Because I had such a hard time narrowing down my list to five, each album has two other excellent albums which pair well my album choice. So this is really my 15 best albums of 2015 list.
5. Ryan Bingham’s “Fear and Saturday Night”
While former 5ive contributor Blake Collier consistently in conversations with Jeremy and I touted the greatness of this January release even well into November, I slacked in slapping in my earbuds and tuning into it via Spotify. I was buried in too much other good music throughout the year to vet out any other music suggestions people gave me, let alone from someone whose musical taste I trust. Forgive me, Blake. He and I don’t always see eye to eye on every album (see #1) but we do have a musical kinship across many genres of music. If you are weary of the pop bro-country that dominates the airwaves of country radio and need a refresher of what country can and should be like, Bingham is your guy (I would also suggest Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson). His sandpaper grit of a voice over a mixing of contemporary and outlaw country is a deeply satisfying listen.
Honorable Mentions and Pairings: Josh Ritter’s “Sermon on the Rocks” and Ryan Adams’ “1989”
4. Alabama Shakes’ “Sound and Color”
Brittany Howard, hands down, has the most soulful voice of any contemporary singer. Sure, Nathan Willett, Leon Bridges and even, Adele have powerful, velvety-with-an-edge voices but none of them do it like Howard does. Listen to the opening vocal on “Don’t Wanna Fight” as her voice emerges from the primordial soup of her vocal chords coalescing into a warm comforting bed of aural pleasure. But what is a voice without a great band? Adele’s 25, will currently dominating record sales and the radio, if you remove her voice from any of the tracks, is actually quite a boring listen. Without the glorious force of Adele’s voice, each track falls flat. With Alabama Shakes, even without Howard’s voice, these songs groove, thump and rock. Howard adds even more awesomeness to what is already a great band and with their sophomore release they have solidified their place in the pantheon of great rock bands.
Honorable Mentions and Pairings: Leon Bridges’ “Coming Home” and The Weeknd’s “Beauty Behind the Madness”
3. Torres’ “Sprinter”
For me, this album was 2015’s “Ultraviolence” by Lana Del Rey but with an edge of hope and light sprinkled throughout. But damn, those opening lines to the album are a shock and cold:
Heather I’m sorry that your mother’s
Deceased in the brain
Cannot recall your name
Heather I dreamt that I forgave
That only comes in waves
I hate you all the same
Most of the tracks on this album creep along slowly on fuzzed out guitar and dangerously dark vocals with lyrics detailing Torres’ struggle between faith in Christ and his Church that doesn’t always seem to follow him. That disconnect leaves Torres in an array of confusion most apparent in the title track where she explains how she ran away from the church but yet, still finds hope in Jesus. This is a profound album that I think could help the Church, especially in the West, understand those who have left the pews but still love Jesus, plus it rocks. Torres is one to keep an eye on as she continues to develop her sound.
Honorable Mentions and Pairings: Chelsea Wolfe’s “Abyss” and Courtney Barnett’s “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit”
2. Son Lux’s “Bones”
If I had the time, I’d write music like Ryan Lott. Actually, I am going to make time this coming February to participate in the “RPM Challenge”, where Lott made “We are Rising” in 28 days. I doubt my results will be as stellar as his but damn if I’m not gonna try. “Bones” comes on the heels of Lott’s incredible and multi-faceted “Lanterns” and I had high expectations for the latest release. As soon as NPR posted the “First Listen” stream of the album, I took in every note, effect, beat and angelic vocal with grinning pleasure. Lott made the smart move of expanding his solo project to a three-piece and this new collaborative effort (with guitarist Rafiq Bhatia and drummer Ian Chang) takes Lott’s music in directions unknown on previous albums. While still primarily keyboard and beat-driven, the guitar is a welcome addition, often presented with a world music flare. Chang’s drums take Lott’s already intricate and complex into polyrhythmic territory especially on tracks like “Undone”.
Honorable Mentions and Pairings: Sufjan Stevens’ “Carrie & Lowell” and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton”
1. Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly”
A few days after its release this album was already being heralded as a work of genius, a bit premature I would say, but after letting it set in my body and soul, that first reaction I believe is the correct one. Is it hip hop or is it exploring the width and breadth of black music with Kendrick rapping over everything from funk to jazz to blues and hip hop? Yes it is all of that. But more than being an album that is sonically black, Kendrick through explorations of his own tenuous relationship with his own celebrity, raps about the black experience in America with fresh eyes and seeks to point his listeners to a better way, namely, God. As with “good kid, m.A.A.d city” , Kendrick continues to subvert hip hop musically and the very center of the culture, which places realness as the prime litmus test for any rapper. But furthermore, he deconstructs the effects of hip hop realness in his community, Compton, and reconstructs a new pathway via Christian faith. The placing in tension of faith in God and inner-city African-American life, makes Kendrick’s latest release an album to wrestle and reckon with.
Honorable Mentions and Pairings: Vince Staples’ “Summertime ’06” and Theory Hazit’s “Fall of the Lightbearer”