As is always the case, there are a ton of phenomenal albums that I just discovered (Miguel, Jamie XX, Turnstile, etc.) and a lot of albums that I know should have on my list, but didn’t make the cut. Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell is a good example: haunting, beautiful, perfectly executed, but ultimately too sad to listen to over and over.
So here are my favourites, in rough order.
- Ryan Adams – 1989 / Live at Carnegie Hall
This may be breaking the rules, but this combination topped my listens this year by a long shot. And while I don’t think either one would have made my top 5 on their own, something about the two of them together just worked so well. I had never really been into Ryan Adams before (besides his homage to my profession and a pretty solid Oasis cover), but the live double disc at Carnegie Hall is just a masterpiece. Not only a wonderful performance, but the way Adams engages with the crowd and brings you into his life is refreshing and vulnerable. His between-song banter made me more engaged with his music, and then when 1989 came out, it wasn’t simply a collection of covers. It was part a love letter to Taylor Swift, part a love letter to pop music, and part a portal into the sadness that is Adams’ life. More importantly, it made me appreciate Taylor Swift’s 1989 for the pop masterpiece that it is. By reinterpreting and representing Swift’s work as his own, Adams created something new. Curiously, this new thing is not better than the original, it is its own thing – but it also makes the original better, partly because it showcases what Swift’s work does that Adams never can. You listen to Swift and you realize that while she can shake it off, Adams clearly cannot, that Swift’s relationship may never go out of style, but Adams’ already has. So it brings Swift’s pop into a new dimension, provides a new perspective on it, and consequently makes it a better album. So basically, Ryan Adams gave me three excellent albums this year – so he wins – but just barely…
- Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
Enough ink has been spilled about this album. It is masterful start to finish, and it is wonderfully cerebral. Lamar draws from literature, history, hip hop, and god knows where else to construct songs that are accessible on the surface and then gain depth and meaning the more effort you put in them. University professors are ditching their old syllabi and teaching this album. I have little doubt that this album is one of the most important albums of the decade, and will just get more important with time.
- Ought – Sun Coming Down
Seeing Ought coerce a church full of seated concertgoers to come to the front and dance in the pews was one of my concert highlights of the year. This album is a worthy follow up to 2014’s ‘More Than Any Other Day‘, and shows maturity and growth without losing the elements of their sound that I love so much. For example, in ‘Beautiful Blue Sky’ we’re treated with a repeated refrain of mundanities: “How’s the family? How’s the family? How’s the family? How’s the family? How’s your health been? How’s your health been? How’s your health been? How’s your health been?” The result is to bring meaning to these phrases before bashing them back down into meaningless small talk through repetition. I can’t say enough good things about this album.
- Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy
A rock opera. Titus Andronicus made a freaking rock opera. Like Lamar, there is a depth in this album that is worth unpacking, and like earlier work, TMLT invites you into Patrick Stickle’s struggles with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and all the rest. But mostly it’s just good punk music. Not at the level of The Monitor, but damn close.
- Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
I’m not going to lie, part of my love of this album is the weirdness that happened when Father John Misty recorded covers of Ryan Adams’ Taylor Swift Covers in the style of the Velvet Underground and then had a drug fuelled dream where Lou Reed came to him and told him not to mess around with his memory. That aside, the album is kind of perfect. It feels like a perfect snapshot of 2015 – though I can’t exactly tell you why. It’s basically a blues album with quirky lyrics and a heavy dose of nostalgia for the 60s, which most listeners of this album only know as myth. And maybe that’s it, FJM takes a shared myth, packages it in contrast to modern disaffection with, well, everything, and presents an image of something that folks in their thirties can all comfortably yearn for.
- Bully – Feels Like
Imagine Hole put out a second album that was really good. Loud, infectious, unapologetic straight up 90s grunge. Fun as hell, and even better live. The album lacks depth and burns out rather quickly, but while you’re into it, it’s a blast, and unlike Hole, I’m really looking forward to their next album. I just found out about Hop Along (otherwise they’d have been on the list too) and I think fans of Hop Along will enjoy Bully, and fans of Bully will see in Hop Along the kind of depth and complexity that they will (hopefully) one day bring to their sound.
- Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit
In terms of style, Barnett is just off on her own. It’s catchy story telling with inane yet compelling stories, the album is refreshing, funny, sprawling, interesting, and raw – and even better, it takes its name from a poster that Barnett’s grandmother has in her bathroom.
- Mandolin Orange – Such Jubilee
I’ve been in love with these guys since I saw this touchingly beautiful performance (below) – rare are performers so in sync with each other. The album is wonderful, nothing particularly challenging or groundbreaking, just some excellent indie-tinged bluegrass.
- Drake – If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late
Before Hotline Bling stole all the attention, it’s worth pointing out just how good this album is. I’ve always kind of liked Drake, but never really got into him – but this album stayed on repeat for quite a while.
From the backstory of where this came from, to the resignation that it was happening, and then the doubling down on making it right, I love everything about this. While the album isn’t the best thing out there this year by far, and it doesn’t come close to the original, the challenge that the producers gave themselves, and the fact that this ends up being an okay album instead of simply a novelty is damn impressive.