By Sean Titone
December 21, 2015
I Love You, Honeybear – Father John Misty
I Love You, Honeybear is a stunner. Thanks in part to meticulous production from Los Angeles producer Jonathan Wilson, this is one of the best-sounding albums I’ve heard in years, deserving of top-quality headphones or the best hi-fi stereo system money can buy. Filled with lush arrangements, boozy swagger, and dripping with sarcasm, it’s a musical snapshot of the man formerly known as Josh Tillman, and it chronicles his descent into a relationship with his wife that both scares and excites him. When it comes to lyrics, Father John Misty is peerless in his ability to capture pathos, seething rage, and biting humor in a beautifully delivered package. “Bored in the USA” will have you laughing to keep from crying, and “The Ideal Husband” shows Misty and his band of heathens can grunge up the proceedings with as much success as the more mellow moments. Upon first listen, I Love You, Honeybear sounds like an instant classic.
Favorite tracks: “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt,” “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)”
Sound & Color – Alabama Shakes
Much like Father John Misty, Alabama Shakes shattered the notion of a sophomore slump with their kaleidoscopic second album Sound & Color. Defying their label as a retro-soul outfit, Brittany Howard and her tight-knit band explore a range of genres on an album that has one foot in the past and another in the future; Howard’s powerful voice shines, screams, then soothes you into submission. With help from producer and friend Blake Mills, they crafted an album that plays to their strengths of not just soul, but rock, psychedelia, and extraterrestrial funk that would make Prince proud. Renowned for their incendiary live performances, they now have a record that is as strong as their shows. I predict this will take home the Grammy for Album of the Year.
Favorite tracks: “Sound & Color,” “Future People”
To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
To Pimp A Butterfly is a musical statement that cements Kendrick Lamar as one of the greatest artists of our generation. A lyrical savant, Lamar elevates West Coast rap to an art form as he speaks truths over what often sounds like a psychedelic free jazz album with thumping bass heavy beats. Part autobiography, part call to arms addressed to the African-American community, To Pimp A Butterfly could be considered our generation’s version of Marvin Gaye’s 1972 landmark album What’s Going On. If Gaye’s goal was to upend pop and Motown’s conventional ways while shining a light on pressing social issues of the time, Lamar is doing the same with hip-hop and his grand, political statement of an album. Poverty, religion, relationships, and the need for social unity are all filtered through Lamar’s lens on To Pimp a Butterfly, and he sets his scope with razor-sharp precision and lyrical finesse.
Favorite tracks: “Alright,” “King Kunta”
Carrie and Lowell – Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan Stevens has never been one to shy away from heavy-handed lyrics, but he takes it to another level with the highly personal and effectively moving Carrie and Lowell, a concept album that deals with the death of his absentee mother to stomach cancer (Carrie) and his relationship with his stepfather (Lowell), who was married to Carrie for five years when Stevens was a child. Lowell’s impact during those years was so powerful and meaningful that he currently co-runs Stevens’ record label, Asthmatic Kitty Records, and clearly remains an important figure in his life. Considering the subject matter, the music is justifiably haunting and beautiful. The songs are mini-opuses that tell individual stories describing his childhood while, taken as a whole, the album moves mountains in its ability to process grief through music. Stevens’ hushed vocals and his gorgeous falsetto take center stage on acoustic, synth-based and orchestral songs that are simpler but no less powerful than his previous album The Age of Adz. His show at Ovens Auditorium in November was probably the best concert I saw this year.
Favorite tracks: “Should Have Known Better,” “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”
Little Neon Limelight – Houndmouth
A four-piece outfit out of New Albany, Indiana, Houndmouth is yet another band on my list whose second album is a huge step forward from their debut. All four members share lead vocals, and often all four members sing in unison. In a live setting, they often switch up instruments between songs as well. Little Neon Limelight is home to a cast of characters that come to life via the perfect blend of classic and indie rock, folk, and Americana. Names like Otis, My Cousin Greg, Jenny Gasoline, and a motley crew of an old man in the sea, three hipsters, two merchants, and Kon Tiki all make appearances. Full of sing-alongs, it’s a jubilant album that showcases the strong harmonies of all four members of the band. “For No One” is a personal folk ballad of epic proportions sung by Matt Myers that will stand the test of time, and the distortion pedaled guitar that comes in two-thirds of the way through leadoff track “Sedona” after the line “Saturday night kind of pink” will make you feel ALIVE.
Favorite tracks: “Sedona,” “For No One”
Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit – Courtney Barnett
Australian-born Courtney Barnett makes being one of rock music’s brightest up-and-coming musicians appear effortless. Her slacker attitude is really just a cover for her ability to craft a great song. Her stream-of-consciousness lyrical delivery combined with a penchant for garage rock anthems and Pavement-inspired jams are a winning combination on her debut full-length album. Barnett’s singing style is the equivalent of your best friend nonchalantly telling you a story about their day, and while the story may seem mundane (shopping for organic vegetables or an elevator operator dropping Vegemite crumbs everywhere while eating breakfast on the run), you can’t help but bob your head because it’s so damn catchy. This is as assured as a debut record can get.
Favorite Tracks: “Depreston,” “Pedestrian at Best”
Star Wars – Wilco
If you’ve followed Wilco throughout their career, you know that lead singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy’s muse is a restless one. No two albums in their discography sound alike, and Star Wars is no exception. From the opening dissonant squawks of instrumental track “EKG,” Wilco announces that their well of creativity continues to run deep. When it came out, Star Wars was a treat for fans for multiple reasons. One, it was a surprise release that no one saw coming. Second, it was released for free as a gift to fans for allowing the band to rock for over 20 years. Coming in at 33 minutes, it’s their tightest and shortest album yet, and it shows a great debt to George Harrison on songs like “More…” and the stunning album closer “Magnetized.” “You Satellite” is co-written by guitar god Nels Cline and multi-faceted drummer Glenn Kotche, and it’s a fine showcase of the band’s ability to create a massive wall of sound inspired by shoegaze masters like My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive. “Random Name Generator” is one of the catchiest songs they’ve written in years and is equal parts T. Rex and Sonic Youth. One of the world’s best rock bands knocked it out of the park with this one. Now, please return to Charlotte to play a show!
Favorite tracks: “Random Name Generator,” “Magnetized”
Coming Home – Leon Bridges
Fresh off a career-making performance on SNL, it’s been one hell of a year for Texas soul man Leon Bridges. In the span of a year, he’s gone from playing small clubs across the country to selling out legendary venues like the Apollo Theater in New York City, all behind the support of his debut album Coming Home. Sounding like a lost relic from the ‘60s, Coming Home is carried by the strength of solid songwriting and Bridges’s smooth as honey voice. Hitting the scene like the second coming of Otis Redding or Sam Cooke, Bridges captures the spirit of the crooning showmen of yesteryear with impeccable style and soul. The songs on Coming Home swing, groove and sway in all the right ways. Between Bridges, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Lake Street Dive and more, 2015 was a banner year for fresh-faced soul.
Favorite Tracks: “River,” “Coming Home”
Currents – Tame Impala
Tame Impala is the brainchild of Kevin Parker, an Australian-born musician who has constantly refined his brand of psychedelic rock music since 2007, culminating with his strongest work yet on this year’s Currents. Like a Hall and Oates album from the ‘80s that beamed into outer space, bounced around the universe for 30 years, and whose audio waves were then re-scrambled by satellites and sent back to Earth in 2015, Currents hits a sweet spot that falls somewhere between ‘80s soundtrack euphoria and early Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. Parker knows his way around an earworm melody and he exploits that talent to the fullest here. Garnering impressive reviews from several reputable music publications, Currents proves worthy of its landmark album status on repeated listens, unfurling nuggets of lyrical wisdom about relationships and self-improvement amid a rich tapestry of disco, rock, R&B and pop layered across immaculate production.
Favorite Tracks: “Yes,” “I’m Changing,” “Eventually”
Something More than Free – Jason Isbell
Alabama-born and Nashville-based Jason Isbell has emerged as one of our country’s great songwriters/storytellers, and Something More than Free is his best album yet. It topped the Billboard Charts in the Country, Rock, and Folk categories early in its release, and after the breakout success of 2013’s Southeastern, Isbell doesn’t so much reinvent the wheel with his current album as he does polish it. Mentally, he’s in a better place than he was on Southeastern and the songs reflect that. He’s equally at home here telling his own stories as well as those of every other middle-class American. The song “24 Frames” also contains this year’s best and most powerful chorus: “You thought God was an architect / Now you know / He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow / And everything you built was all for show / Goes up in flames / in 24 frames.”
Favorite tracks: “24 Frames,” “If It Takes a Lifetime”
Guesthouse – David Wax Museum
Feels Like – Bully
Tennessee Whiskey – Chris Stapleton
Untethered Moon – Built To Spill
A playlist of our favorite songs from this list
In this article
- Alabama Shakes
- and Sometimes I Just Sit
- Built To Spill
- carrie and lowell
- Chris Stapleton
- Coming Home
- courtney barnett
- david wax museum
- Father John Misty
- Feels Like
- I Love You
- jason isbell
- kendrick lamar
- leon bridges
- Little Neon Limelight
- Something More than Free
- Sometimes I Sit and Think
- Sound & Color
- STAR WARS
- Sufjan Stevens
- Tame Impala
- Tennessee Whiskey
- To Pimp A Butterfly
- Untethered Moon