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Eric’s Top Albums of 2015

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Another year nearly over means another album of the year list! Our Managing Editor and Senior Photographer, Eric Riley, has compiled a list of his favorite albums of 2015. To see which albums made the cut, check out the list below!

Honorable Mentions:
Sara Bareilles –  What’s Inside: Songs From Waitress
Spose – Why Am I So
Happy?
Adele – 25

20. Ryan Adams, 1989
Much like I did a few years ago with Lights’ Acoustic, I feel like leaving reimagined/rereleased/retold albums
near the beginning of the list is fair. There are a few renditions here that give
Swift a run for her money – the soft, whimpering transformation of what is my
favorite from the original 1989, “Out
of the Woods,” stands out as another favorite here, while the dreary “Blank
Space” turns Swift’s original on its head.While Adams’ version is an entirely new piece of work, I’m
wary to truly rank it. Let the discussions on that begin, I suppose.


19.
The Airborne Toxic Event, Dope Machines
As a huge fan of 2013’s Such Hot Blood, I was excited when I heard news of another album
and expected big things for the follow-up. While the album is far from perfect,
it offers a lot to be enjoyed. Opening with “Wrong,” the record starts on
sturdy legs, and the sunny “California” soon keeps things moving well. “Hell
and Back” is as close to a trademark TATE song as you could ask for, with dual
vocals leading the way. All that’s missing are Anna Bulbrook’s strings, and
where this song hits just barely outside of the bullseye, finale “Chains”
closes the record in perfect form.


18. The Ballroom Thieves, A Wolf in the Doorway 
The Ballroom Thieves were chosen as the
local opener for one of the May dates on Boston Calling this year, and anyone
who showed up early enough to catch them was treated to something special. The
Boston-based trio roared through the plaza, and their massive sound
impressively translates over to the album. Each member loans a distinct voice
to the music, and on tracks like “Oars to the Sea” or “Bullet” (which can be
downloaded for free on our Winter Compilation, a link will be on our site), the
various styles each have a chance to stand out.


17. August Burns Red, Found
in Far Away Places
Leaving August Burns Red in a spot that hardly cracks
the Top 20 seems odd, and I’ll admit it feels a bit strange. The ranking is
much less of a comment on them, but more of a further compliment to the albums
placed next. When it comes down to it, August Burns Red are one of the best
metal bands in the game, and their first Grammy nomination for Found in Far Away Places is
well-deserved and long overdue.


16. The Maine, American
Candy
The Maine continue to grow as one of the most consistent, well-rounded
pop/rock bands within the scene. One of those who were able to successfully
shed their neon of the mid-2000’s, American
Candy
is sweet addition to an already impressive catalog. (And with the
amount of Diet Coke that is usually running through me, I’m fairly sure “Diet
Soda Society” will be the title of my memoir.)


15. MC Lars, The
Zombie Dinosaur LP
Between seeing him in concert, talking to him about his
upcoming projects, and reviewing* this new album, I had a lot to say about MC
Lars over the summer – being one of the coolest, most genuine people in the
music scene, as well as putting out one of the most fun hip-hop records of the
year, meant all of these things were positive. The Zombie Dinosaur LP is a frantic, fast-paced romp through pop
culture, picking up as many books, movies, and shows as it can along the way.
Not everything is fun and games, however – Lars opens his mind and clears the
air with people from his past on closer “Triforce,” one of his best works
to-date. Whether it’s The Simpsons, Game of Thrones, Roger Rabbit, internet
dating tips, or an undead T-Rex tearing through the Bay Area, this album may literally have it all. 

* For a full write up of The Zombie
Dinosaur LP
, click here!


14. The Early November, Imbue
2015 was such a huge year for music, to the point where I almost neglected one
of my favorite bands releasing some of their best work. Ace Enders has always
been one of the most consistent songwriters around, with the uncanny ability to
write a new album almost annually without sacrificing quality. Their shortest
release (10 tracks) since the For All of
This EP
(8), Imbue gets the job
done in less time than usual. Sharper than ever, The Early November have been
continuing to get better ever since their reunion a few years ago, and it’s
safe to say that, with Enders’ unwavering pen and the hiatus’ dust fully shaken
off, much more is still to come.


13. Demi Lovato, Confident
Demi Lovato has always been that guilty pleasure of mine. Though, in this case,
rather than the “guilty” part, I just openly, constantly, shamelessly talk
about the pleasure part. Starting off as one of the faces in a crowd on a
roster of singing Disney actors and actresses, Lovato has clawed her way out of
that, becoming a genuine pop sensation along the way. On Confident, Lovato addresses her critics (“Confident”), her
doubters, her internal demons (“Old Ways”), facing them head-on and showing
them who is in control.

Like she says, what’s wrong with being confident?


12. Elle King, Love Stuff
If “Ex’s and Oh’s” is all you’ve heard from Elle King, you should
know you spent a year missing out on one of 2015’s breakout stars. Love Stuff is alt-country/pop with a
Southern touch, and King’s voice is a perfect fit. Where the aforementioned
single is one of, like, six songs on the radio at the moment, tracks like
“Jackson” and “Under the Influence” are more than worthy of the same airwave
presence, while “America’s Sweetheart” is one of the best, catchiest songs I
heard all year and one that finds itself on endless repeat. King hasn’t been in
the musical spotlight for long, but it has been a big year for her and I’m
hoping it’s not too long of a wait until we hear more from her.


11. Greg Holden, Chase
the Sun
Finding a new artist is always fun. Finding a new artist that
takes any expectations and blows them out of the water is way better. Chase the Sun is an album that came
along pretty early in the year, and right away it was one I knew would find a
spot on the list, it was merely a matter of where. After the first few plucked
notes and keys of the introductory “Hold On Tight,” I was intrigued, then the
first booming chorus had me hooked. Holden’s voice soars through the speakers,
and over the span of a dozen (well, eleven, whatever) songs, he doesn’t let up.
The upbeat pieces are fun and catchy, and when he slows things down, his
ballads are soft, sincere, and breathtaking. “Go Chase the Sun” relies on his
crooning voice and gentle piano, while the simple strum of acoustic guitar
backs the spectacular “Boys in the Street.” Holden’s songwriting and
musicianship are both on display throughout Chase
the Sun
, and given the right push, we could see him thrown into the same
rotations as Ed Sheeran or Gavin Degraw etc. etc. etc. Holden could be a
household name, and Chase the Sun
deserves to take him there.


10. Fall Out Boy, American Beauty / American Psycho
I’ll
be the first to admit that, on first listen, I wasn’t the biggest fan of this
album. And I know I’m not alone in saying that – from message boards to concert
lines, the first few listens brought mixed reviews for many. But, as Fall Out
Boy do as well as anyone, they make music that both demands and deserves
further attention. Sure, there were the instant standouts (“Novocaine,”
“Favorite Record”) and the radio-ready, stadium-filling singles (“Centuries,”
“Uma Thurman”), and then there were the ones that felt like Pete Wentz came up
to you and personally hit you in the gut. Stump’s vocal power and range, (which
somehow continue to grow) take the writing on “Jet Pack Blues” and “The Kids
Aren’t Alright” and churn out a pair of the band’s strongest tracks. Even on
ones that I was almost entirely turned off to originally, like the title track
or “Twin Skeletons,” you soon come around and gain further evidence to support
that even when they aren’t at their highest, they’re still better than most,
and that doesn’t seem to be ending any time soon.


9. Frank Turner, Positive Songs for Negative People
Much
of what has been said about Frank Turner’s latest is something along the lines
of “if 2013’s Tape Deck Heart was the
breakup record, Positive Songs for
Negative People
is the comeback.” It keeps getting said because it’s very
true. Right away, the first two tracks following the opener are in-your-face
resurgence – “Get Better” is all about doing just that, and “The Next Storm”
assure you that even the darkest of clouds and the heaviest of rains will pass
– don’t wait inside for the storms to start again, go celebrate the sun while
it’s out.

To say the album is about optimism is redundant (hence the
title), but it should still be mentioned, because what the album does is remind
you that just staying positive is an important weapon.

For anyone who has gone through a hardship, take a page from
Frank’s songbook – open the shutters, raise up the mast; rejoice, rebuild, the
storm has passed.


8. Melanie Martinez,
Cry Baby
Everyone knows I’m a
sucker for a concept album. Pretty sure any time one comes along, I start off
by saying “everyone knows I’m a sucker for a concept album.” That being said
(over and over, actually), this year Melanie Martinez gave us Cry Baby, a substance-soaked sex-stroll
through your childhood storybooks – drinking syrup out of sippy cups, being
stalked during a game of tag, dolls coming to life behind your back and
spilling family secrets, sex is no scarier than taking off your training wheels,
Mrs. Potato Head has an addiction to plastic surgery and Alice needed some
stronger medication. The sample of Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” used in the
chorus of “Pity Party” is infectious, and also acts as a generational gap,
bringing a song from her parents’ childhood into the character’s life. Cry Baby found its way to the top of the
Alternative charts this year, and rightfully so. On the surface, it’s bright bubblegum
pop waiting to be eaten up. Deeper down, it’s flowing with drugs, abuse,
infidelity, insecurity, instability, and violence; a dark, disturbed peek beyond
the perfect family portrait.


7. Bring Me the
Horizon, That’s the Spirit
It’s
getting to the point where I’m almost frustrated by what Bring Me the Horizon
can do. Suicide Season was brutal and
aggressive, There Is A Hell… was a
monumental shift forward in the band’s sound and style, Sempiternal turned them into a global superpower, and That’s the Spirit continues their
pursuit of world domination. Early on in their career, I enjoyed BMTH because
they were very good at being very loud and heavy. With each album since,
they’ve grown and molded themselves into a force to be reckoned with. Oli Sykes
has managed to truly harness the power within his voice, showcasing what he can
do on “Throne,” the roaring “Drown” and the soft ode “Follow You.” That’s the Spirit has them delivering at
full force, picking up steam with every step and deserving every ounce of fame
and admiration they have received.


6. HALSEY, BADLANDS 
For as long as I have been
following music, I can honestly say that I don’t think I have ever seen an
artist make a debut like Halsey. In May, three months before her first record
was even released, she played a 1:00 set at Boston Calling (the third act of
the day) to a crowd that would make a headliner blush. That summer, she played
to a full crowd at Lollapalooza, still without an album on the shelves. By the
time BADLANDS was released at the end
of August, she was a pop superstar. And rightfully so.

On her website, you will only find three short sentences
written under her “Bio” section: “I am Halsey. I will never be anything but
honest. I write songs about sex and being sad.” And that is exactly what she
offers – honest, open music about the taboos others may be too bashful to write
on. An autobiography of sex, drugs, cigarettes, liquor, and heartbreak, BADLANDS
was probably the most fun you had this summer. If you need further
description of what you’ll get, I always give people the same answer: I say her
music is “dirty, sexy heist music,” and that seems to get some decent approval.

Grab a ski mask and your best outfit and press play.


5. Marina and the
Diamonds, FROOT
With the Electra Heart era coming to its end, a
lot of the Diamonds out there were wondering what Marina would do next. What
followed was FROOT, a sugar-sweet neon
dance party that showed that even the worst of homewreckers can still have a
bit of heart. Where Electra Heart
opens with the brash & bratty “Bubblegum Bitch,” FROOT starts with “Happy,” a bold piano ballad that plays to the
other side of her emotions – rather than going out and looking for fun, she
finds solace in herself. If the opening track makes you wonder if this record
is heading into new territories, the small bass rumble that kicks off “FROOT”
quickly shakes that away as Diamandis’ voice dances in. Much of FROOT is written on things like love and
sex and all that good stuff, with Diamandis’ confidence often shining through. In
other places, she deals with darker concepts – the state of humanity (“Savages,”
written following the attacks on the Boston Marathon) and uncertainty and the
past popping back up again (“Weeds”). The first time around, I wasn’t really as
much of a fan of FROOT as I was after
Electra Heart’s first spin, or so I
thought. The more and more I listened, each song became better and better.
While they may not have been as radio-ready as “How to Be A Heartbreaker” or
“Homewrecker,” the substance and strength of the newer works brought Marina to
the next level and FROOT has hardly
left my stereo since.


4. twenty one pilots,
blurryface
Listening through blurryface, I’m sure I’m not the only
one who kind of worries about Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun…

When “Fairly Local” was first released, we got our first
taste of what was to come from the duo, and we were not disappointed. It was
darker than anything they had done, with eerie atmosphere and a haunting video
to boot. “Tear In Your Heart”, “Ride,” and “Stressed Out” have given them
mainstream success (the latter landing them their first #1), but the real gems
are the … less typical pieces. “Doubt,” with its horror film score and echoed
chorus, is a favorite, and the trumpets in “Not Today” are just cheesy enough
to be a perfect fit (and make it my favorite on the record). Grand finale
“Goner” is one that I still can only handle on my worst days, which is saying
something after five months of being exposed to it.

One of the darker, emotional albums you heard this year, hiding the pain
beneath the bright pianos, upbeat tempos, and plucky ukulele did exactly what
it was meant to – relate, with listeners realizing that the worst of us is
often given a separate face.


3. The Wonder Years,
No Closer to Heaven
Another year, another beautiful project from the pen of Dan
Campbell. Last year, Campbell’s solo work with Aaron West and the Roaring
Twenties landed him in fifth place, and I handed The Greatest Generation the bronze in 2013, so The Wonder Years
finding themselves within the top five is no surprise. On No Closer to Heaven, TWY released what, arguably, is their
strongest effort to date. Whether it’s the songwriting, the production, the
instrumentation, or how well it translates into their live show, the album
delivers on every level. While opener “Brothers &” melts into lead single
“Cardinals,” there’s a soft, haunting feel to start the record before the first
chorus kicks you in the teeth. “Cigarettes & Saints” is so brilliant that
it hurts, and much like Generation’s
finale “I Just Want to Sell Out My Funeral,” choruses find themselves repeated
and reworked throughout various parts of the album, threading themes and
connections between songs across the album. It’s a writing choice that I
admired last time, and is equally effective this time around.

I say this with no exaggeration – at the moment, I think you
would have a hard time finding a better all-around band than The Wonder Years.
And what is even more impressive is that they continue to, somehow, get better
and better.


2. CHVRCHES, Every Open Eye
Part of the reason Every Open Eye finds itself in the
runner-up spot is because I purchased it blindly. I had just seen the band
perform the night before, had heard some great things about the album, and
found the vinyl for pretty cheap (and the cover was pretty, if I’m being
totally honest). Secondly, it’s marvelous. I probably should have started with
that. Lauren Mayberry’s vocals are razor-sharp from start to finish, and every
hook on the album is better than the last. If any one of these songs were on
any other album, it would be that album’s best chorus or hook. This makes
choosing one from this record very
difficult. But, if push came to shove, “Clearest Blue” would get my vote for Every Open Eye’s standout. Clocking in
at just under four minutes, the first fifty percent of the song is buildup
before eventually dropping off into the catchiest burst on the album. (Full
disclosure: this record should come with a warning label – I was running while
listening to this song and I almost got hit by a bicycle because I was too busy
dancing to the drop. So, listen at your own risk.) On Martin Doherty’s sole
vocal track, “High Enough to Carry You Over,” he plays the role well, dividing
up the album and breaking apart any monotony or repetition that could occur.

There was a third reason why Every Open Eye found itself in second place. It wasn’t anything
that the album did wrong, in fact, any other year, it would have won the top
spot. There was just one album that it couldn’t overshadow.


1. HAMILTON, ORIGINAL
CAST RECORDING
So here we are – the soundtrack to a Broadway show is
getting my Album of the Year. Simply put, the fact that it was hands-down the
best release of 2015 earned it the #1 spot, but if you need more, I’m going to
give you a whole bunch of reasons, so
buckle up.

Music fans are fickle. We want new, we want creative, we
want things we’ve never heard before but we want it to be familiar and we want
all of it all the time. As oxymoronic and impossible as that all sounds, Hamilton gives you all of that and then
some. A play adapted from the biography of a historical figure – not a
groundbreaking feat. A hip-hop musical based on the life and death of Alexander
Hamilton, with each Founding Father’s role, as well as any other principal
character (with the exception of Jonathan Groff as King George) played by a
person of color – that’s where things get a bit innovative. I’m sure that had
something to do with writer/lyricist/composer/star Lin-Manuel Miranda being awarded
a MacArthur Genius Grant this year.  

I could go on for much longer than necessary about this, so
I’m going to try and organize a few bullet points rather than go on a
longwinded rant.
– historically, the Cabinet meetings between Hamilton and
Thomas Jefferson regarding the National Bank turned vicious and often violent.
Miranda’s concept of turning these meetings on the soundtrack into extended rap
battles is incredible, and both are executed perfectly, with sharp wit, harsh
words, and just enough dissing to make things personal.

– “Wait For It”  and
“Dear Theodosia” are beautiful, soulful moments that could stand on their own
outside of the confines of the show.

–  the war scenes, “Guns
and Ships,” “Right Hand Man,” “Yorktown,” and “Stay Alive” are intense, brutal
and, more importantly and impressively, historically accurate. “Stay Alive”
leads into “Ten Duel Commandments,” a bulleted list of guidelines used to
settle feuds when words didn’t work.

– The idea behind the show itself – a hip-hop musical about
Alexander Hamilton – could have become nothing but nonsense. When Miranda first
discussed his concept, he explained how Hamilton was the epitome of hip-hop
culture – an orphaned child who never knew his father, who pulled himself up by
his bootstraps and worked to get to the top, facing any obstacle or opponent
head-on, taking names and leaving plenty of notches in his bedpost along the
way, eventually dying in a shootout and leaving a legacy. Sounds as hip-hop as
it can get.

– At one point, it was the #1 rap album on the Billboard
charts.

– That being said, the rhymes and lyrics throughout the show
are stellar, and each cast member delivers the performance of a career. Both of
the aforementioned Cabinet Battles are brilliant, “Satisfied,” “The Reynolds
Pamphlet,” and “The Adams Administration” showcase what some of the more minor
characters can do, and the best line in the show, arguably, comes during
“Washington On Your Side,” when Jefferson and Aaron Burr shout “show these
Federalists what they’re up against, SOUTHERN MOTHERFUCKING DEMOCRATIC
REPUBLICANS.”

Okay. I think I’ve talked enough about this. If you haven’t
listened to this show, I’m hoping this will give you enough reason to do so,
and if you have listened to it
before, you can confirm everything I’ve said.

It’s a masterpiece, in the simplest form of the word.

When Miranda first debuted his idea in 2009, at the White
House Evening of Poetry, Music, and Spoken Word, he performed a rough version
of what would become the opening track “Alexander Hamilton,” which received an
applauding response, but not before some misplaced laughter. In the video footage,
you can see Miranda clench his lip and grip his microphone harder with each
muffled laugh, but he finishes his performance, and six years later, Hamilton is the biggest, most successful
show Broadway has seen in a long, long time.

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