It was a year of beautiful music.
As countless records cross my desk each year, I’m constantly making note of those that make an impact, and in 2015, that list was very long.
For the first time in a long time, I found it difficult to choose and rank the very best, but after dozens of listening sessions full of dozens of albums, I finally figured it out.
These are the best albums from 2015, and they’re full of music that will have you dancing, laughing, moving, thinking, feeling and, in one particular instance, maybe even crying. But if you’re like me, you’ll be left with a big smile after experiencing these fantastic records.
10. The Decemberists, “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World”
Welcome back to The Decemberists’ layered folk instrumentation, and welcome back frontman Colin Meloy’s literature-major-level lyricism. For those who thought Meloy’s lyricism read a bit too much like a thesaurus, there’s commentary on current issues in “12-17-12” and straightforward stories such as “The Wrong Year.” Especially enjoyable are “Carolina Low” and “Better Not Wake the Baby,” a pair of Americana tracks that feel like they were pulled straight from the soundtrack to an old Western. And after seven albums, Meloy and the band are aware of their reputation: Lead-off track “The Singer Addresses His Audience” is a meta commentary on being The Decemberists, with Meloy finally admitting, we “belong to you.”
9. Sufjan Stevens, “Carrie & Lowell”
Most albums on this list are ones I can’t stop listening to, but Sufjan Stevens’ autobiographical tale named after his mother and stepfather isn’t one that makes it on the stereo often. That’s because it’s a mostly difficult, sad and uncomfortable series of songs dealing with his bipolar and schizophrenic late mother who abandoned him multiple times. The imagery, whispered lightly by Stevens over delicate melodies, comes both from happy summers when Carrie was still married to Lowell and from the darker times that came later (including surrounding Carrie’s death). Making it all the more poignant is that the depression, regret, history, happiness and grief are all very real.
8. Matt Whipkey, “Underwater”
“Underwater” is another chapter in Matt Whipkey’s increasingly great series of Americana records. Here we find bar rock about just making it for last call, plenty of rocking guitar jams and a salute to Omaha music through the eyes of the biggest local music fan. And then criss-crossing the album is the story of relationships and one pervasive question: What went wrong? It’s the central question posed on the hook-heavy (and beautifully harmonized) “Please Don’t Be Long.” It’s the central story of “Dreams of Kathleen,” a song that starts with a meeting and ends with “you and me and all our shouting.” And perhaps the answer is in the album’s slow-building closer, “Not Gonna Change.”
7. Dwight Yoakam, “Second Hand Heart”
(Warner Bros. Nashville)
The year’s best country album came (yet again) from an artist not entrenched in the Nashville machine. Hailing instead from Hollywood, Yoakam returns with an album full of earnestness and edge (and more than a little rock ’n’ roll). He’s an expert at combining his natural Kentucky boy twang with old school rock, and the rockabilly take on “Man of Constant Sorrow” and sweeping garage rock of “Liar” is the kind of kicking, hard-edged stuff that made us love him all the way back in 1986. Oh, and then there’s the heavy hillbilly stomp from “Off Your Mind.” Yoakam may be pushing 60 and nearly 30 years removed from his most famous album, but he’s only getting better.
6. CHVRCHES, “Every Open Eye”
This Scottish trio apparently hid away and wrote every melody, breakdown, lyric, chorus and verse they felt could be a hook and then assembled them into a Frankenstein’s monster of infectious electro pop. Songs groove along for a while before exploding in rhythm, and not a note is out of place. Banging dance tunes are full of Iain Cook and Martin Doherty’s modulating melody and thumping rhythm, and the whole album is anchored by Lauren Mayberry’s crisp voice. It’s an album of sparkling, clean pop with an emotional core. So I dare you: Try to sit still while listening to “Clearest Blue” or take “Leave a Trace” off repeat. You won’t do it.
5. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, “Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats”
They don’t make music like this any more. Nathaniel Rateliff found his voice at the same time he found a swinging set of bandmates (and a killer band name, too), and we all received a set of hot soul jams unlike we’ve heard in a long time. The 11 tunes on this record are of such a high quality, you could replace any number of soul favorites (“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”) in a movie soundtrack with Rateliff’s tunes (say, “Look It Here” or “I Need Never Get Old”). And these songs reach deeper than toe-tapping soul tunes. The hum-along smash “S.O.B.” isn’t about grabbing a beer, it’s actually about Rateliff’s own struggles with tremors related to alcohol withdrawal, giving the line “I’m gonna drink my life away” quite a bit more weight.
4. Desaparecidos, “Payola” (Epitaph)
Like Superman, Desaparecidos appears to save us when we need them. Conor Oberst and his pals returned after a 13-year hiatus with 14 distorted songs of anger, protest and punk rock. On “Payola,” the band hits on surveillance, the music industry, slacktivism, mass shootings, politics, racism and economics. And all those slamming beats and urgent guitars will hit you right in the chest. Considering the songs were written in the couple of years before its release (and some with origins more than a decade old), it’s amazing how on the nose this band was with its subject matter. But will anyone listen?
3. Dead Sara, “Pleasure to Meet You” (Pocket Kid)
Get over the fact that Led Zeppelin is no more and get on the Dead Sara train. Dave Grohl thinks they’re the best rock band in the world, and he’s 100 percent correct. The band submitted “Pleasure to Meet You” this year as proof, and there’s not a more pure rock ’n’ roll record. The combination of Emily Armstrong’s strained voice (think Janis Joplin or Grace Slick) and Siouxsie Medley’s big guitar makes for the most satisfying stuff around. Put on your headphones, crank “Radio One Two” or “Something Good,” and feel the wall of thunder pulse through your ears.
2. Waxahatchee, “Ivy Tripp” (Merge)
Even though it’s an album about 20-something directionlessness (and who hasn’t been there?), “Ivy Tripp” is the tightest album from Katie Crutchfield yet. Waxahatchee’s central creative force, Crutchfield took a wider look at herself and the world through the lens of someone figuring out her place, exploring the moments between relationships (“Stale by Noon”) and life’s other big touchstones (“Grey Hair”). And her fear of not knowing where to go or what to do comes out with big guitar and bright melodies that border on pop. The result is a bevy of tight rock songs full of insightful lines, such as the record’s most telling: “I’m in a basement brimming with nothing great.”
1. Jason Isbell, “Something More Than Free”
He’s not finished. Not yet. Just when it seemed like his story of redemption was done, Jason Isbell showed us his pursuit of happiness is far from over. His last record, “Southeastern,” was simply great as it told the story of hitting reset (falling down, giving up booze, falling in love, getting back up). And now with “Something More Than Free,” he touched on God and fathers, husbands and wives, working for a living, the weight of the world and taking a moment to soak it all in.
A mix of country, soul and Americana, the album is steeped in the South with his aching, slightly twangy voice, shuffling rhythm, a host of fiddles, gorgeous harmonies and ringing lap steel.
And hey, though he’s married and sober, it’s clear Isbell still has rough edges he’s trying to smooth down. “Speed Trap Town” is a killer — a song about being so weighed down that it’s time to hop in your truck and never stop driving until all your problems are hundreds of miles in your rear view. Then there’s “Palmetto Rose,” a stomping honky tonk that’s soaked in gorgeous but grimy Southern imagery.
Each song is a different emotion, a different story, a different scene, but they’re all coming from Isbell’s long narrative of loss and redemption. It’s haunting. And it’s beautiful.
The next best
Rounding out the top 25 are these next 15 albums, very good efforts that just didn’t quite make the top 10. They are presented here in alphabetical order.
“Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit”
Death Cab for Cutie
Carly Rae Jepsen
“Party All Night”
John Klemmensen & The Party
“To Pimp a Butterfly”
“All a Man Should Do”
“More Like It”
“Strangers to Ourselves”
“Beat the Champ”
The Mountain Goats
“No Cities to Love”
“The Most Lamentable Tragedy”