Before we return to the countdown — two things:

One: Did you see my list of “runners-up” albums that I enjoyed in 2015? For each one, I’ve linked to some favorite tracks. If you check with me in a few hours, I might change my mind and promote some of these on the list.

Two: I should take this opportunity to thank my friend Andrew Peterson, whose record release concert in Nashville for The Burning Edge of Dawn was one of the musical highlights of my year.

IMG_0885Andrew celebrates what Andrew loves, and this album is an outpouring of his devotion to faith and family through hard times. It belongs among my “Enthusiastic Fan Letters,” but I want to give it special recognition here because of how Peterson took it to another level live. He surrounded himself with family and friends, as eager for us to experience their visions and talents as he was to share his own.

So… Andrew, thank you! Thank you for a beautiful community experience. I’ve rarely seen such humility and generosity on a stage. Where most rock stars look for opportunities to have their own work lifted up, he used this opportunity to lift up others, to invite them to weave their work into his own, and then to work with them to take his own songs to new heights.

I talked with him about it after the show, and I recorded our conversation. You can listen to it here, in my “Listening Closer” column. I hope you enjoy it.

As I said before, I’ve organized my listening experiences into three categories. You might call them “Good,” “Great,” and “Greatest” — but that doesn’t feel right to me. 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:


We’ve covered this in Part One of this series.


Consider these the Silver Medalists; the 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.

Are you ready?

Time to meet the silver and gold medalists.

Enthusiastic Fan Letters


burningedgeof dawn

Andrew Peterson – The Burning Edge of Dawn

I’m biased on this one, as Andrew has become a personal friend, and I am close to the community in which he crafted this album. But I can say without doubt that it is a record full of sincerity, warmth, prayers, and love. To hear it is to hear the heart of a songwriter who loves his God, his family, his friends, and his audience. And while he is prone to making things epic — he is a fantasy novelist, too — his strongest moments come when he writes about the particular and the personal. And anyway, how could I not get excited about a record that has a song inspired by Thomas Merton?


belle and sebastian cover

Belle and Sebastian – Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance

Dear Belle and Sebastian,

Forgive me — I’m so late to your party. I’ve enjoyed your music in the past, but sometimes I find that a particular artist’s work won’t quite take hold of me until something it takes a mysterious turn… either in my experience, my readiness, my attention, or in the music itself. Suddenly, something clicks.

When I listened to this record, something clicked. I found my way into the lyrics of a song, and from that point on the record started opening up. And what I found was positively cinematic — a whole film festival of short films from a singular imagination.

Thanks for the storytelling, the humor, the variety, the contagious beats, and the strong sense of personal revelation here. “Nobody’s Empire” was the one the really opened up for me first, and I had to go digging to know the story that inspired it. That prompted me to write this installment of “Looking Closer.”

Readers, for a proper review, I refer you to Stephen Thomas Erlewine.


Remembering Mountains

Remembering Mountains: Unheard Songs by Karen Dalton – Various Artists

Dear Karen Dalton,

I’ve never known your music before. But this loving, haunting, and unusually cohesive record of tribute performances is about as strong a salute as any various-artists records I’ve heard in recent years. I suspect that you’d be moved by the imagination and the admiration evident in these interpretations and performances.

It sent me to read a variety of reviews just to learn more about you, like this one at Pitchfork by Amanda Petrusich. This helped me appreciate what inspired so much mysterious, soulful goodness.

I love so many of these artists, and what they contribute here is so much more than just a gesture of recognition: Lucinda Williams, Sharon Van Etten, Patty Griffin — and especially the tracks by Julia Holter and Laurel Halo.


then came the morningThe Lone Bellow – Then Came the Morning

Dear Lone Bellow,

Then Came the Morning is a strong follow-up to your debut release. No sophomore slump here. These are soulful, passionate anthems about finding hope in the midst of hardship, heartbreak, and poverty — and they have the ring of experience. So either you’re great actors, or you’ve been through some serious hell and lived to tell of it.

I love your opening track with its testimony of Easter glory, of resurrection, of transformation at the rising of the sun. You guys practically set fire to the stage when you played it on Late Night with David Letterman.

But my favorites are “Take My Love” and “Watch Over Us” (although when it comes to video versions, I like this live take on it).


GleanThey Might Be Giants – Glean

Dear They Might Be Giants,

I’ve been listening since your very first release. And I always have a great time. But it’s been a long time since 1994’s John Henry, your strongest rock record, one that rivaled your pop masterpiece — 1990’s Flood. And, for these ears, nothing has sounded likely to reach that kind of classic status.

But lo… Glean feels like a sequel to John Henry. It has some of the best musicianship, some of the most unshakeable hooks, and some of the funniest stuff you’ve ever recorded. I knew you still had it in you. And hey, if you can still have this much inspiration and fun, you give me hope for my own creative work.

Thank you especially for “Good to Be Alive,” “Music Jail, Pt. 1 & 2,” “I Can Help the Next in Line,” and — best of all — “Aaa.”


from kinshasaMbongwana Star – From Kinshasa

Dear Coco Ngambali, Theo Nsituvuidi, and the rest of Mbongwana Star,

I know next to nothing about Congolese music. And I never heard your work in the band Staff Benda Bilili. This is my introduction to your work. And it’s leading me to reviews that help me begin to understand where it comes from and what it’s about.

Most of what I know about present-day Congo… well, it’s a litany of horrors, loss, and desperate acts of survival.

So I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that a band from Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, would make music that sounds like a community defiant, determined to live and live fully, ablaze with an energy that sounds capable of catapulting them from a troubled past into a promising future. It’s inspiring stuff. I am grateful for the huge, hopeful, and downright celebratory sounds throughout this record.

For those of you interested in learning the people, the history, and the story behind this album, here’s an excellent, detailed profile of Mbongwana Star at The Guardian.


innocence mission helloThe Innocence Mission – Hello I Feel the Same 

Dear Don and Karen Peris and Mike Bitts,

Thank you for yet another beautiful book of poetry, set to such radiant music, which I will add to my large library of your work. You are an essential part of my life’s soundtrack. And it seems that Karen’s writing continues to evolve, deepening into even more subtle and evocative poetry.

I’m only beginning to explore this record, but I’m particularly taken with “When the One Flowered Suitcase.” It inspired this installment of “Listening Closer.”



Bjork – Vulnicura

Dear Bjork,

Your longtime partner must have known that if he broke your heart, he was going to hear about it — in song. And while I would never wish you harm, I must say that your loss has opened up a place for something wild and extraordinary to grow. You have shaped your suffering into an unforgettable opera of anguish, anger, longing, and hope — and in doing so you suggest that healing has already begun, and that it can find its fruition in your audience.

This is nothing less than heroic work. Thank you for it.

I love the opening track best. It inspired me to write this edition of “Listening Closer.”


GrimesGrimes – Art Angels

Dear Claire Boucher,

Surprise after surprise after surprise — where is this stuff coming from? It’s too insane to be labeled as mere “pop.” Whatever it is, it’s the most fun my headphones have had all year. And I’m not sure it should be legal.

Take care of yourself, Grimes. I want to see a long career full of wild imagination unfold.

Thanks for these jack-in-the-boxes of creativity. I don’t claim to know what “Scream” is about — Mandarin rap isn’t exactly my go-to genre of music. But I love the noise of it.

And the first track that I heard is my favorite at this point. I first heard it on All Songs Considered, and it made my day:


sound and color

Alabama Shakes – Sound and Color

Thank you, Alabama Shakes!

This album is so much more ambitious, adventurous, and forceful than I’d anticipated. You could have noticed how much your audience loved your first record’s retro Southern soul, and just gone on drawing from that deep well. Instead, you took your strengths with you and put down roots into something wilder, stranger, and even more exciting.

This is what gets my attention while I’m listening to new music — obvious talent that isn’t content to give listeners what they want, but ventures outside of formulas and comfort zones in search of something we have never heard before, something revelatory. That happened here.

I’m still fairly new to this record, but it is heating up my cold winter days. I’m grateful. And I have a feeling that you, too, are only getting started. Thanks for staying true to your vision.


Algiers-AlgiersAlgiers – Algiers

Dear Algiers,

Yours was the most arresting new sound of the year — a ferocious evolution of gospel and rock. It sounded like what might happen if TV On the Radio merged with the hellfire-and-brimstone-preaching energy of Sixteen Horsepower. In this year of fury over the exposure of America ongoing racism, these sounds felt like calls for vigilance — even calls to arms. It’s a scary sound, not because the music is scary but because something in the world has been severe enough to provoke such a response.

I’ll leave the scholarly observations to the knowledgable Thom Jurek. Suffice it to say that this is the kind of anger that tells me I should pay attention, listen closer, and consider the causes.

But frankly, I’m just enthralled by the strangeness and complexity of your layered, surprising sounds.


don't lose thisPops Staples – Don’t Lose This

Dear Pops Staples,

I’m thanking you for these standout blues recordings, but you’re not here to receive my praise. I should probably thank your daughter Mavis, and her producer Jeff Tweedy, for how they took these old recordings of yours, took seriously your instruction (“Don’t lose this!”), and made something so memorable of the opportunity.

This album really does feel like it time-traveled to us from a day when you were at the peak of your powers. And we need this kind of raw, skillful, soulful gospel these days, as contemporary “gospel” has come to mean something so shiny and commercial. We need voices and sounds that tell us that these are not merely sentiments of faith but searing expressions of experience and longing.

I can put this record on late on a Thursday night, and suddenly it’s Sunday morning. Oh, and good choice on the Dylan cover. One of my favorites.

Testimonials of Love and Gratitude: The Top Ten


sleater kinneySleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love

Dear Sleater-Kinney,

I missed you during your first life.

Now that I’ve found you, I don’t plan to miss a single song of your second life. You’ve shown bands how to make a comeback record — by persuading the listener that this is something brand new, so ablaze with energy, personal passion, sharp-edged lyrics, and indelible hooks that they’ll realize they’ve been missing you even if they — like me — never knew you in the first place.

Your album prompted me to write this installment of “Looking Closer.”

Thanks for the inspiration.


cassandra wilsonCassandra Wilson – Coming Forth by Day

Dear Cassandra Wilson,

Of the two excellent Billie Holiday tribute records I heard this year, yours has remained in regular rotation all year for the intoxicating layers of sound and textures, and for how they never once distract or detract from your confident and seductive vocals.

It isn’t just the best Holiday tribute of 2015 — I think it’s my favorite of your many impressive albums.

Please stick with producer Nick Launay. I would never have dreamed that what you needed to take your art to the next level was the guy who produces Nick Cave records, but the two of you have miraculous chemistry.


TORRES-sprinter-1500x1500Torres – Sprinter

Dear Mackenzie Scott,

I live in the city where Mars Hill Church rose and fell. It’s a place where many young Christians are wondering what to make of their faith, now that their church has disintegrated due to the corruption of its leadership.

But this goes back farther than that story: I have grown up struggling with what Christian churches have done to try to take what Christ did for us and turn it into a new law, a new works-based righteousness, a new code by which we should not only live but judge one another. So this record of yours, which is such a powerful testimony of struggle to hold on to some kind of true faith, some kind of identity and direction, after a betrayal by those who should have set an example… it feels timely, necessary, and true.

On top of that, it has the vision, the searing confidence, and the anger of a P.J. Harvey record (not to mention Harvey’s own producer). I love the sound of it from beginning to end.

But most importantly, Sprinter offers what so many of us need during days when even the church fails to open its arms in grace and unconditional love: It offers an eloquent lament.

Thank you for your courage, honesty, and art.


courtney barnettCourtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit

Thank you, Courtney Barnett.

I admit, I was slow to become a fan, primarily because there was just so much hype about you and your record this year. I distrust hype.

But then I found some opportunities to sit down and really pay attention to your lyrics, and I found that you are a poetic storyteller. You create characters who are caught in the middle — feeling stuck in dead-end jobs, for example, or feeling incapable of fulfilling the expectations of success. And you make these characters specific and sympathetic. There’s a lot of humor in your writing, a lot of spirit in your performance, and while you’re a born storyteller, you have a distinct personality that shines through.

Somehow, you makes a consistently joyful noise out of so many familiar uncertainties.


wilco star wars

Wilco – Star Wars

Thank you, Wilco, for so many great albums.

But thank you also for the surprise factor on this one. I had two huge album surprises this year, and this was one of them — dropping suddenly, without any advance notice, and setting off a social-networking storm of disbelief, hilarity, and excitement simply because you’ve given us one of the greatest album-title/album-cover combinations in rock history.

What’s more, it didn’t feel like a thrown-together effort, but like some of your most inspired work since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

The lyrics inspired me to write this installment of “Listening Closer.” And the music, well… I’ve been listening to this since the hour it first appeared, and it still feels fresh and exciting. Thanks again for the surprise, for surpassing expectations, and for generously sharing this record, free of charge, with the world.


short movieLaura Marling – Short Movie

Dear Laura Marling,

I’m sure you get tired of people raving about how you’ve released several incredible records and you’re only, what, 25? I’ve admired them all, really loved a couple of them, and now this — your most ambitious, and easily my favorite.

I love your voice, and how you’re trying new things with it — your spoken-word verses here, for example, and your willingness to step up to some serious rock bravado this time around. I might have been wary of seeing you take this turn toward rock and roll, but I like how you sound with an electric guitar.

And your lyrics inspired me to contemplate them in this installment of “Listening Closer,” which was a rewarding experience in itself. I love how you are turning your questions and experiences into stories that weave myth, confession, and dream-state surreality together into experiences that seem to change from one listen to the next.

Thank you for this extraordinary double-album.


Rhiannon GiddensRhiannon Giddens – Tomorrow is My Turn

Dear Rhiannon Giddens,

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there is something beautiful about the moment when an artist steps into the spotlight and chooses to use that opportunity to lift up other artists.

This year was your turn. You stepped away from your fantastic band, Carolina Chocolate Drops. You had the great T-Bone Burnett at the controls, and it was time for you to shine on your own as a solo recording artist. So, in your wisdom, you chose to celebrate an impressive list of women —Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Geeshey Wiley, to name a few — taking the differing threads of their work and weaving them into a cohesive whole. It was a show of generosity that inspired me to write this installment of “Listening Closer.”

I listened for your voice, I listened for the spirited musical performances, I listened for the exquisite production, and I listened for the way these songs flow together as if they were made for this moment. Your record was one of the first I heard this year, and I’m still savoring it. Thanks also for the surprise addition of a follow-up EP — Factory Girl — which really does feel like Volume Two.

Oh, I should add that my favorite 2015 recording of you happens to appear on another record entirely. It’s your performance of “S’iomadh Rid The Dhith Om / Ciamar A Ni Mi” on Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis.


beauty will save the worldThe Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus – Beauty Will Save the World

Dear band that exploded into my life like a a magic meteor, how did I not know about your existence before?

How could it be that, as I was studying Simone Weil, you would release an album with her face on the cover?

How is it that the title of your new album would be the same words that appear on a sticker I’ve attached to this very laptop where I’m writing to you?

How is it that your record would seem to have been custom-made to capture and express so many things that mean so much to me?

It was a typical work day. I was busy with many things at my desk, distracted as usual. Needing a soundtrack, I put on my headphones, opened NPR’s All Songs Considered site to download a new podcast, and then stopped and stared in disbelief at the article shining back it me. This is what it said:

In sacred music, there really has been nothing like The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus. Once a mystery with a fluid, unknown line-up which rarely performed live, the Liverpool-based band released only two albums — The Gift of Tears (1987) and Mirror (1991) — that were unburdened by sound or doctrine. The members not only pulled from various global folk traditions, weaving these around electronic and experimental music, but also from the traditions of the Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox churches. This is worship music which atmospherically and lyrically understands that Christianity has no bounds — and, more significantly, that even the surest of faith, encompasses doubt and darkness.

Beauty Will Save the World, the first Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus [RAIJ] full-length album in over two decades, not only identifies key players for the first time — Paul Boyce, Jon Egan and Leslie Hampson — but also invites new, younger collaborators to the Army. There are moments on the record that sound like if Godspeed You! Black Emperor had scored The Last Temptation of Christ, but mostly, it actively seeks and creates beauty in order to heal.

And then I discover your music videos, which are not typical music videos but rather excerpts from the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky, perhaps the greatest artist who ever composed images for the big screen?

I admit, I was skeptical. It all seemed so perfect when I first read about you. Could the music be worthy of these choices?

Thank God… it is. Although I’ve only been listening for a few weeks, I know that this will remain a personal soundtrack for my reading, my writing, and for long listening sessions in the dark before I sleep. I don’t know how to describe what you’re doing on this record, but it doe, indeed, feel like a healing work, a ministry of mystery, a gift of beauty. Thank you for recording it. Please make more records.


to pimp a butterflyKendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

Dear Mr. Lamar,

I am probably the least-qualified listener in the world to comment on this record.

I just know that I’m grateful for it.

I need no direction when it comes to appreciating how this record sounds. It’s so dazzling, so detailed, so ever-changing, so furiously funky, it makes me want to stay in the car and keep driving all day long, the beats jolting the car doors and resonating out into the neighborhood.

But I’ve had to read a lot to begin to understand what I’m hearing. I’m grateful for the insights of excellent writers like David Dark, who wrote “What Must I Do to Be Born Again?: The Open Hands of Kendrick Lamar.” Also, these articles were useful: “Writer at War: Kendrick Lamar in His Own Words,” and “The Radical Christianity of Kendrick Lamar.”

I have no doubt that there is much on this epic recording that I could never understand. I don’t listen to much hip-hop; and this record offers us an archaeological dig into hip-hop history, thick with references to things present and past. It’s like a foreign language to me, as I have lived my life in predominantly white communities, immersed in predominantly white culture, listening mostly to rock, pop, and gospel.

But this isn’t just about a musical genre. It’s much bigger than that. I’ve lived many years nearly ignorant of the daily challenges of African Americans, and that is a fact that makes me feel embarrassed and ashamed, because African Americans are my neighbors. Only in recent years have I begun to do what I should have been doing — what I should have been taught to do — by a church that preached “Love your neighbor.” That is to say, I’ve begun to listen and to learn about my neighbors’ experiences. I have a long way to go.

Most of the Christians I know would have a hard time listening to much of this record. We have been conditioned to flinch and withdraw from expressions of anger. They make us uncomfortable. What’s more, the characters and stories you bring to life here — some of which are autobiographical, and some created to represent other aspects of your experience — speak from a place of suffering and poverty, which also makes us uncomfortable. And all of this reflects poorly on us. As an artist, you’re opening a window to let us hear communities that are suffering for the way we neglect them. If we are offended by what we hear, perhaps that should provoke us to consider how we have helped create and perpetuate such conditions in communities right outside our front doors.

And yet, for all of the righteous wrath expressed here, your goal is not to lash out at whites for inventing new forms of cultural oppression. No, you’ve made a record that asks your own community to search their own hearts, to look at their own sins. And you lead by example, by confessing your own mistakes, by searching your own soul. And in doing so, you seem driven to test everything, wanting to hold fast to all that is truthful.

This is courageous, extravagant art. And this record is as timely and important to what is happening in America today as anything I’ve heard this year. I find it difficult to listen to. And that’s why I’m going to keep on listening, keep on learning your language, seeking to know my neighbor better so that I can start living differently, as if the gospel I embrace actually means what it says.

I wish I could write about my life with the courage that you show in your own writing. Thank you for this record.


carrie and lowellSufjan Stevens – Carrie and Lowell

Dear Sufjan,

I’ve been studying the art of memoir for the last two years, and I’ve read about 40 of them. When you released Carrie & Lowell, I was thunderstruck. It seemed to me to be as rich, as poetic, and as moving as any of the memoirs I’d read. And the music brought your story to life in even more powerful ways.

It drove me to learn as much as I could about your background. Your childhood, the religious traditions of your mother’s first husband, the crises that led to her departure, your journey to Oregon to find her — this all feels like the setup for a great American novel. But then, this album is that novel. You have taken your deepest wounds and, in exposing them and studying them, you have found ways to empathize with the wounds of others. This album is a primer on compassion.

This tragic and beautiful figure — your mother — comes to vivid life in these songs, as you sing of her struggles, her desperate choices, and her absence. Where many might have turned this into a fury of anger, driven by a sense of betrayal, you instead seek to understand her with clear eyes and a clearer conscience. And we come to care not only for you and the questions you carried through childhood, but ultimately for Carrie as well, and for how she acted in her children’s best interest even though it must have been heartbreaking for her. Your stepfather Lowell also emerges as a hero of sorts: a stranger who becomes a mentor and a sort of guardian angel, his love large enough to embrace your mother with her troubles and you as well.

I don’t like to use the word “perfect” when talking about art. But I can’t imagine what could improve this record. It is a profound example of what can happen when an artist exposes questions and struggles, attends to poetic possibility, allows space for mystery, and prefers images to explanations. This record will haunt me for a long time to come, and it will be an inspiration to me as I write about my own childhood. It is an exemplary act of honesty, grace, and forgiveness.

Thank you for writing and recording my favorite record of 2015.

Readers, if you’re still reading… where do you find all this time?

But seriously, thank you. I am so grateful for this music, and it is an honor to share it with you.

I hope you’ve found some new things to enjoy, some new sounds to explore.

Thanks for making this journey with me.

Happy New Year!