It’s the holidays of 2015 and as I am writing my annual Top Album review, I’m thinking about my own year. 2015 presented some challenges both personally and professionally but as always, music gets me through! How I listen to music changed for me and most music fans as streaming services opened up a vast array of choices and options. Spotify is my personal streaming source. My Sonos wireless sound system makes listening to my ITunes catalog, Pandora, Spotify, and personal playlists a simple choice on my phone or IPad. All my CD’s are boxed up and in storage and I am not sure I need them anymore. I still buy albums (downloads) because I believe as a fan the artist should receive fair royalties, but Spotify allows me to listen to anything at any time. If I read a good review in the NY Times, I just look it up and play it. Pandora and other streaming stations will introduce things I never heard of. Living in Center City, with my go to music partner Dr. Jamarcus Henry living a few blocks away, gives me the opportunity to see live music almost any night. The combination of more streaming choices and live music options makes this list better and yet harder to limit to 10.
My musical journey shifted this year to a heavier jazz influence. Two jazz albums are listed here, a first for my top 10 selections. I saw more jazz shows this year than ever. The best show of the year was sax player Kamasi Washington at the World Café Live. Mr. Washington’s album is three hours long, and believe it or not, I could not point to a song he should have left out. In a year when I saw all time jazz legends like Herbie Hancock, Chick Korea, Wynton Marsalis, and Stanley Clarke to say Kamasi and his big band was my favorite show and a top ten album tells me that jazz remains an important genre with new artists taking over for the iconic masters before them.
Top 10 Albums of 2015
Ryan Adams – 1989 – Ryan Adams covered 1989, the pop smash from Taylor Swift – the entire album. If you have not listened to it you are probably asking, “Really Jim? A Taylor Swift cover album is your number one album??” I asked myself what makes a great album? Did I listen to it constantly, is it good from beginning to end, did new songs get stuck in my head upon subsequent listens? Check, check, check. Ryan’s versions are his own and do not sound like Taylor’s. It made me listen to Ms. Swift’s original well written pop versions. So yes, Ryan Adams’ 1989 was my top album for 2015 and it was an easy decision.
Kopecky – Drugs for the Modern Age – Formerly the Kopecky Family Band, Kopecky released their sophomore album in 2015. The six piece band from Nashville has a varied pop sound featuring different instruments (horns, cello, and lap steel guitar) and alternating vocalists. One critic compared their sound to somewhere between Sleigh Bells and Fleetwood Mac. You may have heard their songs on many different TV shows throughout the year. I discovered them in late spring and they stayed in the rotation throughout the year.
Bad Bad Hats –Physic Reader – This is the debut album from the Minneapolis based trio Bad Bad Hats. The lead vocalist, Kerry Alexander, has a sweet, melodic voice and the songs are well written, catchy and hook filled. There are enough noisy elements to the music to keep the songs fresh and different. You may not have heard of the band, but I highly recommend checking out their sound. The album is strong from start to finish.
J.D. McPherson – Let the Good Times Roll – JD McPherson is a singer song writer with a total retro, rock and roll sound. The music sounds like old 50-60’s era music. This is the guitar player’s second album and the music is very upbeat, and danceable with wide appeal.
Kamasi Washington – The Epic – Kamasi is a tenor sax player and big band leader. His release this year was indeed ‘Epic’, both in length (3 hours!) and quality. I referenced Kamasi and his show above. He released 3-4 albums on his own label before this year’s release on Brainfeeder label. He plays with everyone from Snoop, to Herbie Hancock, Chaka Kahn, Stanley Clarke and Kendrick Lamar (he played sax as part of an amazing backup band on Kendrick’s highly regarded ‘How to Pimp a Butterfly’). Despite its length the album never gets stale and features some vocals and great jazz diversity.
Hop Along – Painted Shut – Frances Quinlan is the lead singer, writer and guitar player for this four piece band from Philly. Her voice is pure rock and roll. It can be off putting to some as she screeches and screams in between gorgeous singing. The songs tell some great stories including her hit single “Powerful Man”. The song is a creepy tale of a man beating his kid while the older narrator just watched. “She’s not going to help you” says the powerful man in reference to the girl watching the beating. Frances’s brother is the band’s drummer, but Frances is the driving force.
Lord Huron – Strange Trails – Lord Huron’s first album appeared in my 2012 Best albums. Their sophomore album Strange Trails is not as strong as Lonesome Dreams but good enough to make this year’s Top 10. They are an indie band from LA with a dreamy rock sound. We saw them play songs from this year’s album live at the Union Transfer and the music was even better live.
R. City – What Dreams are Made of – R. City (aka Rock City) consists of two brothers, Theron and Timothy Thomas from St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. Their sound is an interesting combo of hip hop and reggae. They have written songs for many artists and released mix tapes in the past, but this is their first full studio release. Good songs all the way through and certainly a band to watch going forward.
Keith Richards – Crossed Eyed Heart – How is this guy still alive? At 72 the Rolling Stone icon released his 3rd solo album and first in 23 years (with help from the X-pensive Winos). It is classic Keith/stones/ blues based rock and roll. If you read his amazing autobiography ‘Life,’ you know he has lived quite the extraordinary life. Crossed Eyed Heart has some great ballads and blues. He caused some controversy this year with his public criticism of rap music proving that Keith obviously couldn’t care less what people think of him.