20. Josh Ritter: Sermon on the Rocks
Josh Ritter was one step ahead of his audience when he began work on his followup to Beast in its Tracks, his sparse, vulnerable 2013 breakup album which had immediately become one of the most beloved records in his catalogue. The result, this year’s Sermon on the Rocks, is a wild departure and unpredicted artistic reinvention that nonetheless feels necessary and inevitable the second it begins with the sinister bouncy hop of “Birds of the Meadow.” Ritter brings his trademark word-cramming gothic storytelling to folk dramas like “Henrietta, Indiana” and electronic showstoppers like “Homecoming.” Elsewhere, he experiments with hip-hop cadence (“Getting Ready to Get Down”) and writes yet another classic ode to being a young man in need of a girlfriend (“Where the Night Goes”). Sermon on the Rocks isn’t so much a wild left turn for Ritter so much as it is prime evidence that the Idaho singer-songwriter’s bag of tricks is much bigger than anyone could have ever expected.
19. Patty Griffin: Servant of Love
A patron saint of Americana music, Patty Griffin has long carried the torch for the more poetic side of the genre, long ago establishing herself as one of the best lyricists operating today. With her ninth album Servant Of Love, however, Griffin decided to take things in a new direction, bringing elements of jazz, blues and rock to her typically more stripped-down sound. A risky move, the decision pays off in spades, providing a fresh backdrop upon which Griffin can paint detailed, personal portraits in that way only she can. For fans of Griffin’s more traditional sound, there is still a sense of familiarity in the mix, particularly on songs like “Rider Of Days” and “You Never Asked Me.” But if this record proves anything, it’s that Griffin is an artist capable of handling a diverse range of genres, and doing so like a pro.
18. Ashley Monroe: The Blade
Ashley Monroe’s third solo album is not only her most accomplished, best-sounding record, it’s also her most ambitious. The Blade is part massive pop hooks aimed at the radio and part scaled-down, traditionalist, hard-country stylings. Here Monroe proves you can have it all, sacrificing nothing along the way. She refuses to back away from the irresistible pop grandeur of songs like “On to Something Good” and “If Love Was Fair” just as she refuses to water down or modernize her personal statements of honky-tonk faith on “If the Devil Don’t Want Me” or “I’m Good at Leavin.’” The chilling title track meets those opposite poles halfway, merging a subtle, near-whispered verse with a power-ballad intensity in the chorus. Elsewhere, Monroe rewrites Merle Haggard (“Mayflowers”), offers a private devotional (“Has Anybody Ever Told You”) and reveals a secret she’s been carrying far too long (“Bombshell”). The Blade is proof of why so much of the most exciting work in roots music is being done in the fuzzy border space between mainstream pop country and its alternative, NPR-approved alt-variation.
17. Dawes: All Your Favorite Bands
All Your Favorite Bands sounds effortless in a way. Producer Dave Rawlings nearly captures the Dawes’ reputable live sound, and the band for their part are relaxed yet adventurous, with plenty of confidence in their words. Sure, Dawes’ sound has always been easily comparable to a handful of classic ‘70s soft-rock bands (read: Jackson Brown, The Band), but the songs have always existed in their own continuum, which is why they work so well. Singer-songwriter Taylor Goldsmith doesn’t shy away from cliche, but he’s able to do so unabashedly and eloquently, a crucial skill in pop music. And while the band doesn’t tread any new ground for themselves this outing, it still showcases a band at the peak of a sound they’ve been crafting for years. All Your Favorite Bands also marks the end of keyboardist and founding member Tay Strathairn’s creative relationship with the band. Strathairn has always been a central part of the band’s sound, leaving little doubt that this album marks the end of an era for Dawes. All your favorite bands might not stay together, as Goldsmith warmly wishes, but they will press on.
16. Kacey Musgraves: Pageant Material
In a year where female country artists were likened to decorative tomatoes in the overall salad of the genre (forgive us for referencing that terrible metaphor), that one of country’s strongest releases came from a female singer-songwriter is a pretty sweet victory. Kacey Musgraves’ sophomore album Pageant Material picks up where her debut, 2013’s critically acclaimed Same Trailer, Different Park, left off, although this time around Musgraves veers more toward the lighthearted double entendres of “Blowin’ Smoke” than the critical appraisals of small-town life of “Merry Go Round.” Tunes like “Biscuits” and “Family Is Family” make use of Musgraves’ quick wit, while “Pageant Material” and “Good Ol’ Boys Club” turn a satirical eye to life as both a Southern woman and a woman in the male-dominated music industry. Sonically, Musgraves and her band sound more comfortable together than ever, and we’d venture a guess that ease could have something to do with another of the album’s frequent topics, “rolling one for two.”
15. Rayland Baxter: Imaginary Man
One of the biggest and most welcome transformations of the past year was watching Rayland transform from the gentle and pastoral singer-songwriter to the fest-ready cosmic wanderer we always knew he could be. Baxter’s fine honed sense of songcraft gets soul-expanding arrangements from a team of Nashville indie veterans including Deer Tick/Vanessa Carlton producer Adam Landry and keyboard-weirdo Jimmy Matt Rowland. The final result is a collection of heady jams painted in pastel colors, lysergic landscapes described in great detail. The universe that Imaginary Man inhabits is surrealist romance, a love letter to weirder things in life, a poem for a past life regression and astral projection. The guitar-groove of “Yellow Eyes” surf waves of mutilation while “Memories of Old Hickory” floats down the stream of consciousness like a sun-baked Paul Simon reading passages from Roger Miller’s notebook, drunk on blender drinks.
14. Kurt Vile: b’lieve i’m goin down…
A lot of what happens on Kurt Vile’s b’lieve i’m goin down happens entirely in the Philadelphia singer-songwriter’s head. Take a look at the track titles, such as “Wild Imagination,” “All In A Daze Work” or “Lost My Head There,” and it’s hard not to come away thinking that Vile’s head is perennially in the clouds, wrapped up in insecurities and flights of fancy alike. That’s more or less what it’s like to listen to his gorgeously arranged, dreamy rock songs — an out-of-body experience not unlike the one he goes through while brushing his teeth on the outstanding leadoff track “Pretty Pimpin.” When he rocks, as on “I’m An Outlaw,” it’s with a looseness and restraint that keeps the song from ever exploding entirely. And on the gentler songs, like “Kidding Around,” his guitar playing is bilssfully serene. Vile is alternately melancholy and self-assured, but never anything less than gorgeous.
13. Houndmouth: Little Neon Limelight
For their followup to their promising 2013 debut From the Hills Below the City, Houndmouth proved that when a young band is prepping their highly anticipated, often-maligned second album, there’s no need to overthink it. Sometimes it’s best to just make a better version of your debut, and Little Neon Limelight is just that: a more tightly-composed, fully-rendered update on the joyfully sloppy Americana bar band feel of the band’s debut. The songs on Limelight are sturdy, expertly-crafted three minute folk-pop tunes featuring tall-tale characters like Jenny Gasoline and Shotgun Alynda. The band’s ragged four-piece harmonies are the main draw throughout, turning just about anything—a tribute to Otis Redding, an offhand ode to marijuana—into a heartfelt campfire sing-along. The band also displays its versatility on darker, stripped-down songs like “For No One” and “Gasoline.” There’s no question this exciting young band will need to stretch its comfort zone at some point down the road, but with Little Neon Limelight they made the perfect decision: sticking to what they do best.
12. CHVRCHES: Every Open Eye
While Chvrches first album The Bones Of What You Believe put the Scottish trio on the map, Every Open Eye locked them in as a focal point on the alternative landscape. Led by singer and lyricist Lauren Mayberry, Chvrches crafted a true album in the age of singles, a cohesive piece that works best when listened to as a whole. A shimmering thread runs through each of the album’s 11 tracks, tying together both ends into a neat package, from well-placed opener “Never Ending Circles” to final track “Afterglow”. Mayberry is noticeably more fearless on Every Open Eye; while she’s never seemed to be the type of person to bite her tongue, her lyricism on the band’s latest effort crosses the threshold, albeit carefully, into the sociopolitical for the first time, touching on Mayberry’s thoughts on gender issues and equality. Whether you’re looking to broaden your perspective or shamelessly dance around your living room, Every Open Eye is a solid release that won’t let you down.
11. Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp A Butterfly
To say that Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is one of the most ambitious albums of 2015 is to do it no justice. The genre-bending album includes live jazz arrangements, carefully selected samples and, most jarringly, a conversation with late hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur, all merging to create a dizzying backdrop for Lamar’s heady meditations on race, class and fame. His third studio album, To Pimp A Butterfly had big shoes to fill following the massive critical success of good kid, m.A.A.d city, and Lamar’s attempts to outdo himself especially shine through on tracks like lead single “i,” which uses an Isley Brothers sample to rapturous effect, and album standout “King Kunta,” which draws its inspiration from Alex Haley’s 1976 novel Roots: The Saga Of An American Family. To Pimp A Butterfly not only establishes Lamar as one of our most important hip hop artists — it also serves as the latest chapter from one of our most important thinkers.