Friday, March 4, 2016

My Top 30 Albums of 2015

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.

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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"

5. 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"

6. Logan Brill - Shuteye

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"

7. 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"

8. 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 can match.

Key Track: "Growing Up Around Here"

9. 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.

10. Mandolin Orange - Such Jubilee

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"

11. John Moreland - High on Tulsa Heat

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"

12. Turnpike Troubadours - Turnpike Troubadours

"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"

13. William Clark Green - Ringling Road

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"

14. 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"

15. A Thousand Horses - Southernality

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 soundtrack.

Key Track: "Heaven is Close"

16. 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"

17. Maddie & Tae - Start Here

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 harmonies.

Key Track: "After the Storm Blows Through"

18. 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"

19. Ashley Monroe - The Blade

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"

20. Kelsea Ballerini - The First Time

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"

21. 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"

22. 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"

23. Josh Ritter - Sermon on the Rocks

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"

24. 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"

25. Striking Matches - Nothing But The Silence

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 Again."

Key Track: "When the Right One Comes Along"

26. 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"

27. 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"

28. Ryan Culwell - Flatlands

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"

29. 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"

30. 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

Favorite EPs

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

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