If Memory Serves: Ten Superb Albums Released at the Very Beginning of 2015
It’s easy to remember what rocked our ears all summer long, and a no-brainer what the best album of the late-summer/autumn was. But what about the music that eased us into the New Year? Let’s dig through the piles and come up with the best music of early 2015.
There are a few albums released very early in 2015 — including those by Rhiannon Giddens, Gretchen Peters, James McMurtry, and others — that are doing so well in the readers poll, I figured folks in this community obviously remember them well. Others are popping around the current standings with remarkable dynamism.
So, to piggyback on what I said last week about some albums folks might have completely missed, I wanted to take a moment to pay tribute to a handful of superb recordings that were released in the first two months of 2015. A few of these, even I forgot about. One, however, wound up on the top of my list.
From bluegrass to funk and soul, gospel, contemplative singer-songwriters, and whatever you want to call what Chris Thile does … here are a few of the albums that helped us get the wheels rolling on 2015:
Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley – Before the Sun Goes Down (Jan. 13)
On the pyramid of Dobro mastery, Rob Ickes is dangerously close to the top, just below the omniscient and superb Jerry Douglas. Ickes’ mastery has turned the pens of the IBMA voters a time or two. Then there’s the exceptionalism of his cohort Trey Hensley, who made his Opry debut at the age of 11. It could be argued there was no finer instrumental duo this year than these two. Their album was easily the first most excellent release of the year, and will certainly be of interest to anyone who likes to get dazzled by the unexpected musicality that’s possible when two people who know their way around a fretboard get together for a little tete-a-tete.
Punch Brothers – The Phosphorescent Blues (Jan. 27)
Full disclosure: Punch Brothers’ Phosphoresent Blues was my choice for the Album of the Year. Roots music, at its core, has been about what happens when individuals get together with the instruments they know how to play. And, since there is no other band that contains Gabe Witcher, Critter Eldridge, Chris Thile, Noam Pikelny, and Paul Kowert, there is no other band that sounds even remotely like Punch Brothers, and no other band that could make this music. That they decided this time out to compose a masterpiece that looks at every way we approach interpersonal connection these days — via everything from sex to alcohol and especially our phones, tablets, and computers — is both the rootsiest thing ever and the most innovative. Did I mention they deconstructed a Debussy (classical impressionist) piano piece and reimagined it so that it could be played on five completely different (contemporary bluegrass) instruments? Music geeks everywhere, eat your heart out.
The Bros. Landreth – Let It Lie (Jan. 27)
Sure, Jason Isbell ran away this year with the truth-telling machine and Chris Stapleton rode away with the “saving country music” moniker, but they’re not the only ones capable of slaying an honest tune with great instrumentalism and lyrics. The Bros. Landreth delivered a debut back in January that had people on all ends of the music world swooning. It was smooth and cool, and there were few on this site who would’ve disagreed back in January that it was an early ringer for “best debut album.”
Drew Gibson – 1532 (Feb. 1)
Drew Gibson’s music makes me want to grab a blanket and some mulled wine, and sit by the fire. His bio claims that 1532 was written as a tribute to his father, who passed away in 2012. He fills it out with stories from his family and others he’s loved and lost, and the disc feels very much like that. It’s embracing and contemplative, heartbreaking and just plain lovely. Gibson is a master at writing the kind of song that draws you in, then holds you there. When the lyrics fall away and his warm guitar takes over, there’s not really any choice but to focus inward. It was a timely release for a cold February, but it holds up even as the year comes to a close.
American Aquarium – Wolves (Feb. 3)
American Aquarium has been working hard on the road for a long time, clawing its way through the thankless life of an under-the-radar Americana band. But, along the way, frontman BJ Barham has figured out how to rise above the frey. Wolves feels like a turning point for his band. And, even beyond that fact, for folks who may know nothing of American Aquarium’s story, the music will rock you. Crank it up and let it carry you along.
Blackberry Smoke – Holding All the Roses (Feb. 10)
I love rock and roll and I grew up (and now live once again) in the South. But like, I reckon, many others, Southern rock has always given me a negative visceral reaction. Still, there’s something about Blackberry Smoke that’s undeniable. Unlike many bands who carry the Southern rock torch these days, they don’t seem to be trying to fill a hole left vacant by Duane Allman. Their music is flat-out-good, and Holding All the Roses is easily their best yet.
Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band – So Delicious (Feb. 17)
Reverend Peyton can play a blues guitar, and his wife Washboard Breezy can rock a washboard. This disc dropped in February but it feels to me like summertime. It’s ripping country-blues for all the freaks and weirdos. These guys have been throwing it down in their live show for years, but So Delicious feels like they finally found a way to bottle it up in the studio.
Pops Staples – Don’t Lose This (Feb. 17)
There’s nothing to say about Pops Staples that hasn’t been said. He was a giant of gospel and civil rights music, along with his family band. This is Staples’ final recording before his death in 2000, augmented by the presence of producer (and sometime-song-completer) Jeff Tweedy. It’s titled for the plea that Pops made of his daughter Mavis when he handed the recording over to her. But reconsidering the title in the context of this treasure chest of songs, we can take it to mean that we must also be careful to not lose the parts of ourselves to which this music speaks. It was a timely release, to be sure.
Nora Jane Struthers & the Party Line – Wake (Feb. 24)
Nora Jane Struthers has been writing good songs for a few years now. She popped onto the scene in the front of a sort of bluegrass band and seemed to be trying to tow that line for a couple of releases. But any songwriter worth their salt is best advised to follow the songs wherever they happen to take you. This time around, Struthers and her collaborators veered more toward trad-style country and straight-up rock and roll. The result is a delicious rootsy soup of good times. Crank it up and hit the road.
JJ Grey & Mofro – Ol’ Glory (Feb. 24)
I can’t think of a better way to close out this list than with JJ Grey & Mofro. If there’s any album I personally wish I’d spent more time with this year, this is it. The groove is heavy and infectious, and there’s such a tremendous amount of spirit in the music these guys make. I tend to get mired in stunning geeeked-out musicianship, digging into every modulation and lyrical alignment. But JJ Grey & Mofro is a reminder to chill out and groove on it. That doesn’t mean there’s any less spectacular musicality happening here; instead the songs are designed to push our selves out of the way and make room for the soul to come through.