The Waterboys: Modern Blues, vivascene rating 4 stars
The masters of folk-rock returned to form with their 11th studio album, this one recorded in Nashville with the stellar backing of some of the town’s finest studio musicians. First rate lyrics wedded to wonderful melodies made this album a standout.
“Things disappear,” the 56 year old leader Mike Scott proudly declaims, “but I’m still here!” Blues this ain’t exactly, but brilliance it is.
Tobias Jesso Jr.: Goon, vivascene rating 4 stars
Piano ballads from a young Canadian who deserves to be a super-star. Introspection, dead honesty, and vulnerability are his hallmarks. Every track on Goon remains pared down and subtle, with Jesso emphasizing his ability to create big, emotional moments through raw, unencumbered production and direct songwriting.
He is a compelling performer on stage who hardly needs more than his piano to command attention, and one of the few young musicians to understand the inherent power of dynamics. This may well be the most promising pop debut album of the year.
Bob Dylan: Shadows in the Night, vivascene rating 4 stars
Okay, we are long-time Dylan fans, and in the past few years, also long-suffering ones. It took us several months to audition this record, and then we were somewhat shocked that Dylan’s singing is as good as it is on this album.
American standards from the most pre-eminent folksinger of his time? Surely he jests – leave these to the Sinatra crowd where they belong. He doesn’t though and succeeds in refurbishing his career with this late-in-the-evening effort; the record is entirely sincere and entirely worthwhile.
Glen Hansard: Didn’t He Ramble, vivascene rating 4 stars
As ardent fans of his first solo release Rhythm and Repose we eagerly dove into Didn’t He Ramble, which has recently received a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Album. The album was recorded in various locales (New York, Dublin, Wilco’s The Loft in Chicago, and the Frames’ longtime haunt, Black Box Studio in France, with former bandmate Dave Odlum). The critics have savaged it, but we beg to differ. It’s a minor masterpiece deserving of wide recognition.
There, we’ve said it. Going against the grain of most, if not all of our peers, who from our point of view want something more of Glen Hansard – some pretty music that at this point in his life he doesn’t need to make.
Blur: The Magic Whip, vivascene rating 5 stars
Fractious, formidable, and talented beyond measure, Brit band Blur somehow recorded new material while on tour, and it is an album which is as surprising as it is exciting. Having suffered breakups, fist fights and the evolution of lead writer Damon Albarn into a solo superstar, it was hard to imagine that the band would ever reform, even for the mounds of lucre available to them for a world tour.
Post-modern, redolent with Asian imagery and experiences, this is a sophisticated, many-layered work that abounds with sonic pleasures.
Rhiannon Giddens: Tomorrow Is My Turn, vivascene rating 5 stars
Country music such as you’ve never heard. Rhiannon is classically-trained and better known as the front woman for the neo-stringband group Carolina Chocolate Drops. Here she resurrects tunes long-buried, such as Odessa’s “Waterboy” and the Patsy Cline classic “She’s Got You”, and delivers one tour-de-force after another.
This may well be the one of the few albums from 2015 you’ll still be listening to ten years from now. An astonishing, carefully wrought treasure of a record.
Alabama Shakes: Sound & Colour, vivascene rating 5 stars
Their debut album was nothing short of sensational. Their follow-up is quite its equal. Vocalist Brittany Howard has a voice that once heard is not easily forgotten. The band’s unique sound is garage psych-rock to the extreme, going all out on every track.
The results are not always sublime, but in their faults lie so many virtues that we’re inclined to forgive them almost anything. Alabama Shakes were probably the band most likely to crash and burn the second time around – their debut was so incendiary. Nice to prove such theories wrong.
Joanna Newsom: Divers, vivascene rating 5 stars
The fourth full-length release for the singer-songwriter features the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and arrangements by Nico Muhly and David Longstreth. It’s a meticulous, challenging work of considerable texture and subtlety, exploring the connections between time and love. Echoing melodies throughout the album remind, entrance and haunt the listener long after the audition is over.
Newsom is perhaps the most under-rated recording artist in contemporary music. Her music is absolutely mesmerizing.
Dave Rawlings Machine: Nashville Obsolete, vivascene rating 5 stars
Dave Rawlings is the superb guitar player, who along with his equally superb partner, Gillian, comprise the duo known as Gillian Welch. In this release Rawlings takes the forefront with Gillian accompanying him on vocals. Readers of this publication will know that we view the two of them as sublime Americana performers whose last release, The Harrow and the Harvest, as an Essential recording. This new one, Nashville Obsolete, will most likely enter that hallowed pantheon as well.
Stellar musicianship, extraordinary guitar work from Rawlings, splendid original songs: all are factors that portend this album to be the Americana album of the year.
Julia Holter: Have You In My Wilderness, vivascene rating 5 stars
We’ve saved the best for last. Julia Holter is classically-trained (as is another of our 5 star picks above, Rhianna Giddens) but with a penchant for delivering subtle, restrained passion. Her works are intense and demanding of the listener, and repeated listening is required to yield up their considerable reward.
Julia Holter is the one contemporary songwriter who truly understands the beauty of specifics: the look of clear water, the smell or oranges in a box. In short, she is everything we ask of music, and seldom receive.