This was a pretty good year for music, but what’s most intriguing is how discovery of new music evolves. The superabundance of music dissemination makes it both easier and harder to get into new music than the days we relied on terrestrial radio. Easier because you don’t have to look far to find new music; harder because, as Hicks’ Law posits, the more options you encounter the harder it is to make a decision (trying a new artist on Spotify, for example, is an investment in time that may or may not lead to an investment in money). This year’s top records came to my attention via a mix of avenues that included crowdfunding sites PledgeMusic and Kickstarter (I backed three songs on the list), free music/promotional site Noisetrade, NPR, co-workers and my friends in the Higher Ed Music Critics (read our aggregate reviews on the blog).
But now, on with the countdown …
15. Tom Cochrane, Take It Home. Yes, the Canadian singer-songwriter has continued recording long after “Life is a Highway” became a huge hit. And his records are consistently good.
14. Humming House, Revelries. With a range of influences spanning classic folk and bluegrass to Django Reinhardt, Humming House creates wildly danceable music that defies easy categorization.
13. Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free. The former lead singer of Drive-By Truckers continues to make a name for himself with smart songwriting and vibrant vocals.
12. Brandon Flowers, The Desired Effect. If the lead singer of The Killers released an album reading the phone book, I’d buy it. This is much better than that, but it wasn’t even the best solo record by a member of his main band.
11. Seth Avett + Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith. A very good but also polarizing album, as some Smith superfans took affront to somebody recording the late legend’s songs. If you can get past the reworkings, this is a fine record.
10. Tia Brazda, Bandshell. A Canadian singer playing throwback music with a pin-up aesthetic — what’s not to love about that sentence? Some solid brassy jazzy work here, although it feels a bit more restrained than it could be for this rising star.
9. The Damnwells, The Damnwells. One of the pioneers of crowd-funding music, Alex Dezen and his merry band continue to ride the wave of fan support via PledgeMusic to create catchy pop-rock gems.
8. Everclear, Black is the New Black. Yes, that band. After a healthy hiatus, Alex Alexakis and mates went into the studio for this Kickstarter-backed project. Everclear doesn’t skate by on nostalgia entirely, creating a record that fits into its catalog but also pushes it forward.
7. Big Talk, Straight In, No Kissin’. Who’da thunk that Killers drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. would have arguably the most impressive solo career among its talented members? Another PledgeMusic crowd-funded record, this shines in its own way in sounding not so much like The Killers as it does the best years of The Cars.
6. Ryan Adams, 1989. It sure sounded like a joke when Adams said he planned to record a new version of Taylor Swift’s mega-bestseller. But this record takes the overproduced source material and pulls out a whole new feel, Swift’s layers and effects replaced by Adams channeling vocals recalling ’80s U2 and Springsteen with heartfelt delivery.
5. Butch Walker, Afraid of Ghosts. Walker recording an album produced by Ryan Adams sounds like fantasy booking, but it’s real and moving. Drawing from the grief of losing his father, Walker records an exceedingly poignant disc with some of his most impressive songwriting and singing to date.
4. Matthew Good, Chaotic Neutral. Good continues his run of crafting political and metaphorical melodies that alternately constrict and soar (while winning award for most D&D-fan-friendly title of the year). It’s his customary serving of intense and catchy music, but the relative predictability of his last few records is what keeps them in the very good category but short of the greatness last seen in his stunning Hospital Music.
3. Pokey LaFarge, Something in the Water. It’s refreshing to see so many artists like The Wiyos, Old Crow Medicine Show, the aforementioned Brazda and Humming House plus LaFarge taking an interest in throwback sounds of almost a century ago. LaFarge is especially successful because his music is so fresh and fun with far-ranging appeal; the band would be equally at home on A Prairie Home Companion and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.
2. American Aquarium, Wolves. This Southern rock and blues and soul band came about a finger of whiskey away from disbanding after their previous album, but fan support made BJ Barham and friends decide it was worth continuing. The resulting album shows clever songcraft depicting growing up and settling down in “The Losing Side of 25,” “The Man I’m Supposed To Be” and “Rambling Ways.” Album closer “Who Needs A Song?” is one of the best lyrically of 2015: “Who needs a road if I’ve got you, babe?/How long can you be a rolling stone?/Who needs a road if I’ve got you babe?/The only thing I need right now is home.”
1. Frank Turner, Positive Songs for Negative People. The British punker turned punk-rocker turned punk-pop rocker turned pop-rock troubadour continues his evolution as a gent who just plain crafts masterful, memorable tunes. He delivers uplifting anthemic energy in the back-to-back punch of “Get Better” (“We could get better/Because we’re not dead yet”) and “The Next Storm” (“Rejoice/Rebuild/The storm will pass”) but the highlight could be the sad extended metaphor of “Mittens”: “I once wrote you love songs/You never fell in love/We used to fit like mittens/But never like gloves.” Fortunately, everything fits together spectacularly to make this the best album of 2015.