Only two more parts to go! Thankfully, the gap between this post and the last one was much shorter than the previous gap. Let’s get right to it. These next 25 albums are top-notch.
The Weepies — Sirens
“Sirens” feels like the most personal album yet by husband-wife duo the Weepies. That probably owes in large part to the fact that it was recorded during member Deb Talan’s battle with breast cancer. The impact of that struggle is present throughout–the songs are at times reflective and haunting; at others, celebratory and optimistic. Overall, this is a triumphant, richly layered album that makes us glad the Weepies are here to stay.
Ryan Adams — 1989
It’s not every day that you have an artist do a cover of an entire album, but that’s just what Ryan Adams has done with Taylor Swift’s megahit from 2014, “1989.” The idea at first seems a bit preposterous, but once you start getting into Ryan’s versions of Taylor’s songs, it’s easy to get on board. His darker, often atmospheric recastings both fit him like a glove, and bring out the best elements of Taylor’s songwriting, helping his versions stand out on their own, while making the originals seem even better in retrospect. This is just as rewarding an experience for listeners as Taylor Swift’s album was, and that’s no mean feat.
CHVRCHES — Every Open Eye
I had heard a bit about CHVRCHES in passing before I checked out “Every Open Eye,” but I hadn’t listened to much of their music yet. Once I started listening to the album, however, I was hooked. The band is firing on all cylinders here, creating a distinctive, expansive sonic palette (and that’s with only 3 members, mind you) that makes their sharp, powerful songwriting really shine. Synth-based pop at its best.
Chiara Civello — Canzoni
Italian jazz/pop singer Chiara Civello has long been one of my favorites, and her ambitious, stylish new project “Canzoni” is an outstanding showcase for her talent. A collection of largely Italian classics, with a few other songs in the mix, Chiara’s clear, expressive voice is backed by lush orchestration that really gives the whole album a classic feel. The song selection is stellar, and Chiara has never sounded better. A terrific listen.
Maia Sharp — The Dash Between the Dates
Maia Sharp has had a distinguished career so far as a songwriter, writing hits for artists as diverse as the Dixie Chicks and Cher. Through her songwriting success, she’s made a lot of excellent music as a solo artist, and “The Dash Between the Dates” is perhaps her best yet. Full of tightly-written, bracingly honest songs performed with heart and soul by Maia, and including a few intriguing detours from her usual genre–perhaps most notably the opening track, the playful, sexy lead single “Nothing But the Radio”–this is an album to be treasured.
Andra Day — Cheers to the Fall
A powerful, unique voice. Top-notch songwriting. Definitely two key elements of success, but it wouldn’t amount to much if it didn’t come together so wonderfully on this firecracker of a debut from newcomer Andra Day. Her voice is stunning, gorgeous and decidedly unique, and the songs are confessional and often uplifting. Overall, “Cheers to the Fall” is a fantastic introduction to Andra and her artistry. If she keeps this up, she’ll have quite a long, exciting career ahead of her.
Lila Downs — Balas y chocolate
Defiantly personal and with an exhilarating sense of musical adventure, “Balas y chocolate” is an absolute triumph for relentlessly creative Mexican-American singer/songwriter Lila Downs. She bounces from genre to genre, with elements of cumbia, ranchera, folk, and so much more in the mix, and her remarkably expressive, fiery vocals really shine in every track. Her songs often take on social issues, but her lyrics never seem preachy or trite. She even invites fellow Latin stars Juan Gabriel and Juanes along for a couple tracks. Chances are, this isn’t the kind of music you usually are into–but you owe it to yourself to check out the amazing things that Lila Downs is doing with her music. I’m certainly glad I took a listen.
Chris Stapleton — Traveller
For me, 2015 was an outstanding year for female country artists, as evidenced by the rest of this list. Part of that is that quite honestly, I’ve lost a bit of patience with much of the male country scene. Chris Stapleton, however, is a shining exception to that. His voice–honestly, it’s incredible. He’s also an excellent songwriter, and his skills really stand out here. The vibe of the album is very earthy, rootsy, almost laid-back at times, a sharp contrast to the heavily produced country on the radio. Stellar albums like “Traveller” are a strong, powerful case for why country music–especially country by male artists–is still worth believing in.
Grace Potter — Midnight
Grace Potter has done some excellent work with her band the Nocturnals–but as a solo artist, she’s darn near unstoppable. She’s a force to be reckoned with as a vocalist, and the experimental, genre-hopping, more pop-based sound of “Midnight” really seems to suit her. These songs are catchy and exciting, and great spaces for Grace to play in. It’ll be great to see her back with the Nocturnals in the future, but for now, she’s made a great solo debut.
Joey Alexander — My Favorite Things
“My Favorite Things” is a jazz piano album with such a level of quality that you’d be impressed no matter who made it–but that it was led by child piano prodigy Joey Alexander, who’s just 12 years old, is even more mind-boggling. He displays a stunning sense of maturity and artistry in his playing style, and interacts in a seamless way with the rest of the band. Joey Alexander proves with “My Favorite Things” that he isn’t just a novelty–he’s a fully-formed artist with a remarkably bright future in the jazz world.
Gin Wigmore — Blood to Bone
I’ve been a fan of New Zealand singer/songwriter Gin Wigmore ever since I heard her infectious track “Don’t Stop” in a Lowe’s commercial a few years ago, and her new album “Blood to Bone” has made me an even bigger fan. She branches out as an artist here, with songs that experiment a bit musically even more than she has in the past, and her energy and distinctiveness as a vocalist stands out nicely throughout the album. If you’re unfamiliar with Gin Wigmore and her solid work, this is a great place to start.
The Unthanks — Mount the Air
The Unthanks, headed by the group’s namesakes, sisters Rachel and Becky, have built an excellent body of work over the course of their career, but “Mount the Air” is perhaps their crowning achievement so far. As usual, the album is a mix of traditional folk music with modern touches, an approach that works beautifully. Rachel and Becky’s gorgeous voices seem to almost float at times over rich, haunting orchestration by Adrian McNally, the group’s arranger and producer (and Rachel’s husband). Two of the songs clock over 10 minutes, but you don’t feel the length at all–the music is that intoxicating. Most certainly, this is a triumph.
John Williams — Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Legendary composer John Williams returns to one of his most iconic film series with his score for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and the results are just as rewarding as you’d expect. It’s fascinating to hear how he’s grown between the original “Star Wars” films (and the prequels) and now, with lots of intriguing new textures to add to the familiar themes he weaves into the score. A standout is “Rey’s Theme,” a cue for new character Rey that sits up there with the best of John Williams’ work. A fantastic soundtrack for a fantastic movie.
Emilie-Claire Barlow — Clear Day
Jazz vocalist Emilie-Claire Barlow has made a respectable career over her years in music, but “Clear Day” is another success altogether. An ambitious collaboration with the top-flight Metropole Orchestra from the Netherlands, her crystal-clear tone, her fantastic arranging skills, and artistic excellence all coalesce in a riveting way here, seeing Barlow cover both jazz standards like “On a Clear Day” and “Midnight Sun,” and more adventurous fare like “Fix You” and “Under Pressure” with aplomb. She and the orchestra really seem to feed off each other, making for a terrific listening experience.
The Decemberists — What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
I’ve never been quite sure about how I feel about the Decemberists, but listening to “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World,” I’m all in now. A collection of wonderfully accessible songs that keep the band’s spirit alive, the album is a really enjoyable listen. I mean, when you start off a record with a deliciously meta anthem like “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” you know you’re in for a treat, really.
Carla Morrison — Amor supremo
Following up a critically acclaimed debut full-length, “Déjenme llorar,” likely was no easy task for Mexican singer-songwriter Carla Morrison, but with “Amor supremo,” she’s done a fantastic job avoiding the sophomore slump. There’s a real sense of experimentation and vulnerability throughout not just the variety of sounds present on the album, but in Carla’s songwriting and vocals as well. Beautifully haunting and constantly alluring, “Amor supremo” is another unqualified success for one of Latin music’s most intriguing talents.
Elizaveta — Messenger
I hadn’t heard a whole lot of Elizaveta’s work before taking a listen to her full-length sophomore effort “Messenger”–but now I want to go back and do so, because this album is good. Elizaveta’s classically trained background really makes her a captivating and assured vocalist, and her songs are exciting and vibrant enough to match her skill as a singer and pianist. With just nine songs (plus a remix), “Messenger” does wonders in establishing Elizaveta as a dazzling musical force of nature.
Björk — Vulnicura
Whether or not you’ve heard much of her music, you’ve probably heard at least something about Björk–perhaps her infamous swan dress from the 2001 Oscars, or one of SNL’s (admittedly spot-on and hilarious) impressions of her. Beyond all the weirdness, though, lies a remarkably captivating and relentlessly adventurous musician, and “Vulnicura” is a terrific venue for Björk’s unconventional artistry. The raw and vulnerable songs here, written in the wake of a breakup, are gorgeously juxtaposed with rich, melodic string arrangements, backed by modern electronic beats. It’s one of Björk’s most accessible albums, and one of her most fascinating ones as well.
Luciana Souza — Speaking In Tongues
One of the most essential features of pretty much all vocal music seems to be the lyrics, which is part of what makes “Speaking In Tongues,” jazz artist Luciana Souza’s latest project, so interesting–it’s composed of entirely wordless compositions (with only two exceptions, a pair of Leonard Cohen poems set to music). A true collaboration with the musicians that join her on the album, Souza composed most of the songs herself, and worked with the rest of the group to create a vibrant, distinctive sound. “Speaking In Tongues” is full of beautiful music that speaks to everyone, no matter what language–and that’s a wonderful thing.
Eska — Eska
In the interest of full disclosure, I actually added this album to the list post-2015–I realized that one of the albums I had included hadn’t been officially released here in the States, so I decided to hold it off until this coming year’s list. It took me a while to hear about Eska, and a bit longer still to check out her debut album–but wow, I’m so, so glad I did. A Zimbabwe-born singer-songwriter based in London, both Eska’s vocals and her songs are anything but conventional. Each and every track, though, is a journey with an almost magnetic pull. There’s a reason I just had to have this on my list for 2015–it’s the kind of album that just grows and grows on you until you’re absolutely hooked.
Karrin Allyson — Many a New Day: Karrin Allyson Sings Rodgers & Hammerstein
Earlier this year, I reviewed this album in a New Music Friday post, and I liked the way I put things, so I’ll just reproduce it here (with a few slight edits): “Veteran jazz singer Karrin Allyson has sung countless standards and other tunes over the years, and today she releases an album consisting entirely of songs from one pair of composers, that pair being of course Rodgers & Hammerstein, those behind classic musicals like ‘The King and I’ and ‘The Sound of Music.’ Accompanied solely by legendary pianist Kenny Barron and seasoned bassist John Patitucci, and choosing a great mix of both well-known and lesser-sung numbers, Karrin manages to bring out new and intriguing facets of these chestnuts that really make the songs come alive again. Her phrasing is fantastic, her voice is distinctive and in fine form, and Kenny & John are two of the best accompanists you can get. Fun, inventive arrangements and an impeccable level of performance make this a fine tribute to Rodgers & Hammerstein, and not just an excellent jazz album, but an excellent album, period.”
Rhiannon Giddens — Tomorrow Is My Turn
Perhaps best known as a founding member of Americana group the Carolina Chocolate Drops, captivating vocalist Rhiannon Giddens bursts out of the gate in a profound way with her stellar solo debut, “Tomorrow Is My Turn.” She takes on an eclectic yet wonderfully chosen mix of folk and traditional songs, and then turns them on their ear with inventive, honest arrangements, all anchored by grounded, organic production from the always-reliable T-Bone Burnett. I’d say the album’s title (taken from one of its songs) is a bit of a misnomer. Based on the kind of top-notch music she’s making, tomorrow isn’t her turn–it’s today.
Yo-Yo Ma & Kathryn Stott — Songs From the Arc of Life
Like “Many a New Day” above, I reviewed “Songs From the Arc of Life” in a New Music Friday post–coincidentally the same one, as the albums were released the same day. Here’s what I wrote in that post: “Renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma & celebrated pianist Kathryn Stott have a new album out, ‘Songs From the Arc of Life,’ an excellent collection of songs (many of them iconic) reflecting the journey each of us takes through life. The selections, ranging from Bach to Debussy to Saint-Saens, are top-notch. Even if you’re not a classical music fan, you’re sure to find a few recognizable favorites. And the interplay between Yo-Yo and Kathryn, who have been playing together for more than 30 years, is stunning. Both of them are in outstanding form here, and work together seamlessly, really bringing out the life and heart of each of these compositions. This is a real treat for sure, and one you’ll want to take a listen to even if you’re not that into classical fare.”
Tobias Jesso Jr. — Goon
Tobias Jesso Jr. has been making waves lately more as a songwriter–he co-wrote Adele’s current hit “When We Were Young”–than as a vocalist. His debut album, “Goon,” however, proves he’s much more than just a talented songwriting collaborator. Accompanying himself on the piano, despite the fact that he just picked it up a few years ago, Jesso’s vocals and vibe really work nicely on this timeless-sounding album. You can hear influences of Randy Newman and James Taylor in here, among others, but his writing and performance style is still all his own. The songs are impeccable, and everything just works so well, on quite a few levels. I’m really excited to see what else Tobias Jesso Jr. has up his sleeve in the future.
Jose James — Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday
One of a flurry of excellent Billie Holiday tributes from 2015, Jose James’ “Yesterday I Had the Blues” is a fine way to celebrate Lady Day’s enduring musical legacy. James’ past releases have mixed jazz with R&B and hip-hop, but here, he plays it straight, performing with a combo in a low-key setting that’s riveting and beautifully constructed. His reverence for Billie’s artistry is clear and palpable, and the arrangements and interpretations are both loving homages to her original versions, and subtle deconstructions that bring something new and unique to the table. One of the year’s finest jazz releases, without question.
Heck yes! Only one more part to go, and then a short list of EPs and honorable mentions after that. I’m so happy to finally be able to share all this music with you. Enjoy a fine Spotify playlist featuring my favorites from each of these albums. (Unfortunately, “Speaking In Tongues” is unavailable on Spotify. You can, however, listen to it on Apple Music, something I highly recommend.) See you very soon with Part IV…I’ve saved the best for last.