During my initial pass through my candidates I didn’t see a theme among them, but I now see that the majority have a element of soul and passion that you don’t find in popular music. I continue to find myself drawn to psychedelic rock and traditional country, but I also enjoyed several albums in the emo, R&B, and indie pop genres. If I can leave you with one thought, it’s that there’s too much great music out there to limit your portfolio to just one area. I hope you find something here new and exciting to you.
1. Everybody's a Good Dog, by Diane Coffee
My favorite album of 2013 was We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace, by Foxygen, so I was eager for the release of this album by Foxygen's drummer, Shaun Fleming. Every song is a winner, and most feature unexpected change-ups that characterize the psych rock genre. In fact, the first minute of the opening track contains four distinct sounds that repeat throughout the song. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, and enjoy the ride!
2. Sonic Ranch, by Whitey Morgan and the 78s
This was an exceptional year for traditional country, and Whitey Morgan’s album epitomizes all the good things that country music is, or should be. Sure, you might consider some of the songs stereotypical, what with him singing about whiskey and drinking and so on, but so what. This is a fun ride that channels everything that made Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings legends in country music.
3. At Least For Now, by Benjamin Clementine
The problem with popular music is its lack of soul. I don’t mean soul as in the music that evolved from African-American gospel music, rhythm and blues, and jazz. I mean soul as in feeling emotions deeply and sharing them through whatever form of music you use to express yourself. Benjamin Clementine feels deeply and has a lot to say, and At Least For Now shows that you don’t have to be an accomplished vocalist to be a great singer. His music rests on beautiful piano compositions, solid lyricism, and innovative delivery.
4. Traveller, by Chris Stapleton
You probably know about Chris Stapleton by now, now that he won Best Male Vocalist and New Artist of the Year at the 2015 Country Music Association Awards. But I knew about him much earlier, and when he released Traveller back in May I immediately knew it would be among my favorite albums of the year. Oh, and Traveller won Album of the Year as well. Chris is as soulful a vocalist as Benjamin Clementine, and his songwriting is deep and substantive. He’s written hit songs for Luke Bryan, Alan Jackson, George Strait, and even Adele, but he saved the best for himself.
5. The Fine Art of Hanging On, by The Leisure Society
The Leisure Society is an indie folk band from England, and this album is a melancholy look at relationships and life. The music is beautifully layered with a variety of instruments across its 11 tracks, a sound remarkably similar to Rufus Wainwright. The Undefeated Ego is Fine Art's standout.
6. Cass County, by Don Henley
I know what you’re thinking, “Don Henley is not a country singer.” Oh, but he is! He was born and raised in Texas and grew up listening to Buck Owens and Merle Haggard (with whom he sings on the album). But when you think about it, do labels really matter when a singer/songwriter delivers great music like this? I don’t think so. Cass County offers old time storytelling and solid musical arrangements, from the twangy Bramble Rose (featuring Miranda Lambert and Mick Jagger — yes, that Mick Jagger) to the heartbreaking story of a failed relationship in Take a Picture of This; when he sings, “Yeah, that’s a suitcase," your heart can help but hurt a little for him.
7. The Blade, by Ashley Monroe
In 2013 Ashley Monroe’s Like A Rose was among my top 10 albums of the year, so it’s no surprise to see her here again with her latest release. Ashley can do no wrong in my book with. She’s collaborated with some of the best songwriters in the industry (including Chris Stapleton) to produce a stellar collection of songs that range from the upbeat (Onto Something Good) to the emotional (The Blade). Yes, you should compare her to Dolly Parton. And for the record, I think Ashley has much more talent than Kacey Musgraves, whose 2015 release, as fun as it was, didn’t make it into my top 10.
8. Connector, by I The Mighty
Connector is a highly produced but solid rock album from the “post-hardcore” (whatever that is) and progressive rock band I The Mighty. It’s one of the few albums that’s remained on my iPhone for more than six months.
9. Bleeders Digest, by Say Hi
Bleeders Digest is a concept album from one-man band Eric Elbogen, written from the perspective of a vampire who’s trying to navigate the trials and tribulations of life…such as it is for him. The music reeks of punk over the catchy synths, and its slick production makes it easy to forget that you’re listening to the work of one person.
10. Hard Hold, by Jaala
You’re not going to like this album, so don't bother clicking the link below. It’s hard to listen to with its tangled mess of rhythms, time signatures, and non-harmonies that’s harken back to free jazz of the 1950s and 60s (think John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Ornate Coleman). But it’s brilliant just the same.
Sun Leads Me On, by Half Moon Run
Many Moons, by Martin Courtney
The Butterscotch Cathedral, by The Butterscoth Cathedral
Chasing Yesterday, by Noel Gallagher's High Flying Bird
Edge of the Sun, by Calexico
Out of Touch, by Brothertiger
This, by The Away Days
What For?, by Toro Y Moi
How to Die in the North, by Bc Camplight
Tomorrow Is My Turn, by Rhiannon Giddens
Man It Feels Like Space Again, by Pond
Comma, by Tandem Felix
Not Now, by Regal Degal
All Possible Futures, by Miami Horror
My Love Is Cool, by Wolf Alice
Morning World, by Teen Daze
Green Lanes, by Ultimate Painting
Out of Touch, by Brothertiger
The Ruffians Misfortune, by Ray Wylie Hubbard
The Underdog, by Aaron Watson
Something More Than Free, by Jason Isbell