How to compare them? They’re apples and oranges — and pears, peaches, lemons, and pineapples, along with some nutritious helpings of vegetables.

To try and rate them in a single list is pretty much pointless…

…unless you perceive this as a way of recommending them to you with different colors of enthusiasm.

Some of these choices represent music that makes me sing along. Some represent albums that challenge me to see the world through the eyes of someone very different than me. Some are expressions of anger and protest that resonate with me; some are confessional in nature; some are acrobatic exercises in “What if?” A few invite me into a state of contemplation, meditation, and even worship.

If you take the time to explore, I suspect you’ll find several you dislike. But I’m even more confident you’ll find several that you like… and maybe even something you love.

Here they are, for whatever they’re worth: My favorite recordings of 2015, based on what I’ve heard so far. (I’m likely to revise this as I catch up with other titles I’ve missed.)

As I did last year, I’ve organized my experiences into three categories. You might call them “Good,” “Great,” and “Greatest” — but that makes me uncomfortable. It takes so much time and attention to have any sense of the greatness in a song or an album. I’m more comfortable categorizing them like this:


Bronze medalists: Runners-up; albums I enjoyed, played several times, and recommended; the mp3s I’m glad I downloaded.


Silver medalists: Albums I played at least once a month this year; the albums that I bought for the home library on CD or vinyl; the records I recommended with giddy enthusiasm.


Gold medalists: Albums I wanted to hear every week; albums I would be happy to own in a variety of formats; albums I would like to put in the trunk of my car so that I can give them away to everyone I know; albums that made a significant difference in my head and heart this year.

Seems like a lot of trouble over a bunch of music, doesn’t it? But that’s how much I love music. I hope you find some new discoveries among these recommendations and expressions of gratitude.

Are you ready?

Part Two — the Silver and Gold Medalists — will be published tomorrow. Here are the runners up.

My Thank-You Notes 

(listed alphabetically by artist)

Aero FlynnAero Flynn – Aero Flynn

Dear Aero Flynn — thank you for scratching my Radiohead itch this year. Clearly, Yorke and Co. are your primary influence; I can draw straight lines from these songs to tracks on Amnesiac and In Rainbows. But you have some excellent melodies, some surprising instrumental interludes, and a full palette of vivid colors to play with. I’d like to hear your lyrics more clearly in the future… and yes, I’ll be in line for your next record.

DecemberistsThe Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World

Dear Decemberists, thanks for another strong and surprising record. There are several strong songs on this one — including “Make You Better,” “Till the Water is All Long Gone” and “Philomena” — but the opening track, “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” is the one that I played loudly and sang along with the most. It also prompted this installment of my “Listening Closer” column… so thanks for the inspiration. You’re still one of my favorite bands, and I can’t wait to see what you do next.

bob dylan shadows in the nightBob Dylan – Shadows in the Night

Thank you, dear poet and teacher, for bringing your voice and style to this salute, lifting up a singer that has never much inspired me and helping me appreciate the craft of songs that he made famous. I’m particularly fond of “I’m a Fool to Want You,” “The Night We Called It A Day” (What a video!), and best of all, “Stay With Me.”

jose jamesJose James – Yesterday I Had the Blues – The Music of Billie Holiday

Thank you, Mr. James, for one of the classiest acts of the year — and one of two memorable celebrations of Holiday’s music (the other from Cassandra Wilson) to mark what would have been Holiday’s 100th birthday. I love “I Thought About You” and “God Bless the Child,” but I’m particularly grateful for your haunting take on “Strange Fruit,” a song that served as a lament in a year when America revealed that it still has a long, long way to go in overcoming the poison of racism.

Readers, check out Thom Jurek’s praise for this record.

lavetteBettye Lavette – Worthy

Whoa, this got 2015 off to a blazing start. Thank you, Great Lady of Soul — and thank you Producer Joe Henry — for such a surprisingly lineup of covers. I played your take on Dylan’s “Unbelievable” over and over again, in disbelief that anybody got around to appreciating the finer points of Under a Red Sky. And to find it on the same record as Mary Gauthier’s recent wonder “Worthy” and Over the Rhine’s landmark track “Undamned” (which you practically reinvented)… this album traces deep scars. You wear them well, and as we listen we discover them within ourselves as well.

lord huronLord Huron – Strange Trails

Thank you, Lord Huron. You have got my attention. Strange Trails is like a soundtrack for a meandering road movie full of stories about lost loves, dangerous wilderness, and zombies. In a weird way, it felt like a Western made some of the same filmmakers who directed Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City. In the opening track, “Love Like Ghosts,” you sing, “There ain’t language for the things I feel.” I disagree. You’ve found it. I love that song, “Dead Man’s Hand,” and “The World Ender.”

your good fortuneMavis Staples – Your Good Fortune

Dear Mavis, oh how you enrich my life. Thanks for this surprising EP, which producer Son Little has polished so that it shines as brightly as your last couple of records with Jeff Tweedy. I love the roughness and energy of these cuts — especially the title track and “Wish That I Had Answered.” You’re a national treasure. Please keep making records. Oh, and thanks too for that other record you made this year, which I’ll talk about much farther up this list…

jazmine sullivanJazmine Sullivan – Reality Show

Thank you, Jazmine Sullivan, for giving me some of this year’s smartest, funniest, boldest R&B lyrics. Others will find that the image of me workday-commute jamming to “Stupid Girl” about as ridiculous as that video of that cop-car officer singing “Shake It Off” — but I confess, it’s happened. I also love the bravado of “#HoodLove.”