I listened to more than a thousand new albums in 2015. Family and friends tell me I need to get a life—but fortunately I can block out their advice so long as I keep my headphones on.
I listened to pretty much everything, from Adele to the Zombies. I pay attention to the megahits and heavily-promoted releases, but also check out hundreds of indie projects, self-produced albums and uploaded recordings on Bandcamp or Soundcloud. My music obsession demands a lot of time, but it’s worth the effort. Most of the best music nowadays comes from artists who get ignored by radio programmers and the mainstream media.
Here are my 20 favorite albums from 2015. (If you want a longer list of 200 outstanding recordings, click here. These will take you far away from the familiar tropes of mass entertainment, but I’m convinced that’s where the real action is nowadays. Give them a chance, and you might come to the same conclusion.
1Kamasi WashingtonThe EpicPost-Coltrane Jazz/R&B
Remember the days when towering jazz heroes had huge ambitions and released bold large-scale projects? Saxophonist Kamasi Washington is showing that this can still happen in the year 2015. And you can’t get much more ambitious than his The Epic—three hours of music featuring a 32-piece orchestra, a 20-person choir, a jazz band and Washington’s searing horn lines. If this doesn’t shake up the jazz scene, nothing will.
2IbeyiIbeyiIntrospective Afro-Cuban Soul Music
This is Afro-Cuban music like you’ve never heard it before. Twin sisters Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz have immersed themselves in the Yoruban folkloric roots of Afro-Cuban culture, creating a haunting, ritualistic performance style that has the potential to redefine Latin music and reach an audience that would never buy a salsa album.
3Daniel BachmanRiverAmerican Primitive Guitar
I don’t think you can teach someone to play the guitar like this. Bachman’s music goes far beyond the realm of chords and licks into a world of raw, unadulterated acoustic sound. Listening to River is like tracing some mythic stream back to its primal source.
4Laura CannellBeneath Swooping TalonsEarly / Traditional / Experimental Music
Can one person really make so much music from just a fiddle and recorder? Play this album for music fans and ask them to identify the style and era—half will be convinced that Cannell has tapped into some intense ancient music tradition, and the other half will hear this as provocative new millennium soundscapes. In a world of narrow genre delineation, this album defies categorization.
5Joanna Wallfisch (with Dan Tepfer)The Origin of Adjustable ThingsAustere Vocal Jazz
I’m not sure which aspect of this album deserves the most praise. The smart, unconventional song lyrics? The mesmerizing, conversational vocal delivery of Joanna Wallfisch? Or the acute accompaniment of the formidable pianist Dan Tepfer? Better yet, don’t try to parse the building blocks of this exceptional release, just enjoy the beguiling holistic experience.
6Fabiano do Nascimento (with Airto)Dança dos TemposBrazilian Guitar Music
Guitarist Fabiano do Nascimento may be the next great world music star to come out of Brazil. Certainly legendary Brazilian percussionist Airto was sufficiently impressed to participate on this album—his first recording in more than ten years. Nascimento is still a well-kept secret in the U.S., but I expect that to change very soon.
7Laura MarlingShort MovieSinger-Songwriter
Acoustic albums by female singer-songwriters are having a resurgence, but Marling may be the most impressive of them all. I thought her 2013 release Once I Was an Eagle would be impossible to top, but with her new Short Movie album, she has upped the ante. Marling has won a stack of awards in her native Britain, but it’s time audiences elsewhere start giving her the attention she deserves.
8Afiara Quartet & Skratch BastidSpin CycleString Quartet + DJ Sound Manipulation
The Afiara Quartet performs on this album, and is also sampled, scratched, and remixed. But composers get the last laugh, with their opportunity to remix the remix. This ain’t grandpa’s chamber music—in fact, grandpa might dump it into the chamber pot. But if you want to hear what string quartet music sounds like in the digital age, this album is the place to start.
9Anthony de MareLiaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the PianoPiano Reinterpretations of Stephen Sondheim
There are plenty of Stephen Sondheim tribute albums on the market, but this one is in a class of its own. Pianist Anthony de Mare enlisted 36 of the most illustrious musical minds of our day in a project to reinterpret the major songs of our greatest living Broadway composer. The cast of illustrious arrangers includes Steve Reich, Wynton Marsalis, Fred Hersch, Thomas Newman, Ethan Iverson, Nico Muhly, Mary Ellen Childs, William Bolcom, and Frederic Rzewski. I can’t think of a 2015 album with more talent on display than this 3-hour-plus project.
10Julian LageWorld’s FairSolo Guitar
Julian Lage first came to the attention of the music world as a guitar prodigy even before his teenage years. But he is no longer a musician of promise for the future, but a genuine master of the present day. On this album of solo acoustic guitar, recorded over just two days, he constructs intimate tone poems that will draw you back for repeated listenings. He is a different kind of “guitar hero,” and one of the finest of his generation.
11Songhoy BluesMusic in ExileWest African Blues-Rock
No genre of music is under greater attack than the desert blues sounds of Mali, where Islamic militants have tried to shut down radio stations and nightclubs in their determination to eradicate secular songs. Many musicians have fled the northeast of the country to the capital city of Bamako, where Songhoy Blues was formed. Mali boasts a rich musical culture, despite the backlash, and Songhoy Blues promises to be the next great Saharan crossover act, in the tradition of Tinariwen and Ali Farka Touré.
12Becca StevensPerfect AnimalSinger-Songwriter
Over the last several years, Becca Stevens has developed a turbocharged style of song performance drawing on a wide range of idioms. She works with jazz, classical, and rock artists with equal poise and authority, but her finest moments come when she is performing her own finely-crafted songs. Check out the tracks “Tillery” and “I Asked” for a sample of her artistry.
13Brad MehldauTen Years Solo LiveSolo Jazz Piano
Mehldau has released some big projects in the past, most notably his majestic Art of the Trio albums (1996-2000). But this is the most massive of them all, an 8-LP set of live recordings culled from 19 European concerts over a 10-year period. Mehldau features both his own compositions and some of the most ear-expanding “cover versions” you will ever hear of Brian Wilson, Sufjan Stevens, Roger Waters, and other composers you rarely find on a jazz set list. This ranks among the defining career milestones of one of our most important living musicians.
14Allison MoorerDown to BelievingAlt Country
Moorer has had a tragic life that even country music stardom can’t soften—from the murder-suicide of her parents when she was a teen to the birth of a son with autism and her recent divorce from Steve Earle. Moorer’s Down to Believing album, which reunites her with guitarist-producer Kenny Greenberg, draws on some of these topics in a musical memoir that is charged with emotional intensity.
15Roomful of TeethRenderProgressive Vocal Polyphony
Roomful of Teeth has been pushing the boundaries of contemporary choral music since its founding by Brad Wells in 2009. The group’s last recording even helped earn a Pulitzer Prize for ensemble member Caroline Shaw—that’s right, I’m not talking Grammy awards, but an actual Pulitzer in music. With Render they have delivered another masterwork of new millennium vocal polyphony. Check out this video of the title track for a taste of their out-of-the-box creativity.
16Miho HazamaTime RiverContemporary Big Band Jazz
I was unfamiliar with the work of composer-arranger Miho Hazama until I encountered Time River, but after hearing a couple of tracks I ran off to Google her name. Where did this amazing artist come from? The answer is from Tokyo via New York (where she learned from some of the best—including Jim McNeely, Vince Mendoza, and Phil Markowitz). This was a year of top-notch jazz big band albums, but Time River was best of breed.
17Antonio SánchezThree Times ThreeJazz
Moviegoers got a taste of Antonio Sánchez’s drumming in the film Birdman, which won the Academy Award for best picture earlier this year. Now they should check out Sánchez’s jazz work in this gripping album featuring three world-class trios.
18Emily HallFolie à DeuxElectronic Ambient Art Songs
Emily Hall doesn’t just write for instruments, she invents new ones. She had an electro-magnetic harp custom built for this project, which started out as a live stage show. Hall and her lyricist, Icelandic poet (and Björk-collaborator) Sjón have described Folie à Deux as a cross between opera and concept album, but I would call it moody Nordic pop on steroids. This music could have huge crossover success if it got the exposure it deserves.
19Africa ExpressTerry Riley’s In C MaliWest African Minimalism
I’ve been listening to Terry Riley’s minimalist masterpiece In C since my college days. But I’ve never heard it played before with the magic and power of this rendition, performed on traditional African instruments. I’ve been recommending this album to friends ever since it came out in February, and almost every one who has heard it shares my enthusiasm.
20Horacio LavanderaDino Saluzzi: Imágenes—Music for PianoGenre-Crossing Contemporary Piano Music
Dino Saluzzi is a progressive bandoneon player from Argentina, now 80 years old, whose renown overseas has been eclipsed by the better known Astor Piazzolla. But Saluzzi deserves a similar degree of global success—and his music may be even more wide-ranging than his famous countryman’s. These piano pieces composed between 1960 and 2002, performed here by young Argentine pianist Horacio Lavandera, are major works that deserve to become part of the concert hall repertoire.