What are the best albums of 2015? Here are my top ten of the year.
I am happy to say that 2015 was a strong year for music. What started out looking like a sparse year for music quickly turned around thanks to a spectacular second half of 2015.
At the beginning of the year, I had low hopes for music albums. Many of my favorite artists had either recently dropped new music in 2014 (The National) or showed no signs of releasing albums in 2015 (Wilco, Josh Ritter). And nobody knew for sure when Adele’s third album would actually drop, since it had been rumored for years without any confirmation.
A lot of critically acclaimed albums (Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, Sleater-Kinney’s No Cities to Love for name a few) didn’t make the list, not because they didn’t merit inclusion, but because I haven’t listened to him and couldn’t make a reasonable judgment on their qualities.
But the music I did come across this year did not disappoint. Without further ado, here is my top ten albums of 2015.
#10. Josh Ritter – Sermon on the Rocks
What we said in our original review:
“Sermon on the Rocks” find the singer-songwriter wanting to get down up on the mountaintop. Recorded exclusively in New Orleans, Ritter and his Royal City Band find inspiration in a city known for this dichotomy between the sacred and the secular. The overall mood of the album is one of partying while contemplating religious topics of repentance, purpose, and truth. You will hear a bit of soul, honky-tonk country, and folk-rock delivered with sincerity, vivid imagery, and a bit of playfulness. He has called his latest album “messianic oracular honkytonk”.
“Sermon on the Rocks” is his rebound album. Here we find Ritter rebounding in life and in art. This album tackles serious topics of history, religion, and the everyman. Ritter doesn’t have to commentate on religion – he lets his characters and their lives speak for themselves. “Getting Ready To Get Down” tells the all-too-familiar tale of overly pious parents trying to control their blossoming daughter by shipping her off to Bible College, only to find out that all they’ve done is stimulated her mind (and maybe other parts of her) with a wealth of knowledge concerning lust, free will, and other worldly pleasures.
You can hear a bit of Dylan, Waits, Cohen, and Paul Simon in his music. But make no mistake, Josh Ritter stands on his own shoulders. If you’re looking to try out some new music, give “Sermon on the Rocks” a shot. By the end you’ll probably be getting down to it.
#9. Lord Huron – Strange Trails
Strange Trails is the type of album I tend to enjoy regardless of its critical merits. Lord Huron create a rustic, pastoral folk sound that I gravitate to in the same way that I fell hard for Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver. “Fool for Love” encapsulates the sweeping melodies and imagery that is synonymous with indie-folk ensembles, but the album is skillfully made from start to finish. Lead singer Ben Schneider’s lyrics may focus a little too much on the nature imagery, but overall, Strange Trails is a welcome step from a band that continues to grow in confidence and musical output.
#8. Florence + The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
The third full-length release for the British indie rock band is their most accomplished yet. Florence Welch has discovered the judicious use of her operatic vocals. Restraint has actually increased the emotional depth of her lyrics and the music. The music would be well-suited for both indie festivals and arena-size performances. Full of catchy hooks that are never drowned out by vocal theatrics, Delilah stands head and shoulder as the high point of the album, a song that would fail in the hands of a less assured and talented artist. Fortunately, such descriptions do not apply to Florence Welch, who weaves atmospheric choral arrangements with pulsating piano, handclaps, and falsetto vocals to create one of the most accessible art-rock songs in years.
#7. Adele – 25
What we said in our original review:
Adele gives her fans exactly that they want and expect – powerful vocals, emotionally deep ballads, and a musical landscape of nostalgic pop and soul music. She doesn’t radically reinvent the wheel, but credit to her that the album as a whole is very strong. “Hello” is sweeping and serene at the same time. It’s the sound of an artist who has been off the radar for years and wishes to reconnect.
The album also provides growth and maturity through subtle textures and sounds. The growth and change doesn’t draw attention to itself in the way that her more sweeping moments did on ‘21.’ You may have to listen to this album over and over to pick up on some of the less showy choices that she has made.
Adele’s ‘25’ is strikingly sincere, soulful, and uncomplicated. It’s a modest but welcomed step forward in her already phenomenal career.
#6. Leon Bridges – Coming Home
Coming Home, Leon Bridge’s eagerly awaited debut, was the easiest album to enjoy. Its pleasures are simple and uncomplicated. Classic doo-wop and soul sounds that harken back to a distant era of vinyl, AM radio, and the explosion of Motown and Philly soul. Lisa Sawyer is a tender and heartfelt ode to his own mother and the sacrifices and hardships she has endured. And the title track sounds as timeless as its themes of family, home, and love. Bridges’s phrasing helps emphasize his smooth vocals. Few of the ten tracks clock in longer than three minutes, but even the length of the album harkens back to the 45’s of the past when a pop song rarely extended past the three minute mark. Simple but not derivative, Coming Home is one of the best albums of 2015.
#5. Fargo, Season Two Soundtrack
Disclaimer: an official soundtrack for the second season of FX’s Fargo is not currently available. But have no fear, because the fervent fans of the show (I being one of them) have combed the internet over to discuss and share the musical highpoints of the best show of 2015. The music often provides clues to the show and links it back to the cinematic world that has been created by the Coen Brothers. For me, it’s all about the cover songs, some of the best in recent memory. Bon Iver and the Chieftains cover of “Down in the Willow Garden.” Jeff Tweedy covers Jose Feliciano’s “Let’s Find Each Other Tonight” (which was performed by Feliciano himself in the original film, “Fargo”). Blitzen Trapper contributed a searing 70s rock ‘n’ roll version of “Man of Constant Sorrow,” again linking the show to another Coen Brothers film, O Brother Where Art Thou. Lisa Hannigan’s “Danny Boy” is haunting and tender, made all the more so by its use in the show (SPOILERS IN THE CLIP). And White Denim’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) is as funky and playful as the original.
#4. Allison Moorer – Down to Believing
There was no way Allison Moorer could become anything but a country singer. Her personal life is seeped in drama and tragedy. She was 14 years old when her parents were involved in a murder-suicide. Her most recent album, Down to Believing, addresses her recent divorce looming to Steve Earle and her struggles with John Henry, her 5 year-old son who was diagnosed with autism when he was 2. Her songs are powerful, raw, and always honest. Flowing with surprising continuity, the melancholy circumstances don’t swallow an album that is rocking, swampy, and restless. Allison’s eighth studio album is the finest of her career.
#3. Wilco – Star Wars
What we said in our original review:
Without warning or promotion, Wilco, my favorite band, released their ninth studio album Star Wars on July 16, 2015 as a surprise free download. Star Wars is loose, messy, and spontaneous, but not sloppy, thrown together, or inaccessible. If I had to pick one word to describe this album, it would be “energized.”
Random Name Generator is pure crunchy goodness. Did someone call up the ghost of George Harrison to get the guitar to sound that way? Drummer Glenn Kotche masterfully keeps the complex time signature afloat. You Satellite starts with a sound reminiscent of Sonic Youth, morphs into some of that familiar Velvet Underground magic, and builds to an extended, spacey two chord jam, spinning and spiraling endlesslessly to a noisy crescendo that abruptly stops. A strong album that is enhanced by it’s magnificent closer, Magnetized. The song is a quirky little tune with a Plastic Ono Band sound that fades in and out. If I make it sound complex, it’s not. In the end, Magnetized is a simple and sweeping piano ballad.
This album has a lot of Beatles and Lennon texture to it. The White Album kept popping into my mind as I listened to this album. Listen to the album with a quality pair of headphones. There are subtle sonic blips and channel slides along with gurgles and abrupt screeches that you might miss without the fun of listening to this with headphones.
Star Wars only reinforces that Wilco is the preeminent American band of the last 15 years.
#2. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit
“I think you’re a joke, but I don’t find you very funny” Courtney Barnett sings on Pedestrian At Best. Her takedowns of a former (or current) lover are biting and humorous. This song is aggressive, sarcastic, and buckets of fun, as long as she’s not singing about you. The Australian singer-guitarist has created a cohesive and tight full-length debut album. The production evokes some of the best 90s alternative rock music. Her confidence and humor is refreshing and made her album my biggest surprise of the year. Considering how much I love some of the artists that she beat to take the number 2 spot, Courtney Barnett had to do a lot to rank this high – she accomplished it with flying colors.
#1. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Sufjan is one of the most ambitious, creative, and sensitive singer-songwriters of this era or any other period. No singer approaches emotions, faith, confusion, and loss with more creativity and delicateness. He’s addressed his relationship with his mother (Romulus) and tackled the complexity of death, loss, and faith (Casimir Pulaski Day) in past songs, but nothing as sophisticated and expansive as Carrie & Lowell, the best album of 2015.
What we said in our original review:
Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens’s latest album and seventh overall, is a beautiful, tender, and poignant piece of art. It could be his greatest musical accomplishment. It certainly is Sufjan’s most mature album.
Named after his mother and stepfather, Carrie & Lowell’s lyrics focus on Sufjan’s complicated relationship with his mother and her battles with depression, schizophrenia, and addiction. Sufjan and his siblings grew up in Michigan but would visit Carrie and Lowell in Oregon for the five years that they were married. Although Carrie was in and out of Sufjan’s life, he was with her when she died in 2012.
I forgive you, mother, I can hear you,
And I long to be near you
But every road leads to an end
You’ll never see us again
— Death with Dignity
Sufjan jumps back and forth between themes of love, childhood, death, and stages of grief. He moves through time, simultaneously looking back and looking ahead. He remembers his mother and stepfather. He reflects on his out-of-control attempts to cope or numb himself (or both). Substance abuse and empty sexual encounters culminate in questioning the value of his own life.
The only thing that keeps me from cutting my arm
Cross hatch, warm bath, Holiday Inn after dark
— The Only Thing
You hear Sufjan still making sense of his mother’s passing. But the album floats between the physical death of his mother with other abstract or imagined losses. He struggles with those intangible losses with the hope of securing a stronger connection or more time with his mother.
Raise your right hand
Tell me you want me in your life
Or raise your red flag
Just when I want you in my life
— Blue Bucket of Gold
The album is heavy but not heavy-handed. And like most of his output, Sufjan sprinkles moments of levity, humor, and hope into his album. Despite his struggles with love, loss, death, and grief, Sufjan searches and finds beauty and goodness in small things that help tolerate his mother’s death.
My brother had a daughter
The beauty that she brings, illumination
— Should Have Known Better
Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie & Lowell is the best album of 2015.