This is a beautifully difficult task every winter deciding the best albums of the year. There are so many phenomenal bands making music today. Most of what I’ve chosen for this list represents one of two styles – they are either singer songwriters or folk bands. I know that some of you will take offense to various focuses that I have. I’m sorry for that. But if you’ll acknowledge the fact that these are my personal favorites, curated from literally thousands of bands listened to, and give some of them a choice… you will hopefully find something here to love. Thank you for reading, dear friends.
20) Joshua Hyslop – In Deepest Blue
-Hyslop’s vocals are excellent and his songwriting is exactly my style. His intellectual lyrics make listeners really think about big questions about life’s purpose. But then the songs are so easily listenable that sometimes you just feel yourself lulled to sleep. It’s an amazing album from this emerging singer songwriter.
19) David Ramirez – Fables
-Regular readers of the site are quite familiar with Ramirez’s work. He is a prolific songwriter and an extraordinary live performer. Beyond that, the songs on Fables will have you questioning much about life. His interactions with religious imagery and the life of a musician feel fresh in every iteration. As he sings about life and love with his gruff, genuine vocals, listeners find themselves drawn into a dusty life on the road.
18) The Young Novelists – Made Us Strangers
-I was familiar with Graydon James before this album, but the harmonies this time around really set the album apart. There were many enjoyable tracks on this album – so much so that I had a hard time deciding which I liked best. As I wrote the review, I remember thinking I wanted to feature several different tracks. Fans of folk bands from the 60s will find a lot to like on this album.
17) Seryn – Shadow Shows
-Seryn is a beautiful marriage of rock, alternative, and folk stylings. Of course my favorite part of the album are the incredible harmonies, but what impressed me so much this time around for Seryn were the melodies on a whole new set of songs. They all have unique identities but scream of a unique Seryn identity. It’s not really the kind of album that you just put on in the background. No, this is the kind of album that you really experience and absorb. It’s excellent.
16) Steamboats – self titled EP
-If you like multi-part harmony (almost like barbershop) you have to give Steamboats a listen. Their debut EP is absolutely engaging. I found myself listening to it over and over. It’s the kind of album that seems multi-generational in scope, but still has the maturity and authenticity to work in the 21st century. It takes some of the best qualities of classic music and keeps them snappy and relevant for the current day. And it’s impossible NOT to sing along.
15) Davey Allen – self titled
-If you like rock singer songwriters, Davey Allen needs to be on your short list. I was totally and unexpectedly blown away by this release. It had me asking questions like “who IS this guy?” One part classic rock, one part blues man, and a whole big chunk of experimental American songwriter, Davey Allen has the chops to do many things really well. There’s a lot to like on the album and it’s not too much to say if you like American rock music, you’ll find a track for you on Allen’s self titled release.
14) Matthew Mayfield – Wild Eyes
-Every time Matthew Mayfield sings a lyric, I expect something amazing. He has a gift for explaining things in poetic ways that seem raw and real, rather than trite or cliche. This album Wild Eyes has a combination of classic Mayfield sounds with that alt rock 90s flavor but he also has some modern melodic tracks as well. It all comes together for the kind of album that you just want to share. If you read my top songs you already know his song “Why We Try” was one of my absolute favorites of the year. It’s that kind of songwriting that keeps me coming back for each new release from this Birmingham rocker.
13) Judah and the Lion – Kids these days [EDITOR’S NOTE: This was a 2014 release but I’m including it because I missed it on last year’s list.]
-I have to be honest, Judah and the Lion is one of my favorite bands to talk about with hipsters because they’re just so surprised that they literally “probably haven’t heard of them,” but I can’t figure out why. I mean beards? banjos? harmonies? But this is one of the most addictive albums I’ve heard in years. It’s not exactly your grandma’s folk music. It’s one of my favorite albums in the still-red-hot folk revival scene. If you don’t know J&TL you need to get hip to them… like yesterday.
12) The Ballroom Thieves – A Wolf in the Doorway
-Speaking of pop folk, the Ballroom Thieves are fantastic folk musicians as well. They have an incredible knack for great harmonies. Their sound definitely fits into a kind of upbeat folk flavor, but that’s not connote that they are shallow. They really remind me a lot of Bears Den, which is pretty high praise. I had heard the opener “Archers” on a streaming service and even though it’s a great song, “Loneliness Waltz” takes favorite for me.
11) City and Colour – If I Should Go Before You
-Okay so Dallas Green isn’t exactly emerging. There will be a few in the top ten that will have you groaning, too. I know you didn’t come to a site like this to hear bands that you’ve already heard. But goshdarnit this album is out of this world. I kept listening to it over and over. City and Colour has the ability to speak to spaces deep in the soul. His songwriting is in a whole other league. While the instrumentation is not a departure from his previous work, it’s precisely the “more of the same” that makes me love the album so much. It’s just… too good not to include. Oh and “atmospheric.” You’re not allowed to write about C&C without using the term atmospheric. So there.