2015: My Top Ten Albums of the Year

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve posted anything here. Hopefully this site won’t see as much inactivity in 2016 as it did in 2015. So to make this count, let’s dispense with the intro clutter here and get right down to business:

My Top Ten Albums of 2015

10) BEACH SLANG – The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us
BSTTWDTFPWLUThough it was released a day before Halloween, the music on Beach Slang’s debut album is summer music. You can practically feel the humidity increase in the air around you when you turn it on, and each song is jam-packed with hazy guitars and raspy odes to drinking, drugs, love, youth, and the power of rock ‘n roll. That description might make you think of The Hold Steady or Japandroids (who are labelmates with the band), but Beach Slang don’t really have much in common with either of them.

There’s a song on The Things We Do called Young and Alive, for example, but there’s a vague sense of menace to it; the overall feeling it imparts is “okay, we’re young and alive now – but for how long?” Likewise, on I Break Guitars, it’s not a song of pure rawk triumph – there’s some ambiguity at work in it. Practically the first thing you hear is the line “I can’t think with all this noise” (the second line is even more telling: “I Waits my voice/to feel again”). And in a song called Porno Love, the band craft something startlingly poetic by murmuring “it’s heaven” repeatedly like a mantra as all the sound in the song washes away, out into some vast rock and roll sea. Fortunately, as debut albums go, “it’s heaven” just so happens to be the perfect self-summary.

9) YOUNG FATHERS – White Men Are Black Men TooYFWMABMT
Upon first listen, it’s kind of hard not to compare Young Father to TV On The Radio – both bands are adept at pivoting from genre to genre with grace, and they both know how to weave layered, hooky vocal parts together to great effect. But whereas TVOTR’s albums all have an immaculate, slick production (courtesy of their guitarist, Dave Sitek), White Men Are Black Men Too is sounds like it was recorded in a dim basement with scavenged equipment that’s not quite in working order: uneven beats delivered by brittle, handheld percussion, synths that seem to warble in pitch, drifting in and out of tune, and an overall mix that feels burnt and overdriven.

If that sounds unpleasant, rest assured it’s not. The music of White Men Are Black Men Too (just like the provocative title) commands your attention, and it’s full of emotion that’s powerful, yet restrained. Midway through 27, the beat bottoms out and the line “One in a million/you look familiar…” is delivered a few times with little more than a hushed croon; it’s barely there, and yet it feels enormous. So if you’re looking for something Scottish to listen to which sounds nothing like the self-conscious, maudlin exports the country’s presently known for (Frightened Rabbit, We Were Promised Jetpacks, The Twilight Sad – heck, even CHVRCHES¹), White Men Are Black Men Too should do the trick, and then some.

8) FAILURE – The Heart Is A Monster
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In the alt-rock history book, Failure are (unfortunately) little more than a footnote. They never sold a lot of records. They never received a lot of airplay. Perhaps the most notable thing about them is that A Perfect Circle covered one of their songs back in 2003 – six years after Failure had disbanded.

Failure weren’t even the first of their peers to resurface after a decade and change of absence (see: Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, etc.). But whereas the more recent outputs of those groups have been middling at best, Failure’s first new album in nearly 20 years is stunning in its depth. They’ve doubled down on all the things which (apparently) made them a hard sell in the 90’s – their penchant for dissonance in strange places, their peculiar song structures, their surgical use of guitar textures – and the results are incredible. The Heart Is A Monster is an impeccably produced record, and each song is packed with a myriad of differing elements, each one of which is tucked and sewn into the perfect spot. There’s no better “Exhibit A” of all of this than the song Come Crashing, so I’m just going to stop now and leave you to listen to it.

7) DONNIE TRUMPET & THE SOCIAL EXPERIMENT – Surf
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2015 saw new releases from Kendrick Lamar, Dr. Dre, A$AP Rocky, Drake, Future, Drake and Future, Young Thug, Vince Staples and Earl Sweatshirt – but I prefer Surf to all of them. Released as a free mixtape at the end of May² by a group of Chicago musicians (including Chance The Rapper), Surf is a tricky album to pin down. It’s got a flow all its own, juxtaposing moments of almost overpowering exuberance with moments of still melancholy, sometimes within the span of a single song (Slip Slide), sometimes with the shift from one song to another (and sometimes both).

Like the Young Fathers album listed above, there’s a ramshackle feel to a lot of the music on Surf, as though it were created in the moment out of what was available. There’s no sense of urgency or stress as a result of this, though (this is no coincidence, as the album was recorded over the course of two years). The music on Surf is never not relaxed, and seems to spring forth like water, going wherever it’s got to at whatever pace it must. It’s an easy album to get lost in, and it’s even easier to want to stay there.

One final note: the song below, Sunday Candy, is my favorite song of 2015. Give it a listen!

6) SUFJAN STEVENS – Carrie and Lowell
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It was 2010 the last time that Sufjan Stevens released an album, the occasionally brilliant, occasionally frustrating Age of Adz. On a purely conceptual level, that album was a giddy, delightful kiss-off to all the people who didn’t want anymore damn Christmas albums or mixed media nonsense from the guy who promised us an album for every state. As music, though, The Age of Adz often collapsed under its own manic weight.

Carrie and Lowell, by contrast, is weightless. The music here is among the most clear and sobering that Stevens has ever crafted, and the remarkable presence that everything on the album has is anchored all the more by the fact that so much of it deals with absence. Stevens’ mother (Carrie, from the title; Lowell is Stevens’ stepfather) passed away from stomach cancer in 2012, and the music here was borne as an act of reconciliation, with Stevens trying to work through the reality of his relationship with a woman who existed largely in the periphery of his life.

Carrie and Lowell isn’t a giant dirge, though; this isn’t Benji. Yes, there’s sorrow on these songs, but there’s longing and joy, too. And even though Stevens is working with a fraction of the musical palette he’s utilized over the past ten years here, he’s never made a collection of songs as singular and powerful as this before. And given his career, that’s really saying something.

5) COURTNEY BARNETT – Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit
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By the time Small Poppies came on for the first time, I thought I had Courtney Barnett’s debut album all figured out. I’d already heard the first three songs on Sometimes I Sit and Think (including the sublime Pedestrian At Best), and I thought I knew where things were going to go (or at least were likely to go) from there. Oh, what hubris on my part. For the next seven minutes, I sat and listened, spellbound. What I was hearing sounded like an alternate-universe Ultraviolence song which Jack White stumbled by mistake, pounding out surf rock versions of his Ball and Biscuit guitar jams. Put simply, that was not something I was expecting. That first listen of Small Poppies is something that’s going to stick in my memory for a long time.

Sometimes I Sit and Think is full of unexpected surprises like that. Hell, half of the joy of the album when first listening to it is wondering where Courtney’s wry, free-association lyrics are going to take you next. The humor on this album is an absolute delight, and as icing on the cake, it’s witty without a shred of pretense or irony (“Don’t jump little boy/don’t jump off that roof/You’ve got your whole life ahead of you/you’re still in your youth/I’d give anything to have skin like you”). It’s a charming album, but not a cloying one. It’s fun, but not overbearing, laid-back, but never boring, and it’s as far as debut albums go, it’s practically without equal.

4) NATALIE PRASS – Natalie Prass
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Natalie Prass’ self-titled album was the first album I listened to front to back in 2015. It was released a mere three weeks into the year, when the Midwest was wracked with snow and ice – and I remember feeling there was a roaring fireplace right in front of me the entire time it was on. I fell asleep to it on the Metra more than once during commutes from the suburbs to the city of Chicago, and that didn’t really have anything to do with the music being soothing (which it largely is), but rather, because it made me feel as though I was at home, even in a traincar full of strangers.

Every song on Natalie Prass feels like it was encased in amber and unearthed many years later, a musical time capsule of sorts. The instrumentation virtually eschews anything electronic, favoring instead an abundance of strings, horns and woodwinds. And Prass’ voice is another anachronism. She doesn’t wield it as weapon, poised at the front of the mix and ready to plow you over with its power. Most of the time, it’s a wispy coo that floats around all the other instruments, sometimes getting lost among them, only to surface a few beats later. I know there’s a fair amount of people who’ve dismissed this album as Lite FM nothingness, but when I came across it, it took hold of me in a way few other things this year did. Grab a warm blanket and a hot drink, and give it listen.

3) ALABAMA SHAKES – Sound and Color
screen-shot-2015-02-10-at-8-13-20-amI know this may sound blasphemous what with Adele’s 25 having come out just a few weeks prior, but for me, there was no greater vocal performance I heard in 2015 than what Brittany Howard delivered across the 12 songs and 48 minutes of Sound and Color. It’s simply incredible; whether she’s harmonizing herself like a chorus of raindrops in Over My Head or howling like a banshee near the end of Miss You, she’s in a class all her own.

Much like Howard’s shapeshifting vocals, Sound and Color is an album that resists classification (though that didn’t stop it from debuting at number 1 on the Billboard 200 when it was released back in April). It belongs to no one genre; its Wikipedia entry lists no fewer than six: blues rock, roots rock, soul, southern rock, garage rock and Americana – and I don’t think the album is ever really wholly any one of those.

More than any other album on this list, Sound and Color makes exceptional use of space. Songs will sometimes erode away into almost nothing, only to erupt in an explosion of sound moments (see: Gimme All Your Love). This isn’t merely a dynamic trick, a quiet/LOUD one-two like Mogwai might do. When it happens, it’s the result of a transformation, a near absence of sound suddenly morphing into a total presence of one. It’s a hard thing to capture into words, and I’m admittedly not doing that good of a job with it. Point being: if you haven’t listened to Sound and Color, listen to Sound and Color. In 2015, there was nothing else like it.

2) SHAMIR – Ratchet
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The first time I heard Shamir via the song On The Regular, I was in a car with friends heading up to Wisconsin for a camping trip – and I must confess that I didn’t really like it. I didn’t dislike it, per se, but On The Regular, for those who’ve never heard it before, will not sound like whatever you think a song like On The Regular might sound like. There is nothing “regular” about it; it is totally, beautifully, deliriously unique. And it took a second listen before that truth really sparked up in my brain.

Ratchet is an album that doesn’t stay in one place for too long. It can be elegant and soulful one minute, and feverish and trippy the next – and it’s not afraid of ballads, either (indeed, my favorite song on the album, Demon, happens to fall into that category). There’s a lot of comparisons that people have made about the music on Ratchet, but the thing that comes to my mind most often when listening to it isn’t usually people’s first instinct: it’s LCD Soundsystem. Like Jame Murphy, Shamir has a fondness for varied percussion (bells, blocks, tambourine, taut trap kit drum beats) and spastic, laserlike synth pulses. Unlike James Murphy, Shamir’s got a magnificent voice, and none of his songs overstay their welcome at any point. For a lot of albums, a person could reasonably argue that they could have been made by anybody. Ratchet, by contrast, could only have been made by Shamir.

1) FAITH NO MORE – Sol Invictus
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Don’t let that #1 fool you – Sol Invictus is not the best album of 2015. It’s honestly debatable whether or not it’s even really my favorite album of 2015 (though I’d be hard-pressed to name something I listened to more). It is, however, a miracle of sorts – a comeback album that actually signifies a comeback of something.

Sol Invictus sounds decidedly like a Faith No More album, and while a band retaining their sound after a prolonged absence isn’t exactly noteworthy on its own (see: Sleater-Kinney’s excellent No Cities To Love, another 2015 release), it’s a revelation here, because when the album starts up, a hard fact becomes obvious very quickly: Faith No More have no modern-day contemporaries.

Yes, bands like Incubus and the Red Hot Chili Peppers are still technically around, but they’ve diluted themselves into forms that bare only a passing resemblance to what they once were – and no one has rushed in to pick up the banners they once carried. This is not a criticism, but an observation – and in fairness, Faith No More don’t have anything on Sol Invictus that sounds like, say, Jizzlobber. But the truth of the matter is that music like this – music with a goofy theatricality, a poppy sensibility, all being mashed together by hard rock’s teeth – just doesn’t get made any more. Faith No More were an anomaly back in the 90’s, and they’re even more so now. When Mike Patton yowls “May the dead live!” over and over again on Matador, he’s not lying – with Sol Invictus, the dead really have come back to life. And I couldn’t be happier to have them.

1No disrespect meant to any of these bands, all of whom I adore.
2You can download the album here.

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