Best Overlooked Albums of 2015
As I scan my list of the best albums of 2015 that didn’t get nearly the attention they deserved, I realize I like this group of albums better than those that made my top 10 CDs of 2015 list, which is limited to the year’s higher profile — or at least widely reviewed and praised — albums. Hopefully this isn’t a function of major labels chasing the latest hit song or dumbing down music to reach the widest audience possible. Overall, the albums coming from smaller labels seem to be more unique, adventurous and just plain entertaining than the albums on major labels in 2015. Here are my picks for the best 10 albums — plus a few more that were almost as good — that flew under the radar this year.
1. JD McPherson, “Let The Good Times Roll” (Rounder) — On this, his second album, McPherson pulls off the difficult trick of making the old sound new. Rooted strongly in 1950s and ‘60s rockabilly and blues, the songs on “Let The Good Times Roll” show their heritage without sounding retro or outdated. The reasons are the sheer quality of the songs and McPherson’s ability to mix and match both modern and vintage ingredients. “Bossy,” for instance, could have sounded like an early ‘60s skiffle tune, only McPherson kicks up the tempo, filters in a few synth parts and creates one of the year’s catchiest tunes. On the rockabilly-ish title track, the rolling beat gives the song a twist — not to mention an undeniable groove. The production is also top shelf, as McPherson and co-producer Mark Neill make every instrument and every note count. And on “Let The Good Times Roll,” they hit all the right spots.
2. The Dear Hunter: “Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise” (Cave & Canary Goods/Equal Vision) — Plenty of bands have made concept albums and rock operas — some good, some not so much. Casey Crescenzo, frontman of Dear Hunter is getting it right. “Act IV,” the latest in a six-album series chronicling the birth, life and untimely death of a boy known as “The Dear Hunter,” fits the rock opera mold in very tangibles ways. There is the story, of course, and the songs flow from one into the next. And the music is literally a hybrid of rock and orchestral pop — the very definition of rock opera. The album works because Crescenzo has written memorable melodies — the songs recall Queen, later-era Beatles and Jellyfish — and the sound is grounded in catchy pop and rock, which keeps “Act IV” from sounding bloated or pretentious.
3. The Lonely Wild: “Chasing White Light” (EOne) — This band’s second album, “Chasing White Light” is full of vibrant songs that find the group embracing a wider range of sounds and styles. The lead track, “Snow,” opens with a little spaghetti western feel and grows into a swirling anthem. Some harpsichord gives “Scar” a baroque accent to go with its rolling pop sound. “Running” becomes an epic centerpiece, growing in scope and strength as it unfolds. Produced with imagination and care by John Vanderslice, “Chasing White Light” aims for the drama of the likes of Coldplay or U2 — and frequently reaches that standard.
4. Diamond Rugs: “Cosmetics” (Sycamore/Thirty Tigers) — This music of alt-rock supergroup Diamond Rugs, which includes John McCauley III and Robbie Crowell of Deer Tick, Hardy Morris of Dead Confederate, Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, Bryan Dufresne of Six Finger Satellite and former Black Lips singer Ian Saint Pe, grows more distinctive and at times idiosyncratic — in a good way. Where the scrappy roots rock sound of Deer Tick flavored the debut album, “Cosmetics” has more of a sassy pop dimension. The songwriting is especially sharp on “Voodoo Doll,” — the honking sax and new wave elements make for an unusual, but successful combination — and the hooky, yet gritty rockers, “Thunk,” “Motel Room” and “Clean.” Such songs make Diamond Rugs sound more like a prime-time band than a side project.
5. Bob Malone: “Mojo Deluxe” (Delta Moon) — Now eight albums into his career, Malone continues to develop into one of the best artists on the blues-roots scene. “Mojo Deluxe” finds Malone covering everything from rousing blues to rollicking New Orleans-accented tunes — “Looking for the Blues” — to the downright pretty piano-based ballad “Paris.” What’s also fun about “Mojo Deluxe” are the good-natured, sarcastic lyrics that Malone brings to several tunes. There’s not a weak cut on this rich and varied outing, which is my pick for best blues album of 2015.
6. Whitehorse: “Leave No Bridge Unburned” (Six Shooter Records) — Before starting Whitehorse, husband and wife Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland had already made a few waves on the roots-music scene with their solo careers. But with the release of their second album as Whitehorse, “Leave No Bridge Unburned,” it’s clear that combining their talents has taken their music to a new level. This second outing finds the duo sounding more confident, a little more raucous, and as on their fine 2012 debut, “The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss,” deftly able to skirt the boundaries of country, blues and rock.
7. Turbo Fruits: “No Control” (Melvin) — On its fourth full-length, "No Control,” Turbo Fruits do the antithesis of the album title. Having already shown an appealing glam-ish sound built around fuzzed-out guitars and an energy that could reach manic levels, Turbo Fruits reign in the tempos a touch and amp up what were already catchy melodies on “No Control,” creating a poppier sound — the addictive tunes “Favorite Girl,” “The Way I Want You” and “Need To Know” are prime examples — without losing the bite of the band’s earlier music.
8. Chris Stamey: “Euphoria” (Yep Roc) — For a musician who is fairly well known for his music in the dB’s and for producing a long list of artists, the arrival of “Euphoria” didn’t seem to move the needle as much as a new Stamey album should. The problem wasn’t the music. One of the best pop songwriters going, Stamey is in fine form on “Euphoria,” reeling out crisp and catchy pop-rockers — “Dear Valentine,” “When The Fever Breaks,” “Universe-sized Arms” — and a few other songs — “Rocketship” and “Awake in the World” — that mess with the pop song form without losing their accessibility.
9. Idlewild: “Everything Is Written” (Empty Words) — This Scottish band’s first release in six years continues its tradition of making winning albums, with a mix of stirring rockers — “Collect Yourself” and “On Another Planet,” rough hewn ballads — “So Many Things To Decide” and “Like A Clown” — and a few songs that fall somewhere in between, such as the spacious anthems “Every Little Means Trust,” “Noting I Can Do About It” and “Come on Ghost.”
10. Low Cut Connie: “Hi Honey” (Ardent Music/Contender) — This third album from Low Cut Connie strongly evokes the energetic pop-rock of the ‘60s — think Paul Revere & the Raiders or the Dave Clark Five. The songs are as catchy and tightly crafted — “Tastes So Good” and “Back In School” — and have a retro vibe every bit as cool as any cutting edge album.
Honorable mention: Bully, “Feels Like”; Wolf Alice, “My Love Is Cool”; Wild Child, “Fool”; Colleen Green, “I Want To Grow Up”; Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters, “Father’s Day”; White Reaper, “White Reaper Does It Again”; Barrence Whitfield and the Savages, “Under a Savage Sky”; Torres, “Sprinter”; Ivan & Alyosha, “It’s All Just Pretend”; and Hop Along, “Painted Shut.”