American Songwriter’s Top 50 Albums of 2015: Presented by D’Addario

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40. Bully: Feels Like

Of all the albums released this year, Feels Like is one of the most personal, honest and raw; it finds singer Alicia Bognanno laying herself emotionally bare in all arenas of her life, from a caustic past (or doomed present) relationship lamented on “I Remember,” the album’s lead single that hit pretty much everyone like a smack in the face when it dropped earlier this year, to reming a friend that he or she is better than their own bullies on “Six,” to pondering the possibilities of the future on “Milkman”. The album is evidence of how strong Nashville’s oft-overlooked rock and roll scene really is, and makes a strong case for the resurgence of electric guitars in a city generally associated with pedal steel, fiddles and, more recently, the computer generated sounds that dominate modern country. Each song teems with unrestrained energy that doesn’t let up for a moment, and Bognanno’s rough-around-the-edges vocals push the tracks even further. If you’re not yet familiar with Bully, get familiar, because Bognanno and co. could be headed straight to the top.

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39. Promised Land Sound: For Use And Delight

Nashville country-rockers Promised Land Sound released one of the the classics of the Music City Garage Revival with their 2013 self-titled debut. Their preternatural sense of South identity and Sunset Strip stomp made it a vicious little nugget of brazen boogie and beat. Stakes were high for the sophomore release and the dudes surpassed all expectations, turning in a richly psychedelic sound that oozes blood sweat and tears into the cosmos. Brothers Joey and Evan Scala and guitarist Sean Thompson are joined by avant-guitarist Steve Gunn plus members of Paperhead and Fly Golden Eagle to create a way-out, raved up journey through the rolling hills and winding roads of autumnal beauty. Promised Land Sound work from a palette of warm, earthy tones to create a record as fuzzy and bold as their debut but bolder, more ambitious.

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38. My Morning Jacket: The Waterfall

My Morning Jacket’s Jim James suffered a debilitating back injury during the making of the band’s seventh studio album, The Waterfall, and the resulting collection of songs is not unlike the natural wonder it is named after: moving forward at a meditative, rushing pace, both built on renewal and an endless sense of shifting matter that’s capable of hurt and healing. The opening song, “Believe (Nobody Knows),” is the band at its absolute best: huge, sweeping rock anthems that could fit in a stadium or a campfire, and “In Its Infancy (The Waterfall)” is another sweet spot in their psychedelic wheelhouse.  The Waterfall is a more contemplative effort than Circuital – there’s no equivalent to the weirdness of “Holdin on to Back Metal” – but it’s not too precious or too serious either. It hits its stride on songs like “Big Decisions,” that blend guitarist Carl Broemel’s masterful musicianship with James’ quirkiness and taste for both the old and the new – like a gush down the waterfall, every wave is different, but it all comes from the same source.

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37. Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris: The Traveling Kind

This legendary duo had worked together sporadically throughout their careers before making it official with the 2013’s stellar duet set Old Yellow Moon. The Traveling Kind is more of the same simpatico excellence. Crowell’s world-weary croon and Harris’ yearning trill weave around each other beautifully on the wistful title track, a reflection on music, aging and old friends. And it goes without saying that they caress the heartbreak ballads “You Can’t Say We Didn’t Try” and “No Memories Hanging Around” with loving care. Each gets a chance to stand out as well: Crowell on the Hank Williams-flavored “Just Pleasing You;” Harris on the tear-jerker “Her Hair Was Red.” There’s not a clunker in this batch of 11 songs, in part because the material, either self-penned or gathered from other songwriters, is impeccable, and in part because the pair can rescue even a potentially maudlin track like “Higher Mountains” with the truth embedded in their voices. The zydeco-flavored “La Danse De La Joie” is their encore, a feisty sendoff for a fabulous set.

Jessica Pratt On Your Own Love Again

36. Jessica Pratt: On Your Own Love Again

Jessica Pratt’s sophomore album On Your Own Love Again is a wintry record,  all gentle, lo-fi folk, recorded by Pratt inside her Los Angeles home. There are no full-band arrangements, no orchestration, just the sound of a singer and her acoustic guitar — and an occasional whir of organ. And when that organ does appear, as on the light psychedelia of leadoff track “Wrong Hand,” it lends the sound a disorienting chill. Heard without context, On Your Own Love Again might have the feel of an obscure ’70s folk album, but there’s a distinctive and haunting character all its own. Part of that comes from Pratt’s own voice, which can take on various shapes and timbres within a single octave. And part of that is in the idiosyncratic feel of the songs themselves. That On Your Own Love Again feels so familiar is, in part, what makes it so thrillingly disorienting.

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35. Lana Del Rey: Honeymoon

Since releasing her debut album Born to Die in 2012, Lana Del Rey has become one of the most polarizing figures in popular music. An heir to the thrones of Nancy Sinatra and a student of West Coast culture, Del Rey’s talent is undeniable, but has often been overshadowed by her old Hollywood aesthetic, her penchant for an odd interview, and her controversial lyrics, many of which, though seemingly metaphorical, listeners and critics alike are determined to take literally. With her third offering Honeymoon, however, it’s hard to take issue with the 30-year-old singer, who has crafted what is her best work yet. An album that could easily soundtrack a David Lynch film, Honeymoon is a dark, thoughtful and carefully paced collection that, despite its moodiness, brings the listener to multiple moments of catharsis, particularly on tracks like “The Blackest Day.” Del Rey will likely always have her detractors, but this album goes to show that her honeymoon is far from over.

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34. Deerhunter: Fading Frontier

The Atlanta art-rock provocateurs have done what so many of their peers from the Early Aughts Indie Explosion have failed to do: age gracefully. They aren’t making soft rock per say, but they are making some sublimely smooth indie rock that encapsulates the best lessons learned from their earlier, more aggressively arty works. Tracks like “Duplex Planet” inspired by the legendary fanzine of the same name and “Living My Life” make getting old just as mysterious and exciting as being young, while the glam-rock shuffle of “Snakeskin” is the grown-and-sexy song of the year. Bradford Cox and company have found a way to tease pop concepts out fine art, have rebuilt their songcraft out of the shattered pieces of 21st century rock ‘n’ roll to create and art-rock record that is as challenging as it is mature.

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33. Built to Spill: Untethered Moon

As legend has it, Built to Spill was formed under the pretense that its members would rotate every album, a concept lead singer Doug Martsch abandoned by their third release. Five records and 17 years later would see the departure of the band’s longtime rhythm section and a fresh start for one of the most dependable bands of the ‘90s. It’s no surprise that Untethered Moon, the band’s first record with their new rhythm section, is the most exciting thing the band has offered in years. You can almost hear the musicians’ excitement as they feel each other out and redefine an iconic sound. In 10 songs and just over 45 minutes, the band unrelentlessly explodes with ferocity and manic energy from beginning to end. Untethered Moon sees lots of worthy additions to an already bulging catalog, and spawns perhaps the strongest single the band has ever had in “Living Zoo.” Other highlights include the album’s epic 8-minute jam closer “When I’m Blind,” and ‘60s-garage-inspired romp “So,” where Martsch challenges Hendrix and Mascis for most impeccable fuzz tone ever recorded.

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32.  Florence + the Machine: How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to see Florence + The Machine live, you’re in on the (very obvious) secret: singer Florence Welch, with her booming vocals and seemingly bottomless well of energy, was destined for a life in music. Welch has proven her ear for a strong vocal melody and affinity for writing deeply emotional and highly relatable lyrics time and time again since the band first broke out in 2009, and the British singer does it once more on How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, the band’s first studio release in four years. F+TM’s past two efforts – 2009’s Lungs and 2011’s Ceremonials – set the bar high for their third album, but How Big doesn’t disappoint or fall short. Led by “Ship To Wreck,” a reflection on a relationship that’s sinking fast, but at its sharpest on “What Kind Of Man,” a raging track demanding an explanation for the dark twists of a torturous love affair the narrator can’t seem to escape, How Big is exactly as cathartic as you’d expect from the seven piece band in both its sadness and its joy. 

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31. Dwight Yoakam: Second Hand Heart

Now pushing 60, Yoakam is no longer the Bakersfield/rockabilly loving young gun he used to be. But that hasn’t stopped him from releasing two of his finest discs in the past four years. His latest finds him rocking out as hard and tough as he did three decades ago on songs such as the Chuck Berry/Stones inspired “Man of Constant Sorrow,” the Yardbirds’ styled “Liar” and the twang-garage of “The Big Time.” He combines retro rock and country with the offhand ease and sheer experience gained through doing this for 30–some years. And his voice hasn’t lost an ounce of its sexuality, strength or range as he proves on booming ballads like “Dreams of Clay” and the sweetly chilling heartbreak of “V’s of Birds.” Even in the context of an amazingly consistent catalog with virtually no missteps (how many country artists can claim that?), Second Hand Heart is one of Yoakam’s finest and most roots rollicking albums. Here’s to another 30 years of ‘em.

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