The practice of ranking the year’s albums is certainly one that I approach with some hesitation. Like Kyle, I was tempted to not even try to rank them. I mean, ask me what the best album of the year is and — depending on my mood and the day’s events — I’ll likely give you a different answer each time.
However, the geek in me wants to give things some sort of order, so I’m going to resort to statistics and order them by total number of plays for all songs on the album, on all of my devices. Sound fair? Good, glad we’re together on this one.
(Just to be clear, though, listening to any of these albums will surely not be a waste of your time.)
Bring it on, 2015!
Eagle Rock Fire – Joe Purdy
One could certainly say that this was a big year for country music. If you believe the headlines, it was Sturgill Simpson that swooped in and saved the genre. And if you were distracted by the glowing star that is Simpson, you may have missed an album that has a total play count higher than any other in my library over the past 365. And it was given away for free.
Joe Purdy most likely entered your life pleasantly enough, with a few songs that hit the spot from either Julie Blue or You Can Tell Georgia. I spent my share of hours hiking around the woods of both coasts enjoying Purdy’s mellow bravado. But on this year’s release, Joe really found his sweet spot. Honing the confidence and storytelling that made some of his earlier works catch on, he’s elevated the wryness and lyrical playfulness that will have you smirking while you sing along. There are too many great lines to list here, but spin this one a few times and I’ll wager you’ll find yourself coming back to it over and over.
I said this last year, and I’ll say it again. Don’t tell my friends I’m listening to Country.
I don’t really mean that, though.
Clover Lane – Jonah Tolchin
If there is such a thing as a “sophomore slump,” it certainly doesn’t apply to Jonah Tolchin’s second full length effort. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that Clover Lane trumps the much-loved Criminal Man by a mile. And that’s saying something, folks.
On the album (named after the New Jersey street Tolchin was raised on,) Jonah displays the voice, guitar skill and lyrical prowess of an artist at least twice his age. His first effort as part of Yep Roc Records, is addictive to pretty much any age range from the most seasoned blues or folk fan on down to my kids who start singing the chorus of “Mockingbird” on the regular, without prompting. This effort clearly lays it out for everyone to see and hear — Jonah Tolchin is a Blues / Folk force to be reckoned with.
And as we speak he’s working on his next album. Prepare yourself accordingly.
Hozier – Hozier
We seem to be seeing a few groups zoom to stardom each year now, but Hozier’s rise seems to be more than a right-place-right-time thing. His ascent has been somewhat dizzying from a by-standers point of view. Going from playing the extremely modest Cafe 939 to selling out the House of Blues (6 months in advance) in one year. I can only imagine what the ride has been like from where he’s sitting.
From the first Youtube clips I saw of this talented young man, I was hooked by the blues-inspired musicianship and his approach to music as a whole. There’s something old-world about his entire presence. A calming, mature spirit in a (very tall) young man’s form. It was also fairly easy to tell that his mass appeal would break him apart from the rest of the pack.
The first taste most folks got of the Irishman’s music was the ever-present “Take Me to Church” — if you haven’t heard this song yet, that rock you’ve been living under must be really cozy — but if you listen to the rest of the album and do a quick search for his earlier videos, you’ll see his talents run much deeper than a single song can capture.
Stay tuned for more from Andrew. This story has just begun.
Smith&Weeden – Smith&Weeden
The first time I saw Smith&Weeden, they were opening at the Columbus theater for a couple other great acts. The musicianship, hooks and personality made an immediate impression. One of those moments that has you hitting the Googles to find more.
Thankfully, S&W gave us more this year with their first full length album. The self-titled effort runs the gamut from the edge-of-society anthem “Creeper Blues,” to the all-to-common relationship statement bouncer “Drinking,” to the plaintive, temporal relief of “Sunshine,” to the straight up rock “Playing a Part.” The album truly has a song for every mood. Harmonies and lyrics that draw you in, extremely well crafted riffs in all the right places, and a presence that lets you know they’re enjoying what they do as much as you enjoy listening to it. Quality rock ‘n roll is alive and well, folks. And it’s in pretty damn good hands down in Providence.
Bahamas is Afie – Bahamas
Before the release of this album, I admit that I was fairly unaware of the talent of Afie Jurvane. I can assure you that I will no longer be blind to anything that this fella puts out. The songs themselves range from Beatle-esque to Nilsson-ish and for those who may know what I’m referring to, you can even find the essences of oft-overlooked Dolorean and fellow Canadian stand-out Dan Mangan.
Now, that’s not to say that this work is overly derivative. Jurvane has his own style of storytelling and song construction that keeps you listening from track to track to find out what happens next. I simply mean that being able to hear all of those liknesses put this album firmly in my wheelhouse and had me welcoming it in as part of my life pretty much immediately.
So Hard – Lil’ Dicky
Yes, it’s a mix tape. Yes, it’s rap. Yes it’s from a Jewish Caucasian guy. Now that we got that out of the way, let’s talk a little bit about this entry on the list.
I grew up listening to just as much rap and hip-hop as anything else. It’s engrained into my being as much as rock and roll and folk (and show tunes; let’s save that conversation for some other time.) But for the most part, the genre has lost me. I’m not sure if that’s because of a shift in the music itself or if it’s more due to a shift in me as a person. Either way, in recent years rap and hip hop have left me wanting.
Enter, Lil’ Dicky.
Almost without doubt, what you’ll think when you first listen to Lil’ Dicky is that he’s a jokester. That he’s there for the laughs. And while I completely agree with both of those things (he clearly displays his propensity for levity, just take a gander at any of his popular Youtube videos,) I think those traits also make it easy to overlook his skill. If you can get past the schtick, you’ll hear some pretty incredible flow and linguistic acrobatics. I mean just take “Attached at the Hip” for example. Sure it’s a song about a guy fighting with his penis, but damn if that nappy headed Jew can’t spit with a quickness.
His first full album is due out any day, but for now head on over to his site and grab the free mixtape.
And the War Came – Shakey Graves
I’m not sure that anyone has taken the Indie-Folk-Rock (oh, whatever…) scene by the horns more enthusiastically than Shakey Graves (a.k.a. Alejandro Rose Garcia.) And while he one-man-banded his way into our hearts with his unique, stripped-down style of musicianship, this year’s release And the War Came, found Shakey taking to the studio and emerging with a much more polished and produced sound.
As is often the case when an artists pursues a new direction, some reactions have been not so favorable. And honestly, on first listen I felt like I missed the foot-stomping suitcase drum passion from his earlier works. Hey, we all have knee-jerk reactions, right?
Well, it’s safe to say that in the past two and a half months I’ve completely fallen for this album. Once I was able to get over missing that raw sound that originally drew me to Shakey’s music, I was able to find songs full of clever lyrics, solid production, great harmonies and even some of my treasured foot-stomping — it’s just happens that I’m doing more of the foot stomping on my end of speaker.
Heigh Ho – Blake Mills
In 2010, through a series of musical wanderings, I came upon the music of Blake Mills. Just after the release of his debut album Break Mirrors, I heard Dawes (former bandmates of Mills’) cover one of the songs off the album. That lead to me listening to the recording hundreds of times and proclaiming it my #1 album of the year. Since then, Mills has continued to do what most music professionals know him to do, make everyone he plays with (or produces) better. Given that trait and mastery of his instruments and in the booth, it’s no wonder that his second effort landed him on my best of list again this year.
On Heigh Ho, you can clearly hear what some people wouldn’t want to — an artist growing. A musician pushing and pulling himself and those around him to make insanely great music in any manner that feels right at the moment. Unlike Break Mirrors, which seemed to be one long story told from one persons experience, this album is more a collection of vignettes wandering in and out of different styles of music and speaking from the vantage point of different characters. Some of those tales seem complete, while others seem to be the beginnings of a much longer story of their own.
One thing that’s consistent throughout each song is a commitment to mastery of structure and execution. Both sonically and lyrically.
Want proof? Give a listen to “If I’m Unworthy” on a decent set of speakers or headphones as loud as you possibly can. The combination of simple, real, to-the-point lyrics and the layers upon layers of sound that rise and crash over you will, quite possibly, leave you saying: “What the fuck just happened? Do it again!” This song in particular has earned a spot in my life right next to The Beatles “A Day in the Life.” That’s not an easy thing to do.
All or Nothin’ – Nikki Lane
That’s really all that needs to be said about this one.
If you’re in need of a pick up, one sure fire way to get it is to listen to Lane’s sophomore release All or Nothin’. In addition to fantastically fun tales of seeking raucous good times in a world of over-bearing political correctness, you’ll also find beautiful harmonies and stellar production (disclosure: written by a Dan Auerbach fanboy.) When you want an album that encourages you to cut the shackles of everyday drudgery, this is the one to put on. Buckle in boys and girls, it’s a fun ride.
Lateness of Dancers – Hiss Golden Messenger
Call it dad-folk, call it laid back, call it whatever you want to call it, but give me this album everyday and twice on Sunday. Or perhaps Saturday is more appropriate. Drawing from the spirits of the Grateful Dead, Warren Zevon and Jackson Browne, M.C. Taylor and his cohorts — collectively known as Hiss Golden Messenger — struck musical gold this year.
If you’ve heard the Hiss Golden Messenger name before, it wouldn’t surprise me. Lateness of Dancers is the group’s fifth release in the last 7 years or so. Most releases seeming to be as much therapeutic for the creators as it is entertainment for the masses. This release, however, struck more of a chord with yours truly.
Perhaps it’s the fact that some songs on Lateness are based on Taylor’s searching for ways to talk to his kids about God and spirituality. Maybe it’s the feeling that while music is Taylor’s outlet for creativity and he’d love to concentrate on that alone, he is constantly pulled in different directions both in the physical world and the spiritual one. Or it could be that Taylor’s voice is the kind that can lure you in with an intimate tone and then drop a thought on you that leaves asking questions for days. The latter part of that statement something he no doubt does himself.
Whatever the reasons, be they personal or musical, I stand by the statement that this right here is an album worthy of your attention.
OTHER GREAT THINGS IN RANDOM CATEGORIES!
Most Painfully Identifiable Lyric for Aging Live Music Fans:
Sun Kil Moon – “Ben’s My Friend”
OK, well maybe it’s just me…
“There’s a fine line between a middle-aged guy with a backstage pass
And a guy with a gut hanging around like a jackass”
Best Music Movie I Saw This Year That Didn’t Come Out This Year:
Broken Circle Breakdown
The fan boy in me really wanted to say that the Harry Nilsson biopic Who is Harry Nilsson… (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?) was going to be the winner, but many months later I’m still thinking about and singing along to Broken Circle Breakdown. If you haven’t seen it, put it on your to-do list, pronto.