Sunday, January 03, 2016

2015 Albums of the Year

Perusing the list of 41 albums that I either bought or received as gifts in 2015, it dawns on me that at this point of my life, there's a decent chance that I'm going to like nearly all of what I buy.  My musical taste buds are well set, and unlike the old days when I'd buy more than 100 albums per year on a regular basis, fueled by the annual Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll, I'm less willing to take a chance on something that I've never heard before.  And with the tendency of new artists to market their work on YouTube and other online sites, it's hardly even necessary to take those chances - you can almost always give someone a "test drive."

Like many others, the way that I listen to music has evolved with the advent of digital content.  Creating mixtapes was always a favorite pastime for me, and now it's possible to put one together in about the time it takes to get dressed in the morning.  For someone like me with a lifelong fascination for how songs interact with each other, this development is like manna from heaven.  As a result, I listen to far fewer albums all the way through (at least on a regular basis) than I used to, mostly because it's just too damn easy to edit out the tracks (even on an album you like) that don't really grab you.

Looking at the list below, there's really only one album - sorry, Diana Krall - that I'd say is downright lousy.  Her "Wallflower" is a covers album, which could have been really interesting, but the arrangements are heavy on the syrup and do little to nothing to improve on (or even deviate from) the originals.  As for the rest, sure - some are better than others, but nearly all have something to recommend them, particularly for fans of each artist.  But as with every year, there are a few that rise to the top.

My Album of the Year is Hamilton: An American Musical, the work that provides ample proof that creator Lin-Manuel Miranda richly deserved the MacArthur "Genius Grant" that he received this past fall.  In concept alone, Hamilton would probably merit inclusion as one of the year's best.  But repeated listens have proven that the execution matches the concept.  While it helps to have at least a cursory knowledge of Hamilton, the Founding Fathers and the times in which they lived, it's important to stress that Hamilton is a musical triumph as much as it is a literary one.  And the story Hamilton tells is an incredibly dramatic and ultimately heart-breaking one - suffice to say that if they were going to kick someone off of American currency, they probably should have picked on someone other than Alexander Hamilton.

The double album is full of terrific tunes, and should really be listened to all the way through, but for me there are several standouts: "Alexander Hamilton," "My Shot," "Right Hand Man," "Wait for It," "That Would Be Enough," "What'd I Miss?," "Cabinet Battle #1" (and how cool is it that a song exists with that title?), "The Room Where It Happens," "Cabinet Battle #2," "One Last Time," "Your Obedient Servant," and "The World Was Wide Enough."  It's going to be a long time before this show hits the road, so do yourself a favor and buy the album now.

The following albums are what I'm calling "The Super Seven," the runners-up in what felt to me like a pretty strong year:

"Sound and Color," Alabama Shakes.  I was not a huge fan of their debut album, and wasn't even sure if I was going to pick up the follow-up until a colleague burned me a copy to give a listen.  Suffice to say that I was blown away, and that "Sound and Color" was one of the unexpected pleasures of the year.  And incredibly diverse in its range of tunes - my favorites being "Future People," "Gimme All Your Love," "The Greatest," "Shoegaze" and "Gemini."

"Complicated Game," James McMurtry.  Apparently, I've missed out on years (if not decades) of great music by McMurtry, the son of novelist Larry McMurtry.  I guess I'd call his music (at least on this album) a fusion of country, rock and folk, with lyrics well worth focusing on and a world-weary voice that lends itself to a wide range of emotions.  Favorites: "You Got to Me," "South Dakota," and the incredibly affecting "Cutter."

"No Cities to Love," Sleater-Kinney.  How cool is it that, 10 years after going on "hiatus" and more than 15 after Greil Marcus called them the best band in America, that suddenly Sleater-Kinney has released its most popular album, and one that is every bit as good as those which led to their reputation?  Without a doubt, one of the best stories of the year.

"Carrie and Lowell," Sufjan Stevens.  Stark, haunting, profoundly beautiful.  When you begin to listen, you can't help but wonder if Stevens can maintain the tone throughout an entire album, but he pulls it off.   I can see why this album wouldn't be for everybody, and why some might consider it unrelentingly depressing (after all, one song ends with the repeated refrain, "We're all going to die/We're all going to die."  But it's an amazing and important piece of work, even if it is sometimes difficult to listen to.

"To Pimp a Butterfly," Kendrick Lamar.  Another profound work, one that richly deserves a listen - even if there are many won't want to hear the message.  Wrote about it earlier this year, here.

"The Blade," Ashley Monroe.  My previous exposure to her has been as a member of the Pistol Annies (with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley), but nothing on either of their albums prepared me for the power of "The Blade."  She can do slow, she can do fast, and she can do in-between, but first and foremost she is simply a great country artist.

"Servant of Love," Patty Griffin.  Griffin has been a favorite of mine since the release of "1000 Kisses," her 2002 masterpiece that is only one of the best albums of the century.  On "Servant of Love," you can definitely feel the musical impact of her partnership/collaboration with Robert Plant - it's probably less like a "Patty Griffin album" than anything she's ever released, while at the same time sounding just like Patty Griffin. My favorites are the stark title track, the sly "Snake Charmer," and the finale, "Shine A Different Way."  Really good stuff.

At some point, I'll write something up about my favorite tracks from other 2015 releases - there were quite a few of them.  Also, look for something about the new Bruce Springsteen box set, which at least so far has struck me as endlessly fascinating.

And to close, here is the complete 2015 list, with the most recent at top.
  • The Ties That Bind - The River Collection
  •  Divers - Joanna Newsom
  • 25 - Adele
  • Alone in the Universe - Jeff Lynne's ELO
  • Hamilton - Original Broadway Cast Recording
  • South Broadway Athletic Club - The Bottle Rockets
  • 1989 - Ryan Adams
  • Servant of Love - Patty Griffin
  • Stuff Like That There - Yo La Tengo
  • Star Wars - Wilco
  • Cass County - Don Henley
  • The Blade - Ashley Monroe
  • Something More Than Free - Jason Isbell
  • Pageant Material - Kacey Musgraves
  • All Your Favorite Bands - Dawes
  • The Traveling Kind - Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell
  • The Waterfall - My Morning Jacket
  • The Traveler - Rhett Miller
  • Sound & Color - Alabama Shakes
  • Provoked - Sunny Sweeney
  • No Pier Pressure - Brian Wilson
  • A Fool to Care - Boz Scaggs
  • To Pimp a Butterfly - Kendick Lamar
  • Black Messiah - D'Angelo and the Vanguard
  • Complicated Game - James McMurtry
  • Carrie and Lowell - Sufjan Stevens
  • The Firewatcher's Daughter - Brandi Carlile
  • Sometimes I sit and think, and sometimes I just sit. - Courtney Barnett
  • I Love You, Honeybear - Father John Misty
  • Physical Graffiti (40th Anniversary Remaster) - Led Zeppelin
  • Rebel Heart - Madonna
  • Wallflower - Diana Krall
  • Shadows in the Night - Bob Dylan
  • Lost on the River - The New Basement Tapes
  • The Basement Tapes Raw - Bob Dylan and The Band
  • No Cities to Love - Sleater-Kinney
  • Lost in the Dream - The War on Drugs
  • Aquarius - Tinashe
  • Metamodern Sounds in Country Music - Sturgill Simpson
  • American Middle Class - Angaleena Presley
  • 1989 - Taylor Swift

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