For me, the year in music was defined by the veterans doing what they do best, and the youngsters running the gamut from homage to innovation. If there’s a common thread running through my year end list, it’s a sense of dedication. Not one artist on my list has released a “filler” this year, or anything you could call “just another album by so and so.” Rather, 2015 has been a year of thoughtful, crafted albums of impeccable execution, bringing to mind the days when the material drove an artist into the studio, and not the other way around. In no particular order, these are the albums that have made my cut this year…
Father John Misty- I Love You, Honeybear
Ok, so maybe just this one is in order. While it has been a neck in neck finish for me between Father John Misty and John Moreland for album of the year, Father John wins out in the end. If I were basing this list on number of spins alone, it would put Honeybear at the top of my list. A perfect blend of dark humor, sex, and milennial disconnect, Misty has written an album about modern love that needed to be written. Adding to his soulful delivery is everything from lush strings (title track), to electronic synth (“True Affection”), to full backing choirs (“When You’re Smiling And Astride Me”), placing Honeybear well beyond Fear Fun into a territory we had all hoped was on the way.
John Moreland- High On Tulsa Heat
What is it about the middle of the country? Perhaps owing to his Oklahoma roots, with Tulsa Heat, John Moreland has created one of the most beautiful albums of the year. For comparison purposes, Springsteen’s Nebraska album seems an obvious choice. However, while one features a Jersey boy painting an almost cinematic portrait of the midwest, Moreland lives and breathes it. Tulsa Heat is at once sparse and expansive; exploring what comes of life and love in a landscape where the earth is monotonous and the sky is endless (“Hang Me In The Tulsa County Stars,” “Cleveland County Blues”). The perfect antithesis to my other favorite album of the year, Moreland proves that love and loss are still things to be appreciated with a long view, instead of an eye roll.
Pokey LaFarge-Something In The Water
When I first saw Pokey LaFarge perform I thought I was seeing a ghost. From head to toe, the man that stood before me looked like he had just stepped off of an old movie screen full of high waist pants and fast talking. But Pokey is the real deal. He’s the embodiment of the pre-war blues and jazz that he sings. From his debut to this year’s Something In The Water, it is incredibly rare in my world that an artist has a four album stretch of never disappointing me. Jumpier, jazzier, and containing more overall sound than his previous releases, LaFarge bursts out of the gate with the album’s title track, a warbling, head shaking ode to crazy love, and keeps the momentum going throughout. “Underground” is a rattle the floor, call and response tune with enough driving rythym and muted trumpet to be straight out of a speakeasy, while “Knockin the Dust Off the Rust Belt Tonight” is the kind of rollicking St. Louis/Louisiana style jazz we’ve come to expect from LaFarge. If this were a list of best musicians of the year instead of albums, Pokey would undoubtedly top my list.
The Punch Brothers- Phosphorescent Blues
The latest Punch Brothers release reminds me of a Wes Anderson film. Phosphorescent Blues is intricate, stylized, and beautiful. Crowned the kings of “newgrass” by critics, The Punch Brothers continue to release albums that stretch the boundaries of traditional roots music. Phosphorescent weaves elements of delicate classical (“Passepied”), sprawling jazz-like improvisation (“Familiarity”), and in true Chris Thile style, plenty of mandolin and echoes of Americana (“Boll Weevil”). It is flawlessly crafted and a treat for the ears.
Phosphorescent-Live At The Music Hall
In a world where everything’s been done, how do you make a new sound? If you’re Phosphorescent, aka Matthew Houck, you take the best of all worlds and make an incredibly beautiful sonic soup. With equal parts Americana and jangly alternative, set against a My Bloody Valentine-esque wall of sound, Live At The Music Hall is broad and beautiful in a time when live albums have become a rarity. A large cross section of both new and old material comprise the three album set and Houck’s pendulum like performances, swinging back and forth between lonesome and delicate acoustics to euphoric cacophonies, will stick in your head for days.
James McMurtry-Complicated Games
Complicated Games is this year’s get-off-my-lawn album. His first album in six years, it’s almost as if McMurtry has been sitting on this amazing collection just to be able to say, “Step aside youngins. This is how you write a song.” A veteran of the Americana scene, McMurtry showcases a still-got-it lyricism on this latest release. Nostalgia and odes to bittersweet love dominate the album from the get go as McMurtry sings “Honey, don’t you be yellin at me while I’m cleanin my gun…” on “Copper Canteen.” As its cover suggests, while the tone of the album may be a wood floor and a man with a guitar, it is in no way simple. From the heartwrenching Zevon-like “You Got To Me,” to the pedal to the floor, speed talking blues of “How’m I Gonna Find You Now,” Complicated Games is McMurtry’s songwriting at its best, filled with all the honesty and blue collar poetry that have made him an elder statesman of singer-songwriting.
The Sonics-This Is The Sonics
There’s nothing new about The Sonics. They will never win Album of the Year. They will never experiment with beats or electronics. Other than being their first studio release in a staggering 49 years, This Is The Sonics is not even surprising. And THAT is exactly the way you want a Sonics record to sound. Like McMurtry, The Sonics are of a handful of older musicians that have released albums this year that needn’t do anything but what they do best, which in their case means: some of the best damn garage rock of all time. Just about the only way you can tell that it isn’t 1965 when you listen to the album, is by the trace of increased production and a brass element, which only serves to increase their trademark volume. Otherwise, all the howls, dirt, and grit on tracks like “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” as well as a killer cover of the Willie Dixon blues classic “You Can’t Judge A Book By the Cover,” will satisfy all of your classic rock needs. Not bad for a bunch of 70 year olds…
Pops Staples-Don’t Lose This
With Don’t Lose This, Pops Staples proves that even the grave can’t stop him from beating out the alive and well for one of the best albums of the year. Following the instructions of her father, Mavis Staples not only didn’t lose his final recordings, but put them together, added backing vocals and released them as Don’t Lose This, a fitting tribute to a man that, even in his final recordings, had enough soul to rival the heyday of the Staples Singers. With the help of Jeff Tweedy, the production of the album is flawless, highlighting Pops’ honey-like vocals as he weaves between his signature brand of gospel (“Sweet Home,” “Somebody Was Watching”), and soul (“No News Is Good News”). Filled with love, faith, and devotion Don’t Lose This is an essential album, as well as a sweet portrait of a legendary musician.
Alabama Shakes- Sound & Color
The Alabama Shakes remind me of the times in the kitchen when I’ve thrown a bunch of ingredients together and it creates something delicious. The pure power of Brittany Howard’s voice, classic R&B grooves, and a heavy dose of 70’s inspired funk make the apporopriately named Sound & Color an experience for the senses. Still riding high off of the success of their first album, the Shakes sophomore effort sounds at home today as it would had it been released on Stax records some forty years ago. Prince-like soprano (“Future People”), early, fall to the knees James Brown soul (“Gimme All Your Love”), and that special blues meets country Muscle Shoals meld (“Dunes”) mark the album, creating a depth of musicality that is rare these days.
Langhorne Slim-The Spirit Moves
Let’s be honest. I listen to a lot of sad bastard music. As a country and roots music fan, it simply comes with the territory and most days I’ll take a sad guy or gal with an acoustic guitar over anything else. So when I find a musician like Langhorne Slim, it feels like a deep breath of fresh air. His appropriately titled sixth album is an uplifting, inspiring, and joyous ride. With his signature brand of “yell singing” Slim is a glass half full musician whose songs continue to reflect his dedication to finding himself. Everything from the album’s stomping, lightning speed title track, to the soft and sweet (“Changes,” “Wolves”) will make you want to roll down the windows, be it literally or figuratively, and embrace the world. On “Life’s A Bell,” Slim sings “Life is a song that must be sung…” a perfect motto for this reflective, life affirming, and infectious release.
Kurt Vile-B’lieve I’m Goin Down
OCD’ers, be warned. You may want to turn back. I couldn’t help but add an eleventh album to my list because I LOVE Kurt Vile. Maybe it’s the 90’s child in me, but I love a good shoe gazer, and on B’lieve I’m Goin Down, you can almost hear Vile’s long hair in front of his face. If he were a modern restaurant, he would be known as Neil Young/Iggy Pop fusion, serving up tracks like “I’m An Outlaw” that rides a divide between 70’s singer-songwriter and punk. Other tracks like “Dust Bunnies” and “Pretty Pimpin” give off a strumming, Lou Reed-like cool mixed with the comedic delivery of Mitch Hedberg. Too laconic to be punk, too weird to be country, lo-fi, and unassumingly poetic, Vile is a mish mash of many things, but the results are messy brilliance.