Your Top 50 Albums of 2015
Here we are at the end of another year, and it was quite a year in roots music.
Here at No Depression, we returned to the printed page with the first of many magazines to come. (I’m currently in the baby stages of pulling together the Spring 2016 issue.)
But beyond our virtual doors, the people who make the music we love continued to lead the way to some incredible moments in melody.
We got stunning new albums, years in the making, from James McMurtry and Dave Rawlings Machine. Wilco got all 21st Century on us and self-released a free album called Star Wars, of all things. And, speaking of ’80s references, Ryan Adams sang his way through ruminative heartbreak by reinterpreting the entirety of Taylor Swift’s 1989.
Beyond the tried-and-true oft-sung heroes of the form, new heroes emerged. John Moreland, who’s been making critics ga-ga at industry events the last couple years, dropped an album that endeared his exceptional songwriting to the rest of the world. A pair of efforts appeared from the Levon Helm universe to make us all swoon — one from his daughter Amy and another from his Ramble Band leader Larry Campbell, who finally paired with his wife Teresa Williams for a self-titled duo effort. A swath of folks who’ve been around a while — American Aquarium, Alabama Shakes, Kevin Gordon, Brandi Carlile, Punch Brothers — each released new discs this year, which caught hold of ears in ways their previous efforts had not.
And, of course, there were the two great “going solo” stories of the year. Chris Stapleton’s first album away from his bluegrass band, the SteelDrivers, landed him in the lap of the CMAs, onstage with Justin Timberlake, as the mainstream country music establishment stopped short to check itself in the mirror … even if for a split second. Meanwhile, Rhiannon Giddens stepped out from the Carolina Chocolate Drops to show that she is her own powerhouse.
In many ways, it seemed as though Giddens, more than almost anyone else in this field, truly found her voice in 2015. The songs on Tomorrow Is My Turn are beautiful and well-performed. But one would be remiss to leave it at that. The set was both timely and timeless, but it was only the beginning of the story of how Giddens found her voice this year.
As racial justice came to the fore in the world beyond music, in the wake of an attack on an African-American church in South Carolina, Giddens released a song called “Cry No More,” which delivered real talk about the long history of racism and violence in America. It’s one of Giddens’ first original tunes, and it spoke volumes at a time when music was needed by so many.
Months later, after Da’esh attacked Paris in November, Giddens released a video of her performing Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose.” To top it off, she unleashed an EP called Factory Girl, which picked up where Tomorrow left off, with a small but powerful collection of songs. Taking her whole year at face value, we can see Rhiannon Giddens met the world with her music, responding with her remarkable voice when many of us couldn’t find the words.
Giddens’ album tied for #6 in our readers poll, with the Mavericks and Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell. But while they and others in your Top 10 gave us some stunning music and sang us through some difficult-to-swallow times, it was Jason Isbell who ran away with our hearts.
Isbell has been a darling of this form for years. But this year, he delivered an album of short stories that cut to the core of an American experience.
Something More Than Free spoke to the truths that straddle the line between Saturday night and Sunday morning. Within the walls of its songs, Isbell wrestled with life’s careful dichotomies: the impulse to stay and the desire to flee, the hope of the present and the clarity of hindsight.
He dug into stories about his father, his mother, his ex-wife, his new wife, his hometown, his younger self. The album’s opening track was a parable about commitment in which Isbell found pieces of himself in a small-town character who works for the county.
I keep on showing up
hell-bent on growing up
if it takes a lifetime
By the end of the song, you got the sense he was imagining how his life might have turned out if not for his guitar, as he started closing up the shop of the song:
A man is a product of
all the people that he ever loved
And it don’t make no difference how it ended up
There, one song into his opus, Isbell showed he’s not only learned how to improvise a lick or craft a catchy chorus, but how to follow his craft to one of those places only art can go. It might take hours or years to consider in conversation how life might have turned out differently if only we’d done this or that. But a well-trusted song can take us there in three minutes and 40 seconds if we just put our selves aside. And, if your self isn’t aside by the end of that one, Isbell spent the next eleven tracks helping you out with that.
In the end, Isbell’s effort shed light on what we all want — more than freedom, it’s the mirror love holds up for us. It’s discovery, family, a choice, to not feel alone. These are heady ideas to make feel so light and accessible. But Isbell knows how to weild his powers well, and no doubt that’s at least part of why Something More Than Free (Thirty Tigers/Southeastern) landed at #1 in our poll of your favorite albums of 2015.
The rest of the 50 highest ranking albums you loved, are listed below. See also the full standings, ranking all 600+ releases.
Each vote counted as one point. Points were tallied and albums are listed in the order of their point totals. Ties are indicated here by shared rankings. Due to technical limitations in the full listing, ties there are listed in alphabetical order.
This is not a perfect scientific system, but we hope it will serve to introduce you to music you may not have heard of before, and will help us all take a moment to celebrate the music that moved us through this year.
Indeed, all 50 albums listed below (and many of the others in the full list) are well worth your time and attention.
For contrast, a list of the Top 10 albums according to our staff of writers and reviewers is listed below the community’s Top 50. There is, quite literally, something for everyone. Enjoy, and heres to next year!
The ND Community’s 50 Favorite Albums of 2015
ND Critics Poll Results:
1. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
2. Rhiannon Giddens – Tomorrow Is My Turn
3. Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams – Self-Titled
4. Father John Misty – I Love You Honey Bear
5. Punch Brothers – The Phosphorescent Blues
6. The Black Lillies – Hard to Please
7. Joan Shelley – Over and Even
8. Josh Ritter – Sermon on the Rocks
9. Kevin Gordon – Long Gone Time
10. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – The Traveling Kind