outfit—fronted by Bradford Cox, one of the most engaging, mercurial lead singers in rock—has shifted from noise rock, mutant disco, and weirdo jazz moments. On the glorious Fading Frontier, the band has created their most accessible album to date, a fuzzy pop masterpiece that combines the jangly shimmer of early R.E.M., the classic rock crunch of Tom Petty, and a dash of 1950s doo wop.
Artist of the Year: Chris Stapleton
With all due respect to Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson, no one captured the country-music zeitgeist like Chris Stapleton. Best known for penning hits for the likes of Kenny Chesney and Luke Bryan, Stapleton destroyed bro-country with his epic solo debut Traveller. With a rich baritone that could topple buildings in a single note, Stapleton’s staggering performance with Justin Timberlake at the CMA awards in November vaulted him into the mainstream consciousness, and he went on to nab three awards, including Male Vocalist of the Year. Stapleton added another jewel to the crown with a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. The competition is stiff—Hey there, Alabama Shakes! Hi, Taylor!—but with his hot streak, don’t bet against him.
Best Cover: Rhiannon Giddens “Black is the Color”
On her solo debut, Tomorrow Is My Turn, the insanely talented Giddens doesn’t toss off versions of songs from the likes of Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton, she fully possesses them, conjuring their artistic spirit while creating her own versions that range from devastating to gorgeous. It’s tough to pick just one, but her most fearless is a bouncy, upbeat take of “Black Is The Color,” an Appalachian folk song made popular by Nina Simone’s haunting version.
Best Backing Band: Buick 6 (for Lucinda Williams)
Lucinda has the whole package with Buick 6, consisting of drummer Butch Norton, bassist David Sutton, and Stuart Mathis, himself a guitar god of some repute. After opening for Williams on her recent tour with their own set of mostly instrumental twang and Texas boogie, the band gave way to Williams, adding top-flight playing to her emotionally vivid storytelling. Make sure to check out Buick 6’s own 2015 album, the aptly titled Plays Well With Others, a sure-fire, honky tonk party-starter.
Best Live Event: Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson
Oh, to be a pew in the Ryman for the last week of October. Isbell kicked things off with four sold out shows, while Simpson closed it out with three of his own. Both of them switched up their set list each night (to the delight of fans who managed to snag tickets for more than one show), dipping deep into their respective catalogs as well as tossing in some choice classic-rock covers (Isbell with the Rolling Stones’ “Sway,” Simpson with Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks”), proving they don’t call Nashville “Music City” for nothing.
Best OMG Moment: Ryan Adams Finally Covering “Summer of ‘69”
For years, North Carolina-born alt rocker Ryan Adams has been barraged with audience requests to cover the 80s Bryan Adams hit, once even ejecting a heckler from his 2002 show at the Ryman, giving the man his $30 back—the cost of the ticket—and refusing to play another song until the fan left. Well, in April, Ryan finally made amends, busting out a solo, acoustic version of the song to hoots and hollers from the dumbstruck crowd. Imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery.
We lost four Southern titans of music in 2015: B. B. King brought his country blues from Mississippi to the world (the B. B. stands for “Blues Boy,” perhaps the most appropriate moniker in modern music). Allen Toussaint twinkled the keys and became one of the most iconic musicians in New Orleans music history. And though saxophonist Ornette Coleman—the architect of the free jazz style—was born in Fort Worth, Texas, he spent his early career with a traveling minstrel troupe playing gigs throughout the South. And Percy Sledge, one of the South’s greatest soul singers whose indelible single, “When A Man Loves A Woman” is one of the greatest and most recognizable songs in music history. Here’s hoping they all continue to create beautiful music in a better place.