My Top 100 Albums of 2015, Part I

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At the very beginning of 2015, or quite possibly the very end of 2014–before I had even finished posting my Best Albums of 2014 list–I began work in earnest for my top 2015 albums list project. It would be big. It would be exciting. It would be full of terrific music. Little did I know, however, that as the year progressed, I would find myself in the midst of something even bigger, more exciting, and more full of terrific music than ever before.

In 2011, the first time I posted an end-of-year list like this, I had 21 albums on it. Last year, I expanded that to 40, with a few honorable mentions that didn’t make the cut. Throughout the year as I was listening to albums constantly, I thought I would once again cap it at 40, until I noticed my running list getting bigger and bigger, and realized I’d have to expand things a bit.  Make that a lot. This year’s list features 100 albums, plus a whopping 35 honorable mentions, and 10 EPs (last year I highlighted only 4).

Taking on this project was an excellent way to actively discover new music for me, whether it was artists I treasure coming out with their latest album, or people I’d never heard of before or taken the chance to check out, or musicians just bursting onto the scene. I know if I hadn’t been diligently looking for albums to consider for my list, I certainly wouldn’t have listened to such a broad, exciting range of music this past year. It’s definitely been a ride. Likely in part due to the greatly expanded number, quite a few more genres are represented in this list than in the past. Many artists are appearing for a second time on one of my end-of-the-year lists, while even more are here for the first time.

As a personal rule, for an album to be included on this list, I must have listened to it at least once (in the majority of cases, twice or more), in its entirety, and almost always with headphones so I can get the best experience. As a first this year, the albums will be loosely ranked–sort of. I sorted them out into each part (there will be four, with 25 albums each), so Part I will be, for lack of a better term, the albums that just made the cut, and so on until Part IV, which will include my very favorite albums of the year. Nevertheless, it’s a very loose ranking, so just because an album is in a certain part, or before or after another one, doesn’t mean that it’s better or worse than another one.

Without further ado, I present to you the first 25 albums of my Top Albums of 2015:

Diana Krall — Wallflower

Diana Krall is a jazz musician, but in the past she has been no stranger to songs beyond the typical collection of standards. With her new album, “Wallflower,” she continues pushing her artistic boundaries by choosing to cover chestnuts from the 70s and 80s. What’s more, she enlists legendary producer David Foster, who takes the album in a much more pop-oriented direction. True, it’s a different approach, but it turns out to be a very effective one. Diana’s vocals are committed and assured, and the arrangements are solid. This is a beautiful tribute to an under-appreciated era of music.

Laura Welsh — Soft Control

There certainly hasn’t been a shortage of strong female talent from the UK these past few years. That said, Laura Welsh does quite a lot to stand out from the pack with her debut album. The songs are tightly written, often atmospheric showcases for Laura’s distinctive and powerful voice. “Soft Control” is one heck of an introduction, and it’s an album that leaves me very excited for where she goes in the future.

Kristin Diable — Create Your Own Mythology

To be very honest, it took me a while to check out “Create Your Own Mythology.” A single from the album was offered on iTunes for free, and I enjoyed it, but for some reason I just didn’t get around to listening to the rest. I finally did late in the year, and I was very, very impressed. Kristin’s smoky yet passionate vocals combine with terrific songs, all couched in a warm 60s/70s-inspired aesthetic. There’s so much to love about this album, and if I were you, I wouldn’t wait as long as I did to take a listen.

Leon Bridges — Coming Home

You wouldn’t think a straight-up, unadorned soul/R&B throwback album, one that could easily pass for something Sam Cooke or Otis Redding recorded back in the day, would turn out to be a success in today’s very modern music world. However, Leon Bridges makes it work–so, so well. Only 26 years old and just starting out as an artist, there’s certainly room to grow, but he’s already got a pretty good thing going already, paying tribute to the past with solid vocals and songs that sound timeless. Listening to this album definitely feels a lot like “coming home.”

Indigo Girls — One Lost Day

Their 14th studio album but their first in 4 years, “One Lost Day” is a testament to both the incredible staying power that the music of Amy and Emily has, and also their remarkable ability to push their own artistic boundaries and explore new horizons. At times reflective, at times raucous, this album is full to bursting with heart, emotion, and power. They don’t miss a step here, and for a duo that’s been together for 30 years (and counting), that’s an outstanding achievement.

Jeff Lynne’s ELO — Alone In The Universe

To say it’s been quite a while since ELO’s glory days (for the uninitiated, ELO stands for Electric Light Orchestra) would be an understatement. The group’s legendary lead, Jeff Lynne, practically all by himself, takes on the arduous task of making a comeback for ELO’s signature brand of songcraft, after nearly two decades since the last ELO-related release. He acquits himself excellently, with strong songs that hark back to the classics in the band’s catalog. He also seems to have found the Fountain of Youth, as his voice sounds practically identical to how it did 40 (!!!) years ago. Welcome back, ELO. It had been much too long.

Twenty One Pilots — Blurryface

I’ll get something out of the way right now–this is far from the kind of album I’d usually enjoy. Against all odds, though, I really was impressed by it, which means there’s definitely something good going on. Twenty One Pilots a duo that defies classification, as they throw practically every genre imaginable into their music, oftentimes within the same song. That said, their unconventional, bordering on off-kilter tendency to bounce all over the musical spectrum is surprisingly effective, thanks in large part to vocalist Tyler Joseph’s tangibly passionate approach to music-making and his riveting, confessional brand of songwriting. “Blurryface” is one wild ride, but it’s a ride worth taking.

Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell — The Traveling Kind

Veteran singer/songwriter Emmylou Harris’ second collaboration with fellow musician Rodney Crowell (their last won them a Grammy for Best Americana Album), “The Traveling Kind” is a gorgeous slice of folk and country. Emmylou and Rodney have an easy, effortless rapport as singers and players, and listening to this album feels like a warm trip home. Seasoned vocals and top-notch writing make this a great musical journey.

The National Parks — Until I Live

Provo, Utah-based band The National Parks undergo a bit of stylistic evolution with their sophomore album. They’re still making expansive, anthemic, extremely listenable folk-pop, as they did with their stellar debut–but this time, their sonic palette is much wider, with a fuller, more produced sound. They don’t let themselves get buried beneath the production sheen, however, keeping the heart that guides their amazing sound. Uplifting and beautifully crafted, “Until I Live” helps cement The National Parks’ place as a force to be reckoned with in the indie music scene.

Tony Bennett & Bill Charlap — The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern

Tony Bennett is one of those vocalists that just seems to get better with age. The man’s 89 years old and still making fantastic albums, and this collaboration with pianist Bill Charlap is no exception. Straightforward and classy, this tribute to classic American composer Jerome Kern is an intimate, lovely showcase for Tony Bennett’s peerless artistry. He just isn’t showing any signs of stopping, and with music like this, I hope he doesn’t anytime soon.

Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield — Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith

There have been quite a few tributes over the years to the late singer/songwriter Elliott Smith, whose brief but illustrious career is now all but the stuff of legend. This particular tribute, featuring Seth Avett of the Avett Brothers and indie artist Jessica Lea Mayfield, is a gem, drawing upon Smith’s dark, pensive songwriting wonderfully. Seth’s more rock-influenced singing contrast nicely with Jessica’s plaintive, haunting vocal style, and their arrangements are simple yet profound, really letting the songs shine through in a powerful way, from the arresting “Between the Bars” to the driving “Roman Candle.” An outstanding way to get yourself acquainted with the legacy of Elliott Smith.

BØRNS — Dopamine

With a debut that’s at turns dreamy and lushly produced, yet cutting-edge, emerging indie pop artist Garrett Borns, known as BØRNS, certainly makes an excellent first impression. Layered harmonies and psychedelic production touches enhance the songs rather than take away from them, making for an engaging, endlessly intriguing listening experience.

Chilly Gonzales — Chambers

Canadian musician Chilly Gonzales has gone all over the place in the past, from rapping to electro to solo piano. This new album of his is a collection of chamber music performed with the German ensemble Kaiser Quartett, and regardless of Gonzales’ diverse musical background, it stands firmly on its own as a compelling, meticulously crafted artistic statement. There are influences from other genres sprinkled throughout (pop, hip-hop, and the like), which makes for an even more intriguing listening experience. Even if you’re not a classical music buff, you’ll enjoy this.

Of Monsters and Men — Beneath the Skin

Of Monsters and Men know just how to marry the icy influences of their Scandinavian homeland (Iceland) with the warm, anthemic brand of songwriting they’ve come to be known for, and on “Beneath the Skin,” they’re firing on all cylinders. Opening track and lead single “Crystals” starts things off on an appropriately grand and expansive scale, and things never really let up from there. This band really knows how to make terrific music.

Ellie Goulding — Delirium

Since I first discovered her music about 5-6 years ago (before her debut album had even been released in the States), Ellie Goulding’s star has risen tremendously worldwide. With that kind of fame comes a certain kind of pressure on an artist, and on her new album “Delirium,” Ellie’s sound is more pop-influenced than ever before. That doesn’t mean that it’s any less captivating. The beats are heavier and the production is bigger, but there’s still heart and a relentless passion clearly emanating from this music, and that’s why after all this time, I’m still a huge Ellie Goulding fan.

Patty Griffin — Servant of Love

Starting with the gorgeously atmospheric, piano-driven title track, you can quickly tell that “Servant of Love” is an album that’s in many ways more vulnerable than anything singer/songwriter Patty Griffin has done before. She’s made a career out of writing and performing songs that artists love to love (her classic “Up To The Mountain” has been covered by the likes of “American Idol” contestants, and the Dixie Chicks included 2 of her tunes on their “Home” album), and this album will certainly continue that tradition, but there’s something special, something different about this record tht really sets it apart. It’s a bit of a grower, but it will definitely grow on you if you give it the time.

David Benoit & Jane Monheit — 2 In Love

Jane Monheit is one of jazz’s finest vocalists, and her outing here with seasoned pianist David Benoit is a real treat. She’s in excellent form here, and David’s contributions help this really feel like an equal partnership. The two, with stellar backing musicians in tow, take on a range of fantastic original tunes that sound like they could be new standards (I was surprised just now to find they weren’t established songs). This is a terrific chance to see two top-notch musicians at the top of their game.

Josh Groban — Stages

After dabbling in more contemporary fare his past few albums, Josh Groban takes things back a bit with “Stages,” covering an excellent selection of songs from the stage and screen. His voice is as golden as ever, and he brings aboard some excellent collaborators for this project, including Kelly Clarkson, sounding flawless and surprisingly appropriate for the genre, on “All I Ask of You,” and 6-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald on a lovely reading of “If I Loved You.” He’s backed by fine arrangements as well that for the most part, do a nice job of updating these songs and making them new. Timeless and extremely well-done, this is a fine addition to Josh Groban’s illustrious catalog.

Ashley Monroe — The Blade

Beautifully tinged by heartbreak yet powerfully assured, “The Blade” is an album that reminds you just how good country music can be. Ashley Monroe’s delivery is easy and authentic, and her writing (she had a hand in co-writing all but one of the tracks) really shines. From the fresh, ebullient single “On To Something Good” to the haunting title track, this is most definitely where it’s at–not just where country music is concerned, but where music in general is concerned. It’s that solid.

Sleater-Kinney — No Cities To Love

Full disclosure: I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a punk rock fan. (Those who know me can attest to this.) However, when hearing about “No Cities To Love,” Sleater-Kinney’s first album in 10 years, I decided on a whim to check it out after a friend posted about it, I recognized their name, and I got curious. Against all odds, I loved this album. It’s jagged, unmistakably raw, and chock-full of seemingly endless energy. The songs, which all clock in at about 3 minutes or less, never outstay their welcome. It’s something very different from my usual tastes, but it’s truly great music. You don’t need any pesky labels or limitations to get in the way of that.

Pomplamoose — Besides

Following up their excellent album “Season 2” from just a year or so ago, the playfully titled “Besides” (a play on ‘B-sides’) is an oustanding collection of 13 more YouTube-based gems from Pomplamoose. There’s more deliciously inventive covers of hits like “Uptown Funk” and “Like A Prayer,” and some great originals. Listening to Pomplamoose is always an infectious, exciting adventure, and this album is no exception.

Guy Garvey — Courting the Squall

Guy Garvey, stalwart lead singer of the terrific English band Elbow, explores music-making on his own with his first solo effort, “Courting the Squall.” The results are fascinating on quite a few levels. Stylistically, it’s not miles away from the stuff he’s doing with Elbow, but he takes a few significant musical detours that really captivate. His voice is riveting as always, really adding to the character of each song. With this fine album, Garvey manages to accomplish the impressive feat of having both a successful band and a solo career with a bright future. Both are most certainly worth pursuing further, whenever he finds the time.

Cassandra Wilson — Coming Forth By Day

“Coming Forth By Day” is one of several Billie Holiday tributes from 2015, the centennial year of Lady Day’s birth. Cassandra Wilson has never been one to do things inside the box, and this album is no exception. Wilson enlists Nick Launay, known for his work with Nick Cave, as producer, creating a markedly unique aesthetic right off the bat, and allowing for some incredibly intriguing reinventions of these old chestnuts. Her vocals are thick and rich, not unlike Holiday’s, but Wilson never veers into imitation or parody. This is a haunting, heartfelt love letter to a legend.

Monsieur Periné — Caja de música

You might expect a group from Colombia to be purveyors of many genres, but swing probably wouldn’t be one of them. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what Monsieur Periné, hailing from Bogotá, specializes in, making for a very fun ride. Throwing influences from many other styles into their “music box,” (that’s what the album title means in English), the band creates a sound that pays clever homage to the past while it runs headlong into the future. Latin American music is already pretty darn diverse, but Monsieur Periné makes it even more so, and that’s a very, very good thing.

Andreya Triana — Giants

“Giants” is not a debut, but it being British singer/songwriter Andreya Triana’s first album in 5 years (and the first time I’d heard of her), it certainly feels like one. Not because it’s rough or inexperienced-sounding by any means, but because it’s such a strong, powerful burst out of the gate. Deftly produced by Matt Hales (also known as Aqualung), Andreya’s soulful vocals and skilled songwriting (she co-penned every track) come through beautifully and establish her as a musical force to be reckoned with. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait 5 more years for the follow-up.

Check out this personally curated Spotify playlist featuring one of my favorite tracks from all 25 albums above:

Stay tuned for Part II, coming up as soon as I can wrangle it. There’s even more terrific music to come!

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