WRITTEN BY GARY GRAFF
firstname.lastname@example.org, @GraffonMusic on Twitter
There’s a little bit of symmetry to the how the music world played out during the past 12 months.
We shook off Taylor Swift and said “Hello” to Adele.
Last year at this time we marveled at how powerful and bulletproof Swift came out of the box with her “1989” album, defying song downloading and streaming trends to sell plenty of copies and defiantly establish her own rules in the process — Squad o’ big name pals in tow. Now, as we wrap up 2015, Adele is doing the same thing — with even bigger numbers.
So call them the bookends, but there was plenty between Adele and Swift that scored big points during past year. The best of the year? You could do far worse than these 12 albums (in alphabetical order)…
• Adele, “25” (Columbia): She had us at “Hello.” The British songstress’ follow-up to the titanic “21” came with nearly as much hype as the new “Star Wars” film and lived up to it, mostly thanks to producer and collaborators who did exactly what they needed to — just sit back and not get in the way of her voice. And, like Taylor last year, Adele has people buying albums again — by the millions.
• The Arcs, “Yours, Dreamily” (Nonesuch): One great band wasn’t enough for Dan Auerbach? The Black Keys’ frontman unleashed the Nashville “house band” he uses for his production gigs for a winningly wide-ranging set of psychedelia, gritty garage rack, Americana, funk, smooth soul and even reggae. A dream disc for sure.
• Courtney Barnett, “Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom+Pop): The southpaw Australian singer-songwriter-guitarist’s debut was a real breath of fresh air, with a barrage of hooks and an engagingly angsty effervescence that made Barnett sound wholly original even as she drew from some very familiar sources.
• Leon Bridges, “Coming Home” (Columbia): Calling him the new Sam Cooke seems hyperbolic — until you listen to the 26-year-old Texan’s 10-song debut, a gospel-flavored soul gem that sounds like a sublime, but contemporary-minded, revisitation to another era.
• Bob Dylan, “The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12” (Legacy): Few artists made so much groundbreaking music in such a short time. During the nearly 16-month period covered by this collection, Dylan fueled folk gravitas with rock energy and came up with a rash of pop music standards, up to and including the iconic “Like a Rolling Stone.” You’ll never think of this material the same way again after immersing yourself in this studios overview.
• “Hamilton: Original Broadway Cast Album” (Atlantic Records): It was all about the Hamilton on the Great White Way this year. Who could have guessed that the $10 bill’s Founding Father was the stuff of theatrical legend, much less as a game-changing contemporary urban musical that established creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda an exciting, fresh force in both music and theater.
• Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. “The Traveling Kind” (Nonesuch): The dynamic Americana duo bettered their Grammy Award-winning “Old Yellow Moon” from 2013 on this follow-up effort — which was produced by Rochester Adams grad Joe Henry — writing much of their own material this time after focusing on covers before and coming up with winners such as the title track, “Bring It On Home to Memphis,” “The Weight of the World” and more.
• Kendrick Lamar, “To Pimp a Butterfly” (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope): The Compton rapper’s third album is a consensus pick for all the right reasons. The sonically wide-ranging 16-track set is a sprawling, next-level epic, emotionally complex and revealing but still able to get the party started on tracks such as “King Kunta” and “Wesley’s Theory.”
• The Mavericks, “Mono” (Valory Music Group): Its eight-year hiatus now a memory, the genre-blending outfit sounds even more charged than it did on 2013’s “In Time,” brimming with a fiery confidence and covering more ground on one album than some bands do in their entire careers.
• JD McPherson, “Let The Good Times Roll” (Rounder): The rootsy singer-songwriter from Oklahoma displays some deserved swagger after the triumph of his 2012 debut “Signs and Signifiers” sounds a bit more comfortable after time spent on the road. The good times roll in abundance here, with a clever lyricism that keeps the mind working while the body is moving.
• Chris Stapleton, “Traveler” (Mercury Nashville): Stapleton was a star songwriter — for others — before his solo debut album started gobbling up CMA Awards and Grammy nominations. He lets his more traditionalist side come through here, with a gruff, earthy beauty that’s a necessary antithesis to Nashville’s usual polish.
• Squeeze, “Cradle to the Grave” (Caroline): Messrs. Tilbrook and Difford are in characteristically sublime form on their first new album in seven years, a buoyant set of songs commissioned for a British TV series but undeniably sound like Squeeze at its best.
• A Second Dozen Were Hard To Cut: Ryan Adams, “1989” (Blue Note); Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, “Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams” (Red House); Clutch, “Psychic Warfare” (Weathermaker); Deerhunter, “Fading Frontier” (4AD); Dr. Dre, “Compton” (Aftermath/Interscope); Warren Haynes, “Ashes & Dust” (Concord); Jason Isbell, “Something More Than Free” (Southeastern); Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard, “Djamgo and Jimmie” (Legacy) Protomartyr, “The Agent Intellect” (Hardly Art); Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, “Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats” (Stax); Wilco, “Star Wars” (DBpm); The Word, “Soul Food” (Vanguard)