Favorite albums of 2015

My favorite albums of 2015

It has taken me a little longer than I expected to post this. I know everyone else’s Best of 2015 lists have been out for weeks. But here we are.
First off, let me state for the record that yes, I still buy CDs. I realize that I am in the minority here but I still prefer this medium to any other. I am always interested in the information provided within the CD case: who wrote the songs, what musicians played on them, who the producer was, and where (and when) it was recorded. And if the lyrics are included that’s a nice bonus. And most importantly, the sound quality is superior to almost everything else.
These 7 albums (CDs) have all passed my most accurate test of a good record: the car passenger seat test. If I the CD is still sitting on the passenger seat of my car that means I am still listening to it. These CDs have had the longest residency on the seat (and most of them are still there).

1.) John Moreland: High on Tulsa Heat. I think that John is one of the most consistently good songwriters out there today. Common themes emerge; loneliness, alienation and romantic difficulty. Despite the darkness you are rewarded as a listener by his perceptive lyrics and catchy melodies. Moreland’s heartfelt vocals convey heartache and hope with such conviction and depth that he establishes his absolute sincerity from note one.
Self produced, Moreland uses the less is more approach (my favorite). The sparseness of the most of the arrangements really let the songs shine. With lyrics like, “I guess I’ve got a taste for poison/ I’ve given up on ever being well/ And I keep mining the horizon/ digging for lies I’ve yet to tell” you don’t need much more than an acoustic guitar and Moreland’s voice.
2.) James McMurtry: Complicated Game. From the opening line, “Honey, don’t you be yelling at me when I’m cleaning my gun,” James McMurtry grabs your attention immediately. Renowned zydeco and blues producer C.C. Adcock gives McMurtry a diverse sound filled with acoustic guitars, banjos, dobros, and keyboards. But it’s the lyrics that are the focal point. Take this passage from “South Dakota,” describing a disillusioned vet –“Because there ain’t much between the Pole and South Dakota/And barbed wire won’t stop the wind/ You won’t get nothing here but broke and older/ If I was you I might re-up again.” There are examples of such poetic prowess in every song. His images are vivid, precise, and enduring. They stay with you long after each listen.
3.) Turnpike Troubadours: Turnpike Troubadours. This Oklahoma based band has quickly become one of my favorites over the last year or so. This self-titled album is their 4th and their best since 2010’s Diamonds & Gasoline. They are a perfect combination of Alt/Outlaw, Americana, and Red Dirt Country. Great story-telling lyrics combined with some fine arrangements that feature a lot of great fiddle playing, some pedal steel, and some tasty guitar work. Evan Felker’s vocals really deliver the songs. Hey, they even cover the Old 97’s Doreen!
4.) Rod Picott: Fortune. This is Rod’s eight solo album and I think it might just be his best. His previous albums were full of well-constructed songs with lyrics full of interesting characters and catchy melodies. The songs here are definitely more personal and autobiographical. Coupled with some sparse production you get a really raw and natural sounding record (I mean this it a good way). They did a great job of really capturing the timbre Rod’s voice. The arrangements are sparse and really compliment the songs. The band is good and Will Kimbrough added some really interesting and tasty guitar work to the mix. Be sure to catch Rod’s “Circus of heartbreak and misery” tour when he comes to your town.
5.) Brandi Carlile: Firewatcher’s daughter. This album is a blend of introspective folk, pop, country and rock, all elevated by the insistent soulful power of Carlile’s voice. As always, she is backed by the very musical Tim and Phil Hanseroth (the twins). Most of this record was recorded live, in single takes, and avoids most of the typical production polish. They ended up capturing a nice rough around the edges kind of sound. The two stand-out tracks to me are “the Eye” and “Wherever is your heart”.
6.) Jesse Malin: New York Before the War. Jesse Malin is one of those guys who has never gotten enough credit. For a while, it seemed like he might not make another solo album. His last LP, 2010’s Love it to Life, arrived to the usual mix of fan appreciation, critical respect, and mainstream ignorance. This, Malin’s long-awaited fifth album, proves that, if anything, the veteran rocker just needed some time to get things just right. Supposedly, he cut more than 60 songs for this album, settling on 13 of them for the finished product. This is Malin’s most cohesive, consistent, and varied LP ever. It might also be his best, a taut collection of catchy rock songs and stirring ballads. Jesse is back!
7.) Jason Isbell: Something more than free. I guess that it is no surprise to anyone who knows me that I am a big Jason Isbell fan. However, I must admit that this album almost didn’t make this list. Maybe because the expectations were set so high after his previous effort, Southeastern. This album lacks the emotional gut-punches of its predecessor. There are no songs as powerful as “Elephant” or “Cover Me Up” here, and Isbell gives himself even fewer opportunities to rock out and flex his vocal and guitar chops. But, the standout songs, Speed Trap Town & 24 Frames, are just too good. Dave Cobb shows why he is the producer of choice these days. He does just enough and then gets out of the songs way.