No, it’s not a typo: There are three #1’s on this list. Why? Because all three albums deserved to be #1 on this list. They were all that good. More interesting is that all three were records made by women from totally different points of the glove and totally different experiences working in totally different genres…all linked by a particular love of humanity and the human condition…and that’s a good thing, especially in this world. Most encouraging, is the fact that despite corporations and manufactured “stars” trying harder than ever to corner the market on musical expression, people from everywhere continue to ignore them and make the music they want…the music that speaks to them and to us. Lots of people did it and lots of people made amazing music in 2015….These are just the ones who did it best according to me. Your list probably is [and definitely should be] totally different.
- Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit [Mom & Pop]: Like the impossible daughter John Cooper Clarke, Patti Smith and Bob Dylan had on the set of a Wim Wenders film, it’s hard to tell what’s cooler about Barnett – her gift for turning the most ordinary acts and common scenery into kickass storytelling, the clattering, hook-filled indie pop she employs to hammer her stories into songs or that outback-flattened, matter-of-fact rasp she “sings” them with. For all that, possibly the most compelling thing about Sometimes I Sit and Think is the way Barnett never lets her cynicism metastasize into nihilism or misanthropy; she genuinely likes people, especially the ones she chooses to write about, whether it’s the guy who skips work and gets mistaken for a suicidal jumper on “Pedestrian at Best” or the dead woman whose house Barnett can’t bear to disturb in “Depreston” just because the price is right. Much like Lucinda Williams, Barnett has a gift for reminding us that our own mundane lives and decisions aren’t mundane to us [dude, I’ve been agonizing about getting a coffee maker for nine months now]. In its best moments Sometimes I Sit and Think feels like hanging out with that friend from school who’s smarter than you, but never seems to get their shit together. We know Barnett isn’t that person [she’s been running her own label since 2012], but it’s easy to believe every now and then, she just says “fuck it” and stays in bed eating butter pecan from the carton and binge watching Godzilla movies or something. Hope she’s got a double mattress.
- Melody Gardot – Currency of Man [Verve]:
Easily the best album of the year that nobody talked about. With her leathery voice and patient style, Gardot has always seemed wise beyond her years, but that’s probably what comes when you take up singing and playing guitar as therapy from a life-altering traffic accident. While she’s always had a wont for small “p” politics and capital “L” Love, although she’s never voiced them as forcefully before. Larry Klein’s silken production and Clement Ducol’s sly orchestrations give Currency a feeling closer to the mid 70s soul people ignored at the time [but now adore] than the Artful Jazz Gardot is best known for. Pieces like “It Gonna Come” and “She Don’t Know” feel luxuriously retro, poised at the intersection of Womack and Mayfield while “Bad News” comes off like the Tom Waits cover that Peggy Lee never got to sing. After the gripping art house R&B of “Preacherman” [based on the 1955 lynching murder of Emmett Till, Melody goes back to the sumptuous, timeless jazz that’s her first love, with predictably beautiful results. Throughout Currency of Man, Gardot, Klein and Ducol realize there’s not much new under the sun, but that old, familiar things never stop being beautiful, which is why we love them so fervently in the first place.
- Rhiannon Giddens – Tomorrow Is My Turn [Elektra/Nonesuch]: The Carolina Chocolate Drops’ pure-bred string band sound, while lovely, always seemed like a rather small vessel to hold Rhiannon Giddens’ gleaming voice and regal presence. Her T-Bone Burnett-produced debut is less of a breakout than an unveiling. Giddens sings with the assurance of someone who’s studied and prepared for this exact moment. Burnett’s expertise places Giddens’ voice squarely in a no-time existence, allowing her to take what she wants from the source material, while retaining her well-developed sense of self. Watch as she tempers the sly optimism of Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind” while cracking open Sister Rosetta’s “Up Above My Head” to find the rock and roll heart that lives in the best gospel music. Giddens has set the bar at a scary height her first time out, but shows no sign that she won’t easily reach it next time we meet her.
- Carl Hall You Don’t Know Nothing About Love: The Loma/Atlantic Recordings 1967-72 [Omnivore]:
Sometimes it seems being a soul singer is a cure to endure, a cross to bear. So many seem to have been called yet so very few have actually been chosen, the rest fated to wait it out in purgatory, awaiting justice in some other lifetime, often at the hands of obsessive crate diggers for whom the undesired obscurity is perversely electrifying. Carl Hall definitely fits the description of the called, recording a string of amazing singers on Mercury and then Warner/Atlantic subsidiary Loma with ace producer Jerry Ragovoy. You Don’t Know Nothing reprises Hall’s Loma work between the years 1967 to ‘72, a time when soul music was in flux between the bright dance pop of Tamla Motown, the gritty southern soul coming up from Memphis and Muscle Shoals and the smooth proto disco out of Philly. Listening to Hall’s stunning voice now, it’s impossible to comprehend how he could end up as anything other than a huge star, but what we forget was this was an era where Otis Redding wasn’t widely known until just before his death. More’s the pity because Hall had the total package: His four octave range had the gospel fire to turn a Tin Pan Alley chestnut like “What Kind of Fool Am I” into a hair raising, soul freezing cry in the darkness of heartache, and the unbridled emotion to tear open “The Long And Winding Road’ revealing the terrifying loneliness, the original didn’t even hint at. The title track alone is enough to justify Hall’s belated admission to the parthenon, but There’s no reason to stop there. You Don’t Know Nothing About Love is yet more proof that the well we call Soul Music is most likely bottomless.
- Sabine Devieilhe: Mozart & the Weber Sisters [Erato]: I once asked a musician why she loved Mozart so much. Her eyes fluttered like she’d just seen the most beautiful thing ever as she sighed “because he’s a genius.” About five minutes into Mozart & the Weber Sisters I understood exactly what about Mozart could turn an experienced player into a breathy fangirl. When French soprano Sabine Devieilhe tumbles into Ah! vous dirais-je maman (what we plebs know as Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star), we suddenly remember that it’s a love song. And not just a love song…a loooooveeeee song. True to the album title this is a program of pieces Mozart wrote for both Aloysia Weber [whom he tried to marry first, she said no] and her sister [the even more talented] Constanze [whom he did marry]. Devieilhe walks the line between Mozart’s musical genius and the unbridled emotion he put into his love poetry: Her coloratura can flutter like swallows’ wings while her high C’s glisten like frozen nordic peaks. Her midrange is smooth as fresh cream but can explode into a shower of sparks when passion is the order. Pygmalion, Raphael Pichon’s [Sabine’s Husband] chamber orchestra sets a perfect stage for Devieilhe, responsive and sympathetic, but never fawning or cloying. Really, it’s like getting a visit from that couple you know who are so charming and gorgeous together their stories always feel new and thrilling no matter how many times we’ve heard them. Mozart & the Weber Sisters just won the Charles Cross for album of the year, so you don’t have to take my word for it. This is hi-octane stuff from a Soprano who’s going to be the big dog on the porch before too long.
- Nadine Shah – Fast Food [Apollo ]: The elegance and ease Nadine Shah makes confessions with used to be the purview of strumming lady folkies and self-styled “piano men,” not a post punk priestess like Shah. The richly textured, densely layered post punk Shah uses to recount her tales of love, desire, emotional twists and loss is stunning because we don’t usually expect this kind of interpersonal heat inside of such cerebral art music. Comparisons to Polly Harvey and Nick Cave [who she name-checks in “Fool”] aren’t out of line, but the pre-goth sounds of Lene Lovich and/or Nina Hagen feel more accurate from here.. An Englishwoman of Pakistani and Norwegian parents, Shah’s biggest creative influence was Nina Simone, another outsider artist capable of forcing the intellect and the emotional together, splitting them into new colors. Her dark contralto is more malleable than it seems at first, enveloping the eros of “Big Hands” in blue smoke, but curdling into an arch and testy tell-off to the poseurs of “Fool” and “Living,” then rippling with regret and heartache on “Divided” and “Nothing Else to Do.” For Shah, relationships are hard, confusing and almost always in vain…but it’s also necessary and worth the risk…so she falls and we fall with her. Fast Food is likely going to become a Breakup Album for a lot of people, which is pretty high praise, really.
- Tami Neilson – Don’t Be Afraid: If you pitched it in Hollywood, they’d laugh you out of the building: The little girl from the Great White North grows up singing in the family band, paying her dues and watching the legends from just this close. Finally striking out on her own, she ends up on the other side of the world where finds the fame and laurels and true love she’s always deserved, but those old family ties are too strong, and it turns out that home is wherever your heart is…
Don’t Be Afraid would be an amazing record even without it’s backstory: Neilson’s 2014 breakthrough album Dynamite earned her honors all over her adopted home of New Zealand as well as in the UK and Europe. The celebrations were short lived, however as February of 2015 saw the death of Neilson’s father Ron Neilson, the guiding light of the Neilsons singing group that toured extensively with some success in the 90s. Instead of crumbling, Tami collaborated with her brother Jay, co writing new songs as well as re-writing and unearthing songs their father had written over his career. The result is practically a concept album about how the ones we love can never really leave us if we don’t let them. The title track is the last song Ron finished. Over an arrangement that sounds made of reverb and dusk, Neilson takes the unconditional promise of her father and makes it into hers to her own young son. You won’t find a better lyric than “Lonely” a song Tami and Jay discovered on their father’s laptop. Neilson sings it through a veil of tears and smoke rings. “I Love Were Enough” speaks to the futility of wanting to hold on to someone when you know it’s time for them to go – of course we know better, but so what? “The First Man” is a wrenching love song from Tami to her father, who has to be smiling every time she sings it.
For all the emotion gone into making it, Don’t Be Afraid is no downer. If there’s one moral here, it’s that the show must go on and songs need to be sung. Neilson takes time to laugh at her own parenting fails in “Loco Mama” while “Laugh Laugh Laugh” is two minutes of rollicky honky tonk that Minnie Pearl would have loved. If I had the money I’d happily finance the movie Don’t Be Afraid should be the soundtrack to.
- Valentina Lisitsa Plays Philip Glass [Decca]: There are moments when I have no idea how Philip Glass has been so successful for so long, since I seem to be the only person in the Western Hemisphere who actually enjoys his work [ask me about my passions for John Cage and Ornette Coleman sometime]. When I mentioned on social media how beautiful this record was, someone commented that Philip Glass and the word Beautiful has always been mutually exclusive in his experience. Ooops.
Lisitsa is known for interpreting romantic composers, but has been stretching out to record more modern figures, of which Glass is the latest. The result is surprising in it’s sheer beauty. It’s as if she used her previous collection of Michael Nyman works as a crucible to crack the glass code into her own Romantic language. It’s probably not surprising that she does newer film works for the most part, which are more melodic and reflect the loveliness of her playing well. Most interpreters of Glass default to the base geometry of his work, which tends to swallow the personae of all but the strongest players [which is why even smart people think all Glass sounds the same]. Valentina seems to have no trouble imbuing Glass with a shimmering sonic prettiness that transforms the hard edges of sharp angles we usually expect from Glass into glittering crystal structures. It’s all so engaging and haunting that one almost doesn’t realize this is a double album. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d love to see Lisitsa commissioned a Glass composition specifically for her to play. In the meantime, play this for that person [or persons] in your life who can’t stand Phillip Glass. Maybe, just maybe…
- Pops Staples – Don’t Lose This [Anti]: In a civilised nation, Roebuck Staples’ face would be on money. At least he left us with one last riveting document of his quiet greatness. Originally recorded as demos for a final Staples Singers record, a dying Staples left the tapes in the care of his daughter Mavis, telling her “Don’t lose this.” She didn’t, though it took nearly 15 years to turn the original recordings into an album. Mavis took the demos to Jeff Tweedy, producer of her recent “comeback” albums. Tweedy didn’t produce a record, so much as build a pedestal for Roebuck to deliver a final address from, adding his own bass work, the drumming of his son Spencer and the backing vocals of Mavis, Yvonne and Cleotha Staples. The final result is as direct and immediate as the Staples’ classic Vee Jay gospel records as Roebuck’s voice and tremolo guitar act as a magnetic center that the sisters revolve around. The ten tracks are amazing simple gifts from a man brave enough to realize that love, friendship and faith are the most courageous acts of revolution anyone can commit. When Roebuck Staples says Don’t Lose This, he’s talking about bigger things than just a record album.
- Leon Bridges – Coming Home [Columbia]: There’s an era that never really existed, but people still remember like it happened to them yesterday. It’s a time when all the music was great, everyone loved and respected each other, People had the Power, Beauty and Truth walked hand in hand, and True Love could conquer fear, hate, oppression and evil in time for the Hero to walk off into the sunset. None of that ever happened, and shows no signs of ever happening now. But for the time it takes to listen to this record , you’ll believe it’s all true. It’s not, but damn, it feels good thinking it might be. It’s obvious Bridges is dedicated to bringing the classic soul sounds and styles into the modern arena, but it’s also clear that he wants to be more than just an curator or revivalist. Coming Home always sounds warm and real, never antiquated or reconstituted. Bridges isn’t afraid to stretch boundaries either; his flair for open verses and extended melodies turn tracks like the biographical “Lisa Sawyer” from soul to Art Song. The only downside here is the short running time [only 34 minutes], that leave us fearing Bridges hasn’t anything left in the tank after his opening statement. We won’t know about that until we know, but for now, even a small slice of heaven is heavenly.
- Duo Jatekok – Danses [Mirare]: Anyone who still thinks piano recital albums must be scholarly affairs needs to hear this record. For their debut recording, Adelaide Panaget and Nairi Badal unleash their four-handed piano sorcery on a series of miniatures and danses by Borodin, Ravel, Grieg and Barber with never a dull moment. Running the spectrum from multi coloured fireworks to muted, pastel nocturnes, the duo’s technique never feels forced or gimmicky. It would be easy to believe they’re actually twins separated at birth and not just long time friends and classmates who naturally evolved towards each other. There will probably be a more lauded piano recital this year, but there won’t be a better or more exciting one.
- Jerry Lawson – Just a Mortal Man [Red Beet Records]: How did the we get along without Jerry Lawson’s voice being famous? After a 40 year run with cult a cappella group the Persuasions, Lawson’s “debut” album feels like a masterwork a lifetime in the making. The elegant, restrained AAA backing that producer Eric Brace stages allows Lawson’s voice to own every moment of this record. Weathered, tender and glowing with earned wisdom, Lawson gives the quiet defiance of “Peace Like a River” power a thousand shouting voices can’t equal, while rocking “Never Been to Memphis” with classy warmth. “I Hope That Love Always Knows Your Name” trembles like that goodbye you gave the one you loved enough to let go of, but can’t forget. Because he knows he’s great, Lawson makes it all sound simple and effortless; Part of wisdom is knowing Mortal Man is the highest accolade one can hope for. An Album of the Year Contender.
- The Milk Carton Kids – Monterey [Anti]: You should probably see the Milk Carton Kids live before buying any of their albums. Their elegant melodies introspective lyrics, dexterous fret work and heart-splitting harmonies are almost too much to take without the good humor they sprinkle throughout their live show. Their po-mo take on Smothers Brothers values is almost a necessary leavening for the earnest beauty of their music. Kenneth Pattengale & Joey Ryan recorded the songs on Monterey at while on tour at various venues pre-show, which ties in with the album’s “concept” of travel, but the songs don’t convey the feeling of escape. There is a sense of motion: uncertain rootlessness without set destination. These are stories of people who are always moving, but ending up at the same place [ask any touring musician what that’s like]. Because Pattengale and Ryan are so committed to their songs, the quieter Monterey gets, the more you feel it. While that’s how folk music is supposed to work, it’s rarely the case, which is what makes this record so special.
- Son Little [Anti]:
In a year when post-Winehouse retro soul finally broke through, Son Little seems to have looked through the open door and found only questions: What does it mean that the only non rap avenue for a black performer is a sound and pose that [good as it is] often serves to remind people [black and white] of the “good old days [which weren’t actually that good for black people who were there]”?
The literal son of a preacher and a teacher, the former Aaron Livingston, doesn’t think outside the box so much as having simply refused to start inside it. Leaving his home in LA to move in and out of scenes in NYC, NJ and Philly, collaborating with the likes of RJD2 and the Roots, Livingston doesn’t eschew retro-soul ideals, but has no desire to be hemmed in by them. His first full length release reveals a vision as wide and varied as any album in any genre you’ll find. If anything, the era Livingston seems to connect with is that shadowy period post-Motown and Pre-Disco, when anything went artistically even as hits became harder and harder for black artists to find. Throughout the album he seems to relish being impossible to pin down to one scene, one sound. This may hurt commercially in in the short term, but the songs, sounds and ideas on Son Little reveal a big thinker with the long game to outlast any retro boomlet or AAA flirtation with the past. Watch this space.
- Various Artists – Ian Levine’s Solid Stax Sensations [Kent/Ace]:
I swear those liars at Kent/Ace said they had enough stuff in their vaults to go another five years…about 12 years ago. I figured they would at least run out of things to surprise us with by now if not out of things. Wrong again. Working with legendary DJ, songwriter, record collector and all around Northern Soul Sage Ian Levine, they’ve delivered Solid Stax Sensations, a pacey set of 25 dancers from a label not usually known as a source of Northern dance sides. The ever thorough Levine digs deep here, finding b-sides, UK singles and one offs not just on Stax, but on it’s subsidiary imprints like Enterprise, Truth, Volt and Hip, almost all of it from the post-Atlantic era that collectors and scholars consider to be inferior to the label’s greatest stuff. Wrong again. Track after track we can’t help thinking that all these sides needed to really shine was a context of their own, free from the shadow of Stax’s legendary heyday. Joni Wilson smoulders and stings on “[Let Hurt Put You In The] Loser’s Seat,” a mid tempo b side dancer co-written by George Clinton, while the equally mysterious Collette Kelly swings her way through “City of Fools.” A supposedly washed up Major Lance kills it on the Hitsville-flavoured “Since I Lost My Baby’s Love” and William Bell’s B-side “Man In The Street” from ‘73 shows the socially conscious direction Stax would take under Al Bell’s leadership as does the [underrated] Newcomers’ “The Whole World’s A Picture Show, with it’s thoroughly un-Stax, proto TSOP sound. While there are a few artists here non-obsessives will recognize [Bell, David Porter, Rance Allen], most of these cuts seem like Stax attempts to test new waters, maybe dispense with their Memphis image [the south was getting mighty crowded with the advent of Willie Mitchell and Al Green down at Stax and Atlantic was mining gold down in Muscle Shoals so it’s easy to believe Stax was feeling boxed in and wanted to break out. It wasn’t to be, but we can still enjoy the fruits of their labors. Kick off your next all nighter with this floorfiller and their efforts will be anything but in vain.
- Christian Scott – Stretch Music: Jazz and Hip Hop have always had much in common. Both began as afrocentric rebel musics taking everything that preceded them and recasting them in a new and radical form that initially terrified the status quo until intellectuals and hipsters showed up to “explain” it to the masses followed closely by music biz suits just looking for the money. Christian Scott seems to innately understand the importance of both forms as cultural touchstones and Stretch Music is a bracing and eloquent proposition to how the spirit of both musics can exist in the same space. Scott’s compositions can feel like he’s written them on turntables and faders as instruments, beats, synths and drums bounce back and forth in a dubby alternaverse, each finding their own space and time to shine. Scott claims to be heavily influenced by music of the 60s, but Stretch Music feels and sounds totally up to date, with no concession to “old skool” values that can make jazz players stiff and mannered and hip hop artists forget about danceable beats in the name of “consciousness” — what someone recently described as “Pitchfork Rap”. The best part of Stretch Music is how rich, sweet and varied it’s musical fruits really are, despite how serious and task-oriented the 32 year old Berklee double grad comes off in interviews. Like Dizzy and Cool Herc knew, it doesn’t matter how important your message is, if you can’t get people to listen to it. Christian Scott isn’t likely to have that problem any time soon.
- Trixie Whitley – Porta Bohemica: When someone like Trixie Whitley comes along, we start to regret having worn out words like “soulful” and “honest” and “artist” and “poet” on art and artists who proved unworthy of those titles – But in a way it’s good that we don’t have easy defaults to describe her music; we have to take extra time to soak it in, think it over and figure out what it really means to us. Really though, what can you say about a singer who so willingly turns themselves inside out to show us their inner works? What really impresses about Whitley isn’t how she bares her heart and soul, but that she manages to do it on her terms, using her personal palette, whether it’s the secretive impressionism of “Salt,” the slow burning expressionism of “Hourglass” or the neo-Romanticism of “Eliza’s Smile” Whitley is able to paint who and what she is at that moment, compelling us to fall through the windows she opens over and over again. And [like her late father Chris], seems to do it with such ease, causally wiping paint and clay from her hands while we fall to the gallery floor, drained and spent, but never sated.
- Shovels and Rope – Busted Jukebox Vol. 1: I keep a picture of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent [singing their hearts out] on my phone to remind me why I’ve been obsessed with True Love and Great Music all my life and why it wasn’t a complete waste of time. Yes,I’m perfectly aware they have ups and downs like anyone else, but hearing their voices circle around each other on verses only to embrace on choruses sounds like the truest kind of love…at least to a weary, wary guy like myself.. Not content making great records of their own songs, they spent their off time this year making an album of ingeniously chosen covers, each with a different “guest star.” The Result is Busted Jukebox Vol. 1, a rattling ride through American rock, punk, soul and country with the President and First lady of cool in the front seat pointing out the sights. While every song feels like a highlight, there are three that feel like magnetic north, even though they come from three totally different realities The way they turn “What’s So Funny [‘Bout Peace Love And Understanding] into a hymn for those who can’t find a damn thing to believe in anymore just proves how connected they are to the song and each other. The “Duo Duet” of “Patience” with The Milk Carton Kids finds the tenderness that G&R were too egocentric to bother looking for [and the pirouetting Kenneth Pattengale nylon solo may be the prettiest thing recorded anywhere all year]. Along with J.D. McPherson, they reveal Toussaint McCall’s “Nothing Takes The Place of You” for the country hit nobody realized it was until now. As this is written S&R are touring theatres with Jason Isbell, but hopefully they’ll find time to start working on Vol. 2.
Bettye Lavette – Worthy
Various Artists – King Jammy’s Roots Reality
Chic Gamine – Light A Match
Joyce DiDonato & Antonio Pappano – Joyce & Tony Live At Wigmore Hall
Nikki Hill – Heavy Hearts, Hard Fists
Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds
Jim Lauderdale – Soul Searching
Various – King Jammy’s Roots Reality
The Courettes – Here Are The Courettes
The Jackets – Shadows of Sound
Lonelady – Hinterland
Ibeyi – s/t
Gang of Four – What Happens Next