Folk Alley’s Best of 2015 – Cindy Howes’ Top 10 Albums of the Year

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Cindy Howes’ Top 10 Albums of 2015.

I thought 2015 was an awesome year for music, especially when it comes to the more roots/folk records that came out. I also appreciated the good rock records (Alabama Shakes, Beirut), soul records (Anderson East, Leon Bridges) and indie pop (Kopecky, Chvrches). 2015 was also the year I got my record-player act together, so I am proud to say that my music purchases were up (I got the Adele record on compact disc AND vinyl). I tried out Apple Music and found that Spotify was more to my liking, but wish that they would improve their social functionality. When it comes to this group of albums, my favorite kind of “folk” music has elements of classic country (Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton) or elements of classic progressive pop/singer/songwriter (Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Dusty Springfield) and that’s mainly what you find when you peruse this best-of list.

Listen to my Best of 2015 playlist at Spotify – HERE

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1. Kacey Musgraves – ‘Pageant Materia’l (Mercury Records)
Kacey Musgraves’ second major label country record continues to defy the Texas native’s modern contemporaries while putting her own twist on the genre’s classic sound. Although the topics covered on ‘Pageant Material’ are not as weighty as her previous release (like her stance on LGBT acceptance on songs like “Follow Your Arrow”), she still makes quite an impression on songs like “Biscuits,” “Good Ol’ Boys Club” and the title track. With her laugh out loud lyrics that call to mind songs by Conway Twitty and a voice that’ll make you think of Dolly Parton, Musgraves’ liberal leaning viewpoints are a breath of fresh air to the country music world. iTunes * Amazon.com

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2. Jason Isbell – ‘Something More Than Free’ (Southeastern Records)
Jason Isbell’s ability to tell a gut-wrenching story fires on all cylinders on the follow-up to his massively successful ‘Southeastern.’ It’s always the record after the one that grabs everyone’s attention that matters most and Isbell’s performance does not disappoint. Although inspiration comes from his own life, from his mother’s tale of being a teen mom (“Children of Children,”) to the title track written about his hard-working father, these songs are for everyone. The ease of ‘Something More Than Free,’ prove he’s gracefully stepping into the role of the modern blue-collar troubadour. iTunes * Amazon.com

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3. Brooke Annibale – ‘The Simple Fear’ (Brooke Annibale)
Brooke Annibale may have found her sound in Nashville, but her heart and soul come from Pittsburgh, PA. The Belmont grad spent almost a decade in Music City where she found some success particularly in TV placements (‘Vampire Diaries,’ ‘Pretty Little Liars,’ ‘One Tree Hill,’ etc.) before a move back to her hometown in the North. On ‘The Simple Fear,’ Annibale’s dark, alluring voice is accompanied by dynamically produced songs that tackle facing fears, accepting change and the ever uphill journey of finding your way to your true home. iTunes * Amazon.com


4. Villagers – ‘Darling Arithmetic’ (Domino Recording)
The third full-length album, ‘Darling Arithmetic,’ finds Villagers’ Conor O’Brien being more honest than ever before. “It took a little time to be honest/ It took a little time to be me,” on the opening track “Courage.” Earlier in 2015, The Dublin resident came out as a gay man while talking to The Irish Times. However, the album’s themes touch more on human love, rather than it simply being a “coming out” record. O’Brien’s lyrics and gorgeous production take center stage in what is a quiet, but yet very loud, declaration of self-love. iTunes * Amazon.com

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5. The Lone Bellow – ‘Then Came The Morning’ (Descendant Records)
On their very impressive follow up to 2013’s self-titled record, The Lone Bellow establish themselves as one of New York’s most exciting musically inclined story-tellers. ‘Then Came The Morning from The Lone Bellow’ is not unlike if Paul Simon fronted The Band. Produced by Aaron Dessner of The National, the record is filled with ordinary stories from the every-day lives of others turned into extraordinary anthems, all surrounded with the explosive harmonies and sweeping instrumentation. iTunes * Amazon.com

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6. Glen Hansard – ‘Didn’t He Ramble’ (Plateau Records)
For his second solo record, Glen Hansard has managed to weave the beauty of Irish tradition seamlessly into a beautiful modern take on a singer/songwriter album. It is clear that the influence of Marketa Irglova’s (the other half of The Swell Season) subtle touches has stayed with him on songs like “Wedding Ring” and “Just To Be The One”. Adversely, his street performer’s dynamic spirit is still alive and well on songs like “Lowly Deserter”. The restraint Hansard displays on certain moments of ‘Didn’t He Ramble,’ make the energizing parts all the more potent. iTunes * Amazon.com

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7. Brandi Carlile – ‘Firewatcher’s Daughter’ (ATO)
On her most commercially successful and critically acclaimed release, Brandi Carlile sounds the most free she has ever sounded. Her fifth studio album has a range of dynamics and hits on topics of addiction and the beauty of comfortable love. The focal point is the awesomeness of Carlile’s vocal ability that is, of course, elevated by the ever-present Hansroth twins. Be sure to make all the way to the end of the album, where Brandi and the twins turn The Avett Brothers’ “Murder In The City” into a marriage equality anthem. iTunes * Amazon.com

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8. David Ramirez – ‘Fables’ (Sweetworld)
Austin, TX songwriter, David Ramirez takes on a new approach to making music and living life: honesty and the results are more than satisfying. The gorgeous ‘Fables,’ produced in Seattle by long-time pal Noah Gundersen, came about after a 3-year break. During that time, a full record was scrapped and his relationship got more serious. You can hear the personal growth in songs like “Harder to Lie” where Ramirez’s lovely baritone sings stirring lines like “I fed you fables and fooled you with words from my tongue/ Trying to make you think I was a better man than I was/But if you’re asking me now/I’ll tell you the truth/ It’s getting harder and harder to lie to you.” iTunes * Amazon.com

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9. Jesse Lafser – ‘Raised On The Plains’ (Jesse Lafser)
The stage is set on Jesse Lafser’s ‘Raised on The Plains’ with the opening track “Jack Hat Blues”, which contains Chuck Berry-esque guitars and words sung like an androgynous Bob Dylan. The St. Louis native’s latest album is American roots music in its truest form, along with Lafser’s poignant lyrics, inspired by travels to the American Southwest. The emotion in her voice and her two-finger guitar picking pours through every track, but highlights include “Rosey” and “Mountain Air”. iTunes * Amazon.com

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10. Son Little – ‘Son Little’ (ANTI-)
Born in L.A. to a teacher and a preacher, Aaron Livingston’s music may cover more genres than just folk, but as Son Little, he brings classic American elements into his strong new self-titled release. The foundation for this album lies in Son Little’s unique voice that transcends the blues, rock, folk and modern R&B. If Howlin’ Wolf was making modern music, it could sound like “Nice Dreams” or “Your Love Will Blow Me Away When My Heart Aches.” Livingston’s delivery is full of passion and ache on songs like “O Mother” and sweetness on “Lay Down.” iTunes * Amazon.com

Other notable folk-ish records: Laura Marling, ‘Short Movie;’ Jeffrey Foucault, ‘Salt As Wolves;’ Josh Ritter, ‘Sermon On The Rocks;’ Ana Egge, ‘Bright Shadow;’ Mandolin Orange, ‘Such Jubilee;’ Sharon Van Etten, ‘I Don’t Want To Let You Down;’ The Weepies, ‘Sirens;’ Barnstar!, ‘Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!;’ and Wintery Songs in Eleventy Part Harmony, ‘Hark,’

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