2015: It’s The Greatest Hits Edition!

Well, it’s that time again. The Christmas decorations have been put away, the food and sweets have been consumed in exhaustive amounts, and the trash has all been swept out from another Times Square New Years Eve celebration. It’s January of 2016 now, and usually that’s the time people have prepared their quick-to-be-broken resolutions, trim the caloric leftovers caused by all those food and sweets, and prepare for the long road of despising much of the year ahead.

But enough about my intended plans.

These earlier days of the new year are also an excellent time to look back. To take a wistful glance at the greatest hits and a look at the best of what was in a 2015 with plenty of was nots. And when it came to music, while the content may not have quite been as strong as the year before, my choice for the Top 10 Albums of the Year was certainly still just as difficult.

So let’s get to the heart of the matter now, starting off with….

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10. Tobias Jesso Jr, Goon

2015 was a big year for the Canadian-born singer-songwriter, who rose from the ranks of several years of struggling obscurity to co-writing songs for Adele’s new album 25 by year’s end. But in between that the biggest springboard to Jesso’s newly risen star has been none other than his stellar solo debut Goon, which took Jesso’s recently learned piano wielding skills to wounded heights akin to the likes of John Lennon, Carole King and Harry Nilsson. And while not exactly blessed with the strongest of singing voices, Jesso makes up for that with a keen sense of winsome poetry, a touch of wry humor, and an embodiment of the soul of Brill Building songwriters past.

And if 2015 has been anything as we start off this list, it’s a great reminder that this generation of talent hasn’t forgotten the power of what made the musical past so potent. And for Jesso, well… talk about a hell of a year.

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9. Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free

I was first introduced to Jason Isbell back in 2013 with the release of Southeastern, and while it didn’t immediately capture my attention the album was ultimately a soul-destroying reflection on death, sobriety, and the burning up of the skeletons in Isbell’s closet. It marked the strongest solo album to date from the newly-clean and focused artist, and Something More Than Free came along this year as the next logical chapter in that train of thought.

The record doesn’t quite carry the dark potency of Southeastern, but being once again reunited with super-producer Dave Cobb and a brighter point of view has done nothing to slow the brilliance of Isbell’s creativity. He still writes with all the intricate lyrical nuance of one of the best country folk musicians in the business (i.e. a modern Kris Kristofferson in many ways), and has the acumen to jump from folk to blues and rock n roll and back again, with the vocals to match.

I do maintain that Isbell’s live performances surpass his albums overall, but Something More Than Free marks the continued strength of passage of an artist coming up from the darkness and back out into the light. And I for one, am ready to hear each story all along the way.

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8. Gary Clark Jr, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim

When Gary Clark Jr hit the scene with his 2012 debut record Blak and Blu, it was a revelation to the world of blues. Hailed by the likes of Alicia Keys and other such luminaries, Clark’s mixture of blues, R&B and soul seemed like the next recipient of the scepter as older artists of the craft such as BB King, Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton have either died too soon or started to slowly fade into the sunset (with King unfortunately passing away this year).

And while some have called Clark’s blues credentials less than “authentic” because of his genre-ranging style, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim laid some of those unjust criticisms to rest (at least from my perspective). Clark brought his sound closer to the bone on this one with the gospel of “Church” and the croon of “Our Love”, while still showing how much he could shred on tracks like “Grinder” and “The Healing”. It may not have come in at number 1 on this list, but it is the latest in some of the finest work that young blues still has to offer this world.

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7. Glen Hansard, Didn’t He Ramble

In 2015 there were certainly a number of surprises that ranked on this list, and while Glen Hansard was right up there he wasn’t the most unknown to me by any means. In 2007 the Irish-born former street musician and member of The Frames was brought to prominence when he and Marketa Irglova starred together in the John Carney music film Once, and probably broke a few million hearts in the process with the tender wrenching ache of breakthrough single “Falling Slowly”.

This time around Hansard went solo with the gentle grace of Didn’t He Ramble, and while some longtime fans didn’t necessarily agree with some of the instrumentation present, in my opinion it was impossible to ignore Hansard’s usual penchant for songwriting as well as sheer accessibility. “Grace Beneath The Pines”, “Paying My Way” and “Stay The Road” kept that highway to the heart lines wide open, while “Wedding Ring” and “Lucky Streak” painted those same lines with a lighter brush of charm along the way.

It’s music like this that keeps my heart searching for just a little more. Just a few more stories please, as long as they’re as good as this.

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6. Butch Walker, Afraid of Ghosts

This year featured a lot of wonderful music, wonderful songs, and as I just mentioned in that Glen Hansard bit a moment ago, a lot of stories. But none perhaps more beautifully poignant than Butch Walker’s emotional masterpiece Afraid of Ghosts.

Inspired by the death of Butch’s father Butch Sr, Walker’s traditionally pop-rock oriented sound took a broad left turn into a lo-fi, bare bones mosaic of textures the likes of which Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska might certainly appreciate. And with Ryan Adams at the helm producing the kind of sound his own records lack for currently, Walker couldn’t have found a better set of companions to take this cathartic journey alongside.

As a result, Ghosts shines with the kind of magic that’s as deeply prolific as it is personal, and shows off the deepest and darkest light of Walker’s creative career after his more than 20 years in the industry.

Thankfully (much like a story we’ll get to later), Butch Walker stepped out from behind the shadow of the producer’s chair to give us this. It’s deeply sad that it comes from this place of remembrance and eulogy, but Ghosts is undeniably relatable and immersive all the same. Don’t let this one pass you by.

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5. Wilco, Star Wars

In the years since becoming a Wilco fan (around the Sky Blue Sky era), I began to slowly wish for an album that could be as diverse and bizarrely odd-rocking as staples Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born. Sure, Sky contained the kind of roots-rock and quieter moments that lead man Jeff Tweedy could pull off in his sleep, but after muddy retreads Wilco (The Album) and The Whole Love it felt like the band was past due for a record that felt… more cohesively dynamic. More sure of the direction it wanted to take.

Then in June of this year, the group rediscovered that spark with the surprise release (and curiously titled) Star Wars. And while it isn’t a Yankee or Ghost (or an intricate concept album about Luke Skywalker and the Sith Empire), it was a shot of electricity hearkening back to the band’s knack for exploration. From the moment “EKG” and it’s opening clatter of explosive instrumental defibrillation kicks in, Star Wars is an adventure of Lou Reed-esque Velvet Underground psychedelics, caffeinated jitter-rock, and lyrics that dash from off the wall to that same quiet still Wilco has made it’s specialty amidst all the tumult.

It’s the type of album that takes the muscle of the past and breathes the life of where the band is now into it’s every ligament. And coming from this sole perspective, it was eagerly missed.

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4. The Lone Bellow, Then Came The Morning

In 2013, a little country-folk trio out of Park Slope in Brooklyn started to come out of the woodwork of the still-newly relevant folk scene popularized by the likes of Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers with their initial self-titled debut. And while they’ve progressed and started to show the world their electrifying stage persona, the comparisons might still remain but Zach Williams, Kanene Pipkin and Brian Elmquist have begun to forge into a realm entirely their own with 2015’s Then Came The Morning.

With The National’s guitarist Aaron Dessner at the production helm as opposed to well known Civil Wars producer Charlie Peacock, the shiny folk-based residue of their first LP was replaced by instrumentation that wiped off the polish in favor of something more organic and…. flavorfully ornate. Morning edged much further towards bigger sounds in retro rock, country and gospel while splitting singing duties between all three vocalists this time around, and as a result the band looks poised to take their success onward and upward in 2016. All while helping to define a little “Brooklyn country” along the way.

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3. Adele, 25

With powerhouse albums 19 and 21 already under her belt since her debut in 2008, Adele Adkins had already easily reached the echelon of mononym status reserved for the likes of Prince, Cher, and Sting. And while she may not have made any doves weep with envy (yet), one had to wonder if the third time would still be the charm with this past year’s release of 25.

Well luckily, despite a four year wait the British balladeer had no plans of settling into a slump. Buoyed by the strength of monster singles “Hello” and “When We Were Young” and backed by strong co-writers Tobias Jesso Jr, Bruno Mars, Greg Kurstin and Ryan Tedder, Adele once again owned every note to come out of these 11 tracks. Whether it was wrapped in jazz, stripped to the nuts and bolts acoustics, or soaring on gilded wings into the highest heavens, 25 was one of the most impressive this year simply because of how controlled every ounce of it’s strength was. Rarely do albums come along that feel so perfectly grasped, and as usual Adele makes no question when it comes to owning her music. In fact, she doesn’t own it…. she dominates every fiber.

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2. Ivy, Beck & Neill, Live at Rockwood Music Hall

This year offered several boosts to the Brooklyn country music scene, and arguably one of the best was the debut of Ivy, Beck & Neill’s Live at Rockwood Music Hall. It was the first proper recording for the band (and the only live album on this list), and ranks in this high for good reason.

Featuring a sparsely acoustic backing band, the trio of Trisha Ivy, Mike Beck and Amanda Neill dazzle the New York City room with twining harmonies and as much sense for gleeful energy as gorgeously dusky gloom. Listening to Ivy and Neill sing together is like finding the kind of blues-folk collaborative spark Melissa Ethridge and Natalie Maines would be jealous of, and when you add on the band’s talent for songwriting and a rare kind of chemistry to go along with it… well, as IB&N’s song “Texas” goes, you got all you really need.

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1. Chris Stapleton, Traveller

Going into the category of both my biggest surprise of the year as well as biggest breakthrough, Chris Stapleton’s Traveller is a powerhouse album of country music that reminds me of why I’ve never lost faith in the genre. Despite the presence of so-called “bro country”, despite the nasal goose-honk vocalizing, beer swilling, tractor riding mainstream stereotypes that litter today’s excuse for the charts…. Chris Stapleton flies in the face of it all. And not only that, he’s written with great success for many of these artists as he’s had notable collaborations with the likes of Luke Bryan, Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Luke Bryan and Darius Rucker with plenty still to spare.

Thankfully, Stapleton finally stepped out from behind the shadows of ghostwriting this year to deliver a debut that had all the heart and soul of what made old school country music so relevant in the first place. Plus, unlike his “peers” from today’s industry Stapleton brings to his writing a sense of gritty hard soul with a killer voice to match scenes of whiskey, women, religion, having the blues and getting stoned. Not to mention having his extremely talented wife Morgane alongside to harmonize, which is just icing on the cake.

In closing I’ll say this much, Chris Stapleton’s coming out party performing with Justin Timberlake at the CMA’s earlier this past year was just the overdue match to light the hot streak he was already on. And if you don’t believe music can save your soul, just put on Traveller and it’s closing track “Sometimes I Cry”.

Something tells me, you might just change your mind.

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Sharing The Passenger Side With Webster Hall & Hugh Masterson

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I don’t often dwell on past accomplishments or significant periods of time in my life. Usually that takes the better part of years or severe emotional embarrassment to do, but luckily this living, breathing entity called music exists that tends to cut that time waiting on significance in half. Or more specifically, it cuts it down to the monster of a week I just finished experiencing.

You see, this aspiring writer may have started last Monday thinking about the occupational hazard of radio station jargon, but by Thursday and Friday he took it up a notch. Make that a notch that was smack dab in the midst of Manhattan, just down the road from Union Square and through the doors of Webster Hall to see the triple billing of The Lone Bellow, Anderson East, and Hugh Masterson.

And while I could certainly spare plenty of opinion about each individually (and a ton altogether), I’d like to take the biggest focus of the spotlight and shine it down on the heartrendingly sparse acoustic storytelling of Masterson.

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Going in to the shows at Webster Hall, I already knew enough about The Lone Bellow to stretch from here to several of our most common planetary structures. And when it came to Anderson East, the moment I first heard him sing “The Devil In Me” on a Daytrotter session was the moment I knew there were big things looming in his future. But Masterson came as the completely unknown wildcard as the first act on both nights, and what I came to witness as a result has left an unmistakable imprint upon me nearly a week later.

Armed with only an acoustic guitar (and later surrounding help from The Lone Bellow’s Brian Elmquist and  Anderson East Band), the Wisconsin-bred Masterson got up and just….sang with an essence of stinging honesty and conviction stretching from the backwoods of his hometown of Butternut all the way to the bright lights of NYC. Looking back on it later, I felt like Mark Ruffalo’s record executive character from Begin Again as he watches Keira Knightley’s musician Gretta sing for the first time.

She goes virtually unknown and unnoticed in a crowded bar as she strums away on a lone guitar, but he can’t keep his eyes off of her as he imagines her song blooming and the instruments (literally) sprouting to life around the talent he sees. It’s one of the more powerfully inspiring scenes I’ve ever witnessed in a music film, and as I watched Masterson’s set I could sense that same spark of potential burning from the rasp in his voice down to the path left by the tracings of his lone guitar lines.

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Up until now Masterson had been mostly known as the lead name in Hugh Bob and The Hustle, but with that band apparently in the rearview mirror it was refreshing to hear him not only play new songs, but present songs from the Hustle’s self-titled debut stripped right down to the nuts and bolts. Not that there’s anything wrong with the original record (it’s a strong slice of alt-country/rock), but the songs that were translated to Webster Hall benefitted greatly from a little less polish and a little more dirt under their metaphorical fingernails.

Tracks like “Passenger Side” and “Ashland County” carried a greater weight of poignancy without additional instrument arrangements, and made Masterson’s already eloquent songwriting stand out as strong as his vocals as they rang out into the depths of that concert hall. It was almost as though he was preparing to give everyone attending something as gloriously dingy and close to the soul as Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska (just soaked with a few more beers first).

It reminded me of seeing Butch Walker open for Ryan Adams at Carnegie Hall a year ago during two special nights of acoustic shows. Walker had primarily been known as a pop/rock-leaning musician and a skilled producer, but on that night I was hypnotized by his solo acoustic set of songs that would later become the Adams-produced tearjerker Afraid of Ghosts. It was fragile and more creaky than polished perhaps, but it was also cathartic and real and unafraid to risk anything in order to say everything.

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I got those same rush of emotions watching Hugh Masterson step out on that Webster Hall stage last week. And without even knowing a great deal of his work or music, I couldn’t help but be more and more proud of him for taking that risk. It takes strength to define yourself as one person outside of a band you’ve known a long time, and even more of it to open for two other groups in front of crowds that could very well be completely unaware of what you do and the art that you make.

Kudos to Masterson for owning every minute of it while simultaneously being one of the friendliest, most down to earth and humble individuals I’ve ever had the great pleasure of meeting. I came away with more meaningful anecdotes in a five minute conversation with him after the show than I have in any conversation I’ve had in a very long time.

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Now, if we could just get Hugh in touch with Ryan Adams to do some producing…

You can find Hugh Masterson on Facebook and Twitter, and you can buy his Hugh Bob and The Hustle LP on iTunes or Bandcamp (or listen to it over on Spotify). 

Credit for the first three (and by the far the best) photos in this piece are courtesy of Mara S. May she always be able to illustrate the best words I can sing from my mouth and out upon these digital pages.

First Thoughts, Butch Walker “Afraid of Ghosts”

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Another day, another preview to a promising musical release. Already this week we’ve had the major cannon blow that was everything surrounding The Lone Bellow and Then Came The Morning (out today!), as well as the less than stellar Justin Townes Earle companion piece Absent Fathers. 

But following that little bit of positive/negative yin-yang, today we have Billboard.com dropping the full stream of Butch Walker’s 7th studio album Afraid of Ghosts. Produced by alt-country heartbreaker Ryan Adams, this record is being hailed as one of Walker’s most “deeply introspective” and a “bare bones” departure from his usual comfort zone.

And while those labels do get thrown around in exhaustive amounts (Walker might well get dubbed the next Dylan if he keeps this up), this patchwork collaboration with Adams may be the strongest artist/producer tag team I’ve heard on record in a while. Between Walker’s tales of deep personal loss and hard luck stories and Adams’ spacious warts and all production the two manage to consistently strike at the heart of this material’s writhing emotional center. Songs like Chrissie Hynde and 21+ ring out with the tape hissing vulnerability of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, while Father’s Day and Bed on Fire attack with righteous emotion driven straight down to the screws.

For the most part Afraid of Ghosts stays in the range of quiet singer-songwriter and lets the vulnerability of tracks like Still Drunk and How Are Things, Love? take the lead, but Butch doesn’t forget his rock roots by any means either with brilliant shreds from the likes of actor/axeman Johnny Depp and legendary Husker Du leader Bob Mould. Afraid of Ghosts is not only unafraid to confront the demons lurking in the closet alongside the skeletons, it eagerly exorcises them through the murmurs of the departed, with a few walls of blasting feedback for good measure.

Boil Ghosts right down to it’s bleached white essence, and you have an album for the late nights, the long drives with the mists looking like spirits in the foreground, and the confessionals going down slow at the bottom of a glass. The album shows a stark and fragile side of Butch Walker most artists have already explored by their 7th album, but given tragic events like the death of his father it seems like this was just the album that was meant to happen at this time in his life.

Thankfully despite the heavy melancholic overtones that are present, I think Afraid of Ghosts makes as good a eulogy as burning effigy. It stands as statement and memorial to coping and moving on from loss, but does so with brilliance and unbeatable strength.

Grade: 9.5/10

Music of the Day….

So for 2015, I figured I should get my WordPress page out of mothballs and do something a bit more regular musically to possibly draw in some traffic. So I thought, why not post a little bit each day or every other about a music moment that was so good, I just had to pass it on?

For today that choice comes in the form of jack of all trades Butch Walker and his stop into the Relix Magazine offices from December 31st. Walker has done a lot in his career, from producing the likes of Taylor Swift and Avril Lavigne to being a productive singer-songwriter/musician since the late 80’s, but it’s his latest solo album “Afraid of Ghosts” that might just draw Butch’s greatest acclaim to date.

With prolific musician Ryan Adams at the helm to produce, the two mesh style and substance beautifully into a rustically moody, Nebraska-inflected veneer. Take that even further by stripping these two songs down to their acoustic roots, and the vulnerable bare bones of Walker’s brilliant songwriting become even more visible. So sit back for a bit, and enjoy the following:

Butch Walker “Chrissie Hynde” and “Father’s Day”

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