The past year was packed with solid new releases. Take a listen to our top picks to provide the soundtrack for your outdoor adventures (or just chilling later).
Sound & Color
Sophomore slump? Not from the Alabama Shakes. Instead of following up 2013 debut “Boys & Girls” with safe soul grooves the group got trippy and blasted through a record of psychedelic blues rock with experimental touches that revolves around the voice of front woman Brittany Howard. Her killer singing manages to conjure both Aretha Franklin and Robert Plant, sometimes in the same song.
Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit
Courtney Barnett sounds like Dylan as a millennial slacker with the musical urges of Kurt Cobain. On her full-length debut her folk-singer’s notebook and rowdy grunge revivalism are endlessly entertaining as she laments everything from social anxiety (“Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party”) to pesticides (“Dead Fox”).
Father John Misty
I Love You, Honey Bear
As Father John Misty, Josh Tillman has created a character that’s clearly full of sh*t but also a guy you can’t help but want to hang with. His second album is part love letter to a new marriage and part world-weary head-trip confessional, all delivered through Tillman’s wise-ass satirical mind and an expansive freak-folk sound that includes everything from mariachi horns to dashes of electronica. From start to finish, it’s an irresistible ride.
The soul renaissance of the past few years has been quite refreshing, thanks to the passionate intensity of artists like Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley. Fresh-faced crooner Leon Bridges is no less authentic but he leans on the smoother side of the vintage R&B spectrum. On the Texas upstart’s debut his soothing voice revives Sam Cooke’s soulful heyday, mostly crooning about the ups and downs of love in hot horn-led grooves like “Better Man” and the deep gospel-flavored closer “River.” Props for the authentic sound goes to Bridges’ band/producers, which includes two members of indie rockers White Denim.
When it comes to telling a story in song, particularly illustrating the plight of the disaffected, James McMurtry is a master of the craft. As the son of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Larry McMurtry, writing is in the veteran Texas tunesmith’s blood, and throughout “Complicated Game” his lyrics have never been more vivid. Standouts include the reflections of a troubled loner in “Ain’t Got a Place” and the gut-punch realism of “South Dakota,” a song about a young veteran who survives war but comes home only to have his future prospects crushed by the blunt economic hardships of being a small-town farmer.
Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars
The Baltimore duo of Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally had a prolific 2015, releasing their fifth LP “Depression Cherry” in August and following it up with another full-length, “Thank Your Lucky Stars,” just two months later. Both albums were recorded during the same sessions, but they have noticeably different moods. The first is a somber ethereal rock journey with some of the group’s most thought-provoking lyrics to date. Stars flows with similarly expected airy soundscapes but the synth-and-guitar-led dream pop songs are steered in a direction that’s more uplifting. On both albums Legrand’s enchanting voice is the centerpiece, guiding a sound that puts you in an emotional trance and feels therapeutic when it lets go.
Four Cool Surprises
In today’s culture of stream it or steal it, Wilco decided to just let us have this one. This summer the band surprised fans by dropping “Star Wars,” an unannounced album, online for free. It’s a punchy and progressive set—11 songs in 30 short minutes—packed with satisfying distorted earworms like the super-charged “Random Name Generator” and the gritty garage ballad “You Satellite.”
Ryan Revisits “1989”
Ryan Adams used some summer downtime to make a track-by-track interpretation of Taylor Swift’s multi-platinum hit album “1989.” At first this smelled like a publicity stunt, but Adams actually injected the tunes with a lot of passion in his own style. “Blank Space” is shed of its pop sheen and turned into a wistful folk ballad, while mega hit “Shake It Off” is delivered as Springsteen-style heartland rock. Swift’s lyrics can be undeniably cheesy and rushed production makes this one sound a little uneven, but overall it comes across as a rock-solid Adams record, which is always something to celebrate.
Colorado Folkie Turns Soul Man
Nathaniel Rateliff was previously known around Denver has a deep-thinking husky-voiced indie-folk songwriter, but on his recently released national breakout, “Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats,” he made an exciting pivot to rowdy soul music. Backed by his new big band, he claps wildly and testifies like a possessed preacher on dance-inducing romps like lead single “S.O.B.”
Set Break Tunes
Neal Casal, former guitar slinger for Ryan Adams and currently a member of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, was asked to compose some instrumental set-break music for the Grateful Dead’s massive Fare Thee Well stadium concerts this past summer. Interludes for the Dead, an album under the name Circles Around the Sun, compiles the best of those spontaneous psychedelic jams and gives Deadheads some much-needed fresh material. — J.F.