Monday, January 18, 2016

What's the Jams?: Best Music of 2015

I turned 32 in 2015. This article claims that people stop listening to new music at age 33. I'm not saying I'm there yet, but according to my iTunes, I "acquired" almost exactly half as much music as I have in each of the previous 5 years. It's also probably a sign I'm getting old that I even still use iTunes in the first place. But I also finally splurged on Spotify premium in 2015—which may also explain my decline in music "acquiring." Either way, I haven't reached this point yet—I actually listened to the most music I have since 2010 according to my Last.fm. (Last.fm is another thing olds use.) But I digress. This ramble is all just to say that I have fewer favorite albums to write about than in years past. So there's no faux-Grammy setup like the last two years. There's just a few honorable mentions (that I kind of had to scrounge for) and a top 10 (that I didn't exactly have to scrounge for but still doesn't feel as strong as previous years). That out of the way, it's less talk, more rock... er, more talk about rock, anyway. Let's get to it.
* = saw live in 2015

Honorable Mentions, Part 1: Film Scores (alphabetical order):
Ex Machina, The Hateful Eight, It Follows, Mad Max: Fury RoadSicario
This was actually a really great year for film scores. Film scores have long been my favorite thing to write to, and these all fit the bill. Sicario is probably my favorite.

Honorable Mentions, Part 2: Record Albums (alphabetical order):
Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
John Carpenter – Lost Themes
Ryan Adams – 1989
Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love
Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp

10) Dustin Kensrue* – Carry the Fire
Best tracks: "Ruby," "Back to Back," "Gallows," "Juggernaut"

Erstwhile Thrice frontman's first solo album, 2006's Please Come Home, is one of my favorite unsung releases of the past 10 or so years. (Okay, it was actually sung, but whatever.) Having traded in Thrice's trademark aural assault for an acoustic guitar and harmonica, it's 8 dusty, sun-scrubbed tracks you could imagine him playing in a bar in the middle of the day in the middle of nowhere. That said, Carry the Fire hews closer to his band's albums than Please Come Home did, but I like it almost as much. The opening troika of "Ruby," "Back to Back," and "Gallows" is the album's high point, adding propulsive bass lines and incendiary electric riffs to the "drifter with a guitar" persona established on Please Come Home. But the openers belie the less brawny nature of the rest of the album, which ranges from merely subdued ("There's Something Dark") to mournful ("Of Crows and Crowns"). The playful "Juggernaut" is a late-album highlight, but some of the rest are a little too Mumford and Sons-y for my tastes (the closing two tracks in particular). Regardless, this is a strong album from an underappreciated songwriter, clearly comfortable free from the grandiose ambitions of his band. (Side note: I saw Kensrue live both solo and with Thrice, and the solo show blew me away.)

9) Metric – Pagans in Vegas
Best tracks: "Celebrate," "The Shade," "Too Bad, So Sad," "The Governess"

Metric has been one of my favorite bands since 2009, when Fantasies knocked my socks off—ultramodern and ultracool, it's impossible to resist Emily Haines's brashly vamping over what could be a lost John Carpenter score. But 2012's Synthetica was even better—intellectual and hip, a nearly flawless exploration of art and artifice, and the most enchanting album about the apocalypse I've ever heard. Needless to say (so why am I saying it?), I had high expectations for Pagans in Vegas. Did it live up to them? My reaction to lead single "The Shade" about sums up my thoughts on the album as a whole—very good but overproduced. "The Shade" is one of the best songs on the album (with maybe the chorus of the year), but the video-gamey "bleep-bloops" throughout just don't work, an unneeded studio touch that distracts from really strong songwriting. While the band has grown more assured as songwriters and musicians, each release since their debut has been more polished as the band has transformed from punk to post-punk to electronica to, now, synth pop. While I applaud the genre-hopping (and they can still play them all well), each subsequent release has added more varnish, more sheen, to each album's production values. The result here is a patina of artifice that the band (I think) means to transcend, as on Synthetica, but they fall just short this time around. Even so, the strongest tracks (see above) have just enough 'tude and catchiness to make up for some of the more hollow, overproduced tracks. My opinion on this one could change when I see the band in L.A. in February though. Maybe the new stuff plays better removed from the studio?

8) Josh Ritter – Sermon on the Rocks
Best tracks: "Young Moses," "Getting Ready to Get Down," "Where the Night Goes," "A Big Enough Sky"

Josh Ritter is a masterful storyteller, and has always been at his best when he does just that—"Lillian, Egypt" and "To the Dogs or Whoever" immediately come to mind as narrative masterpieces. That's why his last record, 2013's The Beast in Its Tracks—inspired by his recent divorce—didn't pull me in like his best albums. It was too dark, too intimate, largely devoid of the vivid characters and lively picaresques of his best work. Sermon on the Rocks, thankfully, is a return to form. This time 'round, Ritter spins yards about itinerant preachers, Bible school trysts, murder victims, and "tough girl[s] from bad town[s]", all with his typical rakishness, and all against the familiar backdrop of the American Midwest. While he's sowing fields he's sown before (yes, Johnny Appleseed pops up here), to call Sermon recursive would be reductive—"Seeing Me 'Round" is a Nick Cave–esque murder ballad, and "Lighthouse Fire" is a fuzzed-out scorcher with hauntingly layered harmonies, both unlike anything he's done before. But, as always, a Josh Ritter record hinges on the lyrics, and Sermon delivers there. I'll leave you with the beginning of the chorus of "Where the Night Goes," as fine a piece of lyricism as you'll find this year:

"In those long nights, old cars
Back roads and the boneyards
You drop the pedal like a holy roller
Sheriff of Hell couldn’t pull you over"

7) Doomtree – All Hands
Best tracks: "Final Boss," ".38 Airweight," "The Bends," "Marathon"

Minnesota's Doomtree has always combined disparate influences to great effect—what else do you expect from a hip-hop collective made up of one black MC, one Hispanic MC, two white MCs, a white female MC, and two white producers? Never has that idea—discordant ideas making a cohesive whole—been more evident than on their latest release, All Hands. Written in a snowbound Minnesota cabin far removed from the influence of modern technology and society, All Hands weaves references to video games, super hero comics, Bernhard Goetz, and a sustained obsession with 1980s culture into a tapestry that's starkly representative of contemporary America. POS, Dessa, and the crew touch on drug laws ("They’re just looking for a buyer / Easy meat, cheap prey supplier" from "Final Boss"), violence against black youths ("Bernhard Goetz"), gun violence ("Move around with a gat from a gun show / Middle of a murder ‘Merica" from "Generator"), and other modern ills. The centerpiece, to me, is "The Bends," a Dessa-led roadtrip through a pre-apocalyptic Midwest, 5 prophets foretelling the doom of America. Heavy, heady shit, and one of the best rap albums in years.

6) The Decemberists* – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
Best tracks: "Make You Better," "The Wrong Year," "Carolina Low," "A Beginning Song"

Like Metric and the band at #2 on this list, if The Decemberists put out an album, it's probably going to be in my top 10 of the year. While their first album in 4 years didn't finish as highly as their last one, What a Terrible World... nevertheless landed comfortably in my top 10. At 14 tracks and 52 minutes, it's not as focused an effort as The King Is Dead, but the high points (see above) are every bit as good, featuring consummate musicianship, heartfelt lyrics, and understated eloquence—the last a trait not found on many of their earlier albums, and some of the low points of this one ("Philomena," any reference to Axe shampoo). Take the best two tracks on the record (and of the year): "Better" and "Beginning." There's no roguish characters, no elaborate wordplay, no ornate literary references—just assured, earnest songwriting about tried-and-true topics: love, relationships, children. Perhaps it's welcoming back founding member Jenny Conlee after a cancer scare, or perhaps it's just a band maturing naturally, but the best songs here are among the best the band has written. Just maybe cool it with the branded hygiene product shoutouts next time.

5) Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Best tracks: "Elevator Operator," "Pedestrian at Best," "Aqua Profunda!", "Dead Fox"

Don't get me wrong, I appreciate wordplay, and Courtney Barnett's second album is the best display of lexical facility as you'll hear this year. With sharp wit and boundless verve, she writes about corporate drudgery "Elevator," "Dead"), dealing with the "small success" she's achieved as a musician ("Pedestrian"), and social anxiety ("Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go to the Party"). She's equally adept at describing people—there's a woman with "hair pulled so tight you can see her skeleton" in "Elevator"—and complex emotions—"I wanna wash out my head with turpentine, cyanide / I dislike this internal diatribe when I try to catch your eye" ("Pedestrian"). Sometimes I Sit... showcases a talented songwriter user her wit as a weapon as she navigates a world that is bigger and more complicated than she ever thought, simultaneously letting listeners hear her innermost thoughts and keeping them at a distance with blithe sarcasm and casual cynicism. It's a helluva journey, and I can't wait what to see what album #3 brings (and hopefully a live show too!).

4) Best Coast – California Nights
Best tracks: "Feeling OK," "Heaven Sent," "Jealousy," "Sleep Won't Ever Come"

I'll start out by stating the obvious: Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino is not the same caliber of lyricist as Courtney Barnett. Barnett writes nuanced, deeply funny song-poems; in contrast, Cosentino's lyrics read like scrawlings from a daydreamy teenager's notebook. That's not meant as disrespect—there's a charming simplicity to lines like "I blame it on the moon, I blame it on my moods" ("Sleep"). But Cosentino is a better arranger and a far more polished singer—Barnett's songs have a nonchalant, dashed-off quality, whereas Cosentino's are flawless little gems, rays of SoCal sunshine and glittery city lights compressed into song form. Both qualities are intentional, extensions of each writer's personality and tendencies. I like both artists and albums quite a bit—but, if I'm being honest (and my Last.fm will back this up), I listened to Best Coast a lot more this past year, so it gets the slight advantage. The fact that it's called California Nights also helps—those two words are probably the simplest distillation of my aesthetic wheelhouse. Someone get Michael Mann to direct their next music video, pronto. *swoon*

3) Brandi Carlile* – The Firewatcher's Daughter
Best tracks: "Wherever Is Your Heart," "The Eye," "Mainstream Kid," "Alibi"

This album's placement is a testament to the power of live music: The Firewatcher's Daughter probably would have been toward the back end of this list until I saw Carlile perform at Kaaboo back in September. I'd always liked her music, but I had no idea how great she was live. From the simple strumming and lovely harmonies of "Eye" to the rousing "Heart" to the righteously rockin' "Mainstream," the album more than held its own with her older stuff. ("Raise Hell" from 2012's Bear Creek was a memorable standout.) Throw in covers of Led Zeppelin's "Going to California" and, especially, Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain," and hers was one of the best sets I saw all year. I put this album on constant rotation after the festival, and it rose all the way to #3 on this list on the strength of Carlile's powerful songwriting, her band's superb musicianship, and the ease with which they moved from the plaintive ("Heroes and Songs") to the trenchant ("The Stranger at My Door") to the rollicking ("Alibi"). Carlile wields her guitar like a cannon, and if you give her a chance, she'll knock you off your feet just like she did to me.

2) Lucero* – All a Man Should Do
Best tracks: "Went Looking for Warren Zevon's Los Angeles," "The Man I Was," "Can't You Hear Them Howl," "I Woke Up in New Orleans"

If the phrase "California nights" represents a broad view of my personal aesthetic, the song title "Went Looking for Warren Zevon's Los Angeles" is like Lucero frontman Ben Nichols went into my brain, grabbed a few stray neurons, and wrote a song about what he found. I grew up listening to my dad's Warren Zevon LPs, I fell in love with L.A. when I lived there for 3 years for grad school, and Nichols' personal brand of whiskey-drenched philosophy has been known to make a burly, bearded fellow such as myself misty-eyed on occasion. Getting the chance to tell the man himself just that (or close enough, as it was definitely a whiskey-drenched conversation) after seeing them at Kaaboo as well was a highlight of my year. So to was hearing All a Man Should Do, their first album since 2012's solid Women & Work and very much of a piece with their phenomenal 2013 EP Texas & Tennessee. "Zevon" and "The Man I Was" are two of the most personal songs of Nichols' career, and two of the very best of the year, equal parts anguish and hope as Nichols grapples with what it truly means to be a man in all senses of the word (father, son, husband, human). He pours years of pain into every word, every stroke of string and key, and listening along as it all coalesces into the clarity of realization is truly moving. Only a transcendent record from a generation-defining artist kept this one from #1.

1) Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
Best tracks: "King Kunta," "These Walls," "Hood Politics," "Complexion," "The Blacker the Berry"

While I can understand, can empathize with the problems Nichols contends with on All a Man Should Do, I can't say the same for the topics Kendrick explores on To Pimp a Butterfly, far and away the best album I heard in 2015. I'm a white hipster(ish) with a beard and glasses from Arizona; I don't know shit about being a young black man from Compton, much less one who has had the mantle of speaking for a disillusioned, malcontent, mistreated, and misrepresented generation thrust upon him at the same time that he tries to come to terms with massive fame and success. This is a hyperintelligent, fiercely passionate album, from the fervent, Chinua Achebe-referencing "King Kunta" to the devastating twist at the end of "Blacker" to the Tupac interview he reframes with himself as interviewer to cap the album that he, unbelievably, completely pulls off. I could focus on all that, on all the important, bigger picture stuff, but others have done it better than I can. So instead I'll end by saying how fantastic this album is *musically*, independent of it as a piece of social commentary. The opening sample ("Every N*gger Is a Star") is about as on point as it gets, the hooks are flawless (especially Anna Wise's work in "These Walls"), the beats put the pussy on the chainwax, and Kendrick's flow is fucking *immaculate* throughout. Just an impressive, impressive album—a perfect gem, no matter what facet you look at.

Songs of the Year, Part 1: Honorable Mentions
Brandi Carlile – "The Eye"
Courtney Barnett – "Dead Fox"
Doomtree – "The Bends"
Dustin Kensrue – "Gallows"
Josh Ritter – "A Big Enough Sky"

Songs of the Year, Part 2: Top 5
5) Metric – "The Shade"
4) Best Coast – "Heaven Sent"
3) The Decemberists – "Make You Better"
2) Kendrick Lamar – "These Walls"
1) Lucero – "Went Looking for Warren Zevon's Los Angeles"

I mentioned all these songs above, so I'll end here. I managed to pare about 1,000 words from last year's entry, so I'll consider that a small success. I'll try to keep it under 3,000 again next year (and hopefully post it before year's end as well). Now, gotta get to work on my top movies of 2015 post... Until then, thanks for reading!

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