Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Top 10 CDs 2015

It is that time again, time to consolidate a year's worth of music into a few posts, some personal assessments, a few flowery words, a YouTube or two, and a ranking of talent which is completely subjective.

As in years past, to make the list, I had to have purchased the CD this year. I had to give my hard earned coins to the artist as a token of appreciation for the gift they gave to me, not just free rolled it on Spotify or some such service.

In all honesty, an album has a better chance of making the list if I have had a chance to see the artist do it live, and if it is a second or third or fourth album, it helps to be better than what came before it. I know both seem to present certain conflict with the theme of the list, but that's how I roll. If you cannot do it live, I don't care what you can do in the studio, and if you dropped an album that I fell in love with, it is hard for me to escape that, so follow-ups need to go further, make me hear something new. As you'll see neither will prevent a CD from making the list, but placement on the list is often impacted.

What's different about this year's list is I find myself with more time on my hands, so I will be progressively releasing it. I'll be doing two a day, which will hopefully give you more time to digest and appreciate the list, maybe even purchase some of the music (if you haven't already) to enjoy for yourself.

Up first are two CDs that didn't actually make the list because they didn't present new music, so I didn't know what to do with them. They were both live CDs and both blew me away for different reasons. I have been enamored with live releases since I came across Nighthawks at the Diner in my mom's record collection. Then I found the Allman Brother's Band Live at Fillmore East a CD by which all others would soon be judged. These two are worthy.

Ryan Adams - Live at Carnegie Hall: This CD goes straight to the core of what I love about music. Despite all the amazing times I've had playing in bands, at the end of the day,it starts with one instrument, one voice, and some words. So hearing Adams strip it down and perform all my favorites is everything I could ask for. His voice is resounding and true. His exchanges with the audience are witty and offer insight into the humanity of an artist that often appears larger than life. Although the double disc offers some duplication, there are subtle variances that make me not care. For fans of Adams, it is a must own. For fans of singer/songwriters that are not familiar with his work, it will make you a fan of his.

Amos Lee - Live at Red Rocks with the Colorado Symphony: In contrast to the stripped down sets of Ryan Adams, Amos Lee paired up with the Colorado Symphony and filled the space between Earth and heaven. Without question, this is the most beautiful CD I have ever heard. Again, it is filled with fan favorites of Lee, but having the backing of the Colorado Symphony made it something incredibly special, something that could not be re-produced, something that we are lucky they captured so we could all live in the splendor of this recording. Lee has long been a favorite of mine; his storytelling and voice strike a chord with me; and, when backed by the Colorado Symphony in this majestic setting, he creates something other worldly. For those that have not bathed in the textures of this recording, stop reading this and go purchase a copy. You will not be disappointed.

Before I begin revealing the list, I feel compelled to share some of the artists that did not make it. In total I purchased 33 CDs this year, and probably previewed 100 or so more. If I did an annual Top 25, these albums would definitely be on it: Samantha Fish, Wildheart; Patty Griffin, Servant of Love; Alex Preston, Alex Preston; Adele, 25; Silversun Pickups, Better Nature; TheDecemberists, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World; Dawes, All YourFavorite Bands.

And here is my Top 10 of 2015:

#10 James Bay - Chaos and the CalmI am not even sure how I learned about James Bay. I think I was just chasing links on YouTube, and I saw this young cat with an old Epiphone Century. As a guitar nerd there was immediate respect, so I clicked, and then...then there was the voice, whispy yet so full of soul. Like Ed Sheeran and other young singer/songwriters, James is able to merge modern beats and rhythms while paying homage to the great soul music that came before. It is often challenging for an early release to remain on the list, as new releases push it to the back of the rotation until it becomes lost, but Chaos and the Calm was able to stay relevant. It is a great windows down CD, something to drive to, something to play in an attempt to escape the pressures of the day. Stand out tracks for me, "Let it Go," "Move Together," "Hold Back the River," and "Collide." There is a little something for everyone on this disk, a fair amount of sad bastard tunes (my personal favorite), some anthemic songs designed to lift your spirits, and a good selection of ass shakers.

#9 Glen Hansard – Didn’t He Ramble: Until yesterday I wasn’t sure what CD would end up in the 9 spot, and I think the determining factor was an absolutely incredible performance put on at the Pageant by Hansard. I’ve seen him several times, even based a roadtrip around catching him in Chicago one year, so I knew what to expect, but this show was something different. There seemed to be more joy, less need for acceptance and more acceptance of his genius, like he has finally settled into the fact that he is amazing. Didn’t He Ramble is more of a brooder, something you really need to sit down and listen too. Previous recordings with the Swell Season and even Rhythm and Repose were more immediately emotional. He gets there, on tracks like“My Little Ruin,” offering that crescendo that allows us to feel what he is saying, but the majority of the disc is heady, it sits in a numb-zone where there are fewer feelings and more thoughts. His voice is still the blanket that we all want to snuggle up with, and his sincerity continues to offer respite in a world of false profits.

#8 Samantha Crain – Under Brand & Thorn & Tree: Samantha Crain has probably appeared on my Top Ten lists more than any other artist. She is prolific and continues to grow CD after CD. Her songwriting gets stronger, and she continues to sonically advance her music, making creative choices that prove she cannot be tamed. Under Brand & Thorn & Tree opens with “Killer,” lyrically earnest but musically whimsical, offering a synth part that tries to distract the listener from the subject at hand, “The killer of girls, the killer of self; turned the Garden of Eden into a fiery hell.” Her voice is as distinct as I have ever heard, and I have seen her pull it off live for years whether backed by full band or just her and her trusty Martin. The album is full of gems. Standouts for me: “Outside the Pale,” “You or Mystery,” “Moving Day,” and “Cold Hands.”

#7 Death Cab for Cutie – Kintsugi: I cannot pronounce it, but I sure do love to listen to it. I hate to say it, but a sad Benjamin Gibbard is better than a happy one. He was too content when he was married to Zoey, as evidence on Codes and Keys and his solo recording, both decent recordings, but Kintsugi is Gibbard at his best, scorned and passively letting us know it. Okay. I cannot prove any of that, but in my mythical land of star relationships this was a contributing factor to the brilliance of this recording. Of course, Chris Walla is also at his best on Kintsugi, and we are all still mourning his departure from the band, but the tapestry of sounds he has created is inspiring. I cannot stand this disc because every time I think I’ve solidified four or five standouts, I listen to the next song, and I am equally enamored. Lyrically, Gibbard is up there with Waits, Foucault, Isbell, and Farrar. He tells universal stories, and he makes them accessible to all while applying every poetic device available. Kintsugi deserves an hour of your time with headphones and no distractions. You’ll emerge better from the experience. 

#6 Jason Isbell – Something More than Free: Those that know me and follow my daily drops of music on Facebook, probably thought by name alone this was going to be #1. There was a period of time when I assumed it would be too. There is no question that I think Jason Isbell is one of the best, if not the best, singer/songwriters, and not of this generation, but of all generations. For years, Nighthawks at the Diner by Tom Waits was my all-time favorite CD, and then Southeastern happened; it assumed the #1 position. During his recording process, I remember reading Tweets from Isbell indicating that he believed Something More than Free was gonna be better than Southeastern, and maybe it is, maybe its genius is above me or maybe I am such a glutton for sadness that the vibe on Free just doesn’t hit me like Southeastern did. That is not to say it is not a great CD; obviously it is. I mean, it’s on the Top 10 of the year. Isbell continues to write songs that I wish had come from my pen. He paints pictures so vivid that I can see them unfold before me like 8mm shorts. “Speed Trap Town,” “Something More than Free,” “To a Band that I Loved,” and “Hudson Commodore” were standouts for me. I think what placed this mid-pack wasn’t the songwriting but the production. I am infatuated with the starkness of Southeastern, the woody sound of Isbell’s Martin, the way that it makes me feel like he is sitting in my room singing to me. I realize it isn’t fair of me to expect an artist to duplicate the sound of previous recordings, to stay in their foxhole for another 12 songs, but life ain’t fair and I love what I love. While Something More than Free reinforces the strength of Isbell’s storytelling and word choice, the distance of the recording prevented me from becoming fully obsessed.  Knowing how calculated he is, I am sure that there is a metaphor here, maybe the distance in sound represents the distance from his demons, and for that he deserves applause.

 #5 Chris Stapleton –Traveller: I am a fucking lemming. I’ll admit it, I had never even heard of Chris Stapleton before the CMAs and his breakout performance. And even then I didn’t immediately buy the disc, but after seeing it pop-up on some respected end-of-year lists, I followed the masses, and I am glad I did. This dude is brilliant. Sincere. Eloquent. Weathered. Earnest. And he sings with the soul of an old church pastor who has caught the spirit. I thought I was gonna get a disc with a bunch of throwaways, trite modern country ditties with weak metaphors and obvious pop-culture references, but Traveller is the exact opposite. It is timeless. I could listen to “Tennessee Whiskey” on repeat and never grow tired. “Sometimes I Cry” has me coming back for more with Stapleton’s husky voice at full growl and single coils screaming into a dirty amp, but “Whiskey and You” captures the starkness that I love so much, just a woody guitar, an incredible voice, and a story that plays on the strings of emotions coursing through my body.

One’s the devil, one keeps driving me insane
At times I wonder if they ain’t both the same
But one’s a liar that helps to hide me from my pain
And one’s the long gone bitter truth
That’s the difference between whiskey and you

#4 Alabama Shakes –Sound & Color: Well, you should know that the placement of this album at #4 has placed me in the doghouse with my wife. If Amanda was writing this list, Sound & Color would get the top honors, but she’s not, and I need to remain authentic. I love this recording and am continually impressed with each listen. They are spreading the fabric of soul, refusing to be locked into patterns and instrumentation. When incredible singers, such as Adele, are listing you as a favorite:

As a band I love their vibe, the way they look and interact – all with their own little character going on, but I'm obsessed with (lead singer) Brittany Howard. There's something about Brittany that puts fire in my soul. She reminds me of Etta James, Ann Peebles – she's so fucking full of soul, overflowing, dripping, that I almost can't handle it.

You’ve officially earned your badassery. Everything Adele said is true, as is every reason my wife has for Sound & Color being higher on the list, but the wall I run into is connection. At my core, I am a writer, as a result I am drawn to strong lyrics, lines like this Tom Waits gem, “And the sky turned the color of Pepto Bismol.” I want to peel back the layers. I want to hear phrases that paint pictures for me when I close my eyes. I want the details, what the room smelled like, how your skin felt, what you were wearing, who else was there. I want to be in the moment with every one of my senses. And while this album gives me all the feels, for the most part, my mind is blank when listening with shutters drawn. Sometimes music transcends lyrics. I appreciate that concept, which is why I placed it in the Top 5. If you are a music first devotee, feel free to drop me some hate in the comments. I can take it. I’ll read them while sleeping on the couch – jokes, I am too warm for my wife to kick me out of bed.

#3 City and Colour – If I Should Go Before You: Dallas Green is back and he dropped a CD that makes me weep. Of the CDs on the list, this is the one I would be most likely to have recorded, if I had an incredible falsetto. Sonically it sits between Alt-Country and Indie Rock with ample amounts of pedal steel and atmospheric delays. If I should… was a love at first listen CD. Often, when an artist I am obsessed with releases new material it takes me a while to warm to it, as I am still clinging to the love of the previous recordings, but “Woman” smacked me in the face, held me tightly, and let me know I was loved. The 11 tracks range from sultry to contemplative. Green provides a range of emotions for his listeners to experience. Like, The Hurry and the Harm, he refuses to shy away from discussion on the finality of this existence, something a lot of us 40 somethings are tackling this New Year. Standout tracks: “Woman,” “If I should go before you,” “Friends,” and “Blood.” The recording has a nice flow allowing an easy front to back listen and it spent days on repeat in my car.   

#2 Jeffrey Foucault – Salt as Wolves: My obsession with Foucault is well documented. The first time I heard Stripping Cane, I was moved in ways I didn’t think possible. He is the consummate poet. With each song he pulls back the curtains and allows his listeners to watch a new vignette unfold before them. While previous recordings have been acoustic forward, Salt as Wolves comes from the dirt, gritty guitars, driving drums, and open space. Foucault offers a respite from the drive with tunes like, “I Love You (and You are a Fool)” which feature a nice down tempo and a clean Tele telling part of the tale. “Blues for Jessie Mae” is another down tempo number with a thick slide for accent and subtle guitar riffs played in the distance while Foucault’s voice sits up front, inviting you to bear witness to the moment. Tremolo is used liberally throughout the recording, but I never tire of it. Salt as Wolves was cut live to tape in three days at a studio in rural Minnesota. The energy and precision that it takes to accomplish a task of that magnitude can be heard in the details. This is another recording where I cannot solidify the standouts. The disc works as a whole, each song supporting the totality of the movement. Foucault’s voice always sounds incredible, and this recording is no different, each tune features the thick, rich, sound of a father’s baritone, and while he is two years my junior, I would happily sit at his feet and let him teach me about life.   

#1 the Oh Hellos – Dear Wormwood: Brother and sister harmonies backed by an insanely large touring band complete with two drummers, three (sometimes four) guitarists, fiddle, banjo, keys, bass, and whatever else they want to bring to the show…what’s not to love? Right now, I need you to forget everything else you have read on my Top 10 of 2015 because this CD transcends all of that. This recording is about an emotion that is often foreign to me, joy. That’s not to say I am not happy. I am. I have a great life, a life I am grateful to have, but I don’t often stop long enough to appreciate it. However, when I put on this CD, everything disappears and I am overcome with this sense of exaltation. It is not just the words or the music. It is the energy that the combination creates. The album moves from moments of calm to sheer an unbridled exuberance, “Dear Wormwood” taking you through both in 5 minutes and 16 seconds. This often happens on my Top 10 lists, I seem to have the least to say about the #1. It’s because my reasoning isn’t explainable. It is an emotion that I have in response to music, and I am hopeful that you will have the same response when you listen to this CD. 


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