In the same spirit of my Favorite Songs list (click that link), I’m opting to go for “my favorite” instead of “best” albums. As I’ve shifted more and more to consuming music via singles, an albums list gets harder and harder. Luckily, there were some very good collections of songs, and at least one Great Album. You’ll see in just a bit.
Thanks for reading (and let me know if I forgot anything or should listen to other stuff).
Honorable Mentions: In Colour by Jamie xx, Predatory Headlights by Tenement, Undertow by Drenge, Star Wars by Wilco, Complicated Game by James McMurtry
10 Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance by Belle & Sebastian
Why I Like It: I finally came around on Belle & Sebastian in 2015, so Girls in Peacetime followed in the Sinister wake. Luckily for Peacetime, I also liked this album! I love Stuart Murdoch’s voice. I like the perfect ring of the guitars. And, oddly, I also like when the guitars take a step back and let the synth lines run. I think I simply like the musical sensibility of Belle & Sebastian.
09 What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World by The Decemberists
Why I Like It: I like The Decemberists. This album, if nothing else, is right in the band’s wheelhouse. I adore almost all of their past work, so Terrible/Beautiful being similar is good for me. In a way, this is a retread in the same way that the newest Modest Mouse was (more on that later). The highs aren’t as high, and that’s perfectly fine. The folksy guitars, the abundant persnickety verbiage, the Colin Meloy are all here. And I like all of them.
08 Without Identity by Saint Bernard
Why I Like It: I like the balance between upbeat stomping songs and moody exploration tracks. I like the vocals and the vocal harmonies when they pop up. I like that “The Mutiny Within Me” goes for broke with the big final chorus, all the extra voices. I might even add my own handclaps to that one. I like the twinkle of the piano. And I also like that this is music coming from Columbus. Isn’t that cool?
07 Untethered Moon by Built to Spill
Why I Like It: I enjoy rock. I like guitars, drums, bass, the whole thing. Untethered Moon checks all the boxes. I like how “All Our Songs” feels vibrant. I like how the guitars bounce and attack at the start of “Living Zoo.” I like the singing, the production, the energy of every song. I like rock, and Built to Spill have made great rock.
06 Every Open Eye by Chvrches
Why I Like It: I like Lauren Mayberry’s voice, how she balances beauty, emotion, and fury across the album. I like the relentless pop of the first five tracks, how I’ve ordered them in my mind as a perfect build-up to “Clearest Blue.” I like the melodies, how the band seems to understand that synth is a weapon for delivering pop hooks into my ears.
05 Sprinter by Torres
Why I Like It: I like the blend of moody introspection and cathartic guitar rock. I like the introspection of the lyrics. I like the struggle with faith, with God himself. I also like that the struggle sounds sincere to me, that this isn’t rooted in irony. I like that the sounds feel familiar. As much as I do enjoy exploration, it’s a relief to return to 90s rock, especially 90s rock that is done so well.
04 Strangers to Ourselves by Modest Mouse
Why I Like It: I like Modest Mouse. This is, I think, the chief requirement. Does this wow me like The Moon & Antarctica? Nope. Is it as good as Lonesome Crowded West? I don’t think so. Is it still good though? I believe it is, in a way that both Good News and We Were Dead are really good if you give them a chance. I like Isaac Brock’s vocal tics, I like the wandering guitars, I like the melodies, and I like the grand scope of the sound. It sounds like I expect Modest Mouse to sound, and it lasts for nearly an hour. What more can you ask for? (I usually skip “Pistol” though, that one’s not great)
03 Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit by Courtney Barnett
Why I Like It: I like the lyricism. It’s the main talking point on every Barnett article, and it’s right! I like the stories told in Sometimes I Sit, I like that the songs are so engaging. I love the tale and payoff in “Elevator Operator.” I like the playful fun of “Aqua Profunda.” I relate to the ambivalence of “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party.” I like the way Barnett sings the songs. I don’t think she sounds detached, and I also don’t think she sounds too worried about the world. I’m not sure how she strikes this balance, but I enjoy it.
I also like the music aspect of things, because it raises the album from “fun discussion” to “essential rock.” “Pedestrian at Best” is the highlight for me, with its massive guitar crunch. But I like the quiet moments and the sprawling stuff, too. I like the slow strums of “Depreston” and the psych-rock growth in “Kim’s Caravan.”
I had somehow missed the first round of Courtney Barnett praise (“Avant Gardener” and the like). I’m glad I didn’t miss this one.
02 No Cities to Love by Sleater-Kinney
Why I Like It: I love the guitars, and I love the drums, and I love the singing. Which covers the entire album, if I’m honest. If you want specifics? I like the sense of impending doom that ramps up from the outset of “Price Tag.” I love the badass way “Fangless” builds from a memorable drum figure and dives right into the passionate vocals. I like how the guitars crunch and decay on “No Anthems.” And No Cities also comes with “Bury Our Friends,” my second-favorite song of the year. I love almost everything about this album, and it’s a great pick for anyone who has enjoyed any sub-genre of rock.
01 Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens
Why I Like It: I like the beautiful musical arrangements. I like the balance between quiet folk (the primary ingredient) and broad, unexpected electronic contribution.
And I also don’t like it. Carrie & Lowell is constructed from pain, and I feel that pain in every note, in every aching whisp that Stevens can sing. The Pitchfork feature and interview about the album gives me a great deal of context, but I imagine that the aching sadness would still bleed out regardless. I mean, good God, I can’t feel anything but sympathy when hearing “Drawn to the Blood” and “Fourth of July.” In the former, Stevens doubts and questions. “My prayer has always been love, what did I do to deserve this? … How did this happen?”
In the latter, I get to hear a personal (and seemingly imagined) conversation between Stevens and his recently-deceased mother. “We’re all going to die,” he concludes. I am in awe of the swirling electronics that bubble around the singing, although “like” seems too positive a word here. The sound all sets the mood, like Stevens’ world is falling apart. It’s a feeling I don’t “like,” but I revere anyway. “The Only Thing,” my favorite song of the year, builds on the devastation.
I was drawn to Carrie & Lowell with first listen, and I keep coming back almost one year later. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more aware of death around me. I know of cancer in relatives, I notice the alarming age of those I looked up to as a child, the impermanence of it all. Stevens’ honest and upsetting appraisal of mortality draws me in. At the most basic level, I treasure the complex emotional world of this album. There’s one thing to “like.”
But the thing I sincerely enjoy about Carrie & Lowell is the quiet optimism I find in Stevens’ songs. The record is complex, and there isn’t a single resolution. But there is a hint of comfort in faith. There is a brief light in “Should Have Known Better,” as Stevens sings “My brother had a daughter / The beauty that she brings, illumination.” On “The Only Thing,” Stevens does not kill himself. On “John My Beloved,” Stevens relies on the only thing left as he begs, “Jesus I need you, be near me, come shield me.”
I like that Stevens is still with us, that he has struggled and come to a place where he can share his story, that he can perform these songs for others. I like that Carrie & Lowell is the document of that pain, and that I can draw such strength from his understanding and his faith.
Carrie & Lowell was my favorite album of 2015, and there was no other choice.