The cast recording of the Broadway musical Hamilton is easily the album of the year, selected (and rhapsodically described) by both LJ music contributors Robin Bradford and Steve Kemple as an essential library purchase. Their other selections include pop, rock, classical, jazz, and more.
Halestorm. Into the Wild Life. Atlantic.
I just discovered Halestorm this year thanks to Spotify and listening to a song lead singer Lzzy Hale did with Shinedown. Once you hear her incredible voice, you’ll understand why I had to track down everything else the band had done. The songs are hard rocking, with a healthy dose of female empowerment. “Sick Individual” is full of “you’re not the boss of me” badassery. I’d quote the lyrics here but…it’s a family magazine. Seek it out.
Favorite track: “The Reckoning” probably has my favorite lyrics, though very vivid imagery is evident on all of the tracks, be they party songs or angsty ballads.
Johannes Moser. Dvorak and Lalo: Cello Concertos. Pentatone.
I’m a big fan of classical music and especially love the cello. It had been a while since I’d sought out new performers, however, so I set out to do that this year and happened upon Moser. With this CD, it isn’t just the technical wonder of his playing—although that is something to behold—it’s the feeling in the performance. You can listen to a dozen different cellists, but some performances just speak to you more than others. This one speaks volumes. My favorites among his earlier discs are Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No. 1—Britten: Cello Symphony and Saint-Saens, C.: Cello Concertos Nos. 1 and 2/ Suite in D minor/Allegro Appasionato/The Swan.
Shinedown. Threat to Survival. Atlantic.
I spent a good deal of 2015 waiting for this CD, and after the first single was released, I knew it was worth the wait. From the first moments of hearing Brent Smith’s “CUT” on “Cut the Cord,” the voice is so familiar and welcoming, getting everyone in the mood to rock.
Favorite Track: “Black Cadillac” is a perfect song for driving with the sunroof open and pretending your voice sounds good. This song always gets a repeat play whenever I listen to the CD. And while “Black Cadillac” is my favorite overall song, my favorite lyrics come from “Dangerous”: “I will never be voiceless, my weapon of choice is, I’d rather be dangerous. I won’t be left defenseless, as God as my witness, I’d rather be dangerous.”
Various Artists. Hamilton: Original Broadway Cast Recording. Atlantic.
The cast recording of the musical about the founding of America that has captured the nation’s hearts (and ears) is my favorite. The songs combine Broadway, history, and hip-hop,and are performed in a way that opens all those worlds to people who may not have experienced them before. It’s hard to overstate the skill it takes to write complex songs that retell our nation’s creation myth while also constructing story arcs for multiple characters. Additional information on the songs, including annotations by the show’s composer, writer, lyricist, and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, is available online.
Favorite track: I play “Guns and Ships,” “Cabinet Battle #1,” and “The Room Where It Happens” the most. There is also “What’d I Miss” and “Say No to This.” The song guaranteed to make me cry just thinking about it is “It’s Quiet Uptown,” while the song most likely to get me thrown out for singing along is “Guns and Ships.” It is also the song most likely to get me pumped for work in the morning.
The Weeknd. Beauty Behind the Madness. Republic.
Oh, it’s the dude with the hair! I first heard him on the Fifty Shades of Grey sound track and loved his song “Earned It.” This album is probably more explicit than that book, at least the first half of it. You should probably know that going in if you plan to give it a listen. The second half, from “Can’t Feel My Face” through to the end, should be pretty safe for most listeners.
Favorite Track: “Can’t Feel My Face,” which sounds like vintage Michael Jackson.
Kendrick Lamar. To Pimp a Butterfly. Aftermath.
It’s not merely hyperbole that NPR declared Lamar’s rap magnum opus “music’s great American novel.” To Pimp a Butterfly is dense with stories and ideas that intersect and collide, forcing the listener to make critical evaluations about the world. It follows a single protagonist through a variety of shifting mind-sets from which he raps, which are a vehicle for the narrative. As with James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and, more recently, Ta-Nehesi Coates’s Between the World and Me, the album uses the personal as a vehicle to tell listeners something new and urgent about the larger world.
Sufjan Stevens. Carrie & Lowell. Asthmatic Kitty.
A tender and sparse meditation on family, religion, mental illness, and death, Carrie & Lowell tells the tragic story of Stevens’s mother and stepfather. The listener is invited to consider a narrative told by a son grappling with his estranged mother’s death from stomach cancer. The story is told through fragments of intensely personal memories guided by the singular logic of grief. The music itself is aptly minimal, drawing as much from folk as modern classical arrangements: banjo and voice are ghosted in a pleasantly indistinct haze of sound. It entices the listener to consider larger things.
Various Artists. Hamilton: Original Broadway Cast Recording. Atlantic.
If the idea of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rap Broadway musical about American history seems counterintuitive, consider a study published by fivethirtyeight.com: at 20,520 words in just under two and half hours, Hamilton is by far the most information-dense musical in history, averaging 144 words per minute. The cast recording was exquisitely produced by Questlove and Black Thought from The Roots and has reached number one on Billboard’s Top Rap Albums chart. The show is an adaptation of Ron Chernow’s 818-page biography of Alexander Hamilton, a bit of knowledge worth imparting to the musical’s growing legion of fans.
The Bad Plus/Joshua Redman. The Bad Plus/Joshua Redman. Blue Note.
Sax, piano, upright bass, drums. Just a really solid jazz album.
Beach House. Depression Cherry. Sub Pop.
The latest from the dreamiest of indie dream-pop duos. In many ways, this is a throwback to the earliest Beach House albums; Victoria Legrand’s wispy voice and vintage synth, Alex Scally’s languid guitar, and a drum machine keeping time in a canyon of echo.
eighth blackbird. Filament. Cedille Records.
The star chamber sextet performs new compositions by Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, Son Lux, and Philip Glass.
Father John Misty. I Love You, Honeybear. Sub Pop.
The most surreal thing about soothsayer/folksinger Josh Tillman’s critically acclaimed, weirdly titled album is that it perfectly encapsulates our post–financial crisis world.
Kirk Franklin. Losing My Religion. For Yo Soul Recordings.
The high priest of urban gospel urgently pleads with his trademark charisma for believers to reevaluate their faith.
Gary Peacock Trio. Now This. ECM.
A sparse and thoughtful jazz record, led by legendary Peacock on upright bass. It’s all about the space between the notes.
Tigran Hamasyan and the Yerevan State Chamber Choir. Luys i Luso. ECM.
This gorgeous album overlays ancient and modern Armenian sacred choral music with improvised jazz by Latvian pianist and composer Hamasyan. The result is haunting and unexpected. The liner notes are also worth checking out.
Julia Holter. Have You in My Wilderness. Domino.
Composer, keyboardist, and singer Holter’s third album of dreamy, autumnal pop falls somewhere between the cathedral yearnings of Cocteau Twins and the arty perambulating of Nico.
José James. Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday. Blue Note.
A refined, contemporary crooner’s tribute to one of the greatest jazz singer-songwriters of all time.
James Taylor Quartet and the Rochester Cathedral Mass Choir. The Rochester Mass. Cherry Red.
Imagine a Catholic church where a jazz-funk band jams with the choir. (Also, it’s not that James Taylor.)
Hiatus Kaiyote. Choose Your Weapon. Flying Buddha.
This spaced-out, funked-up, groovy masterpiece by the Australian neo-soul quartet will delight fans of Janelle Monáe, Outkast, and Flying Lotus.
Vesselina Kasarova, Soyoung Yoon, Sinfonieorchester Basel/Ivor Bolton. Of Madness & Love: Works by Hector Berlioz Inspired by William Shakespeare. Sinfonieorchester Basel/Solo Musica.
Describing Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, conductor Leonard Bernstein said, “Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.” This excellent album explores the influence the Bard of Avon exerted on this eccentric 19th-century French composer.
Sunwook Kim, Alban Gerhardt, Wu Wei, Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra/Myung-Whun Chung. Unsuk Chin: 3 Concertos. Deutsche Grammophon.
Three new, vividly imagined concertos by South Korean composer Chin blend traditional Korean instrumentation with a Western symphony orchestra.
Yo-Yo Ma & Kathryn Stott. Songs from the Arc of Life. Sony Classical.
The preeminent cellist virtuoso celebrates his 60th birthday by releasing an album of some of his favorite pieces of music.
Joanna Newsom. Divers. Drag City.
The harpist singer-songwriter culls as much from early period European classical music as she does from American folk and storytelling traditions. Divers puts me in mind of the darkly endearing musings of Merricat in Shirley Jackson’s novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
Oneohtrix Point Never. Garden of Delete. Warp.
Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never, has created one of the most darkly compelling and challenging electronic albums of the year. This is music for the insane world in which we live.
Panda Bear. Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper. Domino.
The solo project of Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox is a mesmerizing internal landscape of day-glo electronic sounds and tightly compacted layers of vocal harmony. It’s the rightful heir to his landmark album Person Pitch.
Max Richter. Sleep. Deutsche Grammophon.
An eight-hour album designed to put the listener to sleep. Sadly, the full eight-hour version is only available on iTunes, but the hour-long excerpt From Sleep is available on CD and via hoopla. A lullaby for our troubled world.
Sleater-Kinney. No Cities To Love. Sub Pop.
A comeback record worthy of one of the most influential rock bands of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Jazmine Sullivan. Reality Show. RCA.
Sullivan might not be as household a name as Beyoncé or Adele, but put Reality Show on for a spin, and you’ll wonder why. If you’re nostalgic for Destiny’s Child and TLC, this is for you.
Tame Impala. Currents. Interscope.
An introverted psychedelic rock band branches out to make one of the most acclaimed indie pop albums of the year.
Various Artists. Nina Revisited…A Tribute to Nina Simone. RCA.
Lauryn Hill, Usher, Robert Glasper, Mary J. Blige, and more celebrate the high priestess of soul.