Top Records of 2015: 6-1

6. Baroness - Purple (Abraxan Hymns)

Savannah, Georgia's Baroness returns with another intricate record that relies less on experimentation and focuses more  on tuneful songwriting than most of their earlier catalog. Their two guitar attack is clean and tuneful, and John Baizley's vocals hit a sweet spot between hardcore growler and 90s indie singer. Equal parts metal, indie rock, prog, and (dare I say it) hard rock, are all present in an inventive mix. "Shock Me" stands out with its tight drumming, clean guitars, and tasty phasers. The brilliant guitar solos and innovative arrangements are proof that Baroness is getting more interesting and dynamic with each new release. While they are rooted in metal, they continually push the boundaries of the genre, bringing in disparate elements from all over the musical landscape.  Purple relies more heavily on melody and  power, and Baroness effortlessly mixes its influences to create the last heavy musical home run of 2015, while expanding their already significant sonic palette.

5. Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin - Make Up For Lost Time (Yep Roc)

How could this not make the list? Similar to last year's epic collection of Big Bill Broonzy covers, Common Ground, the brother's collaboration smolders from start to finish. Make Up For Lost Time's title ostensibly refers to the brothers' rocky relationship. The album consists of blues covers that reflect the brothers' early musical influences with a healthy helping of Big Joe Turner songs. Turner was their mentor and they pay homage to him as well as others like Willie Dixon and James Brown. Phil's soulful vocals are in fine form and Dave's guitar kicks up a ruckus with excellent backing provided by Chris Miller on Guitar, Brad Fordham on bass, and Lisa Pankratz on drums.The brothers bring as much passion and soul to these covers as they did to their first collaboration. The track listing is a fine representation of great lesser known blues tunes. "Mister Kicks" opens the album on a high note and the band just keeps charging on. Dave shares vocals with Phil and takes the lead on several of the more rocking tracks, but the Big Joe Turner songs are a showcase for Phil's vocals. "Cherry Red Blues" is a smooth, soulful take and "Feeling Happy" is a rave-up replete with barroom piano. Dave's raspy vocals on "Rattlesnakin' Daddy" and "Sit Down, Baby" give the album a more vibrant Chicago Blues tone than Common Ground. When I reviewed Common Ground, I asked for original material, and I regret my decision because the joy and love the Alvin brothers bring to classic blues numbers might not be outdone by their original work. Then again, their next album might just top this one, whether they write the songs or not. Perhaps, a Big Joe Turner tribute is in order.

4. Supersuckers - Holdin' The Bag (Acetate)

The Supersuckers hold the rock 'n' roll torch high on their tenth album even as they return to familiar country sounds, toning down their trademark aggression for acoustic guitars and fiddles. The less amplified approach does not temper Spaghetti's caustic wit. Spaghetti has been struggling with a rare form of throat cancer and its affect is evident in his lyrics, but he delivers another batch of drunk singalongs. The songs are optimistic and, despite their classic country trappings burn with the typical energy and sincerity of the best Supersuckers songs. From the first track, "Holdin' the Bag and its ooh-aah bridge and its "life is what it is" sensibility to the amazing cover of Hank Williams Jr's rabble rousing "All My Rowdy Friends Are Settling Down" with its honky-tonk piano and references to the likes of Lemmy and Blag Dahlia instead of George Jones and Johnny Cash, the entire album is a paean to never giving up. The guest appearances bolster great songs. Hayes Carll trades vocals with Spaghetti on the tongue in cheek "This Life (Would Be a Whole Lot Better If I Didn't Have to Share It) With You" and Lydia Loveless's sultry vocals add depth to the maudlin "I Can't Cry." Rollicking, faster numbers like "High & Outside" and "Jibber Jabber" set the mood for a record that is as much party as it is regret. Turn it up loud!

3. John Moreland - High On Tulsa Heat (Old Omens)

John Moreland's songs always amaze me. He can take a few words and create a whole world that transcends time and place. He builds on the sonic template of country and folk that has been traversed by luminaries such as Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen for decades and has more recently been inundated by a crop of newer songwriters that have been touted as one new Dylan after another. Moreland has the chops and the songs, but, like his fellow songwriter, John Fullbright, who made last year's list, he follows his own muse. He just writes damn good songs. From the opening of "Hang Me in the Tulsa County Store" Moreland's picking and forceful vocals create a weary vibe. Like Otis Gibbs he tells a good story and knows how to accompany it with minimal, but effective, instrumentation. That said, there are some rockers on the record. "Heart's Too Heavy" picks up the tempo with organ and drums and philosophic lyrics: your smoke rings fade like a memory / you're honest as a ghost maybe twice as free / you've got faith enough to lift this curse / what if faith is just a false god's verse." Moreland's lyrics capture moments in time better than most while moving beyond them. Sometimes he rewrites song writing cliches, while other times he naturally reworks them and on first listen they don't work as well. Regardless, his vignettes and worn vocals ring true long after the record is over. This album rewards repeat listens for those with an ear for melody and a love for a clever turn of phrase.

2. Kylesa - Exhausting Fire (Season of Mist)

Like their neighbors Baroness, the Savannah, Georgia band expands on their unique sound on their 7th album. Sludgy elements still remain from their earlier albums when the stoner metal tag might have more aptly fit their sound. But they have expanded to include more psychedelic elements and musical interludes. The album starts with the ultra heavy and perfectly titled "Crusher," which balances heavy guitar riffs, atmospheric soundscapes, and Laura Pleasant's measured vocals. The feeling of heaviness threatens to overwhelm but Kylesa crafts a nice melodic bridge before returning to the heavy riffs. "Inward Debate" blends shoegaze elements with psychedelia in its double drum attack. Pleasant's vocals provide a perfect counterpoint to Phillip Cope's gruff shouting. "Moving Day" is somewhat of a departure, sounding like a 80s goth rock number with an infectious hook. "Lost and Confused" slides back into psych, starting with another 80s influenced vibe before melding New York Hardcore with space rock. "Shaping the Southern Sky" is another fist pumper that channels Sabbathy rhythms before moving into guitar atmospherics and fuzzy bass during its ten minute length. "Falling" and "Night Drive" continues the 80s vibe with adventurous instrumentation -- there's an oboe in the latter. "Growing Roots" delves into indie rock before the last proper track "Out of My Mind" returns to a psychedelic post-punk space with Cope's Sisters of Mercy singing and Pleasant's response over swirling guitars and an entrancing bass line. Each song on the album has so many parts, but they seamlessly blend together for a lush, immediate listening experience. Kylesa sounds like no one else out there and if they keep expanding their sound who knows where they will be able to go next.

1. Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free (Southeastern)

Jason Isbell's 2013 album Southeastern was touted as a breakthrough, although he had been writing thoughtful, tuneful songs for years before its release. Albums like 2011's understated, consistent Here We Rest seemed to get lost in the shuffle before Southeastern was released and are ripe for discovery by listeners who only know his later work. Southeastern's character vignettes and refreshing observations were clearly illuminated by the sparse instrumentation. The album was less rock-oriented and Isbell wrote his most affecting, honest songs, sketching his most believable characters to date. On Something More Than Free, also produced by Dave Cobb, Isbell builds on the work he did on Southeastern with an ease that is removed from that album's perceived overarching message. Because his highly publicized newfound sobriety hung heavy on that record, the album's reception was always connected to his personal baggage. Something More Than Free breaks that mold -- it feels more like the work of a man who has found peace, and the songs cover a broader range of topics and are more free-spirited both musically and lyrically. Isbell has a chance to stretch out and explore new storytelling and musical outlets like he has not been able to do since 2007's Sirens of the Ditch. There is a more noticeable sense of humor and joy, and the stories he tells are focused and credible. Isbell has grown as a singer and an arranger since his days with the Drive-By Truckers. His live show continues to be remarkable and his marriage to Amanda Shires has inspired him to write songs with a greater sense of wonder. On Something More Than Free his happiness is evident. The songs range in intent and structure, but the main focus of the lyrics is on living life despite one's regrets.

The first song narrates the triumphs and tribulations of a man working for the county set to a slower country shuffle. "24 Frames" builds on that theme, chronicling the life of a narrator finding his footing. Isbell sings You thought God was an architect / now you know /He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow / And everything you built that’s all for show goes up in flames / In 24 frames." The song, the first single off of the album, is one of Isbell's poppier efforts showing that he knows his way around a catchy hook. "Flagship" returns to a contemplative mood telling the story of a couple that is still in love after years. "How To Forget" is a subtle cinematic rocker featuring one of Isbell's best vocals to date accompanied by Shires' fine harmonies. "Children of Children" continues Isbell's juxtaposition of memory and the present telling the story of the narrator's mother. "The Life You Chose" reveals Isbell's surety with lyrics and literary touch: "Who are you if not the one I met / One July night before the town went wet / Jack and coke in your momma's car / You were reading The Bell Jar. "Something More Than Free" is another of Isbell's paeans to the workingman and the simple pleasures of his life accompanied by his great band --  Shire's violin and Chad Gamble's contemplative drumming shine. "Speed Trap" and "Hudson Commodore" are both quietly effective vignette of small town life. "Palmetto Rose" adds some blues to the mix; Isbell's guitar effects make way for Jimbo Hart's supple bass lines and Derry deBorja's understated keyboards. The final track "To A Band That I Loved" wraps it all up, fully representing Isbell's favorite themes and leaving the listener wanting more.

Something More Than Free, all hyperbole aside, is another fine record that keeps Isbell in the running for great songwriters of our time. He is backed up by a thoughtful band that knows how to accentuate his well-written tunes. While there are few rockers, Isbell has removed much of the fat from his songs, leaving a thin, mean, fine skeleton behind. These songs will develop more power and punch when the band plays them live. Isbell's newfound happiness offsets the contemplative nature of many of the songs. He has released yet another epic set of songs. It's always hard to stop listening. 


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