2015 In Review: Top 20 Albums

So for those of you who aren't familiar with how we do year-end lists over at Music Means Family - it's pretty simple. I'm not interested in telling you what albums were "the best"; I didn't listen to every album that came out in 2015, and even if I did, everyone will find their favorites for their own reasons. My hope is that in sharing the 20 albums that I loved most this year with you, you might find a new album to fall in love with, to soundtrack a little piece of your coming year. So, with no further ado, in reverse order:

20. Covenhoven - The Wild and Free

Covenhoven is the moniker of Colorado folk artist Joel Van Horne, who quietly released one of the most beautiful, unpretentious albums of the year. Van Horne's gorgeous voice is reminiscent, in some ways, of Gregory Alan Isakov, a soft-spoken troubadour with a knack for projecting his voice towards some greater truth. This album played through so many of my autumn days, and I am very grateful I stumbled across it (thanks Songsforaday).

19. Doe Paoro – After

What is remarkable about After is that it is on one hand without a genre, and on the other a combination of every genre that’s ever existed. Sonia Kreitzer’s voice is exceptional, and surrounded by the ethereal instrumentation of talented musicians like Sean Carey, there is a magical quality to this album. Perhaps the best thing about After is that with each subsequent listen something new jumps out, be it lyrical or some nuanced drum pattern weaving through the background. It makes relistening to this album a positively exciting experience

18. Tyler Lyle – The Native Genius of Desert Plants

Tyler’s ability to weave striking songwriting with his incredible voice is never short of amazing. Native Genius his first true full length since 2011’s Golden Age & The Silver Girl. It’s a really beautiful collection of folk and pop-folk songs, and if you aren’t familiar with his music, you really should get yourself acquainted.

17. Doomtree – All Hands

Doomtree, the ebullient hip-hop collective out of Minneapolis released All Hands early in the year, and it has been in rotation on my computer, iPod, etc. for the last 12 months. The various Doomtree members’ ability to create a cohesive, energetic, exhilarating, and intelligent hip-hop album is a rare, rare feat. In a year dominated by exceptional hip-hop (Kendrick, Chance, Vince Staples) I found myself most drawn to the energy and “pop” of this Doomtree record.

16. The Weather Station – Loyalty

Tamara Lindeman has an incredible voice. The Weather Station made a beautiful album. This is modern folk at its (almost) finest. This is an album that has gotten more and more spins as the nights get longer and the wind gets colder. Do yourself a favor, and pick this one up.

15. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free

With his album Southeastern Jason Isbell made a very good case for why he should be a household name. With Something More Than Free, he solidified that case. Isbell’s songwriting is superb, and his careful command of everything that’s going on in the soundscapes created by a bevy of talented musicians is exceptional.

 14. Noah Gundersen – Carry The Ghost

While last year’s Ledges was undoubtedly a more polished album, there were moments and glimpses of a new side of Noah that made me deeply love Carry The Ghost for a new set of reasons. There’s a darkness in this record, and a chance for Noah to wrestle with some of his demons in a different way than he has previously. While the record isn’t without missteps, there are enough can’t miss tracks that I can’t stop coming back to this album.

13. Lin-Manuel Miranda – Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

Yes, there is a musical theater soundtrack on this list. There’s a reason Hamilton has taken Broadway by storm, and why it’s the hottest ticket in recent memory. A blend of hip-hop and a wide variety of traditional musical theatre styles, Hamilton is a passion-filled, ingenious take on the life of one of America’s least-discussed Founding Fathers. While I know that description may not send you rushing to listen, spend a few minutes with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Daveed Diggs incredibly complex and explosive flow patterns and the beautiful voices of Philippa Soo and Renee Elise Goldsberry and you’ll be just as hooked as everybody else.

12. David Ramirez – Fables

David Ramirez is a criminally overlooked songwriter, and with Fables he continues to prove to the world that he is one of the preeminent songwriters of our generation. His work with Noah Gundersen shines through on this record - an unabashed collection of deeply personal alt-country/folk songs that I find myself unable to shake.

11. Joan Shelley – Over and Even

Joan Shelley is one of my favorite folk singers today. Over and Even is utterly unpretentious, a short winding narrative of beautifully crafted folk, buoyed by Shelley’s incredible voice and phenomenal instrumentation from Nathan Salsburg (and Will Oldham). If you in any way enjoy folk music, this should be at the top of your wish list.

10. Tallest Man on Earth – Dark Bird is Home

Everything that The Tallest Man on Earth (Kristian Mattson) does is wonderful, and Dark Bird… is no exception. A bit larger and a bit bolder than his past recordings, there is a perpetual reminder that Mattson writes songs for himself, for the earth, and with an inscrutable reverence for something just out of sight. I find myself falling back to this record almost daily, and it is a great anchor to what are my top 10 albums of the year.

9. Josh Ritter – Sermon on the Rocks

Josh Ritter has always been an exceptional songwriter, but I often felt that some of his previous work was too simple, too easy. Where in early efforts there were occasional moments of complacency or comfort, Sermon on The Rocks, is a blazing, wild, passion-filled album that is absolutely reminiscent of shooting 100 proof whiskey around a campfire in the middle of winter. Everything about the album feels electric, as if this were an album that Ritter had needed to make for a long while. If you haven’t done yourself the favor of listening to this one yet – run and grab a copy. Now.

8. Phil Cook – Southland Mission

 Phil Cook, who played in DeYarmond Edison (Justin Vernon’s 1st band), and Megafaun, absolutely blew the crowd away at Eaux Claires music festival earlier this year, as he and his band (featuring Amelia Meath of Sylvan Esso) had literally every person in the audience dancing in the early summer heat. I waited eagerly for the release of Southland Mission a few months later, and that same infectious energy is all over this record. I highly recommend getting behind the wheel of a car, turning the stereo up, and playing this album on repeat.

7. Lemolo – Red Right Return

Lemolo’s debut album The Kaleidoscope was one of my favorite albums of 2012, and the follow up is just as good, if not better. Meagan Grandall’s stunning vocals coupled with a larger, swelling soundscape offers one of the finest dream-pop/rock records I’ve ever heard. Where The Kaleidoscope was intimate and restrained, this album is almost grandiose, the musical equivalent of hundred foot waves breaking against the coastline. This is a beautiful, beautiful record.

6. The Staves – If I Was

Three sisters. Harmonies. Intricate, layered melodies and exceptional songwriting. There are so many to say about how wonderful this album is, but I’ll leave you with this sentence from Caitlin White, “…t’s an album of wilderness songs, not fit for polite company and the logic of a steadily healing heart. It’s emotional dishevelment constructed in pristine harmony, a double take on what passes for strength.” If that’s not enough to sell you on it, just take a quick listen.

5. Florence + The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

Alright. Top 5. While Florence Welch’s earlier albums were wonderful, it was on How Big… that it truly feels she found her voice. An explosive, cathartic album, Welch’s voice soars and booms – a veritable force of nature. There is an unshakeable energy here, a wave of joy and sound that finds its way through your ears to your toes and back again. What the album lacks in subtlety it makes up in sheer buoyancy, this is a record that will be remembered as one of the crowning moments of what will likely be a long and wondrous career.

4. Death Cab for Cutie – Kintsugi

Since Death Cab’s 2003 blog-rock favorite Transatlanticism, they released a smattering of good albums. Albums that while enjoyable, were not necessarily memorable. Kintsugi changes that. The songwriting is sharper, the instruments tighter, and the need and the urgency infinitely more pronounced. There is something hungrier about Kintsugi, a yearning for absolution in Ben Gibbard’s wounded vocals. A Death Cab album that even approaches Transatlanticism is more than a lock for the top 5 in any given year, and here we find it.

3. Aero Flynn – Aero Flynn

The remarkable debut album from another former Justin Vernon band mate, Aero Flynn’s eponymous album is a deeply special album. I wrote about it at length here: http://goo.gl/OFiDjH, but all I will say if you haven’t dug into this yet is this. Find a quiet evening as the snow starts to fall, pour yourself a glass of something special, and let this album take a hold of you. It is an important, remarkable album, and more than earned its place in my top 3.

 2. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie and Lowell

Sufjan’s return to his folk roots resulted in what is the undoubtedly one of the most painful, gorgeous albums of the year. In wrestling with the death of his mother, Sufjan created a sparse, shivering set of songs that are so personal, so intimate, that at times there is a sharp sense of being seated alone in a room with Sufjan, as he pours his heart out. While it is not an album to listen to in every moment (unless you’re fond of always being on the verge of tears and feeling as if a heavy rock is on your chest), Carrie and Lowell is a masterpiece, and one of the finest albums of 2015.

1. Julien Baker – Sprained Ankle

I wrote at length about Julien Baker’s stunning debut album here: http://goo.gl/4nlN9l, but I’ll say this as well. The reason this is my favorite album of the year is because I can’t shake the feeling that this album, much like Bon Iver’s For Emma Forever Ago or Springsteen’s Nebraska feels like an album that happened almost if by magic. Every storm, every thought, every opportunity and happenstance descended upon a whip-smart 19 year old songwriter in Tennessee and in the middle of her first semester of college she managed to make one of the most haunting, personal, intimate albums I had heard this year. The vast disparity between her wisdom in retrospection and her anguished teenage naiveté is stunning, and the result is a once in a lifetime album.