Favorite studio album releases:
AC/DC, Rock or Bust (Columbia) – AC/DC fans may never get another Back in Black from Angus Young and Brian Johnson, but the hard rockers' 2015 entry Rock or Bust is pretty damn good. Just listening to the bone-crunching riff-rock discharged on the album's best tracks ("Play Ball," "Dogs of War," "Rock or Bust") is to be transported back to a time when rock 'n' roll was somehow larger than life.
Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom & Pop Music) – Courtney Barnett is one of the most interesting and exciting young singer-songwriters to come along in memory. And her new album Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit delivers on the promise she displayed on 2014's A Sea of Split Peas.
Blur, The Magic Whip (Warner Bros./Parlophone) – Blur’s highly-anticipated full-length return The Magic Whip was one of the best and most important albums 2015, and time may well confirm this was my single favorite disc of the year. Whether performing an instantly-catchy pop tune like “Lonesome Street” or an unsettling art rocker like “There Are Too Many Of Us,” Blur (singer-guitarist Damon Albarn, lead guitarist Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James, drummer Dave Rowntree) reveal there is always more to the band’s songs than meets the ear. Elsewhere the music is experimental (“New World Towers,” “Ice Cream Man”), comes draped with shades of world music (Ghost Ship”) or is downright glorious (“Ong Ong,” “Mirrorball”). An amazing return.
Dawes, All Your Favorite Bands (HUB Records) – Music rarely gets more authentic and descriptive than what is shared on Los Angeles quartet Dawes' 2015 effort All Your Favorite Bands. Blending Laurel Canyon rootsy rock with folk rock and amazing songcraft, the disc has the magical ability to sound like a lost classic from the early '70s whose sound is timeless (just listen to the rocker "Right On Time" or the warm acoustic rocker "Somewhere Along the Way").
Florence + The Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful (Republic) – It’s no easy task for a groundbreaking artist to exceed the lofty expectations of an adoring following when they release a highly-anticipated new album. Florence + the Machine has somehow outdistanced their own brilliant 2011 sophomore effort Ceremonials with this year's How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. Singer-songwriter Florence Welch has a soprano that is both alluring and multi-octave spanning, but it is the songstress’ nuanced and artistic approach that draws comparisons with Kate Bush that makes Florence + the Machine one of today’s most impactful artists. On How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, the driving “Ship to Wreck,” cutting “What Kind of Man” and experimental electronica-tinged “Long & Lost” all have an immediate effect while revealing additional sonic layers with each listen. The symphonic title track and propulsive “Queen of Peace” boast the kind power that only a few modern-day greats (Radiohead, Sigur Rós, U2) have achieved on disc.
Dave Gahan & Soulsavers, Angels & Ghosts (Columbia) – Rather than immerse his rich baritone amidst the electronica of Depeche Mode, Dave Gahan & Soulsavers’ Angels & Ghosts is more rooted in blues, gospel and Americana, with the the spirited mix of nine songs recalling recent recordings from the far-flung likes of Other Lives, Florence + the Machine, the Doors and Blur’s 2015 gem The Magic Whip. The blues guitar-drenched “Shine” and ambitious “You Owe Me” are as melodic as they are forceful. “One Thing” is a beautiful ballad adorned by keyboards and a symphonic soundscape; “My Sun” is a sparse foray in its opening section with the song gradually building to a sweeping symphonic finale.
Colin Hay, Next Year People (Compass Records) – Listeners who only know singer-songwriter Colin Hay for his role fronting ’80s Australian outfit Men at Work have been missing out. The deluxe edition of 2015's Next Year People includes a dozen must-hear tracks including the upbeat “Trying to Get to You,” the confessional folk-rocker “If I Had Been a Better Man” and reflective “Are We There Yet?” The haunting title track looking at the lives of Depression-era farmers, delivered by Hay’s wonderful voice against a sparse backdrop of his acoustic guitar and Jeff Babko’s harmonium and accordion until a Celtic-styled chorus of voices come in, is the jewel on the disc.
Chris Isaak, First Comes the Night (Vanguard) – An artist who recalls some of rock music's earliest greats (Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison), Chris Isaak also somehow occupies a unique place in the musical universe. His 2015 collection First Comes the Night is bolstered by a slew of great originals including the wistful "First Comes the Night," rollicking "Please Don't Call" and tender "Kiss Me Like a Stranger."
Jeff Lynne's ELO, Alone in the Universe (Columbia) – With 2015 being a year chalk full of amazing returns (AC/DC, Blur, the Zombies, Squeeze), an amazing full-length disc from Jeff Lynne’s ELO has to be heard to be believed. An acclaimed producer, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Lynne displays his myriad of amazing talents across Alone in the Universe, a disc where he masterfully handles the majority of music making duties on his own. Lynne can still unleash shimmering symphonic epics (including the album’s first single “When I Was a Boy” and swirling “The Sun Will Shine On You”), but some of the most exceptional songs here include the confessional ballad “All My Life,” yearning “I’m Leaving You” and reflective title track.
Tommy Keene, Laugh in the Dark (Second Motion) – There isn’t a clunker anywhere to be found on rocker Tommy Keene’s Laugh in the Dark, the latest in a long line of strong discs from the Maryland native. Kicking things off with the driving “Out Of My Mind” and continuing with the romantic “Dear Heloise,” Keene’s songs cast their spell with a single listen.
Sonny Landreth, Bound By The Blues (Provogue Records) – Singer-songwriter/virtuoso slide guitarist Sonny Landreth has come home with his latest album Bound By The Blues. One of the world’s most celebrated slide guitar players, the Mississippi native’s new 10-song release is rich with probing songs bolstered by Landreth’s emotive baritone vocals and wide-ranging guitar craft. Leading things off is the catchy Delta-mining “Walkin’ Blues,” one of the first blues tracks Landreth recalls learning to play; the emotive title track boasts some of Landreth’s most textured slide guitar work on the disc.
Los Lobos, Gates of Gold (429 Records) – Whether performing rootsy rock, folk, blues or Tex-Mex rock, legendary outfit Los Lobos displays a creative wide-ranging spirit across the aptly-titled album Gates Of Gold. Things lead off with the infectious roots rocker “Made To Break Your Heart,” but the band turns things around with a wistful track (“When We Were Free”) that blends rock and free-form jazz. No matter whether playing blistering blues rock, traditional Mexican music, Americana or acoustic blues, long-time members/songwriters David Hidalgo, Louie Perez and Cesar Rosas have an otherworldly ability to ensure all the sonic elements fit together perfectly.
The Mavericks, Mono (Valory) – In an age of over-produced, mass-marketed and auto-tune enhanced recordings, it’s fortunate The Mavericks know it’s all about the music. Since reforming after an eight-year break in 2012, the Florida-spawned outfit has been thrilling audiences at concert dates and with the February 2013 release In Time. Now the quartet (singer Raul Malo, guitarist Eddie Perez, drummer Paul Deakin and keyboardist Jerry Dale McFadden) have defied modern-day trends to record an album in mono (the aptly-titled Mono). The result is a disc that blends the sounds of Tex-Mex, neotraditional country, tender ballads, ska and rock ‘n’ roll in the service of a dozen infectious and captivating songs.
Kacey Musgraves, Pageant Material (Mercury Nashville) - One of the few successful artists among the current crop of young country singers who connect with the genre’s richest traditions free of cliche, Kacey Musgraves’ outstanding sophomore effort Pageant Material is at once contemporary and classic. From the tuneful high-kicking “High Time” and “Late to the Party” to the likes of the infectious banjo- and fiddle-adorned “Biscuits,” the two-time Grammy winner’s album is fortified by her role co-writing all 13 tracks on the disc.
The Texas native playfully revisits her meteoric rise on “Dimestore Cowboy” (name dropping ‘Austin City Limits,’ Willie Nelson and the ghost of Gram Parsons along the way) while skillfully tackling life’s big questions effortlessly in the contemplative “Somebody to Love” and poignant “Die Fun.”New Order, Music Complete (Mute) – Not many synthpop and dance rock bands to emerge in the 1980s have soldiered on without their sound becoming dated. New Order has outdistanced the competition for sure and remained more than relevant; listening to the best tracks on the British outfit’s 9th proper studio album (Music Complete) is to hear songs that would have lit up dance clubs 30 years ago and likely will today too. Highlights include the longing “Restless,” ambitious “Plastic” and sweeping “Academic.”
Lindi Ortega, Faded Gloryville (Last Gang Records) – When Lindi Ortega sings the title track on her most recent album Faded Gloryville, the songstress is recounting her own path while also singing for the countless other great artists who have created an amazing body of work while working mostly under the radar. A singer and songwriter of incredible depth, the Canadian native now based in Nashville had released a trio of albums before Faded Gloryville that earned uniformly-strong critical acclaim but failed to bring her much-deserved commercial success.
Pugwash, Play This Intimately (As If Among Friends) (Omnivore Recordings) – Memorable and wide-ranging songcraft, incredible vocal harmonies, top-tier musicianship and artful arrangements only begin to illustrate what makes Dublin-based Pugwash so amazing. The talented quintet’s new studio album Play This Intimately (as if among friends) has plenty of far-flung material showcasing everything from power pop (“Kicking and Screaming,” “Hung Myself Out to Dry”) and sunshine pop (“Clouds”) to neo-psychedelia (“The Fool I Had Become,” “We Are Everywhere”) and baroque pop (“Feed His Heart With Coal,” “Lucky in Every Way”).
Scorpions, Return To Forever (Legacy) – AC/DC isn’t the only classic hard rock band to have silenced the naysayers in 2015. Germany’s Scorpions – who remarkably have been together for 50 years – have issued one of their best-ever discs. Return to Forever features the blend of strong riffs, melodic heavy metal and striking power ballads that marked the group’s wave of top-selling albums issued throughout the 1980s and early ’90s.
Squeeze, Cradle to the Grave (Caroline) – Squeeze’s first new album of new material since 1998, Cradle To The Grave finds Chris Difford, Glenn Tilbrook and company forging ahead even while celebrating their storied melodic and literate style that yielded a slew of classics in the 1970s and ’80s. The songs here blend power pop and melodic rock, all adorned with lovely harmonies and creative arrangements that enhance each song’s core power (many of the tales here masterfully chronicle middle age).
“Happy Days” is as exhilarating as its title; the ambitious Beatles-styled “Sunny” and Americana-tinged “Haywire” are the creative equal of Squeeze classics such as “Tempted,” “Black Coffee in Bed” and “Cool For Cats.” A thrilling return to be sure.
Les Stroud and the Campfire Kings, Barn Sessions III – Off the Grid (Stroud Publishing) – The heartfelt love song “Far Away Gone,” fiery environmental-minded rocker “One Giant Farm” (a plea to save dolphins, whales, and the world’s disappearing natural places is especially poignant) and the probing “Wasted” were among the stirring originals recorded by “Survivorman” Les Stroud and a group of musicians and singers inside his Canadian barn.Supersuckers, Holdin' The Bag (Acetate Records) – Irreverent and honest, Supersuckers are an American treasure. Having released more than 20 albums over the past 25 years, singer Eddie Spaghetti and company are on the top of their game on the newly-released Holdin’ The Bag. The band’s characteristic freewheeling approach works wonder on a batch of songs that are as melodic as they are lyrically sharp. The delightful country-styled “High and Outside,” cow punk “Man On A Mission” and a lovely reworked sing-along cover of Hank Williams Jr. cover “All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)” are among the standouts here.
Otis Taylor, Hey Joe Opus Red Meat (Trance Blues Festival) – Of blues’ many modern-day proponents, none is as original as Otis Taylor. As evidenced on his outstanding studio album Hey Joe Opus Red Meat, the Colorado-based bluesman’s so-called “Trance Blues” style provides the perfect sonic backdrop for a concept album that looks at the “decisions that we make and how they effect us.” With two versions of songwriter Billy Roberts’ “Hey Joe” (popularized by Jimi Hendrix) as a supporting the overall theme, the other original songs and instrumentals work just as powerfully.
Michael Ubaldini, Songster – The Acoustic Reels (Blackwater Records) – Discerning fans of the burgeoning Americana movement have been rightfully encouraged by the success of a slew of talented newcomers but worry about the parade of unceasing acts whose slick approach threaten the movement’s delightfully-authentic rough edges that are at odds with modern country’s cliche-heavy approach. Leave it to alternative Americana hero Michael Ubaldini to strip things down to their acoustic underpinnings, using nothing more than an acoustic guitar, harmonica and his emotive baritone to set free a mix of new originals, as well as reworked standouts from his own rich discography and revisited traditional songs (the Celtic “Handsome Molly” and biting folk nugget “The Cuckoo”) on the ambitious 21-track Songster – The Acoustic Reels.
The Zombies, Still Got That Hunger (The End Records) – It makes perfect sense that a band named the Zombies would outlive and artistically thrive beyond every single one of its 1960s-spawned contemporaries. The Zombies impress with the same power the quintet displayed when they burst on the rock scene 50+ years ago. On the band’s aptly-named collection Still Got That Hunger, singer Colin Blunstone and keyboardist Rod Argent lead an ensemble that masterfully blends the jazz-tinged psychedelic rock they pioneered in the early ’60s with blues and contemporary styles. Across Still Got That Hunger, Blunstone sings with power, range and emotion; the full band (including the aforementioned Argent, drummer Steve Rodford, lead guitarist Tom Toomey and bassist Jim Rodford) play with nuanced emotion and authority. The top-flight musicianship and vocals wouldn’t mean a thing without brilliant songwriting and that’s where the Zombies reconnect with the spirit of their ’60s beginnings.
Top Reissues & live collections
Asia, Axis – Live in San Francisco (Frontiers Music)
The Beatles, +1 (Capitol)
Bad Company, Bad Company and Straight Shooter (Atlantic)
Continental Drifters, Drifted: In the Beginning & Beyond (Omnivore Recordings)
The Dream Syndicate, The Days of Wine and Roses (Omnivore Recordings)
Garbage, Garbage – 20th Anniversary Edition (Almo Sounds)
Neil Finn + Paul Kelly, Goin' Your Way (Omnivore Recordings)
Peter Frampton, Now (Omnivore Recordings)
The Knack, Live From the Rock 'n' Roll Fun House (Omnivore Recordings)
Denny Lile, Hear the Bang: The Life and Music of Denny Lile (Big Legal Mess Records)
The Rolling Stones, From The Vault: The Marquee – Live in 1971 (Eagle Rock Entertainment)
Sneakers, Sneakers (Omnivore Recordings)
Spoon, Gimme Fiction (Merge)
The Textones, Midnight Mission and Cedar Creek (Omnivore Recordings)
Various artists, The Legacy Collection: Pocahontas (Walt Disney Records)