Best of 2015 … Big names

‘Tis the season to divulge one’s end-of-year lists. Here’s part 1: Great albums by big names.

Big names often disappoint. Oh, how I once looked forward to the latest release from Sting. Well, in an alternate universe anyway. Sometimes, though, the big artists continue to deliver great work. Here’s a selection from 2015. (Spoiler alert: Adele is not included in the following list.)

Neil Young + Promise of the Real – The Monsanto Years

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Following Neil Young is like being on a rollercoaster ride. After a couple of duds – Storytone, A Letter Home – he came back with a scorcher. A little preachy, to be sure. But with some fine tunes and playing that hits the heights of the great Crazy Horse, The Monsanto Years was so good it almost made me want to eat GMO food. Did I miss something?

Björk – Vulnicura

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I shall lay my heart bare. Indeed, I shall portray it as such on the cover of my album. There wasn’t much subtext on Björk’s album, but it was certainly raw and confessional. This was a Björk sans affectation, sans happening, sans the usual Björk. And all the better for that.

Don Henley – Cass County

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Don Henley isn’t a huge name in his own recording right, but the point is that he delivered a really nice album this year. The version of Tift Merrit’s ‘Bramble Rose’ was worth the price of admission on its own. Overall, there was a sense of an artist who wasn’t afraid to show that he was in the latter stages of his career. That’s refreshing. Especially when the tunes are as good as these.

Ryan Adams – 1989

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In my world, Ryan Adams is the biggest artist. This year he surprised us with a full cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989. Great cover songs transform the originals. And here was a whole album of same. It raised the idea of Taylor Swift covering Heartbreaker in its entirety. Oh be still my beating heart.

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Five reasons why Ryan Adams’ cover of 1989 is an instant classic

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Unable to listen to anything other than Ryan Adams’ cover of 1989 over the last couple of days, I got to thinking why I like it so much. Here’s five reasons I came up with:

  1. Because the trick of all great cover songs is that the new version transforms the well-known one, creating something genuinely original and Ryan Adams manages to pull off this trick no fewer than thirteen times;
  2. Because we’re reminded that even though they’re now all smothered in pop, Taylor Swift is still a great songwriter who pens poignant relationship songs that are up there with the best of them;
  3. Because it sounds like a 100 per cent bona fide Ryan Adams album and one that’s pretty much as good as anything he’s ever done, which is saying something;
  4. Because listening to a man singing songs written about a woman’s experience plays nicely with gender roles, even when the pronouns are sometimes changed around;
  5. Because it puts 1989 back on Spotify!

The five best Ryan Adams releases

What only five? Surely it’s impossible to choose just five from so many great releases? Well, it’s been difficult alright. But here goes. In reverse order.

Ryan Adams & The Cardinals – Cold Roses

Chock full of great songs and with the Cardinals at their peak, what could be better? Well, maybe the next four.

Ryan Adams – Gold

Ah, the big time.

Ryan Adams – 29

The third release in a single calendar year. Predictably ignored by the record company. This is a real treasure.

Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker

Neither the first nor the last argument concerning Morrissey, I’d wager.

Ryan Adams – Love Is Hell Pt. 2

Not being the greedy sort, I’m happy with just Pt. 2. For now.

They shall be reviewed

Here are some albums released in 2014 that slipped through the review net.

Lydia Loveless – Somewhere Else

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Wouldn’t it be great if Tom Petty had a guitar-toting younger sister who was invited to play a set at the CMAs. It ain’t gonna happen. So in the meantime, enjoy the album by Lydia Loveless. She sounds like Tom Petty’s guitar-toting younger sister playing a set at the CMAs. And with plenty of cussing.

Caitlin Harnett – The River Runs North

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Australian Caitlin Harnett recorded her debut album in Canada. There’s a definite Joni Mitchell vibe, but at times she sounds uncannily like Laura Marling. With Kathleen Edwards featuring on her album, it’s an impressive set of influences and a really strong collection of songs.

Sam Amidon – Lily-O

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Another fine outing from Mr Beth Orton. Reaching deep into the folk catalogues of various countries, Sam Amidon refashions them in his own image. Designed to get your fingers tapping and to realise that the past wasn’t always a better place.

Kevin Morby – Still Life

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Memorable tunes and slightly off-kilter lyrics. That’s always a good combination and on his second album Kevin Morby delivered more of the same. Note to KM’s manager. Release his albums earlier in the year and they’ll feature on more year-end, best-of lists.

Ryan Adams

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It’s hard to be disappointed with any Ryan Adams album. And his self-titled 2014 release wasn’t a total disappointment, but it didn’t quite hit the mark either. There were fewer jaw-dropping chord changes. Fewer tunes that were instant classics. But it did feature Johnny Depp on ‘Kim’.