And the winners are...
1. Leon Bridges – Coming Home (Columbia)The irresistibly smooth retro-soul newcomer will leave you wondering if this album is a lost 60s gem, but pay attention to the heart behind the voice, and it’s clear there’s more to Leon Bridges’ Sam Cooke-era throwback vibe than nostalgia alone.
2. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats – Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats (Stax)
The former folkie has reinvented himself as a hipster R&B revivalist with a Southern accent and a killer band.
3. Anderson East – Delilah (New Elektra)
Take a healthy dose of Muscle Shoals mojo, mix it with the slightest sprinkle of Nashville twang, toss in a heapin’ helpin’ of Van Morrison’s brand of blue-eyed soul, and you’ll get a sense of this excellent major label debut from the Alabama native who should be getting more ink for his great music than for his recently-publicized relationship with Miranda Lambert.
4. Houndmouth – Little Neon Limelight (Rough Trade)
This record is an eclectic collection of Americana gems that fills the space that separates gritty Southern rock from Jayhawks jangle.
5. Andra Day – Cheers to the Fall (Warner Bros.)
OK, so a pattern is already emerging with the Top 5, as exemplified by another “retro” styled record – this time from a phenomenal singer with an amazingly powerful voice who falls into the Amy Winehouse / Adele tradition, while carving out an identity all her own.
6. JD McPherson – Let the Good Times Roll (Rounder)
I’m tempted to say that if Jackie Wilson was a white rockabilly artist he’d be J.D. McPherson, but there’s much more to this album than rockabilly, which flows from rollicking to smooth and back again while consistently harnessing a crackling energy that makes JD McPherson one of the most exciting singer-songwriters around.
7. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free (Southeastern Records)
The Americana darling proves, once again, why he’s regarded as one of the best songwriters on the scene who somehow just keeps getting better and better.
8. Andrew Combs – All These Dreams (Coin Records)
Lush layers of melodic but tasteful twang create the perfect bed for Combs’ soul-tinged vocals, which instantly hook you with their effortlessly expressive authenticity.
9. Adele – 25 (Columbia)
Do I really need to describe an album you already have?
10. Wilco – Star Wars (Anti/Epitaph)
The surprise new album from Jeff Tweedy and company is sprawling, adventurous, experimental, and all the other things that make Wilco. . . well, Wilco.
11. Chris Stapleton – Traveller (Mercury Nashville)
Though he’s been on the scene for years, the soulful outlaw traditionalist with a Waylon Jennings spirit broke out big time in 2015 with this much-lauded solo debut that’s supposedly going to single-handedly save country music from the fluffy disposable fare that’s dominated the genre’s radio programming lists for the last decade or so. But I still don’t know why he spelled it all British.
12. Ashley Monroe – The Blade (Warner Music Nashville)
Another would-be country music savior, Monroe’s latest effort explores an array of Southern themes with top-notch songwriting and an easy vocal delivery that continues the excellent standard set on her previous album, Like a Rose.
13. Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color (ATO Records)
Far from a repeat of their amazing 2012 debut, Alabama Shakes stretch out into adventurous new territory, proving that they’re one of the great American rock and roll bands.
14. Eileen Jewell – Sundown Over Ghost Town (Signature Records)
I really love listening to this cozy collection of songs, which somehow captures a warm bluegrass vibe with shimmering electric guitars, which pretty much means it’s not a bluegrass album at all.
15. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)
The celebrated singer-songwriter finds cohesion in the various musical themes he’s touched on previously, while also achieving a heart-on-the-sleeve intimacy that makes this his best album yet.
16. Lindi Ortega – Faded Gloryville (Last Gang Records)
If 1972 Linda Ronstadt and 1978 Stevie Nicks had a baby who took a stack of Loretta Lynn records and moved to a trailer in the desert to experiment with her sound, the result might be something like this lush and lonesome slice of rootsy goodness.
17. The Arcs – Yours Dreamily (Nonesuch)
Dan Auerbach’s self-styled “garage band” side project isn’t a complete departure from his day job in the Black Keys, but the reverb-drenched psychedelic experimentations and hooky blues-based guitar riffs are well worth your time.
18. Darlene Love – Introducing Darlene Love (Columbia)
The voice of many classic Phil Spector records [“He’s a Rebel,” credited to the Crystals, and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” among them], Love proves she’s still got it on this long-overdue solo album produced by Steven Van Zandt, and bolstered by a couple of new songs from Van Zandt’s E-Street boss, Bruce Springsteen.
19. Tame Impala – Currents (Interscope)
Writing every song, producing the album, and playing all the instruments himself, Kevin Parker has birthed a boldly layered classic pop-rock record that is thoroughly modern but, thankfully, haunted by the ghosts of rock and roll past.
20. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom & Pop)
The Australian critical darling’s debut album captures an appealing rough-around-the-edges immediacy that’s marked by an intentionally disaffected vocal delivery that comes across as alternately funny and disarming.
21. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear (Sub Pop)
One of the more sprawling and strange albums on this list, J. Tillman’s second record as Father John Misty captures a sonic space where the Wall of Sound meets Laurel Canyon, as best exemplified on the scathingly funny track “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt.” (which is, by the way, the only song I’ve heard that successfully incorporates the word “malapropos” in the lyrics.)
22. Delta Saints – Bones (Loud & Proud)
Sweaty and swampy, the Delta Saints’ latest is all sinewy slide guitars and greasy grit with an indie rock sensibility.
23. Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material (Mercury Nashville)
Like Ashley Monroe, Kacey has made the list before and – also like Ashley – she’s come up with another album of left-of-center country authenticity that is sharp, smart, insightful and a consistent breath of fresh air.
24. Ironing Board Sam – Super Spirit (Big Legal Mess)
The legendary blues keyboardist may be in his mid-70s, but his latest effort proves he’s still as cool, soulful, and fun as ever.
25. Best Coast – California Nights (Harvest)
The L.A. outfit’s third album is all hard-edged pop spangle and jangle with crunchy guitars that conjure up the spirit of the early Cure blended with Liz Phair back when she seemed slightly dangerous.
26. Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors – Medicine (Magnolia Music)
This easy-going, organic, and understated record is a modern folk effort with mid-1970s sensibilities that goes down nice and smooth.
27. Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard – Django and Jimmie (Sony Legacy)
Two of the greatest living American songwriters (not to mention two of the coolest grizzled outlaw badasses) join forces to show the whipper snappers they’ve still got what it takes to score a number one country album despite (or maybe because of) their combined 160 years.
28. Beirut – No No No (4AD)
Zach Condon’s latest effort with Beirut is a tightly programmed set of crisp goodness that sounds to me like what a clean house would sound like if it had a sound (I realize this makes no sense whatsoever).
29. Rhiannon Giddens – Tomorrow is My Turn (Nonesuch)
The debut album from the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ singer and instrumentalist is a fantastically restrained T Bone Burnett production that showcases Giddens’ beautifully versatile voice.
30. John Moreland – High on Tulsa Heat (Old Omens)
From folky finger picking with Springsteen gutsiness to loping twangy guitars with Tom Petty edge, Moreland is a fine Americana multitasker in the Steve Earle vein.
31. My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall (Capitol)
Big reverb and dreamy soundscapes make for an ambitious but unpretentious offering from Jim James and his band of (sort of) merrymakers.
32. Rayland Baxter – Imaginary Man (ATO Records)
A particularly accessible spin on pop-inflected singer-songwriter warmth.
33. Calexico – Edge of the Sun (Anti/Epitaph)
With notably tasty horns and steel guitar lines that subtly poke through at just the right moments, I would describe this diverse (but not disjointed) record as “dusty” (though I have no idea what I mean by that).
34. Lucero – All a Man Should Do (ATO Records)
This fantastic rootsy Memphis band has released 10 or more albums, but for whatever reason haven’t seemed to attract the widespread attention they richly deserve.
35. Melody Gardot – Currency of Man (Verve)
Gardot takes a step away from the Diana Krall and Norah Jones brand of pop-jazz that marked her earlier (and also very good) work, to embrace a healthy dose of Sade-like sensuality and smooth, funky 70s swagger.
If you like revved up twangy West Coast country, Dwight is still a consistent choice.
37. Mark Ronson – Uptown Special (RCA)
Try to forget that you’ve heard “Uptown Funk” 5,678,431 times already and just remember that it’s so freakin’ good that the single alone (never mind that there are plenty of other great tracks on the album) makes this release worth the price of admission (which has probably become a meaningless phrase because now music is free since nobody values it anymore - and, yes, I’m getting old and crotchety and I’m gonna grouse about it - and, yes, I know I posted a Spotify playlist at the top of this post).
38. John Jorgenson – Divertuoso (Cleopatra Records)
The overly ambitious guitar master’s 3 disc release of new material devotes one disc each to his electric band, his gypsy jazz quintet, and his bluegrass group - with the gypsy jazz stuff being the most jaw-droppingly amazing.
39. The Hello Strangers – The Hello Strangers (IMI Records)
The debut release from these Austin based sisters is a big ol’ pile of rich and moody Americana goodness.
40. Donnie Fritts – Oh My Goodness (Single Lock Records)
This sparse but star-studded effort from the legendarily funky Muscle Shoals music man, Kris Kristofferson keyboardist, and Alabama Music Hall of Famer finds the 70-something songwriting master perfectly capturing an unadorned-after-hours-Southern-Saturday-night-cigarettes-and-whiskey sound that’s not pretty, but is completely engaging.
41. Beach House – Depression Cherry (Sub Pop)
This swimming and shimmery collection of songs is sonically interesting, but also kinda boring in a way that I find fascinating (not unlike the album cover).
42. Dale Watson – Call Me Insane (Red House Records)
The fiercely independent and heavily tattooed Austin-based alt country honky tonker is relentlessly vintage and, although his prolific recorded output isn’t always consistent, this record can easily be added to his long list of strong ones.
43. Kasey Chambers – Bittersweet (Sugar Hill)
I can’t explain it, but I’m a sucker for songs about houses that are actually about people, and Kasey’s written a great one with “House on a Hill,” which sits smack in the middle of a very strong but diverse record from the always dependable folk-rocking Australian singer-songwriter.
44. Cassandra Wilson – Coming Forth By Day (Sony Legacy)
Wilson’s much-celebrated jazz vocals are fantastic on this tribute to Billie Holiday, but the unusually dark, semi-experimental and bass-heavy mix will be an acquired taste for some.
45. Los Lobos – Gates of Gold (429 Records)
Though sometimes a bit meandering, this is a generally strong record with more than a few particularly exuberant moments that sound like warm summer sunshine on a lazy August day.
46. Asleep at the Wheel – Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys (Bismeaux Records)
In a way, all Asleep at the Wheel albums are a tribute to the legendary Western Swing pioneer, but this two-disc set - featuring collaborations with a cast that includes Lyle Lovett, the Avett Brothers, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Buddy Miller and many others - puts a fresh spin on the band’s interpretations of the man who spawned the genre for which they’ve nearly single-handedly kept the flame.
47. Patty Griffin – Servant of Love (Patty Griffin)
Griffin is one of the greatest songwriters around, and though this murky and moody meditation on heartbreak and loss is not her most accessible effort to date, it’s a strong album that you’ll appreciate more with each listen.
48. Pops Staples – Don’t Lose This (Anti/Epitaph)
At daughter Mavis Staples’ request, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy took the late Staples patriarch’s final guitar and vocal recordings from the 1990s and built new tracks around them for a result that’s a little eerie, but wholly thrilling, from the opening strains of Pops’ unmistakable tremolo guitar to the last note of his high-spirited live take of Bob Dylan’s “You Gotta Serve Somebody.”
49. Steve Earle – Terraplane (New West)
This blues-oriented album is not as strong a genre project as Earle’s excellent bluegrass album, The Mountain, from 1999 (which would be an impossible task because that album is so amazing), but is nevertheless a very strong collection of songs that illustrates his Texas blues roots and his effortless writing style.
50. Blackberry Smoke – Holding All the Roses (Rounder)
I’m not sure Blackberry Smoke is well served by the slicker tendencies of producer Brendan O’Brien (whom I usually love), but this killer Southern rock outfit is still one of the best live bands around, and I’ll take ‘em however I can get ‘em.