by Jeff Fiedler
10) Hero, Maren Morris
She’s likely to make even stronger albums down the road, but this is an extremely promising debut, and Morris gets my pick as not only my favorite new country artist of the year but my favorite new artist of the year in any genre.
9) Ripcord, Keith Urban
I’d concede that mainstream country has gone quite a bit downhill over the last several years, but Urban is one of those rare mainstream-country artists who, even after all these years, I still consistently enjoy, and even if his latest discs dabble ever so slightly with electronica, the songwriting remains top-notch, and it’s hard to resist the hooks of cuts like “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” or the gorgeous melodies of songs like “Break on Me.” This is arguably his best disc since Defying Gravity.
8) Weezer (The White Album), Weezer
It may lack that truly knockout single that your best Weezer albums normally have, but song for song, this might be the most consistently solid disc from start to finish that these guys have made since The Green Album. This was very much a return to form.
7) Good Times!, The Monkees
This is likely the last studio album we’ll ever see from the boys, but they couldn’t have gone out on a much more perfect note. Cuts like “You Bring the Summer,” “Our Own World,” “Me and Magdalena,” and “I Was There (and I’m Told I Had a Good Time)” are fabulous. This one definitely gets my pick for comeback album of the year.
6) I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It, The 1975
I will admit to not always being crazy about the band’s lyrics, though they’ve certainly shown some improvement in that department since their debut album. But from a purely musical standpoint, this album is some of the greatest synth-pop I’ve heard in years, and the best songs on here, like “The Sound” or “A Change of Heart” call to mind all the best Erasure records, and late ‘80s/early ‘90s synth-pop really didn’t get much better than that.
5) Side Pony, Lake Street Dive
This mixed-gender quartet is one of the best-kept secrets in pop music today. Not only can these four both play and write extraordinarily well, but they serve as a much-needed reminder to the music industry that, yes, bands with just a guitarist, bassist, and drummer can still make extraordinarily great dancefloor tunes without any kind of synths or EDM effects.
4) 24K Magic, Bruno Mars
Arguably his most cohesive album yet (even if it’s not quite as overflowing with hooks as Unorthodox Jukebox was), this conceptual disc, an homage to ‘80s funk and early ‘90s R&B, is still awfully fun, and it’s nice to see someone in today’s R&B climate, where so many of the more organic and creative artists are either too throwback-oriented a la Leon Bridges to seem like much more than a novelty act or too self-serious and avant-garde to make especially playful or fun records, prove that there is still a middle ground and that it’s possible to mine the sounds of the past and make artistically admirable discs while still sounding perfectly commercial and even danceable.
3) 2, Mudcrutch
I admittedly wasn’t terribly impressed by the first Mudcrutch album, inherently fascinating though it was that Petty would even reunite the band at all to belatedly record and release their first full-length, but this sophomore effort? This has got to be my favorite album Petty’s made since Wildflowers. “Beautiful World,” “Save Your Water” and “Dreams of Flying” are just a few of the many gems on here.
2) Stranger to Stranger, Paul Simon
Easily one of the most experimental and unusual albums Simon’s ever made, this one had the potential to be a really jarring listen, but Simon’s writing here is surprisingly a little more hook-laden here than it’s been on much of his recent work, and inventive, percussive songs like “Wristband” and “In a Parade” are some of his catchiest songs in years. This is arguably the strongest disc he’s made since the Eighties.
1) Emily’s D+Evolution, Esperanza Spalding
A strange but surprisingly addictive album, it’s certainly not commercial enough for Top 40 radio, but this disc reminds me in a lot of ways of Joni Mitchell’s best post-Court and Spark work of the ‘70s. Spalding may be experimenting to her heart’s delight here, but all the same, these songs go beyond simply being fascinating and beautiful and are actually quite fun and shockingly even sporadically rather hooky – no easy feat for a disc as ambitious as this one.
And there you have it! As an added bonus for those of you who enjoyed this piece and would like to keep reading, I thought I’d also attach this list counting down my forty favorite singles of the year, beginning with …
40) “Hey, No Pressure,” Ray LaMontagne
It’s definitely a radical departure from his previous work – it sounds more like a cross between My Morning Jacket and Dark Side-era Pink Floyd than your typical LaMontagne fare – but this is still a great song.
39) “Love Me,” The 1975
38) “In the Now,” Barry Gibb
Its parent album – only Barry’s second solo album, surprisingly enough, and his first since 1984's Now Voyager – isn’t quite as good as you might hope it would be, but there are two fabulous singles on it, starting with this one, which could have fit just as nicely onto any post-Saturday Night Fever BeeGees full-length.
37) “Dark Necessities,” Red Hot Chili Peppers
Anthony Kiedis and the boys incorporate piano into their trademark brand of funk to surprisingly strong results.
36) “Send My Love (To Your New Lover),” Adele
35) “Perfect Illusion,” Lady Gaga
34) “Wasted Time,” Keith Urban
33) “Burn the Witch,” Radiohead
32) “Do What You Gotta Do,” Bryan Adams
This is just one of several fine singles from Adams’ surprisingly great (but sadly ignored here in the U.S.) Jeff Lynne-produced album Get Up, and Lynne and Adams fuse their styles to astoundingly successful results, Adams’ knack for a catchy hook blending quite nicely with the trademark sound Lynne perfected in ELO.
31) “Star Crossed Lovers,” Barry Gibb
This just might be the prettiest melody Gibb’s written since penning the breathtakingly beautiful (and wildly underrated) “I Can’t Help It” for his late brother Andy’s 1980 album After Dark.
30) “You Look Like I Need a Drink,” Justin Moore
This country tune has got one of the funniest and most clever lyrical hooks I heard all year long. It’s hard to not smile when you hear that chorus.
29) “King of the World,” Weezer
28) “Cake by the Ocean,” DNCE
Yes, this one really got played on the radio way, way too much, and the lyrics are admittedly a bit inane. But for the first month or so that it was out, this was genuinely one of the most fun songs to be found on Top 40 radio, and it’s still a hard record to resist dancing along to.
27) “Blue Ain't Your Color,” Keith Urban
26) “Waste a Moment,” Kings of Leon
25) “When We Were Young,” Adele
24) “Somewhere on a Beach,” Dierks Bentley
23) “A Change of Heart,” The 1975
22) “New Song,” Warpaint
21) “Over and Over,” Goo Goo Dolls
Its parent album, Boxes, admittedly pales wildly to the albums of the band’s commercial heyday like A Boy Named Goo or Dizzy Up the Girl, but the lead-off single at least is my favorite thing the band’s done since “Better Days.” It’s just a shame that hardly any stations played it.
20) “Lake by the Ocean,” Maxwell
19) “Humble and Kind,” Tim McGraw
18) “Not Enough Whiskey,” Kiefer Sutherland
Who knew he could sing? Wisely recruiting longtime buddy Jude Cole – a former ‘90s solo star (“Baby It’s Tonight,” “Time for Letting Go”) who’s gone on to great success as manager/producer/co-writer for Lifehouse – as his co-writer, producer, and guitarist, the 24 star turned in a surprisingly decent country-tinged full-length this year, highlighted by this gorgeous, catchy ballad. The verses to this song get me every time.
17) “Cold to See Clear,” Nada Surf
16) “Nobody But Me,” Michael Bublé feat. Black Thought
The mere concept of a Michael Bublé single featuring a guest rapper sounds like a real train wreck on paper, but somehow, this single just works and everything gels remarkably well, and the unapologetically sunny vibe of this song makes it a hard one to resist hearing without smiling. Few performers today exude quite as much charm as this man.
15) “No Direction Home,” Cheap Trick
14) “Wristband,” Paul Simon
13) “You Bring the Summer,” The Monkees
Combine a reunited Monkees, a summertime vibe, and a song penned by no other than XTC’s Andy Partridge, and you really can’t go wrong. Now if we can only just get Partridge to put out a new XTC album …
12) “A-Yo,” Lady Gaga
11) “Adventures of a Lifetime,” Coldplay
I know this song’s almost universally despised by the band’s earliest fans, but I can’t help it. I’m a sucker for danceable songs cut by rock bands with real instruments, and the groove on this one is as infectious as can be. Sure, it may not have the depth of the best cuts on Parachutes or A Rush of Blood to the Head, but I frankly really enjoy seeing Chris Martin and the boys lighten up every once in a while and doing something you can move to.
10) “Go Ahead and Break My Heart,” Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani
Yeah, yeah, I know. I can’t believe I’m putting a Blake Shelton song on this list at all, never mind in my Top Ten. But in all fairness to these two, this is a gorgeous, gorgeous piece of songwriting and one I’m rather envious of not having thought up first. The melody to the verses just kills me.
9) “24K Magic,” Bruno Mars
8) “Break on Me,” Keith Urban
7) “Make Me Like You,” Gwen Stefani
Why this single bombed is a bit of a mystery to me. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a single by Gwen Stefani – or No Doubt, for that matter – this much since “Hella Good.” This song reminds me a little of a more danceable version of the Cardigans’ “Lovefool,” which was a phenomenal song in its own right.
6) “Head Over Boots,” Jon Pardi
In a country-radio climate where seemingly everybody is now trying to be Jason Aldean, words cannot describe how refreshing it was to hear Pardi make his debut with an insanely catchy song that sounds as if it could just as easily have been done by, say, Alan Jackson or George Strait or John Michael Montgomery back in the early ‘90s before country stars became so infatuated with crossing over into other genres.
5) “The Sound,” The 1975
Not since Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” have I heard a rock band make something so irresistibly danceable using virtually no percussion beyond a simple bass drum as The 1975 does here.
4) “Love Like That,” Mayer Hawthorne
Imagine Steely Dan circa Aja crossed with the likes of the very underrated rock-R&B outfit Climax Blues Band (“Couldn’t Get It Right,” “I Love You”), with a dash of Hall & Oates’ craft for a killer soul-pop hook, and that’s exactly what this song sounds like. It might be too retro-tinged to have stood a chance of reaching the Top 40, but gosh, this song is an example of pop songwriting at its very best.
3) “Dancing on Glass,” St. Lucia
This outfit shockingly still has yet to even so much as score a Hot 100 hit, but they’ve crafted some of the greatest synth-pop I’ve heard in the last five years. (Be sure to check out their single “Elevate” if you’ve never heard it. It’s even better than this song.) How in the world is this band not a household name?
2) “My Church,” Maren Morris
Easily my favorite song to come out of Nashville this past year, this song not only boasts an appealing lyric and killer chorus, but it nicely bridges the divide that has come to plague country music in recent years where everything is either overly mainstream and electronic-tinged or is too overly traditionalist and retro-flavored to appeal to music buffs who don’t think country music necessarily peaked in the ‘60s or early ‘70s.
1) “Call Off Your Dogs,” Lake Street Dive
It didn’t even so much as crack the Hot 100, but I thought this was the catchiest song I heard all year. The retro disco-soul flavor of the track is appealing in its own right, but the songwriting here is just first-rate, be it the immediately infectious chorus or the brilliance of lines like “This is what I get for being civilized.” Top 40 radio would be so, so much more fun to listen to today if they’d actually play stuff like this.