In 2015, country fans finally saw a dramatic shift in what Nashville had to offer. We certainly haven't heard the last of the fake-tan crooners and the bizarre hip-hop influences that artists like Sam Hunt bring to country, but the real news last year was that traditional country was making a comeback. Jason Isbell topped the rock, country and Americana charts simultaneously. Chris Stapleton appeared on the Country Music Association Awards with Justin Timberlake, causing a viral video sensation. It was, undoubtedly, a big year.
But if you don’t spend most of your time immersed in country music, it’s clear that many of 2015’s best tunes from the genre have gone completely unnoticed. As 2016 throttles ahead, the votes have been tallied and the results of the 2015 Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics Poll have been released. Not surprisingly, Kendrick Lamar received an unprecedented number of votes for To Pimp a Butterfly and indie sensation Courtney Barnett unlocked a veritable goldmine of critical appeal. Country music, on the other hand, got the shaft.
Or at least that’s how Jerry Reed would have put it. Country artists earned rave reviews in 2015, but it clearly wasn’t enough to rise to the cream of the musical crop. As evidence, not a single country album landed in this year’s Pazz & Jop top 10. Considering that the list is generally pop-oriented, that would make sense if it weren’t for the presence of Sturgill Simpson’s stunning 2014 performance on the list. If last year’s poll was indicative of anything, it was that good country would always prevail and have a place among elite artists of all genres.
Moreover, country’s absence from Pazz & Jop is in keeping with many other major publications’ year-end lists. Of Rolling Stone’s 50 Best Albums of 2015, only 5 could even be remotely described as country, and that’s if you’re including Don Henley’s heavily steel guitar-influenced effort and Isbell’s release, which refuses to even identify itself as a country record. Even legends, acts with established histories and fan bases like Dwight Yoakam, weren’t immune to the snub this year.
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More than that, the reception to country’s most critically acclaimed albums this year was bizarrely uneven. Kacey Musgraves’ Pageant Material landed at No. 8 on SPIN’s 50 Best Albums of 2015 list — the lone country entry in a sea of indie releases — while earning only about 50 (of roughly 500 possible) votes from Pazz & Jop critics. Lindi Ortega’s brilliant Faded Gloryville earned exactly zero, despite praise from NPR and Rolling Stone and everyone else in between.
Most egregiously, Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” has been omitted from far too many top 10 lists, despite being one of the best country songs of the year and demonstrating an impressive pop crossover. Even the Grammys, who hadn’t picked a country track for Song of the Year candidacy since 2011, recognized the brilliance of “Girl Crush,” and they’re not typically known for picking out the best that a genre has to offer. Mainstream country may not be where country’s biggest stories were in recent months, but a solid song is a solid song.
So what gives? Does country music have to produce these really transformative, arguably cutting-edge records (à la Simpson's Metamodern Sounds in Country Music) to get attention from critics who have to be dragged kicking and screaming to change their dial to country? Since when does a ridiculously solid country recording from Jason Isbell or Kacey Musgraves not pass muster to stand amongst artists like Kendrick Lamar? He’s decidedly at the top of his game, recording some of the best music of his time — but so is Isbell. So are Musgraves and Ortega.
That’s all enough to make you think that maybe last year was a fluke. Maybe Simpson’s success wasn’t a bellwether for broader acceptance of hard country music. But that would just be ridiculous. Country music has always struggled between the rock and hard place of trying to be universally appealing while also producing authentic, true-to-the-genre tunes, between the commercially viable and the artistically sound.
That struggle will continue, and perhaps even be amplified as artists like Stapleton rise up to take their place. But to judge country music holistically instead of looking at its individual successes, the artists who have deliberately clawed their way through the crap, is as offensive as reducing rock music to Nickelback. Sure, country might be responsible for some of that perception — no one’s saying this genre didn’t create a critical drought for itself — but that doesn’t justify excluding talented artists from the broader musical conversation.