Okay this is it. These are the albums that left a searing imprint on my soul for 2015. These are the albums that keep me smiling, laughing, crying, and coming back for more. This list will undoubtedly frustrate everyone on the planet because even I’m not satisfied with it. Let me give a few caveats here: if an artist has been nominated for a Grammy (Milk Carton Kids, Jason Isbell) they were removed from contention. However, I did allow a few major label artists (see 1 and 2) onto the list. Ultimately the list is about albums that influenced me personally and deeply, so I didn’t let status within the Industry alter my ranks. Have fun and listen responsibly friends.
10) The Zuni Mountain Boys – Loneliness, Love, and Leave
-Obviously if an album is on this list it’s “one of my favorites,” but with this one I mean I really get all the feels. I LOVE this album. It’s just full of all sorts of perfect emotion. Honestly (and sorry if I say this too much) but it’s the reason that I even edit this site. I mean the harmonies are incredible, the lyrics are just so beautiful, and I have listened to it over and over, but it just doesn’t wear out. I will keep coming back to these talented young country/Americana songsters.
9) Pacific Gold – Sing My Welcome Home
-I would not venture to guess that everyone reviewing this list would like these guys. It’s an overtly spiritual album, adding “new folk” stylings to old hymns. I love it personally, but understand that it’s not for everyone. Part of the band are former members of Sherwood, a great alt rock band that I loved in a former life. Now hearing what they’re doing with this redemptive rewriting (with still-amazing harmonies) does my heart good.
8) The Wind and the Wave – From the Wreckage
-The Wind and the Wave are a duo who can really sing. I found this album pretty early in the year, but kept coming back to it. The songs are unique. In some ways they remind me of another band I really like called Sugar and the Hi Lows, except instead of the vintage feel, the Wind and the Wave have more of a pop folk sound to them. Interestingly all of their song titles are super long, giving direction to the dynamic and powerful lyrics that drive each song. If you miss the magical chemistry that the Civil Wars had in their songwriting, give these two a try. They’re in that ballpark (if stylistically a bit more upbeat).
7) The Harmaleighs – Pretty picture, dirty brush
-The first time I listened to the Harmaleighs my jaw dropped. Usually people say that from a metaphorical perspective, but I think I literally made a face like, “who is THIS?” Their three part harmonies and raucous pop folk sound is exactly what I needed this year. This album was my jam on several road trips (thanks for the physical copy PR folks!). There are toe-tappers and heart-grippers through the whole album. But what impresses me more than anything (okay, the harmonies are pretty amazing), the songwriting seems to have this sophistication to it that is simultaneously “appropriate” to the youth of the band members, yet beyond-their-years wise. It’s like talking with friends who can make you laugh and give really good advice.
6) Noah Gundersen – Carry the Ghost
-Readers of my coverage are not surprised at all to see Noah on this list. I am a huge fan of Noah’s work. But I have to be honest – this one took a few listens to grow on me. There are some tracks on this album that give me pause; there’s some stuff on here that just hits too close to home. It’s a raw, gritty album with lyrics that cover the gamut of good love, lost love, and a lot of hard questions about faith. But what I have always loved about Noah is that he comes at it honestly. There’s no gimmick here. It’s just good, honest rock and roll with deeper existential questions than expected. But be warned it’s a hard album to listen to sometimes.
5) The Oh Hellos – Dear Wormwood
-I have covered The Oh Hellos several times in the past also. What keeps me coming back for more? They’re more than a little bit musical geniuses. Seriously there’s a brother sister duo at the core of the band, but then they have like five thousand band members (ok maybe 8). They do this orchestral folk music with its own brand of spirituality. This particular album focuses on the book of Revelation in the Bible. As you might imagine that includes some pretty outrageous imagery and leads to some exciting music, even for folk. It’s not the kind of album you want to parse. Just sit down and enjoy it start to finish. It’s great.
4) Andrew Combs – All These Dreams
-If your spine doesn’t tingle from the guitar licks on the opening track of this album, you probably don’t read this website. But seriously, Andrew Combs is the top of the class of country artists for me (with Jason Isbell and Rayland Baxter). This album has a wonderful vintage feel that keeps me wondering if these are actually secret bootleg tracks from the 70s. Except that Combs is actually better than the artists he’s emulating. The way he cleverly uses vernacular, guitar licks, and a full electric country sound all works for a wonderful, engaging album. Give “Rainy Day Song” a spin if you only have time for one. You’ll be hooked.
3) Bears of Legend – Ghostwritten Chronicles
-Bears of Legend are one of the most artful indie folk bands I’ve ever heard. I also love following them on Facebook because everything is in French. But seriously this is a wonderful orchestral folk band who continue to release amazing music. Lead singer David Lavergne has one of the most amazing voices I’ve heard in recent memory. The high tenor range allows his vocals to soar over the full folk band orchestrations for seemingly epic pieces. The music can serve as the focal point of an evening, or glorious background music to a night of quiet reading by the fire. The versatile sound is simultaneously engaging and comforting.
2) Ben Rector – Brand New
-I know Ben Rector has been around for several years. In fact, our own Casey Karger interviewed him a while ago. But this album Brand New is pretty much amazing. From the opening line of the album there’s a sense of beauty and truth in Rector’s writing. He’s one of my favorite musicians not just for his ability to write wonderful songs; he just seems like the most decent human being on the planet. He sees the good in people in a world that focuses on the negative all the time. The song “Crazy” is pretty much the most amazing anti-top-40 song I’ve ever heard. His humility is contagious. It’s “a thing that reminds us there’s good in the world.”
1) Greg Holden – Chase the Sun
-Anyone who read my review of Chase the Sun knew this was coming. I loved it then. I still love it now. Greg Holden went from someone I followed a little on YouTube to being an absolute permanent part of my listening rotation. His songwriting on this album is gripping and engaging. He takes on social justice issues on several songs. He also confronts bigotry with a beautiful humility that keeps me coming back for more. His songs are also fantastically easy to listen to and sing along with. Holden challenges me to live my life better with each song and I think that’s the kind of message worth supporting. Do enjoy dear friends.