I’m writing this in the house in which I grew up, during my annual sojourn east to mark the passing of the year. 2015 seemed to disappear before I even knew what was happening, but there were some fantastic moments (including trips to Montreal and Nashville to see some great music) and I met some wonderful people. This year wasn’t as cruel to me as it was to some of my friends, but for their sake, I’m glad to see it go, and glad to ring in the promise of a new one.
So far, my vacation has been anything but relaxing. I drove 16 hours to Massachusetts, then two days later took another six-hour road trip to see friends I haven’t seen in years. We’re just now entering the do-nothing part of my two weeks off, and I’m quite grateful for the chance to just be. I have found the time to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens twice now, and it’s pretty much what I expected: a straightforward and reverential kickstart to a new story set in the same universe. There aren’t a lot of new ideas in this movie, but it does what it needs to, and gives us the best dialogue of all seven films, so that’s nice. I’ll gladly see it a few more times.
But you’re not here to talk about Star Wars. You’re here to join me in an annual tradition, looking back over the past 12 months of music and counting down the best they had to offer. This column is my part of the conversation – what follows is a list of my 10 (well, 11) favorites, but it was a strikingly diverse year, and I’d be very surprised if your favorites matched mine. So when you’re done reading this list and mentally insulting my taste, use that email button to the left there and let me know what you liked from 2015.
My list has very specific rules, which I recap every year. Basically, only new full-length studio albums are eligible – no live records, no compilations, no EPs, no covers projects (which means that Ryan Adams’ reinvention of Taylor Swift’s 1989 is a no-go). For the first time ever, I have a tie for the number one spot, and if you’ve been following along this year, you know what two records placed neck and neck. I simply could not decide, for reasons that I hope will be obvious.
Aside from that, I think it’s a pretty straightforward list this year. Let’s get into it.
#10. Joanna Newsom, Divers.
The first of two harp-playing women to grace this list, Newsom is a world unto herself. While in the past Newsom has given us fully orchestrated fairy tales and, most recently, a hugely ambitious triple album, Divers is the first since her debut that is just an album, just 11 songs on plastic. But while this may be her least flashy effort, it may also be her deepest. With ensembles large and small, and wielding that love-it-or-hate-it voice, Newsom sings of the pain of loss and the joy of living, often in the same song. The final three tracks comprise her strongest run, from the gorgeous “You Will Not Take My Heart Alive” to the rousing, exultant “Time, As a Symptom,” and listening to all three in a row will make you want to raise your hands to the air and shout. Some people still think I’m kidding about my love for Newsom, but like Divers, I couldn’t be more serious.
#9. Jason Isbell, Something More than Free.
I boarded the Isbell train too late to put his masterpiece, Southeastern, on the 2013 list. I won’t make that mistake again. Free is, in many ways, an even more stunning set of tunes – it’s more varied, it takes us more places, and it states its case more confidently. Isbell gives us plenty of his gritty troubadour, from “24 Frames” to the title song, but also explores more epic terrain with “Children of Children” and “Hudson Commodore,” among others. As always, it’s Isbell’s lyrics, and the fascinating characters who populate them, that make this record. “Speed Trap Town” may be the most incisive lyric of the year, while “Flagship” may be the prettiest. Jason Isbell remains one of the most impressive songwriters we have, and I have no doubt his next efforts will land on this list as well.
#8. Bjork, Vulnicura.
It’s been nearly 20 years since Bjork made it onto this list. I’ve found her output since Homogenic to be curious and interesting, but not compelling. But Vulnicura is absolutely devastating. Bjork bravely details the dissolution of her long relationship with artist Matthew Barney, with whom she has a child. The first six songs on Vulnicura, in fact, dissect that separation with horrible precision, beginning nine months before and ending 11 months after. The centerpiece is the 10-minute “Black Lake,” simply one of the most aching dark holes of song I have heard in years. This album returns Bjork to the fertile ground of Homogenic, with full string arrangements atop crackling electronics, and digs deeper. It’s a powerful, painful, unflinchingly honest work, and while it is difficult to listen to, it draws you in like little else Bjork has done.
#7. Frank Turner, Positive Songs for Negative People.
If I have a sentimental favorite this year, it’s this one. While Titus Andronicus depicted my form of depression accurately and epically on The Most Lamentable Tragedy, it is Frank Turner who made the album I most needed to hear this year. Positive Songs is about fighting through sadness and pain, and never giving in. “Get Better” became my anthem this year, its rousing refrain (“we can get better, because we’re not dead yet”) ringing in my ears. “The Next Storm” is about not allowing depression to rule your life, about getting back up and living. Song after song, Turner spins positivity through his English-folk-meets-Social-Distortion sound, and he ends it with a tribute to a friend who took his own life, as a reminder that every day is precious. Positive Songs may not be the best record of 2015, but to me, it was the most important.
#6. Timbre, Sun and Moon.
Here is the second harp-playing woman on this list, and one of my favorite discoveries in recent years. I paid for Sun and Moon two years before I received it, but it’s clear that Timbre Cierpke spent that entire time working on this intricate, masterful record. Matching one disc of rhythmic full-band songs with a second disc of fully orchestrated pieces, and connecting them as a single two-hour journey, Timbre realized her ambitions brilliantly here, and revealed herself as a tremendous composer in the bargain. There’s a lot to absorb on this record, from the more accessible pieces like “Song of the Sun” and “Your Hands Hold Home” to the 16-minute strings-and-all finale “Day Boy,” and all of it is beautifully realized. That it is all wrapped together with a George MacDonald fairy tale only adds to the magic. This record is brilliant, in every sense of the word. You can hear it and buy it here.
#5. Aqualung, 10 Futures.
For a few months there, I was absolutely obsessed with this record from Matt Hales. He’s long been one of my favorite songwriters, and on this effort (which still hasn’t made its way to the states), he breaks his own mold again and again, fracturing himself into new, fascinating shapes. Every song here is an experiment, and every one of them works. Hales invites more guests onto this record than he ever has before, from Joel Compass, who elevates the electro-pop “Tape 2 Tape,” to Lianne La Havas, who duets on the lovely “Eggshells,” to Sweet Billy Pilgrim and Kina Grannis and others. And yet, even through the buzzing new sounds and the layered song structures and the go-for-broke sensibility, this is still clearly an Aqualung album. In fact, it may be the best Aqualung album.
#4. Punch Brothers, The Phosphorescent Blues.
This one came out early, before the first month of the year was over, and it took hold and never let go. Like Aqualung’s record, Blues is full of experiments, of Chris Thile and his merry band pushing themselves to new places. There is almost nothing holding these 11 songs together as a unit, save sheer force of will – the record begins with a 10-minute progressive epic, includes readings of pieces by Debussy and Seriabin alongside traditional bluegrass like “Boll Weevil,” slips drums into the mix for the first time, and concludes with a choral chant. Throughout, the Brothers demonstrate yet again that not only are they among the best bluegrass players on the planet, they’re beyond even that, smashing down genre walls and delivering an argument for pure music, drawn from all sources. And also, “Magnet” just kicks ass.
#3. Quiet Company, Transgressor.
It’s hard to believe that I’m just now getting to praise Transgressor as one of the best albums of the year. It seems like forever ago that I first heard this tumultuous, agonizing, thoroughly pummeling fourth record from this Austin band that is near and dear to my heart. These songs are like old friends now, which hasn’t taken away an ounce of their power. Frontman Taylor Muse laid himself bare here, like he always does, detailing one of the most difficult periods of his life with a steely gaze. It’s hard to listen to him so uncertain, so doubtful, in such turmoil. Thankfully Muse’s songs, and the thunderous band playing them, make it easy to love QuietCo. Here are 11 more of the sharpest, most melodic rock tunes you’re likely to hear anywhere, and many of them (“A Year in Decline,” “The Virgin’s Apartment,” “The Most Dangerous Game”) are among the very finest this band has yet given us. Quiet Company remains the best band you don’t know, but should.
#2. The Dear Hunter, Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise.
Every time I listen to Act IV, I can’t believe how good it is, and how close I came to missing it completely. I’ve been interested in Casey Crescenzo’s ongoing tale of terrible choices and their consequences for years now, but it was only upon this album’s release that I truly dug in. What I found was a conceptually daring and musically stunning piece of work, a six-album story in progress that is bigger and bolder than I imagined. This fourth act is the biggest and boldest so far, sending the narrative in fascinating directions while calling back to previous chapters in ingenious ways. Along this path, Crescenzo writes three of the most indelible pop songs of the year (“Waves,” “The Squeaky Wheel” and “King of Swords”), juxtaposing them against fully orchestrated progressive epics like “A Night on the Town” and the next two chapters of “The Bitter Suite.” The thing I want most from music is to feel like I’ve been somewhere, on some kind of journey, and the Dear Hunter’s ongoing saga gives me that in spades. Act IV is the best sequel of the year, in any medium, and is a remarkably confident and brilliant album in its own right. I can’t wait to hear how Crescenzo wraps this up.
Which brings me to the tie. Again, no surprises for anyone who has been following along at home.
#1. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly; Sufjan Stevens, Carrie and Lowell.
Here’s the thing: these two albums could not be less similar. Kendrick Lamar’s Butterfly is a powerhouse hip-hop extravaganza that stretches nearly to 80 minutes, and delivers a sweeping examination of black America, institutional racism, personal responsibility and the need for black role models to lift up the community. Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell is an almost impossibly intimate, hushed and spare dissection of Stevens’ relationship with his mother and stepfather, and of his feelings of grief and self-loathing upon his mother’s death. They both affected me in different ways, too – Lamar’s record struck me on an intellectual level, giving me pause and filling me with admiration for the way he structured and presented his album-length message, while Sufjan’s is so emotionally overwhelming that it makes me cry each time I listen.
But both of them are so extraordinarily successful at what they try to do, even if they’re trying to do completely different things, that I can’t choose between them. Lamar’s album is certainly the more important of the two – it’s a thesis statement on the black American experience, and the impact of that experience on Lamar as an emerging artist with a responsibility to his people. It’s about how centuries of racism and oppression have led to black self-hatred, and how Lamar works to overcome that in himself and lead by example. It’s about staying true, about not misusing one’s influence, and it ends with a beyond-the-grave appearance by Lamar’s idol, Tupac Shakur, that it completely earns. It weaves Lamar’s thesis through some of the most inspired hip-hop you’re likely to hear, much of it played by a live band, and brings the idea of a hip-hop concept album to new heights. It is the most ambitious album of the year, and carries off that ambition with a swagger. (It is also the most confident album about insecurity I have ever heard.)
But Stevens’ is the more focused and direct, the one that speaks to me on a deeper level. The lyrics are full of personal references to his mother, who abandoned Stevens when he was a young child, and to the complicated emotions he feels at her passing. Over little more than an acoustic guitar and some muted electronics, Stevens lays bare his pain, his suicidal thoughts, his inability to stop loving his mother even through his feelings of anger and abandonment, even after the ripple effect her treatment of him had on his life. There are some songs on Carrie and Lowell, like “Fourth of July” or “The Only Thing,” that I can barely listen to, so raw and difficult are they.
These albums are united by the fact that their authors are among the best, most vital musicians of their generation. Lamar is just starting out – Butterfly is his second major album – and already his remarkable skill and conceptual genius have vaulted him into the same league as the rappers he idolizes. Stevens is a comparative veteran, but consider this: Carrie and Lowell marks his third appearance at the top of my year-end lists, and none of those three albums sound even remotely alike. In 50 years’ time, the works of both artists will be studied, spoken of in reverent tones, and these two albums will be among the ones most lauded.
I honestly could not pick one of these two for the top honor if you paid me to. But while they have very little in common, together they paint an interesting picture of 2015, a year that has been difficult for many reasons, public and private, large and small. All you can do is stare these difficulties in the face with honesty, and without flinching. Lamar and Stevens can show you how, and give you hope. This is the first time I’ve had a tie, but I couldn’t imagine two better albums to share the top spot. Though we tear our hearts out, it’s gonna be alright.
Next week is Fifty Second Week. Thank you all very much for being with me for Year 15. I’m grateful for all of you. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning… and to all a good night.