Favorite Albums of 2015

When people admit the belief that modern music has nothing good to offer, or that they don't make 'em like they used to, I feel inclined to roll my eyes. There is an overwhelming abundance of incredible music these days, and 2015 proved that. 

This year was hilariously giving. So many of my favorite artists released amazing work this year, while countless others came out of nowhere and surprised me with albums I won't soon forget. 

Compiling these into a list is somewhat of a joke. How do you actually categorically rank music (or any art)? What are the specific merits on which the rankings are based? Are they purely artistic merits or does this take into account cultural impact? Why allow a list to make it seem like those near the bottom are bad (when, in fact, all entries are very good)?

The truth is that these are simply my favorite albums that I listened to this past year. That's all. They are all favorites for different reasons. Some came out last winter and have had months to sit and grow with me. Others were recently released and occupy a completely different space in my mind. And of course, these are likely to change over time. But right now, on December 8, 2015, these are my 25 favorite.

(Please click the artwork if you want to hear a track from each album)


25. Ought
Sun Coming Down

24. The Amazing
Picture You

23. Beach House
Depression Cherry

22. Alabama Shakes
Sound & Color

21. Thundercat
The Beyond / Where The Giants Roam

20. Joey Bada$$

19. Courtney Barnett
Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit

18. YG TUT
Preacher's Son

17. Carly Rae Jepsen

16. Algiers

15. Joanna Newsom

14. milo
so the flies don't come

13. Natalie Prass
Natalie Prass

12. Leon Bridges
Coming Home

11. Sufjan Stevens
Carrie & Lowell

10. Andrew Bird
Echolocations: Canyon

A breathtakingly beautiful instrumental concept album centered around the idea of a specific natural environment? Sure, I'm on board. The album itself was recorded in the Coyote Gulch canyons of Utah and is directly influenced by those surroundings, both sonically and emotionally. I'm excited to hear similar projects from him in the future inspired by LAKE, CITY, RIVER, and FOREST.

9. Kamasi Washington
The Epic

I will admit - I don't listen to much modern jazz music. This one came to me by way of Kendrick Lamar, who has also recently turned me onto Flying Lotus and Thundercat. Turns out they all play music together all the time and finally decided to record a 3-hour-long jazz fusion album. There were a couple of other jazz albums I ended up checking out this year because of this one (Christian Scott's was very enjoyable), but I kept coming back to Kamasi. There is so much to dig into - I'm sure I'll continue to find new things to love about it years from now.

8. Jens Lekman

This is not an album per se, but I had to include it nonetheless. Jens promised to write, record, and release a new song every week in 2015. He did so by putting them as free downloads on his soundcloud page. And he has fulfilled his promise so far by releasing 48 new songs this year in a series he called "Postcards" (he still has a couple of weeks to finish those last 4 songs!) With a project like this, one would expect a few enjoyable moments but mostly throwaway songs hardly worth a second listen. Jens, however, delivers a collection of beautiful tunes full of wit and heartfelt emotion. The first 26 Postcards were perfect company while traveling across France this summer.
Thanks, Jens.
Yours Truly, Ben.

7. D'Angelo and The Vanguard
Black Messiah

D'Angelo returned after 14 years and pounded this thing down on the table right after everyone put out their lists for 2014 - almost like he doesn't give a shit about acclaim and celebrity. What a weirdo! Well, it's going on my 2015 list and he's just gonna have to deal with it. I was fortunate enough to have mostly forgotten about D'Angelo's existence until a couple of years ago when I was at a friend's apartment, thumbing through his records, and came across a copy of Voodoo. I took it out and spun it while we played Settlers of Catan (the perfect setting for absorbing a complex neo-soul record). So when Black Messiah came out of nowhere, I was ready and willing.

6. Badbadnotgood & Ghostface Killah

This seems like an obvious pairing now, but when I heard a modern improvisational jazz trio from Canada would be making the music for a Ghostface Killah record, I was intrigued but wary. My wariness was unwarranted, though. It works so well. I'll be honest, I haven't dug into the lyrics of this one, but the music compliments that Staten Island flow perfectly. I love the mood this album sets.

5. Unknown Mortal Orchestra

This one took a while to click with me. The first few times I listened to it, I only made it two or three songs in. I finally stuck it through during a long kayak trip last month, and as soon as it ended I wanted to press play again. This thing is weird and funky and somehow sounds fresh and aged at the same time.

4. The Tallest Man On Earth
Dark Bird Is Home

I have Audrey to thank for this one. I turned her on to this Swede's music several years ago and she fell in love with his cover of "Graceland" by Paul Simon. While I loved that cover, I always felt like the rest of his output was inconsistent. Fortunately, Audrey played this new one around the house enough times that I finally realized how incredibly beautiful it is. And it really is, from front to back. The addition of a full band might be frowned upon by some fans of his earlier work, but I think the violin and brass flourishes peeking out from behind the sonic wall of his 12-string guitar strumming bring some much-needed light and air into the mix.

3. Tame Impala

Didn't care. Wasn't interested. John Lennon rip-off. Drugged out psych rock from Australia....yawn...
But I simply couldn't ignore the magnetic pull of Currents.

I finally signed up for Spotify this spring (sorry Thom and Joanna), and decided to give this album a shot one day while on a drive through the mountain passes of southern Virginia. It sucked me right in from the very first note. There are a few sophomoric lyrics throughout, but I couldn't deny how wonderfully catchy the music and melodies were. As soon as it ended, I pressed play again. And again and again and again and I haven't stopped.

2. Father John Misty
I Love You, Honeybear

I have Eric Carlson to thank for dragging me to his show at the Bijou a few years ago. I had enjoyed Fear Fun well enough, but seeing Josh Tillman pull off a live show like he did turned me into a fan. I mean, this guy somehow shakes his hips sarcastically. I had heard him use his quick wit as the drummer for Fleet Foxes at The Ryman a couple of years prior, but based on his output under his given name, I would have never expected him to be such a vibrant and exciting songwriter. I guess that explains the mushroom-tripping, guitar-slinging shaman we now have with Father John Misty.

Some people seem put off by his whole shtick. I really can't blame them, but I would argue he's worth a second look. He finds a way to be sarcastic, cynical, self-deprecating, critical, hilarious, pious, sacrilegious, hateful, and romantic in a single song. This album is a collection of thoughts about a cynic finding true love in the midst of all the bullshit. It's about being equally confused and liberated at this new found joy. 

I loved this bit he had to say about the song "Holy Shit":

"The way that I felt on my wedding day was just so, so wild. To make a decision like that based on something you believe in — to get out of the morass of ambivalence, to live according to endless contingencies and potential mishaps, potential unhappiness — is just huge for me. For an intellectual, everything is a booby trap, and the only consolation prize is this self-satisfaction that you recognize it. "Holy Shit” is about me waking up from that intellectual dream and saying, like, 'Yeah, maybe love is just an institution based on resource scarcity'—these sentiments that sound great and sustained me for a while. But now I’m building this thing with this person, and those ideas just don’t work anymore. They no longer describe the reality as I see it, which is really liberating. And liberation is not typically a trait of institutions. The irony here being that it sounds like I’m intellectualizing all of this."


1. Kendrick Lamar
To Pimp A Butterfly

This is a very special album to me personally. And I'm sure it feels the same for many people across the world for just as many different reasons. That is the beautiful thing about this release -- it touches everybody whether they want it to or not. The truth is that too much ink has been spilled over this album and anything I say will only add to the cacophony. I will say that I will never ever forget the first time I heard it.

My wife Audrey, and my brother Will and I stayed up late the night it was released digitally. We happen to be in Venice, Florida on vacation, so we sat out on the porch of our grandfather's old beach house and just stared into the darkness and listened. Will's wife Andrea lay asleep in the next room with little Darcy growing in her tummy and their son Knox asleep in his crib. The three of us sat in utter awe of what we heard. Of course, the complex wordplay and motifs of race, violence, money, sex, fame, God, politics, depression, temptation, and hypocrisy didn't fully sink in (they are still sinking in to this day), but we all knew we were listening to something special. Hearing an album all the way through is often a very personal and solo experience. It was unforgettable to do that with two of the people I love most in the world with an album like To Pimp A Butterfly.

I'll end with these concise words from Aquarium Drunkard:

"Decades from now, we’ll still be dissecting, questioning, and contextualizing rapper Kendrick Lamar’s third album, To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s a musical feast, with Lamar leading Flying Lotus, George Clinton, Thundercat, Bilal, Anna Wise, Rapsody, Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper and dozens more through intricate, dizzying webs of jazz, experimental electronic music, and funk, and it’s lyrically massive, with Lamar occupying multiple characters, settings, and timelines to address black identity, systemic racism, personal ethics, and obscured histories profanely, stridently, and with unmatched elegance. Adhering to radical redemption narrative, Kendrick rhymes as prophet, decrying the thieves in the temple, the worshipers, and sometimes the temple itself. It’s a work worthy of both the time and considerable effort it takes to engage it."


Favorite Albums of 2014

Below are the twenty albums released in 2014 that grabbed my attention and kept it. Some of them will sooth the soul, and some will rustle your jimmies. Scroll down for the countdown (and click the art to hear a track off the album).


20. James Vincent McMorrow
Post Tropical

[It steals a lot of its tricks from the Justin Vernon playbook, but damn if it isn't beautiful.]

19. Logic
Under Pressure

[This one steals a lot as well -- too much, really -- from Kendrick's GKMC and ATCQ's Midnight Maraders. But I can't think of two better albums to imitate. Plus he imitates them well and the result is very enjoyable.]

18. Future Islands

[These guys have been slowly growing on me over the past several years. Like many others I caught their Letterman performance earlier this year and finally saw the man behind that growl. His charisma fully won me over that day.]

17. Simone Felice

[The latest from the man who left his brothers while they continue doing their thing as The Felice Brothers. Simone has gone on to create some amazing roots music of his own and Strangers is his best yet.]

16. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy
Singer's Grave A Sea of Tongues

[Will Oldham is tough to keep up with. If you look away for a couple of months, you might miss an album release or two. But he always rewards his followers -- and this new one is no different. The songs on Singer's Grave are mostly culled from his 2011 release Wolfroy Goes to Town and reworked with the best Nashville has to offer.]

15. Caribou
Our Love

[Dan Snaith won me over 11 years ago as Manitoba with his album Up in Flames. For some reason, I made the mistake of completely sleeping on his output under the moniker Caribou, though. No longer! This is electronic music made for humans. Daft Punk, take notice.]

14. Angel Olsen
Burn Your Fire For No Witness

[Will Oldham's prolific output doesn't come without the help of a band of merry men and women. Angel Olsen has been involved in his work and toured with his band, but now she has stepped out on her own. Her last effort was a beginning, but this is a big leap forward as her first release under Jagjaguwar. The directions that she chooses to take her melodies, as well as her decision to plug in and turn the amp up have put her on the list of the many female songwriters who killed it this year.]

13. Beck
Morning Phase

[When the swelling strings of "Cycle" faded into the acoustic strumming of "Morning" on my first listen, my heart leaped. But when the bass slid in and the drums hit a few seconds later, I felt my whole body floating. I was in high school again, hearing the opening of Sea Change. The territory may be well tread, but that is fine by me.]

12. Wye Oak

[Wye Oak win this year's out-of-left-field award. I did NOT expect this kind of music from these two. Jenn Wasner was a guitar-slinging badass on the previous album. To be honest, I was a little bit disappointed when I heard the first notes of Shriek, but my disappointment quickly faded into head-bobbing enjoyment. It seems like the synth-heavy music has afforded Wasner more space to play with melody and she kills it. I told you the ladies killed it this year.]

11. Grouper

[Liz Harris has put me to sleep many many times over the past 6 years. Let me be clear, that is a good thing. The sleep did not come from boredom, but from the intense relaxation her music brings. Her hazy, reverb-heavy music comes in a slightly different package this year. She traveled to Portugal to be an artist in residence and brought her 4-track recorder along with her. Most of the album is just her and the piano, synching her vocal melody to that of the piano and lulling us into her dream world. And killing it.]

10. Isaiah Rashad
Cilvia Demo

[Top Dawg Entertainment have firmly established themselves as the best hip hop production facility around. Their newest signee, Isaiah Rashad, hails from Chattanooga, Tennessee. His debut EP shows that he can keep up with the best: his label-mates Schoolboy Q and Jay Rock (who are featured on the album version of this track). I can't wait for a collaboration with Kendrick. It also shows that he can give us a cohesive collection of tracks longer than most LPs.]

9. Ryan Adams
Ryan Adams

[Here's another prolific songwriter who is even harder to keep up with than Will Oldham. Many critics like to say that Ryan needs an editor. Well, they can't complain with this one. All of these tracks are keepers. To be clear, though, I love all the toss-aways that he's given us over the years. It is his unfiltered creations that make him my absolute favorite artist. Here, though, he is efficient and succinct. He's mostly shed the singer-songwriter feel of Ashes & Fire for a full-band approach yielding songs that feel like they've been around for years.]

8. Swans
To Be Kind

[This is a monster of an album. It is a behemoth. It is a monolith. It is intimidating and very hard to break. Fortunately, I had to write a research paper about the propaganda films of the Third Reich for a class this semester, so I had about 9 straight hours to absorb this thing while I researched and wrote. The pairing worked oddly well. Michael Gira wants to be an artist -- that is his main concern. Well, he's created some fine art again with To Be Kind.]

7. Jennifer Castle
Pink City

[I honestly don't know much of anything about this album other than how beautiful it is. I think the mystery adds to the allure a little bit, but these tracks stand on their own and don't need a story to prop them up. It sounds straight out of the late 60s/early 70s folk-rock scene, but with a modern twist. Another lady killed it -- that's all I really know.  ---Edit: Owen Pallett composed the string arrangements. I should have known.... that is the "modern twist" I'm hearing.]

6. Sam Amidon

[Sam Amidon has been quietly creating some of my favorite music for the past 7 years. He is a Vermont-native who grew up with musician parents who steeped him in the traditions of Appalachian music. Most of his own output has been beautifully-inventive reworkings of some of those traditions. He has since moved to London and married the English singer-songwriter Beth Orton, but he has not left behind his Appalachian palette.]

5. St. Vincent
St. Vincent

[Annie Clark is the total package. I've always admired her skills as an artist and as a guitar player, but I had never really immersed myself in her music until this album. I will definitely be going back through her other 3 now that I know what a treasure she is.]

4. Flying Lotus
You're Dead!

[Progressive jazz/hip hop/electronica at it's very finest. If you haven't heard something to tickle your fancy yet, just wait a few seconds and Steven Ellison will throw something else at you. I like to think this is the music that Miles Davis would be making if he were still with us.]

3. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib

[This hip hop effort stood miles above the rest for me this year. Madlib delivers maybe the best beats of his career. That's right, it maaaaybe better than Madvilliany. I'm not sure about that, but I do know that Piñata hits hard. The pairing of Madlib with MC Freddie Gibbs works very well, too. Gibb's technique as a rapper may not match the best of his peers, but it works with the music. Those beats need room to breathe and soak in. This album was on repeat for the better part of the summer.]

2. Sharon Van Etten
Are We There

[I don't mean to be sexist by pointing out the gender of all these ladies, it's just that I grew up with a majority of dudes in my CD case and iPod. And it's not like it's surprising for a lady to put out a killer record or anything, but the sheer amount of high-quality music put out by women this year is something I noticed. And of all the ladies, Sharon Van Etten killed it the most. This album is nearly flawless -- the cover puts out the perfect vibe you need to have going in. I can't wait for warmer weather so I can join her with my windows down as I blast Are We There all day.]

1. The War on Drugs
Lost in the Dream

[And finally, the one album I could not get enough of this year. It has not left heavy rotation status since I bought it back in March. Adam Granduciel has created a masterpiece. I've read all the criticisms of it's length or of it's boring stretches, and I've listened to an old man call it beer commercial rock, but I still love it to pieces. 2014 was the year of Lost in the Dream for me. And it was a good year.]


underneath the weeping willow: a mix for sleep

I made this for a friend who was having trouble sleeping. I love having music play while I sleep. And more importantly, before I fall asleep. The right songs put my mind at rest so my body can do the same. 

Sleep tight, y'all.



To celebrate the first day of fall, here is one of my favorite documentaries. Danny Clinch followed Ryan Adams around during the year 2005, when he put out three records. This focuses on the making of Jacksonville City Nights. It is short and sweet.

September Short Film | Ryan Adams & The Cardinals from Mitchaveli on Vimeo.


Fuel for Fire: an autum mix for 2014

In summer -- 
". . . the sun rises out of the morning's haze with authority and potency, and standing on your top step at seven in the morning . . . you know that the dew will be melted off the grass by eight and that the dust on the back roads will hang depthless and still in the air for five minutes after a car's passage; and that by one in the afternoon it will be up to ninety-five . . . and the sweat will roll off your arms like oil and stick your shirt to your back in a widening patch . . . 
But when fall comes, kicking summer out on its treacherous ass as it always does one day sometime after the midpoint of September, it stays awhile like an old friend that you have missed. It settles in the way an old friend will settle into your favorite chair and take out his pipe and light it and then fill the afternoon with stories of places he has been and things he has done since last he saw you."
 -Stephen King
For me, this playlist is like an old friend settling in and telling stories -- even the songs that are new to me. It takes out it's pipe and cuts the cold air with its wisps of warm smoke. It is the rhythmic sound of dead leaves crunching under an old rocking chair. And if you listen closely, it is the syncopation of a fluttering heartbeat that is falling in love -- with the quiet crisp air, and with somebody.

Part 1 (Download Here)
1. We Put A Pearl In The Ground / St. Vincent
2. Mr. Met / Lambchop
3. Raven's Song / Aaron Embry
4. Sun Is King / Laura Veirs
5. I'd Rather Die / Nicolai Dunger
6. Worried Mind / Megafaun
7. Seaweed / Fruit Bats
8. Silver Dagger / Fleet Foxes
9. Summer On The Westhill / Kings Of Convenience
10. City Wrecker / Moonface
11. Open / Rhye
12. Scotty / Pure Bathing Culture
13. Song For Zula / Phosphorescent
14. Another Man's Done Gone / Wilco

Part 2 (Download Here)
1. Death Final / Bonnie 'Prince' Billy
2. Fuel For Fire / M. Ward
3. Mama, You Been On My Mind / Jeff Buckley
4. Lullaby / Loudon Wainwright III
5. I Wish I Was The Moon / Neko Case
6. Window / Damien Jurado
7. By The Mark / Gillian Welch
8. Walilamdzi / Devendra Banhart
9. Gymnopédie No. 1 / Erik Satie
10. Flume / Peter Gabriel
11. Have You Forgotten / Red House Painters
12. Lost In The Dream / The War On Drugs
13. My Old Friend / Sam Amidon
14. Sabertooth Tiger / Breathe Owl Breathe
15. Over & Done / The Everybodyfields