The best albums of 2015 for the most part, came in with a whisper, not a roar. In a dying music industry this is, sadly, a growing trend. Having said that, last year gave us Taylor Swift’s “1989” which gave hope that the mainstream superstars we thought had gone forever might just come in new and unexpected packaging. This year brought us the much-anticipated-but-muchly-ignored Mumford & Sons Babel follow-up Wilder Mind, and of course, Adele’s follow-up 25 which shattered records everywhere, which came to no surprise to anyone. So what whispers this year rocked my world and made me fall in love with the joys of music all over again? Here were my favourites:
- Josh Ritter – Sermon on the Rocks.
Josh Ritter is a joy to listen to and watch, and everything he does harkens back to both the most innocent, and the darkest, versions of traditional Americana. This is his best album since the iconic The Animal Years. On this effort, Josh Ritter gives you some of hi finet melancholy and just as you deeply feel and process the devastation, he drags you into the shore with pure uplifting, often comedic euphoria.
- Passion Pit – Kindred.
Passion Pit are pure bubblegum pop for people who hate bubblegum pop. And yet with lead singer Michael Angelakos recent coming out and his openness about his issues with mental illness, his songs, as lively and upbeat as they are, take on such deeper meanings. Unpeeling layers of Kindred is as fun as it is rewarding. “Lifted Up (1985)” in my opinion should have been as ubiquitous a track as this year’s standout anthem, “Uptown Funk”.
- Blitzen Trapper – All Across This Land.
Blitzen Trapper rarely changes up their sound (with the exception of the hip hop, digi-pop-esque VII). Here, they bring their signature travelling brakeman sound with tunes that are road trip-across-the-states ready and incite familiarity and nostalgia in the best way.
- Laura Marling – Short Movie.
If there were protests and sit-ins for people standing up for their broken hearts and sadnesses and general millennial frustrations, Laura Marling would be there playing these ‘protest songs’. Whereas her previous albums were overall dark melodic neo-Joni Mitchell-esque acoustic offerings, in this album Marling ‘goes electric’ and while this changes the style and vibe of her records, it nonetheless does not change the emotional resonance.
- Ryan Adams – 1989.
Ryan Adams has, in the past, done many live and recorded covers, from the infamous “Wonderwall” to his live show covers of infamous Bryan Adams songs (which were both funny, and perhaps unintentionally revitalizing and hipster-izing rock/pop into awesome alternative post-grunge awesomeness). His cover of Taylor Swift’s best album to date breathes – not ‘new’ life – but new heart into her bombastic shimmering pop tunes. What was light has been here, led into the darkness, or led into divey metal bars on the outskirts of Los Angeles. What Adams does best is creates atmosphere in each of his albums to the point where you can almost see, feel, smell and experience place as you’re listening. Here, he takes on one of the biggest A-list starlets on the planet and turns her songs into little cries for help, fuzzy 80s punk, or resignations from a bygone relationship. And it’s beautiful.
- Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell.
In 2015 I had the pleasure of experiencing Stevens’ live show which featured a setlist largely made up of this album. What was astounding was the energy he breathed into songs that are about birth and death all at once. Stevens told incredibly dark and strange tales about his childhood and we as the audience laughed, unsure if the stories were true or not; he stated them so matter-of-factly his stage banter made the show even more ethereal and eerie than these songs already were. This album is a series of short stories; they’re sparkly and beautiful and twee and this is one of his best albums in years if only because of the stripped-back honesty that bleeds through them.
- Wilco – Star Wars
It’s not a secret that experimental trippy Wilco is the best Wilco (listen to A Ghost is Born and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as proof of this, or as proof of life). Star Wars at first listen, is, like the aforementioned two, difficult to chisel through and understand. It is an album that didn’t feel real even after 2-3 listens; its release was sudden and unexpected, it was available as a completely free download, and the vinyl was not slated to be released for months afterwards. Yet, on a rainy afternoon I was on the skytrain and put on the album and finally, after a few listens, I was transported into the world that Tweedy & Co. created for me – one of manic guitar licks, fuzzy production, heavy driving beats and interesting nonsensical poetry. This is indeed a Wilco record, like any other Wilco record; except it is one of their most experimental and offbeat efforts in a long time, and I like this harkening back to the odd release/experimental incarnation of one of the best bands making music today.
- Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
Without a doubt, THE best record this year was unexpectedly, Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear; it has the best mix of 3 parts snark and 1 part earnest. It has some of the best lines I’ve heard (and laughed at) in songs in ages (lambasting the misuse of ‘literally’ never gets old on standout track “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt.”). I love this record because the lines that follow lines are so unexpected that they force you to listen to not just the music, but alarmingly entertaining prose as well. On top of everything else, Father John Misty went on a very strange publicity campaign for this record saying this and that and the other thing about his contemporaries, releasing oddball left-field merch, and giving all kinds of hilarious cynical responses in interviews. This record is money and boss and the bomb dot com. It speaks to a lost generation and laughs with it, not at it, although it subtly pretends to do the opposite. It is 2015, and represents late twenties and early thirties people in 2015. It is a time capsule, it is a neo-classic, and it tells the kinds of stories that anyone would want to listen to. Whether you get Josh Tillman or not (and many don’t, unfortunately) this record is an undeniably addictive, great effort that never ceases to surprise again and again with repeated listens.