Ann Powers' Favorite Albums Of 2015
I guess my favorite spiritually generated cliché is: Life is change. It's a noble tenet of Buddhism and a tenet of existentialism that no matter how much we cling to a comfortable belief about reality, a turn of events can quickly demolish it. More commonly, circumstances and habits reshape reality slowly. Even in the digital age, life gets scratches, the way vinyl does. You have to learn to live with the pops and the buzz.
At the end of last year it seemed like the world had been broken. Gathering my favorite albums, I wrote about how music helped me through moments that felt like the end of the world. I've got news for you: Life went on. In my own life and all around me, 2015 saw more struggle, more disaster and simultaneously, many gatherings of people determined to survive and thrive, in solidarity and in joy. Music was the center at sites of violence and ceremonies of healing. It rang out at protests and at group weddings, in the White House and in refugee camps. Music is change, too, the sound of systems unfolding and those systems being challenged. Some of the greatest songs of 2015, like Kendrick Lamar's "Alright," embodied this reality. So did some of the silliest. We all evolved, doing the whip and nae nae to Silento's "Watch Me."
Another cliché I favor comes from the great teen movie Bandslam, via Samuel Beckett: I can't go on, I'll go on. Considering the albums that spoke to me most strongly in 2015, I realized that they added up to one long life story, evoking different stages in development of artistry within examined lives. The musicians behind these works range in age from 20 to 74, though their place in the life cycle I'm mapping doesn't strictly correspond to a number. Many young artists caught my ear with their openness and resolve to not second-guess themselves. At the other end of life, elders produced work that was equally courageous, taking risks and realizing dreams in the spirit of seizing the present moment. Then there were those in the first full flower of their vision, and others in the next phase, fully accomplished, moving forward while summoning considerable experience.
What follows is a life map in the form of an albums list: sixteen albums that capture the spirit of going on, of taking the difficult step or relishing a perfect moment, of looking forward, on fire, or reflecting upon the past, at peace. I could have made a list extolling Lamar, Courtney Barnett, Joanna Newsom, Sufjan Stevens, Kamasi Washington and Father John Misty; all of those albums deserve the accolades. This list is more personal. For me, and maybe for you, life in 2015 often felt like one last straw after another, or at least a perplexing series of interruptions. How is it possible to merely live, now that the tumult we share scrolling through our various crisis-filled feeds feels constant? Each in their own way, these albums reminded me that we do go on, we choose the inevitable, and music shows us how to honor both the changes we welcome and the ones we think we can't face, but do.
YOUNG: New Voices Tell True Tales
A twenty-year-old out and proud queer digital kid, raised in South Africa but living most freely in the borderless realm of YouTube, pairs up with a female producer and finds depth and coherence in dreamy, soulful pop that breathes desire between every flickering zero and one.
The raw nerves feeding this twenty-year-old's confessional songwriting can be overwhelming, but there's also much consideration and grace in her voice as she takes on loneliness, self-loathing, skin hunger and her insistent God's grace.
MADDIE & TAE
These just-beyond-teenagers could be students at the SEC university of their choice, pledging Greek and acing the honor roll. Instead these two congenial high achievers settled in Nashville and made the year's best young-adult country album, full of big dreams and telling little details about the hard parts of growing up.
At Least For Now
This 26-year-old English enfant terrible came of age busking in Paris subway and pulling random poetry volumes from the libraries he haunted as a teen. His sprawling, piano-driven cabaret blends subway grit with smeared ink, operatic sweetness with the fierce intimacy of the blues.
ADULT: Finding a Footing, Making a Leap
Finding an ideal sonic interlocutor in producer Rob Ellis, 24-year-old Mackenzie Scott also found a way to be fearlessly clear on this all-absorbing rock song suite about tested faith, fractured family and the unfulfillable wish to bury that past in love or in anger. Memories can't wait; made braver by glorious noise, Scott shows us how to face them.
Sound & Color
A second album can break a band, especially after the first one sent it into fame's stratosphere. For this band, loyalty trumped ego and the grit needed to grow overcame the temptation to coast. Its skills sharpened after much touring, the Shakes took many chances with its basic funky rock formula and ended up blowing minds.
Four albums into a career that began before she could fully handle it, this 25-year-old British folkie-turned-rocker fled to California and gave up music, accruing adventures that, when she returned to song, would inform her most emotionally challenging, self-confrontational, and novelistic effort yet. Bring on the Joni Mitchell comparisons — for once, a pretender to that throne earns them.
Time To Go Home
When musicians in a scene hit their stride together, joy permeates every beat. That's happening now among the millennial female indie rockers of the Pacific Northwest, who made a steady stream of great records this year — led by this one, a recasting of superfuzz punk from the viewpoint of the girls who were always there, pounding beers with the boys, getting felt up and listening to their big plans, and who finally just had to shout their truths.
MATURE: In their Prime, Expressing Power
Clouded and clearing dreamscapes about real sex; soft nightmares confronting everyday world decay — this 35-year-old Norwegian experimentalist confronts many levels of consciousness on her most accomplished work while always paying mind for the need to laugh and the longing for beauty. Electronica with a woman's libido and heart.
Freedom & Surrender
After a period of personal and musical experimentation, the 35-year-old Wright finds her home in covers and originals that encourage deep reflection through gentle rhythmic shifts and melodies that flow like thought itself. This is adult music, not because it's smooth, but because of the clarity Wright brings to even her most languorous eroticism or spirited efforts to rouse the soul.
The most beloved recording of Nashville's bubbling new era, this was my own soundtrack while I made the city my new home. The 37-year-old Stapleton was already a career artist before making this solo debut: a veteran of great bands and many hitmaking country music sessions, as a songwriter and backing vocalist. This perfect disc is an object lesson in how to be ready for your close-up.
Tomorrow Is My Turn
A truly astounding vocal performance by the woman who should be known as the breakthrough voice of pop in 2015, the 38-year-old Giddens's solo turn after a decade in old-timey band the Carolina Chocolate drops literally reconfigures American history to reveal African-American women at its center. A huge intervention, and a fait accompli.
ELDER: Looking Back, Seizing the Moment
More than two decades after finding its rootsy groove in the party bars of South Florida, this band still kicks up dust with vernal energy. But all that experience shows in the range of its sound and the utter confidence with which it navigates the ground connecting country with classic rock and roll with the Latin diaspora, all behind the unmatchable vocals of Raul Malo, heartthrob for the ages.
RICKIE LEE JONES
The Other Side of Desire
The most overlooked masterpiece of 2015 comes from a veteran flaneur who shook up her life on the verge of age 60 by relocating to New Orleans, where the streets are most alive. There, she added new musical languages to an arsenal that already included so much, dancing Cajun-style and communing with the spirit of Fats Domino, spinning feeling-unfurling stories in the way she always has, but now with even greater insight into the ways the spiritual parties with the secular.
Oh My Goodness
A 73-year-old man sits at his Wurlitzer, looks out the window and sings for himself. That's how this tender classic first gained life, when the singer-songwriter John Paul White visited Fritts, a veteran Muscle Shoals songwriter and session man, at home one day. The peaceful spirit of a goal-less endeavor permeates the sessions White organized, enlisting many of Fritts' Nashville friends and other neighbors, to capture the old master's wry jokes and sly wisdom. No fuss, just humbly offered insight.
Power in the Blood
She has never stopped, over the course of six music-making decades, despite being too often forgotten by canon-makers. Here 74-year-old Buffy Sainte-Marie reflects upon her storied career by reinterpreting some of her own classics in versions that remind listeners that she always broke sound barriers (she was the first folkie to experiment with electronic music) and stereotypes. But her new songs take as many chances and deliver as much punch, rising beyond category on the spirit of the anthem she offers for all of us: "Carry It On."