This is coming out way late. I know. And there’s still 2 more parts and an EP/honorable mention post to go. But this list is my (blogging) baby, and I’m going to get it out into the world, one way or another, dang it. So without further ado, here we go into the next 25 albums on my top 100 albums of 2015 list. Again I say, it’s never too late to look back on great music.
Steve Martin & Edie Brickell — So Familiar
For a while now, legendary comedian Steve Martin has begun a remarkable second act as a banjo musician, and “So Familiar” marks his second collaboration with singer Edie Brickell. It’s just as rewarding, perhaps even more so, the second time around. There are a lot more sounds going on than their more spare first album together, “Love Has Come For You,” and the emotional palette has expanded as well, providing for an engaging, rich listen. The songs, many of them taken from the pair’s upcoming Broadway musical, “Bright Star,” are often simple, yet beautifully profound. Both musicians are in fine form, working together in perfect harmony. Here’s hoping to many more fruitful collaborations from Steve & Edie in the future.
Wild Child — Fools
Indie pop band Wild Child takes an artistic leap forward with “Fools,” expanding their sound and deepening their songcraft. The result is a collection of terrific, heartfelt music that never loses just what makes the band special. Lead vocalist Kelsey Wilson, who has such a unique, distinctive tone, gives her absolute all, and the rest of the band brings their A-game as well. A riveting musical journey, and even further indication that Wild Child is destined to go places.
Lizz Wright — Freedom & Surrender
Her first album in 5 years (and her first secular one in 7), “Freedom & Surrender” is in many ways a sort of rebirth for Lizz Wright. The album seems to almost burst with themes of liberation and release, starting with the rousing, appropriately titled opening track, “Freedom.” That she manages to communicate those themes often with slower, more low-key songs like the slinky “Lean In” is a testament to her gifts as an expressive, beautifully powerful vocalist and songwriter. It is a thrill to have Lizz back, and if this album is any indication, we haven’t seen nothing yet.
The Lonely Wild — Chasing White Light
“Chasing White Light” is an intriguing title for an album, but a fitting one for an album reflecting on death, and especially for one so richly nuanced and exciting. At times, LA-based The Lonely Wild’s songs are relentlessly propulsive; at others, raw and hauntingly reflective. Through it all, though, runs a thread of energy and spirit that really creates a striking contrast to the deep source material. I’d never heard of The Lonely Wild before this past summer, but thanks to this album, I’m fully on board for whatever they take on next.
Sara Groves — Floodplain
I’ve been acquainted in passing with the music of contemporary Christian singer/songwriter Sara Groves over the years, and from what I’ve seen, she’s never been one to stay inside the CCM box, musically or thematically. Her newest album, “Floodplain,” is no exception, and as a result, it’s a triumph. Sara’s songs are timeless and organic, and her lyrics are beautifully thought-provoking. She doesn’t shy away from the complexities of faith, and really takes time to explore what it means to be a follower of Christ. Despite her focus as a CCM artist, however, her songs are universal and have the ability to speak to people from all walks of life. This isn’t just good Christian music–it’s good music, period.
Oh Wonder — Oh Wonder
If you were already a follower of alternative pop duo Oh Wonder, their debut album was probably not much of anything new–they experimented with its production and release by writing, recording, and releasing a new song each month for more than a year, culminating in a full album with two new songs. If you hadn’t heard of them before, as was the case with me, a set of subtly adventurous, gorgeously crafted songs await you. It’s pretty remarkable that the album flows so well, seeing as they made it (literally) piece by piece. Their silky-smooth vocals, surrounded by a hauntingly intriguing mix of electronic and acoustic sounds, make for an effortlessly enjoyable listen. I’m looking forward to much more from these two.
Alela Diane & Ryan Francesconi — Cold Moon
Intentionally made a collection of songs for the colder months, “Cold Moon,” a collaboration between singer/songwriter Alela Diane and guitarist Ryan Francesconi, is anything but chilly. Francesconi’s warm, thoughtful playing complements Diane’s beguilingly haunting vocals wonderfully. The reflections on nature throughout the album are beautifully evocative, painting a beautiful musical landscape and making for a rich, rewarding listening experience. This is a perfect companion for any day, not just a winter one.
Bob Dylan — Shadows In The Night
Over his long and storied career, Bob Dylan has never been a stranger to artistic exploration, that’s to be sure. Even for such a prolific wanderer across genres, however, “Shadows In The Night,” a collection of jazz standards inspired by Frank Sinatra, still comes as a bit of a surprise. Thankfully, it’s a very welcome one. Dylan’s strengths have long lied primarily in his songwriting, not his vocals, so having him sing an album of songs he didn’t write (and that countless others have sung, to boot) seems at first counter-intuitive. He rises magnificently to the occasion, however, with spare, haunting interpretations that really work to bring out unique aspects of old chestnuts, and help him stretch, in the best sense, as a vocalist. There’s no telling where Bob Dylan will go next, but I’m glad he took the time to stop and make an album like “Shadows In The Night.”
Natalia Jiménez — Creo en mi
Best known as the lead singer of La Quinta Estación, Natalia Jiménez continues breaking out on her own with her sophomore solo album. She bounces from genre to genre, taking on empowering ballads like the title track, playful, ranchera-tinged kiss-offs like “Quédate con ella,” and anthemic dance pop like “Escapar,” but the album never feels disjointed or haphazard. Much of the credit for that should be given to Natalia herself–her confident, take-no-prisoners vocals really bring things together. She certainly did some great work with La Quinta Estación, but “Creo en mi” proves that her future as a solo artist is even brighter.
Kelly Clarkson — Piece By Piece
Ever since her landmark “American Idol” win 14 years ago, Kelly Clarkson has been a force to be reckoned with in the pop music landscape. Her newest album, “Piece By Piece,” continues to prove just how special she is. She really seems to be on an unstoppable streak with her last few albums, and here, she’s definitely firing on all cylinders. Her vocals are filled with heart and soul, and the songs are powerful, honest, and top-notch. She’s had one heck of a career in these past 14 years, with many great songs and albums, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that this is Kelly’s best so far.
Vanessa Carlton — Liberman
Continuing the personal artistic renaissance she began with her revelatory 2011 album “Rabbits On The Run,” Vanessa Carlton delivers another collection of outstanding, defiantly individual songs that show her at her best, and really make a powerful statement of her vision as an artist. The songs are rich and atmospheric, and Vanessa really works to expand and refine her sound on each track. I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again: Vanessa Carlton is definitely not just the girl who sang “A Thousand Miles” anymore. She’s proved herself to be far, far more than that, and it’s a treat to get such terrific music from her as a result.
Dan Mangan + Blacksmith — Club Meds
Credited in tandem with his band for the first time, Canadian singer/songwriter Dan Mangan takes a clear, confident artistic leap with his new album. His knack for unique, sweeping songcraft is still perfectly intact, as well as his wonderfully distinctive voice, but he has a much larger, more expansive sonic palette to surround his songs this time around. The instrumentation and production may be a bit more experimental than what he’s done in the past, but the songs still shine brightly through. There’s a real collaborative feel to this album, reflected by Dan’s decision to add the “+Blacksmith,” and overall, it’s a riveting musical ride, and a real step forward for an already fascinating and talented artist.
Kacey Musgraves — Pageant Material
I had heard a fair bit about Kacey Musgraves before I checked out her sophomore album, but nothing quite prepared me for just how unshakably solid that album is. The songs have a natural, almost laid-back vibe, and they’re impeccably crafted and so effortless to listen to. Kacey’s a co-writer on every track, and the incisive lyrics and strong melodies she’s helped to craft really go together nicely. She also serves as co-producer, and the instrumentation and production that she and fellow producers Luke Laird and Shane McAnally have created is beautifully organic and real. Outstanding albums like these are proof for me that women like Kacey are the true future of country music.
Michael Giacchino — Inside Out: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
One of the year’s best films, and one of my favorites, just happens to be accompanied by one of the year’s best soundtracks–and also one of my favorites. Composer Michael Giacchino has been in quite high demand lately, but he almost always seems to find time to collaborate with Pixar, and their partnership is consistently a fruitful one. Giacchino’s gorgeous, inventive score really does wonders in reflecting the different emotions on display in “Inside Out,” and it’s an absolute delight to listen to.
New West Guitar Group — Send One Your Love
I had never heard of guitar trio New West Guitar Group before–but when I discovered their most recent album was a collaboration with five of jazz’s most distinguished modern vocalists (Sara Gazarek, Peter Eldridge, Tierney Sutton, Gretchen Parlato, and Becca Stevens), I had to check it out. Their playing is top-notch, and the arrangements are lush, fantastic backdrops for the guest vocalists. Populated by both standards and lesser-known fare, “Send One Your Love” is a fantastic showcase for some of jazz’s best talent.
John Metcalfe — The Appearance of Colour
I became acquainted with composer John Metcalfe through his peerless arranging work for Peter Gabriel on his recent orchestral projects, so the prospect of a new album from him was an exciting one. He definitely does not disappoint on “The Appearance of Colour,” crafting a set of spellbinding compositions that really show him at his best. Opening track “Sun,” inspired by a day on the beach, is a whopping 20 minutes long, but there’s rarely a dull moment, and the same goes for each track. Deftly mixing the orchestral and the electronic, and never shying away from experimentation but still keeping things remarkably engaging and full of life, John Metcalfe really hits it out of the park with this one.
MisterWives — Our Own House
Full of fire and spirit, indie band MisterWives sets out with guns blazing on their deliciously infectious debut studio album. They burst onto the spotlight with their breakout song “Reflections,” but this album proves they have much more than that up their sleeves. The disco-influenced title track is a particular highlight, but really, there’s not a truly bad song on here. Bracingly powerful and unique lead vocalist Mandy Lee is firing on all cylinders as well. Based on what they have to offer here with their debut, I’m really excited to see where MisterWives goes in the future.
Patrick Watson — Love Songs for Robots
Canadian singer/songwriter Patrick Watson is blessed with a beautiful, haunting voice, and a real gift for distinctive, emotionally resonant songwriting, but on his latest album, he also really works to craft a unique sound that really makes for an exciting listening experience. The production here is very atmospheric and even a bit adventurous, and that combined with a stellar collection of enigmatic yet immediate songs results in an album to be cherished. It’s admittedly a bit of a slow burn, but it’s one heck of a rewarding slow burn at that.
Mumford & Sons — Wilder Mind
Mumford & Sons, known since their inception for their very acoustic, banjo-driven sound, certainly turned heads with their move to electric on “Wilder Mind.” The reception has certainly been polarizing, but I find myself firmly on the band’s side. Yes, I loved their previous work, but they really succeed at crafting a new artistic identity for themselves here that marries the best of their old aesthetic with the best of the new. The songs are just as well-crafted as before, perhaps even more so, and the band seems really energized by the different musical setting. They may have a radically different sound, but this is still the Mumford & Sons that you’ve grown to know and love.
Sufjan Stevens — Carrie & Lowell
A breathlessly intimate album inspired in part by the death of his mother in 2012, Sufjan Stevens’ “Carrie and Lowell” is yet another stylistic switch-up by an artist who seems to thrive on changing things up, but it’s a shift that works excellently here. The songs on this album are stark and raw, and crafted with a real, honest sense of emotion and vulnerability. This is the kind of record that will stay with you for a while.
Laura Marling — Short Movie
Yet another British artist to make a shift this past year from acoustic to electric, Laura Marling’s experimentation with a new, more driving sound is an incredibly rewarding one. Her songwriting and artistry is still off the charts, and there’s an even higher level of maturity to these songs, likely owing to the break she took from music before she made the album. She really seems to step up to the new possibilities that this larger sound brings her, and it’s a thrill to listen to. At the relatively young age of 26, with four top-notch studio albums behind her, Laura Marling continues to set herself apart as an artist.
Imagine Dragons — Smoke + Mirrors
Imagine Dragons prove their highly successful debut wasn’t a fluke with their outstanding sophomore album, a collection of songs that continues to bring out the strengths they displayed on their previous record, while taking some exciting steps forward in their sound. They aren’t afraid to experiment here, including influences from quite a few other genres, but they still manage to make each and every song both true to themselves and powerfully crafted, yet breathtakingly accessible. “Smoke + Mirrors” is an indication that Imagine Dragons is just getting things started–they have a lot of life in them yet.
Dee Dee Bridgewater — Dee Dee’s Feathers
A collaboration with Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, “Dee Dee’s Feathers” is a terrific showcase for Dee Dee Bridgewater’s incomparable gifts as a vocalist and as an artist. The arrangements by Irvin and the band are terrific, and Dee Dee has never sounded better. The songs are an eclectic yet alluring mix of old favorites like “What a Wonderful World” and “Saint James Infirmary,” and newer tunes like Harry Connick Jr.’s “One Fine Thing.” A real treat of an album, for sure.
Pentatonix — Pentatonix
Over the past few years since they won “The Sing-Off” back in 2011, Pentatonix’s star has risen tremendously not just in the a cappella world, but in the musical world in general. It makes sense, then, that they decided to branch out with their first album populated entirely of originals, a departure from their previous focus on covers. Notably self-titled, this album is full of solid, incredibly infectious songs, all performed with Pentatonix’s trademark passion and creativity. They’ve already made quite a name for themselves, but with this album, Pentatonix shows that they’re got even more tricks up their sleeve.
Beirut — No No No
Clocking in at a brisk 29 minutes, indie outfit Beirut’s latest effort, “No No No,” is a bit more accessible, and dare I say poppy, than the band’s previous work. That’s not to say, though, that it’s any less well-crafted, or any less rewarding of a listen. Immediate yet profound, these songs are easy to listen to yet strikingly profound. The instrumentation, a bit stripped back from Beirut’s previous albums, really highlights the sturdy kind of beauty these tunes all have, and it all makes for a terrific experience.
Whew! This baby is finally out in the world. Only 2 parts to go, right? While you’re waiting for Part III (which, barring a snowstorm, will hopefully be much less of a wait than this post was), take a listen to a Spotify playlist featuring my favorites from all 25 of these albums: