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

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