The Music Ramble is the monthly music blog of Erik Ritland. The St. Paul, Minnesota journalist and musician is the founder of Rambling On. Learn more about us on Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, or our website.
Although sometimes I despair that this isn't the case, there was plenty of quality music released in 2015. The Rambling On Top 20 albums of 2015 goes beneath the surface, skipping over trendy picks like Tame Impala, Sufjan Stevens, Jason Isbell, Adele, and Kendrick Lamar. They've gotten beyond their due. A cynic might even say that they don't deserve it, or that they only get so much notoriety because they're big names in the public eye.
Our list features a diverse mix of albums, many of which have been unduly ignored. Legendary rock stars, indie rock, blues, punk, power pop, folk, and country are all represented.
Here's the list so far (check out the complete article on #20-#11 here):
20. Don Henley - Cass County
19. Keith Richards - Crosseyed Heart
18. Jonathan Rundman - Look Up
17. David Gilmour - Rattle That Lock
16. The Wollen Men - Temporary Monument
15. Charlie Parr - Stumpjumper
14. Built to Spill - Untethered Moon
13. Left Lane Cruiser - Dirty Spliff Blues
12. Gary Clark Jr. - The Story of Sonny Boy Slim
11. Tommy Keene - Laugh in the Dark
10. Dwight Yoakam - Second Hand Heart
Dwight Yoakam expands his musical palette on Second Hand Heart. Sure, there are honky tonk moments, including "Off Your Mind" and a rollicking cover of "A Man of Constant Sorrow" (that's filled with hot shit guitar solos). But the best moments are when he explores new territory. 60s pop homage "In Another World" is downright catchy, and even features Beatle-y backing vocals. Speaking of the Beatles, "She" sounds like a George Harrison outtake from Rubber Soul, especially during the bridge. "Liar" is big, prime rockabilly, "The Big Time" evokes Carl Perkins, and gospel-tinged "Vs of Birds" ends the album soulfully. Although rooted in the traditional country he is known for, Yoakam's melodies and pop sensibilities are stronger than they've ever been.
9. The Bottle Rockets – South Broadway Athletic Club
South Broadway Athletic Club is filled with the big, jangly alternative country The Bottle Rockets are known for. Some are calling it a return to form, but they haven’t really lost anything since their breakthrough album The Brooklyn Side. Opener “Monday (Every Time I Turn Around)” ramps up the Byrds-esque jangle that characterizes the entire album. Nashville songwriting family the Henningsons help out on “Something Good” and the result is one of the Bottle Rockets best, catchiest songs. It’s led by simple but affective lyrics: “we had something good/but good was never good enough you/wheel turns/Rome burns/can’t you hear that fiddle sound?/time flies/Elvis dies/it’s all over but the shouting now.”
The rest of the songs on the South Broadway cover traditional Bottle Rockets territory: upbeat, jangly, poppy love songs (“XOYOU,” “Bit Lotsa Love”), lighthearted songs with a message (“Dog”), and Neil Young influenced stompers (“Building Chryslers”). The fun folk/pop of "Shape of a Wheel" closes the album with a classic Henneman turn of phrase: "day to day I find a way/to give a new angle to spin/I roll with the punches/I roll with the wind/I'm a wheel no matter what shape I'm in."
8. Dale Watson – Call Me Insane
Call Me Insane touches on all the major tenets of Ameripolitan, the country genre Dale Watson invented, with subtlety and swagger. “Bug Ya for Love” and “Everybody’s Somebody in Luchenbach, Texas” are fun Western Swing, while classic honky tonk is channeled on "I'm Hurting You." "Burden of the Cross" is dark and folky, something of cross between country classic "Long Black Veil" and old spiritual "Eyes on the Prize." Clever "Heavens going to Have a Honky Tonk" explores the Mexican influences of Texas roots music. There are also several simple, affecting love songs: "Crocodile Tears" and "Forever Valentine" are perfect for slow dancing, and "I Owe it All to You" and "Hot Dang" are upbeat and fun.
Like Marty Stuart’s 2014 double album Saturday Night/Sunday Morning, Call Me Insane is keeping country music alive by reinventing the genre, as opposed to unimaginatively re-hashing tradition or following the latest trends.
7. Jeff Lynne's ELO – Alone in the Universe
The strength of Alone in the Universe is in its songwriting. Jeff Lynne isn't doing anything he hasn't done before, but when you write grandiose McCartney-esque pop/rock as well as he does, why would you do anything different? Since he's comfortable with himself his songwriting is more effortless than the sometimes forced new material from his Beatle mentor.
Album opening “When I was a Boy” is simply beautiful, and features one of Jeff Lynne’s prettiest melodies. Had it been written in the '70s - or if radio still appreciated melodic rock n' roll - it would have been a huge hit. Although there are some upbeat moments – “Love and Rain” and “One Step at a Time” update funky ELO hits like “Showdown” and “Living Thing” – sadness pervades Alone in the Universe. “The Sun Will Shine on You" and “I’m Leaving You” are slow and tender, while melodic ‘70s George Harrison influenced “All My Life” and the spacey, synth-led title track are especially affecting.
6. Wilco – Star Wars
Check out our full review here.
More than simply a return to form for Wilco, Star Wars is also a revitalization of the album format. Fuzzed out riffs, layers of keyboards, and plenty of old school synths give it a strong overall harmony. It’s the sort of release that bands used to come out with twice a year, and still could if the creativity and ambition were still there. An album for people who love albums, its appeal will grow as listeners and critics get more time to absorb it. Highlights include catchy, Beatle-esque tracks "More..." and "Random Name Generator" and the fuzzed out psychedelic rock of "Where Do I Begin" and "Magnetize."
5. Jimbo Mathus – Blue Healer
Since his work with the Squirrel Nut Zippers - who were more eclectic than they got credit for - Jimbo Mathus has mixed folk, blues, country, jazz, soul, and rock in his creative solo work. He reached a new high point with Blue Healer, his strongest and most varied set of Cosmic American Music to date.
"Shoot out the Lights" and "Ready to Run" combine Bruce Springsteen energy and ethos with Band influenced roots rock. "Blue Healer,” "Sometimes I Get Worried," and “Coyote” continue the bluesy, soulful tendencies of his last album, Dark Night of the Soul. The Tex-Mex of “Mama Please” evokes Doug Sahm, “Waiting for the Other Shoe to Fall” would have fit nicely on Uncle Tupelo’s first couple albums, and the confidence and high melody of “Bootheel Witch” is reminiscent of 70s Stones. Swinging album closer “Love and Affection” is possibly the closest he’s come to sounding like the Zippers in his solo work, although it’s more organic and shows the maturity of his songwriting.
That Mathus is able to mix all of these sounds coherently is pretty incredible. There’s something to be said for the cosmic spirit emanating from his home state of Mississippi, which he taps into over and over again on Blue Healer.
4. James Leg – Below the Belt
Check out our full review here.
Although rooted in heavy, dirty blues ("Dirty South," "Glass Jaw," "Can't Stop Thinking About It"), James Leg proves that he is different from his deep blues counterparts on Below the Belt. He has a gospel spirit, a religious zeal, even though the album deals with classic secular blues themes. The only exception is a rabid cover of Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Up Above My Head." As the blues has proven for over 100 years, the Spirit isn't solely consigned to the religious realm.
Gritty guitars, Leg's gravelly voice (think Howlin' Wolf), and layers of distorted keyboards are at the forefront of Below the Belt. It's a cohesive album in sound and spirit, even if he finds a way to squeeze in almost every imaginable blues form possible. "Up Above My Head" is pure gospel, "Casa de Fuego" a fun mariachi stomper, "Drink it Away" conjures Louis Armstrong, and "October 3rd" is tough soul with dizzying layers of keyboards.
Perfectly balanced and contradictory, Below the Belt contains the multitudes of rock n' roll: it's sweet and rough, subtle and candid, traditional and modern, Saturday night and Sunday morning.
3. Bob Dylan – Shadows in the Night
Check out our full review here.
Shadows in the Night, Bob Dylan’s album of songs popularized by Frank Sinatra, is especially meaningful because of the important place Sinatra has in Dylan’s life. This is not a genre exercise or an attempt to sell records: it’s one artist paying heartfelt tribute to a man who inspired him to his very core. The emotional depth is felt throughout.
Dylan and his band played all the songs live in the studio, with each member in the same room. There were no headphones and no overdubs, giving immediacy to each performance. The arrangements are beautiful in their sparseness, mostly featuring pedal steel, cello, some guitar, and light drums. “The Night we Called it a Day,” “Stay with Me,” and “Full Moon and Empty Arms” are especially stunning.
With Shadows in the Night Bob Dylan once again proves that artistry and creativity can be found as much in interpretation as in original material. Heart, spirit, and soul don’t solely proceed from the often self-absorbed desire to create something personal. We’re all a part of something bigger. The best art understands that and tries to add to it, as opposed to focusing narcissistically on self-expression. Bob Dylan has always understood this, and Shadows in the Night proves this point as much as The Freewheeling Bob Dylan or Modern Times.
2. Pops Staples - Don't Lose This
Check out our full review here.
For Don’t Lose This, Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy and his son Spencer put finishing touches on the album Pops Staples was working on before he died in 2000. His gorgeous tremolo guitar is front and center, as it should be, and is especially effective on “Sweet Home” and “Better Home” (both duets with Mavis Staples). His haunting cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s seminal 1927 recording “Nobody’s Fault but Mine" is gospel at its most chilling.
The album ends with a couple covers, a live version of Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” and a simple take on old folk/country gospel standard “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” On the latter the unity of white and black rural music, especially spiritual music, is on full display.
Don’t Lose This, like last years Johnny Cash album Out Among the Stars, is an unearthed treasure from one of the most important musicians of the 20th century.
1. Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard – Django and Jimmie
Appreciating our living legends should be second nature. Unfortunately since our culture is allergic to the past (scared of it?) and worships the present this is too rarely the case. Perhaps if they were making subpar music it'd be fitting to ignore them. This has not been the case with Willie Nelson, though, who releases a high quality album every year. Add Merle Haggard to the mix and, not surprisingly, you have not only the best country release of 2015, but the best period.
Beautiful songwriting is at the heart of Django and Jimmie. The title track is a delicate folk/country tribute to Django Reinhardt, the legendary gypsy jazz guitarist, and Jimmie Rodgers, the first country and western star from the 1920s and 30s. They each had a profound influence on Willie, Merle, and music in general. More than a nice gesture, highlighting them invokes their art and spirit.
Haggard's Johnny Cash tribute "Missin' Ol' Johnny Cash" is both heartfelt and playful, and features guest appearances from Bobby Bare and Jamey Johnson. Upbeat country swing of lead single "It's All Going to Pot" amps up the fun, paying homage to Willie's favorite medication. "Unfair Weather Friend" tenderly pays tribute to the underrated power of friendship, and versions of Haggard's classic "Swinging Doors" and Willie's "Family Bible" are subtle and effective.
Django and Jimmie proves that Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard are living, viable legends with plenty left to say. The world would do well to pay more attention to them, as they are still creating some of the best country music - and music in general - today.
What do you think of our list? Comment, find us on Twitter or Facebook to join the conversation, or email email@example.com with your thoughts.
Erik Ritland is a writer and musician from St. Paul, Minnesota. His blog and podcast Rambling On features commentary on music, sports, culture, and more. He was also Lead Staff Writer for Minnesota culture blog Curious North. Support Erik's music via his Patreon account, reach him via email, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.