My Top Albums of 2015

A short list of my favorite releases from 2015.

Bill Frisell Guitar in the Space Age

Technically this one was released in 2014 but I didn’t get around to it until this year so I’m including it here. This is mostly a collection of trippy instrumental covers of the guitar music that influenced Frisell when he was growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s. Songs like “Telstar” and “Surfer Girl.” The album features clean guitar and pedal steel sounds awash in a haze of delay and reverb. I’m not sure everyone would enjoy it, but most guitarists probably will.

Julian Lage Worlds Fair

This is my absolute favorite album of 2015 and will probably become an all-time favorite. I was only peripherally aware of Julian Lage before attending a workshop at Denison University a few years ago. His chops and musicality were breathtaking to be sure and I had sought out his earlier recordings but I wasn’t prepared for this release. An intimately-recorded collection of works for solo acoustic guitar that are stylistically un-classifiable and virtuosic without being pretentious. It’s hard to know how much of the pieces are arranged and how much were improvised since Lage is such a skilled improviser and his playing always sounds so fresh and extemporaneous.

Mark Knopfler Tracker

Knopfler is one of my favorite musicians. I feel like everything about his work is underrated: his singing, his songwriting, and his guitar playing. Although my favorite album of his is the 2004 release Shangri-La – I still love virtually every one of the songs in this collection. I especially love the descending harmonies on the chorus section of “Skydiver,” the journal-like verses of “River Towns,” and the introspective musings of “Lights Of Taormina.”

Tony Bennett & Bill Charlap The Silver Lining

Okay, this is a weird one for me. I have never considered myself a Tony Bennett fan. Not when he was younger and certainly not as he aged and his voice became increasingly warbly. But when I heard this recording I was instantly charmed. Unlike his “Duets” albums that paired him with a different pop star on each song or his 2014 project with Lady Gaga, this is a very understated and casual affair that sounds like you’re sitting about 10 feet from Bennett and pianist Bill Charlap while they run arrangements in a small club. They are occasionally joined by bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington. Charlap’s playing is flawless and serves as a masterclass in accompaniment techniques and classic intros and endings for interested musicians. Bennett sounds perfectly relaxed and much less forced as he seems to when paired with another entertainer. And though it is no less warbly, his vocal quality and phrasing here instill each song with a nostalgic, sage, and melancholy beauty that has inexplicably turned me into a fan.

John Pizzarelli Midnight McCartney

I generally hate – and I do mean hate – hearing jazz covers of songs originally written by pop artists. Jazz musicians usually take so many liberties with the source material that the result ends up sounding barely recognizable or worse. In this case however, the arrangements were written by an artist who grew up actually listening to the songs and clearly loves them. Instead of attempting clever reharmonizations or other devices, the versions here reveal how easily Paul McCartney’s writing transcends stylistic boundaries. Without much alteration other than instrumentation and groove, songs are transformed into breezy bossa novas and lightly swinging pieces ornamented with just a dash of Pizzarelli’s virtuoso guitar playing. Hardcore McCartney fans might still regard the effort as schmaltz but I think this is a great re-imagining of his work that emphasizes the strength of his songwriting.

John Scofield Past Present

Once upon a time – in 1991 to be exact – John Scofield released a fantastic album titled called Meant to Be. Unlike rock groups, jazz artists tend put together different ensembles for each new project so it’s been awhile since the quartet from Meant to Be has been heard from. This release is mostly a sequel to that old record featuring saxophonist Joe Lovano, drummer Bill Stewart, and bassist Larry Grenadier. (Bassist Marc Johnson was on the earlier release.) Scofield and Lovano compliment one another so well that they create a classic combination akin to peanut butter and jelly or bacon and eggs. The first two cuts are still my favorites: “Slinky” featuring a a medium-tempo 5/4 groove and “Chap Dance” that sounds like it might have been influenced by Aaron Copeland.

Tommy Emmanuel It’s Never Too Late

Like every guitar player, I love Tommy Emmanuel. Performing difficult pieces with ease and making easy pieces sound extraordinary, the worst thing I can say about him is that like Superman, he often seems a little too perfect. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing TE play in person several times and while his studio recordings never hold the excitement of his live performances they are always wonderful. My favorite selection from this album is called “Hope Street.”

John Williams Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Not long after Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released, a friend asked: “Where was Williams’ score?” I had to agree that the score was somewhat less noticeable in the film than I seem to recall it being in many of the other films that John Williams had scored, but then again I had seen all of those other movies and listened to their soundtracks dozens of times. After listening to the new soundtrack I was happy to find that there are as many memorable cues as ever. Just as the film has taken familiar environments and events and turned them on their head, Williams has done the same. Many of the old familiar themes are here but at appear only in a deconstructed form or intertwined with new music. New character motifs will likely prove to be memorable as well, especially the playful and mysterious “Rey’s Theme.”

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