The top two places on this list were obvious to me in June, but the others required many re-listens. Left off is the amazing return album from Sleater-Kinney, Kendrick Lamar’s exceptional “To Pimp a Butterly,” and works by Courtney Barnett, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Grimes. As always, this list is simply a record of the sounds that signified for me the experiences of a year.
- James McMurty: Complicated Game. Right off the bat I knew this would be one of my favorite albums from 2015. Giving it listen half a year later, I’m struck by how powerful this album is, how bleak and perfect for this year. There was an easy confidence to these songs, a hard-bitten world view of people’s lives ground up and buried. I imagine some of these songs would sound samey to someone but to me each one is a poetic encapsulation of what a single moment in time is like.
- Sufjan Stevens: Carrie and Lowell. Dire stuff - and yes I recognize my two top albums are really similar in theme and tone - but I loved each for different reasons. I guess McMurty won out for me because despite how heart-breaking this album is, its lyrics are morosely opaque where McMurty’s are painfully, painfully insightful and lucid. Nevertheless, songs like "Fourth of July,” “The Only Thing," and the title song find some heart-breaking universal nostalgia within experiences clearly very personal.
- Jason Isbell: Something More Than Free. This is a treasure trove of tuneful folky ballads by a member of Drive-By Truckers. I can’t help but succumb to a song book like this - each song an exquistely wrought work of Americana pathos. “24 Frames” was the stand-out but stay for “How to Forget,” “Children of Children,” and “If It Takes a Lifetime."
- Bop English: Constant Bop. I honestly starting loving this album more when I learned it’s the product of a Texan singer-songwriter, James Petralli, still a member of the indie band White Denim. Until that discovery I assumed this was a British band, one more perfect pop rock album from a place that seems to sprout them like mushrooms. That this comes from the Lonestar State struck me as being more remarkable, a lush desert rose found in the middle of a crumbling strip mall. Constant Bop is tremendous amount of fun - reminding me in places of The New Pornographers, other places of my favorite parts of garage rock revival of last decade. Every song works very, very hard to get you smiling and if that involves borrowing tunes and textures from 70s ramble rock classics, so be it.
- Suzanne Sulfor: 10 love songs. Ultimately the heart wants what it wants. This is Scandenavian pop music. Some of these songs even sound like updated ABBA. Which means I guess I love updated ABBA because I listened to this album relentlessly for months at a time. It still holds up, for me at least. I think the thing that saves it from being simply disposable is the economy of the sound and the permission Suzanne gives herself to be weird, stretching out one of the later ballads for ten glorious, harpiscord drenched minutes.
In keeping with this being my year of the post-apocalypse, I also tracked down a great number of albums and artists that to me addressed themes of collapse, societal decay, and the world after some disaster. Locrian’s Infinite Dissolution, a heavy metal meditation on the decay of the ecosystem, was a group I would probably not have explored in any another year but I'm glad I did. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, referenced above, also turned in a thunderous apocalyptic scenario in Asunder, Sweet, and Distress. I could make arguments for a few other recent albums but mostly my explorations took me through the greats of the post-rock movement of the past two decades. For the first time I sat down and listened to albums by Tortoise, Talk Talk, and Swans. In particular the big recent double albums released by Michael Gira really captured the spirit of this year - dark and portentous, cloaked in half-remembered rituals and bombast, searching for meaning in collapses both personal and global.