To celebrate the year in music, I present a ranked list of my 10 favorite albums of 2015. The mission is to expose you, the reader, to new music in hopes that you’ll check out a song/album via the music service of your choice (Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, etc.). I’ve highlighted the elements that I find most important when receiving a music recommendation: what are the best songs, what does it sound like and what do you love about it (or what makes it unique). Without further ado, here are the best albums of 2015 according to a dedicated music addict:
10) José González – Vestiges and Claws
– What it sounds like: it’s minimal, but like Nick Drake maturing and adapting tasteful pop sensibilities in order to reach more people with his music.
– Why I love it: I’ve wondered what a whisper would sound like amplified and turned all the way up. I’ve also wondered how much of an impact you could make with that magnified murmur. Those who exert ample energy into having their whispers heard must have something very important to say. José González makes me feel every emotion on this album while helping me realize that sometimes you can make the most noise by being the quietest.
9) Ryan Adams – Live at Carnegie Hall
– What it sounds like: Ryan Adams alone with his guitar, performing two blocks south of Central Park — doing what he was born to do in a beautiful setting.
– Why I love it: on the surface it’s simply a live album, but deep-down way underneath it’s Adams coming alive. I took a trip up to the mountains, rented a cabin, drank mediocre whiskey and smoked mediocre cigars with this as my soundtrack — honest, stripped-down and contemplative versions of some of Ryan’s best tracks. This is the album you put on when you don’t know who your friends are anymore, don’t know where you’re going and don’t know what’s next. Are you safe? Ask Ryan – he’s guaranteed to give you an answer. I bet you’ll be alright.
8) Guster – Evermotion
– Standout tracks: Endlessly, Long Night, Gangway
– What it sounds like: Guster doing Guster all over again but with smoother melodies, driving rhythms and an appreciation of leaving more space/emptiness in the mix than ever before.
– Why I love it: this is the album for long drives, late nights and people who stop to live life in the moment. Guster has this way of making me feel happy, no matter what life has thrown at me. I think it’s the beautiful songwriting and killer musicianship…but maybe it’s just the return of drummer Rosenworcel’s bongos.
7) Leon Bridges – Coming Home
– What it sounds like: a soul singer who was hitchhiking in 1958, got picked up by Marty McFly, flux capacitored (sic) to 2015 and decided to stick around. This is Sam Cooke at his most soulful moment (River) and Jackie Wilson wearing his loosest tie (Brown Skin Girl).
– Why I love it: there are plenty of singers and artists who attempt to redo the golden years of rock ‘n’ roll with some sort of homage to the greats but end up sounding like cheap ripoffs or insincere copycats. Instead, Leon was just born a few decades too late. This is late-night soul done right in 2015.
6) Dustin Kensrue – Carry the Fire
– Standout tracks: Ruby, Back to Back, Carry the Fire
– What it sounds like: forget everything you know about “the lead singer of Thrice.” This is a singer-songwriter showing the world what he can do….write great songs and back them up with outstanding musicianship and commanding vocals.
– Why I love it: the band who plays aside Dustin here is incredible, reminiscent of The Band playing with Dylan in the 60s. Dustin sings with more soul than Joe Cocker at most times, partly due to the subject of this content. Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel “The Road” tells us that deep down we all have the ability to “Carry the Fire” that’s inside of us which helps us to keep on going when things get tough. Kensrue creates an album for the dips, dives and dark that life throws at you. These are times when we all can learn how to carry the fire and never give up.
5) The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
– What it sounds like: heaven? It’s really good and it’s everything we’ve ever wanted from The Decemberists without the band ever sacrificing what makes them best or compromising.
– Why I love it: The Decemberists have found their North Star and it seems like the telescope is eyeing in on the most focused group of lyrics, music and melodies since the early days. I believe this is The Decemberists at their best, bringing us a diffusion of what they know works combined with ample risks: Colin’s voice is front and center i.e. Lake Song, there are jangly R.E.M.-like guitars (which are now accented with solid acoustic layers), unforgettable lyrical analogies combined with a scholastic vocabulary. The difference here? This time, it feels like home — comfortable, warm yet challenging.
4) Civil Twilight – Story of an Immigrant
– What it sounds like: you’ll read about how the band are from South Africa, were a U2 cover band in a past life and sound at times like Muse. Leave this all behind — while the songs themselves may resemble their influences at times, the albums are guaranteed to sound like nothing you’ve heard before.
– Why I love it: this band makes me feel alive. They sing about rivers, running wild, rhythms in nature, shedding distractions, embracing life, believing in the people in your life and always asking yourself “what does all this mean?” This is a band and album you feel, not hear. Civil Twilight are quickly becoming one of my favorite bands with two solid releases in a row.
3) Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell – Sing Into My Mouth
– Standout tracks: Bullet Proof Soul, No Way Out of Here, Am I a Good Man
– What it sounds like: two artists who are enjoying music more than ever by singing someone else’s lyrics (which means they get to focus on the MUSIC). Combine Iron & Wine’s enigmatic, soft mortality with Band of Horses’ country insights and you have Sing Into My Mouth. But it’s better than that (much much better).
– Why I love it: this album is beautiful. The integrity of the instrumentation is matchless and perfectly suited to the selection of songs. During certain moments, you feel like you’ve figured it all out: it’s like reading a good book, coupled with a perfect glass of wine and finally realizing that your soulmate is sitting right in front of you, all at the same time. This is comfort food. This is warmth. This is relief, contentment and a promise that everything’s finally falling into place.
2) Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Chasing Yesterday
– What it sounds like: Noel Gallagher breaking free of the confines of brit-pop and not worrying about pleasing anybody else (including his brother and the rest of Oasis). There’s plenty of strings, thumping bass and horns (much to Liam’s dismay) and a surprising lack of layered electric guitars, a welcomed change.
– Why I love it: it’s as honest as anything we’ve ever heard from him. It shows Noel doing something different while building unapologetically on his signature style and simple chord structure. This is as good (or better) than anything to come out of the Oasis songbook because you get to see Mr. Gallagher having fun while appreciating his muses (love, music and swagger) once again. Most importantly, it’s Noel stepping out from behind the songwriting gig to instead pull the strings, sing his melodies and masterplan his path all the while.
1) Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
– What it sounds like: folk-infused chamber pop and a mix of the early 60s with early 90s. It makes you want to cry, laugh and shout all at the same time. You’ll be air drumming your heart out while weeping like a baby. This one folking rocks.
– Why I love it: At it’s best, Honeybear is better than 99% of the albums I’ve heard in the last 15 years. At it’s worst, it’s still better than 90% of the albums I’ve heard in the last 15 years. If Father John’s first album Fear Fun was the bear being awoken, then Honeybear is the bear learning how to steal picnic baskets from unassuming campers. The vocals are godlike, as holy as the Father John moniker insinuates, making you feel like you’ve had that first cup of coffee in the morning laced with a shot of whiskey. The lyrics create stories that sound like something you’d hear from a village elder who’s had too much to drink and too little sleep. At this rate, the music could be coming from a Casio AZ-1 midi controlled keypad and you’d still have a great album. Instead you get A+ musicianship as the proverbial icing on the cake. This one feels like your first kiss – awkward, too short, rewarding and ultimately unforgettable.
Honorable Mention: Lord Huron – Strange Tails, Elvis Presley – If I Can Dream, Lovedrug – Notions, Punch Brothers – The Phosphorescent Blues, My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall