As I take stock of 2015, it was hard not to notice how many of my favorite albums were filled with what sounded like full orchestras or brass and strings accompanying singers living in some sort of beautiful time warp—a world immune to keyboards and “drops” and laptops. Don’t get me wrong, there is a select strain of electronic music that I adore, but this year’s best music is more a tribute to the past than a nod to the future. Sadly, I bid Rdio farewell and returned home to Spotify, where the rest of the world was listening. And thanks to Sonos and my iPhone, I have almost the full history of recorded music at my fingertips.
1. Tobias Jesso Jr.—Goon (SubPop)
Tobias Jesso is a very tall, shaggy-haired 20-something, who writes and performs near perfect slow piano ballads in the tradition of Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman and the much lesser known Epic Soundtracks. He is an old soul, with a modern sensibility. He tugs at your heart, but almost with a kind of a wink and a nod. There was no album quite like “Goon” in 2015. It is a rich but spare meditation on love and loss.
Lyrically it is about as vulnerably beautiful as anything I could both stomach and love. On the sublime “ Without You” he croons “I can hardly breathe without you / there is no future I want to see without you / I just don’t know who I would be without you.” But as much as “Goon” is remarkable for its intimacy, the album’s producer , Girls mastermind JP Snow, has created something so warm and close that it’s hard to imagine what it would have been in someone else’s hands. If there is one record to listen to over and over again this year, until you memorize every word and phrase, it is this one.
2. Julia Holter—Have You In My Wilderness (Domino)
On her third full length album Julia Holter channels the best elements from everyone from Bjork, Dirty Projectors, St. Vincent to Sufjan Stevens. Somehow I missed her first two, but this a revelation. There is nothing more exciting than discovering a new voice, especially one accompanied by complex musical arrangements, provocative lyrics and a decidedly non-pop, but poppy take on modern music.
She sings like an angel, composes like Brian Wilson, and writes as efficiently as William Carlos Williams: “Figures pass so quickly/That I realize my/ Eyes know very well/ It’s impossible to see/Who I’m waiting for in/My Raincoat,” she sings on the album opener “Feel You.” This album is simply magical.
3. Destroyer–Poison Season (Merge)
Destroyer (aka Dan Bejar), the lesser known third wheel in the super group The New Pornographers, has been making music for almost 15 years now. His music has always toed the line between sleepily esoteric and jazzily lost in time. Between moments of legitimate brilliance like 2011’s “Kaputt,” and the vocally and lyrically distinctive New Pornos tunes, Bejar has been on the cusp of something resembling a masterpiece.
“Poison Season” is finally the consistent daydream I have been waiting for. His seductively nasal vocal stylings, and reclusive rock star ways, are accompanied by a rock chamber orchestra of sorts. “Poison Season” is part musical, littered with brass and strings, part non-sensical beat-poetry, part love letter to life. On the magical “Times Square” he writes like Allen Ginsburg tripping on Stephen Sondheim : “Jesus is beside himself / Jacob is in a state of decimation / The writing on the wall isn’t writing at all / Just forces of nature in love with a weather station.” Tune in.
4. Sufjan Stevens—Carrie and Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)
There hasn’t ever really been a songwriter and composer like Sufjan Stevens. His hushed vocals and fully realized orchestrations live in this kind of nether world between here and there, now and then, and rock and church music. Always confessional and intimate, his albums have been ambitious attempts to understand the world around him, but also the world that exists in his head.
On “Carrie and Lowell,” his sadly uplifting mediation on his absent mother Carrie, and her second husband Lowell, he unpacks a lifetime of trying to reconcile how he should feel. Even when he sings “When I was three or maybe four / She left us at the video store” he is less angry than merely trying to understand. Yes, this record is heavy, both in spirit and composition, but like most of his work, there is a joy lying right below the surface and that’s what makes this so special.
5. Paul Weller—Saturns Pattern (Polydor)
At 61, Paul Weller might be the only legitimate rock star from the 70’s still making new music that is both vital and groundbreaking. While the Stones, The Who, and Zeppelin are still touring big stadiums on lucrative nostalgia tours, Weller is still writing, recording and performing new music with the same urgency and intensity as he did while leading the Jam and the Style Counsel. Beginning with his eponymous solo album in 1993, Weller has unpacked the history of rock music from R&B, to soul and blues, and the hybrids that live so comfortably in between. Some of these efforts have been legitimately mind bending like “Stanley Road” and the “Heavy Soul,” but others have lacked the kind of recognizable origin that helped create cohesion.
“Saturn Pattern” is something of the completion of a long virtuous cycle that began with The Jam and delivers us to today where artists seem to be embracing the lost genres of the not so distant past as some kind of revolt against the soullessness of electronic music. Vocally, Weller miraculously still sounds like a young man, and his band is filled with the kind of studio super group most artists only dream of. On “Pick It Up,” arguably his best most infectious song in a decade, you are almost transported back to that moment in time when you first heard his deliciously serious groove that hooked you the first time.
6. Shamir—Ratchet (XL)
Shamir is a genre and gender-bending enigma. “Ratchet” is also one of the most hopelessly addictive records of 2015. He is part dancehall diva, part hip-hop, and part melodic electronica. It is an album littered with big bouncy beats, but also one filled with cowbells and Casio’s. The music is hard to place from a timing perspective, but feels as if it could be comfortable in almost any decade starting in the 70s.
Lyrically, Shamir is some sort of weird savant, both funny, “Don’t try me I’m not a free sample / Step to me and you will be handled”, and also a bit angry. But it doesn’t really matter because once you let the beats wash over you on the dance floor it just kind of finds its way to you.
7. José González—Vestiges & Claws (Imperial Recordings)
Like Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, and perhaps Simon & Garfunkel before him, González has the uncanny ability to use his voice as an instrument as much as he turns an acoustic guitar into a voice. Both with his band Junip and his solo work, the Argentine Swede, creates a kind of slow burning intensity, serious and heavy but also weightless.
For an acoustic album “Vestiges” has a deep, steady groove throughout it. On the album’s standout track “Leaf Off / The Cave”he takes his own brand of melancholy optimism to a kind new high: “Take a moment to reflect where we’re going / Let reason Guide you / See all tracks lead you out from the dark. “ In 2015 there was no better example of musical mediation than this one.
8. Tame Impala—Currents (Interscope)
If I hadn’t been riding the Tame Impala train from their not so long ago first album, I’m not sure I’d know how to feel about this record. I know I’d love it, but once you know where this band is going, everything they do will be challenged by expectation. “Currents” is a fully realized masterpiece that seems to be following the kind of mainstream psychedelia that only Pink Floyd was ever fully able to pull off.
Not only are they a fully bankable live band with a light show that nods to the early acid tests, their swirling guitars and keyboards seem to have nothing in common with more popular modern music. I guess it makes sense that this group of outsiders in their 20s hail from Perth, Australia. They have managed to write an album of near perfect songs, and I sense that they will have a long creative career bridging the gap between the past and the present.
9. Kurt Vile—b’lieve i’m goin down (Matador)
Strangely, the 35 year-old Kurt Vile has become the flag bearer in the renaissance of a kind of uniquely American music that Tom Petty and Springsteen promulgated in the 70s. This is guitar rock rooted in the kind of blue collar experience where the subjects of songs have real jobs, go to the local bar after work, and drink Budweisers and smoke cigarettes while rock music blares from the battered juke box in the corner.
Along with fellow Philly based conspirators, and sometime band mates and fellow Adam Granduciel (War On Drugs), and the underrated Steve Gunn, Vile writes dark rambling songs all beginning and ending with his silky guitar work. Alternating between stark acoustic numbers like “All in a Daze Work” to the oddly uplifting “Life Like This” where he sings “Wanna live, wanna Live / A life like mine / Well I’ve been doin’ it all the time / To do so you gotta roll with the punches.” This is an album meant to be listened to from top to bottom, and over and over again.
10. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds—Chasing Yesterday (Sour Mash Records)
Who didn’t like Oasis, at least a little bit, in the 90’s. Although they were never my favorite Brit Pop band at the time, they had a real knack for timeless songwriting in the tradition of the best British bands. Although Liam Gallagher was the vocal face of the band during their heyday, it was Noel who was the real genius writing most of the music and lyrics.
“Chasing Yesterday” is one of the most surprisingly triumphant comebacks I have heard in a decade. Songs like “Riverman” and “The Right Stuff” are cut from that beautiful anthemic rock quilt that seems to have been kept alive only by bands like My Morning Jacket and Radiohead with not only the leverage and access to spend real time in a studio, but also with the vision to create rock in an age of electronica and Hip Hop. This is an album filled with long jammy, brass and string?—?adorned guitar driven rock that tend to build into something you haven’t heard since you last really loved Zeppelin and The Who.
11. Matthew E. White—Fresh Blood (Domino)
This wonderfully genre defying retro jazz rock exists somewhere in that nether world between Lou Reed, Hall & Oats, and Flight of the Conchords. It is groovy in a hard to place way, either in the past or deep in the future. It is funny, or ironic or perhaps even a bit sad. It’s hard to say really.
White idolizes the great Randy Newman, and I am assuming Brian Wilson; the music has a kind of similarly whimsical intensity. He creates slow building anthems that tend to explode out of something that moments earlier seemed merely a ballad. Just drop the needle and let it flow over you like a warm bath.
12. Mercury Rev—The Light In You (Bella Union)
Twenty years ago Mercury Rev released an indie rock classic called “Deserter’s Songs.” Along with The Flaming Lips “Soft Bulletin,” these two albums will be remembered as the definitive examples of a very specific moment in time where the druggy beauty of mid-career Pink Floyd met the weird orchestral cousins of 90s alternative rock. It’s been almost a decade since we last heard from Mercury Rev, but “The Light in You” is a surreal day dream.
On one of the year’s best tracks, “Central Park East,” you simply lose yourself in the song “Am I the only lonely boy to ever walk in Central Park … I’m listening to the sound of champagne glasses spilling out daydreams on the ground.” Waking, lucid dreams?—?I seem to remember having them more often when I was younger. Real life happens; thank god we still have music like this to help take us away.
13. Beach House—Depression Cherry / Thank Your Lucky Stars (Sub Pop)
There hasn’t been a band as perfectly consistent and as dreamily accessible as Beach House since the glory days of 4AD and the Cocteau Twins. Although neither of this years’ two excellent releases is individually better than any of the prior three, the sum of the parts, 18 songs in all, more than makes up for it. “Depression Cherry,” the more commercial but still experimental of the two albums, alternates between sonic My Bloody Valentine type rhythms and percussive sounds.
Of the two, I prefer the more stripped down simplicity of the surprise “Thank Your Lucky Stars” release. On it we can more freely bathe in the angelic vocals of Victoria Legrand, letting the gentle keyboards and guitar wash over everything. Most often our favorite bands eventually evolve away from the place where they start (U2, REM) and find themselves lost, unable to go back home. Others like Radiohead make only minor adjustments on that long path while still seeming fresh and relevant. Beach House is one of those bands, making small steps towards a far off future?—?one I hope is lit with many more beach houses.
14. Courtney Barnett—Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom & Pop)
If Stephen Malkmus were a 27 year-old woman from Melbourne, making music today he would sound like Courtney Barnett. Seemingly out of nowhere, she was shot from a cannon in the 2014 hype cycle with a quirky mix of bookishly clever lyrics and addictive melodies. On her first full length she has crafted a kind of survey album filled with all the elements of the 90s indie rock: loud guitars, whip smart lyrics, and a slackerish vibe.
Although perhaps an outlier, on the beautiful ballad “Depreston,” she sings “Now we got that percolator / Never made a latte greater / I’m saving / $23 a week.” This pretty much sums up her approach to music, holding a magnifying glass up to the little bits in life. She makes them funny, but also emphasizes how creativity is just sitting in front of us in the form of the mundane.
15. Leon Bridges—Coming Home (Columbia Records)
Some music just transcends the hype, the novelty and all of the weird inflections that come with breaking out of the convoluted music business in 2015. How would this album have stacked up against all the great R&B-Soul records of the 50’s and 60’s if it came out today? Who knows? Who cares really? Those records aren’t being listened to by youngsters, so if it takes an out of left field effort like this to inspire a look back, I’m game.
In addition to 25 year-old Leon Bridge’s silky smooth voice, and superb backing band (thanks to White Denim’s Austin Jenkins) there are ten legitimately great songs captured here. The real standout is clearly the hopped up “Smooth Sailin” but if you want songs that just kind of have you longing for an earlier life during a simpler time, songs like “Coming Home” and “River” will put you in that contemplative kind of mood.
16. Kamasi Washington—Epic (Brainfeeder)
There must be something in the water in LA these days. Fifty years ago, the jazz greats stomped around NYC, but thanks in part to Kendrick Lamar, space jazz freaks like Kamasi, Thundercat, Robert Glasper and Flying Lotus are picking up those faded clothes left behind by “Bitches Brew” era Miles, and soul jazz era Coltrane, Sun Ra and Funkadelic, and rebuilding the genre.
“Epic” is a three hour (yes three hour) masterpiece of blissed out jazz for the hip hop generation. In the mid-90’s Guru’s Jazzmatazz, US3, and The Solsonics and merged hip hop and jazz into a kind of cultural bridge, but slowly the real players were replaced by synthetic beats, samples and over-produced radio friendly chart toppers. This is as a refreshing and as important an album as any this year. Invest the time. Unpack history.
17. Kendrick Lamar—To Pimp a Butterfly (Interscope)
I am surprised that I have fallen for this record as hard as I have. Unlike its predecessor, which was a more traditional Hip-Hop album I am rarely moved by these efforts. But with collaborators like the Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, George Clinton and others, this was bound to be special. This is an album that feels more like a classic 90’s Acid Jazz (Guru, Digable Planets, etc.) than modern Hip Hop.
As an MC, Kendrick sounds almost understated here, letting the players play. This is a record about race, and about how little has changed in America. This especially hits home on the “The Blacker The Berry,” a not so subtle allusion to the seminal Wallace Thurman novel of the same name that explores racism within the black community in the late 1920’s. Sure there is anger, but it is buried into a weirdly wonderful survey course in the history of black music. This is a powerful reaction to the hedonistic trend where the most powerful MC’s end up in public pissing matches with each other, and forget about everything that came before them.
A bunch of other stuff that you must hear … [Read more…]