Every December, my buddy Sam invites a bunch of his friends to share their ten favorite songs from the previous year. It’s a fun little exercise to go back over all the stuff I listened to from the past year and try to come up with a ranking. In compiling my list for this year, I came to the conclusion that 2015 was a pretty bitchin’ good year for music. Looking over the cuts I had to make, I found that several of my favorite artists—Frank Turner, Steve Earle, Ryan Bingham—put out stuff that I liked but just couldn’t fit in here. And new artists that I discovered and really enjoyed, like Courtney Barnett, ended up on the chopping block as well. Competition was stiff.
As always, this list boils down to my own personal preferences. There’s no hip-hop, because I pretty much stopped listening to hip-hop in 1999. There’s nothing that you’d really call “pop,” because I’d rather hang myself with a microphone cord than listen to a Justin Bieber song. There’s no Adele because she’s just not my thing. It’s mostly singer-songwriter shit, mostly acoustic, with a dash of ’70s-inflected soul and country and rock in there. You know, the best kind of music. Hope y’all dig it.
First, honorable mentions: Small Poppies, Courtney Barnett (this one was the last cut and toughest omission); The Next Storm, Frank Turner; Dime Store Cowgirl, Kacey Musgraves; Gates of Dawn, Heartless Bastards; Better Off Alone, Steve Earle; Island in the Sky, Ryan Bingham; Rock & Roll Is Cold, Matthew E. White; Tennessee Whiskey, Chris Stapleton.
Now, on to the top 10
10. When I’m With You, The London Souls
This New York City duo released their second album this year, and When I’m With You was the lead track on that record. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a band that sounds so much like Big Star. And I LOVE Big Star.
9. 24 Frames, Jason Isbell
The album Something More Than Free was former Drive-By Trucker Isbell’s follow-up to Southeastern, which was probably the best album of 2013. It was going to be impossible to live up to that record, and I didn’t think this year’s album was quite as good, but it still had a few gems on it. 24 Frames in particular is Isbell at his best: insightful, witty lyrics (“You thought God was an architect, but now you know/He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow) backed by a howling guitar track.
8. Short Haired Woman Blues, Dave Rawlings Machine
It’s no secret that I’m a pretty goddamn big Gillian Welch fan, and everybody knows that a huge part of what makes Gillian such an amazing artist is her symbiotic partnership with Dave Rawlings—who I happen to think is pretty much the best guitar player alive. The duo hasn’t put out an album under Gillian’s name since 2011, but this year they released Nashville Obsolete under the Dave Rawlings Machine moniker. The album is chock-full of lavishly arranged folk tunes, none more beautiful than this one. When the fiddle, played by Brittany Haas, comes crashing in over top of Rawlings’ guitar solo near the end of the song, it’s so powerful that it reminds me of the end of Led Zeppelin’s The Rain Song—and that’s a pretty fucking huge compliment in my world.
7. The Only Thing Worth Fighting For, Lera Lynn
Yes, the second season of True Detective sucked. You could pretty much say that everything about it sucked, if it weren’t for Lera Lynn. The Nashville-based singer-songwriter was the heroin-chic girl in the dive bar scenes, and the songs she wrote with T Bone Burnett and Rosanne Cash helped give the show its dark, threatening vibe—especially The Only Thing Worth Fighting For, the song that was included in the first trailer. There’s something almost … murderous about this song. I love it. True Detective’s scripts may have sucked. The acting may have sucked. But Lera Lynn was—and is—awesome.
6. How Much Light, Ryan Adams
The vast majority of the press Ryan Adams got in 2015 was for his full album cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989. As someone who has been a hardcore fan of his for nearly a decade, I find this infuriating. The most prolific—and arguably most talented—songwriter of a generation gets the most plaudits and attention of his entire career for doing a bunch of covers of shitty electro-pop songs? I appreciate that Adams has found the creative independence that he’s wanted for his entire career, but this album, along with the mixed bag of singles he’s released in the last year or so, shows that maybe the record labels he fought so much with early in his career were right to ask him not to release everything he was recording. With all that said, the guy is still a hell of a songwriter when he puts his mind to it—I’m certainly looking forward to his next album of originals, which he has apparently already recorded. How Much Light was part of an album he discarded prior to last year’s self-titled release last year, and he put it out as a single in 2015. (Also, I was at the Carnegie Hall show the above recording comes from.) It’s a snapshot of haunting melancholy that sums up what Adams does best. More of this, please, Ryan.
5. Father’s Day, Butch Walker
I said some mean things about Ryan Adams in the previous entry, so let’s throw some additional compliments his way, and give him credit for something pretty awesome he did in 2015: producing one of my favorite albums of the year, Butch Walker’s Afraid of Ghosts. The record is primarily a rumination on the death of Walker’s father, and this is the track that most explicitly addresses that subject. I’m very close to my father, and this song gives words to a feeling I dread having to experience someday.
4. Church, Gary Clark Jr.
This year, the Austin-based guitar god released his second major label studio album, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, and the record continued to push forward Clark’s synthesis of blues, rock, and soul (with a dash of hip-hop). By far my favorite track was the modern acoustic blues gospel song Church. Listen to that jangling guitar, that harmonica, those vocals: “Looooooord, my looooord/I need your helping hand.” You’ll start tapping your feet, and by the second chorus you won’t be able to help belting out the words along with Clark.
3. Better Man, Leon Bridges
Sam Cooke lives! Not really, but fuck me, Leon Bridges sounds like he’s singing at the Apollo Theater in 1964. He’s from Dallas. He’s 26 years old (and looks about 15). He put out his debut album, Coming Home, this year. He fucking sounds like Sam Cooke.
2. Baby Britain, Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield
Elliott Smith is probably my favorite songwriter of all time, and like any serious fan of an artist who has died, I’m very protective of his songs. So, when I heard that one of the Avett Brothers was doing an album of Elliott covers, I was not pleased. And then I listened to it … and it’s GREAT. In particular, Jessica Lea Mayfield’s haunting vocals manage to capture the pathos in the lyrics to these songs. This album is a must for any Elliott fan.
1. Went Looking for Warren Zevon’s Los Angeles, Lucero
You know how sometimes a song feels like it was written specifically for you? That’s how I feel about Lucero’s entire 2015 album, All a Man Should Do. It’s largely a record of sad, reflective songs about hangovers and broken hearts—two things I’m intimately acquainted with. I loved so many songs on this album, from the horn-infused Throwback No. 2 to the uptempo Young Outlaws to the Big Star cover I’m in Love With a Girl. I came very close to picking I Woke Up in New Orleans, a song about being strung out and lonely that happens to be set in my favorite city in the world, as my favorite track of 2015. But, in the end, I had to go with the lead single, about Lucero frontman Ben Nichols tracing the footsteps of legendary (and legendarily substance-abusing) singer/songwriter Warren Zevon through LA before returning home to Memphis. I was raised on Warren Zevon, so if you name-check him in a song, it’s probably gonna end up at the top of my list. I’m pretty simple that way.