Top 10 Albums of 2015 + Honorable Mentions

Better late than never – my top 10 albums of 2015 + honorable mentions.

 

1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

There isn’t much left to say that hasn’t already been said about this powerhouse of an album. The most culturally and socially relevant album of my lifetime, To Pimp a Butterfly is the platform on which Kendrick attacks issues of race in America unlike any artist before him. The strongest track is “Alright,” which has become the soundtrack of the modern day civil rights movement. But more than just the chant of “We gonna be alright” being belted out across the country in the wake of unarmed African Americans being killed by police, “Alright” has an underlying cynicism about the current state of race relations that is poignant.

The album packs a punch start to finish. From the radio and club-friendly “King Kunta” to the angry, heart throttling beat on “The Blacker the Berry” to the album’s closing song “Mortal Man” where Kendrick engages in a conversation with Tupac. This is an album that we will tell our children about, if they don’t ask us about it first.

2. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free

Jason Isbell has experienced enough heartache to last multiple lifetimes. Though the majority of it is – by his own admission – his doing, it is these experience that provide him with a unique ability to tell stories through his music that almost anyone can directly relate to. Isbell has been around the block, from the Drive By Truckers to the 400 Unit to now putting out two incredibly well-done solo albums. While 2013’s Southeastern announced his return to music, 2015’s Something More Than Free has solidified him as one of America’s most talented, if underappreciated, singer songwriters. The album’s first single “24 Frames” is powerful, conveying the fleeting nature of most everything in life, and the need to let go of things beyond your control. But for me, the standout track is “Flagship,” where Isbell’s desperate plea with himself to not repeat mistakes from past relationships comes through beautifully.

3. Radical Face – The Bastards

Ben Cooper, aka Radical Face, actually released this as four separate EPs (The Bastards: Volumes I, II, III, and IV) beginning in 2011 and concluding this past year. The Bastards is a break from his concept album trilogy The Family Tree (set to be completed in 2016), which follows “the story of a fictitious, sometimes otherworldly 19th century family called The Northcotes.” I often try not to include these types of compilation albums in end of year lists, but The Bastards comes across cohesively both in theme and sound. The standout track is the “Nightclothes,” which serves as a sweeping, haunting closing the album.

4. The Wonder Years – No Closer to Heaven

It’s a little depressing that it’s even possible for there to be an album that is a throwback to my angsty teenage years, but alas, I’m in my 30’s now and fully allowed to reminisce. No Closer to Heaven harkens back to pop-punk’s glory days at the start of the millennium, when Brand New, Saves the Day, and Alkaline Trio were ruling the roost. This album is great because it’s deep – conceptually, musically, lyrically. It takes you for a ride you might not expect, but once engaged, all you can do is hold on and enjoy it.

5. Twin Shadow – Eclipse

While great in spurts, previous albums by George Lewis, Jr. – aka Twin Shadow – could, as a whole, seem limited at times. Not so with his newest endeavor, Eclipse, which represents a giant step forward for Lewis. Stadium-sized tracks permeate the album, including “To the Top” and “Old Love/New Love.” If this progression continues, I can’t wait to hear what he comes up with next.

6. Kurt Vile – b’lieve I’m going down…

Whether labeled lo-fi, stoner rock, slacker rock, or what have you, for me Kurt Vile was the artist equivalent of apples – I feel like I should like them, but everytime I try them, I’m left wholly unsatisfied. That all changed with b’lieve I’m going down…I had trouble NOT listening to this album. It can be a good driving soundtrack, background music to a solid book, or as Mr. Cohea put it, a “mellow remedy for a slow-moving afternoon in the office.”

7. Tame Impala – Currents

Though released in July, Currents didn’t appear on my radar until November, but thank god it did. The album kicks off with the nearly 8-minute “Let It Happen,” and only picks up steam from there. With synth hooks as catchy as they come, this album didn’t escape critical acclaim – it was #4 and #13 on Spin and Rolling Stone’s Albums of 2015 lists, respectively.

8. Leon Bridges – Coming Home

Way outside my musical comfort zone, Leon Bridges’ Coming Home was a revelation to me this year. As a 5’9” white dude with few musical inclinations, soul is about the last thing I have. But every time I listen to this album, I feel like the ghost of Marvin Gaye.

9. Mumford and Sons – Wilder Mind

Yes, it’s different. But it’s also sooo good. As one Ryan Townsend said: If you really liked Mumford’s previous albums, you don’t like this album. I think that’s true to an extent, except that I always had a soft place in my heart for Mumford, and I still think this album is awesome. Listen to it, enjoy it, accept it.

10. Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy

The only reason this album isn’t higher is its lack of “hits.” A “rock opera” clocking in at 93 minutes and 29 tracks, The Most Lamentable Tragedy is truly a behemoth. Though the sum often feels greater than its parts, if you don’t have an hour and a half to spend getting your eardrums beat in, standout tracks include “Dimed Out,” “Fired Up,” “I Lost My Mind (+@)” and “Come On, Siobhan.”

 

Honorable Mention

  1. Grisbee – Sail Another Day
  2. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie and Lowell
  3. CHVRCHES – Every Open Eye
  4. Disclosure – Caracal
  5. City and Colour – If I Should Go Before You
  6. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
  7. Brandon Flowers – The Desired Effect

Best of 2015: Albums

BEST OF

Love and disappointment and success and miscalculations and friendship and the beach sand that gets stuck in the cuff of your raw selvedge denim. 2015 was both a reasonable year and totally insanely bonkers. Plus, I chose some albums that probably land me firmly in the adult contemporary-demo. Still, here’s my list …

10. Leon Bridges – Coming Home (Columbia)
9. Sleater Kinney – No Cities to Love (Sub Pop)
8. El-Vy – Return To The Moon (4AD)
7. Playdough – We Buy Gold
6. Ryan Adams – 1989 (Pax-AM)
5. Langhorne Slim – The Spirit Moves (Dualtone)
4. Twin Shadow – Eclipse (Warner)
3. Brandon Flowers – The Desired Effect (Island)
2. Kurt Vile – b’lieve i’m goin down (Matador)
1. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie and Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)

Honorable mentions: Wilco – Star Wars, Modest Mouse – Strangers to Ourselves, CHVRCHES – Every Open Eye, Eels – Royal Albert Hall, Beach Slang – The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us, Passion Pit – Kindred, Purity Ring – Another Eternity, John Foreman – The Wonderlands,

Best Albums of 2015 | The Top 10


The collection of my favorite 10 albums for the past year is now complete.  What came as a surprise was that half of it consists of debut albums from what I would consider to be some of the most important bands of the next several years.  In a year that female-fronted rock bands, hushed vocals, and Kendrick Lamar dominated best-of lists of 2015, I made my personal insertion of the importance of punkrock.  Beginning the exodus from my mid-30s into my late 30s I have found that my taste for music has not changed, but it has rather evolved taking with it my interests of my youth and adding new additions to provide variety and growth.   If I have missed something that you feel should have made it’s way onto my list then, please, let me know as I am always looking to discover new music.

My Honorary Mentions and Runner Up Top 10 Best of 2015 publications are also available to check out.

 

10-Brutal Youth – spill your guts

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I’m not going to sugarcoat anything at this point and I’ll just admit upfront that this pick was most definitely nostalgia based.  At a time when punk bands such as Good Riddance are becoming boring with recent releases it is rather refreshing to hear the kids beat the vets at their own game.  Spill Your Guts is not going to blow you away as an introspective 22-minute 18-track punk record, but what it will do is give you the best throaty-vocal punk album since For God And Country.  It’s the most fun a group of friends has had playing angst-ridden punk love/hate songs in under a minute in quite awhile.  If you modernize The Descendents’ sound and add the edge and presence of early Good Riddance, then you are left with Brutal Youth.  As a longtime fan of the melodic hardcore genre I am glad to see that it can still be done well.  This is an all around great album.

essential tracks: Four Letter Words | We Need To Talk | Square Dancing: What Is It? & What Can It Do For You?

 

9-Worriers – imaginary life

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Worriers’ Imaginary Life is their debut LP, and gives us the introduction to front-woman Lauren Deritzio’s unimpaired ability to express herself without any collaboration.  She has been part of several music groups before Worriers only to find her presence hidden within the confines of combining creativity with other musicians.  Coincidently, Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! stumbled upon Deritzio and the Worriers and agreed to produce Imaginary Life while graciously including them as the opening act on tour.  The peer recognition found within that and the touring success to follow had come at such a fast pace that it is no wonder as to why the positive critic reviews have followed.  All that remains is the mainstream success, but it is as yet to be determined if that is what is desired.  Deritzio, along with Laura Jane Grace, also questions the limits of gender binarism so it is to no surprise that these two have found an opportunity to help eachother give a voice to that misunderstood community.  Impassioned lyrics and a straightforward indie-punk sound provide for one of the best rock albums of the year in just under 30 minutes.  In a year that saw huge success for female-fronted rock bands, it’s nice to see that they were also dominating the underground as well.

essential tracks: They/Them/Theirs | Plans | Advance Notice

 

8-Screaming Females – Rose Mountain

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The Screaming Females are the hip, cool alternative to Alabama Shakes.  They are the Sleater-Kinney that you haven’t yet heard of.  Despite the fact that they’ve been a band for 10 years and have released 6 albums they have still managed to be overlooked by many music critics; until now.  If the music industry were to make any sense then the “screamales” would be the one at the top of the modern-rock charts.  Rose Mountain puts the untouchable vocal and guitar talents of Marissa Paternoster front and center of The Screaming Females.  It feels very retro and almost classic-rock, while still fresh and fast as the choruses on the album build up to be among the more enjoyable audible explosions from music offered this year.  Catchy songs, classic guitar riffs, powerful vocals, and hard-hitting melodies all make up what was one of my favorite straight up rock albums of the year.  Sometimes lyrics don’t matter too much in a record, and this is one of those instances where the music sweeps you away rather than what is being said behind it.

essential tracks: Hopeless | Wishing Well | Ripe

 

7-Not Scientists – Destroy To Rebuild

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A pop punk band from France has cracked my top 10.  When the occasional discovery of a band such as Not Scientists finds you, the feeling of being a kid resonates inside of you again.  Who says that I have to be consistent in my listening habits so that they match my age demographic?  Who says that as I get closer to my late 30s I should be listening to bluegrass, folk or Phil Collins?  My response to the stereotyped questioning of my music listening behavior is “leave it alone, because I know what I like”.  Rest assured, I will be that grandfather in his rocker listening to 90s punk rock as my grandchildren laugh at me and my “oldies” playing out of the speakers in my living room.  Destroy To Rebuild is a fantastic album to lose yourself in.  It has catchy choruses, epic guitar riffs, sincere and sometimes cheesy lyrics, everything meant to expect from something out of this genre.  While songs such as “I’m Brainwashing You” and “Tomorrow’s Another Day” provide what is expected, “These Heads Have No Faces” and “Disconnect the Dots” prove that they can also play outside of the expectations of that specific punk brand.

essential tracks: We’re Given Options | These Heads Have No Faces | Over and Out

 

6-Beach Slang-The Things We Do To Find People Like Us

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Knowing that Beach Slang is the fourth of five debut albums on my top 10 makes for a strong case that the future of music, despite staggering record sales and the predictably boring mainstream, is on the upswing.  The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us is an album played for the pumping fists in the front row but sung for outcasts on the sidelines.  It’s hard to believe that singer James Alex is in his 40s without any amount of recognition to his music until now.  With this album you find a perfectly flawless throwback to what would happen if The Lawrence Arms sang a Jawbreaker song written by Paul Westerberg.  Do I have your interest now?  If you managed to overlook this band in the same way that I missed them coming to Strummer’s in Fresno earlier this year, then stop here and treat yourself to 26 minutes of the ultimate listening experience of what good rock music is supposed to sound like.  Beach Slang has become a new addition to the growing list of my favorite bands.

essential tracks: Bad Art & Weirdo Ideas | Young & Alive | Ride The Wild Haze

 

5-Butch Walker – Afraid Of Ghosts

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Butch Walker is quite the interesting case study in modern pop music.  He goes from fronting the 90s pop-hair metal band Marvelous 3 to producing numerous musicians of the last couple decades.  His résumé includes production work for Weezer, Anberlin, Pete Yorn, Avril Lavigne, Pink, Fall Out Boy, Taylor Swift, and Keith Urban just to name a few.  For Afraid of Ghosts Walker chose to, for the first time on his own records, have someone else produce it.  Ryan Adams became that person and gave Walker the best advise anyone could ever have given him.  Walker explains by recalling the following conversation:

“One of the first things Ryan said to me, in his brash, honest, brutal delivery, was, ‘You know, sometimes I think your day job rubs off into your own music, which I don’t think you should do. And at first, I was like, ‘F–k you, man! That’s not true.’ But it is true. It’s hard to work at Starbucks and not go home smelling like coffee. So we had to wash the coffee off on this record.”

The atmosphere that Adams helped create for this album was a perfect pairing for what Walker was preparing to create.  Afraid of Ghosts is an album meant for the heartbroken during a time of incredible loss.  The closing lines of “Father’s Day” completely captures what I think was his state of mind during the writing process as he sings “You don’t become a man until you lose your dad, you see.”  Absolutely heart-wrenching.  He is at his most vulnerable here as he sings about losing his own father who he had just begun to have a rebounding relationship with, and other similar struggles as someone becoming older in a world increasingly less fair.

essential tracks: Father’s Day | Chrissie Hynde | How Are Things, Love?

 

4-mewithoutYou – Pale Horses

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One of the more strangely unique modern-rock musicians of our time is the singer for mewithoutYou, Aaron Weiss.  He has an ability to poetically construct the lyrics of a 4 minute song ending with you less sure of it’s meaning than you were at the beginning.  Pale Horses is an enjoyable, but dark album pulling concepts from an apocalyptic world to the death of his own father.  Having the opportunity to see them perform in July this last year at Strummers of Fresno was a definite highlight of the year, and is one of my favorite live shows that I’ve gone to.  Weiss needs a stage and an album to get out of him the creations that are so evident within his mind.  The self-doubt and religious journey that he speaks to is so honest here that it feels tragic, and at the same time beautiful.  Pale Horses is the perfect farewell album if it is indeed one, but I’d rather hear more from the introverted intellectual Weiss if I had any say in the matter.  Still, it has been said by him that he can not imagine the desire to write another song, let alone another album, after having put this one together.  Time will tell.

essential tracks: Lilac Queen | D-Minor | Mexican War Streets

 

 

3-Success – Radio Recovery

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This was absolutely my favorite punk record of the year as well as my favorite debut album of the year.  Radio Recovery combines punk with rockabilly and adds a couple of the most kick-ass guitar solos I’ve heard in years.  Success are the only West Coast representation on my top 10 list beating out fellow west coast punkers NoFX and Joey Cape for a higher rank.  Sometimes fresh is more fun, and that is precisely what these 5 guys from Seattle have done.  Punk is fresh again, folks.  There’s a bit of sarcasm, a little sap, a couple songs about rebellion, and even some hope and a call for revolution.  It is visibly apparent that these guys are having a lot of fun and enjoying every moment to the start of their inevitably long adventure in music.  Radio Recovery is full of ridiculously catchy choruses and hooks so contagious that you’ll catch yourself pumping a fist while driving that could be mistaken for road rage by the poor Audi in front of you.  From the opening line of the album to the last song before the record ends everything about it will convince you to put it on repeat, again, then again, and then again.

essential tracks: Lives That We Deserve | Believe In | Resignation

 

2-Kurt Vile – b’lieve I’m going down…

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Ok. This is when I start showing my age.  My second favorite album of the year comes from the man who is everything that Ben Kweller wished he was.  I’m a bit late to the Kurt Vile hype-train, but I am just glad I didn’t miss the train entirely.  He kind of looks like if Pee-Wee Herman grew his hair out and took up writing music on an acoustic guitar while smoking a Benson & Hedges cigarette under a lamppost.  Nonetheless, this guy knows how to craft a perfect song.  He is that singer-songwriter that you were looking for but never poked your nose around long enough to find.  Every song on this album is a mellow remedy for a slow-moving afternoon in the office.  As I am not very familiar with his recordings before b’lieve I’m going down… I imagine I will often come back to this one during my journey backwards being that it was my entry point into his collection of work.  If slacker rock is making a comeback then I think we have found the one that is suitable for taking the reigns.

essential tracks: Pretty Pimpin | Lost My Head There | That’s Life, tho (almost hate to say)

 

1-Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

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My favorite album of the year came at a bit of a surprise.  It was no secret that I loved to hate Sufjan, and it was mainly because I refused to use a soft-J while pronouncing his name.  I never quite gave him the chance that he deserved, because for whatever reason he came across pretentious and unlikable to me.  When Carrie & Lowell was released I listened to it out of curiosity after hearing good reviews and recommendations.  After my first listen I was absolutely stunned at how much Sufjan was willing to tell us through his music.  Every song is a desperate plea for forgiveness from his self and from his late mother as the theme of the album discuss elements of guilt, anger, death, feelings of loneliness and separation, as well as questions of faith.  Carrie & Lowell will more than likely remain to be the only Sufjan album I listen to willingly, unless of course this signifies a change of style within his records.  I cannot imagine the tone to be repeated in a later album as this one seems unique to anyone’s catalogue.  Sufjan was quoted to say that “this record is not art, it is my life”, so I do not foresee this degree of vulnerability doubled-down on when we hear from him again.  This is a beautiful album and I will listen to it when I want to feel better about who I am and who I have after having heard the lyrics and music of a man that wants to bring peace through tragedy.

essential tracks: Should Have Known Better | The Only Thing | No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross

Best Albums of 2015 | Honorary Mentions

This year was stacked full of music that kept me company during the good times and the bad. I paid more attention to the trends and the obscure more than I had in the last several years. During the beginning of this year I paid close attention to new music because I was fresh off of my “best-of 2014” self-assignment. As the year progressed I veered away from seeking out new music and resorted to the skate-punk of my yesterdays. Continue reading “Best Albums of 2015 | Honorary Mentions”