Welp, it’s 2015 and Taylor Swift is still dominating music. As much as rap tends to dominate the airwaves, it’s earnest pop music like Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, and Sam Smith that continues to have staying power in album sales. Swift has been in the Billboard Top 10 for 35 straight weeks, and it appears she’s averaged out at position #2 for that whole time, so we might as well call it a year. She’s reaching 2011-2013 Adele levels of world domination, though Adele was in the top 10 for a total of 80 straight weeks, so T-Swift’s still got a long ways to go. But considering she’s still in the top 5 after 9 months, we might as well call it a year. Pack it in, music industry. Taylor’s won. The next five albums may as well function as my Top 5 for the whole year. Seeya in 2016, pop music. Bye.
Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color: Alabama Shakes’s Boys & Girls was a perfect slice of a beach party, mixing the pathos of the blues with the chill of surf rock. Sound & Color is what happens when the bonfire gets out of control. Even if rock as we knew it is basically dead, on Sound & Color Alabama Shakes have delivered an explosion of the genre at its best.
Jimmy Needham, Vice & Virtue: Before this year, you’d be forgiven for thinking Jimmy Needham was soft. Speak, his bitingly blunt debut album, was released way back in 2006, so it was easy to forget how lovingly rebuking his songs could be. After the funky Vice, you won’t mistake him for anything but hardened by the ravages of sin and emboldened by the mercy of the empty tomb.
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly: With great expectations comes great responsibility, and Kendrick has more than lived up to his end. Expectations were sky high after the cinematic good kid. Butterfly rocketed past them as very personal and yet somehow universal.
Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell: We’re fifteen years into Sufjan’s career, ten years removed from Illinois, and five from Age of Adz. We’ve gotten scads of Christmas EPs and a symphonic meditation on a highway. And Carrie & Lowell is the first time I feel like I’ve seen the real Sufjan.
The Tallest Man on Earth, Dark Bird Is Home: Making changes to one’s sound is always risky, and the breakup album seems like the most volatile time to make an attempt. But that’s exactly the hill Kristian Matsson determined to climb with Dark Bird. He expanded his sound from provincial folk to play around the edges of synth-rock, all in the name of purging his demons.
Fetty Wap, “Trap Queen”: That Furious 7 song will probably earn “Song of the Summer” honors at the end of August, but as far as I’m concerned, “Trap Queen” is the Song of the Spring, Summer, Winter and Fall.
Kendrick Lamar, “i [Album Version]”: The version of “i” that Kendrick Lamar was great enough, but the song that appears on the album sounds like a cherished bootleg copy with an added verse that functions as the epiphany of the whole brilliant record.
Sufjan Stevens, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”: Sufjan has penned beautiful acoustic folk songs before, but none have ever had the emotional power of this single about dealing with his mother’s death.
The Tallest Man on Earth, “Sagres”: The warmest song Matsson has released to date; it’s also his most vulnerable, as he ponders whether hope is really worth it.
The Weather Station, “Way It Is, Way It Could Be”: A simple song, to be sure, but it’s haunted me more than any other this year.
Most Anticipated Albums of (the rest of) 2015
Gungor, One Wild Life: Soul (8/7): The eclectic band is releasing three new albums soon, the first of which is One Wild Life: Soul and is hopefully going to move in a more solid direction after 2013’s scattered I Am Mountain.
Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free (7/17): This will be the best songwriter in alt-country’s second album as a sober man, and arrives in anticipation of his first child with wife Amanda Shires, who will appear on the album.
Joan Shelley, Over and Even (9/4): If Isbell is alt-country’s best songwriter, Shelley might just be alt-folk’s.
Sara Groves, Floodplain (9/11): Groves has never released an album I haven’t loved, and I don’t expect Floodplain to break that streak.
Titus Andronicus, The Most Lamentable Tragedy (7/31): This will definitely be the best five-act rock opera of the year.