As I scan my list of the best albums of 2015 that didn’t get nearly the attention they deserved, I realize I like this group of albums better than the albums that made my top 10 CDs of 2015 list, which is reserved for higher profile (or at least widely reviewed and praised) releases. Hopefully this isn’t a function of major labels chasing the latest hit sound or dumbing down music to reach the widest audience possible.
All I know is overall the albums coming from smaller labels were more unique, adventurous and just plain entertaining than the albums on major labels in 2015. Here are mypicks for the best albums that flew under the radar this year.
1) JD McPherson, “Let The Good Times Roll” (Rounder) -- On his second album, McPherson pulls off the difficult trick of making the old sound new. Rooted strongly in 1950s and ‘60s rockabilly and blues, the songs on “Let The Good Times Roll” show their heritage without sounding retro or outdated. The reasons are the sheer quality of the songs and McPherson’s ability to mix and match both modern and vintage ingredients. “Bossy,” as an example, could have sounded like an early ‘60s skiffle tune, only McPherson kicks up the tempo, filters in a few synth parts and creates one of the year’s catchiest tunes. There are more standout songs where that came from on this, the year’s best album from an artist not named Adele.
2) The Dearhunter: “Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise” (Cave & Canary Goods/Equal Vision) – Concept albums can be tricky, but Casey Crescenzo, frontman of the Dear Hunter, is getting it right. “Act IV,” the latest in a six-album series chronicling the birth, life and untimely death of a boy known as “The Dear Hunter,” fits the rock opera mold in very tangibles ways. There is the story, of course, and the songs flow from one into the next. And the music is literally a hybrid of rock and orchestral pop – the very definition of rock opera.
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The album works because Crescenzo keeps the songs grounded in catchy pop and rock, which prevents “Act IV” from sounding bloated or pretentious.
3) The Lonely Wild: “Chasing White Light” (EOne) – This band’s second album, “Chasing White Light,” is full of vibrant songs that find the group embracing a wider range of sounds and styles. The evolved songs here aim for the drama of a Coldplay or U2 – and frequently reach that standard.
4) Diamond Rugs: “Cosmetics” (Sycamore/Thirty Tigers) – This music of this alt-rock supergroup grows more distinctive and at times idiosyncratic (in a good way) on its second album, “Cosmetics.” The scrappy roots rock sound of the band’s debut has taken on more of a sassy pop dimension, with great results on hooky, yet gritty rockers like “Thunk,” “Motel Room” and “Clean.”
5) Bob Malone: “Mojo Deluxe” (Delta Moon) – On his eighth album, “Mojo Deluxe,” Malone moves from rousing blues to rollicking New Orleans-accented tunes (“Looking For The Blues”) to a downright pretty piano-based ballad “Paris.” What’s also fun are the good naturedly sarcastic lyrics of several tunes. This rich and varied outing is my pick for best blues album of 2015.
6) Whitehorse: “Leave No Bridge Unburned” (Six Shooter Records) – This second album from one-time solo artists Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland shows they’re even better as a team. On “Leave No Bridge Unburned” the duo sounds more confident and a little more raucous, as they deftly skirt the boundaries of country, blues and rock.
7) Turbo Fruits: “No Control” (Melvin) – On its fourth album, the Turbo Fruits reign in the tempos of its glam-ish rock a touch and amp up what were already catchy melodies, creating a poppier sound without losing the bite of the band’s earlier music.
8) Chris Stamey: “Euphoria” (Yep Roc) – Despite his history in the dB’s, the arrival of “Euphoria” didn’t seem to make the waves a new Stamey album should. The problem wasn’t the music. Stamey is in his usual fine form on “Euphoria,” reeling out crisp and catchy pop-rockers and a few tunes that mess with the pop song form, without losing their accessibility.
9) Idlewild: “Everything Is Written” (Empty Words) – This Scottish band’s first release in six years continues its tradition of making winning albums, with a mix of stirring rockers (“Collect Yourself” and “On Another Planet”), rough hewn ballads (“So Many Things To Decide” and “Like A Clown”) and a few spacious anthems that fall somewhere in between those extremes.
10) Low Cut Connie: “Hi Honey” (Ardent Music/Contender) – This third album from Low Cut Connie strongly evokes the energetic pop-rock of the ‘60s (think Paul Revere & the Raiders or the Dave Clark Five) and shows when the songs are as catchy and tightly crafted, having a retro vibe can be every bit as cool as anything cutting edge.
Honorable mention: Bully: “Feels Like”; Wolf Alice: “My Love Is Cool”; Wild Child: “Fool”; Colleen Green: “I Want To Grow Up”; Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters: “Father’s Day”; White Reaper: “White Reaper Does It Again”; Barrence Whitfield and the Savages: “Under a Savage Sky”; Torres: “Sprinter”; Ivan & Alyosha: “It’s All Just Pretend”; Hop Along: “Painted Shut”