Annual lists of “Best Albums” are a late-night toast to a long-lost art. The music industry is in constant flux, and the cohesive work known as “the album” has long been considered a casualty even as albums have limped their way from vinyl to cassette to CD to digital MP3, and back to vinyl again.
Sometimes, celebrating albums feels like championing books in a world of tweets. Songs come and go, but full-length albums are still one of the best measuring sticks for the artistry of music. And of course, “Best” is subjective. These were my favorite albums of 2015.
Best live album: Drive-By Truckers – It’s Great to Be Alive
Best reissue/old thing: Bob Dylan – Bootleg Series, Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965-1966
Best album from December 2014: D’Angelo and The Vanguard – Black Messiah
Best unknown indie rock album: Jackie & the Treehorns – Do You Mind If I Wear a Clown Mask?
Best late-night/early-morning album: Glen Hansard – Didn’t He Ramble
15. Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
Soul & Funk. Rhythm & Blues. Rock & Roll. It’s all here on the Shakes’ expansive second album. At times rootsy and at others borderline trippy, Sound & Color is the sound of a great young band hitting its stride. Not to mention Britney Howard’s signature vocals. Aretha & Janis. Booming & Powerful.
14. The Dead Weather – Dodge and Burn
The Dead Weather is consistently billed as a Jack White side-band, and yes of course he’s all over this to great effect, but what makes this band go is singer Alison Mosshart. Her energy and delivery is the perfect Yin to Jack’s Yang. Or maybe Jack is the Yin — who knows? But the Dead Weather has always bit hard enough to back up their bark, even if this new album simply finds them up to their old tricks.
13. The Waterboys – Modern Blues
This is what I like to call “straight-ahead rock” or some might refer to as “bar band stuff.” This veteran outfit led by Mike Scott still sounds as vital as ever on these thoughtful and hooky rockers with organ flourishes reminiscent of Benmont Tench and Danny Federici’s best moments.
12. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
The latest “greatest songwriter of his generation,” Isbell is both a critics’ darling and a cult hero. Something More Than Free finds him effortlessly churning out the character sketches and barroom balladry that’s been earning him accolades throughout his solo career going back to his stint in the Drive-By Truckers.
11. Pops Staples – Don’t Lose This
Usually, the idea of a final album being finished after the artist’s death comes with it the implications that it’s possibly been mishandled or perhaps just filled with glorified demos shined up and released in a money grab. But in this case, in the capable and appropriate hands of Mavis Staples (and her producer of choice lately, Jeff Tweedy), the bluesy but not bummed out sound is the true gospel of Pops and company as Ms. Staples is still in fine enough form here to almost steal the show.
10. Action Bronson – Mr. Wonderful
OK, so he looks like a guy from Duck Dynasty trying to go undercover as a dude from Cypress Hill, has a nickname like a 70s movie, and on the mic he sounds like Ghostface Killah, complete with hilarious out-of-leftfield references littered throughout his flow. It’s not his fault he has a high voice. If Kendrick Lamar paints cinematic masterpieces like a hip-hop Scorsese, then Bronson provides the stoner comic relief of Seth Rogen. Or something like that. I should probably leave the analogies and metaphors to the rappers.
9. Kurt Vile – B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down
This album feels like sleepwalking. Or dreaming. No, daydreaming actually. Or being too bored to go to sleep. Not so much folk songs as they are folk sighs. At times, it feels like the musical equivalent of the word “whatever.” There are even lines like “Fell on some keys and these songs walked out of me.” These tunes get so hazy that you almost understand what Vile means when he sings about “hang gliding into a valley of ashes.” Somehow, this is all meant to be very complimentary. Not sure if that makes sense. But as Vile sings, “There ain’t no manual to our minds.”
8. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit
This is the album I hadn’t even heard of until it started popping up on a bunch of other Best-of-2015 lists. No wonder, Sometimes I Sit is a catchy and confident set of songs from this Australian singer/songwriter/guitarist. While comparisons to The Pretenders, Sonic Youth, and PJ Harvey might be a bit lazy, they’re not too far off the mark. But really this album, and its witty lyrical delivery, reminds me of something between Nick Cave’s Dig Lazarus Dig and Lou Reed’s best work. Not a bad place to sit.
7. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
In his Father John Misty guise, the former Josh Tillman seems to be working some hilarious hippie hipster shtick again here on his second album as FJM. And it would just be only shtick if not for his depth of writing and considerable vocal talents, not to mention the flawless and complimentary production from studio ace Jonathan Wilson.
6. Ryan Adams – 1989
On the surface this could certainly look like the ultimate musical novelty, a clever internet meme photo that passes through your timeline with a shrug and chuckle. But a funny thing happened on the way to Ryan Adams “mansplaining” Taylor Swift’s smash hit pop album… it actually works.
While he’s been known to cover everyone from Bob Mould to Iron Maiden, this time he doesn’t just ryanadamize all these songs into sad bastard acoustic bummer tunes. (Though he does that here too; the haunting finger-picked version of “Blank Spaces” might be his best reimagining since “Wonderwall.”) “Shake It Off” summons Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” on low simmer, while his energetic take on “Style” finds Adams strutting his electric cool like that weird recurring dream he has about being in The Strokes. “Out of the Woods” builds slowly from bummerville all the way to the shadowlands of someone surviving some metaphorical near-drowning. Love is hell indeed, and sometimes silly love songs are a lot deeper once you jump into them.