Throw me in the River - The Smith Street Band
These choices are in no particular order but I had to make The Smith Street Band the first on the list. Had I discovered Throw Me in the River earlier in the year it would have blown everything else out of the water for play count alone. I've mentioned them and this album in poetic style before in this post, so I'll try not to repeat myself, but it's been a long while since a band has taken hold of me with such consensual force and not put me back down again. I can listen to them in bed at night with the lights off and get the same teenage rushes I had back when I actually was one. What I said before about them being a mash-up of Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg and Andrew Jackson Jihad is still completely true. They hang their influences off their guitar strings. You get stories and anthemic choruses, but you also get shouty, politically furious angst mixed in with occasionally blinding if self-aware self-deprecation. To top it all off, they sing with Australian accents. I could not ask for more.
Standout track? I'd love to choose something different, but I recently described Something I Can Hold in My Hands as a song that "makes me feel things I don't understand". It has to be that one.
Traveller - Chris Stapleton
If you're a follower of US-based country music you'll have already known who Chris Stapleton was before he fully launched his solo performing career this year. His writing credits have run across several of country's biggest artists for years, so it made sense that eventually he'd step to the front of the stage. What's been so exciting is that his personal style doesn't sound like anything he's written for anyone else. It's guttural, gruff and even the more tender tracks feel like a stomach punch dipped in syrup. His voice genuinely makes me groan and growl out loud. That doesn't happen often. With Traveller, Chris exceeded everyone's expectations, winning fans, critical acclaim and awards all round. Country really needed something raw, powerful and unpolished in the mainstream to balance out the pop. Chris Stapleton's Traveller is exactly that. And if you still need some convincing, watch his outstanding 10-minute performance with Justin Timberlake that sent his profile and album sales stratospheric. Preach!
Standout track? Parachute. It makes me want to touch myself.
The Near Future - I Fight Dragons
I hadn't realised how many times I'd listened to this album until my Spotify Year in Music stats came through. It was up there for most of the year, which I attribute to its mood-lifting qualities. I Fight Dragons aren't going to be for everyone, but if you like light pop-rock style and video games there's a pretty good chance you're going to love them. Also, if you too are a heart-thumping sucker for a Chicago accent, you're going to be smitten. You may be spotting a theme to my choices this year. The Near Future is a collection of 9 full lyric tracks and 6 instrumentals made up of combining retro video game sound effects and rock chords, both the cute and the more contemplative kind. If it sounds odd, it is, but it works unbelievably well. If you're also thinking it just sounds too geeky, the lyrics on this album in particular aren't really related to anything in that sphere. They touch on all the themes you'd expect from pop-rock, propped up by some Nintendo jumps and squeaks and clear band harmonies.
Standout track? No Strings. I love Brian Mazzaferri's voice a little too much in this. My fangirl heart monitor is on a permanent spike.
Pageant Material - Kacey Musgraves
It's time the ladies got a look-in. I wrote a full and swooning review of this album when it was released back in June, so I'll keep this relatively brief. Knowing that I dedicated my first tattoo to Kacey and one of her lyrics should give you a fairly secure indication of how big a fan I am, but Pageant Material was widely thought to be one of the most perfect country albums of 2015. She'd made such a refreshing splash with her first record, the second had a lot to live up to. Pageant Material wasn't as good as Same Trailer Different Park, it was so much better. It's witty, perceptive, confident and now that she's trickled the Sixties vibe from her hair and make-up into the music, you also get a more grown-up background sound mixed in with very simple, unfiltered country music. I've played it constantly for six months and I'm not even close to being bored. I can't praise Kacey or this album highly enough. I'm convinced we're destined to be pals. Shush. It's a nice dream.
Standout track? Dime Store Cowgirl. It's the best indication of what you get from the rest of the album and her voice sounds especially gorgeous, but her rare dip into soppiness with Late to the Party leaves me sighing.
Every Open Eye - CHVRCHES
I read something recently that said life moves in seasons. You pick things up or put them down depending on what you need to meet that season. In 2014 I really needed electronic music. I needed its calmness, its mechanical reliability, its sometimes lack of emotion. In 2015 I needed the opposite, so electronica remained a feature as it has done since I fell in love with early 90s dance music, but it took a backseat apart from Madeon's Cut the Kid, which I was obsessed with. The happy medium was CHVRCHES' Every Open Eye. Their skill for taking electronic beats and mixing them with personal, heartfelt lyrics gave me back the soul I was looking for from digitally created music. Every Open Eye also boosts our mutual love of 80s beats and synth pop sounds. This album is a complete love letter to the 80s. You find yourself listening to it and picking out the nods to bands like Erasure and Depeche Mode. Lauren Mayberry's vocals are beautiful and inject life into the background bouncing and button pushing, while Martin Doherty's singing on High Enough to Carry You Over kicks me right in the heart. Electronica that makes you feel things is the Holy Grail. Did I mention the Scottish accents?
Standout track? Clearest Blue. Like they've drawn big heart around the 80s.
Montevallo - Sam Hunt
There was a time this year where if you were a country music fan who also claimed to like Sam Hunt you were something of a traitor. Country's biggest problem isn't the creeping in of pop, R&B and gentle hip-hop, it's that people spend so much time worrying about whether something is country enough that they forget to enjoy the music. There's no doubt that Sam Hunt's music lives on the R&B side of country, but so what? It's a big genre with branches in different directions and enough room for everyone if we all keep our cool. Kenny Chesney was mixing chatting with singing over a decade ago. Even George Strait has done it. Sam's doing the same, just with a few modern beats thrown on top. This has turned into more of a rant than praise for the album, but he really is a great addition to a genre that needs to diversify to thrive in the mainstream. Montevallo is a great debut album. It's a melting pot of styles, it's fun and easy to listen to and in places rather sexy. People really like Sam Hunt. Let the boy have a foot in more than one camp and he'll pull even more punters in. Can we talk about how good looking he is now? No. It's about the music. Sorry.
Standout track? Take Your Time is a little masterpiece of combining styles and still making it work, plus the video is one of my favourites of the year.
American Beauty/American Psycho - Fall Out Boy
Considering what an important band Fall Out Boy have been for me for over a decade, I'm surprised I don't talk about them more. But maybe I don't need to. We don't need a Facebook relationship status to know it's there. They're my band, where I know every drum beat and never forget the words. At my core, I always have been and always will be an emo kid who thinks too much and feels too deeply. When FOB came along in 2004/5 they were the perfect storm for me. Pete Wentz ripped his insides out and smeared them over cryptic, introverted lyrics while Patrick Stump placed them wrapped in exciting, catchy melodies and production. Patrick Stump, along with his former ample figure, remains one of my most intense crushes of all time. His voice made my heart pound. It still does. Oh and we've already covered the Chicago thing. After Folie a Deux they didn't so much lose their form, they just tried a few new things that didn't appeal to me in the same way. Some of it got so punky that it didn't sound like them anymore. Patrick went off and made his own vocal heavy electronica, which was brilliant but deliberately a million miles from Fall Out Boy. This year they came back together to make American Beauty/American Psycho and everything clicked back into place. All irresistible introspection, memorable choruses, even better vocals than before and a happy balance between what they sounded like 10 years ago and where they obviously want to go. As an album and as a band, my most thrilling 'welcome back' of 2015.
Standout track? Fourth of July. It sounds brand new but still like something they could have written at any point while they've been together.
The Blade - Ashley Monroe
Another album I wrote a complete review for, so again I won't go over old ground. The most admirable thing about Ashley Monroe, stunning voice aside, is that she's always stuck with making the music that's meant the most to her. It would be so easy for her to let Nashville's executives tell her what to do to make her a megastar, but that would probably mean leaving behind her less commercial music. She's never done that. The Blade is the culmination of years of honing her craft and it shows. The Blade is the perfect album if you love country music but just can't face the froth and politeness that often comes with what makes it to the radio. For each tender if moderate expression of love there's something dark and gritty. It's easy to forget sometimes but, as well as the fun, country has a tradition of melancholy to it. The Blade is swathed in sadness and even the happier tracks have their reigns pulled in case you haven't got a sweet tooth. It feels like Ashley Monroe has been around and respected for years. This album deserves to carry her further into the limelight.
Standout Track? The Blade. It's the ultimate heartbreak song. Lyrically torturous, vocally perfect.
Blossom - Frank Carter & the Rattlesnakes
If 2014 was about sticking close to things that kept me calm and 2015 was the opposite, Frank Carter & the Rattlesnakes' Blossom was about as far away from calm as it could take me and the release was exhilarating. It is delicious in its acerbic anger. After Gallows and some switching around with other bands, things seemed to fall into place for Frank Carter with his Rattlesnakes. It may not be his debut, but as a collective it's an impressive start. With the exception of the slower and self-explanatory I Hate You, the rest of the tracks are filled with speedy drums, pace-matching thrashing guitars and the kind of strangely melodic screaming vocals that make you want to rip the world in half. The kind of furious rock music that stirs something primal in your stomach, it's the musical equivalent of 34 minutes knocking the hell out of a punchbag, except Frank does the swearing and the hard work for you. Can't wake up on a Monday morning? Blossom. Sick of sitting in meetings where nothing seems to happen? Blossom. Feeling angry but got nowhere to put it? Blossom. Just fancy making your heart race for half an hour or so? Blossom. Just don't sue us if you feel the need to take the world by the throat afterwards.
Standout track? It's tempting to select Fangs for its smut value, but Devil Inside Me is probably the best indication of what you get from this voluntary kick to the head.
1989 - Ryan Adams
I've been a fan of Taylor Swift right from when she was releasing Tim McGraw as a 15 year-old country newcomer. She had something adorable about her even then. She got things wrong, but who didn't get a hundred things a day wrong when they were living out their late teens and early twenties? 1989 is the culmination of her reaching womanhood and growing up. Catchy tunes aside, it's brilliantly written. We could spend hours debating how it shouldn't take Ryan Adams covering 1989 in its entirety for the album, Taylor Swift and pop music to be taken seriously, and I would wholeheartedly agree, but his take on it is beautiful. It was a bizarre experience listening to a brand new Ryan Adams album and yet knowing the lyrics to every song, albeit rearranged in places. Few artists have the inclination, the time or the freedom to cover someone else's album in full. There might be remix albums where various collaborators put new spins on originals, but it would be exciting to see more back-slap projects like this one. The writing belongs to Taylor Swift but the production on this album is trademark Ryan Adams: echoing raspy vocals, gentle rolling guitar tinkering, and the sense that he's carrying a few too many troubles on his shoulders. Essentially, Taylor Swift without the red lips and the jolly 80s back-beats. Want to pour your heart out but shrug your shoulders at the madness of it all? Listen to Taylor Swift's 1989. Want to pour your heart out and wallow in the melancholy? Head to the Ryan Adams' version. He paid her the most lovely tribute.
Standout track? Welcome to New York. It's Ryan Adams singing Taylor Swift while sounding like Bruce Springsteen. Tick. Tick. Tick.