It’s a peculiar pursuit… Why bother? Why try to narrow such a vast landscape into a microscope-width? Music isn’t exactly a comparative or competitive pursuit, so why compare and rank?
This is a rhetorical question, of course. It’s obvious to anybody who would bother read the first few sentences of somebody’s year end list, so if you’re already here then you already know.
It’s exciting because the music peels a layer or two off of my heart when it’s really good, and if I can nudge anybody in the direction of an experience that might do the same for them, I will gladly do so.
And it’s a chance to discreetly peel a layer or two of my heart in front of others. Telling you what gave me the aural pleasure equivalent of a serious chocolate rush (or insert any other physical pleasure) is kind of intimate. You’ll know something about me if you read this list and actually listen to the music. It might not be true, but it will feel like it is. Finger snaps in jello.
“The List” also gives permission to write a precocious intro paragraph. That done, here’s what I really, really liked this year. As always, my rules state that I had to discover it in 2015, but it didn’t have to come out in 2015, and there is no order…
Dan Deacon – Glass Riffer. This is goofy, complex, frenetically paced, poppy and off-kilter. I’ve liked some of his other albums (in particular Spiderman of the Rings) for their cut-and-paste grandeur. But on this one, he’s going for pop superstardom without turning down the goofiness, complexity and wonkiness. He’s just made the cuts more like songs in length and structure, and washed in some wavering vocals that sound like they’re delivering killer pop chorus lines, but instead it’s almost impossible to hear what’s being said while being impossible to ignore the catchiness of the melodies. And cut up voices make up a lot of the “instrumentation.” Makes me want to belt it out, if I only knew what “it” was.
Colin Stetson & Sarah Neufeld – Never Were the Way She Was. Colin Stetson has appeared on my lists before for his extended saxophone marvels. He’s the rare virtuoso of an instrument who has both supreme mastery of the technique and delivering feeling by the truckload. On this album, he continues to use his endless breath and his instrument to make one saxophone sound like an adventurous sampler using multiple tracks, and he does it in as a duet with violinist Sarah Neufeld. I was worried that this might lack the complexity of his solo work, but the two instruments weave together almost impossibly tightly. In the end, the sheer virtuosity and recording creativity – stunning as it is – takes a back seat to music that picks me up on its river current and takes me on a ride as varied as any fast-moving river.
Thee Oh Sees – Mutilator Defeated at Last. Every time I listen to a new album by Thee Oh Sees I brace myself for disappointment. They’re garage rockers, and by definition this should get boring on fairly short order. Like after a couple good songs. Instead, this is album five for me and only makes me want to crank it loud and sneer in joy even more than the last one. While their palette of sounds is right from the garage psych playbook, they get it just right just a little differently every time.
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit. I loved her first album, and the title of the second one speaks volumes about what makes these songs work… her lyrics almost always sound like a run on sentence that could fall apart but instead they always come together in an expected and damn near perfect way. And the music is muscular enough that it doesn’t have the precociousness that could easily kill this kind of lyric. She’s rocking it out, playing her own Neil Young guitar crashes while delivering lines that are damn clever and also damn true.
Scott Merritt – Of. I’ve had a thing for Scott Merritt since I was 16 and he played a killer looping guitar on stage and I’d never seen anything like it. I quite literally wore out his Serious Interference album in 1985. His last album, The Detour Home (2002) was the best thing he’d ever done, I thought. And this new one is equally good, though quite different. This is exceptionally spare, stripping away the carefully layered and produced instruments of his previous work and relying largely on a tenor ukulele, with occasional support from a bass, a foot stomp, an organ, a horn. He’s putting his voice front and center, and I’ve always had a thing for his voice. If anything, it’s getting better as he gets older, and his songs are more direct. This one embodies the idea of quiet perfection, and sometimes that’s just what I want.
Georgia Anne Muldrow – oLIGARCHY sUCKS. How often does one buy an album just because of the cover these days? It used to be I did that a lot, in the days of albums with covers. I saw this cover and I thought, I think I want to hear what this is about. So I bought it, without even sampling it, or knowing anything about her. And I’m glad I did. This is the kind of music I always hope that I’ll find: daring, interesting, quirky but compelling and inviting too. Underneath it all this is beat music, built on carefully crafted rhythm tracks. But on top it has everything from harpsichord to horns and all sorts of earworm samples. There isn’t even any singing until the fourth track, and then it’s wonky distorted vocals like Nina Simone heard on acid. And any time vocals show up (which is not that often), the trip continues. Despite all the instrumental tracks, the music comes across like songs with narratives built right into the samply fabric.
Robert Plant – Lullaby & the Ceaseless Roar. Every once in a while, one of the old farts finds his inner killer again, and among the few albums where this is the case, this might be the best. I can’t deny my inner Zepelin fanboy, but that didn’t give Plant a break as he’s meandered through a bunch of different solo sounds. I got close to being interested in his deep Americana, but it didn’t quite inspire me. This album, however, does for roots Americana what Zepelin once did for the American blues… ie, kick its ass into a new form that’s playfully inventive and potent. The instruments may be acoustic-based and the amps turned down a few notches, but the songs are as full of memorable vocal and instrumental hooks as the best Zepelin tunes, sung by a voice that knows just how to take a song by the balls.
Jamie XX – In Colour. This guy is an extraordinary producer who also understands the arc of a song. The opening song, Gosh, grabbed me with its inventive vocal samples and unexpected textures. The rest of the album gets a bit more “mainstream electronic” but I never wanted to stop listening – up to and including the most mainstream pop song I’ll admit to liking at the end of the album. And it has borne many repeated listenings. Even though I sometimes tell myself that I don’t really like this kind of thing, I’m too busy liking it to change the channel.
Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color. This album does just what Janis Joplin once did: take American blues rock, fuck it up a bit, give it drive, and lay a killer, once-in-a-lifetime voice over it. And with the range of sound and quality of production available to an artist today, it far surpasses what Joplin could achieve in the 60s. This is a band with confidence, chops and the security of knowing that their singer rules. They don’t hide behind her or acquiesce to her, they lay it down before her like a thick pile rock’n’roll red carpet. And then she works it.
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell. I’ve sailed on the Sufjan Stevens boat a few times, and sometimes he leaves me a bit cold. This time around, things are bare bones, raw and emotional. These songs feel like intricate memory buildings formed from the thinnest twigs, fragile in appearance but crafted to last. It’s shockingly personal and direct, but the sparse depth of the settings transcends mere confession. He’s not just telling me something about himself, he’s telling me something carefully, skillfully and creatively.
Josh Ritter – Sermon on the Rocks. This guy is a consummate songwriter, and every so often one of his albums pushes beyond being just really good and becomes something truly compelling. The last time I really liked one of his was 2007’s The Historic Conquests. There’s nothing here that’s particularly surprising or unique, just great songs realized completely.
!!! – As If. I don’t know if I should admit how much I like this. If I do, you’ll probably imagine me doing jerky white guy dancing all around the room, and while this is exactly what I do (or at least feel like doing) I don’t necessarily want anybody to know. This is almost a parody of “Flight of the Concords” quality; it’s dance music that is humorously and lovingly and inventively copied. These guys clearly love cheesy dance music in all its forms, and do their best to send it up and elevate it at the same time. And chopped up vocals and sharp guitars in almost every track! This is dance heaven for this particular listener.