10. Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell
The subject matter in lesser hands might have been maudlin and overbearing, as Stevens largely focuses the album on the death of his mother and the complicated relationship he had with her. He avoids these pitfalls in numerous ways. First of all, the music he conjures is light as air and achingly pretty. The lyrics meanwhile balance between the more harrowing aspects of his mother’s life and death and his own struggles to make sense of mysteries common to us all. He may contemplate a suicidal car crash in “The Only Thing”, but he also is struck by the beauty of his newborn niece in “Should Have Known Better” with its telling refrain of “illumination.” There are no easy answers to be had, as Stevens looks to fables and myths when the reality in front of him gets messy. But on “Fourth Of July,” he confronts his Mom on her deathbed, a moment rendered with bittersweet beauty and grace. Stevens triumphs by making these extremely personal experiences somehow seem universal on Carrie & Lowell.
9. Natalie Prass: Natalie Prass
For an artist that has her share of experience as sidewoman and team-player as a member of Jenny Lewis’ touring band, Natalie Prass took to the spotlight naturally on her self-titled debut. Though her approach is subtle, her ambition is impressively grand. Of the many standouts on the album — just about every song, really — more than half find Prass backed by the Spacebomb record label in-house band, a personal Funk Brothers or Booker T and the MG’s of her own to lend a soulful groove to the tender, emotionally complex songs she crafts. For as tender a heart there is that beats at the center of “Why Don’t You Believe In Me?”, the arrangement itself is surprisingly badass. Yet when stripped to a more intimate sound, as on the baroque, harp-driven “Christy,” Prass is an equally compelling star, the dynamic range of her voice coming more into focus. Were the entire album so sparse and delicate, it would have been stunning enough on its own. But there’s just something about that groove.
8. Craig Finn: Faith in the Future
As the leader of The Hold Steady, Craig Finn is endlessly compared to Bruce Springsteen. By contrast, the better analogy for this, his excellent second solo album, might be when Elvis Costello branched out from the Attractions in the mid-80’s and dialed back the musical intensity on his own. That’s what Finn accomplishes here, his story songs and intricate lyrics tumbling out in front of melodic, restrained accompaniment that puts them in a flattering spotlight. This approach makes his character sketches, like “Christine” and “Sandra From Scranton,” seem more empathetic. It also humanizes twisting narratives like standout opening track “Maggie I’ve Been Searching For Our Son.” Make sure to add to your playlist “Sarah, Calling From A Hotel,” which manages to be both a telling portrait of a peripatetic girl and an intense thriller all at once. Finn even makes a track titled “I Was Doing Fine (Then A Few People Died)” sound uplifting. Faith In The Future proves that Craig Finn can leave behind the power chords and still be quite powerful.
7. Wilco: Star Wars
Wilco is back with their best album in years. The album’s peculiar title isn’t coincidental as the band’s strategic impulsiveness is at the forefront of a stellar record. Frontman Jeff Tweedy has written some of his strongest material at some of the most desolate points in his life and Star Wars is no exception. “Why can’t we tell when we’re in hell?/ Why can’t I say something to make you well?” he softly croons in what’s likely a reference to his wife’s battle with lymphoma last year. However, unlike Tweedy’s solo effort last year, Star Wars isn’t fundamentally moody or downbeat. Instead, many of the songs take a tone of reckoning. The band for their part sound more vibrant and dynamic than ever as they venture into noise jams and experiment with Big Star-esque vintage guitar tones. The apex of the record is its stunning final track “Magnetized,” which see’s the band channeling Abbey Road-era Beatles into robust pop perfection that rivals “Reservations,” for best album closer. As the band celebrates their 20th anniversary, they prove they’re still as relevant as ever.
6. John Moreland: High on Tulsa Heat
“My baby is a tornado in the endless Oklahoma sky,” sings John Moreland on High on Tulsa Heat‘s “Cleveland County Blues,” “spinning devastation, and singing me a lullaby.” It’s a tragic couplet amongst many that Moreland is able to lay out on his sophomore LP, one that roars in its quietest moments and rocks through its saddest odes. With sparse, self-produced arrangements, Tulsa Heat showcases the Oklahoma native’s jaw-dropping, tear-inducing lyrics, while never forgetting to expose the broken rasp of his voice or a wisp of timeless melody that takes these songs from simple Americana territory into something much broader. Moreland’s garnered comparisons to Bruce Springsteen – 1982’s Nebraska, specifically – and that working-class grit and anxious strum is well guarded in his able hands: but he’s also unafraid to travel down a road of deep metaphor, always stopping before things get to hazy to be understood.
5. James McMurtry: Complicated Game
Once you get past his typically bleak view of life, few singer-songwriters capture the gritty realism of blue collar Americans with the picturesque, faithful and poetic sensitivity of James McMurtry. Whether it’s the detailed descriptions of backwoods meth cookers and gamblers in “Choctaw Bingo” or the effects of Bush-era economic policies on the still relevant “We Can’t Make it Here Anymore” (both from previous albums) McMurtry uses his hangdog voice and earthy wordplay to craft songs like a reporter relating the lives of the poor and underclass from the front lines. The once prolific singer-songwriter has slowed of late, with Complicated Game his first release in seven years. But the rich fiber of his storytelling has seldom sounded so personal and real. There’s plenty of musky JJ Cale shuffle in “Forgotten Coast,” and a subtle bluegrass undercoating to the downbeat “Ain’t Got a Place,” all of which helps make James McMurtry one of Americana’s most honest and powerfully intimate artists. His songs aren’t pretty or frilly but they reflect the shadowy edges of his subjects with dusky and unflinching truth.
4. Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Before Australian-born Courtney Barnett came along, confessional songwriting was often mired deep in emo-spun, Facebook-appropriate language that too frequently rested on themes of misery, sadness, self-doubt or all of the above. On Barnett’s debut LP, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, she sings about coffee makers, taxidermy and yard work, turning the most mundane observations (take “Now we’ve got that percolator/never made a latte greater,” from “Depreston” for example) into vital snippets of human connection. Pulling from the dry delivery of Liz Phair and whirling it along with influences from John Prine to Nirvana, Barnett’s not dictating her diary – she’s setting the ticker behind her eyes to power chords and distortion, turning it into something honest, funny and completely fresh.
3. Jason Isbell: Something More Than Free
Isbell’s latest rewards those who listen for the details that ground these songs and render them so believable and striking. For example, when the protagonist of “Speed Trap Town” sees his town’s football team getting dismantled by a bigger school, it solidifies his instinct to find a new place to start. There’s also the guy in “The Life You Chose” whose searing memories of a high school crush (“Jack and Coke in your Momma’s car/You were reading The Bell Jar”) cause him to try to rekindle the flame when they meet as adults. This album has songs that require maybe a little more patience than some of the standouts on its lauded predecessor Southeastern, although the soaring “24 Frames” might be Isbell’s surest radio shot to date. The calling card of Something More Than Free is its consistent brilliance, eleven songs that efficiently tell complete stories ranging from humorous to heartbreaking with every stop in between and solidify Isbell’s standing as the songwriter you’ve got to knock off the mountain if you want to be the best.
2. Torres: Sprinter
If we took one lesson away from 2015 it is this: Rock and roll is in good hands. While some years it’s easy to get bogged down in a morass of bad vibes about the future of our favorite artform, 2015 was surprisingly full of hope. But when you have bands like Torres finding thick, rich veins of sonic wonderment to mine it’s hard not to be enthusiastic. Torres singer/guitarist Mackenzie Scott writes the sort of whip smart, emotionally-taut guitar rock we thought had gone extinct a generation ago. Her art-grunge instincts make tracks like the jerky, playful “Cowboy Guilt” and caustically coldwave “Son, You Are No Island” into tense narratives and gripping story arcs. Scott is on the vanguard of contemporary songwriting, a young artist breathing new air into an old tradition, a reason to keep flying the flannel flag.
1. Chris Stapleton: Traveller
After an unexpected sweep at the bastion of mainstream country honors, the CMA Awards, the world at large felt like they were finally in on the secret of Chris Stapleton: with his impossibly soulful bellow and keenly crafted songs that have one foot in Nashville and one foot in Muscle Shoals, he was quickly pinned as the savior the bro-dogged genre had desperately been waiting for all along. But listen to his exquisite solo debut Traveller, and you’ll understand that this longtime Music Row staple (he’s written for Luke Bryan and Thomas Rhett) is much more interested in moving forward than preserving any time lost tradition. This is an album written about the journey, from the first note of the title track to the closing wail of “Sometimes I Cry,” which was recorded in one take in front of a live audience – few singers have the talent or the guts to execute something like that so flawlessly. With the perfectly subtle production of Dave Cobb and the gorgeous vocals of Stapleton’s wife, Morgane, no album this year is more complete or thrilling in its artistry. Really, it’s unfair to peg him as country’s savior: because records like this transcend genre altogether, created to mend souls, not sales.
Reviewers: Jon Bernstein, Jim Beviglia, Hal Horowitz, Sean L. Maloney, Emily Maxwell, Brittney McKenna, Marissa Moss, Chris Rutledge and Jeffrey Terich.