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The 12 Best Albums of 2015

Dylan, Isaak, Martin and Madonna are among the artists who had a great year

  • Ragnar Singsaas/Getty Images

    Iris DeMent, 'The Trackless Woods'

    The sixth album by country and folk singer Iris DeMent finds the Arkansas native pushing well past usual homespun boundaries in an intriguing collaboration with the late Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, whose work was censored and destroyed under Stalin. The persecuted writer’s defiance and artistry shine anew through DeMent’s plaintive, moving vocals and unfussy arrangements in songs that strain for optimism against a backdrop of inhumanity.

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    Bob Dylan, 'Shadows in the Night'

    It’s true, Bob Dylan dips into Frank Sinatra’s canon. A concept that struck many as miscalculated proved to be a sound idea on this haunting, bittersweet nod to the American songbook. Ol’ Blue Eyes recorded these 10 standards, but so did loads of other bygone troubadours. The real thread here is Dylan’s affinity for vintage tunes — from That Lucky Old Sun to Some Enchanted Evening. Backed by rustic instrumentation that steers clear of gloss, he fully inhabits every song. 

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    Billy Gibbons and the BFGs, 'Perfectamundo'

    Roughly 47 years into his career, the wily blues-based singer-guitarist for ZZ Top delivers his solo debut, fusing some of that Texas trio’s muddy mojo to Latin strains from salsa to cha-cha. The Afro-Cuban bent isn’t that far-fetched, considering Gibbons once studied percussion under Tito Puente. And the departure is no betrayal of his roots. Gibbons’ familiar twangy growl and swamp-monster guitar licks steer the agenda, preventing the jazzy Latin grooves from drifting toward pop fluff.  

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    Patty Griffin, 'Servant of Love'

    Her reputation long cemented as a sterling singer-songwriter in folk and Americana, Patty Griffin faces each new album with the challenge of matching her last. On Servant of Love, she raises the bar to explore fresh sonic turf, from Arabic strains to jazz and gospel. Emotionally evocative vocals remain her strength on love songs steeped in worry and regret, but she brings simmering fury to Good and Gone, about a police shooting, and determined optimism to Shine a Different Way.

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    Chris Isaak, 'First Comes the Night'

    A master of smoldering desire and inconsolable heartache, Chris Isaak continues to mine those obsessions on his 13th studio album, his first in six years. While Isaak’s familiar charm, clever wordplay and creamy tenor shine throughout First Comes the Night, age has brought an appealing grit to his honeyed vocals, lending depth and darkness to such tunes as Kiss Me Like a Stranger and Please Don’t Call. When he isn’t the pining choirboy, Isaak cuts loose and cracks wise in standouts Insects and Running Down the Road.

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    Bettye LaVette, 'Worthy'

    In 2005, more than four decades after cutting her first record, soulful diva Bettye LaVette wowed fans and critics with I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, a powerful covers album of tunes penned by female songwriters. Worthy finds the Detroit native revisiting that formula, teaming again with producer Joe Henry on diverse remakes that underscore her titanic chops and interpretive gifts. The 11-track set ranges from a sensual, jazzy version of Bob Dylan’s Unbelievable to a radically retooled bluesy twist on the Beatles’ Wait

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    Madonna, 'Rebel Heart'

    Rebel Heart refers to Madonna’s dual impulses as provocateur and romantic, both amply indulged in a messy but fascinating collection of tunes that plug and plunder her earlier works. The pop icon is defiant, confessional, passionate, brazen, occasionally reflective and rarely nuanced as she explores familiar themes of lost love and self-empowerment. At 57, she’s aging with ungraceful belligerence. Listen for cameos from Kanye West, Nicki Minaj and — wait for it — Mike Tyson.

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    Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, 'So Familiar'

    Stand-up’s wild and crazy guy has pulled off an implausible transformation, evolving into a serious and respectable musician who’s now racking up his second impressive collaboration with singer Edie Brickell. So Familiar’s chief charms lie in the duo’s warmth, chemistry and understated delivery on moody, rootsy smartly crafted originals. They join voices on the engaging I Have You, a touching departure from their surefooted balancing act of Martin on banjo and Brickell on vocals.

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    James McMurtry, 'Complicated Game'

    James McMurtry, son of novelist Larry McMurtry, puts his yarn-spinning genes to good use in dark tales on Complicated Game, an acoustic Americana masterwork and his first album since 2008’s politically caustic Just Us Kids. This time, the singer-songwriter leaves protest tunes behind for more personal narratives. He flaunts his guitar chops on rock stomper How’m I Gonna Find You Now, but most of the dozen tracks keep the focus on McMurtry’s rich literary talents.

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    Boz Scaggs, 'A Fool to Care'

    Two years after 2013’s tribute album, Memphis, Boz Scaggs resurfaces with A Fool to Care. The 12-track collection, mostly R&B covers, showcases Scaggs’ interpretive mastery and soulful vocals, which have lost none of their power since he struck chart gold with ’70s classics  Lowdown and Lido Shuffle. The highlights feature female duet partners: Bonnie Raitt on blues original Hell to Pay and Lucinda Williams on Richard Manuel’s Whispering Pines.

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    James Taylor, 'Before This World'

      Before This World won’t surprise DJs or alarm city fathers or incite twerkers. After all, it’s a James Taylor album. Sometimes that’s all you need. Even as his material has grown a bit predictable and stale, the granddaddy of mellow pop remains one of the music world’s most respected singer-songwriters, and he reaffirms that status on his first album of new songs in 13 years.

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    Dwight Yoakam, 'Second Hand Heart'

    The neo-hillbilly hipster loudly and heartily reminds country music ranks that there’s still room for raucous honky tonk and that he’s the guy to deliver the goods. At 59, Yoakam evokes the same swagger and muscle that drew notice when he shared bills in rowdy L.A. clubs with X, Los Lobos and the Blasters. He brings that winning rock ’n’ twang approach to a host of sharp originals and a souped-up rendition of Man of Constant Sorrow.

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