Most people know that “favorite” and “best” are not synonyms. Likewise, most people, I think, are also aware that the majority of the “best of” lists that pop up towards the end of each year are really the writer’s favorites. With that in mind, I probably shouldn’t be so self-conscious about my word choice, but I am. To that self-conscious end, please know that the following list contains my favorite Americana/roots/alt-country albums released during 2015. And that is an important distinction. For me, at any rate, the superlative “best” implies that a level of academia or technical expertise has been used to quantify the albums which pushes the rankings into the land of impersonal. The word “favorite,” however, speaks to the realization that people gravitate towards different things for different reasons. Don’t misunderstand; I believe, very strongly, that the following albums reflect a level of artistic merit that transcends the subjective.
The same reasoning should be applied to discussions about favorite/best beer, too. There are objective standards within beer style, but, ultimately, we are all born with differing taste buds that cause us to incline towards differing emphasis within aroma and flavor profiles. For this week’s column, I’ve paired some of my favorite beers that I had for the first time in 2015. A decision that has proven harder than I originally imagined.
I drink a lot of beer. People give me a lot of beer to try. And, as opposed to previous years, I didn’t do a good job in 2015 of compiling, much less organizing, tasting notes. In other words, I have spent much time over the last week wracking my brain to uncover my favorite beers that I had for the first time in 2015. FYI – that “for the first time” is important; the following beers were not, for the most part, new to 2015, just new to me.
After reading my favorite albums and beer of 2015, I encourage you to check out the ND 2015 readers’ poll. And please, share with me your favorite albums and beer of 2015. I am always looking for more good music and good beer.
12. Phantasmagoric – Grace & Tony
People who have the privilege of meeting Grace and Tony White often comment on how nice the married couple is. They also often comment on their skills as musicians and how much fun their live shows are. With all that, I concur. I just wish that more people would meet the band and their music. If you’re unfamiliar with Grace & Tony, a good starting point is their latest album, Phantasmagoric, a concept album on which Grace & Tony took a risk. And it’s a risk that has artistically paid off. Macabre yet fun, Phantasmagoric showcases the husband and wife’s songwriting skills, allows their strengths as musicians to shine, and highlights the considerable contributions of cellist and strings composer Chris Wilson.
As fun, mysterious, and wonderfully acerbic as Phantasmagoric, The Bruery Oude Tart with Sour Cherries is a beer that will take many people by surprise. Settle in by a spooky fire for a fun evening that features Phantasmagoric and The Bruery Oude Tart with Sour Cherries.
11. Faded Gloryville – Lindi Ortega
The first track on Faded Gloryville is titled “Ashes.” While the haunting song is technically about the singer/protagonist’s existential response to unrequited love, the title is also apropos in regards to the smoldering voice of Lindi Ortega. The Canadian songstress has the ability to evoke intimacy with a large voice. The Red Wheelbarrow from Maine Brewing Company has a similar ability. The beer, an amber/red ale, is still very comforting while pushing the staid style into vibrant flavor notes. Navigating the outer limits of the style with nuance, The Red Wheelbarrow is the perfect beer to drink while being simultaneously blown away and intimately whispered to by Ortega on Faded Gloryville.
10. Complicated Game – James McMurtry
The growling, narrative voice of James McMurtry has been a welcome addition to my 2015 playlist. Complicated Game is an album that offers something new with each listen. That’s the power of a good storyteller. Sip the complex yet tasty AleSmith Old Numbskull, a barrel-aged barleywine, while allowing McMurtry’s lolloping, jagged voice to surprise you during Complicated Game’s narrative journey.
9. 1532 – Drew Gibson
It’s a good thing that I love 1532 as much as I do, because Drew Gibson isn’t much of a beer drinker. That personality flaw may or may not have cost Drew a couple of spots on this list. Drew’s songwriting ability, coupled with his musicality, is the reason that his highly personal 1532 is one of my favorite albums of 2015.
Many craft beer drinkers give short shrift to pale ales. That’s unfortunate. Another unfortunate fact is that many people, including those who pride themselves on engaging the works of indie musicians, have given short shrift to 1532. Both oversights can be corrected at once by enjoying Union Craft Duckpin Pale Ale while listening to 1532. The Duckpin is not only full-flavored, but has an exceptional balance that allows for beer novices, like Drew Gibson, to enjoy it.
8. Something More Than Free – Jason Isbell
Jason Isbell is rightfully considered one of our current musical generation’s best songwriters. And Something More Than Free is an improvement on 2013’s Southeastern, a fact that I would’ve been highly skeptical of prior to listening to Isbell’s latest.
Upland Brewing of Bloomington, Indiana, has an IPA that I’ve enjoyed multiple times in the past. It wasn’t until this past year, however, that I had Coast Buster, the brewery’s Imperial IPA. As delicious as their Dragonfly IPA is, the Coast Buster is even better. Big. Bold. And filled through the finish with mouthwatering hops. The Coast Buster will pair very well with Something More Than Free.
7. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful – Florence + the Machine
The soaring, almost ethereal vocals of Florence Welch are sturdily framed by the rock-infused How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. Welch’s lyrics, like her voice, tightrope-walks the other-worldly without ever slipping into the inaccessible. This is, in large part, due to the balance provided by the restraint exhibited by Florence + the Machine on one of my favorite albums of 2015.
Milk stout is a style that, for me, often exhibits an out-of-balance lactose profile. Westbrook Brewing’s Udderly Stout has demonstrated to me the flavorful possibilities in a well-balanced and well-crafted milk stout. The balance and beautiful restraint found on How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful will be enhanced by the balance of the Udderly Stout.
6. Then Came the Morning – The Lone Bellow
Luscious is the adjective that I use most often when describing Then Came the Morning. The second LP from the Brooklyn based roots-rock band, Then Came the Morning was my first real exposure to The Lone Bellow. That doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me, because the band was constantly in front of me over the last few years, both in print and through the recommendations of friends. My lateness to the party aside, I’m here now and am loving The Lone Bellow and their 2015 release, Then Came the Morning.
I may have been a latecomer to The Lone Bellow party, but I have been touting the luscious deliciousness of wet-hopped IPAs for years. Fresh grass, clean pine, and zesty citrus notes flavorfully characterize wet-hopped IPAs. The style has a bracing freshness that is mouth-watering. My love of wet-hopped IPAs doesn’t mean that I’ve exhausted the style’s offerings, and in 2015 I finally enjoyed Black Hog Brewing’s Iron Hog Wet Hop IPA. Whether you’re familiar with wet-hopped IPAs or not, you’re sure to enjoy the Iron Hog Wet Hop IPA while listening to Then Came the Morning.
5. Nashville Obsolete – Dave Rawlings Machine
Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch have been making excellent music for two decades. Nashville Obsolete is no exception. Nashville Obsolete, as the title suggests, is a melancholy affair that makes nuanced use of the pair’s well-formed strengths. The exquisite harmonic interplay between Rawlings and Welch is further buoyed by Rawlings’ guitar chops. Lyrically, the album runs along the same tracks as Edmund Burke’s ruminations in A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, a work in which the philosopher explores the contrast between the sublime and beautiful. If pain produces the sublime, and pleasure produces the beautiful, can an aesthetic expression be both sublime and beautiful? Well, Nashville Obsolete says “yes.”
It may just be me, but I have a hard time believing that a pilsner can be tasty and still be a pilsner. Well, Dogfish Head has demonstrated otherwise to me with the Delaware brewery’s Piercing Pils. A beer that I’ve seen on shelves for years, but a beer that I’ve avoided, because it’s a pilsner, until this year. The only reason that I tried it was because I was at the Dogfish Head Brewery. I’m glad I did. Pair Piercing Pils, a beer that proves that pilsners can be full of flavor, with Nashville Obsolete, an album that demonstrates how the sublime and beautiful go hand in hand.
4. B’lieve I’m Goin Down – Kurt Vile
At some point in the future, I’ll stop being surprised by Kurt Vile. Until that day, however, I’ll happily marvel at Vile’s banjo-riding swerve into the folk-side of his multifaced musical persona. A musical persona that he ably demonstrates on B’lieve I’m Goin Down. With his pithy lyrics, inventive phrasing, and melding of true rock and roll with folk/roots music, Vile continues to demonstrate that he is one of today’s most interesting and versatile musicians.
Scotch ales are a drinker’s beer. The style’s booziness complements the rich malts, and a good Scotch ale provides the drinker with a variety of sensations. The Stone of Arbroath from DC Brau was one of the highlights of my 2015 beer drinking experience. And since the brewery is less than ten miles from my apartment, I never have to work hard to find more of it. The Stone of Arbroath’s boozy complexity will stand up quite nicely to the intricate musicianship found on B’lieve I’m Goin Down.
3. The Firewatcher’s Daughter – Brandi Carlile
This selection best illustrations the fallacy of ranking art. I absolutely love The Firewatcher’s Daughter, and am having trouble reconciling my placement of it third place. Third place is the green or yellow ribbon handed out after 4-H contests, right? I don’t want to give Brandi Carlile a green or yellow ribbon. I want to give her a blue or red ribbon. That’s why, in an attempt to offer my apologies, I’m pairing The Firewatcher’s Daughter with my favorite beer of 2015.
It’s a rare week that I don’t consider driving down to Hillsborough, North Carolina, in order to buy Mystery Brewing Company’s Annabele Saison. Without traffic, it’s only a four-hour drive. Considering, however, that I have to navigate the I-95 stretch between DC and Richmond, that four-hour drive is often an eight-hour drive (if not longer – I hate that road!). I have yet to follow through on my desire to head down to Hillsborough for the sole purpose of buying beer. But if anybody wants to bring me several bottles of the spicy black saison from Mystery Brewing Company, I will happily open my home and we can enjoy The Firewatcher’s Daughter together as we share the Annabele.
2. Tomorrow Is My Turn – Rhiannon Giddens
At the moment, pop music news is dominated by the album-selling exploits of an English pop singer who is considered, by many, to be as good of an example of a female vocalist as can be found today. I don’t necessarily want to denigrate that pop singer, but after spending much of 2015 marveling at the beautiful and compelling voice of Rhiannon Giddens, it’s increasingly difficult for me to keep myself from loudly shrieking, “YOU’RE SO WRONG!!!” whenever I hear people sing the vocal praises of Clear Channel’s anointed. Instead, I calmly ask if they’ve heard Tomorrow Is My Turn. The answer is almost always “no.” An answer that many will no longer be able to give, because I frequently follow up that question with a listening session of Giddens’ stunningly beautiful debut solo album.
If you find yourself listening to Tomorrow Is My Turn, a collection of blues, jazz, and country standards supplemented by a couple of original songs, I recommend pairing the album with 3 Star Brewing’s Peppercorn Saison. Saison is a beer style that has a deep history. 3 Star Brewing honors that tradition while providing a fresh, delicious offering that demonstrates the depth of possibilities inherent in a saison.
1. Lands & Peoples – Bill Mallonee & The Big Sky Ramblers
Bill Mallonee is hard to resist. Not that I ever put up any fight against the urge to listen to Bill’s latest album, an urge that happens frequently. That urge has been birthed by Mallonee’s honest, succinct, and soul-connected lyrics that are packaged within the dusty, comforting, and familiar voice of one our finest troubadours.
Pairing a beer with Lands & Peoples requires a beer that matches the richness of the complete listening experience while also providing a comforting familiarity that grounds that experience within Mallonee’s universal voice. Evolution Craft Brewing Rise Up Stout is not only the best stout that I enjoyed for the first time this year, but is a stout that I now count among the best that I’ve had over almost two decades of drinking craft beer. The Rise Up Stout not only adheres to the warm, rich expectations of the style, but also offers a drinkability that allows for continued enjoyment without overwhelming the palate.
Maybe I was playing closer attention this year, but 2015 seems to stand a little musically taller than the previous years of this decade. I mean, my honorable mentions, the albums that I wish that I would’ve had space to discuss, include The Traveling Kind from Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, Gone Like the Cotton from The Cox Family, and The Trackless Wood from Iris DeMent, to name three. Regardless of whether 2015 will go down in history as a banner year for music, I have had the pleasure of discovering music that I will be enjoying years down the road. I look forward to the music that 2016 will bring.