Every year come December I think I simply MUST split this list into genres. There were so many good albums. I wonder if there’s any way to cut it down to a sizable list. Then I whittle and work, getting the list down to the twenty I love. These aren’t just twenty that were okay. These are the best. These often represent what I actually LISTENED TO this year, not just what we covered. In many cases, they are albums that were both. Do enjoy. If you feel so inclined, please share.
20) Radical Face – The Family Tree: The Leaves
-We’re starting off this list with an authentic folk sound. Fans of the Oh Hellos really need to take notice here. The structure and performance reminds me of the best of the new folk revival. The lyrical content is in the upper echelon. The layered vocals and brilliant harmonies work to make a captivating folk sound. Sometimes the lead vocal feels like a 60s singer songwriter and we love it. This is an album like an unexpectedly good novel, leaving you startled by another world and wondering just how you got there. It’s indescribably good.
19) Loamlands – Sweet High Rise
-Maybe you call it folk rock or indie rock of some stripe, but I call this an exceptional album from start to finish. The guitar work and some truly standout vocals, Loamlands bring an artistic element we just don’t hear all the time. They are the sonic equivalent of the artisan movement. There’s a richness and authenticity to the sound on each track. The second track “Little River” has a cool syncopation that shows clever artistry and outstanding songwriting. The title track “Sweet High Rise” highlights the crispness of the electric guitars and leaves room for the lead vocal to soar. This is a delight of an album.
18) Ariela Jacobs – Yesteryear EP
-Ariela Jacobs is one of the best pure singers I heard this year. This EP is breathtaking. I don’t really know how else to describe Jacobs’ vocal style other than to say that she makes me take pause. I really love the way she writes. The phrasing on the album is so sophisticated that it rolls naturally into the songs and we don’t even notice how complicated it really is. The title track “Yesteryear” is excellent, but the second track “Lost” made it onto my top songs list for good reason. The phrasing and overall delight is more than I can handle. It reminds me a little of how I felt about Greg Holden last year; it’s just so light and inspiring. Listen to it.
17) Big Little Lions – Just Keep Moving
-If you have been following my picks for any time now, you will understand what I love about Big Little Lions. They are “my type.” Great vocals, fun and optimistic songwriting, with often reflective or thoughtful lyrics. It’s a style that originally pulled me into indie music and continues to inspire me. If you like bands like Mumford and Sons or Lumineers, you’ll find a lot to enjoy with Big Little Lions. I like it all, but if you only have time for one check out the penultimate track “Soon” to get a taste of what I love in this band. It’s a joyful album.
16) Miner – Tuanaki
-I literally lost track of how many times I listened to this album this year. I found Miner earlier in the year and just keep coming back for more. There’s a bit of an Edward Sharpe meets Fleet Foxes vibe to the sound. But yeah, it’s definitely a folk album. If you want to call it pop folk you can, but really this is an excellent sound for the folk scene. Picking a “best song” on this album is nearly impossible. Each song has a structure with a full unconventional sound, but each one breaks new musical ground in its own way. The final track “Carry Me Home” is maybe my favorite because it feels so inspiring, but really there are no skip tracks on this powerful album.
15) The Wealthy West – Long Play
-The opening track on this album is so understated that your ears start to think that maybe it’s just another… just another country album, just another folk album, just another pop album. But they’re wrong. This is an amalgamation of heart, a coalescence of beauty and artful songwriting in a fantastic album. Let me put it this way, I would have been perfectly happy having this be my album of year, too. That’s how hard it is to rank these albums. But let me not detract from this album as a standalone piece of art, complete with great vocals and captivating songwriting. The instrumentation is minimalist and the message comes out fully on each track.
14) The Wind and the Wave – Happiness Is Not a Place
-It probably goes without saying that every song on this list could be prefaced with, “I love this album.” But really, I freaking love Patty Lynn and Dwight Baker. These two can really sing, but maybe more to the point they can write songs. These are not merely toe-tapping, interesting fun songs. They are magnificent works of art. I rarely actually sing along, preferring to just take in the intricate landscapes and descriptions. It’s artful pop folk music that continues to push me in ways that you wouldn’t expect music to do. Sometimes they sing about crass things and really mundane life, but often they sing about raw, real emotion that so few songwriters are willing to hit hard. This is the realest. Boom.
13) Jeremiah Daly – The Darkness Will Be Over Soon
-My close friends are not surprised to see that I’m ranking Daly on this list. He’s one of my favorite performers in all of music right now, so you’ll have to pardon me for putting this 2015 release on this list. It came out late in the year and I didn’t really get into it until early 2016. Because of that I’m putting it on this list. Honestly, Daly’s music stands on its own as some really impeccable singer songwriter work. If you like folk music and artists like David Ramirez or Noah Gundersen, you really need to get this album. I have written a lot on Daly’s style, but maybe the best way to put it is that he can move my spirit. That’s high praise. Listen to “Ashes.”
12) Jenny and Tyler – Of This I’m Sure
-Okay here’s another 2015 release that I didn’t know about until early 2016, so I’m ranking it here. Call it editor’s discretion. I really enjoy these two. They seem like such an amazing, engaging couple. The harmonies are fantastic and definitely the best part of this dynamic folk duo. They thing that I’ve written before and still believe about them is that they are an equal pair; you get the sense that either of them could have a successful singer songwriter career. That doesn’t always happen. I love how they write about spiritual topics in ways that don’t come across as preachy. The lyrics are thoughtful while the music is soothing. “When I Meet You” is “dance at your wedding” good.
11) A Yawn Worth Yelling – Play Pretend
-This might be the only place you’ll see this album ranked this year and I CAN’T UNDERSTAND WHY. These guys are one of the most dynamic indie rock acts I’ve heard all year. The sound is positively infectious. I love them. I make my way through the list saying, “oh this is the best one on the album.” They are all THE BEST. I don’t always put rock bands on my “must hear live” list, but these guys are on it. Both “Start Somewhere” and “Gotta Go” are phenomenal. Take an infectious pop rock sound and give it a surge of nitrous oxide like a racecar; that’s pretty much what AYWY feels like for your earholes. Heavenly energy for your earholes. (Guys if you read this, feel free to blurb that.)