Top Ten Albums
10. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit: It’s fitting that the two best rock albums of the year were fronted by a women. In a year that found our culture confronting its darker, oft-hid demons, and in a genre with a long, misogynistic history, Courtney Barnett was the rock and roll ambassador we needed. Her stream-of-consciousness lyrics and her punk aesthetic fit right in next to the lexicon of iconoclasts like Dylan and Springsteen, and it’s about time a woman in rock got the kind of respect she deserves.
9. The Tallest Man on Earth, Dark Bird Is Home: Dark Bird is Matsson’s most personal album, recorded in the wake of his divorce. I suppose that makes Dark Bird a breakup album, and the lyrics do suggest a previously unexplored depth of mournfulness characteristic of the classic breakup albums, while the music explores sound textures beyond his trademark acoustic guitar. It’s almost as if allowing himself room to work outside his guitar gave him the space to open himself up to us.
8. Ben Rector, Brand New: Listening to this modern piano man’s most recent album, which depends more heavily on storytelling than past albums, I thought of James Taylor. Sure, Taylor was more of a guitar guy, but Brand New is chock full of the kinds of diary details that have been Taylor’s bread and butter on his best songs. It’s this brand new commitment to personal authenticity that makes Brand New Rector’s best album since 2008’s Songs That Duke Wrote.
7. John Moreland, High on Tulsa Heat: Oklahoma has enjoyed an embarrassment of riches in the singer-songwriter department of late, what with the last year seeing banner albums from Parker Millsap, Ben Rector, and Samantha Crain, the last of which could have easily replaced High on Tulsa Heat at this level without any complaint from me. But Moreland gets the top spot for me because of his uncanny ability to tie his heartbreak and longing to specific places in my home state. I’m surely biased, but people from all states can appreciate the catch in his voice and his way with a phrase.
6. David Ramirez, Fables: On past albums and EPs, Ramirez has never been afraid of making his unique voice heard, calling out industry fakery and political correctness. Ramirez’s most recent album is his most personal yet and has the most to say about love and commitment from front to back. But, true to the troubadour sensibility, even while Ramirez is pouring his heart out, he never fails to save some space for convicting protests.
5. Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color: Courtney Barnett’s dominance of the indie rock world last year was total and complete, and Brittany Howard’s dominance of mainstream rock was just as potent. Though Howard downplays the significance of her race in the making of her art, it’s hard to overstate how good it feels to see an African-American woman reclaim blues rock in such a big way. After the comfortable surf rock of Boys & Girls, Sound & Color’s epic, psychedelic sweep from song to song is quite the statement.
4. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell: Written as he struggled to cope with his mother’s death and with his ensuing drug use and alcohol abuse, Carrie & Lowell bears none of Stevens’s past affectations and is better for it. You get the impression you’re finally getting the real Sufjan. There are several points on the album that have me near tears every time- a small price to pay to experience such an intimate album.
3. Phil Cook, Southland Mission: In the tradition of some of the best roots rock music, Phil Cook’s second album went largely unnoticed. That’s a shame for the Megafaun member, because this is the kind of effortless folk music that deserves a platform. Some of the songs get at middle-class angst, but ultimately Cook is a master of celebrating life for what it is.
2. Leon Bridges, Coming Home: Sam Cooke is not a name that it is easy to evoke. He was a classic soul singer whose aesthetic was as much about devotion to Jesus as it was about his voice’s smoothness. I can’t think of a single artist that has even come close to matching the velvet in his voice, the devoutness of his delivery. But Bridges, with only one album to his name, does deserve the comparison. His songs are new hymns, written with the clear idea that Jesus is master, intoned with the clear idea that beauty is the best form of worship.
1. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly: Some albums are undeniable classics before they’ve even aged a year. This one was a classic before it had even aged a month. A conglomeration of black history, black culture, and black power, To Pimp a Butterfly was bigger than 2015. In one record, Kendrick Lamar painstakingly mapped out the heart of the everyman in America- only unlike virtually every other use of that term ever, this “everyman” was black. And TPAB was also perfect for 2015, the year that cultural awareness of black oppression finally became something everyone (including white people) in America had to face. Some chose to continue to pretend it does not exist while getting angry at black people for deciding to talk about it. Others, like me, were overwhelmed with their own implicit role in making the lives of my black brothers difficult. But like any facet of the Black Lives Matter movement, TPAB didn’t need your approval or your permission to have an impact. Some works of art, and some movements, contain too much truth to be denied. Kendrick spoke, we couldn’t help but listen, and the world couldn’t help but change.
Chris Stapleton, Traveller
Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, Surf
Gungor, One Wild Life: Soul
Janet Jackson, Unbreakable
Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free
Jimmy Needham, Vice & Virtue
Justin Bieber, Purpose
Kacey Musgraves, Pageant Material
KaiL Baxley, A Light That Never Dies
Kamasi Washington, The Epic
One Direction, Made in the A.M.
Sam Outlaw, Angeleno
Samantha Crain, Under Branch and Thorn and Tree
Sara Groves, Floodplain
The Weeknd, Beauty Behind the Madness
Past Top Tens
John Mark McMillan, Borderland
Sharon Van Etten, Are We There
The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream
Strand of Oaks, HEAL
Taylor Swift, 1989
Liz Vice, There’s a Light
Jackie Hill Perry, The Art of Joy
First Aid Kit, Stay Gold
Miranda Lambert, Platinum
Propaganda, Crimson Cord
Jason Isbell, Southeastern
Laura Marling, Once I Was an Eagle
Patty Griffin, American Kid
Sandra McCracken, Desire Like Dynamite
Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience
Beautiful Eulogy, Instruments of Mercy
Kanye West, Yeezus
KaiL Baxley, Heatstroke / The Wind and the War
Andrew Peterson, Light for the Lost Boy
Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE
Japandroids, Celebration Rock
David Crowder*Band, Give Us Rest or (A Requiem Mass in C [The Happiest of All Keys])
Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball
Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do
The Olive Tree, Our Desert Ways
Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra, Fable
Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d. city
Gungor, Ghosts upon the Earth
Over the Rhine, The Long Surrender
Bon Iver, Bon Iver
The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient
Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
Drake, Take Care
Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’
Matt Papa, This Changes Everything
Titus Andronicus, The Monitor
Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
The Black Keys, Brothers
Andrew Peterson, Counting Stars
Gungor, Beautiful Things
Surfer Blood, Astro Coast
Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song
The National, High Violet
The Tallest Man on Earth, The Wild Hunt