Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Best Movies of 2015

2015 offered viewers a lot of good movies from several countries.  Before I get started listing the ones I liked, I should point out that I have not yet seen several films that were either not released in Boston yet, were released very briefly, or have only been available in a few, odd theaters.  Those films include (alphabetically): “Legend,” “Mustang,” “Son of Saul,” and “45 Years.”  Any of those movies might still make the list, once I get to see them.

If you know me and/or have read my list before, you probably know a few things about my movie preferences:
  • My favorite movies have both a good plot and well-developed characters.
  • I don’t like movies about nasty people doing awful things to each other.
  • I enjoy movies that either entertain me and/or in some way uplift me.
  • I don’t watch a lot of animated films, although occasionally, one might make the list.
  • I don’t include documentaries on my list.
  • I tend to like films where the script is fresh and interesting.
  • I’m not invited to free movie screenings, nor do I get to meet the casts or directors.
  • I am not a film “critic,” and as such, I don’t write negative reviews.  I respect most filmmakers for trying to produce their art, so if a well-known or well-regarded film is not listed above or below, it’s quite possible that I saw it but did not like it enough to recommend it.

So, with that, below is my list of the Best Movies of 2015, in inverse order.  Also, at the end, I’ll provide a few awards that you won’t see at the Oscars.

33.     “Furious 7”

You may or may not enjoy the series of movies spawned by “The Fast and the Furious,” but this is the seventh and best of those pictures, made particularly poignant by the death, in a car crash, of one of the series stars, Paul Walker, during the filming of this installment.  Directed by James Wan and written by Chris Morgan and Gary Scott Thompson, This film stars Walker, Vin Diesel, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Ludacris, Dwayne Johnson, Kurt Russell, and Gal Gadot.  It is a well-made, well-thought-out action film that keeps you on the edge of your seat and ends with a touching tribute to Walker.

32.     “Black Mass”

This film is directed by Scott Cooper and written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth from a book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill.  Featuring a bunch of top-notch actors, it is the story of Whitey Bulger, the notorious Boston gangster, and his lengthy and often unpleasant relationship with John Connolly, the FBI agent who shielded much of Bulger’s nefarious activities.  The reason to see this movie is the excellent acting of Johnny Depp as Bulger and Joel Edgerton as Connolly.  Also, if you’re from Boston and worked in Massachusetts politics, as I did at that time, you might find this film particularly interesting.

31.     “Mistress America”

I’m not always a fan of Noah Baumbach’s movies, but they are best when they are quirky, and that’s a good way to describe this film.  Co-written by Baumbach and co-star Greta Gerwig, the story involves a Barnard College freshman, played by Lola Kirke, who seeks out and befriends her soon-to-be stepsister, played by Gerwig.  Both characters are peculiar and somewhat needy, and their relationship leads to a series of unusual adventures, culminating in the movie’s final scenes.  This enjoyable movie benefits from an excellent script and actors who can deliver the quirky lines with a straight face.

30.     “The Danish Girl”

This is a good film that could have been better if director Tom Hooper had not drawn out the pacing of the movie’s first half.  Nevertheless, it features outstanding acting by Eddie Redmayne, playing an artist who is getting in touch with her gender identity, and Alicia Vikander, as her wife.  This is an important film, given the timely nature of the transgender movement, but it takes too long to get to the well-crafted ending.  I understand that this is realistic for many such characters, especially in the 1920s when this film is set, but as a movie, the slow pacing was starting to get to me, until it picked up near the end.  Written by Linda Coxon from the book by David Ebershoff, this movie also benefits from excellent cinematography by Danny Cohen.

29.     “Spy”

Written and directed by Paul Feig, this is Melissa McCarthy at her best…not the raunchy, scene-stealing comedian, but rather an actress playing a role in a comic movie.  Throughout most of this movie, McCarthy is actually the “straight man” in a spoof of the kinds of spy movies we’ve seen since the 1960s.  The more comedic roles are actually played by the likes of Jude Law and Jason Statham.  This is a surprisingly good movie that will definitely put a smile on your face.

28.     “The Gift”

Joel Edgerton wrote, directed, and co-starred in this creepy film about a couple, played by Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall, who become reacquainted with a character (played by Edgerton) from Bateman’s character’s past.  However, as the story moves along, you begin to realize that not everything is as it seems, and bygones are not always bygones.   This is a very effective suspense movie, and Edgerton proves quite facile in his first, full-length directing effort.

27.     “Testament of Youth”

Alicia Vikander (her name appears a lot on this list) stars in this excellent film directed by James Kent and written by Juliet Towhidi from a memoir written during and after World War I by Vera Brittain.  This is a look at war from a woman’s perspective in an era before women could serve in the armed forces.  As such, it reflects a sensitivity that few male-based war movies ever address.  But make no mistake... this is not a weepy, Hallmark endeavor.  Brittain (played by Vikander) is a strong, intelligent woman who is just as involved in the war as any man in the movie, yet without the bravado of her male counterparts.

26.     “Truth”

In 2004, CBS News aired a report about George W. Bush’s military service, after following what seemed to be standard journalistic procedures.  However, the report was never adequately verified, and the criticism it engendered eventually resulted in the ends of several careers, including that of Dan Rather as anchor of the CBS Evening News.  This movie, written and directed by James Vanderbilt from a book by Mary Mapes, tells the story of that report, the issues related to it, the overreaction to those issues, and the subsequent fallout.  Starring Cate Blanchett (as Mapes), Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss, and Robert Redford (as Rather), this is a good film that demonstrates how “freedom of the press” can cut both ways.

25.     “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”

If you’re old enough (like me) to remember the campy TV series of the same name, or if you would like to see an alternative to the recently introspective Bond films, this is for you.  Directed by Guy Ritchie from a screenplay by Ritchie and Lionel Wigram, this fast-paced film features Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, and Alicia Vikander.  Typical of Ritchie’s films, the script is tongue-in-cheek, and some of the scenes are downright comical.  In other words, it’s just plain fun.  While Hammer is not as good as David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin, Cavill’s Napoleon Solo is equal to that of Robert Vaughn, and Vikander (there she is again) is much more than eye candy.

24.     “Our Brand is Crisis”

Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton star in this tale, based on a true story of competing political strategists involved in the Bolivian presidential election.  Written by Peter Straughan and directed by David Gordon Green, this is mostly about the loss of idealism that eventually happens to someone who chooses politics as his or her life’s work.  I realize that my views of this movie are influenced by my earlier life as a political operative, but the film, although occasionally over the top, generally rings true, especially as it relates to how people who often begin by wanting to help mankind can get to the point where their lives are measured by election results.  It becomes particularly relevant as we watch this year’s crop of US presidential candidates wind its way through the primaries and general election.

23.     “The Revenant”

This film is beautifully photographed and well acted, especially by Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy.  However, the direction by Alejandro Iñárritu was at times very ponderous, and the film time could have been reduced considerably.  Written by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith from a book by Michael Punke, it tells a powerful story about how people (and animals) are driven by caring for their offspring and how the will to survive can be extraordinarily strong, given the right motivation.

22.     “Straight Outta Compton”

Directed by F. Gary Gray from a script by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, this movie tells the story of the early days of the rap band N.W.A., which included Eazy E (Eric Wright, played by Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Andre Young, played by Corey Hawkins), and Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson, played by his son, O'Shea Jackson, Jr.).  The film paints a gritty, realistic picture of what life was like for these young men growing up in the Los Angeles area and how those experiences were reflected in their music and affected their outlooks and views.  With a major supporting role played by Paul Giamatti, this is a powerful movie that can at times be difficult to watch because of the violence it portrays.

21.     “Brooklyn”

Written by Nick Hornby from a book by Colm Toibin, this movie is about a young, Irish immigrant, played by Saoirse Ronan, who arrives in America, lives in Brooklyn, and has to navigate the difficult transition with the help of a few characters whom she encounters, including a new, Italian boyfriend, played by Emory Cohen.  As the film progresses, she has to return to Ireland, where she faces decisions regarding her future.  Deftly directed by John Crowley, this is a small movie that paints an excellent picture of the kinds of crises and decisions often faced by those who drastically change their situations.

20.     “Suffragette”

Written by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron, this movie tells the stories of a few of the women who were active in the women’s suffrage movement in England in the 1920s.  The movement would eventually lead to British women earning the right to vote, but not before the group performed several violent acts, with many of its members being jailed.  Starring Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, and Helena Bonham Carter, the film is less concerned with the big picture and focuses more on individual women who took a stand and how those activities affected their personal lives.  Those stories are told expertly and with care in this film.

19.     “Goodnight Mommy”

This is a very disturbing German film about twin brothers and their relationship with their mother after she returns from facial reconstruction surgery.  I’m not sure if you’d call it suspense, horror, or just weird, but it continually surprises you, and just when you think you have it figured out, you realize you are wrong.  Written and directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz and released in Germany in 2014, this film stars Susanne Wuest as the mother and Lukas and Elias Schwarz as the twins.  If you are squeamish, you may want to pass on this one, but if you like a good, unusual brand of uncomfortable suspense, you can likely find it on streaming video.

18.     “Assassination”

This should not be confused with the Chinese film named “The Assassin.”  Rather, it is a Korean action film that takes place in 1933 during Japan’s occupation of Korea.  In it, a group of freedom fighters attempt to assassinate several prominent Japanese leaders and their Korean co-conspirators.  What ensues are several individuals and groups who continually cross paths, leading to an eventual climactic ending.  Although occasionally confusing, especially with subtitles, this is a wonderful film directed by Dong-hoon Choi and written by Choi and Ki-Cheol Lee.

17.     “The End of the Tour”

If you like interesting and introspective dialogue, this is a film for you.  Directed by James Ponsoldt and written by Donald Margulies from a book by David Lipsky, it focuses on Lipsky, a Rolling Stone journalist played by Jesse Eisenberg, and the five-day interview/road trip he conducted with novelist David Foster Wallace, played by Jason Segel, after the publication of Wallace’s masterpiece, Infinite Jest in 1996.  It’s a rare look into the mind of a tortured genius, and in watching it, you really feel a part of something special.

16.     “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

If you like the Star Wars trilogy—the original three movies, not the last three aberrations—you will enjoy this movie, which takes place 30 years after “Return of the Jedi.”  Writers Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, and Michael Arndt, and director Abrams capture the best elements of what made the trilogy so special.  Aided by members of the original cast, including Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, this sequel adds new characters played by Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, and Adam Driver.  The result is the kind of movie fun we don’t often get to have.

15.     “Phoenix”

A German film set in post-WWII Germany, this tells the story of a Holocaust survivor, played by Nina Hoss, whose face is disfigured by the Nazis and who undergoes facial reconstruction surgery that changes her appearance to the point where people, including her husband, don’t recognize her.  This gives her an opportunity to explore what really happened to her during the war that led to her arrest and internment.  Expertly directed by Christian Petzold and written by Petzold and Harun Farocki from a book by Hubert Monteilhet, this is a smart movie that keeps you guessing while painting a realistic and disturbing picture of Germany before, during, and after the war.

14.     “Ex Machina”

The brainchild of writer/director Alex Garland, this is an intriguing and captivating film about our fascination with artificial intelligence and the eventual possibilities of that branch of modern science.  Starring Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander (there she is again), this is an odd, intelligent, cat-and-mouse film that keeps you guessing as to who’s the cat and who’s the mouse.  Vikander plays the sexiest robot ever, who has interestingly difficult relationships with both of the male robotics experts.

13.     “Dope”

You never know where this wild ride of a movie will take you next, but it’s a blast to find out.  The film’s protagonist is played by Shameik Moore.  He and his two geeky friends, played by Tony Revolori and Kiersey Clemons, begin as the victims of the movie but eventually take matters into their own hands.  Written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa, this is a fun romp reminiscent of 80s movies like “Risky Business,” “After Hours,” and “Something Wild,” in which you encounter a series of odd situations and characters that all lead to a memorable conclusion.

12.     “The Walk”

If you are even somewhat acrophobic (afraid of heights), you should probably avoid this movie.  I’m generally OK with heights, and I still found myself leaning back in my chair so I wouldn’t fall off of the World Trade Center.  Oh, I forgot to mention that it’s the true story of Philippe Petit (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who, in 1974, stretched a wire across the two towers and crossed it, performing several difficult maneuvers in the process.  Directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Christopher Browne from Petit’s own memoir, this movie could easily have been boring, except that Zemeckis decided to construct it like a heist caper, retracing the steps and difficulties that led to Petit’s interest in and planning for what he referred to as “the coup.”  The result is a wonderful movie that keeps you involved, if not necessarily on the edge of your seat.

11.     “Southpaw”

One of two boxing movies on this list, Southpaw is about a left-handed boxer, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, whose life is turned upside down and seeks redemption by training at a small gym, whose owner, played by Forest Whitaker, is battling demons of his own.  Written by Kurt Sutter and directed by Antoine Fuqua, this movie is less about boxing and more about the loss and revival of hope, which also happens to be the lead character’s last name.  This is a very well-directed and well-acted movie that somehow got overlooked when it was released earlier this year.  The good news is that it’s easy to find on pay-per-view, streaming video, or other sources.

10.     “Paper Towns”

Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber last year wrote the lovely but depressing, “The Fault in Our Stars.”  This year, they followed that up with the screenplay for Paper Towns, which was directed by Jake Schreier.  It is a delightful coming-of-age movie starring Nat Wolff as a follow-the-rules teenager who has been in love for years with his break-the-rules neighbor, played by Cara Delevigne.   Although they’ve drifted apart, he becomes her accomplice for a night of activities that reunites them briefly and reignites his passion for her.  I won’t say any more so as not to give away the plot, but this is just a nice, tender movie that effectively explores the frailty of youth.

9.       “Trumbo”

This film, directed by Jay Roach and written by John McNamara from a book by Bruce Cook, explores the difficulties faced by screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who wrote many of Hollywood’s best films in the 30s, 40s, 50, and 60s, as well as several of his colleagues, as they were hounded for being Communists by the House Un-American Affairs Committee.  The lead character is expertly portrayed by Bryan Cranston, and the audience has the good fortune to watch an actor at the height of his craft portraying a man who was jailed and blacklisted for merely expressing his beliefs, and the ill effects that persecution had on his wife (played by Diane Lane), family, and friends.  Also starring Helen Mirren as the red-baiting gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper, this movie is more than a historical touchstone…it is a warning for what still can happen when we allow government to go awry.

8.       “The Big Short”

Directed by Adam McKay from a script by McKay and Charles Randolph, this is based on a book by Michael Lewis about the sub-prime mortgage crisis that caused the recession of 2009.  That sounds boring, and the film recognizes it, so every time something technical has to be explained, McKay uses a celebrity to explain it—someone like Margot Robbie taking a bubble bath.  It’s a great vehicle, and a lot of McKay’s directorial touches work, but the real star is the script, which addresses the incestuous nature of the relationship between the banks, the financial rating companies, and the regulatory agencies, which encouraged and thrived on fraud.  Starring Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, and John Magaro, this is a sort of comedy, but the subject matter is so depressing that you feel guilty for laughing.  Nevertheless, it should be required viewing for all Americans.

7.       “Trainwreck”

Easily the year’s funniest movie, Amy Schumer wrote and starred in this (gulp) romantic comedy about a woman who was raised to eschew commitments, thereby causing her to embark on a love life that is essentially a series of one-night stands.  Then, she meets a man played by Bill Hader, and things start to change.  This may sound like a common plot, except when done by Schumer and director Judd Apatow, it transcends the genre.  There is some raunchiness, so I wouldn’t bring the kids to see it, but one of the other aspects that make this film so unusual is the supporting cast, which includes Brie Larson, Colin Quinn, Tilda Swinton, Daniel Radcliffe, Marisa Tomei, and LeBron James, playing himself, but in a fairly large role.  Schumer’s script is fresh, interesting, and very funny, and Apatow’s direction brings it to life.

6.       “The Martian”

According to my friend Marcia Smith, my go-to expert on anything related to outer space, Andy Weir’s book is somewhat accurate from a scientific perspective, even though Weir is not a scientist.  The script is by Drew Goddard, who is not, to my knowledge, related to rocket pioneer Robert Goddard, and the director is Ridley Scott, who has made several other interplanetary movies including “Alien” and “Prometheus.”  They combine their efforts with an excellent cast including Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, and Kristen Wiig, to make a movie about an astronaut (played by Damon) who is left to survive by himself on Mars.  No, this isn’t a David Bowie song or a sequel to “Cast Away;” rather, it’s about a man surviving in a hostile environment while a team of scientists searches for a way to bring him home.  It is at times riveting, enlightening, and generally entertaining.

5.       “Mad Max: Fury Road”

George Miller first created Mad Max in 1979, and in three movies, the post-apocalyptic title character was played by Mel Gibson.  Each of those movies was interesting, although rarely subtle, but the last of them was “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” in 1985.  It is thirty years later, and Miller has made and released another Mad Max movie, subtitled “Fury Road.”  Co-written by Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris, this one casts Tom Hardy in the title role, but the real star is Charlize Theron, as Imperator Furiosa who is attempting to free a group of women who serve as “breeders” for the resident dictator and escort them to a presumed paradise known as the “Green Place.”  The odd and wonderful thing about this movie is that amidst all of its war, hatred, and noise, the most powerful aspects are the pain, loneliness, and commitment reflected in Theron’s face.  With few words, she commands the screen as few actresses can.  Of course, when you’re not looking at her face, you may also notice that the cinematography by John Seale and the special effects are far more beautiful and fully recognized than anything Miller could have done in the 80s.  If you can stand the ultraviolence of some of the scenes, you may be impressed with how Miller has eschewed typical gender roles in making a movie that at times, is visually and emotionally gratifying.

4.       “Room”

You might think that a film in which the first half features a mother and son who are held captive in a single room for years would be boring and tremendously depressing, and with less talented people involved, it very well could have been.  Quite to the contrary, this movie shows how through love and communication, people can transcend the worst of circumstances.  In fact, as the movie illustrates, dealing with societal norms and expectations can be its own form of captivity.  Before I saw this movie, I didn’t imagine that it could be nearly as good as it is, but director Lenny Abramson has taken Emma Donoghue’s words and given them to Brie Larson, who may be the most talented actress of her generation.  Add to that the otherworldly performance of young Jacob Tremblay and the outstanding acting of Joan Allen and you leave the theater wanting a sequel so you can follow the lives of these interesting and complex characters.

3.       “Spotlight”

Growing up in Massachusetts, I remember hearing stories from my Catholic friends about the occasional priest who viewed his vows of celibacy with the same degree of commitment that most Boston drivers view red lights.  And once in a while, someone would make a reference to a “father” who liked his altar boys “a little too much.”  But those were jokes, and none of us had any idea that the church was systematically condoning pedophilia and rape.  In 2001, all of that changed when the Boston Globe published a series of articles concerning priests abusing children and the Catholic church covering it up.  Little did we know at the time, but we subsequently learned that this was a worldwide problem that was systematically hidden by the Vatican’s emissaries.  “Spotlight” is the story of how those articles came to light.  Directed by Tom McCarthy from a script by McCarthy and Josh Singer, this is a powerful movie about the journalistic process and how society can exert pressure to undermine that process.  Its cast includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, and Brian d’Arcy James.  When I worked on political campaigns in the early 80s, I remember meeting and being impressed by a young reporter named Walter V. Robinson (who was played by Michael Keaton), and I can only imagine the pain he felt uncovering this story.  I wish the movie had spent a little more time examining the emotional turmoil that he and his colleagues must have endured, but that’s a minor critique of an otherwise excellent film. 

2.       “Bridge of Spies”

I’m not sure why the critics routinely dismiss movies made by Steven Spielberg, but this is an excellent movie and I’ve yet to meet a real person who saw it and does not agree with that assessment.  Written by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan), this contains great examples of all of the elements of a top-notch movie—plot, script, acting, cinematography, score, and an outstanding attention to detail in reconstructing a set and mood that perfectly conveyed the US, Germany, and Russia in the early 1960s.  The movie centers around the downing of a US spy plane flown by Francis Gary Powers (played by Austin Stowell) and the prisoner swap on the Glienicke Bridge in Germany in which Powers was returned in exchange for Soviet KGB Colonel Vilyam Fisher (aka Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, played by Mark Rylance) who had been imprisoned for five years in Atlanta.  The unlikely arbiter of this exchange was a lawyer named James B. Donovan, who is played by Tom Hanks.  Spielberg painstakingly recreates the atmosphere of the Cold War and the construction of the Berlin Wall.  Hanks displays the pressure that Donovan felt, the disdain with which he was originally treated by many Americans for defending Abel (a task he was asked to take on by the US government), and the courage required to insist that the swap include American student Frederic Pryor (played by Will Rogers).   As well as being technically superb, the movie conveys the intelligence and tension that was involved with such an undertaking.

1.       “Creed”

I’ve encountered several people who think of this movie as “Rocky VII,” and as such, they won’t see it.  But the truth is that it was made by the director (Ryan Coogler) and actor (Michael B. Jordan) responsible for the excellent 2013 film, “Fruitvale Station.”  Co-written by Coogler and Aaron Covington, it tells the story of the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers in the early Rocky films) and his quest to become a better fighter and a better person.   Named Adonis Johnson, Jordan’s character leaves his stepmother (played by Phylicia Rashad) in Los Angeles and moves to Philadelphia to enlist the help of his father’s prior opponent and eventual best friend, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone).  There, he meets a beautiful performance artist, played expertly by Tessa Thompson, with whom he develops a complex and uneven relationship.  After all of Stallone’s crappy action films, it’s easy to forget that he can act, but here he reminds us in a performance likely to garner an Oscar nomination.  The whole of this movie is much greater than the sum of its parts.  It’s not an important movie like some of the others on this list, but it’s a really good one, about achieving redemption and finding out who you are despite everyone else’s expectations.  In making this excellent and enjoyable film, Coogler and Jordan once again demonstrate that they are worthy of attention in today’s cinematic world.

So, that’s my list today.  It may change tomorrow, which is the beauty of posting it on a blog.  Please let me know if there are other movies you feel belong on this list.

The Reid Awards

And now, for the first time, I will present awards based entirely on criteria that only I understand:

  • Breakout Actress of the Year: If you’ve read the reviews above, this award will be obvious, as I present it to 27-year-old Alicia Vikander, the Swedish actress with the beautiful face and the talent to match.  She had starring or major roles in four of the movies on my list (“The Danish Girl,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” “Testament of Youth,” and “Ex Machina”) and I can only imagine how many film offers she’s received since.  We can certainly look forward to seeing her for some time.

  • The Jimmy Stewart Award for Best Actor of My Generation:  I’ve always thought that James Stewart was the best film actor of all time.  He could play the everyman (as in “It’s a Wonderful Life”), the guy under enormous stress (“The Man Who Knew Too Much”), the off-kilter fellow (“Harvey”) or the Western hero (“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”).  And he did it without a lot of makeup or even seeming like he was acting at all.  So, it takes a special actor to live up to that legacy, and I’m giving the award to Tom Hanks, who has expertly played diverse roles in movies including “Big,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Philadelphia,” “Apollo 13,” “Toy Story,” “Forrest Gump,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Captain Phillips,” “Saving Mr. Banks,” and “Bridge of Spies.”

  • The Future Meryl Streep Award for Best Young Actress: I first noticed Meryl Street in “Julia” (1977), and after that in “The Deer Hunter” (1978) and “Manhattan,” (1978).  I guess everyone else did too because they’ve been piling much-deserved accolades on her ever since.  A few years ago, I started noticing a young actress named Brie Larson, who had jumped from TV into movies like “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2011) and “The Spectacular Now” (2013).  But her breakout role was in last year’s “Short Term 12,” and that was followed this year by “Room.”  I have a feeling we’ll be showering multiple accolades on Ms. Larson throughout her career.

  • Best Comedy Written by a Comedian: I’m not sure why the studios don’t go out an hire really talented comedians to write all of the new comedies.  After all, they know what makes people laugh, as is evidenced by the writing success of Tina Fey in movies like the incredible “Mean Girls,” or Jenny Slate, who wrote and starred in last year’s “Obvious Child.” Anyhow, I present the first such award to “Trainwreck,” which was brilliantly written by the amazingly funny Amy Schumer.

  • The Young Dustin Hoffman Award:  This is a very specific award, which I am giving to Nat Wolff.  I dare you to watch Paper Towns and not think about Hoffman in “The Graduate.”  He may even have the acting chops to eventually develop into his generation’s version of the “Rain Man.”

  • The Not-So-Cute Child Actors Award:  Remember when child actors had to be either cute or precocious, but rarely acted like real children in difficult situations.  That is no longer the case, and I present this award to three young actors…Jacob Tremblay, who was outstanding in “Room,” and Lukas and Elias Schwarz, the twins in “Goodnight Mommy.”

  • Most Obnoxious Use of a Star’s Name to Advertise a Movie: OK, so this is a kind of snarky award because I kept seeing ads everywhere for “Suffragette,” starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, and Meryl Streep.  Then I saw the movie and realized that Streep’s role amounts to two tiny scenes in which she was supposed be playing Emmeline Pankhurst but seemed more like Julia Child in 1920’s garb.  This wasn’t an important role like Judi Dench’s eight-minute Oscar-winner in “Shakespeare in Love,” so the studio’s advertising her as a star is clearly misleading and obnoxious.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Best Albums of 2015

I occasionally encounter fellow boomers who complain about the sad state of music today, but when I ask them about the bases of their opinions, they inevitably refer to the pop garbage that’s played on TV and commercial radio.  The truth is that back in the 60s and 70s, there was also plenty of pop garbage (anyone remember the 1910 Fruitgum Company?), but it was a little easier to find the good stuff because there were about 90% fewer recording artists.
Now, if you want to hear good music and are willing to look for it, there is much to be found.  Hopefully, this list will help you to find some of it, although your tastes may indeed be different from mine.
Toward that point, here is my annual disclaimer:
  • I generally favor alternative rock, R&B/soul, indie rock, singer-songwriters, and inventive pop music.
  • I tend to like music that is up-front, rather than hidden by layers of production.  
  • Some of the songs on these albums have explicit lyrics.  That’s just part of rock & roll, but I apologize in advance for any offense you might take. 
  • Finally, I’m just a guy who likes music and pays for it like everyone else.  Nobody pays me to do this, sends me free samples, or wants me to meet the artists.  As a result, my reviews are not colored by what the record companies or PR mavens want me to say.  It’s just my opinion, and I invite you to agree or disagree…that’s what’s so great about music.
Observations about this year include:
  • There are more individual, female artists than ever, as well as female lead singers of bands.
  • Major sources of new and interesting artists are Canada and Australia, which seem to be producing a lot of artists willing to stretch the boundaries of popular music.
  • 15 albums out of the 60 reviewed (25%) are the first, full-length albums by their respective artists.
Unlike last year, when I put 123 albums on this list, this year, there were 82 albums that I really liked, and I have  numbered and described the top 60 and listed the others as “Honorable Mention.”  The numbering is somewhat random, because on any given day, I might want to hear one album ahead of another, and each of the “Honorable Mention” albums were really good, and could easily have made the top 60.
People often ask me, “How can you listen to so many albums to compile this list?”  So, to answer that question, here is the process I use:
  1. Each week, I open iTunes and see what has been released.  I also check with Rolling Stone and other publications. I generally ignore singles and EPs, and wait for complete albums.
  2. If there’s an album in which I might be interested (due to the artist, producer, genre, etc.), I play snippets of the songs from that album to see if it’s something I might like.
  3. If I like the snippets, I download 2-3 songs and listen to them.  If I like those, I’ll check the album again on iTunes (you can play a minute or so of each song) to see what other songs I might like from that album, and I download all the songs I like (most albums have a few songs that are not worth having).
  4. I listen to these albums at night or when I’m driving (my car has a 700 Watt system with a 12-inch subwoofer).
  5. As the end of the year approaches, I check with several sources to see if there are well-received albums I may have missed, and if so, I repeat steps 1-4 related to those albums.
  6. Once I’ve downloaded and listened to all of the albums/songs from the year, I make a playlist of the best of those albums, in alphabetical order by artist.
  7. I make another playlist with those same albums, trying to determine a ranking for them, based on the qualities I then describe below.  As I say, the rankings merely represent my feelings at the time of the writing and have no scientific basis.
  8. In writing the synopses below, I may not know much about an artist or I’ve forgotten key info, in which case I check the website for that artist as well as other sites like Wikipedia.
So, here is the product of that process, in ascending order:

60.          The Airborne Toxic Event, Songs of God and Whiskey

This LA-based quintet actually released two albums in 2015, but this one, their fifth, was the better of the two because the sound is more stripped-down while presenting a different more accessible version of a band I’ve enjoyed since their 2011 debut.  Songs include “Change and Change and Change and Change,” “The Lines of the Cars,” and “Strangers.”

59.          Meg Myers, Sorry

Tennessee-based Meg Myers combines a variety of style and influences, on her first full-length album, to expand the singer-songwriter genre by using alternative rock/techno beats and interesting soundscapes.   Songs include “Sorry,” “Lemon Eyes,” and “The Morning After.”
58.          Torres, Sprinter
Georgia-based Mackenzie Scott records under the name Torres.  Clearly influenced by Muse, her unusual brand of rock is thoughtful and inventive.  This is her third album, and it includes “Strange Hellos,” “Sprinter” and “The Exchange.”
57.          Joanna Newsom, Divers
Hailing from Nevada, Newsom’s primary instrument is the harp, but on this, her fourth album, she includes other instruments to combine with her flighty voice to make for a very unusual set of songs including “Sapokanikan,” “Leaving the City” and “Divers.”
56.          Matt and Kim, New Glow
There’s not a lot of artists in the genre of "alternative dance," but this is one of them. Among the bands coming out of Brooklyn in the mid-00s, Matt Johnson and Kim Schifino use electro-dance beats on this, their fifth album.  Songs include “Hey Now,” “Hoodie On,” and “Get It.”
55.          James Bay, Chaos and the Calm
Soon after his first single, “Hold Back the River,” went platinum, English artist James Bay released this debut album, which has been nominated for three Grammy Awards.  His beautifully expressive voice does justice to his tender lyrics on songs like “Hold Back the River,” “Let It Go,” and “Wait in Line.”
54.          The Mountain Goats, Beat the Champ
North Carolina-based John Darnielle is the driving force behind this band, which has recorded 15 albums since 1994.  Darnielle’s distinctive voice and outstanding songwriting continue to produce excellent music, such as “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero,” “Foreign Object” and “Heel Turn 2.”
53.          Rob Thomas, The Great Unknown
The former Matchbox Twenty front man from Florida and South Carolina, Thomas has had a prolific career including three solo albums and several duets, the most famous being his outstanding vocal on Santana’s “Smooth.”  This album combines his usual upbeat pop on songs like “I Think We'd Feel Good Together” with softer, more sensitive songs like “Hold On Forever” and “Pieces.”
52.          Owl City, Mobile Orchestra
Minnesota-based Adam Young performs his infectious pop under the name Owl City.  This is his fifth album, and he has brought in friends including Aloe Blacc, Hanson, and Britt Nicole on songs including “Verge,” “Unbelievable,” and “You’re Not Alone.”
51.          Wilco, Star Wars
I was very happy when Wilco’s ninth studio album was initially released as a free download on iTunes (that offer has passed).  The Chicago-based band has changed a great deal since founded as an alt country band by Jeff Tweedy in 1994, and only Tweedy and John Stirratt remain.  In addition, it would be a stretch to refer to this as a country album, which is probably why I like it.  Songs include “Ekg,” “Random Name Generator,” and “King of You.”
50.          Tobias Jesso, Jr., Goon
Formerly the bassist for The Sessions, this is the first album from this Vancouver-based artist, and it displays great songwriting, musical skills, and an uncommon level of subtlety.  Songs include “Can't Stop Thinking About You,” “How Could You Babe,” and “Leaving LA.”
49.          Martin Courtney, Many Moons
The first solo album from the New Jersey native and front man for Real Estate, this is a delightful collection of well-written songs that feel like they were released in the 70s by the band America.  Those songs include “Awake,” “Vestiges” and “Northern Highway.”
48.          The Weeknd, Beauty Behind the Madness
The Weeknd is the stage name of Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, the Toronto-based singer-producer whose tenor voice and musical skills place him at the forefront of modern R&B/Soul.  This is his third album, and songs include “Can’t Feel My Face,” “In the Night,” and “Prisoner.”
47.          Fences, Lesser Oceans
This is one of my favorite albums to review for reasons I will soon divulge.  The primary driver behind the band is Christopher Mansfield, originally from Brockton, MA, but now living in Seattle, where he was discovered by Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara, as well as by Macklemore.  Mansfield put together the quartet, including guitarist Benjamin Greenspan, who is from Newton, MA and whom I’ve known since he was a friend of my son in the early 90s.  Ben’s always been a good person, and I’m very happy for his success and how good this album really is.  But judge for yourself by listening to songs like “Songs About Angels,” “Arrows,” and “Sunburns.”
46.          We the Kings, Strange Love
The sixth album by this Florida-based pop-rock quintet is more upbeat and better produced than some of their previous efforts.  It includes toe-tapping numbers like “Love Again” and “XO,” as well as the beautiful “Jenny’s Song.”
45.          Leon Bridges, Coming Home
The debut album from Texas-based Leon Bridges (born Todd Michael Bridges) sounds like vintage Sam Cooke—which is saying a lot (I love Sam Cooke’s music).  Songs include “Coming Home,” “Better Man,” and “Lisa Sawyer.”
44.          Bea Miller, Not an Apology
I first noticed Bea Miller in 2012 as a 13-year-old contestant on The X Factor.  She was good then, but she’s gotten much better, as this debut album proves.  Her voice is pure and breathy, and although some of her music is too pop-oriented, that’s to be expected for her age.  Nevertheless, her talent is undeniable on songs like “Young Blood,” “Perfect Picture,” and the delightful “Force of Nature.”
43.          Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Aside from having the best album title, this debut album from the Australian singer-songwriter shows off her outstanding rock sensibilities and intelligent lyrics.  Songs include “Pedestrian At Best,” “Depreston,” and “Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go to the Party.”
42.          Jess Glynne, I Cry When I Laugh
The debut album from this English singer-songwriter shows remarkable depth and quality, and sounds at times like an upbeat version of Adele.  Songs include “Gave Me Something,” “Hold My Hand,” and “No Rights No Wrongs.”
41.          King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, Paper Mâché Dream Balloon
The first full-length album from this Australian septet sounds at times like the Beatles in their psychedelic phase.  The songs are fun and inviting, including “Sense,” “Bone,” and “Paper Mâché Dream Balloon.”
40.          Jeffrey Lewis, Manhattan
It’s hard to listen to Jeffrey Lewis without thinking about more experienced artists like Leonard Cohen and John Darnielle, but you can’t dismiss the outstanding lyrics of this artist, who also draws a comic book series named “Fuff.”  This album is about his hometown—Manhattan.  Songs include “Back to Manhattan,” “Outta Town,” and “Support Tours.”
39.          Joe Jackson, Fast Forward
Back when I listened to what was then called New Wave music, I first heard “Is She Really Going Out With Him,” and instantly became a Joe Jackson fan.  That was 1979, and a lot of artists have come and gone; although Jackson recorded 18 albums during that time, his relevance was very limited.  But with this, his 19th album, Joe Jackson has put together an excellent collection of songs that reflect his wisdom and continued musical talents.  Those songs include “Fast Forward,” “The Blue Time,” and “Ode to Joy.”
38.          Kehlani, You Should Be Here
Kehlani Parrish overcame a difficult childhood to record her first album last year at the age of 20.  This, her second album, is a more complete effort, assisted by several, well-known, hip hop artists, and her clear, beautiful voice shines on songs including “Jealous,” “Down For You,” and “Alive.”
37.          Josh Ritter, Sermon on the Rocks
On this, Ritter’s eighth album, it is clear why he’s considered one of the greatest living songwriters.  As usual, his songs are smart and eminently listenable, combining styles and genres in a way that few artists are able to do.  Songs include “Getting Ready to Get Down,” “Where the Night Goes,” and “Homecoming.”
36.          The Front Bottoms, Back on Top
Brian Sella is the leader of this multi-talented New Jersey-based quartet, which seems to get better with each of their five studio albums.  Their stoner affect and general irreverence masks some superb songwriting.  Songs include “Cough It Out,” “Laugh Till I Cry,” and “The Plan.”
35.          Bobby Caldwell and Jack Splash, Cool Uncle
This represents the first teaming of 64-year-old, New York-based Bobby Caldwell and Jack Splash, who’s known mostly as a producer.  On this album, they enlist the help of other artists like Mayer Hawthorne and Deniece Williams, to develop an album that could have come from the 70s (except the production is better).  Songs include “Game Over,” “Breaking Up,” and “Break Away.”
34.          Robben Ford, Into the Sun
Generally considered one of the world’s best guitarists, Robben Ford has released 17 solo albums and at least as many as a member of one group or another.  Here, he demonstrates his mastery with the help of a number of friends including Keb Mo, Robert Randolph, ZZ Ward, and Warren Haynes on songs including “Justified,” “Breath of Me,” and “High Heels and Throwing Things.”
33.          Natalie Prass, Natalie Prass
Virginia-based Natalie Prass released her debut album in 2015, to critical acclaim for her interesting use of a wide range of instruments and introspective lyrics.  Songs include “Bird of Prey,” “Why Don't You Believe In Me,” and “It is You.”
32.          Sufjan Stevens, Carrie and Lowell
One of the best indie artists since 2000, Stevens has released seven albums, but none is more heartfelt than this one, a quietly performed reflection of life with his mother, Carrie, a bipolar schizophrenic who battled substance abuse and lived with Stevens stepfather, Lowell.  This is not an easy album to hear, but it is superbly written and recorded, including “Death with Dignity,” “Should Have Known Better,” and “No Shade in the Shadow of The Cross.”
31.          Tame Impala, Currents
Led by Kevin Parker, this Australian band released its third album, drawing on psychedelic rock and using vocals that sound at times like the Beach Boys during the Pet Sounds era.  This is easily the band’s best effort so far, and we can only look forward to following Parker’s brilliance.  Songs include “Let it Happen,” “Eventually,” and “The Less I Know the Better.”
30.          Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds, The Weather Below
This Brooklyn-based septet is led by Arleigh Kincheloe (aka Sister Sparrow), and on this, their third album, they explore a wide range of blues/jazz riffs and vocal exercises.  This is one of those albums that makes you smile and tap your feet, if you can resist getting up and dancing.  Songs include “Sugar,” “Mama Knows,” and “We Need a Love.”
29.          Ivan and Alyosha, It’s All Just Pretend
This Seattle-based quartet began as a duo of Tim Wilson and Ryan Carbary, who took their band’s name from two characters in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.  This is the second album by the band to which other bands listen, because of their smart lyrics and excellent song construction.  Songs include “All This Wandering Around,” “Come Rain, Come Shine,” and the haunting “Don't Lose Your Love.”
28.          Chvrches, Every Open Eye
Pronounced churches, this Scottish band always confounds me wondering how three people can make such a rich, full sound, but part of it has to do with the excellent voice of the lead singer, Lauren Mayberry.  This is their second album, and both have made my “best of” lists.  Their songs demand to be heard, and include “Never Ending Circles,” “Leave a Trace,” “Clearest Blue,” and “Bury It.”
27.          Bjork, Vulnicura
You either like Bjork or you don’t.  If you like this Icelandic performance artist, you appreciate the chances she has taken, and continues to take, to stretch the boundaries of modern recorded music and invent new sounds and combinations that most of us have never heard before.  If you don’t like Bjork, you’re wrong.  Sorry, it’s that simple…she’s that good, as she proves again on this album, which recalls and analyzes key aspects of her recent breakup.  Songs include “Stonemilker,” “Lionsong,” “Notget,” and “Atom Dance.”
26.          Titus Andronicus, The Most Lamentable Tragedy
This is the fourth album released by the New Jersey-based rock sextet named after Shakespeare’s first tragedy, and it is by far their best, most complex album to date…a 29-song effort that examines issues as complicated as dealing with depression.  It goes where few rock bands dare to tread, and it does it with great music and emotional songwriting and singing.  Songs include “Fired Up,” “Fatal Flaw,” and “Come On, Siobhán.”
25.          Hop Along, Painted Shut
This Philadelphia-based indie-rock band was founded by Frances Quinlan and has released three, full-length albums, including this excellent effort.  Quinlan’s expressively strained vocals are backed by outstanding guitar riffs by a young band that, with this album, breaks into the big time, offering songs including “The Knock,” “Waitress,” and “Powerful Man.”
24.          Shamir, Ratchet
On this debut album, Shamir Bailey a 21-year-old performer from Las Vegas, creates music that defies characterization.  I’d describe it as androgynous, electronic, glam-soul.  Whatever you call it, you’ll find that it’s hard to turn off.  Songs include “On the Regular,” “Call it Off,” and “Darker.”
23.          Humming House, Revelries
Similar is sound to the Lumineers, this Nashville-based indie band combines banjoes, fiddles, harmonic singing, and infectious melodies into a delicious sound that will get you out of your seat.  This debut album includes “Run With Me,” “Great Divide,” and “Fly On (Forever Is Better With You).”
22.          Beth Hart, Better Than Home
Since releasing the iconic “LA Song” in 1999, Beth Hart has morphed into one of America’s best blues singers and a perennial favorite on this list.  There’s no other way to put it—the lady can sing, and she does it with style, pizzazz, and rampant emotion.  This is just good music, including “Might As Well Smile,” “Tell Her You Belong to Me,” and “Mechanical Heart.”
21.          Mat Kearney, JUST KIDS
Originally from Oregon but now from Nashville, Mat Kearney has been making really good music since his first album in 2004.  This is his fifth solo effort, and it benefits from a higher-quality production that still keeps his baritone voice front and center.  And that’s where it should be so you can hear Kearney’s deep lyrics and complementary melodies.  Songs include “Just Kids,” “Heartbeat,” “The Conversation,” and “Air I Breathe.”
20.          Blur, The Magic Whip
After several side projects, Damon Albarn and his colleagues returned to Blur, and Albarn brought with him the advanced production techniques that he and Stephen Street learned during the 12 years since the band’s last album.  This is the most polished and interesting album by the Britpop band that had six albums in the 90s and another in 2003 that most felt marked their demise.  But here they are, back with a vengeance on this excellent effort that features “Lonesome Street,” “My Terracotta Heart,” and “There Are Too Many of Us.”
19.          Grimes, Art Angels
Claire Elise Boucher is a Vancouver-based singer-songwriter-producer who performs under the name Grimes and has made four albums, including the excellent Visions from 2012 and this effort, which features songs that build in intensity and instrumentation as they progress.  Grimes is not afraid to take chances, and they usually work, both as songs and sonic expressions.  They include “California,” “Flesh without Blood,” and “Venus Fly.”
18.          Andra Day, Cheers To the Fall
Andra Day is a near-perfect R&B singer in the true sense of the words, possessing excellent rhythm and an outstanding knack for the blues.  It’s almost incredible that this is her first album, based on that level of talent as well as the talent of the people associated with the album, including Raphael Saadiq, Questlove, DJ Jazzy Jeff, the Dap-Kings, and Spike Lee.  But you’ll understand when you hear songs including “Only Love,” “Rise Up,” and “Cheers To the Fall.”
17.          Cayucas, Dancing at the Blue Lagoon
The Yudin brothers (Zach and Ben), from Santa Monica, have released two albums as Cayucas.  The sound is clean, pure indie-pop that attacks the musical senses and never backs down.  Formerly known as Oregon Bike Trails, the band combines excellent harmonies with Grateful Dead-style guitar work that makes the listener want more.  Songs include “Moony Eyed Walrus,” “Hella,” and “Dancing at the Blue Lagoon.”
16.          Sara Bareilles, What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress
A California-based singer-songwriter, Sara Bareilles has released five albums, but this one has a story.  In 2007, Keri Russell starred in a delightful movie named “Waitress,” and earlier this year, it opened as a musical at the A.R.T., featuring excellent songs written by Bareilles.  This album involves Bareilles performing songs from that musical, prior to its opening on Broadway next year.  These are really good songs, performed by a top-notch singer, and a rare chance to hear a songwriter performing her songs meant for a show.  Those songs include “Door Number Three,” “You Matter to Me,” and “She Used to Be Mine.”
15.          July Talk, July Talk
This album sounds like a series of unlikely duets between Tom Waits and Olivia Newton-John, but really it’s the Toronto-based duo of Peter Dreimanis and Leah Fay, fronting a quintet on its debut album.  Not only is the singing excellent, the songwriting exemplary, and musicianship outstanding, but the songs are oddly catchy while exploring a range of dissonant sounds.  They include “Guns + Ammunition,” “Gentleman,” and “Blood + Honey.”
14.          The Dear Hunter, Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise
This Providence-based prog-rock band should not be confused with the Atlanta-based Deerhunter.  I know it’s confusing, at least until you hear them.  It began as a side project for Casey Crescenzo, formerly of The Receiving End of Sirens, but after Crescenzo left that band in 2006, he dedicated himself to this effort.  Acts I, II, and III were released between 2007 and 2009.  Then, the band released two other albums before returning to complete Act IV this year.  It’s safe (and fun) to say that Crescenzo reached a crescendo with this album…a full realization of the type of unusual and musically challenging sound he’s been building toward.  Songs include “A Night on the Town,” “King of Swords (Reversed),” and “Wait.”
13.          Dutch Uncles, O Shudder
What makes this English quartet unusual is their use of syncopation and time signatures in an indie-pop album.  This, the band’s fourth album, features conceptually interesting music as conceived by lead singer-songwriter Duncan Wallis.  His vocals only add to the intrigue of the unusual music and production.  It’s like listening to a Steven Sondheim musical, if Sondheim was more melodic.  Songs include “Drips,” “Decided Knowledge,” and “Be Right Back.”
12.          Sheppard, Bombs Away
This first album by the Australian indie-pop band actually debuted down under in 2014, but it didn’t make it to the states until this year.  The band is comprised of three Sheppard siblings (George, Amy, and Emma) and three other musicians.  This is infectious quality pop music performed by people who know what they’re doing and seem to enjoy doing it.  Songs include “Geronimo,” “Smile,” and “The Best Is Yet To Come.”  Let’s hope that song title is a precursor.
11.          Adele, 25
For those of you who don’t realize it, Adele names her albums for her age when she released them.  When I first heard “19,” I predicted great things for the British siren, even if she lacked the glamour of many contemporaries.  “21” was one of the best albums ever made, so it would be nearly impossible to duplicate that success, and while “25” isn’t at the same level, it’s still among the year’s best albums.  It lacks the bite of “21,” which was a breakup/revenge album, but it still features the singing and songwriting talents of one of the world’s best artists.  Songs include “Hello,” “When We Were Young,” “Remedy,” and “All I Ask.”
10.          Muse, Drones
Remember protest albums?  Unless you’re my age, you probably don’t.  But this album, while not a formal protest album, confronts the modern world of war and the impersonal nature of recent conflicts.  And it’s performed superbly by one of the world’s best and most consistent bands.  The English trio, Muse, has released seven albums, and they contain one of the most complete bodies of work in the millennium to date.  If you don’t know their work, you’re missing something memorable and should go back and listen to their albums, including this one, which includes “Dead Inside,” “Psycho,” “Mercy,” and “Reapers.”  
9.            Frank Turner, Positive Songs for Negative People
This English singer-songwriter has released six albums, and this is my favorite.  Combining folk roots and electronic music with catchy melodies and thought-provoking lyrics, this is a fully recognized album that benefits from repeated listenings.  It features “The Next Storm,” “Glorious You,” and “Get Better.”
8.            Dweezil Zappa, Via Zammata’
On his sixth solo album, Dweezil has taken what he learned from his father (Frank Zappa) and combined it with modern musical approaches and production techniques to make his best album to date.  As with Frank’s music, this is not like many other albums in the way it challenges the listener to not be complacent.  It does so with songs including “Rat Race,” “Malkovich,” and “On Fire.”
7.            Marc Scibilia, Out of Style
Based in Nashville, Marc Scibilia has been involved in several recording efforts, but only two, full-length albums.  This is just good music that demands to be heard.  Scibilia’s style makes the most out of each component: songwriting, voice, instruments, and production.  I liken it to a Spielberg movie where it may not be groundbreaking but everything works together to produce a strong work of art.  Songs include “Out of Style,” “How Bad We Need Each Other,” and “Better Man.”
6.            Original Broadway Cast, Hamilton
Following up on his outstanding, Tony-winning musical, “In the Heights,” Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote and stars in the Broadway musical about Alexander Hamilton.  The album combines rap, pop, rock, R&B, and vocal music to make one of the best musical soundtracks of all time.  It’s unbelievable that an album can simultaneously be so informative, entertaining, and uplifting, but the cast and producers accomplish it, resulting in one of the year’s most satisfying albums.  Songs include “Alexander Hamilton,” “My Shot,” “The Story of Tonight,” and “You’ll Be Back.”
5.            Rhiannon Giddens, Tomorrow is My Turn
The lead singer of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Greensboro-based Rhiannon Giddens has one of the purest and most distinctive voices in music today.  Although this is her first full-length, solo album, she’s been involved with several projects including last year’s “The New Basement Tapes.”  This is an artist with a rich, rewarding future, but if you want to hear her now, listen to “Don't Let It Trouble Your Mind,” “She’s Got You,” “Black is the Color,” and “Shake Shugaree.”
4.            James Taylor, Before This World
It’s surprising that of James Taylor’s 17 solo albums, this is the first to reach number 1 on the pop charts.  But it’s not surprising that this album has been successful because it combines Taylor’s sweet voice, flawless acoustic guitar, and emotional expression with some of the best songs he’s ever written.  This is an absolutely beautiful album that can inspire the listener while bringing him or her to tears.  Songs include “You And I Again,” “Before This World / Jolly Springtime,” and a personal favorite of us Red Sox fans, “Angels of Fenway.”
3.            Seinabo Sey, Younger
It’s hard to describe Seinabo Sey.  Her mother is Swedish and her father was Gambian.  She was raised in Stockholm, and her music is hard to classify, combining soul, techno, dance, and euro-pop.  But one thing’s for sure—this 25-year-old performer can sing with the best of them.  She possesses a wealth of talent and the musical sensibility to make the most of that talent.  Songs include “Younger,” “Poetic,” and “Still.”
2.            Brian Wilson, No Pier Pressure
It’s become cliché to refer to Brian Wilson as a musical genius.  After all, as the creative force of the Beach Boys, he wrote and recorded some of the best albums of all time, including Pet Sounds, while facing scrutiny and opposition from his family and bandmates.  Wilson’s harmonies are legendary, as is his ability to find and use unusual sounds to complement the traditional music.  The pressure eventually drove him to mental instability, and his career has been checkered since the late 1960s.  As with some of his other best efforts, he intended this album to be performed by the Beach Boys, but as usual, that didn’t happen.  But this time, he turned to a slew of other performers to bring the album to fruition, including She & Him, Nate Ruess, Sebu, Casey Musgraves, Mark Isham, Blondie Chaplin, and former Beach Boys Al Jardine and David Marks.  The result is a beautiful work that harkens back to what we love about Wilson’s best work.  This may be our last chance to hear a legend, and I love it, including songs like “What Ever Happened,” “The Right Time,” “Sail Away,” and “Saturday Night.”
1.            Alessia Cara, Know-It-All
As I mentioned earlier, I remember telling people that a 19-year-old performer named Adele would go on to be a star.  Well, if you want to get in on the ground floor of another 19-year-old future superstar, here she is.  Alessia Caracciolo, who performs as Alessia Cara, has made one of the best debut albums in a long time.  This Canadian singer-songwriter has a great, natural voice, an outstanding stage presence, superb songwriting skills, and a humble confidence unusual for someone so young.  The whole album is outstanding, but a few songs to start with include “Here,” “Seventeen,” “I’m Yours,” “Wild Things,” and “Stars.”

The following are all excellent albums that deserve Honorable Mention (listed alphabetically by artist):
  • Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color
  • Becca Stevens Band, Imperfect Animals
  • Bill Ryder-Jones, West Kirby County Primary
  • Blues Traveler, Blow up the Moon
  • City and Colour, If I Should Go Before You
  • Florence + The Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
  • Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free
  • Jazmine Sullivan, Reality Show
  • Mahalia Barnes & The Soul Mates, Ooh Yea!: The Betty Davis Songbook (feat. Joe Bonamassa)
  • Majical Cloudz, Are You Alone?
  • Major Lazer, Peace Is The Mission
  • Miguel, Wildheart
  • Morgan Heritage, Strictly Roots
  • Ne-Yo, Non-Fiction
  • Of Montreal, Aureate Gloom
  • Oh Wonder, Oh Wonder
  • Olly Murs, Never Been Better
  • R5, Sometime Last Night
  • Speedy Ortiz, Foil Deer
  • They Might Be Giants, Glean
  • Troye Sivan, Blue Neighbourhood
  • Wavves, V