“Honey, don’t you be yelling at me when I’m cleaning my gun.” Those are the first two lines on the opening song of last year’s best album. On a formulaic country or hip-hop song, this couplet might have been the set-up for a macho braggart’s putdown of a woman and valorization of his firearm.
As the beginning of James McMurtry’s “Copper Canteen” from his Complicated Game album, however, it’s not a catchphrase; it’s the set-up for an in-depth psychological portrait, an examination of the constant negotiation that goes on in every marriage. Back and forth goes the familiar, slightly edgy bickering between two spouses. Soon the narrator is making a counter-offer: OK, he’ll shovel the sidewalk, but he’s not washing the blood off the tailgate till deer season’s done.
There are many ways to think about 2015’s music. The year provided breakthrough hip-hop albums by Kendrick Lamar and Lin-Manuel Miranda and brilliant jazz from Rudresh Mahanthappa, Maria Schneider, Charles Lloyd and Steve Coleman. There was even a Europop masterpiece by Mika. But for me the biggest story was the shift in Americana storytelling from the first-person confessional to third-person fiction.
McMurtry doesn’t expect us to believe that he escapes the pressures of running a Minnesota hardware store by going ice-fishing on Sunday while his wife’s at church. He expects us to understand that the song’s narrator is a fictional character. But McMurtry is also arguing that such a shopkeeper is as deserving as any professional entertainer of having his life explored in song. More so, in fact, since we’ve had way too many musical portraits of traveling singers and far too few of struggling small-business owners.
When our best songwriters stop focusing on themselves and examine the lives on the other side of the guitar, it feels liberating to us listeners, as if art itself were being democratized, as if the purpose of song had become empathy rather than self-expression. It’s liberating to the writers as well, who suddenly have a whole new world of characters and situations to tackle.
This is not a new concept, of course, but last year the movement in this direction seemed to acquire critical mass. Not only did McMurtry turn in a career-defining album with this approach, but he was joined by similar work from such like-minded Americana songwriters as Kevin Gordon, Kacey Musgraves, Jason Isbell, Paul Kelly, Justin Townes Earle, Richard Thompson, Kasey Chambers, Jon Dee Graham, the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, the Bottle Rockets’ Brian Henneman and the Turnpike Troubadours’ Evan Felker.
No one did it better than McMurtry, the son of Lonesome Dove novelist Larry McMurtry. On his new album, the son adopted personas as varied as a law-bending fisherman on the Chesapeake Bay, a cattle rancher in a prairie blizzard and a transplanted Okie negotiating rush-hour traffic on the Whitestone Bridge. Each vignette worked because McMurtry not only got the details of the setting just right but also the voice of the character—a voice reflected in the accompanying music.
Gordon accomplished something nearly as remarkable on his new album, Long Gone Time, a collection of musical short stories from his childhood and return visits to northern Louisiana. Sometimes he sang as himself, but more often he became an old African-American cowboy, a convenience-store cashier, a scared old man in a changing neighborhood, a roadside honey salesman or a preacher’s wife.
Gordon took the chance, in these fraught times of identity politics, of singing as someone of a different race or a different gender. But he did so with enough humility to get it right, and he proved that it yields better art—and better politics—to make an effort to put yourself in a stranger’s shoes than to assume that you can never understand how someone in a different group feels.
On the Decemberists’ first post-hiatus album, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, Meloy transported himself across time boundaries to a pre-industrial past to imagine himself as a cavalry captain or as poor boy from the North Carolina mountains walking to the sea. Movies do this all the time, so why not pop music? Why should pop fans be trapped in the illusion that the world began 30 years ago?
On Pageant Material, the follow-up to her 2013 breakthrough, Musgraves examined her own life as a traveling musician on the songs “Dime Store Cowgirl” and “Good Ol’ Boys Club.” But on most of the songs she imagined what her life would have been like if she had never left her small-town home of Golden, Texas. Instead of singing her own story, she was singing the stories of all the friends she left behind.
Isbell and Henneman did something very similar for their old pals in Green Hill, Alabama, and Festus, Missouri, respectively on their recent albums, Something More than Free and South Broadway Athletic Club. If someone has the talent and platform to evoke a life with words and music, it seems selfish to reveal only one’s own life. It’s more generous, more democratic to put that ability at the service of many different lives. More and more of our best songwriters shouldered that responsibility in 2015—and the music was better for it.
Such songs remind us that neither the singer nor the listener is the center of the universe. The world is full of lives as complicated, troubling and rewarding as our own. When gifted songwriters put themselves inside the skins of those other people, they allow us to crawl in too. And once we’ve been there, we can never be as oblivious to or as judgmental of those folks as we had been before.
Here’s a list of my 100 favorite albums of 2015, ranked in order of preference. All genres are mixed together, because I’ve found that the broader your search the more gems you’re likely to find.
James McMurtry: Complicated Game (Lightning Rod)
Mika: No Place in Heaven (Universal)
Rudresh Mahanthappa: Bird Calls (ACT)
Bob Dylan: 1965-1966: Cutting Edge (Columbia/Legacy)
Decemberists: What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World (Capitol)
Maria Schneider Orchestra: The Thompson Fields (ArtistShare)
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Hamilton: Original Broadway Cast Recording (Atlantic)
Kevin Gordon: Long Gone Time (Crowville)
Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly (Top Dawg/Aftermath)
Charles Lloyd: Wild Man Dance (Blue Note)
Bottle Rockets: South Broadway Athletic Club (Bloodshot)
Kacey Musgraves: Pageant Material (Mercury)
Turnpike Troubadours: The Turnpike Troubadours (Boosier City/Thirty Tigers)
Steve Coleman and the Council of Balance: Synovial Joints (Pi)
San Fermin: Jackrabbit (Downtown)
Tim Berne’s Snakeoil: You’ve Been Watching Me (ECM)
Jason Isbell: Something More Than Free (Southeastern/Thirty Tigers)
Sleater-Kinney: No Cities To Love (Sub Pop)
Dustbowl Revival: With a Lampshade On (Signature Sounds)
Eighth Blackbird: Filament (Cedille)
Various Artists: Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock’n’Roll (Yep Roc)
Trio 3 + Jason Moran: Refraction—Breaking Glass (Intakt)
Drive-By Truckers: It’s Great To Be Alive (ATO)
Paul Kelly: The Merri-Soul Sessions (Gawd Aggie)
SFJazz Collective: Live: SFJazz Center 2014 (SFJazz)
Ashley Monroe: The Blade (Warner Bros.)
Anat Cohen: Luminosa (Anzic)
Chris Potter Underground Orchestra: Imaginary Cities (ECM)
Pops Staples: Don’t Lose This (Anti-)
Justin Townes Earle: Absent Fathers (Vagrant)
Bob Dylan: Shadows in the Night (Columbia)
Hop Along: Painted Shut (Saddle Creek)
Jon Dee Graham: Do Not Forget (Freedom)
Cyrus Chestnut: A Million Colors in Your Mind (HighNote)
Craig Finn: Faith in the Future (Partisan)
Todd Marcus: Blues for Tahrir (Marcus)
Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell: The Traveling Kind (Nonesuch)
Kasey Chambers: Bittersweet (Sugar Hill)
Brad Mehldau: 10 Years Solo Live (Nonesuch)
Atticus Ross: Music from Love & Mercy (Capitol)
Laurie Anderson: Heart of a Dog (Nonesuch)
Nields: XVII (Mercy House)
Joe Lovano & Dave Douglas: Sound Prints (Blue Note)
Richard Thompson: Still (Concord)
The Weeknd: The Weeknd (XO/Republic)
Myra Melford + Ben Goldberg: Dialogue (BAG)
Cassandra Wilson: Coming Forth by Day (Legacy)
Cox Family: Gone Like Cotton (Rounder/Warner Bros./Elektra)
Wood Brothers: Paradise (Thirty Tigers)
Geof Bradfield: Our Roots (Origin)
Cecile McLorin Salvant: For One To Love (Mack Avenue)
Johnathan Blake: Gone but not Forgotten (Criss Cross)
Dave and Phil Alvin: Lost Time (Yep Roc)
Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard: Django and Jimmie (Legacy)
Ray Wylie Hubbard: The Ruffian’s Misfortune (Bordello)
Matthew Shipp Trio: The Conduct of Jazz (Thirsty Ear)
Bettye LaVette: Worthy (Cherry Red)
Maddie and Tae: Start Here (Dot)
Karl Berger/Kirk Knuffke: Moon (NoBusiness)
Andra Day: Cheers to the Fall (Warner Bros.)
Waifs: Beautiful You (Compass)
Marty Ehrlich Large Ensemble: A Trumpet in the Morning (New World)
Orrin Evans: The Evolution of Oneself (Smoke Sessions)
Gary Clark Jr.: The Story of Sonny Boy Slim (Warner Bros.)
Amir ElSaffar: Crisis (Pi)
Dave Douglas Quintet: Brazen Heart (Greenleaf)
Frank Turner: Positive Songs for Negative People (Polydor/Interscope)
Sam Lewis: Waiting on You (Brash)
Eric Church: Mr. Misunderstood (EMI Nashville)
Wale: The Album About Nothing (Atlantic)
The Word: Soul Food (Vanguard)
Earl Sweatshirt: I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside (Columbia)
George Strait: Cold Beer Conversation (MCA Nashville)
Various Artists: Cold and Bitter Tears: The Songs of Ted Hawkins (Eight30)
Alan Jackson: Angels and Alcohol (ACR)
Kronos Quartet: Sunrise of the Planetary Dream (Nonesuch)
Ryan Adams: 1989 (Paxam/Blue Note)
Chris Stapleton: The Traveller (Mercury)
SteelDrivers: The Muscle Shoals Recordings (Rounder)
Shamir: Ratchet (XL)
Angie Stone: Dream (Shanachie/EConjunction)
Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts: Blues Vol. 1 (Dark Key)
Joshua Redman Bad Plus: Bad Plus Joshua Redman (Nonesuch)
Adele: 25 (XL/Columbia )
Cam: Untamed (Arista/RCA)
Warren Haynes featuring Railroad Earth: Ashes & Dust (Concord)
David Wax Museum: Guesthouse (Thirty Tigers)
Joe Ely: Panhandle Rambler (Rack ‘Em)
Carrie Rodriguez + the Sacred Hearts: Lola (Luz/Thirty Tigers)
Reba: Love Somebody (Starstruck)
Terence Blanchard E Collective: Breathless (Blue Note)
Susan Alcorn: Soledad (Relative Pitch)
Laura Marling: Short Movie (Ribbon)
Robert Forster: Songs To Play (Tapete)
Ibeyi: Ibeyi (XL)
Blackalicious: Imani Vol. 1 (OMG)
Samantha Crain: Under Branch & Thorn & Tree (Ramseur)
Jill Scott: Woman (Atlantic)
Archie Fisher: A Silent Song (Red House)
Perez Patitucci Blade: Children of the Light (Mack Avenue)