Best of 2015: Records (That Have No Tie to Alabama)
I split this list up this year because Alabama had a special year in music, and Alabama music was an important part of my year. So here are the ten-ish records that I thought were the best of 2015 that had no connection to the state of Alabama.
10. James Bay – Chaos and the Calm – Just an incredibly sexy record, and it’s somehow up for a Rock Album Grammy. I never really saw this as “rock,” but the Grammys have never really cared about clearly defined lines, and I’m not sure the rest of us have either. I kind of lump this in with what Tor Miller did this year, too, because he kept tossing a single out here or there, AAA would play it but then the record would never come. It did, and it’s great. Share it with the person you most want to make out with. Tor’s too, for that matter.
9. Natalie Prass – (Eponymous)/Side by Side: Live at Spacebomb Studios – On the list for similar reasons that Bay is, but Natalie’s music manages to seem theatrical while maintaining a jazzy presence. It’s a strange combination; it’s new. It’s not something I’ve ever heard anything quite like, and it’s why I still love putting both her full length record from this year and the recent EP on.
8. Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats – In the business, we call this “Blake Bait.” There was no chance that I wasn’t going to dig this – a well executed throw back record. It’s not throw back “soul” like Leon Bridges. It’s…rock? But it’s not. Its’ a better executed version of what JD McPherson is doing, and it’s a more widely accessible version of what Anderson East is doing. It’s gritty and it’s dancy and it’s fun. But it has a lot of substance; here, Rateliff’s big hit was “S.O.B.,” which had emotional depth while still managing to be a blast. By contrast, McPherson’s “Let the Good Times Roll” is a blast, but it’s just a song about letting the good times roll. I love letting the good times roll, but it’s the depth that makes top ten lists.
7. Tobias Jesso – Goon – I saw Jesso at Saturn this year; a truly bizarre experience. A buzzed about record under his belt and fresh from penning a song for the new Adele record, I was certain it’d be a packed house at Saturn.
There were roughly 40 people. I snagged a now rare video (I don’t really shoot amateur phone video anymore. Not that I have a problem with you doing it or would hypocritically be preachy about it, I just had more than enough amateur phone video of concerts) of Jesso covering “Hey Ya!” and he had it removed from YouTube. He nearly got in a fight with some dude – well, maybe “fight” is extreme – that was talking incessently, asking him to leave if he didn’t want to be there.
I really, really doubt that he ever returns.
And that’s a shame because Goon was a special start to this career. He’s a pianist, but he’s not a Ben Folds pianist or an Elton John pianist. He’s not wacky or zany and he’s not writing rock and roll anthems. No, he’s more like John Mayer if John Mayer could write lyrics capably. Kind of another record that makes this list because it’s sexy. It’s also heartbreaking. I mean, the guy has a track on the biggest album of the year (“When We Were Young”). So if you (or your mother) dug that, maybe try this one out.
6. Carly Rae Jepsen – E*MO*TION – I’ve said a million times and I’ll say a million more – everything doesn’t have to be Radiohead. But more importantly, fun is fine. While buzz surrounded this record that suggested it could be this year’s 1989, it’s not. It was this year’s E*MO*TION. And that’s fine. If you enjoy fun pop records, this is the best of the year.
5. Brandi Carlile – The Firewatcher’s Daughter – Hahahahaha…I know right?
But it’s brilliant. She’s fantastic and I was wrong about her. In fairness, my history with Brandi’s music was simply the point that her live performance being a “five star show” was heady praise. Four stars? Sure. But a “five star show,” for me, is…I don’t know…AC/DC. Not a singer/songwriter.
But the new record is loaded, including a great version of “Murder in the City,” she is terrific live and she won a new fan this year.
4. John Moreland – High on Tulsa Heat – John Moreland is one small break away from being in the same company as Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson or Chris Stapleton. He’s absolutely phenomenal. And while I’ve heard the suggestion that he’s a “one-trick pony,” even the suggester conceded that he does the one trick “really, really, really well.”
If you are reading this list and you take something away from it, take John Moreland away from it. I tried to tell you about Isbell. I tried to tell you about Stapleton. I was admittedly not leading the Simpson parade, but two out of three ain’t bad. John Moreland wants to break your heart. Let him.
3. Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material – Kacey is doing the throwback western thing that Escondido and Great Peacock are doing, and I love all of it.
She’s cute and she’s been kicked out of “Nashville,” presumably because country songs about weed will get you kicked out of “Nashville.” Yeah, yeah…I know Willie did it, but Willie wasn’t on country radio often. And I know Stapleton is doing it, but, well, we’ll get there.
It was a big, big year for country and rap. Good country and rap. Kacey was a very bright light shining in the middle of the former’s boy’s club.
2. Chris Stapleton – Traveller – You know, my thing with this record isn’t “surprise.” Well, maybe it is. But I knew the record, which came out in June, was fantastic. I knew about Stapleton’s long road to arrive here. I knew when Dave Cobb touched that record, it’d be great.
I interviewed Stapleton in May. He actually called me ten minutes early and asked if I was free. Super nice guy. But when I approached the publicist ahead of his forthcoming show at Iron City, I was turned down. I mean, he doesn’t particularly need press these days.
Anyway – I was surprised at just how quickly and massively one night made him explode. It was the most literal definition of awesome. It reminded me of Alabama Shakes. Stunning. I was floored.
Chris Stapleton is what Jamey Johnson was supposed to be. Or Shooter Jennings. He can fit in an “Outlaw Country” crowd, singing songs about weed, but he has cuts that are friendly enough for “Nashville.” And in all of it, he gracefully maintains credibility amongst the “other side” – East Nashville, if you will. It’s remarkable that he can be something to everyone, and it’s remarkable that the record is actually that good. I don’t think Isbell or Simpson ever wanted to save “Nashville,” and maybe Stapleton never wanted that either, but he can, and he’s been tasked with the responsibility now. And that’s great for East Nashville, because Stapleton can expose a lot of people to a lot of good music.
1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly – This record tops every list and it will walk away with every Grammy and it should. And I don’t think that is political correctness, I think it is because the record is vitally important. I think it’s because music has an incredible way of capturing time, and this record captured 2015 the same way that Ta-Nehisi Coates did with Between the World and Me.
Simply put: it said something. When we needed to hear it most; when we needed it saved for posterity the most. It felt important because it was. Listen to it so you can answer your mom’s questions when the Grammys air.
HONORABLE MENTION: Adele – 25 – It’s very, very good. I don’t need to tell you about it. You’ve heard it and you’ve seen Star Wars. That was 2015 in pop culture. If you are a mom or a nerd or a nerdy mom, you had a big year. I’m one of those.
Ryan Adams – 1989 – I spent most of my year sure that I would place this at the top of this list, but 1. A LOT of other great records came out that deserved the recognition more and 2. I acknowledge it was a gimmick.
But he nailed it. The radio tracks don’t do any justice to what a feat this record was. He took “How You Get the Girl,” a pop song about falling in love into a divorce ballad by changing, like, four words. That’s special. I loved everything about this record.
UNDERRATED: 3. Kopecky – Drug for the Modern Age – This is the Fleetwoodiest Fleetwood Mac record that Fleetwood Mac never made. when “Talk to Me” comes on Birmingham Mountain Radio, I still double take.
I’m including these “underrated records” because I think they deserve to be heard; but they are not top ten records of 2015.
2. Andrew Combs – All These Dreams – In a year without Chris Stapleton or Kacey Musgraves or John Moreland (or Jason Isbell), this record would have been the most noteworthy “country release.” On a similar path as Stapleton, Combs is a Nashville songwriter. But he’s much younger. And his own record most reminds me of what Robert Ellis did in 2014. This is East Nashville; also not country’s savior.
1. Christopher Owens – Chrissybaby Forever – This was just a weird, druggy indie-pop record by the Girls frontman. I don’t know how to validate it – if you loved BottleTree, I think you’ll love this record.