My 50 Favorite Albums of 2015

record pictureby John Ellis

Do you know how many albums are released each year? No, seriously, do you know how many? I ask, because as I stare at my notes referencing the albums that I’m considering for this list, I’m acutely aware that there are some glaring omissions in my 2015 music library. For example, I never got around to listening to Vulnicura from Bjork, Painted Shut from Hop Along, and Star Wars, the album Wilco gave away for free, to name three. Considering that I have several dozen glaring omissions that I’m aware of, how many albums have been released that I’m completely unaware of? It’s almost overwhelming. Hopefully this list, my fifty favorite albums of 2015, will introduce you to some interesting albums that have flown under your radar[1]. Likewise, hopefully at least a few readers will introduce me to some music that I missed by pointing out me to their favorite albums that I’ve missed.

Entering 2015, I determined to evaluate[2] at least one hundred albums. Well, as 2015 comes to a close, I need to confess that I have failed. I managed to evaluate a mere ninety six albums. I had a friend ask me why I didn’t just buy four albums to round it out. Well, it’s not that simple. For one thing, I no longer buy most of my music; it gets sent to me. In fact, if I wanted, I could go back through my back emails and download dozens upon dozens of albums that were sent to me by hopeful publicists, but are albums that, for one reason or another, I ignored[3]. For another thing, that would feel like cheating. I mean, listening to four albums solely so that I can reach the number 100 is unseemly, right?

Regardless, I have had ninety-six albums to re-wade back through – a mostly enjoyable, albeit time consuming, task. What follows are my fifty favorites, with some Honorable Mentions thrown in for good measure. The astute reader will undoubtedly pick up on the fact that this list has rearranged some of the rankings from my Favorite Albums for each of 2015’s quarters. That’s understandable, hopefully, since it stands to reason that as time passes, my opinions will shift somewhat.

As always, please let me know which albums that I’ve missed, how my rankings fall short in your estimation, and any other opinions, good or bad, that my Favorite Albums of 2015 provoke in you.

Honorable Mentions: Lowland Hum, Lowland Hum; Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, Belle and Sebastian; Medicine, Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors; Beautiful You, The Waifs; Gates of Gold, Los Lobos; Phantasmagoric, Grace & Tony; English Graffiti, The Vaccines; So Delicious, The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band; My Stupid Heart, Shawn Mullins; So There, Ben Folds; Sing Into My Mouth, Iron and Wine & Ben Bridwell; The Fire Tonight, The Fire Tonight.

  1. Bittersweet – Kasey Chambers

With Bittersweet, Kasey Chambers demonstrates how closely related Australia is to the Deep South. The Australian songstress has a voice that has sprouted out of the same rich musical soil that has produced the likes of Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline.

  1. Revelries – Humming House

If folk-rock has a party band, that band almost certainly is Humming House. The excellent musicianship of the band is complimented by a lack of self-importance producing a tight, driving sound that brings new life to old instruments. The band is great live, and they have done a good job of translating their live energy and sense of full-fledged enjoyment onto Revelries. By all means, buy Revelries if you have yet to do so, but do whatever you need to do in order to catch Humming House live. 

  1. The Phosphorescent Blues – The Punch Brothers

My editor at No Depression loves this album, and since she signs my checks, she can’t be wrong, right? Seriously, though, The Phosphorescent Blues is an album that I’ve gone back and forth on since its January release. I get why people love it. The musicianship is second to none, and it’s a beautifully intricate album. In fact, as I write this, as I listen, once again, to The Phosphorescent Blues, I’m considering a little re-ranking. But I won’t. Ultimately, while I firmly believe that it’s one of 2015’s best albums (it’s on my list, people), I don’t like it more than the forty-seven albums that are to follow. Know, however, that The Punch Brother’s are deserving of the many year-end-best-of mentions that The Phosphorescent Blues is receiving.

  1. Sound & Color – Alabama Shakes

I whiffed on Sound & Color earlier in the year, and I’m not too proud to admit it. Don’t be surprised if the sophomore album from Alabama Shakes hasn’t moved up several spots if I ever redo this list in a year or so. Brittany Howard’s vocal restraint on Sound & Color has allowed the band to begin the journey of transcending their Deep South Soul and Blues roots into a more nuanced universal musical landscape.

  1. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World – The Decemberists

Releasing What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World on January 20, The Decemberists ended their overly loyal fan’s music year early with this worthy addition to the band’s already impressive canon.

  1. Carrie & Lowell – Sufjan Stevens

Others have stated that Carrie & Lowell is Sufjan Stevens’ most personal album to date. I’m not a big enough fan of the singer-songwriter’s work to offer my assent, but his latest album is heartfelt and well-crafted.

  1. The Deslondes – The Deslondes

Take the best of Nashville, heap on generous portions of the souls of Americana troubadours, and mix spicy Cajun spirit throughout and I’m willing to bet that The Deslondes self-titled debut LP is what would emerge. 

  1. The Waterfall – My Morning Jacket

Every time I see The Preservation Hall Jazz Band in concert, I keep my fingers crossed in hopes that Jim James will appear on stage to sing “St. James Infirmary” with the band. Until that happens, again, I will thankfully listen to the multi-talented musician’s releases with My Morning Jacket. The Waterfall combines roots rock with California psychedelic rock, and the result is as interesting as it is listenable.

  1. Monterey – The Milk Carton Kids

Musical simplicity, thy name is The Milk Carton Kids. Don’t misunderstand, that simplicity is no deterrent to excellence. It’s going to be hard to find a better and more beautiful example of contemporary folk music than Monterey.

  1. Abyss – Chelsea Wolfe

Chelsea Wolfe isn’t afraid to lay bare her fears and struggles, and the combination of metal, gothic, and electronica on Abyss makes a great vehicle for her to tell her painful story.

  1. Chasing Yesterday – Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds

The most petulant of the Gallagher brothers formed his own band in 2011 after leaving Oasis. While not Oasis, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds amply demonstrates the vision and artistry that helped make Oasis one of the most revered bands of the mid and late 90s. The band’s latest album, Chasing Yesterday, is aptly titled as Gallagher takes the opportunity to sneer at some of his own past ghosts while simultaneously slamming the door shut on the past for those fans still longing for a return of (What’s the Story) Morninglory? era Oasis.

  1. Divers – Joanna Newsom

It amazes me, in a good way, that a musician like Joanna Newsom receives so much ink from the mainstream music press. I mean, a harpist that creates ethereal, intellectual music doesn’t lend itself to marketing to the masses. The fact that the many in the mainstream music media can’t resist Newsom’s allure speaks to the power of the music on Divers.

  1. The Trackless Wood – Iris DeMent

Russian poetry set to folk music? Well, of course.

  1. Gone Like the Cotton – The Cox Family

I’m from the Deep South. The Cox Family makes my people’s music. And they make it very well.

  1. 1532 – Drew Gibson

The more I get to know Drew Gibson, the more I appreciate his soul-baring 1532. And not because I now count him as a friend (I have many friends who make music who didn’t even come close to sniffing this list), but because he deeply cares about his craft. And it shows. 1532 contains some of 2015’s best songwriting. You can (and should) buy it here.

  1. Faded Gloryville – Lindi Ortega

Combining a big, quintessential country music voice with the rich spice from her Hispanic heritage, Lindi Ortega has once again released a country album that years from now will still receive playing time in my house. Faded Gloryville is an ode to the beautiful uncertainty found in chasing ever-moving dreams.

  1. Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass

This debut album from the Richmond, VA based singer-songwriter has a soulful horn section that is very reminiscent of Dusty in Memphis; which is appropriate since Prass’ voice will remind the listener of Dusty Springfield. A beautiful and romantic album that lays bare the years of pain found in recurring love and loss.

  1. The Most Lamentable Tragedy – Titus Andronicus

I’ve got to be honest, The Most Lamentable Tragedy may be the album on this list that’s getting the shortest shrift. By that, I mean that the double album from the punk band Titus Andronicus has been in my possession for months but, for some reason, I rarely listen to it. I am listening to it as I write this, however, and I’m betting that in the coming weeks, I’m going to regret ranking it as low as number thirty-three on this list. The Most Lamentable Tragedy is a five act rock opera that is a wonderfully bloated, loud mess that is almost perfect. The title paired with the band’s name should, by itself, tell people all they need to know.

  1. Music Complete – New Order

If you really listen, the 80s knew how to have fun but while often acknowledging the gloom that waited just outside the party. With that in mind, it makes sense that Joy Division gave way to the fun-yet-pessimistic New Wave music of New Order. Flash forward from the 80s to 2015, and a rejuvenated New Order has released Music Complete, an album that feels vintage yet new. Oh, and I couldn’t be happier that traces of Joy Division’s guitar are heard throughout Music Complete.

  1. Currents – Tame Impala

You’d have to be living under a musical rock to be unaware of the praise heaped on Tame Impala’s third album, Currents. Some publications went so far as to declare it the “album of the year” before it had even been released. I won’t go that far, obviously, but Currents exhibits spinning layers that entrance the listener. Psychedelic rock may not be your “thing,” but I’m willing to bet that Currents will, at the least, cause you to reconsider your “thing.”

  1. Every Open Eye – CHVRCHES

Electronic music can be silly, and it takes a deft touch to avoid the pitfalls of electronica excess. It helps, however, if the musicians making the music go to great lengths to stay connected to excellent music from the past. That strength characterizes CHVRCHES, and their latest album, Every Open Eye, is a testament to the group’s artistry and connection to music history.

  1. Complicated Game – James McMurtry

James McMurtry makes music for adults. The stories he tells on Complicated Game do not glitter with the naïve hope of youth, nor do they tickle the ears of the willfully innocent.

  1. The Traveling Kind – Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell

On The Traveling Kind, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell have combined, once again, their prodigious talents. That combination has resulted in an Americana/roots music album that reflects the vast musical experience of two of the industry’s most accomplished statespersons.

  1. Beneath the Skin – Of Monsters and Men

I have yet to decide if I’m an Of Monsters and Men fan, but I’m most definitely a fan of the Iceland band’s 2015 release, Beneath the Skin. Many critics found this album too bloated and too much a product of the band’s lack of self-awareness. Maybe. But if that’s true, it’s a beautiful and expansive expression of excess that is unashamed of itself. Nor should it be.

  1. Depression Cherry – Beach House

I’ve forgiven Sup Pop for the annoyingly fuzzy CD case. That was easy to do, because within that annoyingly, red, fuzzy CD case Sup Pop released one of the best dream pop albums in recent memory. Depression Cherry doesn’t sacrifice beauty to the droning simplicity that makes the Beach House album perfect to listen to while reading books on grey, overcast days.

  1. 1989 – Ryan Adams

With his cover of 1989, Ryan Adams has done Taylor Swift a huge favor. By deconstructing and then rebuilding her songs, Adams has demonstrated that Swift is actually a good songwriter. I hope that once her time in the superstar stratosphere is over, she doesn’t chase what she once had but, instead, settles in to making music. Ryan Adams proves that she can.

  1. I Love You, Honeybear – Father John Misty

Like Sound & Color, Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear has grown on me. Quite a bit, as evidenced by its huge leap from its ranking on my “Favorite Albums of 2015: 1st Quarter” to this final 2015 ranking. The songs on I Love You, Honeybear have a hurt and anger in them that can be hidden by the sweet folk-music, but that speak to the anger flowering on all sides of this increasingly divided country. You may not agree with Father John Misty’s point of view, but he probably articulates your fear.

  1. The Epic – Kamasi Washington

I listen to quite a bit of jazz, but almost all of that jazz was recorded over four decades ago. Kamasi Washington has given me pause, causing me to reflect on whether or not I’m missing out on some excellent music by ignoring contemporary jazz. I mean, if I had ignored The Epic, my musical year would have suffered.

  1. Sprinter – Torres

In some ways, McKenzie Scott (Torres) is more fascinating to me than her music is. I’m working on unpacking that in a larger piece, but, until then, I highly recommend this debut album from Scott. It’s an album that I find equally intriguing upon each and every listen.

  1. Hello I Feel the Same – The Innocence Mission

The Innocence Mission has been making music since the mid-eighties, which is hard to fathom. Their sound is so fresh and so compelling that it’s hard to believe that they’ve been telling the same stories for this long. Hello I Feel the Same is vintage The Innocence Mission, but no more so than any of their other albums.

  1. No Cities to Love – Sleater-Kinney

My generation has an agreed upon and long list of bands that we want to see reunite. With the welcomed release of No Cities to Love, Sleater-Kinney was removed from that list this past year. Storming the gates of 2015, Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss gave notice that a ten-year hiatus was no deterrent to making hard-hitting, punk-tinged indie rock that demonstrates the band’s essential harmony.

  1. Something More than Free – Jason Isbell

Critics have been declaring Jason Isbell our current greatest songwriter for several years now. I don’t think that I can disagree. Something More than Free steers even more into the personal, and, as a result, Isbell has upped his considerable game.

  1. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful – Florence + the Machine

There is no question that Florence Welch has a powerful and beautiful voice; the question is, can she rein it in so that it doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the album? With How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, she answers with a soaring melodic, yes.

  1. Ivy Tripp – Waxahatchee

Indie folk-rocker Katie Crutchfield (Waxahatchee) continues to impress with Ivy Tripp. The navel-gazing of Millennials is a strange[4] and mostly rare event. Ivy Tripp is a continuation of some of the best early 90s albums that delved deeply into suburban angst. The pain is palpable and the searching seems hauntingly futile as Waxahatchee navigates existential dead-ends. It’s almost as if she had been born in 1975.

  1. Predatory Headlights – Tenement

Hard-core and punk has a great history of risk-taking experimentation. Double albums like Zen Arcade and Double Nickels on the Dime provided the blueprint for the Appleton, WI based Tenement’s Predatory Headlights. For many publications and critics, the efforts of Tenement has resulted in one of the year’s best albums, and, hopefully, along with other entries on this list, a renewed interest in adventurous punk that demonstrates that California doesn’t own the genre’s sound.

  1. Then Came the Morning – The Lone Bellow

If my memory serves, I have previously described in print Then Came the Morning as “luscious.” My opinion has not changed. The Lone Bellow’s sophomore LP contains music that lovers of all genres will appreciate.

  1. Nashville Obsolete – Dave Rawlings Machine

Dave Rawlings’ guitar playing alone would have landed this album fairly high on this list. Add in the entrenched, traveling pessimism of the lyrics and the fully integrated harmonies at play between the voices of Rawlings and long-time partner Gillian Welch and it’s no wonder that Nashville Obsolete is one of the albums released during 2015 that I play the most.

  1. Coming Home – Leon Bridges

Throwback Gospel and Soul never sounds dated, especially not when it’s the velvety voice of Leon Bridges crooning it.

  1. To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar

I only bought one hip-hop album this year, and, obviously, that album was To Pimp a Butterfly. The fact that it lands so high on my year-end list either means that I should buy more hip-hop albums or it means that Kendrick Lamar produced a transcendent album. Probably a little bit of both. A throwback to the social conscious hip-hop of the eighties through the early nineties, To Pimp a Butterfly distills the rage and sense of helplessness that is much of Black America’s experience into compact and hard-punching songs.

  1. Art Angels – Grimes

Canadian electronica/dance-pop artist Grimes demonstrates with her 2015 release, Art Angels, that artistic growth can be manifest as a move to the more accessible. In my “Favorite Albums of 2015: 4th Quarter” list, I declared Art Angels the year’s best pop album. I still believe that, depending, of course, on how number four on this list is categorized.

  1. Payola – Desaparecidos

Conor Oberst, via Bright Eyes, dominated my playlist during the early aughts. Over the last eight or nine years, the brilliant songwriter and musician has slipped out of my consciousness. I’m not really sure why. That oversight has been mercifully corrected this year with Payola from Oberst’s punk-outlet Desaparecidos. The songwriting is top-notch, as should be expected from Oberst; the music definitely swings on the loose hinge of punk but while still retaining the universal appeal of Bright Eye’s indie-folk.

  1. The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us – Beach Slang

I’ve wearied of art, specifically movies and music, which winks at the audience. You know, art that is self-consciously self-conscious. With their debut LP, Beach Slang unabashedly lets their unhip lack of pretense fly, and, in doing so, encourages the listener to throw cool caution to the wind and join in the raucous and earnest punk fun.

  1. Fading Frontier – Deerhunter

Brandon Cox, Deerhunter’s frontman, 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[5] 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.

  1. B’lieve I’m Goin Down – Kurt Vile

Kurt Vile continues to prove that he is a musical treasure. Genres are no match for his prowess, and B’lieve I’m Goin Down could very easily lay claim to one of the best albums from Rock, Americana, Folk, Pop, Country, Alt-country, Dream Pop, Post-rock, and Hip-hop. Ok, probably not Hip-hop, but it wouldn’t necessarily surprise me. Do yourself a favor, if you haven’t yet heard Kurt Vile, sit down with B’lieve I’m Goin Down and marvel at his genre-busting genius.

  1. The Firewatcher’s Daughter – Brandi Carlile

If, in response to the question “What kind of music do you listen to?” you respond, “Well, my taste is eclectic. Except Country. I don’t listen to Country,” give The Firewatcher’s Daughter a listen. Trust me.

  1. Tomorrow Is My Turn – Rhiannon Giddons

I love Rhiannon Giddons’ voice. I love it live; and I love it on Tomorrow Is My Turn. If a talented and heart-felt, opera-trained vocalist singing Blues, Jazz, and Country standards is your thing, Tomorrow Is My Turn should be the next album that you buy.

  1. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit – Courtney Barnett

I wrote about Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit earlier in the year for Bearded Gentleman Music. In that review, I wrote about my dismay at the public’s collective yawn in regards to Courtney Barnett’s debut LP. I mean, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit is not only smart, well-produced, and featuring some of the year’s best music, but it’s also the type of album that swings comfortably in the realm of radio airplay. Or so I thought. The lack of airplay for this wonderful album has only reinforced my belief that Clear Channel, MTV, and Rolling Stone are determined to destroy music.

  1. Rose Mountain – Screaming Females

Marissa Paternoster is one of my favorite guitar players. In fact, Spin named her the 77th greatest guitarist of all time. Of ALL TIME. And that guitar brilliance rips all over Rose Mountain. Now, in the issue of full disclosure, I feel the need to mention that I have yet to decide if I like Rose Mountain over the New Jersey punk band’s 2012 release, Ugly. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, because Screaming Females is one of my favorite bands and I will happily listen to all of their albums. If you are unfamiliar with the band, Rose Mountain will make an excellent introduction.

  1. Lands & Peoples – Bill Mallonee

All told, I have written well over five-thousand words this year extolling the greatness of Lands & Peoples. By this point, you would think that I would’ve run out of words; and you would be wrong. Lands & Peoples is peak Bill Mallonee. Considering that non-peak Bill Mallonee is head and shoulders above the vast majority of musicians making music, peak Bill Mallonee occupies a mostly empty space. Lands & Peoples is a quintessential Americana/troubadour album that adheres to a level of artistry that most artists can only hope to achieve. You can and should buy Lands & Peoples here.

  1. Holding Hands With Jamie – Girl Band

Album after album came across my desk this year, and precious few even presented a challenge to Lands & Peoples’ hold on my number one spot. Until, that is, Irish post-punkers Girl Band released Holding Hands With Jamie this past fall. Up front, it should be noted that Holding Hands With Jamie is not easy listening. It costs something because the disordered melodies and turbulent lyrics force the listener to confront the reality that underneath all the dark brokenness of our world is hidden something beautiful. And that something beautiful that lies in wait, biding its time, is not tame. Of course, that cost is the very reason that the distorted maelstrom Holding Hands With Jamie is my favorite album of 2015.

That’s it. My fifty favorite albums of 2015. It’s been a really good year for music, and I’m looking forward to hearing what 2016 brings. Maybe next year I’ll be able to hit the mark of 100 albums evaluated.


 

[1] The only value, I think, derived from these types of lists is found in introducing readers to musicians, and then those readers buying the work of those musicians.

[2] By evaluate, I mean to sit down and actively listen to the album in its entirety more than once.

[3] I used to try to respond to each and every request, but that has become an overwhelming task.

[4] At least for Gen-Xers like myself.

[5] Think Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, et al.

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