December 22, 2015

Best of 2015

"Ellie Rowsell, [Wolf Alice's] lead singer, can whisper like a child and howl like a rabid animal." ~The New Yorker, June 23 2015

PHOTOGRAPH BY BURAK CINGI / REDFERNS VIA GETTY
On June 14, 2015 I visited NPR's First Listen to hear new albums from Bully and Desaparecidos. While both of those albums impressed (and ended up in my top 20 for 2015), neither grabbed my attention like a third LP that NPR debuted the same day: My Love is Cool by Wolf Alice.
After one listen, I knew I had heard something unique. After a few more full listens, I discovered an album unlike I had heard in years. After I bought the album the next week, I was fairly certain I had found my "album of the year" for 2015. Now six months later, my initial feeling has proved accurate, and nothing else I heard or bought this year comes close.

Looking back over my best-of lists for the last 25 years, there are very few debut albums that I ranked number one. And with those few that are, they were bands I had been listening to for years that I only ranked number one in hindsight, or bands I had been following for a few years and had been highly anticipating the release of their first full-length. Never before I have a ranked a debut album number one when that album was my first exposure to that artist. As of June 13, 2015 I had not only never heard Wolf Alice, I had never heard of them.
As I began working on ranking my favorite albums of 2015, not surprisingly (based on my tastes) a high percentage were from female-fronted bands. Impressively, over half of the albums I bought this year have female lead singers (including four of my top five). And, as I have written about much this year, they aren't only singers--most of the time the woman is the principle songwriter and lead creative mind behind the band. Part of the high percentage here is my personal love for the female voice, but I am also excited that women have more of an opportunity in the music industry and are taking more of a leading role. Not only do they have the opportunity, they are seizing it, and for the last couple years women in general are writing much better music than their male counterparts.

Music journalist Rob Mitchum has shared a Google spreadsheet that compiles Best of 2015 lists from almost 20 different major music publications. The list is fun to look at, has a ton of data, but I am going to pick one statistic to share here with each of my choices: how many different lists the album is ranked on. For me it is an interesting way to evaluate the overlap between my music tastes and what music is popular in the world right now (the overlap is small!). Using that piece of data, here are the five most popular albums in his list as of December 17:
Sufjan Stevens - Carrie and Lowell (17 lists)
Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly (17 lists)
Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think... (16 lists)
Jamie xx - In Colour (15 lists)
Tame Impala - Currents (15 lists)

Top 20 albums of 2015:

1. Wolf Alice- My Love is Cool
(Number of major music lists ranked on: 3)
Listen on Soundcloud
Buy vinyl at Dirty Hit

As my introduction described, Wolf Alice took me by complete surprise. Impressively, even after listening to My Love is Cool non-stop for the first month I owned it, it continued to take me surprise for months after that. The reason for that is the band's unprecedented attention to detail.

Wolf Alice is incredibly diverse. They jump around so much it is hard to keep track of where they are going. However, despite the changing of tempo, styles, and intensity, My Love is Cool is the product of a band with laser-focus. (The only unfortunate inclusion on this 13-song release is track 10, "Swallowtail", in which the drummer was inexplicably allowed to take over on lead vocals. I have listened to this album close to a hundred times this year, but that song less than a dozen times as it is so radically out of place.)

What makes this album so good, and so much different than anything else I heard this year, is partially due to mind-blowing small segments of songs, as pieces of wholly terrific songs. Wolf Alice is able to consistently create stunning 15- to 40-second segments that take you by complete surprise, while still maintaining consistency and it feeling natural. What makes these segments even more unique is that most you only hear them once; they don't repeat. The majority of Wolf Alice songs have a traditional verse-chorus style, but include unconventional bridges, outros, etc.

The first one of these segments that I noticed was during my first listen of the album in mid-June: the pauses during the verses in "Your Love's Whore", which force one to pay attention. The second segment that jumped out is the end of  single "You're a Germ", when lead singer Elle Roswell ends the song laughing loudly (it sounds ridiculous, but works perfectly).

Part of my appreciation and love for this band and album is that I spent time in the UK twice over the last few months. Something about listening to this London band in their home country made the album even more vivid and meaningful. During my first trip to the UK in August, while riding a train, I listened to My Love is Cool on my Bose headphones for the first time. I became aware of even more textures and even more surprises, one of which led to this tweet:
While my typo confuses the statement, as it it should have been the 2:15-2:45 segment, the fact remains this is my favorite 30 seconds of music I heard this year. "Silk" is a slow burner, and for the first two minutes it is the quietest song on the album. But then the tempo picks up, and a Roswell whisper introduces a chorus of angelic harmonies. I can't help but jump out of my seat every time I hear it.

The segments continue throughout, from the 15 seconds of feedback following the choruses in "Lisbon" to a Roswell blood-curdling scream leading into a brutally heavy last 40 seconds of "Giant Peach." But as soon as one of these segments jumps out at you, it is gone, and Wolf Alice is moving along and keeping you on the edge of your seat.

Ironically, "Moaning Lisa Smile",  one of the most straightforward and least-interesting songs on the album, was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Performance.

My first visit to the UK in August was attendance of Hevy Fest. I asked many people about Wolf Alice, and only one person had even heard of them (and had no opinion). But then when I returned to the UK a couple weeks ago, signs like this were everywhere:

Photo I look in the London Underground, Nov. 2015
"Wolf Alice is a band whose crunchy, decidedly rock-oriented reinvention is steadfastly unthreatened by a catchy pop melody, a sweet, thoughtful harmony or an earworm bridge and chorus. That willingness to dispense with purist cred is a defining characteristic of 'My Love Is Cool', made more impressive by the fact that Wolf Alice succeeds from every angle its members try. They can do '90s grunge guitar, they can do moody atmospherics and they can do sweet-as-pie pop. Rowsell runs her pure, palatable voice off the rails at several points, but even her shrieks in "Giant Peach" and "Fluffy" are more musical than primal...and "Freazy" would be an indie-pop departure from the rest of the record, except that nothing Wolf Alice plays sounds like a departure. That's this band's greatest asset, and the one that bodes best for its future." ~Katie Presley for NPR

"It’s key to the artistry of ‘My Love Is Cool’: to blindside, intrigue and confound those fans who thought they knew the drill – a shoegazey Hole with better tunes, basically - and to draw the unsuspecting in for the kill. As they gradually ratchet up the tempo, a glint of fang emerges amid Ellie’s deceptively butter-wouldn’t-melt lyrics...It becomes the rock equivalent of raising tiger cubs – adorable but, at any moment, it could have your larynx for lunch. Unpredictability is a rare and desirable commodity, and it makes Wolf Alice 2015’s most potential-packed band. While it might be difficult to imagine, say, Royal Blood making vast stylistic leaps into the unknown any more than you could picture Newsnight installing the Love Lift from Take Me Out, Wolf Alice can, and repeatedly do, swerve off down dark, unmapped side-roads littered with emotional detritus." ~Mark Beaumont for NME

2. Bandit- Of Life
(Number of major music lists ranked on: Zero. However, Lars Gotrich of NPR ranked Bandit as one of his top 5 "southern" albums of this year, along with Luxury, which was my #1 album of 2014.)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp
Buy vinyl at Broken Circles

Of Life is almost a year old, as it debuted last January. Even though it was one of the first new albums I heard in 2015, I thought there was a chance it would be the best. That didn't quite hold up, but this album is still so good.

Bandit is best summed up by the two videos I have embedded below. The first is the opening track, filmed in Iceland. If you ever need an album to listen to while driving across Iceland, this is it. Since most of us won't have that opportunity, go ahead and call this a great winter album. I read a review of Of Life that compared it to How It Feels To Be Something On by Sunny Day Real Estate. I have hard time making that connection (and Sunny Day Real Estate is an all-time favorite), but what I do feel both albums have in common is that they sound great on dark, cold nights in the car.



The second video is a live studio recording that was released more recently. "Losing in a Sense" is easily Bandit's best song, and the highlight of the album:



"Every once in a while, the stars align and you stumble across a band that just works. You hear the first thirty seconds of a single in your headphones and you’re swept up in musical bliss and then you’re immediately shot in the gut anticipating a newly announced album. Sometimes that band is so obscure and hard to find on the internet, that you can really only listen to the singles to tide you over until you can hear the album in full.

"When the stars aligned, I found Bandit. Or rather, I received news that they had signed to Broken Circles. That shot to the gut came in the form of waiting to hear ‘Of Life.’ Regardless, they made their way into my ears. From the moment I first heard vocalist Angela [Plake] start to sing, I knew that I was going to be in for a treat. Her voice is sweet and subdued, and it’s expressive enough that she can communicate emotion without having to give an over the top performance." ~Joel Funk for 36 Vultures

3. Death Cab for Cutie- Kintsugi
(Number of major music lists ranked on: Zero [!])
Listen at Soundcloud
Buy vinyl at Barsuk

To start, it is hard for me to accept that no music publication mentioned Kintsugi in the years' best. Death Cab has multiple older albums ranked very highly, and this is some of the band's best work. When the album was released, the reviews were mostly positive; and as I read and searched today, I could only find reviews of the album that championed it. While the critics may not appreciate it, at least the Grammy Foundation is paying attention, as Kintsugi has been nominated for Best Rock Album.

For me, Kintsugi is a return to form, and the proper follow-up to Plans, which was released 10 years prior. I hated the majority 2008's Narrow Stairs, and while I mostly enjoyed 2011's Codes and Keys, Kintsugi is the album I had been wanting Death Cab to release for a long time.

"Compared to its predecessors, Kintsugi feels sparer and simpler, with a muted quality to match song titles like "You've Haunted Me All My Life" and "The Ghosts Of Beverly Drive." It's also very clearly a breakup record, chronicling with a fair amount of specificity the dissolution of Gibbard's marriage to Zooey Deschanel. The story he chooses to tell is one of a relationship tarred by her stardom ("Was I in your way when the cameras turned to face you? / No room in frame for two"), and by the frustrations of a Los Angeles he's never embraced.

That said, these songs — and songs in general, really — work best when they aren't contextualized in too much literal detail. 'Kintsugi' is better viewed as an album about drifting apart, by a band trying to hold itself together, and that's far more universal than any given Hollywood love story gone wrong. As softly tuneful as ever, Death Cab For Cutie chronicles the glum immediate aftermath of survival. What comes next, most likely, is the blush of renewal that follows so many doldrums of mid-stage adulthood. After all, as long as we're alive, we never really stop coming of age, and Death Cab For Cutie's members know that. It's nice to have them along for the ride." ~Stephen Thompson for NPR


4. All Dogs- Kicking Every Day and Yowler- The Offer
(Number of major music lists ranked on: All Dogs- Zero, Yowler- 1. Amazingly, hyper-critical Pitchfork loved both albums, ranking them 7.6 and 8.0, respectively.)

All Dogs:
Listen/buy at Bandcamp
Buy vinyl at Salinas

Yowler:
Listen/buy at Bandcamp
Buy cassette at Double Double Whammy

It may be cheating to group two albums together here, but Maryn Jones is wrapping up a prolific year. She is the creative lead (songwriter, guitarist, vocalist) behind her band All Dogs, who released their debut album in August. That was preceded though by her solo debut album in February, under the moniker Yowler. She is also the bass player and occasional singer in the band Saintseneca, who released a new album in October. (These bands are also utilizing Bandcamp in terrific ways, and you can purchase all three of these full-lengths for a combined $20! What are you waiting for? The links in the band names in this paragraph will take you to the Bandcamp pages.)

My main love for her work is All Dogs, which is an aggressive, passionate rock album. While the energy and pace of the music is what initially attracted me to the music, I can't get enough of her voice, and her personal, soul-baring lyrics keep me intrigued. Yowler is quiet and experimental, radically different than All Dogs but equally as interesting.

"...The band’s focus is on elevating the personal songwriting of Jones, and they do that by focusing on clear, power-pop songwriting. Sure, elements of the member’s indie and punk leanings pop up here and there in a particular riff or drum fill, or especially in Jones’ earnest, unfiltered delivery. But the purpose here is to hone in on each track’s emotional core, whether that’s furious, adrenaline-fueled ruckus on the break-up fueled 'That Kind of Girl' or painful, solemn meditation on the more introspective 'Skin.'

"...'Kicking Every Day' positions Jones, alongside Harris, bassist Amanda Bartley and drummer Jesse Withers, as a dealer in that most basic of artistic release—pure emotional catharsis that is complicated enough to dive into but simple enough to sing along to by the second listen. It’s a deceptively simple formula that many lesser bands have fallen short of, especially in an age where vintage indie-rock revival seems to be the name of the trade. But by keeping things basic and playing only to their strengths, Jones and company score another major win for their hometown scenes, ideally winning some newfound fans in the process. ~A.T. Bossenger for Trebel

"'The Offer' is an incredibly poetic album, and that’s not just true of its lyrics; the finger-scrapes on the acoustic fretboard in “In the Bathroom” or “The Offer” punctuate her words like line breaks. Like contemporary poetry, Yowler might not have the broad appeal of something like All Dogs, but those that do connect will feel their minds cracked open alongside Jones’". ~Adam Kivel for Consequence of Sound


5. Speedy Ortiz- Foil Deer
(Number of major music lists ranked on: 3)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp
Buy vinyl at Carpark

This is the most critically-acclaimed female-fronted rock album of the year, and as excellent as it is, I can't help but think that is partially due to the outspoken social issue stances of lead singer Sadie Dupuis. (They are important though, such as the band's anti-harassment hotline for concerts.) You can't blame her for that though, and Foil Deer is great enough one doesn't have to know anything about her or her band in order to appreciate it. Dupuis is an outstanding, clever lyricist, and paired with intricate, unconventional guitar work, this album is a breath of fresh air.

"What makes Foil Deer truly crackle is the way Dupuis' words interlock with the band's barreling energy and turn-on-a-dime arrangements. While Speedy Ortiz's wiry guitar lines and knotty melodies are taut enough to get stuck in your ear, Dupuis and her bandmates (guitarist Devin McKnight, bassist Darl Ferm, drummer Mike Falcone) are masterful at building tension that can erupt into noise at any moment. Blurring intricate melody and scruffy cacophony, this lean and arresting sound was first cultivated on the band's 2013 debut, Major Arcana, and then on last year's Real Hair EP. Speedy Ortiz has drawn comparisons to a slew of 1990s grunge and alt-rock touchstones — among them Pavement, Helium and Dinosaur Jr. — but Foil Deer's expansive palette proves that the band is no throwback pastiche. It's on to something new." ~Mike Katzif for NPR

6. mewithoutYou- Pale Horses
(Number of major music lists ranked on: Zero)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp
Buy vinyl at Run for Cover

To start, it is ridiculous how little press the genre of punk/post-hardcore gets in 2015. Desaparecidos is the only band from this genre that the mainstream music press talks about, and that is more because of Conor Oberst's prior work and the political commentary of Payola than it is for the music (as awesome as the album is, ranked #8 below). When looking at Rob Mitchum's spreadsheet again, it is obvious we are living in a pop and hip-hop world, and rock and punk are being ignored by most of the music media.

All that to say mewithoutYou is easily one of the most cutting edge bands of the present, and Aaron Weiss is a modern poet. While not my favorite album from the band, they are on the top of their game, and Pale Horses serves as a great summary of the band's career and a perfect starting point for someone who has never before heard them. mewithoutYou is also the flag-bearer for creating physical album packages that their fans line up to buy and pay reasonable prices for, and here is the European exclusive vinyl version I purchased:
"Now six albums into their career, Pale Horses is unquestionably the most challenging thing that they’ve ever put out. It’s not because it leaps into uncharted territory, as it is actually their most representative album to date – landing somewhere between the coarse shouting of 'Catch For Us the Foxes' and the campfire singalongs of 'It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright'. To say a record is 'challenging' carries a boat load of implications, and not all of them are bad. Like a classic movie or novel, 'Pale Horses' reveals itself in layers. To listen to any mewithoutYou record is to accept the premise that the art of expression and poetry of lyrics are just as valuable as the music itself, which means that it takes several listens to fully appreciate. It wasn’t until the third or fourth time I heard ‘Mexican War Streets’ that the lines, 'I admit, it warms my heart to watch your world fall apart' and 'To heck with all the drugs my parents did' really jumped out at me. Simple but heartbreaking passages like 'Can you take the form of my dead father / because I think he would’ve liked to meet my wife / and I know for a fact he would’ve liked my wife' from ‘Dorothy’ practically reduced me to tears, and I’ve been listening to Aaron Weiss for a while now. That’s part of what’s so impressive about 'Pale Horses' – even though it’s basically the quintessential mewithoutYou record, it still manages to catch you off guard." ~Sowing Season for Sputnik Music

7. Dustin Kensrue- Carry the Fire
(Number of major music lists ranked on: Zero)
Listen to full album with commentary on YouTube
Buy vinyl at Kings Road

Dustin Kensrue is potentially my favorite lyricist of the 2000's, primarily for his work in Thrice. I'll admit much of that love is due to he and I sharing the same Christian faith; and he writes about his beliefs in creative and thought-provoking ways.

However, despite our similar personal beliefs, I couldn't be more critical of his recent solo work prior to this album (Here is a post from February in which I write about this topic in great more detail, as I waited for this album to drop.) I loved his 2007 folk solo debut Please Come Home, but then he veered off track with two EP's under the moniker The Modern Post and an LP under his own name, 2013's The Water and the Blood. These three releases all contain worship music for use in the church; and once again even as a follower of Jesus I have no use for them.

Thankfully, Kensrue returned to form with Carry the Fire, a diverse and personal album with songs about his life and relationships (primarily about his wife). The songs range from the stripped-down folk of "There's Something Dark Inside of Me" to the Springsteen-esque "Death or Glory." This is easily my favorite Kensrue release outside of Thrice. But what's even better than this album? My most highly anticipated album of 2016:
"It is important to recognize that Kensrue has a very distinctive voice, which dominates every song on 'Carry the Fire'. It is strong and he uses it to full effect here, wandering from passionate howls to haunting whispers from track to track. Fans who followed from Thrice should be happy to hear his familiar vocals, even without the heavier elements of that group present. While the music is much more realized this time around...Kensrue’s strong voice remains the centerpiece that the songs build from. It was a long wait for fans of his solo material and 'Carry the Fire' shows definite maturation and experimentation from the guy who recorded the acoustic based 'Please Come Home'. This shares as much with some of Thrice’ later work as it does with anything Kensrue has released solo and should be embraced by fans of either era of his music career." ~Dustin Blumhagen for New Noise Magazine


8. Desaparecidos- Payola
(Number of major music lists ranked on: 2)
Listen/buy vinyl at Amazon

Earlier this year I read that Conor Oberst would be releasing his second album with his post-hardcore band Desaparecidos. "Second?!" I had no idea the first album from this band even existed, so I ordered it immediately. Oberst's rock songs are far and away my favorites of his overwhelmingly expansive catalog (My favorite Oberst is the 2011 Bright Eyes album The People's Key.)

So not only did I buy Payola this year, I also bought 2002's Read Music/Speak Spanish, and was able to enjoy 24 Desaparecidos songs in 2015. Payola is far better, more mature, and more melodic, but the albums are remarkably similar despite the 13 years in between them (impressively Oberst reunited with the exact same 5-member line-up as the original run). Musically, lyrically, and visually nothing sums up this band better than this video:



"It would appear that 'Payola' is where Oberst's been storing the splenetic rage that fueled his most compelling work and has mostly gone missing since 'I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning'. But while 'Payola' is his most urgent and angry work in a decade, it's by far his most fun record. Because really, it's his only fun record. This is the result of an important shift in a classic punk rock binary. On 'Read Music/Speak Spanish', Desaparecidos saw themselves in the lineage of the Clash—a fair accusation as Oberst was months away from dropping his Omaha Calling magnum opus Lifted and Desaparecidos would later cover "Spanish Bombs". Their songs were topical, idealistic and had no sense of humor whatsoever. Often singing in the same whole-body quaver as he did in Bright Eyes, Oberst led you to believe these songs saw themselves as the actual solution to the suffocating, transactional nature of marriage, a spiritually broken American military, and the overabundance of Starbucks in Omaha. 'Payola' is a discovery of their inner Sex Pistols: more cynical, more in character, taking advantage of no-win, no-future situations to create potent, punk rock theater. Up against institutions too big to fail but also too big to defend themselves, Desaparecidos provide heavy ammo for cathartic finger-pointing and maximum collateral damage." ~Ian Cohen for Pitchfork

9. Julien Baker- Sprained Ankle
(Number of major music lists ranked on: Two)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp

"'Sprained Ankle' is a solo, singer-songwriter album, but very little of it would be considered 'folky.' She professes David Bazan, mewithoutYou's Aaron Weiss, and Ben Gibbard as idols, but her guitar playing bears more of their influence than their vocals. She's a minimalist, playing bassy clusters of melodic thirds, flicking silvery harmonics, palm-muting chords. It's gorgeously recorded and yet, there's still the suggestion that these might've been demos—the scant overdubs of drums or harmonized vocals just drive home how lonely Baker is, that she may have meant these to eventually be full-band arrangements one day." ~ Ian Cohen for Pitchfork



10. Ratboys- AOID
(Number of major music lists ranked on: Zero)
Listen/buy vinyl on Bandcamp

Ratboys writes folk-rock songs that are both straightforward and complex at the same time. Another band I was not aware of until the middle of this year, the only thing I don't like about them is their unfortunate name.

"Beginning with otherworldly noises that pick up intensity before taking you into the opening track, vocalist Julia Steiner delivers thoughtful lyrics with ample personality. This low key opener moves into to the catchy tune "Tixis"...Each song seems to tease the listener by going beyond the typical pop-rock format into a sound that is refreshingly fluid. Take the the surprisingly jazzy acoustic chord that ends "MCMXIV" or the mid-song breakdown on "Charles Bernstein" which calls to mind some of the best surreal moments of Bon Iver...

"Ratboys have created an album full of subtle references and adept turn of phrase but the music always seems to change when the lyrics are at their most bold and vulnerable. This helps the listener really pinpoint the focus of each song as in "I had no idea what to think about you" in "MCMXIV" or "I don't know what to do without you" on Our Morticians Daughter. Seeing these lines together you can guess that this album is certainly full of love and loss but is so much more than that. As bold and inventive as the songwriting is, it's the little details that get me." ~Chaz Hearne

11. Patty Griffin- Servant of Love
(Number of major music lists ranked on: 2)
Listen/buy vinyl at Amazon

I became a huge Griffin fan from the time I discovered her in 2004, but 2010's overproduced Downtown Church unfortunately put me on an accidental fast from her music for a few years. Servant of Love is my favorite Griffin since 2004's Impossible Dream, and she is back to what she does best: stripped-down acoustic folk, highlighting her voice and lyrics.

"It’s evident from the stark, moody opening piano ballad title track, accompanied only by squiggly muted jazz trumpet lines reminiscent of Miles Davis and bowed bass, that Griffin and producer Craig Ross are exploring fresh territory. From the pulsating, loud/soft dynamics to Griffin’s pounding/chiming piano (the only time she plays the instrument here) and her careening voice singing/purring and occasionally howling ethereal lyrics about spirits, shadows, moonlight, and waves, the piece lays down an early gauntlet and sets the bar high for the rest of the songs. In a word, it’s riveting and while little else on the album achieves its raw intensity or entrancing vocals, the remaining 10 selections display a similar propensity to challenge both herself and her listeners’ expectations.   

"...The singer-/songwriter reshapes her definition of American music. She combines rootsy instrumentation with strains of blues, jazz and even a little rock, to invigorate a sound that many, likely including Griffin herself, might have felt was becoming stagnant, if not necessarily stale. While remnants of the “old” Griffin appear, specifically in the closing “Shine a Different Way” with its acoustic mandolin (played by Griffin) and unplugged guitars, Servant Of Love is a bold, unexpected shift in vision." ~Hal Horowitz for American Songwriter


12. Grimes- Art Angels
(Number of major music lists ranked on: 11)
Listen/buy vinyl at 4AD

"In the age of the female pop auteur, Boucher's work as Grimes is a glorious addition to the canon, someone who beckons us to the dancefloor with big ideas and bigger beats, and resists simplistic notions of who she can be on a record or a stage. Art Angels is a gilded coffin nail to outmoded sexist arguments that women in pop are constructed products, a mere frame for male producers' talents—that because their music is immaculate, they are somehow not authentic. These 14 tracks are evidence of Boucher's labor and an articulation of a pop vision that is incontrovertibly hers, inviting the wider world in.

Grimes shows that Boucher is the ultimate fangirl study: a D.I.Y. musician whose love of Mariah, Katy Perry, and K-pop has expanded her palette, driven by her fascination with the possibilities of the synthetic and unreal, and ultimately given wings to Art Angels. Here, she closes the gap between the pop she's idolized and the pop she is capable of. Boucher has claimed that the record has two halves, and indeed, the songs line up most easily into beginning- and end-of-the-night dancefloor jams. The former is exemplified by the bright, anxious "Kill V. Maim", with its mocking cheerleader chant over blown-out beats and Boucher working both ends of her register in a propulsive celebration of vocal fry." ~Jessica Hopper for Pitchfork

13. The World Is a Beautiful Place and I am no Longer Afraid to Die- Harmlessness
(Number of major music lists ranked on: 1)
Listen/buy vinyl at Bandcamp

"These songs still build, crash, weep, and rejoice, often all within the span of a few minutes, and the band still has no interest in moderation. If anything, Harmlessness actually has more going on than Whenever, If Ever, but it’s all done more tastefully, and the album’s warm, open production makes it easier to take in just how sophisticated these arrangements are—without all those voices crowded on top of each other, for instance, you can hear every violin stroke. TWIABP have succeeded where past generations of emo bands have often stumbled: tidying up their sound without losing any of the exuberance and immediacy that made that sound so striking in the first place.

TWIABP tuck their most audacious song toward the front of the record. Condensing a subject loaded enough for a full concept album into five-and-a-half minutes, 'January 10th, 2014' tells of Diana, the Hunter of Bus Drivers, the anonymous avenger from Juárez, Mexico, who shot and killed two factory bus drivers in retaliation for the rampant, unprosecuted sexual assaults committed by drivers on late-night routes. She became a folk hero, honored with statues in two cities. The song lifts some lyrics directly from a 'This American Life' episode about her myth, including an exchange that’s acted out between Bello and singer/keyboardist Katie Shanholtzer-Dvorak. He voices a driver weary of a passenger who might be Diana; she speaks as every woman relieved to finally have some power over potential predators. 'Are you afraid of me now'" she sings. 'Well yeah,' he responds, 'Shouldn’t I be?'"~Evan Rytlewski for Pitchfork

14. Chvrches- Every Open Eye
(Number of major music lists ranked on: 7)
Listen/buy vinyl the Chvrches shop

"CHVRCHES devote themselves to early-’80s British synth-pop the way some bands devote themselves to the blues. On their sophomore album, the cavernous synths of Tears for Fears meet Pet Shop Boys’ lovesick croon and the muscular glitter of Eurythmics, presided over by Lauren Mayberry’s powerhouse coo. The band is riding high on a crest of Internet-powered fan bliss, and sounds it: The thorny relationship-dissolution songs on 2013 debut 'The Bones of What You Believe' matched the album’s chilly, sometimes stark sound; 'Every Open Eye' — the work of a band who’s seen which parts of which songs send their audiences into overflowing ecstasy — sets lines about ambition and emotional self-sufficiency (“I am chasing the skyline more than you ever will”) to booming waves of synth." ~Theon Weber for Spin

15. Bully- Feels Like
(Number of major music lists ranked on: 3)
Listen/buy vinyl at Amazon
(Amazingly, and this has to be a first, but Bully no longer has vinyl available for sale at Bandcamp  and they have also pulled their digital music from Bandcamp. Apparently that means they have "made it"? Vinyl selling out is understandable, but not continuing to use Bandcamp to sell the album digitally is inexplicable.)

"To any plaid shirt-clad, Kim Deal-obsessed analogue recording nerd, the career of Alicia Bognanno is the stuff of fantasy. The seeds of the 25-year-old’s gnarly Nashville grunge-pop band Bully were sewn during an internship at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio in Chicago. There, after work, she got to put the skills she picked up from her audio production degree into practice using the ‘In Utero’ producer’s hallowed reel-to-reel setup.

As a mentor, Albini’s hard to beat, having been at the centre of US alt-rock since his days with noise punks Big Black in the ’80s. And musically, Bully undoubtedly take cues from the fuzzed-up hooks he engineered for The Breeders and Superchunk in the ’90s. But ‘Feels Like’ has neither a whiff of nostalgia nor nepotism. With her honest, witty lyrics and tight punk rock production, this self-recorded gem is all Bognanno’s. Her voice is Bully’s power centre, erupting from melodic drawl into a terrifying snarl." ~Robert Cooke for NME

16. Metric- Pagans in Vegas
(Number of major music lists ranked on: Zero)
Listen/buy vinyl at the Metric Store

"Long gone are the days of Metric, the sassy indie-rock quartet with downtown New York style and angular guitar riffs. After abandoning its edges for the glossier pop perfectionism of Fantasies, the group’s last effort lived up to its Synthetica title, transitioning the band into more synthpop sounds and dance-floor grooves. With 'Pagans In Vegas', the band has fully morphed into purveyors of slick electronic pop, music that would fit right in alongside British synth-driven acts like Depeche Mode or even The Cure. While the evolution has been steady and of a piece, early fans likely wouldn’t even recognize the artists behind this latest effort. Old world underground, where are you now, indeed." ~Alex McCown for A.V. Club

17. kuxh (CUSH)- Super G
(Number of major music lists ranked on: Zero. Number of reviews found online: Zero. Number of physical copies [cassette, CD, or vinyl] that exist: Zero. Number of people who have heard this album: A few more than zero.)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp

2015 marked the 20th Anniversary of the Prayer Chain's Mercury, and the band celebrated by launching a successful Kickstarter campaign to release the landmark album on vinyl for the first time. While the events surrounding the Mercury anniversary were marked by much social media, press, a reunion show, and house parties, some of the members of the band celebrated in another way: they recorded and released Super G. Strangely, they didn't tell anyone about it.

The members of the Prayer Chain and Cush had everyone's attention more than they have in years this past summer, but instead of taking the opportunity to promote Super G, they instead changed the spelling of their band name and failed to promote the album in any way. Ironically, Super G sounds more like Mercury than anything Prickett, Campuzano and company have released in the 20 years since. There are no vocals to be found, but otherwise Prickett's guitar work and overall sounds are strikingly similar, while being fresh and original. This is right up there with the best post-rock of the present day (Mogwai, Hammock, Explosions in the Sky), yet it is probable only a few dozen people have ever heard Super G. Hopefully that will change in 2016!

18. Sufjan Stevens- Carrie and Lowell
(Number of major music lists ranked on: 17)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp
Buy vinyl at Asthmatic Kitty

"Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell is a hyper-specific recount of memories from Stevens’ childhood, and of the emotions that struck him following the death of his mother, whom he barely knew. And while the actual facts that the album is based on seem like they could provide a wealth of fertile ground to cultivate great art—and they do—there is also the possibility that the events could be too personal for listeners to relate to or to gain something of an understanding to apply to our own life...Carrie & Lowell is a demonstration of why Stevens sings songs, of why we listen to songs: to feel less alone, to make sense of the things that are hardest to make sense of. Hopefully it proves as rewarding to the singer as it is for his audience." ~Philip Cosores for Paste

19. Petal- Shame
(Number of major music lists ranked on: Zero)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp
Buy vinyl at Run for Cover

"'Shame'’s tracks read like vignettes, small windows peering into small slices of a lengthy timeline. The album doesn’t ebb monotonously; Petal changes its pace from weighty and melancholy acoustic numbers to buoyant, sanguine tracks with the stormy heft of a full band behind them. On “Sooner,” Lotz’s voice drapes delicately over the roughness of bristling guitar, whereas on “Heaven” and “Silly Heart” it beckons its listener with a wholehearted sincerity over gentle, quiet strumming. With a wispy lightheartedness paired with wistful lyricism, Petal’s Shame is a perfect pairing for the brisk chill at the end of summer the end of summer." ~Meilyn Huq for Spin

20. The Decemberists- What a Terrible World, What a Terrible World
(Number of major music lists ranked on: 1)
Listen/buy vinyl the Decemberists shop

"...It shows a band refreshed, enriching its trademark folk rock with Seventies pop plushness and hooks. It's a good move for a crew whose lexically intoxicated smarty-pants instincts can get the best of it. "Cavalry Captain" flaunts bright Chicago IX brass and backing vocals à la the Carpenters' Now & Then; "Lake Song" is a perfect evocation of Nick Drake's fleecy Bryter Layter. Maybe because Meloy is now a published author (he's penned a trilogy of popular children's books), his songwriting wit seems to have grown sharper and less showoff-y. Even the cheeky prodigal-son overture "The Singer Addresses His Audience" ("We know you built your lives around us") lands compelling points about art, fame, fandom and self-determination. Elsewhere, head takes a back seat to heart. "We already wrecked the rental car/And I've already lost my way," Meloy sings on "Mistral," and you don't need Wikipedia to feel his pain." ~Will Hermes for Rolling Stone


Honorable Mention: Mates of State- You're Going to Make It
Listen/buy vinyl at Barsuk

If an LP, definitively in the top five for this year. As it stand as an EP, the first four of the five songs are among the best dozen Mates of States songs ever written, which is saying a lot. Mates of State said a couple years ago that they were done with LP's and would be releasing EP's exclusively from here on out. I hate that! I love LP's, and one of my favorite things is listening to a single artist for 35-45 minutes. I would be OK if Mates of State wanted to release digital singles, or 2-3 songs at a time over the course of a year or two, as long as at the end of that time period they compiled all 10-12 songs, and took the time to work on a logical sequence. There is nothing better than hearing 10 brand new songs from an artist in one sitting, but unfortunately that is only possible now if one discovers a new band that you have not been following.

This EP led my 7-year-old son to fall in love with Mates of State; they are his first favorite band. He has always enjoyed them, and Re-arrange Us was released when he was a newborn and he heard it constantly in his first year of life. He now weekly listens to Mountaintops (his #1 Mates of State release), You're Going to Make it, and Re-arrange Us, in that order.

Ripfork, a terrific blog that picks apart ridiculous and pretentious Pitchfork reviews (of which there are MANY), dissected the dumb, close-minded Pitchfork review of this EP this year. Here is an excerpt from Matt Wendus' essay:

"...All that stuff — kids, mortgages, the 'hard work that makes a marriage work' — it’s time-consuming. So most people locked into the responsibilities of family life don’t have a ton of extra hours to spend writing and recording songs about it. It’s not the single life, the college life, the bohemian life. But here we have a husband and wife, two people who raise a family and still find the time and inspiration to write songs, rehearse songs, record songs, and go on tour to perform them.

And that brings me to the second reason why I don’t think there’s a lot of 'domesticity' in pop music. I think it’s because people like you would complain that those songs 'risk little' or that the people who actually do write on the subject are somehow translating their lives into art the wrong way. Why write songs in your 30s and 40s about the challenges and rewards of a family when some random dude you’ve never met (who apparently craves these songs) is going to sneer at you for not being up to snuff? 

Steve, if anything good came out of your review, then I’d say it’s this. Mates of State had this to say shortly after your review was posted":


Album I should love, but don't: 
Sleater-Kinney- No Cities to Love
A female-fronted rock band releases a critically acclaimed album in 2015 (mentioned on 12 major music lists); The band has been around for 20 years, and releases their 8th album 10 years after their 7th. Sounds like a perfect recipe for a band and album I would love, right?. But nope. I have never been able to cross over into Sleater-Kinney fandom, and I have no idea why. No Cities to Love is streaming in Amazon Prime, and I have given it repeated listens, but it just won't grab me.

Most disappointing album of 2015: 
Coldplay- A Head Full of Dreams
Not that I am a massive Coldplay fan, but I do enjoy most everything they have ever released and usually defend them amongst the hyper-critical indie/underground crowd I belong to. That said, I can't defend this album. It is so bland, boring, and under-developed. The concept is similar to Mylo Xyloto, both from a stylistic and visual standpoint, but that 2011 release is WAY better. If this is Coldplay's final album as they claim, so sad. 2014's Ghost Stories is far more impressive as a final statement. Unfortunately the only fun thing about this album is that it is a 2-LP vinyl set in which one record is blue and the other is pink.

Other 2015 albums I own that are worth mentioning, in alphabetical order:
August Burns Red- Found in Far Away Places
Amazingly the third album I am mentioning that was nominated for a Grammy: Best Metal Performance. I don't listen to much metal, and after attending Hevy Fest and watching dozens of bands in this genre, August Burns Red is doing this genre better than most everyone.

Built To Spill- Untethered Moon
I love Built to Spill, and this is solid, but no new ground has been covered, and over time I doubt I'll revisit this album compared to their others.

Burlap To Cashmere- Freedom Souls
I supported this album on PledgeMusic, and I am sorry to say, it is fairly boring. Songwriting is good, the musicians are terrific, but the album is so slow and bland. Burlap to Cashmere was awesome in the late 90's do to their incredible energy, mainly found in their live shows. The energy is completely gone and has been replaced by elevator music.

Citizen- Everybody Is Going To Heaven
Turnover- Peripheral Vision
I am grouping these two albums together because they are on the same label, Run for Cover Records. In 2015, Run For Cover was on fire. Not only did they release albums from mewithoutYou, Petal, Citizen, and Turnover, they run an incredible business model. All of their albums are on Bandcamp for very reasonable (cheap) prices, and on Cyber Monday they were all "pay what you want" or FREE. Also, all of their releases are available on multiple vinyl variants which are absolutely gorgeous. As far as these two albums, I greatly prefer Turnover, which is relaxing, soothing rock music (as weird as that sounds).

Ethan Luck- Ethan Luck & The Intruders (EP)
Great 5-song folk-rock EP from the former drummer of so many bands it would take too long to list them.

The Innocence Mission- Hello I Feel The Same
I have been a fan of this band for almost 25 years, and will for the rest of my life. Unfortunately 1999's Birds of My Neighborhood was the last spectacular album The Innocence Mission released. Their four studio albums of the 2000's, including this one, are practically indistinguishable. If you have never heard this band, and are a fan of minimalistic acoustic folk with female vocals, this album might be the greatest thing you have every heard. But if you are familiar with their history, there is nothing new here and only a longing for the past.

Jesse Sprinkle- The Winter Blue
Another drummer who put together a great 2015 release, a "family" album. Very random and eclectic, but works, and is highlighted by a terrific Adam Again cover. Of course every time I listen to him I just wish there was new Poor Old Lu music. There is Blank Books to look forward to though in 2016!

Josh Garrels- Home
Far more focused and consistent than past Garrels' work, but I have to admit I miss the diversity and experimentation. Have barely listened to this, but will spend more time with it eventually.

Jim Adkins- I Will Go EP
When the lead singer of Jimmy Eat World initially announced his solo work, I was not very enthused because of how poor his band's last album was. I am MASSIVE Jimmy Eat World fan, and my expectations for Adkins' work are through the roof. That said, as bad as 2013's Damage is, this EP is excellent. Three originals, three covers, and it all sounds great.

Leigh Nash- The State I'm In
I feel bad I don't like this album more, as I spent so much time writing about Sixpence None the Richer this year, and I even published an interview with Nash herself. Nash's transition into country was completely natural, and this is by far the best release of her solo career. I plan to spend more time with this album in the months and years to come and I expect to appreciate it more.

NYVES- Anxiety
Considering the creators, I should like this more. Hasn't grabbed me as I expected it would.

Of Monsters And Men- Beneath The Skin
This is my 6-year-old daughter's favorite band. Does she want to listen to this album? Nope, she always prefers the debut, My Head is Animal. I agree with her!

Sandra McCracken- Psalms
This is McCracken's tenth album in 15 years. She has successfully bounced back and forth between folk and sacred music, and at times blended the two styles. This is definitely sacred music, but far more reverent and well-written than the majority of modern worship music.

Sleeping At Last- Atlas: Life
Ryan O'Neal is one of the most prolific songwriters of the present day. He releases at least one song a month (usually just one at time), and has been doing that for more than 5 years. He also never disappoints, with diverse instrumentation and profound lyrics. Atlas: Life is his newest project, and he is now six songs in to the 25-track project. Subscribe here and get one song a month emailed to you.

The Saddest Landscape- Darkness Forgives
Until a few days ago, I had never heard of this band or album. Then I noticed on Twitter they were giving it away for free on Bandcamp, so I downloaded it out of curiosity. The best metal album I have heard in quite some time!

SOAK- Before We Forgot How to Dream
I had this on my wish list for months and months, and finally bought it this week. I originally became aware of the 19-year-old Irish singer-songwriter Bridie Monds-Watson, whose stage name is SOAK, because of her UNREAL cover of "Immigrant Song" by Led Zeppelin.  This album is very chill, and while based around her vocals there is very unique yet minimalistic instrumentation and production work.

The Weepies- Sirens
For now a dozen years this husband-wife duo has been writing terrific songs and releasing fun folk-pop music. This is their 5th LP and near their best work.

Watkins Family Hour- Watkins Family Hour
Sara and Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek with Fiona Apple?! Yes, please! Unfortunately it doesn't quite live up to the hype. Apple is a small contributor, and while all the songs are good, this album is a small segment of the live show this studio record was birthed from.

Wilco- Star Wars
Wilco's album title is the pun of 2015, as Jeffrey Overstreet writes, "I’m willing to bet that by the end of 2015, this will be the only Star Wars that I find supremely satisfying". He wrote that in September in his Wilco review. I found the statement silly at the time, and now even more so that Star Wars: Episode VII is here and it is AMAZING. In a few years I'll forget this Wilco album even exists, but I'll still be obsessed with Star Wars. My complaint about the movie? I want to see more and know more about these guys:



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