It’s finally time. This list has been all kinds of delayed in coming out (and full disclosure, there will still be one more quick post after this), but here it is–the fourth and final part of my Top 100 Albums list. These 25 albums are my absolute favorites from last year, the cream of the crop. I’m so darn excited to finally share them with you.
Julieta Venegas — Algo sucede
Arguably her most accessible, well-crafted album in a career full of strong work, “Algo sucede” is a triumph for Mexican singer-songwriter Julieta Venegas. Julieta is in fine form, whether she’s writing & singing about acceptance and hope (“Buenas noches, desolación”), reflection after the end of a love affair (“Dos soledades”), her own heritage (“Ese camino”), the spark of new love (“Algo sucede”), or even a bit of political commentary (“Explosión,” about the recent disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero, Mexico). Heartfelt and beautifully put together, these songs are pretty much perfect.
Kurt Elling — Passion World
Kurt Elling is without question one of today’s foremost jazz vocalists, and really, he could get away with singing pretty much anything and have it work. For “Passion World,” he’s chosen an eclectic, intriguing mix of songs inspired by his travels around the globe, and the result is musical magic. He takes on a few classics like “La vie en rose,” but he also dives into more unconventional fare like Björk and U2. He’s accompanied, as well, by a cast of fantastic collaborators, both vocal and instrumental. Tying everything together is Kurt’s golden voice and stellar artistic sensibility. This is one trip around the world very much worth taking.
Joy Williams — Venus
Her first solo album since the reportedly tempestuous breakup of mega-successful duo The Civil Wars, “Venus” is a fascinating artistic breakthrough for Joy Williams. Admittedly, it’s hard not to read into some of the lyrics as commentaries on the Civil Wars split, but her music is so bold and adventurous–such a radical departure than anything she’s done before (she was a CCM artist in her earlier solo career)–that it stands firmly on its own, context be darned. Defiant yet vulnerable, passionate yet introspective, this is an exciting display of Joy’s incredible vision and talent, and of even better things to come, I’m sure.
Lucie Silvas — Letters to Ghosts
I wrote about “Letters to Ghosts” last year in a New Music Friday post. Here’s what I said about it then: “It’s been nearly 10 years since singer/songwriter Lucie Silvas released her last album. Struggling through label troubles and other delays, it’s been a long journey towards ‘Letters to Ghosts,’ released today. The result, however, was well, well worth the wait. This isn’t just any old set of tunes. This is a collection of beautifully crafted, intensely personal yet accessible songs that grab you right from the get-go. Lucie’s delivery is full of fire and commitment–she’s clearly been ready for quite some time to remind us all what she’s got. Her voice is on point, her songwriting is on point, everything just clicks. She’s taken her time with this one, but it’s all the better for it. If there’s justice in the world, this will be the album to put Lucie squarely on the map. If not, though, there’s lots of high-quality, bound-to-be-stuck-on-repeat music to savor.”
Jesse & Joy — Un besito más
I fell madly in love with the music of Jesse & Joy after hearing them often during my time in Peru. A brother-sister pair from Mexico, they make some terrific music. Their new album, “Un besito más,” is a testament to just how terrific their music can be. There are heartbreaking, showstopping ballads, there’s uptempo fare–lots of things that both play to their strengths and push their artistic boundaries in marvelous ways. They even do a song in English (their first on a studio album), the infectious Spanglish number “More Than Amigos.” There’s really something for everyone on this album–it’s another unqualified success for an amazing musical duo.
Becca Stevens Band — Perfect Animal
Becca Stevens and her band have never been ones to do things by the numbers. Their music pushes beyond the limits of jazz and pop, creating something new entirely. “Perfect Animal” is an outstanding distillation of just what makes Becca Stevens Band special. Dizzying, complex chord changes and grooves are married with bracingly immediate songwriting, making for a fascinating and incredibly rewarding listening experience. As usual with the band, there’s a handful of adventurous covers on here as well–from Frank Ocean and Usher to Steve Winwood. The title is quite apt. This album is one heck of a “perfect animal.”
Ben Rector — Brand New
Nashville-based singer-songwriter Ben Rector has been on my radar for years, and I’ve been beyond impressed with his latest album, “Brand New.” It both shows off his heart, artistry, and killer songwriting chops while letting try out a few new things along the way. The songs on here are often poignant, frequently clever, and always honest and resonant. Ben’s vocals are smooth and pure, and his band is top-notch. You can’t get much better than music like this.
Florence + the Machine — How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Florence + the Machine’s first two albums were grand, expansive affairs–so how do you get bigger than that for the follow-up? The answer–you don’t. “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful” is far from spare, but there’s a certain intimacy to the album that really suits Florence well. The songs are just as powerful and riveting, but they feel even more honest, more confessional. Florence’s gale-force voice, as always, drives every song in an explosive way. This album is definitely big, blue, and oh-so-beautiful.
Cam — Untamed
I’ve alluded in previous posts to the incredible wave of female country artists that have cropped up recently. One of the brightest (and newest) stars of that movement is Cam, whose devastating single “Burning House” you’ve probably heard if you’ve been anywhere near country radio (or radio in general). That single isn’t a fluke–Cam has crafted a fantastic debut album full of powerful songs that celebrate both the old and new. Jeff Bhasker, known more for his work in pop, along with a few other co-producers add some nice, modern touches in the production, but nothing really gets in the way of the honest, passionate approach that Cam brings across as an artist. It’s terrific albums like these that remind me why I still hold a candle for country music–and I always will.
Ben Folds — So There
“So There” is in many ways a departure for Ben Folds–but it also feels like a return to what he does best. Collaborating with New York-based string ensemble yMusic on all of the vocal tracks (the album also includes a 3-movement concerto written by Folds and performed by him and the Nashville Symphony), Ben seems invigorated by the energy of the new setting and instrumentation. The songs on here are some of his sharpest writing in years (not to say that his past work hasn’t been great), and really showcase him at his best. His piano concerto’s nothing to sneeze at, either–it’s an excellent marriage of the pop and classical worlds. All in all, I wouldn’t hesitate in calling this Ben Folds’ best and most fascinating work to date.
Melody Gardot — Currency of Man
In her relatively short career so far, Melody Gardot has proven to be a gifted, remarkable artist. Her originals sound like classics. Her voice is silky-smooth and sexy. She’s one heck of an artist. “Currency of Man” is yet another stylistic departure for her (her last album, “The Absence,” was Latin-themed), and it’s a wonderfully engaging musical ride. Heavily influenced by gospel, soul, and of course her native genre of jazz, Melody is firing on absolutely all cylinders here. Yet another dazzling effort from an artist who can pretty much do no wrong at this point, “Currency of Man” is an utter delight. (Note: I highly recommend you listen to the “Artist’s Cut” version of the album. There are a few bonus tracks as well as cool transitions that really tie the whole record together.)
Joanna Newsom — Divers
Joanna Newsom’s music has admittedly been pretty hit or miss for me at times. Her new album, “Divers,” though, is all “hit” and no “miss.” Probably her most immediate and accessible work to date, the album showcases Joanna at her best. The songs are beautifully written, and while Joanna’s lyrics are as cryptic as ever, the melodies are lovely and the music is relentlessly riveting. Yes, her voice takes some getting used to, but each track here fits it like a glove. If you’ve had trouble getting into Joanna Newsom in the past, “Divers” is an excellent opportunity to remedy that.
Alabama Shakes — Sound & Color
Opening with just a few bare chords before culminating in a swirling crescendo of voices and guitars, the title track to “Sound & Color” is in a few ways a preview to the rest of the album–a preview that doesn’t even prepare you for what’s to come. Brittany Howard’s raw, stunning, singular lead vocals are just the tip of the iceberg here. The rest of the band matches her power and gusto, and the remarkably strong collection of songs they’ve assembled makes for a terrific musical roller-coaster ride. This is the kind of album that you just can’t miss.
Brandi Carlile — The Firewatcher’s Daughter
I’ve loved Brandi Carlile and her music for years and years now, and with her latest album, “The Firewatcher’s Daughter,” Brandi has done nothing to change that for me. She gets more in touch with her rockier side here on a few of the tracks, and the added edge to her sound fits her nicely. She’s still accompanied by stellar backing by her longtime band members Phil & Tim Hanseroth–on “The Eye,” it’s just a guitar and their voices in a trio setting, and the results are spine-tingling. You can always count on Brandi Carlile to craft outstanding music, and this album is no exception. It’s a winner on all counts.
Laila Biali & the Radiance Project — House of Many Rooms
A marked departure from her jazz roots, “House of Many Rooms” is a stunning artistic progression–more of an expansion, I’d say–for singer-pianist Laila Biali. It’s Laila’s first album composed of entirely original songs (it’s been 10 years in the making), and while the jazz influences are definitely still there, she adds a terrific variety of sounds and colors to her musical palette. The record kicks off with the exuberant, soul-stirring “Shadowlands”–and never lets go from there. It’s an album that defies genre–it’s just absolutely terrific music. Where Laila Biali will go in the future is unclear, but with music like this, she’s bound to soar to even greater heights.
Cecile McLorin Salvant — For One to Love
2015 was a banner year for vocal jazz music. Among all the outstanding offerings, however, Cecile McLorin Salvant stands apart. The 2010 winner of the Thelonious Monk Vocal Jazz Competition, she makes a bold, thrilling statement with “For One to Love,” her sophomore effort. Her song selection is savvy and eclectic–you probably won’t find another record that has both “Stepsister’s Lament” and “The Trolley Song” (plus an bitingly satiric take on the dated standard “Wives and Lovers” that brings out its sexist overtones to almost chilling effect)–and bolstered by strong originals. She’s also in complete, utter control of her vocals, using them as a true instrument to accomplish her artistic vision. “For One to Love” is an album that unquestionably establishes Cecile McLorin Salvant as not just one of jazz music’s brightest talents–but one of music’s brightest talents in general.
Coldplay — A Head Full of Dreams
I’ve written at some length about how cool it is to hate Coldplay–and how I’ll keep on defending them and their music. I’m going to continue that crusade, as their latest album, “A Head Full of Dreams,” is yet another step forward for a band that never seems to stay content in one place. I wrote on Twitter to a friend that this album seems to combine the best elements of their last two albums (“Mylo Xyloto” and 2014’s “Ghost Stories,” both of which have been featured on my previous end-of-year lists). It does, and in the process, it creates something wonderfully new and exciting. It may be ‘uncool’ to say it, but I feel like Coldplay gets better with each album, and “A Head Full of Dreams” continues that trend in a great way.
Sara Bareilles — What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress
By this point, I feel like I’d follow Sara Bareilles to the ends of the earth. Ever since she started out, her music has constantly, abundantly resonated with me on so many levels. Even then, this new album, a collection of reworkings of songs from the upcoming Broadway musical “Waitress” (which Sara wrote the music for), was a marvelous surprise. She deeply inhabits each of these songs, tailoring them to her own sound, yet showing off just how beautifully written they all are, and how great they’ll work in a stage setting. It’s amazing how cohesive the album is, too. Thanks to “What’s Inside,” we’ve got a fantastic new album from Sara Bareilles, and I’m incredibly pumped now for “Waitress” to premiere on Broadway as well. I may not get the chance to see it anytime soon, but with this album, I feel like I already have–in the best way possible.
Lianne La Havas — Blood
I became acquainted with Lianne La Havas’ stellar debut, “Is Your Love Big Enough?,” after I returned from Peru. Thankfully, the wait was relatively short for her sophomore offering, and the result was worth every single minute of that wait. “Blood” is honest, adventurous, classy–so many different things for Lianne. She has a knack for combining the intimate and the expansive in her songcraft–songs like “Unstoppable” are both breathtakingly haunting and gorgeously expansive. Keeping things down to a tight 10 tracks, “Blood” is an effortless, outstanding listen.
Harry Connick, Jr. — That Would Be Me
“That Would Be Me” is Harry Connick, Jr.’s best effort in years. I’ve enjoyed his recent records (and I adore his jazz albums before that), but he has seemed to wander a bit stylistically (his last album “Every Man Should Know” was all over the place genre-wise). On “That Would Be Me,” Harry enlisted outside producers from the pop world, Butch Walker and Eg White, and the result is a coherent, vibrant artistic statement and something really special. It doesn’t play as a lackluster attempt to be relevant or “pop”–instead, it feels accessible and current, but also honest and real. Harry Connick, Jr. would do well to keep in this vein–though I wouldn’t say no to a return to more of his big-band stuff. Whatever path he chooses to take, Harry’s got a keeper here in “That Would Be Me.”
Cinematic Pop — Cinematic Pop
This isn’t a conventional album. It’s a collection of songs originally released on YouTube, sure, which sets it apart in that respect, but the concept of the project in general is quite unique. Spearheaded by LDS composer Rob Gardner (yes, the one well-known in Mormon music for his version of “Savior, Redeemer of My Soul”), Cinematic Pop is a quest to cover pop classics with a full orchestra and choir. Is that quest successful? You can bet your life it is. Gardner’s arrangements are fantastic, the guest soloists (including 16-year-old vocalist McKenna Thornhill, whose mature, expressive vocals belie her years) are superb, the choir & orchestra are top-notch, and the song selection is excellent. Hearing everything from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to AWOLNATION’s “Sail” done in such a, well, cinematic setting–it’s a thrilling ride. I’m really excited for much more to come from the Cinematic Pop project. There’s really not much else like it on the music scene right now.
Jamie Cullum — Interlude
I’ve been waiting since January of last year to put this album right towards the top of my year-end list. (It was actually released in the UK in 2014, and had it been released in the US then, it would have been on my 2014 list instead of this one.) Jamie Cullum has always excelled at combining jazz music with influences with many other genres, but here, he goes straight back to his traditionalist roots, playing it straight with the help of big band Nostalgia 77 and producer Ben Lamdin. Reportedly recorded live in one take, there’s a freewheeling, classic vibe to the album that really works for Jamie. It’s a loving tribute to the jazz chestnuts that have inspired him (with a few newer tunes that he surely couldn’t resist putting in the mix, including Sufjan Stevens’ “The Seer’s Tower”), and another fun, irresistible album from one of my all-time favorite artists.
Adele — 25
Shattering sales records and taking the world by storm, Adele is one of the most beloved mainstream artists we have today. “25” is an album that we had to wait quite a while for (4 years, to be exact)–but it’s one that’s more than worth the time it took to get here. Adele builds beautifully on the sound she had on her breakthrough “21,” while taking some nice steps forward and even pushing a few new boundaries. Lead singles “Hello” and “When We Were Young” are just a small taste of all the incredible music that “25” has to offer. It’s one heck of a comeback album, and it continues to prove just how much of a treasure Adele and her music are.
The Staves — If I Was
About the middle of last year, my sister told me about a group called The Staves–a trio of sisters from Britain that sing in heartstoppingly gorgeous harmony. She didn’t really like them, she told me, but she knew that I would. She was all kinds of right. I fell head over heels for The Staves and their music, and just in time for their new album, “If I Was,” to come out. Produced by Justin Vernon (better known as Bon Iver), it’s certainly a departure from the more straightforward folk sound that the group had on their debut, “Wisely & Slow,” but it’s a thrilling departure at that. Opening track “Blood I Bled” starts off with just some guitar and a single vocalist, but expands to the rest of the group and a grander sound with a lot of bite. The rest of the album follows suit, full of stunningly intimate and raw moments juxtaposed with moments of power and fire. “If I Was” is a perfect showcase for The Staves’ artistry, and an excellent introduction to them if you’re not acquainted with their incredible music yet.
I said in my first post that I haven’t exactly ranked these albums. However, this past year there was without question an album that stood out as my Album of the Year:
Natalia Lafourcade — Hasta la raíz
As you all well know, 2016 is nearly halfway over now–but even still, I keep coming back to “Hasta la raíz.” I wrote about the title track last year in a Song of the Day post, and every time I start playing it, it just grabs me. The rest of the album is the same way. Natalia Lafourcade has made some fantastic music in the past–her last two albums are terrific–but “Hasta la raíz” is something on another level, something even more special. There’s an arc to the album of heartbreak and acceptance–and that emotional thread really ties the album together and makes it come alive. Natalia’s at her best here in terms of songwriting and performing, really giving all of herself to allow us a glimpse into her as a person and an artist. According to Spotify, I listened to this album last year more than any other. (This year might be a similar case as well, at the rate I’m going.) Take a listen yourself, and you might begin understanding why–this isn’t just good Latin music, or good music period–it’s music at its absolute finest.
If you’re reading this, thanks for sticking with this post to the end. These are all exceptional albums that I hope everyone gets a chance to listen to. Stay tuned very soon for a post with honorable mentions & the best EPs of 2015. I will likely dispense with any blurbs and just list everything out, but of course I’ll include some handy Spotify playlists to get you started with the albums and EPs that I recommend. (I mean, I’ve taken long enough with this project, and I want to get to some things I’ve had on the backburner for a while, so I might as well make it kind of a quick post.) Speaking of Spotify playlists, here’s the crown jewel of them–a collection of 24 of my favorite songs from these top albums of 2015, plus a video of my favorite track from Joanna Newsom’s “Divers” (she’s not available on streaming), called “Sapokanikan.” Enjoy!