1. Don Henley
"Cass County" With little left to prove, but plenty left to say — about life, love, and the times in which we live — the Eagles singer-songwriter poured his whole heart, and estimable voice into his first solo album in 15 years. The results are beautiful, heartbreaking, scathing, funny, and raucous. That Henley invited an A-list supporting cast, including Merle Haggard, Vince Gill, Martina McBride, and Miranda Lambert, to help tell his tales just makes the details that much more vivid.
2. Chris Stapleton
"Traveller" Every accolade this Kentucky singer-songwriter, formerly Nashville's best-kept secret, is now receiving is justly deserved. Belonging to that class of singers for whom the phone book would be rich material, as well as the category of songwriters (and song pickers) with an unerring sense of what fits their voices, Stapleton dug deep and struck country-soul gold.
"No Cities to Love" A blistering return for the formidable trio of drummer Janet Weiss, vocalist-guitarist Corin Tucker, and vocalist-guitarist Carrie Brownstein. Blazing and beautiful, "Cities" proves that going home again is not only possible but so is building on that foundation to make something even stronger.
4. Jason Isbell
"Something More Than Free" The Alabama singer-songwriter, who hit a high water mark with 2013's "Southeastern," somehow manages to surpass that accomplishment with a group of tracks that, while generally quieter, pack as much punch. Isbell's carefully crafted vignettes sound both classic and contemporary, and veer from hushed intimacy to brawny rock stomps.
5. Alabama Shakes
"Sound & Color" Led by the fierce and fearless howl of Brittany Howard and the songwriting prowess of the entire band, the blustery rockers kick up a racket that careens from proggy flights of fancy to earthy declarations. It all proves their acclaimed debut was no fluke.
6. ERIC CHURCH
"Mr. Misunderstood" A surprise album in the best sense: The country star dropped this splendid clutch of tunes without warning, and packed them stem to stern with his sharpest lyrics to date — many odes to the glory of music itself — plus dynamic vocals. Unfussy production from Jay Joyce lets the acoustic tracks breathe and the electric ones catch fire.
7. The Arcs
"Yours, Dreamily" Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys got together with some friends — including Richard Swift of the Shins and several Dap-Tones — and let it rip. The troupe gets trippy reaching for the stars sonically, but musically keeps toes tapping the ground with this captivating collection of garage rock and soul.
"25" Forget hype, sales records, and all those joked-about tears: Adele returned, mighty voice at the ready, with a worthy new batch of songs that feel incredibly personal to her, yet simultaneously relatable for listeners. It may not reach the artistic heights of "21," but "25" was still a very good year.
9. James Taylor
"Before This World" The original JT returns in fine form on his first album of original material in 13 years: sumptuous love songs, joyful memories, and poignant meditations on wars both internal and external, all sung in his timelessly warm croon and impeccably played by his gifted band. While Taylor never went away as a performer, it's a comfort and a pleasure to have his songwriting voice back in this world.
"Evermotion" This winsome-yet-adventuous collection found the Tufts-spawned quartet continuing its evolution, expanding sonic boundaries to include moody electronic and horn flourishes without ever losing sight of its core gifts for pop melodies and feathery harmonies.