This year’s edition of American Songwriter’s Top 50 Albums is presented by D’Addario.
50. Kristin Diable: Create Your Own Mythology
Third time is the charm as the cliché goes, but it surely applies to Kristin Diable. How much influence producer Dave Cobb had on constructing the ear-catching, somewhat retro arrangements for these torchy pop rockers is unclear, but the organic approach is largely responsible for Diable finding her sultry voice. It helps to have written some terrific swampy yet floating melodies too. When your album kicks off with the bluesy, instantly memorable swagger of “I’ll Make Time For You” and closes on the dark, churchy bittersweet tang of “Honey, Leave The Light On,” you have tapped into a muse that is diverse, distinctive and delightfully edgy. Diable exudes both cool poise and smoldering, subtle sexuality throughout these ten perfectly crafted songs, beckoning you back for additional spins to ride her wave of sound. Whether rocking out on “Time Will Wait”or spinning a mid-tempo ballad like “True Devotion,” Diable and Cobb nail a richly engrossing sonic palette. The only problem may be trying to top it.
49. Sleater-Kinney: No Cities To Love
Sleater-Kinney went out on as high a note as possible, releasing the triumphant, thunderous The Woods in 2005 before calling it quits a year later. It seems remarkable, then, that after 10 years apart the band is able to reclaim that fire and fury on No Cities To Love. Not that the band’s individual members stopped playing music, Corin Tucker fronting The Corin Tucker Band while Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss banged out infectious new wave jams with Wild Flag. Yet the fruits of their post-hiatus labor showcase a band with stronger cohesion and greater intensity than the reunion circuit generally yields. No Cities To Love is a lean record, comprising a streamlined 32 minutes of booming punk and indie rock that reflects more than a 20-year history of performing, but a newfound sense of purpose as well. Sleater-Kinney has never sounded so tight as they do on “Fangless,” nor as abrasive as they do on “No Anthems.” And “Bury Our Friends” is as perfect an encapsulation of their taut, intricate dynamic as they’ve ever written. Having Sleater-Kinney on stage again would have been reward enough, but a set of new songs this good only proves that they’re not messing around.
48. Glen Hansard: Didn’t He Ramble
Mr. Frames/Swell Season bounces back from a somewhat disappointing solo release for a riveting 10-song set that perfectly combines his burnished buttery voice with subtle orchestration and a classically imagined horn section. Rather than sinking these typically reflective tunes, the production helps them raise to heights Hansard has only hinted at before. From the hushed folk of “Wedding Ring” to the soulful gospel of “Her Mercy.” The latter builds to a roof-rattling conclusion with full backing vocals and perfectly-placed brass bringing the religion on the Dublin born and raised singer’s finest performance yet. But it’s the deft way he balances a tendency for over-emoting with restrained passion on songs like “My Little Ruin” that shows Hansard has mastered the ability to arrange these tunes, and particularly his vocals, with subtlety and grace. The album feels like a unified, well-conceived whole with peaks and valleys that never let the elusive, and effusive, words overwhelm sumptuous, sometimes melodramatic melodies that both float and soar.
47. Iris Dement: The Trackless Woods
For her first record since her 2012 return to form Sing The Delta, Iris Dement looked to the words of the mid-20th century poet Anna Akhmatova. With Akhmatova’s poetry providing all the lyrics, Iris Dement zeroed in on the other half of the singer-songwriter label, stretching and challenging her Arkansas drawl in a series of operatic torch-songs and elegant parlor ballads. The result, The Trackless Woods, is the finest vocal performance of DeMent’s career, a haunting 18-song exploration of loss, faith and freedom that, despite its far-flung lyrical source, still feels like one of DeMent’s most personal statements. That’s partially due to the ease with which DeMent makes Akhmatova’s poetry her own, from the gut-bucket delta country of “Listening to Singing” to the broken-down Merle Haggard wisdom of “Last Toast.” DeMent has been singing about her conflicted relationship with Middle America for over 20 years, but assuming a brand new perspective for the first time (in this case, Akhmatova’s poetry) has let her see it anew.
46. Punch Brothers: The Phosphorescent Blues
The Internet is polarizing: we can’t live without it, though many of us find ourselves wishing that we could turn off the buzzes and blips for a moment of analog peace every now and then. The Phosphorescent Blues, the fourth full-length album from acoustic string band and Chris Thile project Punch Brothers, is, as its name implies, a lament of digital life. Opening track “Familiarity” is itself a challenge to the ever-shortening attention span of the digital age, clocking in at over 10 minutes and contemplating what it means to “explode out of … phones” and to experience “wireless dancing through my head.” The album, fraught as it is with questions of connections and those we miss, ends on a hopeful note, closing tune “Little Lights” asking some distant entity to “guide us back to where we are from where we wanna be.”
45. Nora Jane Struthers & The Party Line: Wake
Often times, the best art comes from a place of uncomfortable honesty. That’s the motto, at least, of Nora Jane Struthers third solo album, Wake. The thoughts and conversations that take place in Wake are so private and personal that there’s a certain thrilling feeling of illicitness: these aren’t things I should be able to hear from a stranger. On songs like “When I Wake,” “Mistake” and “Lovin’ You,” Struthers does an expert job writing about falling madly in love with candid directness. She can make lines like “My love is yours to take” or “Lovin’ you is the best part of who I am” sound less like cloying cliches and more like the scary, life-affirming revelations they really are. The self-doubt and painful reckoning after that initial rush of butterflies that comes in the second half of the album on songs like “The Wire” and “Let Go” help cement Wake as one of the most honest records about falling in love in recent years.
44. Father John Misty: I Love You, Honeybear
Father John Misty’s love is weird (“We’ll have Satanic Christmas eve”). It’s tender (“Baby it’s my first time, I’ve got you inside”). It’s even kind of gross (“the Rorschach sheets where we made love”). There’s no glossing over the most uncomfortable nor the most messy or twisted aspects of Josh Tillman’s discovery of true love, and the manner in which he captures that euphoric, strange feeling on I Love You Honeybear is as genuine as it is bizarre. It also makes for his best set of songs to date. Tillman guides the listener on an 11-part tour through the dizzying and complex concept of romance, with stops at dreamy synth-pop (“True Affection”), a surrealist art-pop honeymoon (“Chateau Lobby #4 (In C For Two Virgins)”) and a psychedelia-tinged look at one’s terrifying true self (“The Ideal Husband”). In the end, love turns out to be “an institution based on human frailty,” but it’s a destination worth reaching all the same. No photography, please.
43. GospelbeacH: Pacific Surf Line
We made two resolutions last year: listen to more music and spend more time at the beach. And ideally, listen to music while at the beach. Ideally, we wanted to listen to the groovin’ country choogle of GospelbeacH. We are very proud to tell you that we successfully accomplished all of those things in 2015. Go us! Pacific Surf Line was the soundtrack to our late-autumn wave runs, when we need hot tunes to warm us up before paddling out into the cold, cold ocean. Featuring Beachwood Sparks’ Brent Rademaker and Chris Robinson Brotherhood’s Neal Casal, GospelbeacH’s harmony-driven surf-hippie odyssey is one of the year’s most humorous. You can hear the smile behind every syllable, feel the fun in every fuzzy chord and westerly swell of pedal steel. On “Out of My Mind (On Cope and Reed)” and “Sunshine Skyway,”GospelbeacH trade licks and quips like old bar buddies for an effect that’s timeless and enduring.
42: Adele: 25
The genius of Adele, and the best moments of 25 have this genius on full display, is that the heightened moments that come to the fore in her songs, where she’s always on the precipice of breaking up or breaking down or rising above it all, are actually the staples of youth, when perspective is hard to come by and everything means everything. Yet she conveys these moments with such old-soul wisdom and insight, and, of course, with that ceaselessly stirring voice, that it manages to touch hearts of every age bracket. She’s got all the bases covered, which is why 21 sold a gazillion records and 25 is likely to do pretty brisk business as well.
41. Aaron Lee Tasjan: In The Blazes
It takes unique talent to adapt to playing with artists as diverse as Pat Green, Kevn Kinney and the New York Dolls all before releasing your debut at 27. But such is the shaggy dog tale of East Nashville by way of Ohio and New York bohemian Aaron Lee Tasjan. He takes that experience and unleashes it in a 10-song set that showcases his wry, dryly humorous lyrics atop folk rock caught between the crawling swamp of J.J. Cale (“The Dangerous Kind”), the urban grit of Bruce Springsteen (“Lucinda’s Room”), the self-deprecation of Randy Newman (“E.N.S.A.A.T.”) and the poetic swagger of Elliott Murphy (“Made in America”). Tasjan exudes a scruffy, lovable charm that translates into Americana that’s as charming as it is chiming. Unfortunately, at only 35 minutes, the album is over just as it’s finding that elusive groove. Still, there is enough wily wordplay and effortlessly hummable melodies in these rootsy country folk-rockers to keep you satiated until he can produce the follow-up we’re already waiting for.