This was a good year for me, on a number of different levels. I ran a ton, broke three hours in the marathon, worked at a great company where my job was to talk to smart people, left that one for a much larger company where my job continues to be to talk to smart people, started learning the harmonica, and wrote the first song I’ve written in maybe 10 year. (It’s a terrible song, but still.) I also started writing for fun again. Oh, and I got married.
My general thoughts on this past year — and the one to come — will come through in a later essay as I celebrate the fifth year of my annual Thoughts on the New Year essay. But something happened to me this year that I neither planned nor expected: I got really knowledgeable about music. I’ve played music since I was a kid and always listened to it constantly, but I’ve never been the sort of person who reads Pitchfork or anything like that and has been able to speak fluently about the “best” albums of the year, or the music from the past year they were most excited about*. In general, I’m always a couple of years behind. But this year, I began using Spotify as a way to dive deeper into the genres that I love, and I made a deliberate effort to concentrate on songs and albums that came out within the last year or so. I’ve found a way to pursue a comprehensive knowledge of where my favorite kinds of music — bluegrass, “progressive” bluegrass, alt-country, and Americana — stand in 2015.
These are, of course, not the only genres I listen to, but they certainly are the ones I listen to the most. In this post I’m going to discuss bluegrass and country and their offshoots as purely and natively American genres, but while I won’t list the other great American genres I pay attention to, it’s worth noting that others exist. This year has also seen some incredibly innovative, groundbreaking, and powerful releases in other areas of the American music world. It would be a tragedy for me to ignore a landmark album like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly or a largely unknown but powerful protest record like Active(ist), by the incredible Baltimore organizer, artist, speaker and rapper Kwame Rose. So while they won’t be discussed in more detail below, those albums and that broader sense of American-ness — encompassing not just white, Southern things like bluegrass but a more broadly integrative idea of what it means to be an American — deserve being mentioned above the fold.
At any rate, here, now, a listicle of (some of) my favorite** albums from 2015:
The Railsplitters: The Faster It Goes
This is probably my favorite of all the performers I’ve discovered this year. (Maybe up there with William Elliott Whitmore, who we’ll get to next.) Getting to Colorado to see them live or, you know, seeing them on tour in California, is one of my top priorities, and it’s maybe my biggest regret from having been unable to make it to Denver for work this fall. This record is full of fun tracks where the band takes traditional bluegrass instrumentation — guitars, double bass, mandolin — and infuse them with enough pop melodies and jazz rhythms that it feels alive, new, and dynamic. It’s important for traditional music to engage with contemporary sounds. Culture is a dynamic beast that grows and evolves, and The Railsplitters are one of the great groups out there today making sure that bluegrass thrives in the 21st Century.
The perfectly-named instrumental track The Estuary shows their bluegrass chops, but the song You is among the most fun ones on the album:
William Elliott Whitmore: Radium Death
My wife and I saw William Elliott Whitmore live at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, which is probably the only appropriate place to see him live in that city. He’s a working farmer from Iowa and an incredible songwriter. When we saw him, he was unaccompanied by any backing musicians. Instead, he was alone on stage with a couple guitars, a banjo, and a kick drum, which he stomped when he started really rocking. (The packed house stomped along, of course. It’s the right thing to do.)
Whitmore’s been releasing music for well over a decade. Radium Death is the latest in a long line of albums that are full of masterfully-written songs about rural and small town life, completely without cliche. He’s so good that he shows, emphatically and unequivocally, how disingenuous the last couple of years’ worth of American folk-inspired pop has been. (Though that new Mumford & Sons record is actually pretty good.) My favorite song is Lift My Jug, from 2005’s Ashes to Dust, or Mutiny, from 2009’s Animals in the Dark. This new one is still incredible and incredibly wide-ranging in themes and styles. The song Civilizations is characteristically good:
The Steep Canyon Rangers: Radio
I like it when male singers have deeper voices than those that have been popular lately. My voice is deep enough that I’ve always been a little self-conscious. Woody Platt of the Steep Canyon Rangers and others like The White Buffalo (coming up later) make me feel much better about that.
For the last couple years, people have been incorrectly calling The Steep Canyon Rangers “Steve Martin’s Band.” They have toured and recorded with the guy who happens to be my favorite comedian around (in addition to being a stellar musician), but they were together long before that. Of the three Carolina groups on this list, two were formed at University of North Carolina (Steep Canyon Rangers and Mipso, which is next on the list). The guys from Steep Canyon Rangers are exceptionally talented musicians, which — combined with their years of recording and performing — gives this album significantly more polish than many of the others on this list. I didn’t love this album the first time I listened to it, but it quickly grew on me.
Mipso: Old Time Reverie
Mipso is the second of three North Carolina bands to feature on this list, so maybe it’s time to discuss that region where I spent one short-but-formative year (and half a dozen summers) of my life. The Carolinas are one of those places that has a magical, mystical strength in art. When Ryan Adams sings, “Oh my sweet Carolina, what compels me to go?” his question is given more power by being addressed to Carolina. Few states have the poetic pull the Carolinas do. Combine that with the musical traditions of the region and you have a place ripe for beauty.
Like Steep Canyon Rangers, Mipso was formed at UNC (but much more recently). They really broke through this year, though they also released a fantastic album in 2013 called Dark Holler Pop. That album name speaks to their roots in a traditional, old style of music (what you might find in a “dark holler”), created by younger musicians with occasional pop sensibilities. Old Time Reverie came out in October of this year, and is extraordinary. It’s one of those albums where the first track, Marianne, gives a clear indication of what’s to come, drawing you in and keeping your attention until the album is all the way complete. And “LBJ didn’t start the war, he just stood around wonderin’ what he lost it for” is just a great line:
Della Mae: Della Mae
Della Mae hooked me (and, like, everybody else in the roots music community) with their second release, This World Oft Can Be, a 2013 album that featured one of my favorite songs ever, a tune called Empire. Their new, self-titled album came out in May, and it’s just a strong one across the board. It’s so wonderfully consistent. No single song is as excellent as Empire, but that’s because that song is almost perfect and no other tune should be compared to it.
Della Mae is a group of women formed in Boston, led by a native Oregonian, now based in Nashville. They’re superbly talented musicians, which comes through on almost every track. The song Rude Awakening is exciting, but lead vocalist Celia Woodsmith’s deep and passionate singing style comes out best in the closing track, High Away and Gone:
The Honey Dewdrops: Tangled Country
The Honey Dewdrops are a group from my hometown of Baltimore that I’ve been following for a couple years now. Originally from Virginia (I think), they moved up to Baltimore a while back for some reason or another. This is a duo formed of Laura Wortman and Kagey Parrish, who take turns with lead vocals. Their harmonies are superb, and they write and perform songs with such intense feeling. This is the best sort of music: often simple, emotional, powerful, and personal. Kagey Parrish takes the lead on the song that perhaps best exemplifies this, the tune Young. It’s about the bittersweet feeling of falling behind your peers as they cross the benchmarks of adulthood and you’re left behind, wondering what you’ve done wrong:
Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys: Ionia
Bluegrass and its multifarious Americana offshoots are generally thought of as Southern, as my paragraph about the Carolinas certainly suggests. But the South doesn’t have a monopoly on the things that are great or terrible about the USA. The Railsplitters, noticeably, are from Colorado, William Elliott Whitmore’s from Iowa, Della Mae was formed in Boston, and Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys were, I believe, formed in Michigan. (Michigan is home to maybe my favorite current band, Greensky Bluegrass, who unfortunately doesn’t appear on this list because their last album came out in 2014.)
Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys may have the most eclectic set of influences on this list. Like many of the others we’ve already discussed, their new album Ionia brings traditional Americana into direct conversation with pop and jazz. The record is really good fun across the board, but the neo-spiritual The River Jordan has the most pure, intense emotion and is easily my favorite on the record. This is one of the best songs to come out this year:
Mandolin Orange: Such Jubilee
For some reason, I was resistant to Mandolin Orange when Spotify kept recommending their newest album Such Jubilee. It’s a good band name and a great album title, and they kept coming up in the “related artists” field for bands that I deeply and truly love. So I don’t know why I resisted. When I first listened to this album, I struggled not to listen to it again immediately. (I have a rule about not doing that, in an attempt to keep from “burning out” on music that I love.)
This is the third Carolina group on this list, and the only one (I think) not formed at UNC. Mandolin Orange is a deeply traditional duo who describe themselves as “non-genre-bending country-folk-bluegrass.” In many ways, they’re spiritual kin of The Honey Dewdrops: single, soulful, powerful. I’m not sure I have a favorite song from this one yet, even though it’s been out since May. But the song Jump Mountain Blues may have the strongest sense of place. This is Carolina music:
The White Buffalo: Love and the Death of Damnation
The White Buffalo isn’t a band, but is instead just one guy, the Oregon-born and LA-based country rocker Jake Smith. I don’t think I’ve ever heard music from Los Angeles that is just so unabashedly not LA music. The White Buffalo is my favorite example of an aggressive form of country music that’s become very popular this year, one that’s more connected to the outlaw country of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings than the sanitized country of Luke Bryan or early-day Taylor Swift. Guys like Chris Stapleton and Nathanial Rateliffe have gotten more press and airtime, but The White Buffalo is still probably the most widely known artist on this list other than The Steep Canyon Rangers. He even played on Jimmy Kimmel Live this year.
So as you can tell, this is pretty serious country music. A perfect example of that is the classic country tune Go The Distance, though my favorite on the album is The White Buffalo’s duet with Judy Garland’s great-grand-niece Audra Mae. That song is called I Got You:
Update, 12/20/2015, 17:49:
For fun, here are a couple of additional notes that I thought of, after posting this.
- Between all of this great music and the incredible season the Panthers are having, this is a pretty good year for the Carolinas.
- I can’t believe I don’t have a single Louisiana band on here. I was going to include The Lost Bayou Ramblers’ Live at Gasa Gasa, but turns out that came out in 2014. I fear my Louisiana ties are becoming weaker and weaker, and that makes me very, very sad.
- A lot of great stuff came out in 2014 that I wish I could have included here. In addition to the Lost Bayou Ramblers (who are, full-stop, one of my favorite bands regardless of when any of their records came out) and Greensky Bluegrass, both mentioned above, this year I’ve become obsessed with an Arizona group called Run Boy Run. I started listening to them and The Railsplitters around the same time, and only today realized that the latest Run Boy Run album, Something to Someone, also came out in 2014 rather than 2015.
*In high school, I was a subscriber to Paste magazine, a now-out of print alternative and Americana music magazine that featured new music reviews and a monthly sampler CD. Between that and the best college rock radio station in America, I was always on top of new, interesting, and borderline-underground artists when I was in high school. But I still didn’t have a sense of broader trends or my favorite releases from the current year. Click here to return to where you were.
** I intentionally say “favorite” instead of “best,” because music and other forms of art are supremely subjective. There is no “best,” only the favorites of the person or groups making the lists. Click here to return to where you were.