UPDATE: A couple things. First, while we saw videos and single releases in December, David Bowie’s Blackstar wasn’t released until January, which is why it isn’t here. Check back a year from now – odds are decent he’ll make the cut.
Second, I pulled together a Spotify playlist for those of you who want a bit more. A couple tunes from the bands noted below (save Fiction 8, which isn’t on Spotify) plus a track here and there from some other albums I listened to and enjoyed during the course of the year.
I say it every year because it’s true: 2015 was a good year for music. We had a wide range of artists demonstrating their excellence, as always, and while I’m not sure I heard an explosive instant classic the way I often do, that damned good/platinum tier was packed.
Some caveats before we dive in:
- I am not a music reviewer (although I once was). I don’t like doing that and so I don’t anymore. These are more about my personal reactions and thoughts on the music…
- …which means I am not being objective. Not even trying. In fact, I’m friends with some of these artists and I want you to like them, too. Don’t think of me as music journalist, then. Think of me as your friend Sam, the one who always keeps up with music.
- I didn’t hear everything. Nobody did. So if your favorite of the year isn’t on the list, hit the comment thread and tell us why it was awesome.
- These may or may not be the “best” CDs of 2015. I don’t have the energy for that argument anymore. They’re things that a guy who heard hundreds of new albums during the year really liked.
- You won’t like all of these. You will almost certainly like some of them.
Away we go. First up, the 2015 release that is DISQUALIFIED. Because I may or may not be overly biased. Because I co-wrote one of the songs. And did the CD photography and sleeve design. We’re going to count them in the top 15 anyway, though. They shouldn’t be punished because of me, after all.
Fiction 8: Dark Star Disarray
Fiction 8’s lineup has evolved through the years, with front man Michael Smith being the one constant. On the previous couple releases he shared more and more of the creative responsibility with bandmates (notably multi-instrumentalist Mardi Jones). This time out, though, Mike assumes more control (he writes or co-writes all but two of the tracks), winding a tightly focused song cycle around the suicide of a personal friend. Contributions from Jones and keyboardist/programmer Heather Sowards-Valey slot in seamlessly, testifying to the band’s essentially collaborative character.
Dark Star Disarray is typically dark and brooding – nothing new about that – but it’s underpinned with a compelling pop sensibility that makes it as listenable as it is challenging.
Next, let’s consider a group of CDs that have something in common. Sort of. All are powered by inspired women. They all tend toward a darkness in tone and theme. In places they’re downright cold, although in others the flame is white hot and nearly out of control. There is a certain quirkiness throughout. Many of these women are clearly familiar with Kate Bush, which is a very good thing. It’s beautiful and inviting, but if you choose to enter understand the challenge that awaits. I wish I had a pithy name for this category, but everything I can come up with feels like it’s vaguely diminishing. So let’s just don’t.
Florence & the Machine: How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
What do you do when you know exactly what you want and you have no idea what you want all at the same time?
Florence Welch have given us a big – although perhaps more restrained than past efforts – accessible pop CD with a lot going on underneath the beautiful songsmithing. There’s an inflection point in your late 20s, for most of us, where you sit down and begin reflecting on where you’ve been and where you want to go. You can’t help thinking about missed chances and bad mistakes. It’s the crossroads where our misgivings about life so far collide with a deeper musing about what we really want out of life. I don’t know Welch, but this disc has that feel about it.
In oscillating between grand, dramatic flourishes and quieter, confessional moments, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful wonderfully captures the ambivalence I believe a lot of us feel when we find ourselves on the cusp of modern adulthood. A seriously fabulous effort.
Meg Myers: Sorry
I can identify with a bit of Meg Myers’ life. She grew up in the South in a strictly religious conservative setting (in her case, Jehovah’s Witness). Some people stay in that life forever, and others backlash. Myers is in the latter camp. Sorry is positively seething with rage and raw sexuality – its impact is at times nearly tangible. But there’s more to it than that. Sexuality comes in a lot of forms, and the variety emanating from an open, healthy background is fundamentally unlike the variety resulting from repression and/or abuse. Sorry feels like the latter, to the point where you hear the music and think you ought to Google her to figure out what the hell is going on.
If you’re hearing influences that remind you of Tori Amos and PJ Harvey, well, you aren’t alone.
Anna von Hausswolff: The Miraculous
I think it’s hard to grow up in the church, where the pipe organ is so central to the ritual that unites the collective body, without that sound weaving its way into your DNA. In some deep recess of my brain, then, the haunted, minor key grandeur of the organ is the essence of divinity, and becoming an atheist has done nothing to diminish the innate reverence that consumes me in the presence of that beautiful, sacred noise.
So imagine my reaction when my friend, the Swedish artist Anders Thyr, introduced me to this Gothic art-pop masterpiece built around a 9,000-pipe Acusticum Organ designed by Gerard Woehl. Yow.
von Hausswolff is a brilliant vocalist (four-octave range) and an intensely self-aware songwriter and a captivating musician. When you’re working with this kind of instrument, you can’t really write a song and then arrange it for the organ and expect it to work out. You have no choice but to compose within the machine, to integrate every assumption of the instrumentation into the creative process – the existence of the technical possibility dictates every note you write.
I wasn’t there, obviously, but this is how The Miraculous feels – ambitious, transcendent, and fully organic. An utterly majestic accomplishment by a budding Indie superstar.
Anda Volley: Are You Armed
Anda is someone I guess you’d categorize as an “experimental” artist. Unfortunately this term can be misleading – to many people I think it connotes a certain lack of musicality and the triumph of theory over accessibility.
Nothing could be further from the truth with Are You Armed, as Anda Volley demonstrates the ways in which both halves of the brain can work together to produce something that’s as appealing to the mind as it is the ear. In addition to being a superb tunesmith, Volley is an accomplished poet and former editor of Amethyst Arsenic, so the lyrics are literate in a measure that’s rare in popular music.
For instance, this from “Blacklight Vegas”:
Voice rough silk thread sweet hook into my skin
Here’s quote from my own smoke hewn leathered id
Which is kids what I just did
Cosmic snake doorway swallow me whole
Hands on this wheel life, but no control
I still try to touch the sky
I still try to touch the sky
She collaborates with several people (including Andrew Scandal and Pihkal) on a song cycle that’s as smart as it is lush and dreamy and, frankly, engaging as hell. If you’re a fan (as I am) of ’90s Trip-Hop, I think you’d find that this disc stands confidently alongside the likes of Portishead and Massive Attack.
Kinda makes me want to be more experimental, you know.
Twiggy Frostbite: TWF
What I said at the top about some of the stuff in this list being cold? Yeah. Twiggy Frostbite (hailing from Gävle, Sweden) emerged out a period where the founding members, Elin Lindfors and Anna-Karin Berglund, were holed up in a London flat in winter with only an hour of heat a day in their flat.
TWF is spare and quiet with periodic swells of angelic grandeur, equal parts sweetness and Scandinoir. It’s frosty, yes, but such a beautiful frost…
A couple of the year’s best fall into another category that I (obviously) can’t quite name.
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Nightsweats: Nathaniel Rateliff & the Nightsweats
Sweet hell, this Denver outfit just tears it up. From rootsy bar boogie to Folk-Pop to Gospel-tinged neo-R&B, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Nightsweats seem a logical, more accessible latter-day implication of the Denver Sound. Rateliff, who was close to abandoning music entirely a couple years ago, is gifted with a rich, soulful voice that moves seamlessly from smooth to gravely, and this versatility allows the band to approach a range of styles without losing a step.
And while a number of artists in this list are folks you probably haven’t encountered before, Rateliff has enjoyed a year of fantastic break-out success, including an August appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
If I felt a need to do a CD of the Year nod, this would probably be it.
Bonus: instead of playing you a video, I’m going to play you two videos. First is the alcohol withdrawal anthem “SOB,” the band’s biggest hit. After that, though, is “Howling at Nothing,” my personal favorite track, because I love it when artists make clear that they love Sam Cooke as much as I do.
Jason Isbell: Something More Than Free
Jason Isbell is part of a small group of artists who are in the process of turning Nashville upside-down, although Nashville appears not to have noticed yet. When Something More Than Free debuted it quickly found itself sitting atop four or five different genre charts, including Country & Western. Thing is, no C&W stations were playing it. At all.
I have wondered on occasion what the fuck ever happened to Nashville and, in a fit of whimsy, what C&W sounds like in an alternative universe. Isbell figures prominently in both questions. He is, in short, what Country music ought to be. He is the soul of authenticity, a man willing to explore in cold honesty a journey from alcoholism to sobriety and to ask very hard questions about the toll it has taken on both him and those he loves. The difference between Jason Isbell and contemporary Nashville is the difference between Hank Williams and Beyonce.
SMTF is the latest in a string of absolutely superb records. In truth, not more than a handful of artists in any genre in history have put together a 1-2-3 punch quite like Here We Rest (2011), Southeastern (2013) and Something More Than Free. Only an asshole reviewer could find a way to give the three fewer than a combined 14 stars, and if you gave them straight fives I couldn’t argue.
About the only thing I could say in the negative is that I think the last two were probably a tad better. Still, that’s kinda like saying that a million and one dollars is better than a million. It’s technically true, but it doesn’t represent a meaningful distinction.
CHVRCHES: Every Open Eye
I barely know what to say about Every Open Eye. A lot of bands are working the Electro-Pop vein, and some are doing it brilliantly. But nobody – nobody, ever – matches CHVRCHES. This is one of the best Pop CDs I have ever heard, and it owes to the fact that this trio is simply masterful at the art of songwriting. I can’t tell from the credits available to me which member of the group sold his/her soul to the devil for the ability to craft earworms, but there have been times in the past few months when I wandered around for days with one track or another buzzing about in my head.
The only black mark here is the inexplicable decision to have Martin Doherty (instead of the divine Lauren Mayberry) sing a couple tracks. When it’s game 7 and your best pitcher is rested, you don’t hand the start to the long reliever. That best pitcher, in this case, is Mayberry, who has everything you want a singer to have – nice voice, a look, the ability to generate emotion against a backdrop of synthesizers (which can be chilling if not handled properly).
Every Open Eye has been in heavy rotation for me since October and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
Metric: Pagans in Vegas
Tim Sendra at AllMusic closes his review of Pagans in Vegas thusly:
Metric didn’t start off as a chart topping, arena-filling band, but they became a great one. Pagans in Vegas can be viewed as their first post-success album and while the struggle for their musical soul that plays out over its course makes for a sometimes less than coherent listen, it’s always an interesting one.
“Post-success.” That sounds damning, huh? But he makes a point. When I discovered Metric I’m not sure I would have imagined the level of popular success they have enjoyed over the past five or six years, but there they were, front and center in packed arenas and stadiums. It makes sense, looking back – they pumped out a big sound and Emily Haines is a huge, magnetic rock star presence.
Their latest is more muted, though. I don’t know if their intent is to explore a more intimate relationship with the listener, but that’s how it seems. When a band shifts gears it can take some effort for fans of the old sound to track along with them, and I’ll be stunned if PiV enjoys the type of success Metric saw with Fantasies and Synthaetica.
Who knows. Maybe Metric is finally becoming the band they meant to be from the outset.
Best Coast: California Nights
Former child star Bethany Cosentino backed away from a shot at major label Pop Princessdom a few years ago, deciding instead to dive into a more substantive sun-drenched, surf-inflected Indie/Power Pop mode of songwriting and performance.
While BC are West Coasters, listeners are likely to hear in their sound a close kinship with contemporary Brooklyn girl-bands like Vivien Girls (and Frankie Rose, and La Sera, etc.) as well as another noisy guitar-driven California act, Dum Dum Girls. While I rarely see people drawing the connection, it’s just about impossible to listen to any of this generation’s cadre of chicks-with-guitars without recalling Chrissie Hynde (although that being said, I think most of this crowd surpasses Hynde in the songwriting department, and this is especially true for Cosentino).
The Lovely Intangibles: Tomorrow is Never
TLI is a side project featuring Stephen Masucci, Michael Williams and Tony Mann of The Lost Patrol – whom I love – and Mary Ognibene, formerly of Dotsun Moon – whom I also love. The result is, not surprisingly, something I love.
In some respects Tomorrow is Never sounds like a TLP disc, owning to the trademark Masucci/Williams cinematic Indie-noir vibe I have noted in the past. And it’s more than safe to say that if you like The Lost Patrol, you’re going to like The Lovely Intangibles.
Still, TLI isn’t TLP. The distinction lives in Ognibene’s hypnotic alto, which plays hide-and-seek with Masucci’s guitars, in one moment reflective and coy, the next shimmering up an octave to take center stage in an erotic dialogue. Make no mistake: Tomorrow is Never is hands-down the most relentlessly sexual CD I heard this year, a major feat given the ways in which Masucci and Williams combine to connote wide-open and utterly empty landscape.
Perhaps more than anything, this dynamic tension between solitude and sensuality defines one of 2015’s finest CDs. It has been suggested that a sequel is in the works, and already I can’t wait.
Silversun Pickups: Better Nature
Silversun Pickups have always been very tied to their fascination with Smashing Pumpkins, and there’s nothing wrong with knowing and reverencing your influences. Especially when said influences are as worthy as Billy Corgan. At some point, though, you need to transcend the master and integrate those influences into a voice that is distinctly your own. I won’t send you off to re-read your Freud, nor will I quote “Tradition and the Individual Talent” at you, although I could.
One wonders, listening to Better Nature, whether Brian Aubert & Co. are finally ready to step out of the Pumpkins’ shadow a bit. The Pickups haven’t exactly launched off into another creative direction entirely, but the homage here seems more muted, more organic.
Of course, audiences can be as guilty as artists on this front, and I won’t lie: I still like Swoon better. That one was so accomplished that I really didn’t care if it was a bit derivative.
Regardless, it’s always gratifying to see a band gain the confidence it needs to begin hacking at the umbilical, and by the end of Better Nature I find myself very interested in what happens next.
Vitals is a late arrival to the list – a co-worker introduced me to them just a couple weeks ago. They’re a band I have heard of, but have never listened to, and as such I’m not capable of affording much in the way of context.
What I can tell you is that my first comment after hearing a few songs was this: “they’ve certainly listened to some Roxy Music.” This release is simply drenched in the sort of ’80s vibe you got from Roxy (and Brian Ferry solo), as well as the band’s legion of followers. Perhaps the legacy of Brian Eno is making itself felt in ways I haven’t discovered yet.
I expect that the next time I write about Mutemath I’ll be able to speak more intelligently. For now you’re just going to have to live with “damn, go listen to these guys right now.”
I didn’t especially like the last IAMX CD (2013’s The Unified Field), although I loved the three previous releases. Those CDs were dark, gritty and occasionally deranged in ways that positively throbbed with energy. Now, though, Chris Corner is confronting depression and growth and responsibility: how does an artist so deeply associated with decadence come to terms with maturity?
Nothing here suggests a minivan and life in the ‘burbs. Indeed, there’s an element of “rage, rage against the dying of the light” about Metanoia, and it’s gratifying to see an artist of his caliber able to move forward without abandoning the creative energy that has driven him for so long.
Or maybe it’s like this: Blah blah blah. Metanoia sees one of music’s most vital forces back to being as vital as he was a decade ago. Maybe moreso.
Ghost BC: Mellora
Sweden’s Ghost BC continues to be one of music’s great mysteries. Since they hide behind masks and makeup and guard their identities ferociously, no one is quite sure who exactly they are (although there are some educated guesses). What isn’t a secret is their talent.
Ghost just keeps racking up awards and sales, and the awards, interestingly enough, are in the Metal category. After discovering their 2013 debut, my conclusion was that I was basically hearing a slightly hard-edged Power Pop band masquerading under a lot of faux-Satanic metal theater trappings. Underneath it all, they were doing something Swedes do well – mimic traditional classic US and Anglo guitar Pop.
Mellora actually is more of a Metal CD, albeit a throwback Metal disc that owes everything to the ’80s and nothing to contemporary fashions in the genre. This is a wonderful thing. The band understands melody and harmony. They understand song structure. And they clearly respect the history of Metal.
I hope their success will spark a change with the headbanger set. It’s been a long time since the genre offered much more than a lot of undifferentiated screaming from guys who haven’t washed their hair lately.
There you have it, then. Happy listening, and may your 2016 rock endlessly.