Well, folks -- though I didn't put out new music myself in 2015, and though my weekly blog RELEASED THIS DAY went to sleep 3 years ago, I still did a pretty fair amount of listening to new stuff, and here are the albums I enjoyed the most.
WHAT REALLY HIT ME WERE THESE:
1. Girlpool, BEFORE THE WORLD WAS BIG
-- This record makes me want to run around flapping my arms with the biggest grin I can muster, except that I don't want to miss a word or a detail. It leaps out of the speakers, partly thanks to the square, double-tracked dryness of the production, but mostly from the lemon-rind-smile of the songs and the dual harmonies. There's a quality that reminds me of Built To Spill's THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH LOVE, before all the guitars got in the way of the perfectly small-scaled lyric details and misleading tension between winsomeness and sharpness (P.S.: BtS's 2015 comeback UNTETHERED MOON sticks to the later approach of the band but gets the balance more right than they have in over a decade). By the time the title track launches into a friggin' *round* for its final minute, you will be unable to escape the Girlpool vortex... and it sure doesn't suck.
2. Baroness, PURPLE
-- Sometimes, the best response to soul-crushing life events (which, in the band's case, were also body-crushing life events) is just to absolutely pummel them with majestic balls of rockness. Baroness's majestic rockness balls happen to be PURPLE.
3. Sleater-Kinney, NO CITIES TO LOVE
-- The members' efforts while apart were always worth attention (Wild Flag in particular going far underrated), but the result of Sleater-Kinney's long-drooled-over reunion proves that there is no substitute for the unique chemistry of a perfect power trio. If anything, the hiatus seems to have created their most evenly balanced set of contributions. Carrie Brownstein serves as the dominant artistic voice here like never before, with Corin Tucker dancing around her, instead of the other way around as on most previous S-K records. The only thing keeping NO CITIES from being a career peak is that the Sleater-Kinney discography is entirely made up of peaks. Legacy burnished, not tarnished; all missions accomplished.
4. Deradoorian, THE EXPANDING FLOWER PLANET
-- ...on which I discovered that nearly everything I've enjoyed about Dirty Projectors albums was provided by Angel Deradoorian during her tenure. Polyrhythmic, layered, loopy hypnomusic.
5. Chris Stapleton, TRAVELLER
-- Real actual genuine bonafide got-damn country music incapable of generating embarrassment -- a seemingly impossible task these days prior to age 40. That even the CMA noticed gives hope beyond what I thought possible.
6. Alabama Shakes, SOUND & COLOR
-- For me, above all else, it's about "This Feeling" - the first new song of 2015 that gave me a genuine, uncomplicated, earned sense of positivity and optimism about life. These days, that is no small damn feat. There are many more challenging, bolder, more innovative albums out there, but SOUND & COLOR is classic,
7. Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard, DJANGO & JIMMIE
-- Effortless but never lazy, Willie & Merle could've phoned this in by playing up either their gravitas or their camaraderie, and no one would've faulted them. Instead, stubbornly as ever, they let the music come to them, let it breathe and be natural, while still letting an occasional wink ("It's All Gone To Pot") slip through. Backdoor barbecue record of the year.
8. Samantha Crain, UNDER BRANCH & THORN & TREE
-- If "When You Come Back" doesn't, at least a little, move you, I'm not sure we can still be friends.
9. Julia Holter, HAVE YOU IN MY WILDERNESS
-- After a decade's worth of brilliant but distant albums, Holter has hit on the balance between human and artificial, orchestral and synthetic, to create something that communicates as much as it impresses. Those who are coming to her work anew have my envy for hearing her overall body of work for the first time.
10. Jenny Hval, APOCALYPSE, GIRL
-- Saved from being overly didactic by the playfulness in her framing and delivery, Hval essays a unique take on keeping your heart at work when your head knows the world is out to get you for your gender / race / politics / being. On her 6th album (counting both early work as Rockettothesky and albums released under her own name, Hval arrives on a larger statewide stage and delivers the goods.
11. Deerhunter, FADING FRONTIER
-- On album after great album with Deerhunter and Atlas Sound, provocation after provocation in a decade of interviews, Bradford Cox has made a new kind of statement on FADING FRONTIER. Oversharing-as-distancing-device is replaced with sharing-as-communicating. Thus, simple-seeming songs like "All The Same" and "Snakeskin" are simultaneously singalongable and heartbreaking.
12. The Mountain Goats, BEAT THE CHAMP
-- John Darnielle puts down his Bible and has fun watching some wrestling, like my dad used to do after sermon prep every Saturday evening. Probably that makes me enjoy this more than most. Lucky me.
13. Kurt Vile, B'LIEVE I'M GOIN' DOWN
-- Runner-up for my aforementioned "barbecue album" prize. More relaxed and yet more focused -- a neat trick that pays off.
14. Patty Griffin, SERVANT OF LOVE
-- The jaw-dropping pin-drop of the opening title track's piano-backed desperation calls back to the stark nightmare catharses of her 20-year-old debut LIVING WITH GHOSTS, and it's a slap awake that is sustained by a typically excellent set of songs. Other arrangement surprises (the muted trumpet of "Gunpowder", the mallets-on-ribcages percussion of "Good and Gone") keep this fresh. Griffin suitably keeps her pulverizing voice in a controlled range for maximum storytelling effect (likely something about which she and sometime collaborator Robert Plant have compared notes). While she's almost never put a foot wrong in her career, SERVANT is a particularly accomplished and affecting Patty Griffin album among many.
15. Rhiannon Giddens, TOMORROW IS MY TURN and FACTORY GIRL
-- The frontwoman of Carolina Chocolate Drops steps forward and claims her spotlight, with a timeless blues-folk-jazz hybrid that never feels staid or safe in its traditionalism. (For a pure jazz counterpart, try Cecile McLorin Salvant's torchy and exquisite FOR ONE TO LOVE.)
16. Viet Cong, VIET CONG
-- There's a lot of cranky 1979/1981 music I love that shares characteristics with it, but VIET CONG never feels like a throwback or a fashion statement unlike so many recent albums that call back to post-punk. It's by turns grating and lovely music that never lets up on kicking complacency where it hurts.
17. Ibeyi, IBEYI
-- Transfixing music, earnest but suitable for long sessions in bed or on the beach.
18. Ryley Walker, PRIMROSE GREEN
-- This is deeply lovely and earnest and pastoral, but sung full-throatedly by Walker with exuberant, jazz-inflected backing -- as if Nick Drake's BRYTER LAYTER were injected with fresh espresso.
19. Wolf Alice, MY LOVE IS COOL
-- ...sure is. I like imagining a TV murder-mystery with this as its soundtrack.
20. Beach House, DEPRESSION CHERRY and THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS
-- Two albums two months apart, both solid, both pushing their development forward while feeling integral rather than unfocused. What a roll they're on.
21. Torres, SPLINTER
-- Confessional, pain-riven songwriting, gut-felt singing, layered with rock drama and craft uncommon for an album released at this scale. Occasionally the album could do with a candle or two in all the darkness, but maybe the album's environment wouldn't support it.
22. Father John Misty, I LOVE YOU, HONEYBEAR
-- I wanted to hate this so much after his May 18th "Late Night With Seth Meyers" appearance -- so smug, so "meta," so full of itself -- giving the material its TV debut. Mea culpa: over time, that seems to be much more about that night's particular performance persona than the actual material. Which is frequently lovely and laced with personal romantic reverie of a type that I am too soft of constitution to resist.
23. Wilco, STAR WARS
-- Among the surprises of the year, and not just because of its hypeless instant-karma release "plan." Essentially, it's A GHOST IS BORN, except enjoyable.
24. Lightning Bolt, FANTASY EMPIRE
-- Bwwwwwwwwaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrraaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrr. Best title goes to the 11+-minute "Snow White (And The 7 Dwarves Fans)."
25. The Districts, A FLOURISH AND A SPOIL
-- To be absolutely as lazy a reviewer as possible, I'd say the Districts make me think of the Strokes, minus the pretense and fashion slavery, plus the kind of tension, drama, and quality songs the latter band has long forgotten how to create.
26. Titus Andronicus, THE MOST LAMENTABLE TRAGEDY
-- In a career of obsessive artistic ambitions in the service of lacerating self-expression, Patrick Stickles & co. have outdone themselves beyond even their punk-rock Civil War opus THE MONITOR. Perhaps a trim of a piano ballad here or a string overdub there would be welcomed, but this is a vision, widescreen and uncompromisingly executed.
27. Colleen Green, I WANT TO GROW UP
-- (Hint: she doesn't really sound like she does, and you just don't care.)
28. Wire, WIRE
-- Probably all they needed to get a higher spot on my list is a better, Wire-ier song title for the track "Blogging." It's the band's most focused work since Bruce Gilbert's departure.
Empress Of, ME
Lower Dens, ESCAPE FROM EVIL
-- Two fine examples of new-wave-informed micropop with sustained musical moods and effective late-night details in the lyrics.
...I MEAN, LIKE, OF COURSE THESE ARE GREAT, EVERYBODY ALREADY KNOWS THAT:
Kamasi Washington, THE EPIC
-- A conceptually linked three-album set of retro/future jazz? In 2015? Why not -- you've got co-conspirators like Thundercat (a gifted bassist/vocalist, with his own great 2015 album THE BEYOND / WHERE THE GIANTS ROAM on the books), with whom you've already adorned the world's consensus Album Of The Year (TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY). ...*shit*, Kamasi. Go ahead, man. And next time some kid calls a tv episode "epic," throw this dense brick of genius music at his head. (For a less jazzy, funkier, but similarly freewheeling brew, see Hiatus Kiayote's CHOOSE YOUR WEAPON.)
Kendrick Lamar, TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY
-- (...like I said. And for real, it's a generation-definer.)
Courtney Barnett, SOMETIMES I SIT AND THINK AND SOMETIMES I JUST SIT
-- Big Ol' Curmudgeon-Face Me initially brushed this off as lacking the ferocity of her Pitchfork-Festival-owning live energy. But the album grew mightily on me, and though I'm still certain her best work is well ahead of her, there's no denying this as one of the year's best.
-- It's too reductionist to file VULNICURA as just another major artist's breakup album ("BJÖRK ON THE TRACKS"™), but the work makes no secret of the events, nor of the depth of her pain and the strength of her resolve to emerge from it. The mourning mood is matched musically at every step, and with VOLTA and BIOPHILIA having taken on first a worldwide and then a cosmological scope, VULNICURA's abrupt perspective shift inward feels true to the circumstances. (P.S.: don't sleep on the secondary release VULNICURA STRINGS.)
Grimes, ART ANGELS
-- In a year with no St. Vincent album, Grimes gives us an un-guitar-y equivalent: veering between the brash and the interior, experimental and ear-catching, always intelligent, and always fun. ART ANGELS improves on her breakthrough VISIONS with just a degree more boldness and self-assuredness in the sound and perspective.
Sufjan Stevens, CARRIE & LOWELL
-- Sure, I enjoy it when he fucks around - he's got a sense of play like few other grown folks in music. But the payoff for sitting through underwhelming ambient sessions and goofy creative-writing-workshop exercises are the way he gets quiet and real, reaching his sweet, wounded core. Without those elements in balance, either way is too far and he reads as obnoxious. Taken together, his zigzags make him a figure something like his generation's Neil Young; here, he's in TONIGHT'S THE NIGHT / ON THE BEACH form, both in terms of tone and achievement. Perhaps a more deserving objective achievement than my #1, but full of emotions that are less fun to engage every day.
EVER-SO-SLIGHT FALL-OFFS FROM PRIOR ALBUMS, YET NONETHELESS QUITE FINE INDEED:
Jason Isbell, SOMETHING MORE THAN FREE
-- I mean, how do you kvetch about an album this great, except that it has to follow the impossible-to-follow SOUTHEASTERN? "24 Frames" is just the first example of a perfect song that comes to mind.
Dwight Yoakam, SECOND HAND HEART
-- Continuing the direction (and the hot streak) launched by 2012's 3 PEARS, Yoakam's latest is just a notch behind its predecessor in the freshness of the songs and the sense of the new. Still, a big winner.
Dawes, ALL YOUR FAVORITE BANDS
The Damnwells, THE DAMNWELLS
Justin Townes Earle, SINGLE MOTHERS / ABSENT FATHERS
Krallice, YGG HUUR
Lianne La Havas, BLOOD
Laurel Halo, IN SITU
Lucero, ALL A MAN SHOULD DO
Kacey Musgraves, PAGEANT MATERIAL
Pugwash, PLAY THIS INTIMATELY (AS IF AMONG FRIENDS)
Punch Brothers, THE PHOSPHORESCENT BLUES
Josh Ritter, SERMON ON THE ROCKS
Tame Impala, CURRENTS
Richard Thompson, STILL
HONORARY "THE BEATLES' SECOND ALBUM" SECOND ALBUM AWARD:
Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, AFTER
-- Some serious sudden-loud-chorus suckerpunching here, to the point that the trick gets a little old by the end, but there's a nifty lyric around every corner -- and the opening one-two ("Vena Cava" and "Billions Of Eyes") alone earns AFTER the big soph prize.
Diamond Rugs, COSMETICS
-- Thank goodness D.Rugs weren't just a one-off! The Deer Tick / Dead Confederate / Six Finger Satellite / Black Lips members who take sonic vacations with Steve Berlin's baritone sax every so often are back, and it's an absolute gas. (Member T. Hardy Morris also came up a double-winner with Hardy & the Hardknocks' DROWNIN' ON A MOUNTAINTOP.)
Chastity Belt, TIME TO GO HOME
-- Subverting the patriarchy was never so dreamy.
Fuzz, FUZZ II
-- Ty Segall's MANIPULATOR dominated my 2014. In a rare year with no new original albums under Segall's own name (just the Record Store Day TY REX covers album), FUZZ II does plenty fine enough to tide over the fanatic. And it's a double album! But really, a few ideas get rehashed by side 3, and it ends with a 14-minute jam that doesn't connect, so... really, it's a single album with bonuses.
Metz, METZ II
-- OH MY HEAD AND NECK THE BANGING YES OW YES