2015 has been an incredible year of music, with a number of high profile records that I’ve spent a lot of time connecting with. They are not on this list.
Though I’ve been thinking about To Pimp A Butterfly since the night it fell from the sky, no one should need a recommendation from me to check it out. So instead of another End of the Year list with paragraphs about why Sufjan Stevens released a quietly perfect heartbreaker, I wanted to jump in with some of my favorite 2015 albums that might have flown under your radar. The first two write-ups are lengthy, but everything else is more to the point. I also include a few tracks under each section, in case you’re interested in hearing something immediately.
Julien Baker — Sprained Ankle
At this point, my love for Julien Baker’s debut record is pretty well-documented. Oh well. “I know I shouldn’t act this way in public” goes one of the lyrics that’s been striking me of late. It’s a good entry point for a singer-songwriter album that’s quietly, wrenchingly personal. Baker invests every line with fear and hope and resignation in a way that forces you to physically feel it in your stomach.
I keep finding new moments that strike me. Songs like “Everybody Does” and “Good News” build to cruel punchlines, a sinking feeling put to melody. Her voice is singularly focused at its loudest, in a way that somehow evokes equal parts Kurt Cobain and Joni Mitchell. And amongst the spiritual confusion, there’s hope here too—the album’s last minute is maybe my favorite of the year and she doesn’t need to say a single word.
Listen: “Something”, “Sprained Ankle”, “Everybody Does”
Noah Gundersen — Carry The Ghost
Noah’s debut full length Ledges is a near-perfect folk album, rising and falling with perfect singalong hooks and an emotional acuity in its lyricism that feels like mainlining someone else’s blood after it’s been oxygenated. It’s only appropriate that his follow up, Carry The Ghost, doesn’t bother trying to match those same rhythms, preferring to blow past them.
Gundersen sounds like he’s rediscovering himself throughout the album, with more nuanced musical arrangements that break out of any genre conventions and lyrical content that stretches far beyond the fertile ground of heartbreak. “Selfish Art” is a song that thousands of great songwriters have tried and failed to write. Those same writers wouldn’t even try for something like “Empty From The Start” and “Topless Dancer”, which sound like poetry and reflect Noah’s constantly evolving worldview better than a mirror.
I had the pleasure of seeing Noah Gundersen at the World Cafe this fall. His band sounded muscular as hell and he was delivering on all levels. I can’t wait to hear where he goes next.
Listen: “Selfish Art”, “Silver Bracelet”, “Heartbreaker”
Brandon Flowers — The Desired Effect
What is the desired effect? Brandon Flowers eschews his normal gig with the Killers and creates a hook-filled album of heartland rock, mixed with 80s vibes. So basically it’s the same exact way you’d describe a Killers album, except somehow it’s the best thing he’s done in a decade.
Listen: “Between Me And You”, “Still Want You”, “The Way It’s Always Been”
Lupe Fiasco — Pharaoh Height 2/30
In which one of the world’s most technically dexterous rappers piles lyric over lyric for 24 straight minutes. Worth it to read annotations while listening, because you’ll still be missing things anyway.
Listen: “Valleys”, “Pyramid”, “Schemes”
The Staves — If I Was
Forest winter distilled into music. Mellifluous harmonies from three sisters that can make their voices sound like one person and icy production work from Justin Vernon of Bon Iver.
Listen: “Blood I Bled”, “Damn It All”, “Don’t You Call Me Anymore”
Carly Rae Jepsen — Emotion
Taylor Swift made an album called 1989; Carly Rae Jepsen made and album that sounds like 1989. Best pop album of the year, hands down, with hooks that pile on top of each other in danceable, dizzying, delirious joy. My favorite song changes every time the track changes.
Listen: “Boy Problems”, “Run Away With Me”, “Let’s Get Lost”
Butch Walker — Afraid Of Ghosts
One of the most exciting songwriters in the business gets stripped down and personal with Ryan Adams handling production. Half this album makes me cry, especially the songs about his father.
Listen: “21+”, “Father’s Day”, “Chrissie Hynde”
Chris Stapleton — Traveller
Finally getting his public due towards the end of the year, Chris Stapleton wrote some whiskey-soaked songs for his debut that deserve to be canonized in bars around the country. The fact that he can sing these defiant, longing anthems better than everyone else is just a bonus.
Listen: “Traveller”, “Fire Away”, “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore”
Thanks for reading through if you got this far. These end-of-year exercises have always been more for me, but I hope if you find a new record you like, you’ll reach out.