There was a lot of great music in 2015. It’s that simple. Lots of places have made comprehensive “best-of” lists, giving the discerning listener an easily digestible ranking of the thousands of albums that came out last year.
I’m not here to do that. I know To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar is an incredible album, well-deserving of its spot near the top of most lists. I enjoyed it, but it’s not one of the 10 albums I found myself listening to repeatedly last year. I also just don’t listen to every genre thoroughly enough to even pretend that my list is comprehensive. That’s why I’m throwing down a top ten list of my favorite releases from last year, as well as some honorable mentions.
First the honorable mentions, in no real order.
Critically Acclaimed and Just Missing a Spot
Jason Isbell – Something More than Free: A great slice of roots/country southern rock. Possibly lesser in lyrical content than his last album, but I dig the full band sound on it more.
Chris Stapleton – Traveller: A great country album. The slew of awards it’s won and been nominated for in the past few months bear this out.
Alabama Shakes – Sound + Color: Nominated for a bunch of Grammys, the Shakes’ second album is considerably funkier and more lively than the group’s debut from a few years back.
Rhiannon Giddens – Tomorrow is my Turn: Just missed a spot on the top ten. What a voice. Great Americana/folk album, worth it just for the cover of Nina Simone’s “Black is the Color.”
Other Noteworthy Releases
Leon Bridges – Coming Home: Solid soul debut in the vein of Sam Cooke. His songwriting isn’t quite there yet, but the voice, production and throwback feeling his music evokes is.
Noel Gallagher – Chasing Yesterday: Strong release from Oasis’ primary songwriter. He could open the music up and be a little less stiff sonically, but it’s considerably more interesting album and rocks a bit more than his solo debut.
Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats – self-titled: What a slab of music. Big vocals, big guitars, big horns on songs like “S.O.B.” and “Trying So Hard Not to Know.” Great subtleties on the mid-tempo numbers and ballads. A Southern rock and soul album at its greasiest and finest.
The Top Ten
10) Bob Dylan – Shadows in the Night: Dylan doing Sinatra? Why not? Much like Tony Bennett’s Sinatra cover album from the ’90s, I prefer this to Ol’ Blue Eyes’ actual recorded output. The sparse production and minimalism of the band brings out the power of the songs themselves. And Dylan’s voice sounds better than it has in decades. Crooning lovelorn ballads suits him and showcases that Dylan’s voice, interests and songs (even if they’re just tunes from the Great American Songbook) transcend any one era or style.
9) Marilyn Manson – The Pale Emperor: I saw Manson live in 2012. He was a bloated, drunken mess, singing shitty versions of his popular songs and shitty versions of his shitty new material. This is easily his best and most musically relevant album since 2002. Instead of industrial-Goth shock-metal, he made a cohesive album about L.A. and the seedier side of life. He sounds like the Jim Morrison of grime and more motivated than he has been since he was hugely famous. Better than I expected and probably better than it has any right to be.
8) Brandi Carlile – The Firewatcher’s Daughter: What a great amalgamation of styles, vocal harmonies and songwriting. The title track is the best song Johnny Cash never wrote, “Mainstream Kid” is a rippin’ garage rocker and the lead single “Wherever is Your Heart” is a soaring piece of pop-folk. The album jumps across the roots music spectrum and is a testament to Carlile’s incredible voice and flexibility with different genres.
7) Titus Andronicus – A Most Lamentable Tragedy: A 29-track punk-rock/stadium rock opera. Bold in its ambition and nearly flawless in its execution, it tells the tale of a person who meets his doppleganger and the fallout of that event. “Lonely Boy” is a nasty glam rock number akin to the New York Dolls or T Rex and “(S)He Said/(S)He Said” is a 9-minute punk odyssey with a heavy splash of Springsteen thrown in for good measure. One of the more challenging albums I’ve heard in a while.
6) The Sonics- This is the Sonics: I covered the backstory behind this album when I interviewed the director of a documentary about the band. But here’s a short recap – The Sonics are a kickass garage/proto-punk band. The group made 2 ripping albums in the mid-1960s, then split up. This album is the first Sonics album in nearly 50 years and it sounds like it was recorded during the band’s heyday. It’s a rock album at it’s purest and simplest. The songs are short, loud and powerful. It’s raucous, awesome and makes younger bands look wimpy.
5) Pops Staples – Don’t Lose This: For most of the year, this posthumous release was my top album. The fact that a lot of the songs are rerecorded versions of Staple Singers tracks knocked it down a few notches, but it’s still a great album. Pops recorded the basic vocal and guitar tracks before his death, telling daughter Mavis, “Don’t lose this.” She didn’t, and between her backing vocals and Jeff Tweedy’s steady production, it sounds like a classic Staple Singers-type album, down to the sparse music and Pops’ minimalist, shimmery guitarwork.. The covers of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and “Slow Train Coming” are on par with the originals.
4) Father John Misty – Honeybear, I Love You: Recent listens of this album propelled it from the back of the top ten to this spot. I love this. Josh Tillman’s Father John Misty schtick is so compelling and his witty, profane take on folk and the singer-songwriter image crack me up. His style is probably an acquired taste, but any song with a line like “Lift up your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in” (“Chateau Lobby #4 [in C for 2 Virgins]) is a winner for me. The song “The Night Josh Tillman Came to our Apt.” features this gem of a passage: She says, like literally, music is the air she breathes/the malaprops make me want to fucking scream/I wonder if she even knows what that word means/Well, it’s literally not that. I love it.
3) Grace Potter – Midnight: Grace Potter was the darling of the new jam band movement through her work with the Nocturnals. She left that niche with Midnight, a really fun album more akin to early ’90s pop-rock than it is to the Allman Brothers. And it’s her best album to date. It’s fully realized musically, showcases her powerhouse vocals and is eminently sing-and-danceable. And it’s interesting, something I can’t say consistently about her previous work. The song “Your Girl” is probably my favorite song of last year, a dance tune that’s a throwback to Prince, pre-Purple Rain.
2) Anderson East – Delilah: Anderson East has seen a recent uptick in popularity and name recognition due to his relationship with country star Miranda Lambert. Hopefully it translates into album listens for him, because Delilah is a strong debut album. East switches from Stax/Muscle Shoals-style funk and soul dance numbers with tender countryish ballads with ease, none of it sounding false or inauthentic. It reminds me a lot of the Nathaniel Rateliff album, but more geared toward love, not lust, and with a better flow. It’s a great debut and is indicative of an immense talent that has a solid future ahead of him.
1) JD McPherson – Let the Good Times Roll: JD’s 2010 debut Signs and Signifiers is one of my favorite albums ever and I couldn’t wait for this, his second full-length release. I’ve described his sound before as Little Richard through a Buddy Holly filter and this album adds a bit of an early ’60s garage aesthetic to his repertoire. He croons sweetly on tender ballads like “Precious;” he rips it up on rockers like “Head Over Heels” and the punky “Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘Bout the All-American.” The last number there features one of the coolest lyrical turns of this, or any year, with “Hair falling down like a razor blade/breaking every heart by the way she played.” It’s a tighter sounding and produced album than Signs and Signifiers and while it doesn’t hold the sentimental attachment that one has for me, I hold it in very high regard. If more albums sounded like this one, I’d be ecstatic.