By now you have read — or should have read — Kim’s piece on the Readers Poll, complete with its Top 50.
If you followed the voting, Isbell’s Something More Than Free was first out of the gate and led wire to wire. But unlike 2013, when Southeastern was the consensus pick (and dominated the 2014 AMA Awards), this year he was a well-known quantity. His hitting the top spot again speaks volumes to both his visibility and artistry. As he toured constantly between the albums, one can ask: Where did he find the time and creative energy to write and record such a great follow-up? It lends credibility to my thesis that it is harder to make a great second album than a first.
His surprise appearance at the AMA Awards show this year brought the house down. He also took the top spot in the combined ND critics poll. However, after that, ND’s readers and critics veered off into very different directions. Conspicuously absent from the critics poll were picks number two through five by the readers, including Chris Stapleton, who took the world by storm, and the usual critics’ favorite Dave Rawlings Machine. There were only two other albums that the polls had in common: Rhiannon Giddens and Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell. What’s going on here?
While I have not reviewed previous years’ lists, it seems they diverged even more so this year. Which brings forth the eternal question: What’s the role of the critic?
While I cannot speak for everyone, when I first began reviewing over 40 years ago, it was, and still is, fueled by my love of the music. Love can lead you up the highest of mountains, the lushest of valleys, and the darkest of alleys. What is discovered off the beaten path can often be different than what’s more visible or more readily available.
It’s not so much that critics know more than other listeners, it’s more likely that we are exposed to more, and exposed before others. I have always seen that as part of my role — to turn people on to stuff that should be getting wider exposure. After all, artists such as the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Townes Van Zandt, Richard Thompson, Bruce Springsteen, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, and Nick Drake all began as critics’ darlings.
Finally, I was very pleased to see the phenomenal Rhiannon Giddens in both Top 10 lists. I was also delighted that Joan Shelley and Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams were on the critics’ list. Campbell & Williams because they finally made a record more than worthy of their contribution and significance to Americana music, and Shelley because she is such a bright, young voice that should be heard by our readers.
Here, then are photos of the artists whose albums were selcted as the top albums of 2015, by the readers and the critics.