Travels, a Traveller, Whistles & Bells: the top 10 albums of 2015

John J. Thompson

When you spend your year listening to music, it’s hard to come up with a“10 best” list. So consider the following to be a collection of 10 impressive records from 2015 that you should not miss.

10. Kamasi Washington - The Epic

Though he is most widely known as the cat who brought those cool jazz bits to Kendrick Lamar’s amazing To Pimp a Butterfly, Kamasi Washington sets his sights on the sounds of jazz greats like John Coltrane and Miles Davis with this breathtaking triple album. Some people say they see God in the complexity of mathematics or genetic code. That’s how I feel about jazz. There’s no way this stuff happens by random chance. The Epic is aptly titled. If you listen to only one, three-hour-long jazz album this month, make it this.

9. Jake Shimabukuro - Travels

Yes, Jake Shimabukuro first appeared on everyone’s radar as that crazy, skilled kid who could play everything from current pop hits to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” to Bach on a traditional ukulele. And yes, he does a bit of that on his latest release, Travels (see his fun take on “Low Rider” for instance). But his original compositions are what really take center stage here.

8. The Fairfield Four - Still Rockin’ My Soul

Several of the original members of The Fairfield Four may have moved on to glory, but the spirit of the band is alive and well. Unlike The Blind Boys of Alabama, who artfully blend their roots gospel sound with modern Americana and rock sensibilities, The Fairfield Four serves up their songs with no more accompaniment than hand claps. Yet their music lacks nothing. Still Rockin’ My Soul absolutely deserves its current Grammy nomination.

7. Chris Stapleton - Traveller

Cleaning up at the Country Music Association Awards isn’t always a sign of soulful work, but this year’s CMA sensation, Chris Stapleton, delivered a truly stirring debut album. Traveller is honest, redemptive and even occasionally uplifting country music from a man who has written hits for too many more popular artists of dubious quality.

Some people say they see God in the complexity of mathematics. That’s how I feel about jazz.

6. Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors - Medicine

The secret is definitely out: Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors are starting to get the recognition they so rightly deserve. Medicine is flawless American pop music played by real people on real instruments. It’s not afraid to chill, rock or swing, and its encouraging message never feels preachy or overly cool. Like a long hang with a good friend, Medicine keeps me coming back for more.

5. Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard - Django and Jimmie

The sixth collaboration between Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard is everything you want it to be. Titled after the lead track, Django and Jimmie manages to honor the roots of American music by relishing the sacred and profane elements of life without worrying about labels or rules. Nelson’s “Family Bible” sits right next to his stash of pot as these former Highwaymen play the role of Americana wise men one more time.

4. Leon Bridges - Coming Home

Sometimes you need a 26-year-old Fort Worth dishwasher to remind you what music can accomplish if you let it. Leon Bridges channels the spirit of Otis Redding, Al Green and Sam Cooke as he deftly erases the lines between soul and gospel. “Shine” is a flat-gorgeous prayer based on Psalm 25, while “Lisa Sawyer” chronicles his mother’s spiritual journey and eventual conversion. “Coming Home” and “Better Man” explore the complexity and redemptive potential of human love and romance. The production and instrumentation are perfectly warm and analog. It doesn’t get better than this.

3. Blitzen Trapper - All Across This Land

I won’t stop waving the flag for this band until you all stop and salute. I played All Across This Land more than any other album this year. The most satisfying rock and roll is the stuff that pulls no punches and tells the truth. Blitzen Trapper defines that ethic.

2. The Whistles & The Bells - The Whistles & The Bells

If you have ever wondered what Christian conversion sounds like inside the head and heart of a progressive bluegrass player raised on rock and roll, experiencing The Whistles & The Bells should be high on your to-do list. Essentially an elaborate and meticulously crafted solo debut, this self-titled release establishes Bryan Simpson as one of the most exciting and powerful alternative Americana artists working right now. Simpson seems to have endeavored to capture his internal spiritual process with no musical rules or boundaries. The result is simply one of the most powerful projects I have ever heard. It’s just as frightening, engaging, shocking and winsome as any Gospel story should be.

1. Twenty One Pilots - Blurryface

With Blurryface, Twenty One Pilots somehow managed to craft an album that was both creatively progressive and insanely accessible. Elements of rap, reggae, alternative pop and progressive rock collide in support of some of the most spiritually evocative lyrics any commercial artist released in 2015. Combine the way Queen brought melodic hooks into prog-rock and the way U2 used their Christian faith to craft stadium-ready mainstream worship anthems and you get a hint of this young band’s potential.

Others not to miss: Pops Staples’ posthumously released Don’t Lose This; Chvrches’ Every Open Eye; The Lone Bellow’s Then Came the Morning; Wilco’s Star Wars; and My Morning Jacket’s The Waterfall. For even more great 2015 music, check out my Spotify playlist.

Topics: Music, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure