by John Ellis
Staring at the pile of CDs on my desk I’m struck by the realization that I have made this fourth quarter ranking more complicated than necessary. You see, I have two stacks of CDs – one stack contains albums actually released during the fourth quarter of 2015; the other stack contains almost thirty albums released during 2015 that I missed on their actual release date. The two stacks are bleeding together in my ears and mind.
Originally, for this article, I had planned to also include a list ranking my favorites from that second stack – albums released during the first three quarters of 2015 that I had previously missed. But I quickly decided against it since I’m also working on a final ranking of my favorite albums of 2015. That leaves the ten albums released during 2015’s fourth quarter that I evaluated, making my task quite a bit easier. Nine of those albums I love, but, for the sake of symmetry, all ten are on this list.
- 25 – Adele
25 isn’t bad. The chart-topping album does makes me sad, however, because I think that the reason so many people praise and buy it is because they long for better art than what is foisted on them by Clear Channel, but don’t know where to find it. Adele is artistically light years away from most of her Billboard chart residing peers, but she lags far behind the likes of Rhiannon Giddens, Brandi Carlile, and Courtney Barnett. I mean, the only reason that 25 is on this list is because I wanted an even ten entries. To be clear, I don’t dislike 25, but considering the amount of excellent music released during 2015, I have very little reason to ever listen to it. My ten-year old daughter likes 25, though, for what it’s worth.
- My Stupid Heart – Shawn Mullins
Over the last several years, for my birthday, I’ve treated myself to concerts featuring musicians from my “youth.” Among others, I’ve had the joy of seeing The Black Crowes play “She Talks to Angels” live, and Marc Cohn play “Walking in Memphis.” I think, this year, I’m going to try and catch Shawn Mullins live. I’m confident that I still have “Lullaby” memorized. If I am able to catch Mullins live, it will help that his new material is very good. Allowing his skills as a storyteller to be fully embraced by Americana, My Stupid Heart has been one of 2015’s musical surprises for me.
- The Burning Edge of Dawn – Andrew Peterson
I’ll be honest, I bought The Burning Edge of Dawn in order to score points with my wife; I didn’t expect to actually like the album. But here it sits at number eight. An unabashedly Christian album that adroitly avoids both the saccharine and artificial triumphalism, The Burning Edge of Dawn demonstrates that aesthetic excellence is the Christian’s birthright.
P.S. I almost wrote about The Burning Edge of Dawn for my No Depression column, but wasn’t sure how Peterson’s fan base would respond.
- Divers – Joanna Newsom
Don’t be fooled by the fact that Divers is seemingly conventional in its structure, as opposed to its accomplished and obviously adventurous sister albums, Ys and Have One on Me. Newsom’s latest still has the airy, conceptual bravado that has impressed and intrigued music lovers for over ten years now. Possibly the most accessibly inaccessible artist of her generation, Joanna Newsom has delivered an album that conforms to her unique style without being constrained by it. On top of her musicianship, Newsom’s skill as a lyricist is fully displayed on Divers; and with that skill, Newsom has given 2015 its most thought provoking set of love songs released this year.
- Gone Like the Cotton – The Cox Family
Gone Like the Cotton was an album seventeen years in the making. Rescued from the dustbin by Alison Krausse, The Cox Family’s final album with their patriarch and matriarch, is bluegrass music for bluegrass fans as well as for those who would be bluegrass fans if they weren’t impeded by their own misplaced musical snobbery. The voice of Suzanne Cox, the daughter, is worth the price of admission alone.
- Hello I Feel the Same – The Innocence Mission
Few artists understand the tension at play in our world as does the husband and wife team that comprise The Innocence Mission. That tension is strung along the through line of action that the world was once good, is now bad, and will one day be good again. Hello I Feel the Same weaves that through line of action throughout the heart of some of the most beautiful and enjoyably introspective songs since, well, the last album from The Innocence Mission.
- The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us – Beach Slang
Optimistic punk seems like an oxymoron, but Beach Slang doesn’t care. Obey James Alex and “turn the stereo up,” then sloppily and loudly embrace someone while you do something, anything, to the inspiring, balls-to-the-wall The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us.
- Art Angels – Grimes
Art Angels is dance music for the cerebral. But dance music, nonetheless. And that’s a good thing. Everyone loves to dance, or, rather, everyone should love to dance. Understanding that pop music doesn’t have to sacrifice experimentation and aesthetic nuance, Grimes (Canadian Claire Boucher) has produced this year’s best pop album. In doing so, she is becoming more accessible as she matures artistically.
- Fading Frontier – Deerhunter
Brandon Cox, Deerhunter’s front man, is possibly rock and roll’s most dangerous man. He understands the power of chaos in a way that the current crop of pop-exhibitionists can only hint at with their narcissistic pretense. Of course, if your only interaction with Deerhunter is through the Atlanta based band’s brilliant, dream-pop-ish 2015 release Fading Frontier, you’re probably confused by my initial description of Brandon Cox. If you understand him, and his band, in totality, you get it. Fading Frontier, in the words of Cox, is “a domestic record.” But, if you’re Brandon Cox, “domestic” is simply the unmoving center of chaos.
- Holding Hands With Jamie – Girl Band
“Wow!” is pretty much all I have to say about Holding Hands With Jamie. I mean, I love this album from Irish post-punk rockers Girl Band, but I’m still trying to process it. The album’s emotional ferocity pins listeners down and water-boards them with the freshest and most wonderfully distorted post-punk since, … dare I? … Joy Division. See the world as it actually is.
 Yes, you read that right. Unless I have an actual physical copy of the album, I have trouble convincing myself that I actually own it. I’ve worn Dr. Martens since 1994, is anyone actually surprised that I prefer CDs over MP3 files?
 The lyrics are bad. Well, juvenile is probably more apropos. But, to be fair, considering that the reading comprehension level of pop music lyrics has been steadily declining over the last decade, that’s to be expected. Adele has to compete in a marketplace that depends on the dollars from kids. Her voice is good, not great, not interesting, merely good. Rhiannon Giddens’ voice blows Adele’s voice away. 25 is ok.
 Think Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, et al.