The Best Albums Of 2015, Album Of The Year: Mark Knopfler - Tracker, See My Entire Top Ten Plus 40 More Favorite 2015 Releases

Photo Courtesy of Mark Knopfler

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Mark Knopfler - Tracker
Off the top of my head, when I think of current guitar gods, I think Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Eddie Van Halen, and I think Mark Knopfler. Knopfler has spent the better part of the last twenty years establishing himself as a singer-songwriter like a James Taylor or a Jackson Browne, or more precisely in the mold of J.J. Cale. One could make the case that Knopfler's entire solo career has been a tribute to Cale; certainly Knopfler has adapted Cale's laid back style of songwriting. Knopfler's seven solo albums have featured varying amounts of electric lead guitar, but his guitar never seemed to find its rightful place in the mix. And while the albums were all enjoyable, they were often shy of the guitar work that Knopfler's fans crave.

On Tracker, Knopfler seems to have finally found just the right mix that incorporates his electric guitar with his standard instrumentation. Whether it's carrying the song or just adding seasoning, the electric is always present. The rhythm section is mixed to sound more powerful, even on the softest, most beautiful songs.

Although Knopfler's last effort, Privateering, was a double album, I listened to it a bunch of times and could never quite get a handle on it. Not so with Tracker. With "Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes" the album opens with a jazz signature that could just as easily lead into Dave Brubeck's "Take Five". After about a minute we get a Celtic melody reminiscent of Knopfler's Local Hero soundtrack, with the jazz rhythm. This is one of the first person story songs that Knopfler favors and this time it's autobiographical. The inspired songwriting sucks you in and doesn't let up for the duration of the record.

"Broken Bones" sounds like it could just as easily be on a J.J. Cale album, complete with the loping rhythm and the pulsating wah-wah guitar. "Beryl" is the logical successor to Dire Straits' first two albums. The album ends with "Wherever I Go", which is perhaps the most beautiful song Knopfler has done since "Brothers In Arms". It's a sweet duet with Knopfler and Ruth Moody sharing the vocals over a slow and deliberate rhythm and a gorgeous sax solo with a gem of a guitar solo (listen below). Amazon has a deluxe version of Tracker that contains four bonus tracks.

The engineering and production on Tracker is extraordinary; the quality of Knopfler's voice, as well as all of the instruments, will amaze you. Knopfler's songwriting has never been better. I have enjoyed Knopfler's humorous side ever since "Industrial Disease", but there are no such songs on Tracker and I think that it's a stronger album as a result; the songs are exquisite and I think a joke song would break the flow. In my opinion, this is the masterpiece that we all knew Knopfler had in him. Read my live review with videos.

Listen to "Wherever I Go".

2015 was another great year for music. I chose Mark Knopfler's Tracker as my album of the year. The rest of my top ten are arranged below in alphabetical order by artist.

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Adele - 25
When I went to SXSW in 2008, on my list of artists to see were two new U.K. singer-songwriters, Duffy and Adele. Both had just released excellent debut albums and each had a very appealing hit single: Duffy's was Warwick Avenue and Adele's was Chasing Pavements. I saw a fantastic performance by Duffy at Stubb's, her first American gig. Adele had visa problems and had to cancel her SXSW debut. I caught up with her about three months later when she gave a sold out performance at NYC's Highline Ballroom. Based on available information at the time, I would have thought Duffy to be the more likely of the two to have commercial success.

No one could have predicted the kind of world domination Adele achieved with her second album, 21, in 2011. Her following was so huge that it cut across many demographics, both age and cultural. An audience that massive harks back to the time of sixties superstars when the audience wasn't at all fragmented and virtually everyone listened to top forty radio. Apparently, Adele has added to that mega following judging by the initial sales of her third album 25, and its first single "Hello". For many, myself included, radio has ruined the 21 album with saturation overplay of its five singles. I was glad for the opportunity to hear new fresh material from Adele, even though radio seems to be doing the same thing with "Hello".

I love what Alexis Petridis wrote in the introduction to his review of 25 for The Guardian. "There’s something curiously irrelevant about reviewing Adele’s third studio album. The astonishing sales of its first single, Hello, suggest that global success on a scale unseen since the last time Adele released an album is already a foregone conclusion. The public seems even less interested in critical opinion than usual, if such a thing is possible. It has already been taken as read that 25 is a masterpiece: its quality isn’t up for question."

Adele has an amazing voice, delivery, and the uncanny ability to write great songs that are not only artistically successful but they are also commercial giants. When art and commerce intersect, it's a rare and beautiful thing, except in cases where the music gets played to death.

Adele worked with a number of producers and co-writers during the production of 25, and there is a lot to like on this album. I'm especially fond of several songs that appear toward the end of the album. These are very personal songs that have simplified production. On one such song, Adele worked with Bruno Mars. wrote, "For one of the more prominent tearjerkers on 25 called “All I Ask,” the U.K. soulstress taps Mars and his Smeezingtons crew (Philip Lawrence and Christopher “Brody” Brown). They leave their emotions on the keys for the emotional, piano-driven record that finds Adele singing, 'Take me by the hand while we do what lovers do / It matters how this ends / 'Cause what if I never love again?'”

My very favorite song on 25 is “Million Years Ago” on which Adele worked with Greg Kurstin who also produced “Hello.” This is a gorgeous old school lament, somewhat sounding like the kind of song that might have been used in a movie in the sixties. The song consists of voice and a beautiful acoustic guitar accompaniment. Let's hope against hope that it never gets released as a single.

Listen to "When We Were Young" live on SNL, November 21, 2015

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Bluebirds of Paradise - In A Night
The Bluebirds of Paradise formed when singer-songwriters Chrissi Poland and Ari Hest realized their love for Brazilian jazz and pop by writing, recording, and releasing "Snow" as a single in time for the 2013 holiday season. The following year they recorded their debut EP, In a Night. The sessions took place at a wonderful recording studio in Stamford, Connecticut called the Carriage House. Producer Will Lee couldn't find enough nice things to say about working with Chrissi and Ari, which is really saying something considering that Lee has quite literally played on hundreds and hundreds of recording sessions in his storied career.

Chrissi and Ari wrote six original compositions in the bossa-nova style. The combination of these two talents created a batch of songs that are pure magic. When you listen to In A Night, their voices so compliment each other that it would be tempting to say that they make beautiful music together. But, maybe I will say that because in 2015, in addition to releasing the EP, Chrissi and Ari were married. See my live review and videos.

Listen to "In a Night" Live at Rockwood Stage 3, the EP release show, 6/25/2015

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The Bros. Landreth - Let It Lie
From Winnepeg, Canada comes The Bros. Landreth, a group formed by brothers Joey and David Landreth. Both brothers share the vocals, Joey is the frontman, guitarist, and chief songwriter while David plays bass. Rounding out the group are Ryan Voth on drums, Alex Campbell on piano, and Ariel Posen on second guitar. Let It Lie was released independently in 2013 and went on to win a Juno Award, which is the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy Award. The album was also rereleased in the U.S. in early 2015, by Slate Creek Records.

During their childhood, Joey and David's father Wally was a working musician and songwriter in Winnepeg. The brothers were immersed in music from an early age. "As the boys got older, they began paying attention to the records their parents would play in the small, WWII-era shack that doubled as the family's home. Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder and Little Feat all received plenty of airtime, with John Hiatt's Bring the Family and Lyle Lovett's Pontiac standing out as family favorites" (from their bio). It's no surprise then that the Bros. Landreth's Let It Lie is truly something special.

I first time I heard The Bros. Landreth was through their Noisetrade EP. It sounded good enough to download, so when their debut full-length Let It Lie was released, I immediately gave a listen. I was impressed. It has terrific lead guitar work, something that is rarer these days than you would think. It has a marvelous sounding mix of acoustic and electric guitars. It has strong songs, strong vocals, rock solid drumming, and excellent production. What a concept. A number of tracks, "Runaway Train" for example, remind me of For Everyman era Jackson Browne fronting ZZ Top. If I gave an award for best new artist of the year, I would give it to The Bros. Landreth. As it stands, I'll just say that this is the best debut that I have heard in 2015. I would love to see them live.

Listen to "Our Love"

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Shawn Colvin - Uncovered
I'm a sucker for a seventies covers album and since Uncovered is drawn mostly from the seventies, it really hits my sweet spot. Uncovered is one of the most enjoyable listening experiences you can have, with a terrific selection of material performed with a simple production style that puts the beauty of the song and Colvin's vocal performance center stage. Everything gets a relaxed treatment of bass, drums, acoustic guitar, and most importantly, pedal steel. Once belonging exclusively to old school country music, the pedal steel guitar as used here, makes for the most ear friendly and relaxing style of music and it doesn't necessarily seem country at all.

Colvin has given us a well chosen set of some of the finest songs ever written. She is in excellent voice and the production is so laid back that this album plays as comfortably as a favorite pair of broken-in jeans. See the complete review.

Listen to the trailer for Uncovered

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Liz Longley - Liz Longley
During the last couple of years, it seemed like every time I saw a Nashville singer-songwriter play live, sooner or later they mentioned the name Liz Longley. Just when I was thinking that I was overdue to check out her music, she turned up on a bill opening for Ari Hest at the New Hope Winery in a fine night of music performed by two exceptional singer-songwriters. See my live review and videos.

At that show, Longley drew most of her set from her then unreleased next album, her self-titled major label debut. Longley told us stories about life, love, and break-ups. She has a great talent for turning those stories into songs. Such are all of the songs on this album, starting with "Bad Habit". Listen below.

Liz Longley, the album, has a most welcome sound of acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards, bass, and drums. "The collection of 11 songs was recorded in Nashville with an all-pro band-and in a pulse-quickening fashion so rare in today's world of overproduced, airbrushed records. 'I love being in the studio and feeding off the energy of other musicians. It's not something I get to do often on the road because I've mostly toured solo'" (from her website).

That show I saw was pretty much a home town show for Longley, what with friends and family from her native Downingtown, PA. Longley graduated from the Berklee School of Music in Boston, recording her first album while still a student. Longley lived in Boston and New York and is currently based in Nashville. Liz Longley, the album, while being her first for Sugar Hill, is her fourth album overall. She plans to release her next album on Sugar Hill in the spring of 2016.

Listen to "Bad Habit"

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Laura Marling - Short Movie
Laura Marling's long awaited fifth album is here and it's a goodie. Marling alters the form of the popular song much as Joni Mitchell did during the 60s, 70s, and 80s; she twists and molds it to her purposes. Marling spent the last two and a half years in the US and when she returned to London she gave an illuminating interview to Tim Lewis for The Guardian. Lewis wrote: "By popular consensus, her records – which are broadly folk music, mostly acoustic, spiritually poetic – keep getting more intriguing and fully realized. And this turns out to be precisely the case with Short Movie, her fifth album, released in late March."

On the NPR First Listen webpage, Stephen Thompson wrote, "...Once I Was An Eagle, an ambitious 63-minute breakup album whose intricate acoustic arrangements sounded as stormy as the work of bands 20 times as loud. It was a virtually impossible act to follow, in terms of quality and scope — she reportedly scrapped one attempt prior to this one — and Marling ultimately tackles the job by initiating another left turn. Short Movie shakes up her rumbling acoustic arrangements with an influx of electric sounds, in the process giving her a greater arsenal with which to brood, search, seethe and menace."

I love hearing Marling's electric side. All the better when there are two or three instruments. Marling even rocks out with a full band on Short Movie. The bottom line of all this is that Marling can be completely compelling with her music, no matter whether she's playing solo acoustic or with an electric band. Short Movie also excels with its artwork and graphics; it's kind of a throwback to the time when records were vinyl and album covers were about 12 inches square.

About three-quarters of the way through Short Movie, it sounds like Marling walks into a studio that The Grateful Dead used circa 1968, which has been left untouched. Marling picks up an electric guitar that is still plugged into the amp, she sits down and begins to play. She noodles for a few seconds, then picks out some notes, and begins to sing. She then delivers the last three songs on the album, the last of which is the title track. See my complete review. See my live review and videos.

Listen to "Short Movie".

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Nellie McKay - My Weekly Reader
When I write this blog, I prefer to avoid the vernacular of social media, but when it comes to Nellie McKay's new album, there just isn't any better way to say it. OMG I love this album. That was my overwhelming feeling as I finished the first listen to My Weekly Reader, a title that takes baby boomers right back to grade school, which not coincidently took place in the sixties. The album is all covers of songs from the sixties, but unlike many covers albums it is not merely a collection of old favorites. By her song selection, McKay clearly expresses her multi-faceted personality; she does the same in her performance of these songs.

The last time I felt this way about a Nellie McKay album was her brilliant debut which was produced in 2004 by former Beatles producer Geoff Emerick. In this collaboration with McKay, Emerick seems to capture her at her best, and he also enables her to express, musically, her many moods. On the new album, that partnership is intact. Although McKay didn't write these tunes, this is every inch a Nellie McKay album.

The degree to which McKay is personally responsible for the music on this record is truly remarkable. Bob Glaub played bass (and you could not want a better bass player), Cary Park played banjo and guitars, and David Raven played drums. McKay played everything else. These songs fall close to the heart of my musical memory, having lived during those turbulent years. With one or two exceptions, these are not songs you would expect to find on a 60s covers album. In McKay's capable hands, these 45 plus year old songs all sound fresh and new.

Delightful, sweet, smooth, assured, pure, perfect, favorite, best, theatrical, and delicious, I should be running out of adjectives at this point, and that's only the first four songs. Let's cut to the chase. My Weekly Reader is a highly personal statement, a work of musical beauty, and I love everything about it. See the complete review.

Listen to "Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine".

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Kacey Musgraves - Pageant Material
Pageant Material is Kacey Musgraves' second major label release and the common initial reaction that it wasn't as good as its predecessor would be wrong. True, out of the box it did not seem to have megahits like "Merry Go 'Round" or "Follow Your Arrow", but in the absence of such attention getters, the songs on Pageant Material are not overshadowed, which can be a good thing. What the new album does have is beautifully written songs complete with Musgraves' clever and perceptive lyrics. It has Musgraves' super appealing voice, ideal arrangements, superb performances, and excellent production. I love the pedal steel guitar on this. Musgraves is a bonafide future superstar of country music. See her now but buy your tickets early because she doesn't play large venues and her tours do sell out. As is often the case, the material on Pageant Material didn't really gel for me until I saw her live. Now, after some repeat plays, I can say without reservation, that in many ways Pageant Material is more satisfying than Same Trailer Different Park.

Musgraves' vocals sound better than ever on this album. You can hear that right from the opening track, the very catchy "High Time". Her backing band sounds great too. A good example is one of my very favorite songs on the record, "Late to the Party". First, there's the sweet combination of acoustic guitar, bass, and drums. Then, the pedal steel adds just the right mood and Musgraves' vocal just soars. Watch this short video on the making of "Late to the Party". Social commentary songs, which are Musgraves' stock and trade, are all over Pageant Material, songs like the title track "Biscuits" and "Family Is Family", just to name a few. These songs are sometimes funny, always smart.

Pageant Material closes beautifully with an old Willie Nelson song from the 1960s, "Are You Sure". This song is drenched in old country pedal steel atmosphere which sets up the delicious contradiction of the vocal duet with Nelson; we have Musgraves sounding all new, fresh, and sweet while Nelson's vocal brings age, wisdom, and experience. It's a brilliant set-ender that totally works. Note that "Are You Sure" is listed as a "hidden track" so if you are listening on CD, you have to let track 13, "Fine" keep playing after it's over because the hidden track follows about twenty seconds of silence. Downloads of this album have "Are You Sure" as track 14. See my live review and videos.

Listen to "Biscuits"

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The Waterboys - Modern Blues
Somehow I got this far in life without ever having listened to anything by The Waterboys or their leader Mike Scott. It makes me wonder because of how much I love the latest Waterboys' album Modern Blues. I love the way the lead guitar is part of the band's sound, it's not just a solo here or there. In addition, I love that the band's sound includes organ, tight bass and drums, and those glorious half-spoken/half-sung vocals. All of that makes sense in that Scott played acoustic, electric, and all lead guitars, he sang, he wrote or co-wrote all the songs, and he produced the album with keyboardist Paul Brown.

This could have been my album of the year if not for the fact that Mark Knopfler has been my all-time favorite guitarist for many years and we were waiting for an album as good as Tracker. Saying that one album is better than another gets silly, like saying an apple is better than an orange. It really boils down to what an album does for you and I think, the more we try to analyze it the harder it is to put your finger on just what makes an album great. Just listen to "Destinies Entwined", the track that leads off the album. Listen to the exuberance as the chorus crescendos. This song tells you all you need to know about The Waterboys. And, even though I only have room for one song player per album on this page, click here and listen to how wonderfully "November Tale" follows as the second track, how they slow it down and get soulful. This may be my favorite cut on the album. The next track, "Still A Freak", has some fine face melting guitar solos. Next up is the equally excellent "I Can See Elvis", which is followed by "The Girl Who Slept for Scotland", which might also be my favorite track. As you go through Modern Blues, you may have the same reaction to each successive song.

A number of songs on Modern Blues were co-writes, most notably three songs that Scott wrote with English singer-songwriter James Maddock (now based in NYC). Scott explained his writing process in an interview with; he doesn't sit in a room face to face with his co-writer. When he has a lyric without a tune, he sends the lyrics to his cowriter who puts the lyrics to music and then sends back an MP3 of the song. Interestingly, Maddock used the song "Beautiful Now" on his own album Wake Up And Dream in 2011. This song also appears on Modern Blues, The Waterboys' version being a higher energy, more electric rendition.

A native of Edinburgh, Scotland, Scott now lives in Dublin, Ireland. He has two solo albums to his credit and Modern Blues is the eleventh Waterboy's album.

Listen to "Destinies Entwined"

Completing my top fifty, here are forty more releases that made 2015 great. They are listed alphabetically by artist, each title links to the album's Amazon page (except one).

Devon Allman - Ragged & Dirty

Anderson Ponty Band - Better Late Than Never

Kelsea Ballerini - First Time

Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap - The Silver Lining - The Songs of Jerome Kern

Blue Rose Code - The Ballads of Peckham Rye

Vanessa Carlton - Liberman

Chvrches - Every Open Eye

Del Amitri - Into the Mirror: Del Amitri Live in Concert

Jeff Lynne's ELO - Alone in the Universe

David Gilmour - Rattle That Lock

Halsey - Badlands

Don Henley - Cass County

Joshua Hyslop - In Deepest Blue

Diana Krall - Wallflower

Lenachka - Lenachka

Holly Lerski - The Wooden House

Lewis & Leigh - Missing Years

Ashley Monroe - The Blade

Jess Morgan - The Bournemouth EP

Rae Morris - Unguarded

Van Morrison - Duets: Re-Working The Catalogue

Gretchen Peters - Blackbirds

Natalie Prass - Natalie Prass

Pvris - Acoustic EP

Damien Rice - My Favourite Faded Fantasy

Keith Richards - Crosseyed Heart

Secret Someones - Secret Someones

Sia - 1000 Forms of Fear

Lucie Silvas - Letters To Ghosts

J.D. Souther - Tenderness

Rod Stewart - Another Country [Deluxe]

Striking Matches - Nothing But The Silence

Tamaryn - Cranekiss

Richard Thompson - Still [Deluxe Edition]

Meghan Trainor - Title (Deluxe Edition)

Robin Trower - Something's About To Change

Twin Danger - Twin Danger

Natalie Walker - Strange Bird

Joy Williams - VENUS

Connor Zwetsch - What Comes After EP


Rave said…
An impressive listing, Bill! Congrats on pointing out the great music and writing about it so well. Lots of things I completely missed this year...

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