I love music. This is a list of some of the best music from the past twelve months. Or, I guess I should say it’s my favorite music from the past year. Between Spotify, Amazon Prime, and other streaming platforms, it’s never been easier to find great new music. If you have some iTunes or Amazon gift cards coming your way this Christmas, consider some of these great albums.
Chris Stapleton, Traveller. For the record, I was digging Stapleton long before his duet with J.T. went viral. For years, Stapleton was known more for his songwriting prowess (he’s penned six #1 songs) or his ensemble work with The SteelDrivers or The Jompson Brothers. But his debut solo album, helmed by super producer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson) has jettisoned Stapleton to the forefront of the neo-traditionalist country scene. Much has been written about the lamentable state of modern country music (which is neither “country” nor “music”) but artists like Stapleton hearken back to the outlaw sound of late 70s Waylon and Hank Jr. Tonally, this is definitely your Daddy’s country music but Stapleton’s voice sets him apart from all other throwback artists. Just check out the honky-tonk swagger of “Nobody to Blame”, the scorching vocals on “Sometimes I Cry”, or the cool restraint of the title track and you’ll see what I mean. This album is a tour de force from a vocalist in complete control of his craft. The only question is: What took so long? Stapleton’s surprising sweep of the CMA awards stands as a harbinger of hope for commercial country music in general. Here’s hoping Chris Stapleton is here to stay. Download this: the tear-jerker “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore”, the anthemic “Fire Away”, the lilting ballad “More of You” (with backing vocals from Mrs. Stapleton), and the five-star closing track “Sometimes I Cry.”
- Wilco, Star Wars. If you’re a decades old rock band wanting to treat your fans to a free album, take a page from Wilco, not U2. Last year’s Songs of Innocence debacle soured even some longtime U2 fans; iTunes users woke up to find an unexpected (and unwelcome) album on their Apple devices. It felt weird, desperate, and kinda wrong. (And, in my opinion, it overshadowed what, in retrospect, was a pretty good collection of songs.) So imagine my surprise this summer when I heard that Wilco had 1) recorded a new album and 2) released it for free download. What’s more, Jeff Tweedy & Co. have crafted their best set of songs in years. I heard one reviewer say this album sounds like a greatest hits collection of brand new songs. That’s an apt, albeit strange, description. The sonic landscape here vacillates between the band’s most radio-ready sounds and the unbound experimentalism of Wilco a decade ago. As rock continues to undergo an identity crisis, it’s good to know Wilco has found a comfortable lane. This isn’t complacency; it’s simply doing what comes naturally. In Wilco’s case, that culminates in the best alt-rock album by far this year. Download this: “Taste the Ceiling”, “Random Name Generator”, You Satellite”, and “The Joke Explained.”
- James McMurtury, Complicated Game. McMurtury is the weathered and wizened alt-country act that over earnest hipster younglings hope to be one day. The son of Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Larry McMurtury (Lonesome Dove), the younger McMurtury is a masterful songwriter and this collection of lived-in material does not disappoint. You can almost see the lines on the face of the narrator of “Copper Canteen” or the collective sweat on the brow of the blue-collar crowd in “Long Island Sound.” These textured characters are complicated, defying easy summation, and thoroughly human. I think that’s what’s so appealing about these songs: they simply tell the truth. Download this: the roadhouse rocker “How’m I Gonna Find You Know”, the plaintive “You Got to Me”, and “Copper Canteen.”
- Adele, 25. Most pop music grates on my nerves. But doesn’t everybody love Adele? (According to SNL, the answer is yes.) I bought this album for my wife and daughter, but it’s quickly become one of my favorites. In her triumphal return from vocal surgery, Adele’s cover photo for 25 says it all; this is an artist ready for her close-up. With this album shattering all sorts of sales records (and the subsequent tour also breaking the bank — along with trying our patience with TicketMaster!), I’d say Adele is doing quite well in the spotlight. Download this: the iconic “Hello”, the upbeat “Water Under the Bridge”, and “I Miss You.”
- Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color. Three years ago, Alabama Shakes burst onto the scene as the new Memphis-blues-soul torch bearers. But with Sound & Color, the band offers a surprising, energetic, and expansive sophomore album that still sounds vintage but fresh and relevant at the same time. I’m guessing Boys & Girls was more like an Alabama Shakes cover album while Sound & Color is a nearer expression of the band’s sense of identity. There’s plenty that’s familiar here: the working class lyricism of “Don’t Wanna Fight No More”; the smooth soulfulness of “Guess Who”; the easygoing optimism of “Shoegaze.” But this album moves seamlessly in new directions never hinted at on Boys & Girls, from the dramatic and measured “Gemini” (a funk-blues track a full two minutes lengthier than anything the band has ever recorded) to the frenetic punk-light effervescence of “The Greatest.” The vibe of the LP is best explicated on the title track: “A new world hangs outside the window / Beautiful and strange.” Indeed. Download this: “Sound & Color”, “Shoegaze”, and “Don’t Wanna Fight.”
- Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free. Isbell’s 2013 release Southeastern is my favorite album of the past five years (and possibly ever). So Something More Than Free was never going to live up to its predecessor. But Isbell has crafted another beautiful and evocative album chock full of the kind of real world sagacity that is the hallmark of Isbell’s art. I’m going to have a hard time choosing between “Children of Children” and “Speed Trap Town” for my favorite song of 2015. Download this: “Speed Trap Town”, “Children of Children”, and “If It Takes a Lifetime.”
- Florence + The Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. Many of the artists on this list are practitioners of a retro-sound, albeit fitted for modern audiences. Florence + The Machine have fit that mold since their 2009 debut, but once again, the sound palette has broadened here beyond the “art house rock” stereotype. Download this: “What Kind of Man”, “Ship to Wreck.”
- Dwight Yoakam, Second Hand Heart. I’ve been a fan ever since I bought a copy of Just Lookin’ For A Hit when I was 12 years old. Yoakam has enjoyed a late career renaissance these past few years. Although he’s no longer a commercial artist, his last few albums have been excellent, a trend that continues with Second Hand Heart. Fun fact: Yoakam’s September show at the Ryman goes down as the loudest concert I’ve ever attended. The ol’ guy still has it. Download this: “Believe” and “V’s of Birds”.
- Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell. Dedicated to the memory of his deceased mother, Carrie & Lowell is Sufjan’s most personal work to date. Not my favorite sound (the instrumentation and vocals are quite sparse in places) but lyrically, this is some of Sufjan’s best. Download this: “Should Have Known Better” and “Death With Dignity”, a poignant reflection of loss and forgiveness.
- Tobias Jesso, Jr., Goon. Jesso is another throwback artist, calling to mind Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson. If you’re into piano-pop ballads, Jesso is worth checking out. Download this: “How Could You Babe” and “Can’t Stop Thinking About You.”
That’s my list. I’d love to know what you’re listening to this year.