Then of course, everyone seemed to love the Kendrick Lamar, but you know, hip hop is just not my cup of tea. So I haven't heard it.
D'Angelo was one of my personal discoveries in 2015, and this year I bought all three of his albums, and they're all great. Some Best of 2015 lists included his Black Messiah, and while it's true I didn't hear this till 2015, it was actually released December 15, 2014-- making it, based on my scrupulous and rigorous rules, ineligible. If I'd heard it in time for 2014 it would have been a top-10 pick, maybe higher. (Actually, the 2014 list is here; D'Angelo would have ranked somewhere between 4 and 7.)
So anyway, here's what I liked, with a real minimum of ado. I have indeed managed to find 20 albums I can stand behind. As always, RIYL is, Recommended If You Like. I've made you a Spotify playlist of as many as I could find; numbers 1, 7 13 and 20 aren't available on Spotify.
1. Jim O'Rourke, Simple Songs.
You may know O'Rourke from Wilco spin-off group Loose Fur... O'Rourke is a fixture in the US and European "experimental music" scenes, and since I'm wholly unfamiliar with his body of work, I can't really tell you where Simple Songs fits in amongst the rest of it. I do know this is his third "song" album, following 1999's Eureka and 2001's Insignificance... Most of his recent work has been instrumental. I bought this album very late-- like last few days of December-- but I haven't been able to stop playing it since. It is oddly, elusively beguiling. Rarely is there an album that I can listen to all the way through, where when it ends I want to go play it again. But this one I do... 8 songs, 38 minutes. I want to call it "guitar pop," but I suspect it's really some higher, more complex kind of music masquerading in pop's clothing. The guitars are beautiful, biting, lush and precise, and the recording let's every instrument breathe and pack maximum impact. Periodically a string section or some brass will weave into the song, do something wonderful, then weave out again. My first exposure to O'Rourke, but it won't be the last. RIYL: New Pornographers, The Shins, Wilco.
2. Keith Richards, Crosseyed Heart.
Keith's three solo records have been, arguably, the best Stones records of the last 30 years (and it's been 10 years since the last Stones record). On Crosseyed Heart he leavens the classic riff rocker persona with grizzled old bluesman, and it suits him well. I was sold half way through the opening track, just Keith and an acoustic guitar, two minutes of 8-bar blues, and if you didn't know better you'd swear he was an old blind black guy from the '30s (ditto the closer, a cover of Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene.") If your favorite pair of old blue jeans was a record, they'd sound like this. There is, as per usual, a little reggae, a little country, and lots of loose swinging rock'n'roll rhythmic riffage. RIYL: Talk Is Cheap, Main Offender, Muddy Waters, the Keith songs on Rolling Stones records.
3. Kamasi Washington, The Epic.
A triple album opus and declaration of purpose, this was Washington's fourth release, but the first on a formal record label. For a while I debated putting Washington the top spot for sheer breadth and audacity. While I haven't heard the Kendrick Lamar smash, To Pimp a Butterfly, I do know that Washington, a tenor sax player with a serious jazz pedigree, is all over it; he uses some of the same players here, notably Thundercat on bass (has there ever been a better name for a bass player than Thundercat?). Familiar themes weave in and out across the three hours or so of music on The Epic; there's some orchestral backing, some old school vocal balladry, acoustic small combo riffing, electric big band grooving. And all through, there's lots to please fans of Coltrane, who's influence Washington wears on his reed. RIYL: Coltrane, A Love Supreme, Charlie Haden's Quartet West.
4. Ryan Adams, 1989.
Back when Cher's slick, schmaltzy, auto-tuned "Believe" was getting airplay, every time it came on the radio, I would turn it up. My wife couldn't understand why I liked that song-- it didn't make sense. I was a rocker, and this was-- it was-- well, it was Cher! And not "Gypsies Tramps and Thieves" Cher, either-- disco diva Cher! But I was adamant that under all that production, there was a good song in there somewhere. Then I heard the Luxury Liners cover, and I knew I'd been right... which brings us to 1989, wherein Ryan Adams covers Taylor Swift's hit record 1989 song for song, ostensibly in the style of the Smiths. The record does run a little long, but that's her doing, not his. And I'm not convinced about the Smiths; it just sounds like the rock'n'roll version of Adams to me (that's rock'n'roll the musical persona, not the album title). This record doesn't sound unlike his self-titled 2014 release, or the singles he put out throughout 2014 and early 2015 (you could easily cobble together an album from those singles that would make this list.) Some of the songs that have been played to death on the radio (Tay-Tay's versions, obviously; the closest Adams gets to radio ubiquity is the Sirius/XM soccer mom channel) are less effective because the original is still burned into your brain (e.g. "Blank Spaces.") But check out how well he puts over "Welcome to New York" or "Wildest Dream." Here's a great version of Swift playing "Wildest Dream," just voice and guitar; and here's Adams from the record. I admit, part of me thinks he just did this to get into her knickers, in which case, I wish him Godspeed. He does get a little messy with gender in the lyrics, but seriously, it's rock'n'roll, who listens to the words? And he's right; the Swift songs hold up. While my 11 year-old daughter may think it's heresy, I think Ryan's record rocks. RIYL: Ryan Adams, Taylor Swift, the Smiths.
5. Todd Rundgren, Emil Nikolaiasen, Hans-Peter Linstrom, Runddans.
Todd Rundgren put out two albums this year. The "main" one, Global, was his third EDM release in a row, and frankly, I have no use for it, or for the two previous ones either. Some of the big names in EDM (like Skrillex) have cited Todd, and especially his A Wizard, A True Star album, as a touchstone, and I guess he's returning the love. But it just aint my cup of Joe. Then there's this one... a long-distance collaboration with two Norwegian space-disco artists who are clearly enamored of Todd's classic work. The result is a twelve-song cycle that plays like one long piece, swirling, trippy, electronic, and far more evocative of todd's classic '70s "synthesized noise" than anything Todd himself has done in ages. You hear Todd's exquisite guitar soloing and unmistakable vocalization throughout (although I wouldn't go so far as to call these "songs"), with all three artists (or at least the Norwegian acolytes) paying tribute to the sounds of Todd's 1973-1975 output. If you can get your head around an extended piece of music that has no lyrics or hooks to hang your hat on, give this baby a spin. RIYL: Side 2 of Initiation, Todd Rundgren's Utopia, prog.
6. Dave and Phil Alvin, Lost Time.
Moving from the sublime to the... less sublime. Dave and Phil were the driving forces in the Blasters, who's modern take on rockabilly placed them squarely in the middle of what I called at the time the Great '80s Roots Rock Revival (the Blasters, Del Fuegos, Del-Lords, Los Lobos, Long Ryders, Green On Red and so on). Big Brother Phil has the big, perfect rockabilly voice; baby brother Dave wrote the songs and played a nasty lead guitar. But since they were brothers in a band, naturally they fought; Dave left the Blasters in 1986, and the two didn't record together again till they teamed up for a couple of tracks on the Ghost Brothers of Darkland County album (20013). Now they're making up for lost time; in 2014 they put out a record of Big Bill Broozy covers. Then in 2015 they followed that up with the aptly-titled Lost Time, in a similar vein but with covers of an array of old blues and R'n'B artists (there are tunes by Willie Dixon, James Brown, and three by Big Joe Turner). The sound is a blend of Bakersfield country, Texas boogie, and Chicago blues, the playing is solid and organic. RIYL: The Blasters, the blues, juke joints, the Great '80s Roots Rock Revival.
7. Prince, HitNRun Phase 2.
You may be thinking that I'm just a sucker for Prince, and whatever he does, I'll love. But I was decidedly underwhelmed by HitNRun Phase 1, also released in 2015, and I came THIS close to not even buying Phase 2 (because I couldn't find a physical copy, and I'm not keen on lossy audio formats.) Plus, I'd heard almost half the songs already, as he'd released them previously as digital singles ("Screwdriver," "Groovy Potential," "Rocknroll Loveaffair.") But I finally relented, and with the exception of "Baltimore," all the previously released tracks appear here in somewhat different form. As for the album as a whole, it's sweet, soulful, groovalacious and melodic. In "Stare," Prince sings, "I'd rather let the music talk while you and me walk into the past," and that pretty much sums it up. He's self-referential throughout-- you'll spot the quote from "Kiss," and maybe even the synth line from "Take Me With You." Of course nothing here is as insanely catchy as his greatest hit songs-- there's no "Purple Rain" or "Little Red Corvette" to hang your hat on. But honestly, if someone besides Prince put this exact album out, you'd call it one of the best of the year (and wish Prince still made records like this.) RIYL: Emancipation, 3121, Musicology, The Rainbow Children.
8. Taylor Locke, Time Stands Still.
Locke is the guitar player in the power pop band Rooney, and this is is first solo release, although he has recorded in a band called Taylor Locke and the Roughs. This record luxuriates in the 70s singer-songwriter sound; it feels like a lost recording from Laurel Canyon in say 1972, spiked with a dose of radio pop from the same vintage. If you can imagine a place where classic early Jackson Browne and Emmett Rhodes intersect, with maybe a dollop of The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, that's where this album lands. Charming songs that will, if you're about my age, remind you of 8th grade. Or, if you're that age of the kids in my office, it will remind you of that damn XM station your mom listens to. RIYL: Emmett Rhodes, Jackson Browne, Blake Mills, Dawes, Paul McCartney's Ram.
9. Natalie Prass, self-titled.
An alumnus of Jenny Lewis's touring band and opener for Ryan Adams (basically hopping on the tour right after Lewis left). At one show she missed due to a flight snafu, Adams memorably opened for himself in a dress as "Natalie Sass" and played her set. This is her first album, on the Spacebomb label and produced by Mark E. White; White provides the Spacebomb house band, and the Spacebomb strings, which Prass uses to excellent effect. This is another singer-songwriter record in the tradition of the '70s Laurel Canyon sound, but swathed in rich and textured orchestrations-- strings and brass augment a more traditional "folk-rock" instrumentation, in a fashion reminiscent of Dusty In Memphis. There's so much going on on each of these nine tracks that the songs open up and unfold with repeated listens; they manage to be lush and yet somehow quirky and elusive. I think Prass is an artist to watch. RIYL: Jenny Lewis, Dusty in Memphis, Lilith Fair, lush orchestration.
10. Los Lobos, Gates of Gold.
Los Lobos were up for the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame this year, and of course they didn't get in-- but if there was any musical justice, they'd have been first ballot inductees. All they do is grind out great meat-and-potatoes-- or, more accurately, arroz y frijoles-- rock'n'roll. I've been a fan since 1983's EP, ...and a Time to Dance. I saw them three times this year, and the show at the beach to ring in summer was just so joyous and rocking (although my nephew Laszlo with the perfect pitch wondered, "Why is every song in G?") This one doesn't have any jump-out-at-you hits, although the moody, minor-key "When We Were Free" sounds like a classic, the groove melancholy, subtle and insistent as David Hidalgo's sad, emotive vocals weave a tale of woe and innocence-lost over the top. Then of course, Ceasar Rosas hits you between the eyes immediately after with his patented boogie; that's basically the Los Lobos formula. If you like the grinding, Tex-Mex, heel-pounding, feel-good stomp that Los Lobos have long since perfected, well, here's a big ol' mess of it for you. You're welcome. RIYL: Tex-Mex, Norteno, Alejandro Escovedo, the Silos, other Los Lobos records.
11. Amy Helm, Didn't It Rain.
When it comes to the musical genre of Americana, it's hard for Amy Helm to go wrong. Her dad was Levon Helm of The Band (and her mom was Libby Titus; talk about a pedigree) and her '00s band, Ollabelle, was one of my favorites. (I first came upon them in 2004 when they opened for Ryan Adams, who sat in on guitar for their set.) This is her first solo work, and it's largely what you'd expect-- rootsy, authentic, impeccably played, with more than a little of the ethereal, ghost-voodoo vibe that made the first Ollabelle record so memorable. Actually, this album and the Campbell/Williams record below could almost be a double album; Larry and Theresa are on Amy's record, Amy's on theirs, they share both musicians and musical sensibility, and all are graduates of Levon's band and his Midnight Rambles. RIYL: The Band, Ollabelle, Larry Campbell and Theresa Williams, mandolins, midnight rambles.
12 Warren Haynes, Ashes and Dust.
Typically records by Haynes, with or without Gov't Mule, don't make this list, despite my devout fondness for the artist, because I almost always end up listening to live versions of the songs on the album. Haynes is a jam band all star, and that means he lives in the here-and-now of live performance. For this album of folky Americana, which dips into his North Carolina, Appalachian roots, Haynes works with fellow jam bandsters and roots rockers Railroad Earth, and together they offer up a bunch of Haynes originals, plus some choice covers (his take on Fleetwood Mac's "Gold Dust Woman" with Grace Potter is a highlight.) In a softer musical setting than Gov't Mule, Haynes's songwriting takes a more central place in the mix; his writing voice is distinct (at some point you can be pretty sure a protagonist wrestling with doubt will find himself heading down a road), and continues to grow and blossom. "Spots of Time," a tune he wrote with Phil Lesh, and which he performed in the Allman Brothers the last couple of years of that band's touring life, is a centerpiece, and a lyric from the song provides the album's title. The tour was great, with Haynes and backing band Chessboxer stretching out on many of these and other songs from the Haynes multi-band oeuvre. RIYL: The Band, mandolins, Amy Helm and Larry and Theresa Williams, mountain music.
13. Neil Young + the Promise of the Real, The Monsanto Years.
I give Neil Young a lot of credit. His unique brand of ornery grit has served him well for the long haul; he's one of the very few artists who's made great records in the '60s, and pretty damned good ones this century. This is a pretty good one. The Promise of the Real is the band that Willie Nelson's two sons front, and the racket they make together with Neil is very much like Crazy Horse. But the new, young whippersnapper band is bringing a freshness to Neil and the ghosts-from-a-sacred-Indian-burial-ground bray of his signature electric guitar style. I regret missing what I heard was a great show they put on at Jones Beach in July, and I won't miss them if they come around again. Some of the songs get a little preachy, and with very few exceptions, even if I 100% agree with you, chances are if I hear your politics overtly in your songs, you're trying too hard (one tune has this chorus: "Too big to fail/Too rich for jail." Hardly "Tonight's the Night.") RIYL: Crazy Horse, Psychedelic Pill, MSNBC.
14. North Mississippi Osborne, Freedom and Dreams.
A collaboration between the roots blues trio North Mississippi Allstars (NMAS), and guitarist Anders Osborne. As with the Prince, this release loses points because I can't get a damned physical copy, so I can only hear the MP3s, which means I haven't really "heard" it at all... I first caught Osborne and Main NMAS man and ax stud Luther Dickinson together in 2014, when they both toured in a line-up of Phil Lesh & Friends. Honestly, all the jam band kids were telling me I'd love Anders, but generally I thought Luther stole the show via the sheer electricity with which he imbues every bluesy lick. Given that collaboration, it's not surprising that this record has an unmistakable Grateful Dead vibe, the dewy, bluesy guitars reminiscent of that band's more straight ahead rock'n'roll, and their more slippery, laid back, drunken lopes. One song aptly features the refrain, "space dust turns into milky rain." Indeed. RIYL: North Mississippi Allstars, Phil & Friends, "US Blues."
15. Larry Campbell and Theresa Williams, self-titled.
Campbell is a long-time associate of Bob Dylan, and he and wife Theresa were part of Levon Helm's midnight ramble crew, and frequent live collaborators of Phil Lesh. Nowadays, if you want to inject a little "The Band" vibe into your set, you call on Campbell; see also, Gov't Mule's second set this past New Year's eve. This record is, as noted above, a neat companion piece to the Amy Helm record. Tasteful Americana, with Campbell's tasteful but not showy guitar shining throughout. RIYL: The Band, Ollabelle, Amy Helm, Dylan from the last 20 years, mandolins.
16. Pugwash, Play This Intimately (As If Among Friends).
An Irish band making Britpop in the spirit of XTC, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and especially ELO. Heroes Jeff Lynne (ELO), Andy Partridge (XTC) and Ray Davies of the Kinks each make a brief appearance on the record (think of that more as a stamp of approval than anything else.) For me, Pugwash is at their best when you an hear the acoustic guitar strums and the layered backing vocals, as on "Lucky in Every Way." Lovely, gentle, breezy psychedelia. RIYL: Psychedelic Beatles, ELO, World Party, Skylarking.
17. JD McPherson, Let the Good Times Roll.
Three seconds into Let the Good Times Roll, and the bass line to Eddie Cochran's "C'Mon Everybody" has already been quoted. So it's going to be that kind of a ride. This is Okie McPherson's second solo release. Let the Good Times Roll is equal parts Chicago bar band blues, Little Richard, juke joint jump and jive, classic R'n'B, and Sun rockabilly, with all the slap back and twang you could ask for. Yet the retro verities are presented in a fresh and vibrant context. I've never seen the guy live, but I'd love to-- especially in a standing room club. They really just make 'em like this anymore... except, thankfully, once in a while, they do. RIYL: Bar bands, juke joints, Little Richard, Stray Cats, the Blasters.
18. Walter Salas-Humara, Work Part One.
I've been a fan of Walter (WSH) and his band The Silos since coming home with his solo record Lagartija (on vinyl) in 1988. So I was more than happy to fund the Kickstarter campaign for this and his next album. On Works Part One, WSH revisits what he considered to be his best songs from the beginning part of his career-- two from About Her Steps (1985), five from Cuba (1987), and three from the self-titled "one with the bird on the cover" (1990). The songs are presented in a stripped-down, acoustic setting; Walter is accompanied by producer Richard Brotherton on an assortment of stringed instruments, by Mary Rowell of Ethel on violin, and Amy Allison on vocals; Allison and Rowell graced many of the originals that are reworked here. Rowell's exquisite violin features on "Mary's Getting Married," a song about her very own wedding. WSH's songs are simple, beautiful and true; they speak of life in an honest and heartfelt way, and to me he's one of our best, and most underrated, songwriters. Hearing these songs again is like reconnecting with an old friend. RIYL: Early Silos, Unplugged, Los Lobos, Alejandro Escovedo.
19. Jeff Lynne's ELO, Alone in the Universe.
For better or worse, Jeff Lynne has a SOUND. Worse, if you're a rocker like Tom Petty or Dave Edmunds, and he's producing your album, because it's going to sound like Lynne, not you. Better, if you've just bought the latest release by Jeff Lynne's ELO. Not as giddily grandiose as those classic '70s sides (there's no "Telephone Line" here, for example), but if you long for those sweet harmonies and that classic sound, you've got it. Lynne sounds a little older, a little more mature maybe, but the fat, lush, rollicking post-"I Am the Walrus" vibe is here in all it's glory. With 12 tracks in 37 minutes, not a note is wasted (I have the version with two bonus tracks). Swim out to the deep end and immerse yourself in "Love and Rain" and the rest of it. RIYL: Electric Light Orchestra, "I Am the Walrus," Traveling Wilburys.
20. The Wind, Re-Wind.
It's tough for me to be objective about the Wind, or really any of Lane Steinberg's bands, as I've known him since we were kids at Trail's End Camp in the early '70s (I remember circa '74, the camp counselor being impressed because Lane could name all three members of Cream. Lane remembers me hitting him in the head with a softball.) The Wind blew out of Miami in the '80s, putting out a couple of power pop records that were evocative of Big Star and the Beatles, at a time when Big Hair, fairights, and fake drums were ruling the charts; in a way they were anachronistic in the same sense that Big Star had been a decade before. Lane and Steve have worked together since, in Tan Sleeve. Re-Wind grabs you right out of the gate; I told Lane, they had me at the hand claps 4 seconds in. Smart, quirky songs by both primary writers; great harmonies, solid guitar-driven pop, perky drumming, and some lovely guitar solos. RIYL: Big Star, Tan Sleeve, the Archies, 1965 Beatles.