Wednesday, January 6, 2016

My Favorite Albums of 2015

Here we are at the end of another year (okay, technically the beginning of another year, let's just pretend I published this in December 2015 as I intended). That means it is finally time for me to resurrect my website where I make lists blog, and also claim it back from the greedy hands of Static and Distance Washington DC concert correspondent Bob. Two members of my family recently complimented Bob's writing, which I can interpret in no other way than a personal insult to myself. Well, I am here to prove to them and everyone else that I still have the talent that allowed Static and Distance to become the world's preeminent sporadically updated music blog.

I am also here to make the argument that 2015 was a truly special year in music. Definitely not a special year in global events or in the Chicago White Sox's ability to fucking score some runs, but absolutely a great year for music. This was a year when my twentieth favorite album would have been pushing the top ten most other years. A year when albums one through five all felt "album of the year" quality. A year when a really solid Deerhunter album is relegated to "honorable mention" status. By my book, the last year this good was 2007- the first year I started making these end-of-year lists.

This year, I decided to make a numerically unsatisfying, 49-song Spotify playlist of my favorite songs released in the past 12 months. You will find that at the end of this post. Without further ado, here are the albums that made the biggest impression on me in 2015:

Honorable Mentions
Deerhunter- Fading Frontier
Shamir- Ratchet
Ryley Walker- Primrose Green
Empress Of- Me
Beach House- Thank Your Lucky Stars
Chvrches- Every Open Eye
Twerps- Range Anxiety

Top Twenty
20. Dick Diver- Melbourne, Florida
Jangly, tuneful Australian rock band. Endlessly listenable. Fun fact: their weird name actually references F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night.

19. Kurt Vile- b'lieve i'm goin down
This album did not captivate me as much as Wakin On a Pretty Daze, but it is still another solid collection of mostly melancholy guitar jams from Mr. Vile.

18. Dilly Dally- Sore
Guys, The Pixies made a new album! No really, they did, and everyone hated it. Fortunately, we have Dilly Dally around, who made the best Pixies-ish album the world has seen since Trompe Le Monde.

17. Jessica Pratt- On Your Own Love Again
Pratt's lovely album of hushed, bedroom-recorded folk tunes sounds like it could have been released in 1970.

16. Natalie Prass- Natalie Prass
Another album that harkens back to the Nixon years, Prass mixes country, soul, and pop to great effect. Lush string and horn arrangements abound.

15. Unknown Mortal Orchestra- Multi-Love
Not sure why this album received less attention then UMO's prior records, because in my humble opinion it is the best thing they have done. And when I say "they," I mean UMO mastermind Ruben Nielson- who successfully pushed the band's previously lo-fi psychedelic sound in a much fuller (and dancier!) direction.

14. Hop Along- Painted Shut
Frontwoman Frances Quinlan's voice is one of the most unique and powerful in rock, and the band has the songs to match. My favorite record by an artist I was unfamiliar with prior to this year.

13. Torres- Sprinter
Brooklyn-via-Nashville musician Mackenzie Scott upped the ante with her sophomore release, crafting a record often reminiscent of mid-90s To Bring You My Love era PJ Harvey (fitting that Harvey's former bassist produced).

12. Sleater-Kinney- No Cities To Love
It is not easy to return from a decade-long hiatus and release an album that meets the lofty standards set by the band's previous discography, but these ladies pulled it off. No Cities To Love doesn't necessarily take Sleater-Kinney's sound in a new direction, but the songwriting remains sharp, and the band rocks as hard as ever. I already regarded them as one of my favorite bands, and this album only reinforced that opinion.

11. Titus Andronicus- The Most Lamentable Tragedy
At first I was rather overwhelmed by this 29 song rock opera about manic depression (shocking rite?). But I stuck with it, and after a few listens this album's brilliance revealed itself. Sure, there are a few songs that are just alright (again, there are TWENTY NINE songs on this thing), but most of them are pretty dang awesome. The album also includes "Dimed Out", which was definitely the "blast unreasonably loud in my car" song of the year.

10. Father John Misty- I Love You, Honeybear
I first encountered Mr. Misty back in early 2008, when he (as J Tillman) was named the new drummer for Fleet Foxes. I distinctly remember a post from Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold on a Radiohead message board (yes, we posted on the same Radiohead message board, be jealous) where he was all "guys, omg, J Tillman is an amazing talent I am so excited he is in my band now." Well hey, turns out Pecknold was right, because Tillman has been knocking it out of the park with his Father John Misty project. I Love You, Honeybear tells the story of Tillman's courtship and marriage to his wife, with all the romance and anxiety that came along with it. Tillman, with his endearingly self-deprecating nature, brings a dose of desperately needed humor to a music world that often takes itself far too seriously. On top of that, the songs are often downright gorgeous.

9. Tame Impala- Currents
Like the Titus Andronicus album above, Tame Impala's newest took several listens to sink in. The album's 51-minute length is perfectly reasonable, but it is a dense 51 minutes. Frontman (and sole songwriter) Kevin Parker packs the album with many different sounds and ideas. Although everything still more or less falls under the psychedelic rock umbrella, Parker employs a warmer, more soulful sound than on the band's previous two records. And to my delight, synthesizers are used all over the record- most notably on the resplendent 8-minute opener "Let It Happen." It is always satisfying to watch bands you have followed from the beginning (saw these dudes play a show at the Double Door in 2010) grow and improve with each record, and Tame Impala have done so rather brilliantly.

8. Jim O'Rourke- Simple Songs
Perhaps best known as a one-time member of Sonic Youth as well as a producer and engineer on landmark albums such as Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, O'Rourke recorded a brilliant run of song-based albums in the late '90s and early 2000s. Since that time, he has largely focused on experimental, instrumental recordings (including 2009's excellent The Visitor). Simple Songs, as implied by its title, is his first collection of song-based material in nearly 14 years. Fortunately, the wait was well worth it. O'Rourke's songwriting easily matches the quality of his earlier records. He mentioned in interviews that the album was painstakingly recorded, with his band of Tokyo-based musicians taking years to perform the songs to O'Rourke's liking. The resulting record sounds meticulously crafted but not over-labored. Few apply avant-garde principles to rock music as effectively as O'Rourke, with him utilizing unpredictable song structures, acerbic lyrics, and lovingly crafted orchestral touches. At the same time, O'Rourke keeps the album perfectly listenable for those who just want to listen to some kick ass rock tunes.

7. Julia Holter- Have You In My Wilderness
I have been a fan of Holter's experimental art pop for a few years now, and Have You In My Wilderness is her best effort yet. Holter retains her adventurous approach while simultaneously embracing her pop instincts to create an exciting, tuneful collection of songs. Utilizing her classical training (Holter holds a degree from CalArts) to great effect, Holter fleshes out the songs beautifully with strings, piano, and harpsichord. Highly recommended for fans of Kate Bush, and other weirdo pop artists in that vein.

6. Joanna Newsom- Divers
Over the course of her first three albums, Joanna Newsom created one of the most unique and consistently rewarding discographies of any musician to emerge in the last decade. Divers ranks as my least favorite of her records, which speaks more to the quality of her past work than to Divers' flaws. While her previous records varied starkly from one another, Divers represents more of a lateral move. Though the album contains songs that perhaps best encapsulate Newsom's talents for the uninitiated, it does not really take her sound in a new direction. So why does the album still rank so high in this competitive 2015 class? Because Newsom is a really, really good songwriter, and her not-at-her-best still beats most everyone else. She is a total iconoclast, defying all musical trends with her ornate harp and piano compositions. The album includes multi-sectioned epics such as the wonderful opening track "Anecdotes" and the title track which serves as the emotional climax of the album. Best of all is "Sapokanikan," which starts as a bouncy piano ditty before building to a crescendo of brass, woodwinds, and Newsom's ever-distinctive vocals. Though perhaps falling short of "masterpiece" status, Divers allows Newsom to maintain her position as one of the very best songwriters in music today.

5. Protomartyr- The Agent Intellect
In my book, Protomartyr's latest is the most badass rock record to come out of Detroit, Michigan since the Stooges dropped Raw Power on the world in '73. It also happens to be one of the most badass records released this year, period. Following in the tradition of post-punk forbearers such as Joy Division and Nick Cave, Protomartyr employ a dark sound- their songs bursting with tension. Frontman Joe Casey sings with a knowing baritone. This dude, ten years senior his bandmates and fronting his first band, has seen some shit. The rest of the band complements Casey's vocals with pummeling drums and ominous guitar. In addition, the songwriting is inspired. This is powerful, visceral music. If you like guitar-driven rock, The Agent Intellect is a must-listen.

4. Grimes- Art Angels
Remember all that hype about Lady Gaga circa 2009 about how she was this "weird" pop artist who was going to revolutionize mainstream music blah de blah? That didn't quite work out. Thankfully, the world has Grimes, who might not (yet) have the mainstream reach of Gaga, but is pushing the boundaries of what can be considered "pop." Unlike basically everyone else in pop, Grimes' Claire Boucher writes, records, and produces her music entirely on her own. I'd like to see Bieber try that. Expanding upon the synth pop sounds of 2012's Visions, Grimes utilizes a more guitar-driven approach this time around (having learned the instrument during the album's several year long gestation period). This change works brilliantly. Retaining the infectious quality of Visions' best songs but taking significant risks while doing so (there's a song with a Korean rap breakdown for Christ's sake), Art Angels is a more fully realized statement. But more than anything else, it is a collection of songs that I found myself wanting to replay over and over- which is what good pop music does. We shall see whether 2016 brings Grimes the mainstream recognition her songs deserve.

3. Courtney Barnett- Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
There is no album I listened to more this year than Courtney Barnett's wonderful debut record. Barnett sings about the mundane- shopping for groceries, buying a new house, the merits of swimming versus jogging, and many more topics most of us can relate to. In a musical landscape where directness is often frowned upon, Barnett's approach is refreshing. Utilizing a charming sing-speak delivery, Barnett displays an impressive musical range throughout the album. There are fuzzed-out rockers, slow-building extended jams that allow her to show off her considerable guitar chops, as well as poignant ballads. Sure, there are several albums on this list that are more experimental, ambitious, and boundary pushing. But if you are like me, none of that stuff is as important as how enjoyable the tunes are. Barnett has created a stellar album that most any self-respecting fan of rock music should be able to get behind.

2. Kendrick Lamar- To Pimp A Butterfly
Outside of a brief middle school flirtation with the likes of Puff Daddy and Master P, I have had a difficult time connecting with most hip hop albums that have reached my ears. To Pimp A Butterfly, however, immediately struck a chord with me. Though obviously falling under the hip hop umbrella, Lamar incorporates a myriad of different genres- jazz, soul, and funk, namely. The album is almost cinematic in scope, presenting a varied and exhilarating listen over the course of 79 minutes. Lyrically, the album feels vital. Lamar examines blackness in modern America, expressing both criticism (of both black-on-black crime and the politicians who perpetuate black oppression) as well as hope that, someday, things will be Alright. His own inner turmoil is explored as well, as Lamar examines his lavish lifestyle in light of his roots in impoverished Compton, California. The result is an absolutely gripping album. I have little doubt that decades from now, people will listen to this record as a time capsule of 2015's racial discord, just as we now do for '60s and '70s albums such as What's Going On or There's A Riot Goin' On.

1. Sufjan Stevens- Carrie and Lowell
Though Kendrick Lamar's album will surely go down as the most important record released in 2015, Sufjan Stevens' masterful Carrie and Lowell resonated with me unlike anything else this year. Stevens is an artist who holds a special place in my musical history; my purchase of his fabulous Illinois record in late 2006 showed me that good music existed post-1980. That record, as well as his 2010 follow-up Age of Adz, saw Stevens utilize a "let's throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" approach to generally satisfying results. Carrie and Lowell, on the other hand, represents a stark about-face. Featuring mostly just his guitar and voice, the album sees Stevens confronting his emotions in light of his mother's recent passing. Stevens' mother battled drug addiction and mental health challenges throughout her life, and was an unreliable presence during his childhood. Clearly, Stevens has carried a great deal of pain with him over the years, because the album is an absolutely devastating listen. In fact, it is one of the saddest, most despairing albums I have ever heard. As a result, it is not necessarily a record you can just throw on whenever. To a degree, one must be "in the mood" to properly enjoy it. And yet, the songwriting is so captivating, the melodies so gorgeous, and Stevens' emotions so raw that I found myself returning to the album again and again. With Carrie and Lowell, Stevens embraced grief, melancholy, and despair and turned it into something beautiful.

2015 Year End Compilation
Here are some of my favorite songs of the year, sans anything not available on Spotify (Linked here are the songs I would have included by Joanna Newsom, Jessica Pratt, and Jim O'Rourke. Radiohead's Spectre single is also deserving. Oh, and Sheer Mag!).

No comments:

Post a Comment