Sitting here and typing these words, as the sun sets on 2015, it's tough to believe that the year somehow went by so fast. As ever, life is a journey, and this year was a big one. While 2014 will always be "the big one" for me—it's the year I got married, after all—2015 still brought a lot of surprises and remarkable moments, and the music especially was superb. Last year, when I compiled my top 30 albums of 2014, I said it was my favorite EOTY list I'd ever put together. In a lot of ways, I think it should be any music listener's quest to say something similar every single year. As you discover new things and flesh out your music tastes, you are naturally going to find more that you love. This year, I delved deep into roots music, focusing much of my attention on discovering new artists in the country, alt-country, Americana, and folk genres. In those circles, 2015 was one of the best in history, and I'm happy to say that my exploration of those genres (and all that I discovered therein) once again has led to my favorite EOTY list I have ever compiled. From the eulogistic melancholy of Butch Walker's Afraid of Ghosts and Chris Stapleton's Traveller to the everyman narratives of Jason Isbell's Something More Than Free, and from the internal religious struggles of Noah Gundersen's Carry the Ghost to the way that Dawes explored losing friendships and relationships on All Your Favorite Bands, the albums I loved the most this year may have shared similar influences and roots, but they all grappled with different questions about life, death, love, and what makes living worth it. I can't think of a more life-affirming slate of releases than what 2015 brought, and I frankly can't wait to see where the journey leads me next. As Chris Stapleton sings on the title track from his masterful debut, "every turn reveals some other road, and I'm a traveller." Hopefully the next road is as thrilling as this one was.
Click here for a Spotify playlist of key tracks from the albums listed below.
Butch Walker - Afraid of Ghosts
Butch Walker's music changed my life more than a decade ago, the first time I heard Letters
crackling through my shitty iPod headphones and witnessed just how much
of themselves a person could channel into their music. Even in those
days, when Walker was pairing the catchiest power pop choruses on the
block with seriously heavy stories about breakups and death, and even
when he was writing songs with a heavy dose of sarcasm, he always struck
me as the most honest songwriter I'd ever heard. He still does, and Afraid of Ghosts, his seventh solo LP, is his arguable masterpiece. Written in the wake of his father's passing, Afraid of Ghosts is a stirring and humbling re-examination of a life that's lost one of its core stabilizing factors. Where Sufjan Stevens Carrie & Lowell
(a clear companion piece to this record, both in sound and subject
matter) derives tension and emotion from the estranged relationship
Stevens shared with his mother, Afraid of Ghosts shows what
happens when a parent who was both your role model and your best friend
suddenly isn't there anymore. Not all of the songs invoke the death of
"Big Butch" directly. As usual, Walker is a storyteller, and these songs
tackle the sad tales of burned-out bartenders, widowers, divorcees,
lonely drinkers, and convicts whiling away their final days of freedom
to the sounds of Chrissie Hynde playing on the radio. Compared to the
energetic glee that Walker channeled into his last full-length, 2011's The Spade, Afraid of Ghosts
is a tough, stark listen—one that frequently feels devoid of hope or
silver lining. But if you listen closely, you can hear the redemption
ringing through every chord and coursing through every lyric, from
Walker's pledge to "take what scares me the most and turn it into
something real" on the title track, to the final motorcycle ride he
takes with his father's spirit on "The Dark."
On the morning of October 2nd, the one-year anniversary of my
grandfather's passing, I put this record on the turntable, and it
transported me. By the time side two had spun itself around to "Father's
Day," the album's beating heart and perhaps the best song Butch has
ever written, I was in tears. Something about that song, about the
cathartic chorus or the crashing Ryan Adams guitar solo that provides
the final coda, hit me as both crushingly heartbreaking and
indescribably uplifting. 2015 brought a lot of great music, and so much
of it hit me on such a viscerally personal level. But as that song was
playing on October 2nd, I knew Afraid of Ghosts had to be my
album of the year, if only for the way that it briefly seemed to connect
me to my grandpa on the other side. Music, at any given moment, can do
remarkable, inexplicable things, but I can't think of more than five or
six listening experiences in my entire life that have cut me to the core
quite like that one did.
Key Track: "Father's Day"
Read my interview with Butch here.
Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free
No one from this generation of songwriters creates characters as
organic and fully realized as Jason Isbell. Though not as emotionally
immediate as his 2013 breakthrough, Southeastern, Something More Than Free is
arguably an even more impressive display of the songwriting craft.
Aside from the epic "Children of Children," which clocks in at 5:50,
most of these songs don't even get past the four-minute mark, but almost
all of them capture narratives that could be given legitimate
screenplay treatment. "Speed Trap Town" is the most moving, a powerful
song about a man who loses his father and suddenly realizes, after
witnessing a demoralizing loss for the local high school football team,
that there is nothing left to tie him to the small town where he's spent
his whole life. Isbell's songs often straddle that line, between
escaping and holding strong, between getting out and finding a way to
stay put and thrive anyway. For every guy who actually manages to get
past the county line, there's another like the protagonist of the title
track, who works hard at his blue collar job every day because it's the
only thing he's ever known. Where a weaker songwriter might make
judgments about which path is more honorable, Isbell never does. On a
song like "If It Takes a Lifetime," working for the county and "learning
how to be alone" is made to sound as triumphant as asking your old
flame to run away with you, as the hero of "The Life You Chose" does.
And that's the heart of the matter: these people are all heroes in
Isbell's eyes, whether they're looking for freedom just a few miles off
down the highway or punching the clock every morning at 5 a.m., working
for something more than free.
Key Track: "Speed Trap Town"
Read my interview with Jason here.
Noah Gundersen - Carry the Ghost
On his second full-length, Seattle-based singer/songwriter Noah
Gundersen uses his electric guitar like it's a weapon. Just last year,
Gundersen dropped his debut album, a masterful set of folk songs called Ledges that
thrived off little more than acoustic instrumentation, a strong voice,
and piercing lyricism. This summer, the 26-year-old Gundersen made a
huge leap forward, outfitting his songs with new layers and sonic ideas.
As a result, Carry the Ghost is considerably more muscular than
its predecessor, with Gundersen allowing the electric guitar to do a lot
of the emotional heavy lifting on songs like "Slow Dancer," "Halo
(Disappear/Reappear)," "Jealous Love," "Blossom," and "Heartbreaker." On
"Halo," the guitar almost overwhelms the vocals as the song barrels
into a scathing, shouted conclusion; on "Blossom," the guitar sounds
like one last summer sunset; on "Heartbreaker," the guitar is a death
rattle for a doomed relationship, shaking everything in its path
(including the recording equipment in the studio) as it reaches out for
closure. But unlike so many solo acoustic acts that decide to flesh out
their sound a few albums deep into their careers, Gundersen lets Carry the Ghost stay true to the heart of what made Ledges
special, offering a young man's unique, poetic, and openhearted
viewpoints on heartbreak, family, art, sexuality, and religion. The
latter is the clearest point of focus here, and songs like "Empty from
the Start" and "Topless Dancer" are mammoth accomplishments for tackling
precisely why a spiritually raised person might turn away from
religious faith after reaching adulthood. Whether Gundersen is singing a
simple breakup song or taking on the complexities of existential
thought, though, Carry the Ghost consistently displays him as a songwriter whose talent has no limits.
Key Track: "Topless Dancer"
Read my interview with Noah here.
Dawes - All Your Favorite Bands
Dawes might be the best modern American rock band. They can certainly
match any other title contender in terms of sheer musical chops, as
evidenced on their fourth LP, All Your Favorite Bands. Largely recorded live under the direction of producer David Rawlings, Bands allows
all four members of Dawes to shine while also giving the arrangements a
loose, relaxed feel. On their previous album, 2013's Stories Don't End,
Dawes largely left behind the Laurel Canyon folk that had inspired
their early records in favor of a more modern, studio-driven indie rock
sound. Here, they blend the more versatile sound of their third record
with the nostalgic, homage-paying feel of their first two (2009's North Hills and 2011's Nothing is Wrong).
The result is stacked with song of the year nominees, from the
instantly quotable title track to the 10-minute slowburn closer "Now
That It's Too Late, Maria." Frontman Taylor Goldsmith still sounds like a
world-two version of Jackson Browne when he sings, but at this point
in their career, Dawes are very much their own band, and All Your Favorite Bands is
the sound of them making one of the most well-crafted, well-played,
well-sung, and all around most enjoyable rock records of the new
millennium. Spin's list of the "50 best rock bands right now" is voided simply by the fact that these guys aren't on it.
Key Track: "All Your Favorite Bands"
Chris Stapleton - Traveller
Chris Stapleton was perhaps the year's biggest success story. Prior to
2015, I had no idea who Stapleton was (though I'd undoubtedly heard some
of his songs, given his position as one of Nashville's more reliable
smash hit songwriters). The first time I heard this record's title
track, though, I knew Stapleton was something special. His voice, so big
and gruff and beautiful, is virtually peerless in modern recorded
music, and sells terrific songs like "Fire Away" and "Parachute" as
instant classics. A lot of mainstream country fans didn't know who
Stapleton was either, until he started sweeping the big prizes at this
year's CMA Awards. He came into the night as a dark horse contender for
Album of the Year, Male Vocalist, and New Artist. He not only walked
away with all three, but he stole the show and made nationwide headlines
for an explosive, thoroughly entertaining, and musically stunning
performance alongside Justin Timberlake. The performance, which included
Timberlake's "Drink You Away" and Stapleton's rousing cover of the
country-soul classic, "Tennessee Whiskey," was perhaps the greatest
televised music performance of the decade so far, a moment when everyone
watching could see that Stapleton was transforming from an underdog
into a living legend right in front of their eyes. The CMA appearance
shot Traveller up the charts and, remarkably, made it a number
one album on the Billboard 200 and an eventual Grammy nominee for Album
of the Year. Even without all of that publicity, though, Traveller
is a beauty, written for Stapleton's late father and featuring songs
like "Whiskey and You" and "Daddy Doesn't Pray Anymore" that will surely
stop any music fan—country or not—in their tracks.
Key Track: "Traveller"
Logan Brill is a virtual unknown at this point—not just in the broader
music industry, but also in the country music scene from which she
hails. One listen to Shuteye, though, Brill's sophomore LP, and
it's clear that it can only be a matter of time before everyone else
discovers this remarkably well-kept secret. With a honeysuckle voice so
gorgeous it makes me ache just thinking about it, Brill conveys so much
honesty and feeling on this record that it doesn't even matter that a
good handful of the songs aren't hers. The soaring "Where Rainbows
Never Die" is a Chris Stapleton song from back in his SteelDrivers
days, while "The Bees" is a hypnotic tune borrowed from a Lee Ann
Womack album. But even when she isn't writing the songs, Brill still
lives in them so completely that they become her's. "Halfway Home"
finds her navigating a slew of toxic relationships and finally finding
the strength to push the shitty guys away, while "World Still Round" is
about the never-ending search for "the one who won't make me search
anymore." With melodies strong enough and production shiny enough for
the mainstream (it's not so tough to imagine something like "Far Cry
from You" being a Carrie Underwood hit), but a lyrical feel that is
closer to classic country (both "The Woman on Your Mind" and "I Wish You
Loved Me" feel timeless from the very first listen), Shuteye is the kind of record that could silence a thousand misguided country music haters.
Key Track: "The Woman on Your Mind"
Kacey Musgraves - Pageant Material
Kacey Musgraves made one of the best major label debut albums in recent memory with 2013's Same Trailer, Different Park.
That album was smart and scathing while still being gorgeously
tuneful, a record that blazed its own country music path instead of
following in the footsteps of the more superficial and ephemeral trends
of the time. Two years later, with the Bro Country movement at least
slowing down (if not on its way out entirely) Musgraves doesn't sound
as radical as she did on Same Trailer. That's partially by
design: this record doubles down on the classic country influences and
pulls back on some of the more progressive lyrical themes of the
debut. There are still songs about pushing against the grain ("Good
Ol' Boys Club," in particular), and Musgraves is still absolutely
devoted to being herself and no one else (hence the title track). But
with tunes about hometowns ("Dime Store Cowgirl") and young love
("Late to the Party"), many critics felt that Pageant Material was
a step back for Musgraves, a compromise to write songs that play by
modern country music rules instead of challenging them. Those
critics, to put it lightly, missed the point. When Kacey is trying to
maintain her sassy, controversial archetype, the songs actually
suffer, with moments like "Family is Family," "Cup of Tea," and "This
Town" playing as mostly hollow re-visitations of the Same Trailer material.
When she just focuses on just writing damn good melodies, though,
Musgraves turns out some of the most swoon-worthy country songs
ever—particularly the sensitive mid-album one-two punch of "Somebody to
Love" and "Miserable."
Key Track: "Dime Store Cowgirl"
Will Hoge - Small Town Dreams
Does going back home and making a life for yourself in the small town
where you grew up count as settling? That's the question posed by Will
Hoge's latest studio album—his 10th, if you count his pair of
politically driven EPs. Rather than focusing on politics or social
issues, Small Town Dreams finds Hoge dwelling on the microcosms of small town middle America. There's even a song called
"Middle of America," a Mellencamp-style anthem about what all those
kids who grew up in pink houses do after the sun goes down. But while Small Town Dreams often
tackles a lot of the same subject matter that is typical fodder for
mainstream country at this point—small towns, dreams of leaving those
small towns, family, bars where everybody knows everybody else—Hoge's
songwriting always aims for emotional authenticity rather than
million-dollar hooks. "Took a whole lot of miles, but I finally know
now/I'm kind of proud of growing up around here," Hoge sings on the
album's big-hearted opening track. As a guy who's felt a similar
sentiment every time he's come home since first leaving for college six
years ago, that line, that song, and this entire album gives me a warm
feeling in my chest that I don't think any other album on the list
Key Track: "Growing Up Around Here"
Matt Nathanson - Show Me Your Fangs
The year's best pop album was also one of the most overlooked. Matt
Nathanson has been writing should-be hits ever since he scored his actual hit back in 2007/2008 with "Come on Get Higher." Show Me Your Fangs sees
the singer/songwriter moving in two different directions for a record
that is gleefully and purposefully disjointed. In our (fantastic)
interview, Matt said that his favorite artists have always made albums
that were very "topographic," with emotional highs and lows. That's
precisely the kind of record he makes here, plunging listeners from the
blissful euphoria of "Giants" to the philandering self-hatred of
"Washington State Fight Song." The record ends on another high note with
the victory lap of "Headphones," hits some serious feel-bad vibes with
"Disappear" and "Playlists & Apologies," and even boasts a quirky,
heart-wrenching love song called "Bill Murray." But for all the
scattershot composition and crises of mood to be found on Show Me Your Fangs,
there's a resonant and cohesive message here about accepting your
flaws, being open about the things that don't work in your
relationships, and not letting the little fights or disagreements morph
into mountains of alienation. Nathanson has made a better record
(2007's Some Mad Hope) and he's even made a catchier one (2011's
Modern Love), but he's never made one so mature, so dynamic, or so
clearly, unapologetically him.
Key Track: "Disappear"
Read my interview with Matt here.
Yeah, I know: don't judge an album by its cover. But when album covers are as gorgeous as the one Mandolin Orange chose for Such Jubilee, it makes you want to
pay attention just a little bit harder. A beautiful, traditional folk
record filled with fiddle, softly plucked acoustic guitars, and gentle
boy-girl harmonies, Such Jubilee is the kind of album that
sounds great on a winter evening, with the snow swirling outside and a
cup of tea in hand. That setting makes sense for this LP, too, which
was written as "a record about home, both the place and the idea." So
many artists have written songs about the road, but few have written
such powerful music about coming home from the road and
realizing just how much that place means to you. "Old man, give me
endless time, never let these ties sever," lead songwriter Andrew Marlin
sings at the outset of "Old Ties and Companions," the album's
uplifting opener, invoking the bonds that only a place like home can
forge. Elsewhere, "Rounder" embodies the story of a cowboy whose
mistakes have cost him his sense of home and will soon cost him his
life, while "Blue Ruin" is a shattering rumination on the Sandy Hook
shooting, and about how, even after all of the political debates about
gun control have quieted down, those 20 children will never again be
home on Christmas morning. Such Jubilee is a weighty,
emotionally involving listen, one that's far better if you sit with
your eyes closed and contemplate the words rather than playing it in
the background. But it's also the kind of folk album that I think
anyone could love—similar to Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago not necessarily in sound, but definitely in its soothing wintry seclusion.
Key Track: "Rounder"
Is John Moreland applying for the job of "Dean of American Sad Bastards" or something? On High on Tulsa Heat,
a record that seems destined to be Moreland's breakthrough, the
Oklahoma singer/songwriter spins one tale of intense loneliness after
another. "I'm so damn good at sorrow," he sings on the stark
penultimate track "You Don't Care for Me Enough to Cry," and that just
about encapsulates the myriad of heartbreaks that rage throughout High on Tulsa Heat.
Rather than coming across as an upset emo bro with a guitar, though,
Moreland spins his sadness into elegantly beautiful songs that capture
the spirit of every down-on-his luck guy at every bar across middle
America. On "Cherokee," a song that has been widely (and rightfully)
praised by everyone from Rolling Stone to NPR, Moreland actually is the
down-on-his-luck guy at the bar, pleading "And I wish you were here
to softly say may name/Calm down all the chemicals tearin' through my
brain." It's a heavy lyric, in a heavy song, on a heavy album. But
Moreland, his big-hearted baritone so similar to Springsteen's, is
capable of conveying hope even from the darkest corners of his barroom
soul. "When it feels like nothing's real and no one's standing on your
side/Just find me in the Indian Nation sky," he sings on the
entrancing opener "Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars." High on Tulsa Heat is that kind
of album, the kind of album you can turn to for answers and comfort
when the entire world feels like it's falling down around you.
Key track: "Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars"
"The Bird Hunters," the anthemic fiddle-driven opener from Turnpike
Troubadours' fourth full-length album, only goes on for five minutes.
Within those five minutes, though, is a dense tale, a literary short
story that conveys themes of family, friendship, broken love, regret,
hope, and a conflict between country and city life, all played out in
the narrator's mind as he goes hunting with an old pal. Between the
triumphant fiddle hook, the sing-along chorus, and the intriguing
storytelling, "The Bird Hunters" is arguably the year's most engaging
opening track, and it sets the stage for an album that consistently
wows, both musically and lyrically. If you look at Turnpike Troubadours
tour schedule, you'll see that they rarely make it out of the south.
With songs this good, though, this veteran alt-country band should be
playing bars in every major concert market in the country. From
blistering rockers like "Down Here," "The Mercury," and "Doreen," to
gorgeous acoustic numbers like "A Little Song" and "Fall out of Love,"
Turnpike Troubadours reveal themselves here as peerless masters of
melody and a damn tight musical force to boot. It's the lyrics and the
way that frontman Evan Felker delivers them, though, that really makes Turnpike Troubadours stick.
Take "Long Drive Home," a potent examination of a couple on the cusp
of divorce. "Well people anymore, they ain't go no staying power/'I
love you' come by easy, it'll leave you just the same/You want
something bad, you gotta bleed a little for it/You gotta look it in the
eye, you gotta call it out by name." Felker sings those words in the
song's final verse, before twisting the knife with the punchline: "Oh
and lovers they march by, but they ain't like you and I/They all wanna
be Hank Williams, they don't wanna have to die." If there's a bigger
payoff moment in any song this year, I haven't heard it.
Key Track: "Long Drive Home"
Ringling Road is labeled as a "Texas country" album, but to me,
it sounds more like a send-up of 1990s radio rock. The first time I
listened to this album, I was consistently reminded of the bands from my
childhood, from the Goo Goo Dolls to Sister Hazel and from Counting
Crows to the Wallflowers. William Clark Green has the same penchant for
writing big, warm hooks that all of those bands did back in the day.
But where all four of those bands found hits, Green never will—not only
because he lives in an era where folk rock is still miles from the
mainstream, but also because of his rough-and-tumble persona. Green's
lyrics are raw and blunt: he doesn't pull his punches and he's okay with
taking solace in the unhappiness of others. "I don't have no sympathy
for the break and the ache in your heart/'Cause after what you did to
me, it's kinda nice to see it falling apart," he sings to a cheating
ex-lover in "Sympathy." And on the infectious "Sticks and Stones," it's
"I won't be begging for a second chance/Do you really think that I give
a damn?" As on his previous record, 2013's outstanding Rose Queen, Ringling Road makes
it clear that Green doesn't mind being the outsider. Like the bad boy
love interest in Hollywood movies, though, it's still easy to root for
Green, whether he's letting off his yearning for the one that got away
("Still Think About You," about a picturesque summer love that couldn't
last) or spilling his heart out over drunk-dial ("Fool Me Once").
Key Track: "Sticks and Stones"
Brandon Flowers - The Desired Effect
Brandon Flowers has always written songs with at least one foot in the past. His breakthrough with The Killers, 2004's Hot Fuss, was crafted on a steady diet of '80s new wave and post punk, while 2006's Sam's Town drove straight down a highway (on the back of a hurricane) through Springsteen's American heartland. With The Desired Effect,
his second solo LP, Flowers strives to make an epic soundtrack for the
John Hughes movie playing in his head. The result is one of the year's
best pop albums, a bombastic and audacious collection that lovingly
recreates and recolors the small towns, rain-soaked nights, and neon-lit
carnivals of blissful teenage romance. As is customary for Flowers at
this point, he leaves one of the best tracks on the cutting room floor,
in the shape of the stadium-sized title track. For the most part,
though, The Desired Effect revisits everything The Killers have done well in the past—the menacing synth-driven hooks of Hot Fuss ("Can't Deny My Love"), the heartland highway momentum of Sam's Town ("Dreams Come True"), or the maximalist power ballads of Battle Born ("Between
Me and You")—but makes them sound new again. No wonder so many
non-Killers fans have embraced this LP in a way they never did with
Flowers' previous work.
Key Track: "Between Me and You"
Dave Cobb produced two of the albums in my top five (Something More Than Free and Traveller),
as well as a handful of others that only narrowly missed my top 30
(top-notch work from artists like Anderson East, Lindi Ortega, and
HoneyHoney). For good reason, Cobb is the most in-demand producer in
roots music right now, a modern parallel to the legendary T. Bone
Burnett. Despite Cobb's growing fame and popularity, though, he's still
a generous, good-hearted guy willing to work for the music rather than
for the money. That much is obvious by how he handled Southernality,
a big success story that almost wasn't. A Thousand Horses, a
Nashville-based southern rock band, seemed to have their chances at
success dashed upon the rocks a few years ago, when they were dropped
from Interscope Records after putting out only one EP. With songs in
their back pocket but minimal funds to record them, the band turned to
Cobb, who offered to work with the budget they had and record their new
album in his home studio. Ultimately, the album—which is a blistering
mix of wistful country, southern soul, and Syknyrd-style classic
rock—earned the attention of Republic Nashville, who helped send the
first single, "Smoke," to the top of the charts. Admittedly, Southernality doesn't
sound quite as good outside of the summertime. However, during 2015's
hottest months, this record's parade of sweeping rock anthems ("The
First Time," "Heaven is Close," "Sunday Morning") and big-hearted songs
about home ("Where I'm Going") made it my go-to driving and running
Key Track: "Heaven is Close"
Frank Turner - Positive Songs for Negative People
Frank Turner's older fans—or as he called them in his recent visit to Noisey's Rank Your Records feature, his "more elitist fans"—would tell you that the British singer/songwriter made one great album (2008's Love, Ire & Song)
and has been rehashing his formula on lesser records ever since. Turner
believes—and I agree with him—that his 2015 LP, the propulsive Positive Songs for Negative People is his best album. Indeed, Positive Songs is the most complete, most consistent, most cohesive, and least indulgent
record Turner has ever made. Part of the reason for the triumph is
Butch Walker's top-notch production, which keeps the muscular bigness of
2013's Tape Deck Heart, but better emphasizes the individual
threads of each song—from the pummeling guitars to the pounding pianos,
all the way to Turner's commanding one-take vocal performances. The
result is an exquisite-sounding arena rock record that frequently plumbs
deeper emotions and subject matter. "Get Better" is a post-wallowing
breakup anthem for the ages; "Silent Key" is a near-operatic number
about the Challenger explosion; and "Song for Josh," an ode for a fallen
friend, is a gut punch that has never once failed to put a lump in my
throat. It's comforting that, in an age where rock music is often viewed
as irrelevant, Frank Turner is still delivering straight ahead rock
records that feel so vital.
Key Track: "Song for Josh"
Combining lush harmonies that recall the Dixie Chicks, pop-country hooks that recall Taylor Swift's world-conquering Fearless album,
and enough homegrown sass to stand shoulder to shoulder with Miranda
Lambert, Maddie & Tae burst out of the gate here as one of the most
promising debut acts of the year. From the moment that "Girl in a
Country Song," a scathing takedown of the "Bro-Country" trend, hit the
airwaves in late 2014, it was clear that these two had something new to
offer. There's plenty of attitude on display throughout Start Here to
match that almost-chart-topping single, with songs like "Sierra" and
"Shut up and Fish" bringing the laughs and the hooks in equal fashion.
But the best songs are the more sensitive moments, from the yearning,
bittersweet escapism of "Waitin' on a Plane," to the gorgeous "After the
Storm Blows Through," which smartly puts the focus on the vocal
Key Track: "After the Storm Blows Through"
Glen Hansard - Didn't He Ramble
Pound for pound and song for song, there aren't many better songwriters
on the scene today than Glen Hansard. Endeared to the general public
through his captivating performance and soundtrack work in the film Once, Hansard has bloomed into a world-class record maker since beginning a long-awaited solo career back in 2012. Didn't He Ramble
is another stunning display of craft, spectacular both when it goes for
bombast (the E Street-sized rave-up of "Her Mercy") or restrained mood
pieces (the slow-burn LP opener, "Grace Beneath the Pines"). The
standouts are perhaps not as high as the highs of Hansard's 2012 solo
debut, Rhythm & Repose, but the album as a whole is more
consistent and fully realized than its predecessor, showcasing a broader
array of Hansard's talents than we've ever heard on a record before.
Hansard stacks most of the obvious highlights upfront (including both of
aforementioned tunes, as well as lead-off single "Winning Streak"). But
Didn't He Ramble is a great record because of how the subtler
moments on the album's second side—the rain-soaked beauty of "Paying My
Way," the Sam Beam-featuring "My Little Ruin," and the traditional Irish
folk of "Stay the Road"—are the kinds of lingering songs that increase
their hold on you with every listen.
Key Track: "Her Mercy"
Ashley Monroe has been on my radar for a long time, ever since she
contributed guest vocals on one of the tracks from Will Hoge's 2009
album, The Wreckage. It wasn't until The Blade, though, that Monroe made me really pay attention to her solo material. Mature, confident, and versatile in ways that 2013's Like a Rose wasn't, The Blade is
in album that exists out in the no-man's land between mainstream
country and old-fashioned traditionalism. Some of the album's best cuts
(like the infectious opener "On to Something Good") are huge pop-country
sing-alongs, not so far from the music that Miranda Lambert (Monroe's
bandmate in the Pistol Annies) makes to such critical acclaim and
mainstream success. Other songs, though, like the heart-on-the-sleeve
"Mayflowers" or the hushed and intimate "Has Anybody Ever Told You,"
sound like they could have been around decades ago. Monroe can do pretty
much anything as a songwriter and performer, as she proves on the wonky
saloon rag of "Winning Streak" (a Chris Stapleton co-write) or the
smoky honky tonk closer "I'm Good at Leaving" (a Miranda Lambert
co-write). But the album's best track is the one that blends Monroe's
penchant for both shiny hooks and country classicism: the soaring title
track. "You caught it by the handle baby, I caught it by the blade,"
Monroe sings, before barreling into the kind of chorus that can draw a
tear by sheer force of will. It's a timeless songwriting accomplishment,
and one that proves that, after years of trying to find as much success
with her solo material as she has with other projects and guest spots,
Monroe has finally hit the bull's eye.
Key Track: "The Blade"
Thanks to The First Time, Kelsea Ballerini is mainstream country
music's new it-girl. She notched a number one country hit with her debut
single "Love Me Like You Mean It," making her the first debut female to
top the charts since Carrie Underwood. She's also been labeled "the
next Taylor Swift" ad nauseam, and is even a member of Swift's "squad,"
having shared the stage with music's biggest star during the Nashville
stop of the 1989 tour. Unlike Swift, though, Ballerini has pretty much dispensed with the pretense of being a country artist from the get-go. The First Time is
pop-country with a strong emphasis on the pop. The album's second
single, "Dibs," has the most infectious chorus of any song released this
year, plus a killer riff that kept it as my go-to summer jam throughout
the hot months. But while Ballerini's songs are the type that you get
stuck in your head after one listen, she isn't a manufactured pop
starlet by any stretch of the imagination. A talented guitar player with
a striking voice and plenty of charisma, Ballerini is also a damn good
songwriter. She wrote or co-wrote every song on The First Time,
and most of them (from the clever rebuke of an immature ex-boyfriend on
"Peter Pan" to the requisite send-up of long nights and fleeting youth
on "Underage") manage to tackle subject matter we've all heard before in
a way that no one else has quite thought of yet. And while most of The First Time is
clear summertime feel-good pop music, when Ballerini lets her guard
down (as on the gorgeous "Secondhand Smoke," a vulnerable power ballad
about being a child of divorce), it's clear that she has a sort of
X-factor that really could make her the heir apparent to Taylor Swift's throne.
Key Track: "Dibs"
Esto - Houghton-Hancock Hum-Alongs
My friend Blake Morgan outdid himself on his first full-length album. Written about Michigan, the state we both call home, Houghton-Hancock Hum-Alongs is
a quirky and infectious set of songs about summertime and youth. A
musical chameleon, Morgan hits everything from folk to pop to jazz in
these songs, sometimes leaving his tunes acoustic and introspective,
sometimes fleshing them out with horns, strings, cheesy sax solos, gang
vocals, or arena-sized guitar solos. As a crowdfunded independent
release, Houghton-Hancock Hum-Alongs probably went overlooked by
most listeners, but it deserves attention for the songwriting alone. Not
many writers could make a song about an Upper Peninsula town's mining
heritage interesting, but "Quincy Mine" flickers with color and uneasy
tension from first note to last. That the album also contains one of the
year's most infectious summertime pop songs ("Houghton, MI") and one of
its most emotive grand finales ("Calumet") makes it all the more
impressive that Blake is just 24 years old.
Key Track: "Calumet"
The Damnwells - The Damnwells
Though less consistent than either 2009's One Last Century or 2011's No One Listens to the Band Anymore, The Damnwells remains
a stunningly catchy and remarkably personal LP from one of America's
finest bands. Written about growing up, getting old, and getting
divorced, this record sparks with the vulnerability and insecurity that
comes with having the rug ripped out from under you and having to reboot
your life from scratch. Fittingly, many of the songs are heartbreakers,
with "The Girl That's Not in Love with You" and "None of These Things"
functioning as two of the more harrowing post-relationship catharses of
the last decade. Even when they turn up the volume and have a little
fun, though, like on the surging opener "Money and Shiny Things (And
Drugs)" or the legitimately funny "Too Old to Die Young," The Damnwells
have a knack for melody and striking lyricism that few bands can top.
The biggest shame with the record is that "Along the Way," a perfect
farewell-to-youth anthem that frontman Alex Dezen put on an EP in 2014,
gets left off instead of earning the penultimate slot it deserves.
Key Track: "The Girl That's Not in Love with You"
Following what was arguably his most straightforward singer/songwriter album (2013's post-divorce The Beast in its Tracks),
Josh Ritter trades the acoustic arrangements for his most vibrant and
adventurous disc yet. Though not experimental to the point of indulgence
or overreaching, Sermon on the Rocks does take Ritter's
folk/Americana sound further than its ever been from traditionalism,
incorporating elements of electronic music on the wonderfully autumnal
"Homecoming" and adopting a near hip-hop-esque flow with the rapid-fire
wordplay of "Getting Ready to Get Down." Producer Trina Shoemaker even
described two of the album's numbers—the infectious "Birds of the
Meadow" and the Dylanesque "Seeing Me 'Round"—as "odd, creepy, beautiful
songs that sonically were R&B-ish." Perhaps the best thing about
all of this, especially after the lovely but samey Beast, is that Sermon on the Rocks is
never content to sit in one place for long. From quirky folkloric tale
of "Young Moses" to "A Big Enough Sky" and "Where the Night Goes"—both
Springsteen-style back-road anthems—Sermon is Ritter's weirdest, most varied, and all around best album yet.
Key Track: "Homecoming"
Ryan Adams - 1989
On paper, it sounds almost too gimmicky: ultra-prolific
alt-country weirdo goes into his studio and makes a full-album cover of a
Taylor Swift LP, turning the glossy pop songs into tunes that sound
like they could have been cut from classic Springsteen or Smiths
records. But 1989 succeeds as more than just a publicity stunt,
first because Adams has such an obvious deference for Swift's
songwriting ability, and second because he pours himself so fully into
the songs. Adams, recently divorced from actress Mandy Moore, finds the
heartbreak and insecurity that many didn't notice underneath the
bombastic Max Martin production of Swift's original album. "How You Get
the Girl" turns into a vivid vignette about a divorced man showing up
at his ex-wife's door in the rain, desperate to make amends, "I Wish
You Would" deepens the already palpable regret of the original, and
"This Love" becomes a raw piano ballad, played by a guy just one drink
shy of an emotional breakdown. Occasionally, the proceedings get a
little too close to YouTube-style acoustic covers, particularly on
"Blank Space," where Adams trades the batshit satire of Swift's version
for a dull, half-whispered ballad take. But particularly when Adams
takes the classic rock route with the arrangements—an anthemic cover of
"Welcome to New York," an out-of-control rewrite of "Style," a jangly
R.E.M.-esque take on "Wildest Dreams," or a yearning bass-driven
version of "All You Had to Do Was Stay"—he comes away with some of his
best recorded output in a decade.
Key Track: "All You Had to Do Was Stay"
If Striking Matches sound like the boy-girl duo from the TV show Nashville,
it's because they kind of are. The ABC drama about Music City has used
six songs written by this talented pair since it premiered in 2012.
But while these songs emphasize the harmonies, interplay, and chemistry
of their writers, Nothing but the Silence is most impressive as
a display of two seasoned guitar players. Both Justin Davis and Sarah
Zimmermann play what amounts to lead guitar across these 11 songs,
bringing different sounds and styles to the table. He's a fast
fingerpicker, she's got a penchant for raucous rock soloing. The
result—which often puts one guitarist in the left channel and the other
on the right—creates a delectable musical tension that drives these
songs to the next level. Striking Matches have drawn comparisons to The
Civil Wars, and one listen to the swooning "When the Right One Comes
Along" will tell you why. But with the help of the legendary T. Bone
Burnett—who sits behind the boards as producer—this up-and-coming duo
are able to find their own sound, from the rollicking runaway train
opener "Trouble Is As Trouble Does," to the jam-driven "Never Gonna Love
Key Track: "When the Right One Comes Along"
Eric Church - Mr. Misunderstood
As a guy with numerous number one hits on the country charts, not to
mention a past CMA Album of the Year Award, Eric Church could have
launched his fifth full-length record with three months of promotion,
ample pre-release singles, and an arena world tour. Such a roll-out
would have rung false for an album so personal and stripped down,
though, and Church seemed to sense that fact. So instead, Church sent Mr. Misunderstood directly
to an enclave of his biggest fans, on vinyl, with no warning at all.
The rest of the world got a digital version of the album the night of
the CMAs, but Church's decision to pay tribute to his fans first and
foremost was both a cool move for such a big star, and a fitting
decision for a record that displays just how much of a music fan Church
is himself. On the title track, he reflects back on his youth and how he
never fit in largely because of his passion for music, and on
"Record Year," he gets over a break up by losing himself in a stack of
records and the hypnotic spin of the turntable. If Church's passion for
music is equaled by anything, it's his love for his family. "I miss
blues and soul," he sings on the Neil Young-inspired acoustic number
"Holdin' My Own," "But not more than I miss being home." Unfortunately
for Church, being both a rock star and a family man doesn't exactly make
for an easy life. On this album, though, for 10 songs, he manages to
make his two life roles coexist harmoniously.
Key Track: "Record Year"
Third Eye Blind - Dopamine
At this point, so many people have been in Third Eye Blind that it might
seem absurd for them to still be using the same moniker. Including
touring members, Wikipedia lists 15 past or present members of this
band, with frontman Stephen Jenkins being the only constant from day one
(though drummer Brad Hargreaves has been around since 1995, before the
band hit the big time with "Semi-Charmed Life" and "Jumper"). As a
result of all of these changes (including the controversial departures
of former lead guitarists Kevin Cadogan and Tony Fredianelli), it would
be easy to view today's version of Third Eye Blind as an entirely
different entity from the one that recorded 1997's classic self-titled
debut. Dopamine, though, sounds completely like a Third Eye Blind
album from first note to last, with songs like "Blood," "Exiles," "Say
It," and others hearkening back to the music many of us grew up with.
More than just a nostalgia trip, though, Dopamine is a reminder
of the confidence and skill with which Stephen Jenkins crafts pop
songs. From the irresistible swagger of the Bowie-referencing "Rites of
Passage" to the arena-ready build of "Something in You," Dopamine reflects an assuredness that you wouldn't expect from an album that took six long years to make.
Key Track: "Exiles"
Like William Clark Green's Ringling Road (see number 11), Ryan Culwell's Flatlands earns
the tag of "Texas country." But where Clark Green's music is warm and
wistful like a summer breeze, Culwell's is stark and cold. Though
several records on this list have brooked comparison's to Springsteen's Nebraska, either from me or from other writers (including Butch Walker's Afraid of Ghosts and John Moreland's High on Tulsa Heat), Flatlands arguably
comes closer to replicating the dark hopelessness of Springsteen's 1982
masterpiece than any other modern record. Culwell paints the titular Flatlands as
a place where outsiders don't want to go and from which insiders want
to escape. "Most people won't even stay the night/Say Amarillo is just a
waste of time," Culwell sings on opener "Amarillo." Later in the album,
he tells a lover "If you leave, you won't come home," singing "You'll
get washed out in some ocean, pick up an accent that ain't mind/Fall
asleep in some green valley, drunk on some other country's wine."
Culwell's world is one where everyone leaves and where the sand and dirt
wipes away their tracks, a world where "everything dies, baby, that's a
fact." Add Culwell's remarkable, canyon-sized voice—it only takes the
rousing climax of "Red River" to prove that Flatlands is one of
the year's most well-sung records—and this LP, while perhaps best for
your morale if taken in small doses, is undeniably one of the most
impressive musical accomplishments of 2015.
Key Track: "Red River"
Death Cab for Cutie - Kintsugi
Though unfairly maligned upon its release and largely forgotten in the months since, Kintsugi is
an album that I thoroughly believe will gain new fans in the years to
come. At release, the album was criticized for being safe and bland
indie-pop. Listen to the lyrics, though, and Death Cab have rarely made
music so tormented. These songs are positively drenched in bitterness
and self-loathing, and while they often sound like the brightest and
poppiest music this band has ever made, they aren't. This is the
band that, for their major label debut, made a record about death and
fading youth and questioned whether or not those concepts were just
"different names for the same thing." The same darkness that drove Plans still drives Kintsugi,
and from the poignant heartbreakers to the fierce indictments of
former lovers, the album is a treatise about what it means to break
apart and put yourself back together again. Even most of the albums
haters had to concede that the first four songs ("No Room in Frame,"
"Black Sun," "The Ghosts of Beverly Drive," and "Little Wanderer") were
pretty stellar. Those songs are just the beginning of the journey,
though, and from the church-like wistfulness of "You've Haunted Me All
My Life" to the resignation and release of the final two tracks, Kintsugi is an album that deserves a second look.
Key Track: "Little Wanderer"
David Ramirez - Fables
A strong set of songs made even better by the bombastic, reverb-heavy production from Noah Gundersen (see number 3), Fables,
the third solo album from Austin, Texas singer/songwriter David
Ramirez, is a complex examination of love and family and how those
things work when you're a touring musician. Always a talented purveyor
of acoustic Ryan Adams-esque jams, Ramirez hits his highest heights here
when he and Gundersen build his songs up into sky-scraping classic
rock epics. Case-in-point is "Communion," a slow-burn opener that
builds from hushed talk of Southern Baptist churches and first sips of
rum into a rip-roaring electric guitar symphony. Few artists utilized
long, sustained crescendos as well this year as Ramirez, who uses
similar builds on songs like "How Do You Get 'Em Back" and "Ball and
Chain" to raise both the stakes and the hairs on your back. On these
songs, Ramirez's dilemmas—between touring and home life, between the
music he's built his life on and the woman he loves—are blown up into
life and death struggles, and they should be. Fables sees
Ramirez battling with questions and decisions that could change the
course of his life, and whether he's singing pensive songs about
honesty in relationships ("Harder to Lie") or kinetic bar band rockers
clearly meant for the live show ("That Ain't Love," "Hold On"), you can
always feel the beat of his heart underneath.
Key Track: "Ball and Chain"
My Favorite Songs of 2015 (from Albums That Didn't Make My List)
Adele - "When We Were Young"
All Time Low - "Cinderblock Garden"
American Aquarium - "Man I'm Supposed to Be"
Anderson East - "What a Woman Wants to Hear"
Better Off - "Dresser Drawer"
Boo Hewerdine - "North & South"
Brandi Carlile - "Wherever is Your Heart"
Brett Eldredge - "Wanna Be That Song"
Bruce Springsteen - "Meet Me in the City"
Carly Rae Jepsen - "Run Away with Me"
Cam - "My Mistake"
Canaan Smith - "Bronco"
CHVRCHES - "Clearest Blue"
City & Colour - "Blood"
Coldplay - "Everglow"
Donovan Woods - "Portland, Maine"
Fall Out Boy - "The Kids Aren't Alright"
Florence + The Machine - "Ship to Wreck"
Good Old War - "Broken into Better Shape"
HoneyHoney - "Big Man"
James Bay - "Craving"
Jana Kramer - "Love"
Jesse Malin - "Addicted"
Jim Adkins - "Hell"
Joey Kneiser - "Run Like Hell"
Julien Baker - "Go Home"
Lindi Ortega - "Ashes"
The Lone Bellow - "Call to War"
Mat Kearney - "One Black Sheep"
Maren Morris - "I Wish I Was"
Modest Mouse - "Of Course We Know"
Motion City Soundtrack - "I Can Feel You"
Mumford & Sons - "Tompkins Square Park"
Rachel Platten - "Fight Song"
Sam Outlaw - "Country Love Song"
Sufjan Stevens - "Death with Dignity"
The Tallest Man on Earth - "Sagres"
Tame Impala - "Yes I'm Changing"
Thomas Rhett - "Learned it from the Radio"
The Wonder Years - "Cigarettes & Saints"
Young in the City - "Gold in the Sun"
Zac Brown Band - "Homegrown"
Biggest Disappointments of 2015
I consider myself lucky in that not a lot of albums disappointed me this
year. Of the nine albums I wrote about on AbsolutePunk's most
anticipated feature in January, six of them made my list, including four
of my top five. Two others (U2, The 1975) won't release until 2016.
Only one (Modest Mouse) failed to make any impression on my EOTY list,
and that's largely because of how much my music tastes shifted about
halfway through the year.
But even in a year where my most highly anticipated records delivered in
spades, there were still disappointments. Night Beds, one of the most
promising alt-country projects of the past few years, genre hopped to
electronic music and made an album that I would truly classify as
dreadful; Coldplay followed up their best album with their
unquestionable worst; Nate Ruess ditched fun. for one of the least
interesting solo albums in the history of misguided solo albums; City
& Colour continued to drift away from what I loved about them in the
first place; and Adele, while she conquered the world yet again, failed
to live up to my incredibly lofty expectations and quickly fell out of
my fall rotation.
1. Night Beds - Ivywild
2. Coldplay - A Head Full of Dreams
3. Nate Ruess - Grand Romantic
4. City & Colour - If I Should Go Before You
5. Adele - 25
I'm not an EP guy, at all. It's hard for anyone but my favorite artists
to get my attention without a full-length. Still, these five EPs caught
my attention this year. Young in the City, a Noah Gundersen side
project, could have been paired with the bonus tracks from Carry the Ghost
to make the decade's best double album; Maren Morris announced herself
as pop-country's next big thing, with a collection of soulful throwbacks
and massive hooks; Cam scored an inexplicable hit with "Burning House,"
a song that actually ended up being the weakest thing on her impressive
debut EP (and one of the weakest songs on her impressive full-length Untamed,
which just narrowly missed my albums list); Jimmy Eat World's Jim
Adkins toyed with classic pop styles on his six-song 7-inch series; and
Mree showed once again that she has one of the most gorgeous voices in
all of music.
1. Young in the City - Young in the City
2. Maren Morris - Marren Morris
3. Cam - Welcome to Cam Country
4. Jim Adkins - EP Series
5. Mree - Empty Nest
Top 10 of 2014, Re-Ranked
Last year, when I redid my 2013 list, I changed my album of the year
(from Will Hoge to Jason Isbell, both also featured in my 2015 list) and
made a few other adjustments, notably ejecting Arcade Fire from the
list. This year, the changes aren't quite as significant. Ledges is still my clear favorite, though Field Report's Marigolden, an album that only fully clicked with me around Christmas last year, after I
put it as my number 10, jumps to second place. Ryan Adams and Andrew
McMahon were both albums I spent a lot of time listening to on vinyl
this year, so both climbed a few slots. Twin Forks and Taylor Swift,
meanwhile, push into the top 10, while Counting Crows and Damien Rice
both fall back a few slots.
The casualties of these moves are Sun Kil Moon's Benji (an album I probably haven't listened to in full since I placed it at number seven a year ago) and The War on Drugs' Lost in a Dream, an album I still like but don't quite love. Earning an honorable mention is Tyler Hilton's Indian Summer,
an album I discovered too late last year for it to make my list, but
one that I had in constant rotation throughout the summer this year.
1. Noah Gundersen - Ledges
2. Field Report - Marigolden
3. Chad Perrone - Kaleidoscope
4. John Fullbright - Songs
5. Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness - Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness
6. Ryan Adams - Ryan Adams
7. Twin Forks - Twin Forks
8. Counting Crows - Somewhere Under Wonderland
9. Taylor Swift - 1989
10. Damien Rice - My Favourite Faded Fantasy
Honorable Mention: Tyler Hilton - Indian Summer
Top 10 of 2005, Re-Ranked
Looking back at the 2000s, I think 2005 was probably one of the weaker
years, which is why I only felt moved to write 10-year retrospective
pieces about Jack's Mannequin and City and Colour this year. Still,
getting to put Everything in Transit at the top of a list is
reason enough to extend this tradition to a second year. Between a
lovely summer and a vinyl reissue, I spent a lot of time with Everything in Transit
this year, and it took me back to a time when that album (and most of
the others on this list) defined a big part of who I was. A good few of
these albums are largely unheralded, but all of them pack an emotional
punch and carry a sterling sense of melody—two factors that could always
lower my defenses in my mid-teenage years.
1. Jack's Mannequin - Everything in Transit
2. City and Colour - Sometimes
3. The Wallflowers - Rebel, Sweetheart
4. Better Than Ezra - Before the Robots
5. Death Cab for Cutie - Plans
6. Bright Eyes - I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning
7. Switchfoot - Nothing is Sound
8. Nada Surf - The Weight is a Gift
9. Motion City Soundtrack - Commit This to Memory
10. Black Lab - See the Sun