Here’s the cream of the crop, folks – the list of albums that captivated me most in the year 2015. While some of these picks are likely about as predictable as the likelihood of a YouTube comments section devolving into a vicious political flamewar, there are a few cases here where I genuinely surprised myself by falling in love with an artist or even a genre that I had previously decided was “just not my thing”. I hope the music that comes out in 2016 challenges me in similar ways.
MY TOP 10 ALBUMS:
1. Falling Up – Falling Up
I just finished reviewing this one the other day, so I’m in danger of repeating myself here, but suffice to say, the members of Falling Up have outdone themselves on their final album, weaving together nearly everything I loved about their early albums, using equal parts energetic rock and ornate baroque/electronic instrumentation to tell a complex story that I’ll probably never fully unravel.
Listen: “Boone Flyer”
2. Chvrches – Every Open Eye
This was my most anticipated album of the year, and it didn’t disappoint. You know a band’s got something good going when I think their sophomore record might be a slight step down from their debut and I still accept it with open arms and give it the A grade anyway. What this one lacks in stylistic diversity compared to their first album, it makes up for in the way it moves even deeper into 80s synthpop territory and puts more of an upbeat lyrical spin on a few songs for the first time in their history that I can recall.
Live Video: “Keep You on My Side”
3. Belle & Sebastian – Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
The indie rock stalwarts from Scotland have really captured my attention by diversifying their sound on their last few records, which may have led to some cries of “sellout” when they veered into dance-pop territory on a few of their new songs, but since there’s also a bit of ragged guitar rock and understated ballads more in line with their old stuff and even a bizarro Eastern European folk number, it’s hard to complain at the wealth of diversity this record throws at us. Even in their sweetest-sounding songs, I always feel like there’s a little something subversive going on. It keeps me on my toes. I love that about them.
Live Video: “Nobody’s Empire”
4. Florence + The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
There’s an air of sophistication and slight insanity that goes into nearly every single one of Florence Welch’s songs. She’s one of those vocalists who I used to find a bit too eccentric for my tastes, and yet now that I’ve finally taken the plunge, I can’t imagine what I would have ever found off-putting about her. Sure, a handful of these songs are about getting drunk and going on a self-destructive rampage and then lamenting what you’ve done with your life, but there’s a strange beauty in the way she tears it all down only to build it all back up again. The redemptive force in the arc of songs that ends this album is just about as intoxicating as the chaotic force in the songs that start it off.
Live Video: “What Kind of Man”
5. Trails and Ways – Pathology
I was stoked to finally get a full length from these guys after surviving on whatever bits and pieces they were able to record in their early years. Some of the new tracks on this album aren’t as wild and otherworldly as the seductive grooves of the older tracks from Trilingual that make a reappearance here, but they maintain that sort of urban, South American motif that immediately set their sound apart from a lot of the other indie rock bands out there. I’m excited to hear how these guys and gals choose to expand their sound in the future.
Music Video: “Skeletons”
6. Mew – + –
The Danish band’s comeback after a six-year absence is easily their most immediately accessible record since Frengers, and while I might miss the staggering ambition of the two records in between, I can’t deny that they’ve got an array of solid singles right up front, while still delving into more complex song structures on “Clinging to a Bad Dream” and the behemoth “Rows” near the end of the album. Nobody does ridiculously melancholy stadium rock quite like these guys.
Music Video: “Witness”
7. My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall
Stylistic diversity can be an Achilles heel when some bands push it too far, and MMJ’s past few albums have felt a bit like spinning a roulette wheel – sometimes they’ve taken huge gambles and hit the jackpot, but the results have been inconsistent overall. Here they focus in on psychedelic prog rock, with a bit of folk, R&B, and orchestral elements creeping in here and there, and for the most part it works incredibly well. I’m probably never gonna be fully on board with most of Jim James’ metaphysical ramblings, but he clearly felt happy and liberated when he wrote a lot of these songs, and those feelings are certainly shared as I listen to them.
Live Video: “Believe (Nobody Knows)”
8. The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
Longtime Decemberists fans would probably tell me that one of their older concept albums would be a much better place to start, because these days the band is a bit all over the place, and I may well take them up on that offer and go back in time with the band, but for now I think they’ve got a strong collection of songs on their hands without them all necessarily needing to be related to one another. Doing whatever suits the individual song seems to have worked wonders for most of the front half of the record, which track-for-track puts a bigger smile on my face than any folk/rock-type record album I can recall in recent memory, and even if the album gets a bit long in the tooth in the second half, it finishes up in grand style. I figure this is a gateway record, to ease in new fans like me who might have been a bit intimidated by some of their older stuff. For what it is, they did an excellent job.
Live Video: “Lake Song”
9. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love
I really didn’t expect this to be my style. I checked it out because I wanted to understand a bit of Carrie Brownstein’s musical background after enjoying her sketch comedy work on Portlandia. I’d heard her sing previously with Wild Flag and her vocals weren’t really my cup of tea, and Corin Tucker’s were even less so at first, but over time I’ve come to really appreciate the urgency-over-beauty M.O. of the band (and to be fair, nobody expects male-fronted punk bands to sound pretty). The bottom line is, these songs just kick so much ass. I love hearing how the two trade off vocal yelps and sweet guitar licks while Janet Weiss consistently hammers out some of the funnest drum beats in existence. Instead of merely learning to appreciate Sleater-Kinney’s sound, I’ve fallen head over heels in love with it, and that caught me off-guard because I don’t expect bands like this who rightfully don’t give a rat’s ass about whether their music has any mainstream appeal to be so darn catchy.
Music Video: “A New Wave”
10. Gungor – One Wild Life: Soul
The first in a trilogy of new albums set to be completed next year is, like all things I’ve heard from Gungor, difficult to categorize on first listen. You’ve got your fair share of catchy and uplifting pop/rock tunes in here, plus a few straight-up worship songs, and both of those things are an important aspect of the band’s sound but they certainly don’t want to be pigeonholed as just doing those things for an audience solely made up of believers. They explore the discomfort of extreme doubt and feeling lost at sea on a few of the quieter and more haunting tracks on this record, and the whole thing is structured in such a way as to hit you with the more challenging stuff first and the comforting stuff later on. Of course the tracks I’m most drawn to are the anthems that preach love and unity over blind adherence to law, which is something I think needs to be said again and again in a climate where Christians are mostly known for boycotting stuff and using politics as a bludgeoning tool to get back at everyone they disagree with. The Gungors won’t participate in those culture wars, and neither will I.
Live Video: “Vapor”
11. Joy Williams – Venus
An excellent return to solo work from the feminine half of The Civil Wars. Solid blend of mellow pop, folk, and tidbits of electronica.
Music Video: “Woman (Oh Mama)”
12. Jon Foreman – The Wonderlands: Sunlight & Shadows
The first half of the Switchfoot frontman’s 24-hour song cycle. I’m even more impressed with the lyrical and stylistic diversity here than I was on his first set of EPs back in 2007/08.
Listen: “Patron Saint of Rock and Roll”
13. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
The enigmatic baroque pop genius returns after another long absence with a hushed and somewhat grim, but starkly beautiful set of songs written in the wake of his mother’s death.
Live Video: “Death with Dignity”
14. Burlap to Cashmere – Freedom Souls
The third album from this Greek-inflected folk/rock act feels like it could have been a set of lost songs that went unreleased during the long gap between their first two albums. Despite a lot of stylistic jumping around, the instrumental and songwriting talent is as abundant as ever.
Live Video: “The Great I Am”
15. MuteMath – Vitals
It’s like the upbeat and stubbornly optimistic tone of their self-titled combined with the more compact pop song structures of Armistice. Generally a smart move even though I miss some of the complexities of Odd Soul.
Live Video: “Monument”
16. Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
Southern roots rock, soul, and even a little bit of Gospel are baked into some powerhouse performances on this fiery and eclectic set of songs. Probably my biggest departure this year from the types of music I normally get into.
Live Video: “Future People”
17. Metric – Pagans in Vegas
Doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel in terms of catchy electro-pop, but it’s more jam-packed with excellently written and performed potential hit singles than anything I’ve heard from the band thus far.
Live Video: “Celebrate”
18. Jon Foreman – The Wonderlands: Darkness & Dawn
The slightly more laid-back cousin to the aforementioned first half of the project. Some interesting things happen here, both texturally and thematically, even if overall I think the first set of songs was a little stronger.
Live Video: “Before Our Time”
19. Calexico – Edge of the Sun
Ranging from hushed, lonely “desert noir” folk songs to horn-laden Latin rock fiestas, Calexico continues to excel at capturing that feeling of being trapped in between cultures and yearning for a place to belong.
Live Video: “Cumbia de Donde”
20. Kathryn Calder – Kathryn Calder
The New Pornographers sidekick’s third solo outing surprised me at first by being much quieter than I expected, and was then equally surprising in those rare moments when it decided to get loud. Calder continues to pursue indie pop perfection, just with much sparer arrangements this time around.
Live Video: “Blue Skies”