It was, as Sinatra coined, a very good year for popular music. Not the disposable programmed product that often topped the charts and took home the awards, but honest and organically cultivated pop, rock, soul and – in one of its most surprisingly artful runs in ages – country.
We heard formative artists break through with their finest work, new acts astound with their debut records and some still-vital music being generated by a few old, and in some instances, forgotten names.
Here then is my critic’s pick look at the best popular music recordings of 2015, presented in no particular order. All should be considered equals.
+ Rhiannon Giddens: Tomorrow is My Turn – It’s difficult to overstate how involving this recording is. Known as one-third of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Giddens teams up with Americana chieftain T Bone Burnett to pursue an organic, roots-informed soundscape that covers blues, folk, gospel and even country. But at the helm is a voice that remains profoundly clear, regal and soulful.
+ Alabama Shakes: Sound & Color – As arresting as the Shakes’ 2012 debut album was, Sound & Color is far wilder. It whips the soul charge of Brittany Howard’s singing into a psychedelic cocktail of torrential funk and deep pocket grooves. She channels James Brown one minute and croons like Billie Holiday the next. But the fury and serenity of Sound & Color always sounds blissfully original.
+ Jason Isbell: Something More Than Free – Something More Than Free boasts the lightest and perhaps sweetest tone musically of any record Isbell has cut. But it’s not built on the promise of happy endings. These are songs seasoned with folkish invitation and country intent. As such, much of the album flirts with combustion as it confirms Isbell’s status as a masterful Southern storyteller.
+ Keith Richards: Crosseyed Heart – Not so much a studio album as it is a block party, Crosseyed Heart shows off the ragged Richards as a Stone still on a roll. The album discovers warmth within the darkest recesses of rock ‘n’ roll, yet it boasts everything from sun drenched reggae to a boozy duet with Norah Jones. This is the work of a defiantly` cheerful and ageless spirit.
+ Chris Stapleton: Traveler – As you read this, Lexington-born, Pikeville-reared Stapleton is the hottest thing in country music. But what’s important about Traveler isn’t the singer’s celebrity status or even his Kentucky roots. What matters is the rich, refreshing sense of pure country tradition, laced with Southern soul, fueling this sublime record.
+ Leon Bridges: Coming Home – He sounds like the reincarnation of Sam Cooke, full of old school soul finesse surrounded by gorgeous and tastefully reserved arrangements. Like Cooke, Bridges’ first love was gospel. While there is an undeniable spiritual cast to much of Coming Home, what sells the record is the singer’s exquisite sense of cool, clarity and unpretentious charm.
+ Kacey Musgraves: Pageant Material – The Texas born singer spins yarns of family, smalltown life and restless romance that have long been thematic staples of country music. But Musgraves is also a subtle rebel. Her music champions a human level of imperfection that rings out any sense of false sentimentality, leaving songs filled with humor, candor and sobering reality.
+ Randall Bramblett: Devil Music – Some four decades into his career, Bramblett remains one of the South’s keenest song stylists, but also one of its most neglected. Devil Music is simply more of the same – songs full of often restless human narratives wrapped in grooves and hooks where soul, rock and funk accents glisten. In Bramblett’s case, the Devil you know seriously rocks.
+ Los Lobos: Gates of Gold – Los Lobos remains such an astoundingly unassuming band that it becomes sadly easy to overlook the expert albums it continues to release. Gates of Gold is another quiet triumph – reflective and contemplative at one end, richly rocking at the other, along with the odd twist of Tex Mex and psychedelia that makes their songs so distinctive.
+ Amy Helm: Didn’t It Rain – A record of effortlessly loose vigor and drive, Didn’t It Rain conjures the kind of rock and soul feel Bonnie Raitt and Little Feat cooked up for Warner Brothers Records over four decades ago. But her singing is also infused with rhythmic, Woodstock-driven groove and gospel-esque fervor, not to mention her own scholarly confidence.