2015 MUSICAL FAVORITES
Reissues, Box Sets and Compilations
The Velvet Underground - The Complete Matrix Tapes
In all honesty, this is the release I expect to go down as my true landmark of 2015. I gushed like a child at Christmas over the two discs of excerpts released as part of the 45th anniversary box set for their self-titled third album, so to have all four in this quality is like ten hundred Christmases rolled into one. It’s live Velvet Underground from 1969. You either want it enough to sacrifice someone else’s child or you have no interest at all.
Dr. John - The Atco/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974
I think of the early work of the good Doctor more in terms of albums than singles, but it’s nice to be reminded how well these songs work separated from that context. This collection also makes it much easier to hear the evolution of Dr. John’s sound, from voodoo Night Tripper to the ambassador of good time New Orleans funk for the masses. It took me years to fall under his spell, but I expect this set will ensorcel others with greater rapidity.
Bob Dylan - The Bootleg Series, vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965-1966
More words have been written about this then I care to read, so suffice it to say that no matter how deep a dive you take into these iconic sessions for Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde (whether the 2 CD sampler, 6 CD smorgasbord, or the whole 18 disc megillah) you’ll find the search as fulfilling as the classic albums have been for generations.
Frank Zappa & the Mothers - Roxy: The Movie
Finally the vaults open to one of the oft-rumored but never appearing great moments in the Zappa discography. The film and it’s soundtrack are here and the sound is stupendous. This is my era of Zappa and the Roxy and Elsewhere album has long been my favorite. I don’t think this will grow to surpass it, but crikey it’s good.
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band - Live Archive Series: Tower Theater 1975 / Agora Ballroom 1978 / Nassau Coliseum 1980 / Giants Stadium 1984 / LA Sports Arena 1988
Bruce Springsteen has quietly been releasing downloads of soundboard recordings from his vault for a while now. Most of it is from the most recent tours, but select shows from the past 40 years have also been released. Most of these are collector’s classics, from FM broadcasts and the like, and I’ve had three of the five for years from very good bootlegs. However, these official versions blow them out of the water. I’ve long had issues with the bombastic Bruce on much of his studio work but I’ve enjoyed his live recordings since first hearing the Live 1975/85 box set. To hear full shows – the ebb, the flow, the interplay, the frenzy of musicians and audience – is to fall in love with the man and the band.
My Favorite 26 (Really 27) albums of 2015
I will remember 2015 more for extra-musical reasons than musical ones. This is a good thing. While music will always play a central part in my life, I have in recent years let it define my life far more than I ever should. That said, my favorite albums of 2015 served as a personal soundtrack more than they have in ages. A lot of that has to do with my level of involvement with the work of my musician friends. I made my first ever studio visit. I was asked to give feedback on mixes and sequencing. I even contributed some of my own noises to an album. All of this was more important to me than being part of the hive mind, or of being up to date on the latest things. My interactions with the people around me, both near and far, shaped what I listened to and where my attention always returned. It’s no surprise to me that so many of friends are on this list. When the music weaves its way between myself and those around me it pulls at more than my ears.
Before I begin let me throw out a disclaimer. I disqualified Kult of the Wizard’s latest album, The White Wizard, because Kult leader Aaron Hodgson asked me to send him some theremin noise he could use on one track. That song, “Plasma Pool”, is the first music I’ve ever been part of that was pressed to vinyl. I didn’t expect that holding a record in my hand that I had a part in would mean as much as it did. I didn’t expect every mention of the “unsettling” or “eerie” track in a review to make me grin like the Cheshire cat. My involvement aside, The White Wizard is my favorite occult rock record of the year and deserves your time and attention.
26. Second Sun - Hopp/Fortvivian
The drummer from the hyped to the mountaintops band Tribulation ditches their shitty singer and sub-Cult goth regalia to make a throwback heavy psych record that I try to sing along to even though it’s in Swedish. Nothing here changes the world or re-writes the possibilities of music. It’s merely one of the most joyous and fun rock and roll albums to listen to I’ve heard in ages. A big hardy thank you to Craig Hayes for encouraging me to listen with open ears. I never would have given it a chance after hearing Tribulation’s latest record.
25. Marriages - Salome
A guitar heavy 21st century post-punk record that brings to mind the Cure, Lush, and the early Cranberries (try not to think of “Linger”-era ‘berries when you next hear “Skin”) while somehow slotting into the same headspace of Tori Amos’ classic 90s records. I hate the convention of comparing female artists to only other female artists, but Emma Ruth Rundle’s delivery - especially her phrasing - hit that same spot for me. This is a very, very, good thing. Tori’s 90s albums are unimpeachable classics in my world. A special note that drummer Andrew Clinco is a joy to listen to on Salome. He ends up doing a lot of the heavy lifting in their compositions without ever seeming encumbered by them.
24. Wailin Storms - One Foot In The Flesh Grave
Chuck Biscuits Don’t Surf. One Foot in the Flesh Grave is the power blues of the first couple of Danzig records meets a death rock Link Wray at a beach swarming with Amphetamine Reptiles. There was something in last year’s uneven debut that made me think this was in their future but I didn’t expect it so soon. I fully expect this album will only grow in my estimation as time goes on. I also expect it will either catch someone immediately or repulse them with the force of thousand Doors haters.
23. Sunder - Sunder
Sunder used to be called The Socks, and their music was a perfectly acceptable take on the late 60s psychedelic rock sound that is inescapable at the moment. However, these Frenchmen threw away their wholly unmemorable moniker as well as all the utterly unmemorable aspects of their sound. At times Sunder reminds me of a stripped back Witchcraft, all the Pentagram left behind for the next group looking for black velvet robes. “Cursed Wolf” is an instant classic; bassline, sing along vocals, guitar tone, organ quaver, everything. I smile from ear to ear, totally content.
22. Blur - The Magic Whip
Earlier this year I had a 30-minute conversation with Ian Miller about the album and my assessment stands. Get rid of “Ong Ong” and “New World Towers” and this is a top three or four Blur album. It became my go-to late night headphone record; as long as I skipped the aforementioned stinkers I found it a perfect soundtrack to the constant nighttime bustle of living in the city. There is a dreamlike state brought on my urban insomnia that causes the lights and sounds to trail and float, like I’m out of phase, normal speed in a high speed environment. It’s like living in dub, echoes and repetition where none truly exists. The best songs here – “There Are Too Many Of Us” and “Ghost Ship” – nail that feeling like nothing else in some time.
21. Sans Soleil - A Holy Land Beneath A Godless Sky
Technically a 2014 release, this album came out on December 30th, far past the consideration point for nearly everyone, including myself. It would be criminal to miss it on a technicality, especially as it is one of my most played albums of 2015. Though instrumental post-rock should be in my wheelhouse, far too often I find myself drifting away from it as it lacks the hooks to keep me on the music’s trajectory. Where I want it to go is more interesting to me than where the artists take it. Sans Soleil does such a good job I’m not even imagining alternate pathways. I’m not just hooked, they’ve got me in blinders. Beautiful, haunting, entrancing, enticing, wonderful.
20. Dead To A Dying World - Litany
Dead To A Dying World works as the dark mirror of Sans Soleil. Released on the same label (Tofu Carnage) and featuring the same violist, Eva Vonne, in my mind the two albums intertwine and shed a light on each other. Dead To A Dying World aren’t post-rock, at least not with the purity and purpose of Sans Soleil. Instead they’re a black metal band who uses the cinematic lushness of post-rock as contrast to the skeksis hissing, tremolo picking, and incessant drumbeat that lies at the core of their epic style (I don’t use the word lightly, but with four of the six songs breaking the fourteen-minute mark I think it’s appropriate). As with the Sans Soleil album, I find myself captivated by the journey, though it isn’t a pleasant one.
19. KEN Mode - Success
I knew they had this record in them. For years I’ve been hooked on their live show, an intense and visceral experience like few others out there in the world. And while I’ve liked their records, I was waiting for the one that captured what I loved about their live set. Success nails that intensity by basically being a live in the studio recording; the band had the songs dialed in and played them with the ferocity their stage show has in spades. The opening and closing tracks, “Blessed” and “Dead Actors” were instantly and likely will forever be my two favorite KEN Mode songs. It takes guts to summon the spirits of first the Jesus Lizard and then late period Fugazi, yet both tracks hold their own amongst the holiest of holies in my personal pantheon. High, high praise. Now, though it’s not a happy record – KEN Mode doesn’t do happy – the pitch black humor cracked me up at the most appropriately inappropriate times. Maybe I know too many people and too many bands that these songs speak to and about, but damn if it wasn’t the most sadly perfect album to sum up 2015. I jokingly said this past spring that 2015 was “the year noise rock broke” and KEN Mode led the charge straight into the glass ceiling keeping it in its place.
18. Vattnet Viskar - Settler
Settler is an album that should have rocketed Vattnet Viskar into the stratosphere. They delivered the payload, a blisteringly beautiful blast of black metal and post-rock with a palpably beating rock and roll heart. Shame that their partners in the rocket launch didn’t check the O-rings. Look, I couldn’t talk about this album without making a Challenger metaphor. I’m sorry it’s so unfortunately apt. Because as I said, the album itself is special and one that should have led to a breakthrough; Rolling Stone recently cited them as part of the blackgaze (ugh, genre names) explosion along with perennial poster boys Deafheaven. But through no fault of the band it hasn’t happened. Yet. I think it will. The band believes in the album and have done their best to support it. As I type they’re on their third North American jaunt of the year, road dogging like few still have the stomach to do in 2015. Do yourself a favor and listen to the album, catch them live, and let it sink in. Whatever you want to call the genre, Vattnet Viskar are its finest practitioners.
17. Dark Buddha Rising - Inversum
Epic psychedelic doom. Two 20-odd minute songs. Slow meticulous build to a prolonged release to oblivion. Repeat. In a year Ufomammut, the undisputed master of this domain, put out a very good album in Ecate, Dark Buddha Rising out Ufomammuts (yeas it’s a verb) Ufomammut with Inversum. I talk a lot about wheelhouses, and for me this style of metal is arguably the wheelhouse my other wheelhouses look at with envy (so not all my metaphors work). There isn’t much I can say here. It makes me happy. Maybe it’ll do the same for you.
16. Chelsea Wolfe - Abyss
Chelsea Wolfe is an artist I’ve enjoyed in the past, even if her work never quite clicked in a way that made me want to spend the time to fall in love. Abyss turned that admiration to love in the first verse of “Carrion”. It struck me in much the same way as Portishead’s Dummy struck me back in 1994; a synthesis of sounds from a couple of genres that combines into its own relatively unique amalgam of folk, doom metal, electronic elements, and even some good old slowcore. Perhaps my longing for a new Rose Kemp record helped me connect to Abyss, but in the end none of that’s important. This is an album I can sink in and lose myself to the darkness.
15. Hills - Frid
Heavy psychedelic rock is my bread and butter. As such, I tend to vacillate between sustenance and snobbery; anything is good enough when I’m hungry but when my basic needs are met I look for something a little more special. The problem is I often can’t tell the difference. The memories of my hungry days cloud my judgment. Is Frid as good as I thought when I was dying in the psych rock desert? Is it a stale crust that saved me or the finest of breads, with a hearty crust you can thump but stuffed with the savory goodness of moist airy goodness? I dunno. But I keep listening, when so many of its fellow psych contenders turned out to be pretenders.
14. Yells At Eels - In Quiet Waters
The Gonzalez family has opened their arms to me and brought me in close, so any critical distance I once had from them is completely gone. That’s not to say their music isn’t wonderful, nor that this album hasn’t brought me loads of joy throughout the year. Their music is what drew me too them in the first place; I didn’t realize how much I had missed jazz and they re-opened that door for me. Their music makes me feel more alive. No matter how many times I hear them play “Document for Walt Dickinson”, or how many times I play “Hymn for Julius Hemphill” on my own, it always comes back to their generosity of spirit, both as players and people. it’s the way Stefan approaches me every time we meet with arms wide, pulling me in for a true deep hug that sets me at ease; the way Aaron leans in and puts his head on my shoulder, conspiratorially as often as not; the way their father Dennis greets me with an honest and real, “It’s so good to see you!” and never breaks eye contact in a conversation with me, always listening, learning, and teaching. Music comes from the heart, and the heart of the Gonzales family is exposed for all to see and hear.
13. Big Brave - Au De La
Montreal brings the world some of the most intense extreme metal purists and some of its most experimental ones at the same time. Maybe one needs the other for balance and to push against. Regardless of why this continues to happen, I’m happy it does time and time again. Big Brave is part of the experimental side, in the broadest of senses a doom metal band but in practical terms I don’t even know how to describe them. Heavy and grinding, mostly slow, with a great sense of space and pace, with spoken/screamed/chanted/sung/recited vocals, Big Brave is wholly themselves. I remember Au De La coming into my inbox and the poor PR writer had as much trouble as I did pegging what they did. This immediately made me want to hear it. Then hear it again. And again. It was another album I surrendered to, letting it take me where it needed to go and happily going along for the ride.
12. Nightslug - Loathe
Ugly, bile-spewing noise. Metallic in the sense of the substance, not the music. Sludgy because filthy isn’t a strong enough word to describe this muck. Amphetamine Repitle? More like Slamphetamine Reptile. This is vile, nasty stuff. The kind of music that gets played nowhere in public because even scum have a little decency. Be thankful when you’re done listening that you still have your teeth. But you should check to make sure.
11. Shooting Guns/Hawkeyes - Brotherhood Of The Nod split LP
Well shoot me in the ass and throw me in hot lava! These two bands put out a split and it ends up one of my favorite releases of the year? How surprising to no one. The Guns continue their upward trajectory, racing forward heedless of where they’re going or where they’ve been. Also, “Mega Volcano” has some amazing boogie-woogie keyboard action that makes me happy. They should be the honky tonk band in the Roadhouse remake. Hawkeyes, on the other hand, tease that they’re actually gonna get the car started this time but once again proceed to smoke themselves out and manage to barely stumble back into the house. Their opening gambit might be called “Hotter Than Ten Hundred Suns” but it has the pull of a black hole. Nothing escapes. Brotherhood Of The Nod is a perfect pairing; one is about forward motion at all cost, the other about the heaviness of stasis.
10. Ultimate Painting - Green Lanes
Ah, the sweet lure of a good bit of jangle. In a year with some top notch jangle, Ultimate Painting edged out the return of The Chills as my go to purveyors of elliptical guitar lines. I’ve talked about albums as journeys, escapes, sounds that hold me captive, etc. Green Lanes is the perfect cup of tea of albums. Soothing, somehow invigorating yet relaxing, a wake up call and a warm comforter before bed on a cold winter’s night. It’s also a wonderful sing along record as you’re doing your chores around the house. Though maybe that’s just me. Bonus points for making “Chris” into two syllables because it makes it sound like “caress” which adds poignancy to the song.
09. Nervous Curtains - Con
I’m lucky enough that I can say I first heard this album in the fall of 2014. I’ve lived with it for well over a year, and heard them play songs from it since I would guess late 2013. It’s hard for me to think of it as a new thing, but it reached the wider world this fall and I hope folks take the time to learn it and love it like I have. All that time and still I can’t stop focusing on “City of Hate”. It’s about Dallas – both its volatile past and unequal present – and its cheeky, knowing nods to cultural artifacts and insanely catchy chorus made it my favorite song of 2105. That’s not to say I don’t love more songs on the record, for example I adore “Parody”, “PMA”,”CWII”, even the weird throwaway-not-throwaway “Kraut Dog”. The consistency of the album speaks much to the quality of Nervous Curtains synth-led, drum driven, post-punk krautrocky excellence of Con.
08. All Them Witches - Dying Surfer Meets His Maker
On Twitter I called All Them Witches “the Masters of Reality for the 21st century” and I mean that most sincerely. What they’re doing – I’ll call it psychedelic Appalachian blues – is as groundbreaking a reclamation of a form as the Masters of Reality’s heavy take on 60s blues and proto-metal was in the late 80s and early 90s. The only comparison is perhaps Across Tundras, who have always been a bit more Crazy Horse than Cream or Hendrix or Blue Cheer. Regardless of whether you find them as revelatory as I do is irrelevant, because hot damn tamale they have both concise songs and blazing jams to fill whatever need you have.
07. Anonymous 4 - 1865: Songs Of Peace And Hope From The American Civil War
1865 is an album that commemorates the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, Once again, Anonymous 4 are in great voice and absolute command, as well as welcoming, earnest and giving collaborators. I’ve often thought it was the second factor that made them special; singers with such talent are not always the best team players, but Anonymous 4 have always placed the needs of the music first. In tackling these popular tunes from this era they’ve done this once again. To read that the opening song here, “Weeping, Sad and Lonely, or, When This Cruel War Is Over” sold nearly a million copies of its sheet music in both the North and South (with lyrical changes as necessary) is jaw dropping. 152 years after its publication this performance brings me to my knees. Its sadness is palpable and raises goosebumps play after play. Song after song, Anonymous 4 and their accompanying musicians and singers shatter me like nothing else I heard in 2015.
06. Royal Headache - High
How an album that owes such strong allegiance to The Jam – a band I’ve never cared for a lick – can captivate me as much as High is an absolute mystery. Or maybe it isn’t; the melodies are strong, the hooks strong and plentiful, and the vocals are soulful in a way I don’t hear much in my admittedly irregular dalliance with pop punk. I can’t stop playing this album because it makes me want to move. I’m not much of a dancing man these days, but I’ll be damned if I don’t put this on and jump around the room. I can’t be still when it’s playing and that is all I ask of this style of music. Make me feel. Make me move. Now this is never something I would have searched for or given even a passing glance. Thankfully, one night in August I had a long conversation with my friend Riley Gale who flat-out insisted I listen to what he described as one of the best albums in years. Thanks Riley, and the next time you want to tell me about things I missed please do.
05. Kowloon Walled City - Grievances
I don’t hide what an absolute fanboy I am when it comes to Kowloon Walled City. They make music I would like to make if I could, but it would never be this good. Grievances, like Container Ships before it, is a masterclass in dynamics. The use of space, the discreteness of individual sounds, the melding of two or more instruments into a sound impossible for either, the way a vocal howl can cut through like a searing blade or be subsumed in the growl of bass and the thunder of a kick drum; listen and learn. This is not to say Grievances is Container Ships volume two. A couple of things have changed, and both for the better. First, they’ve completely uncoupled Jonathan Howell’s lead guitar from Scott Evans’ rhythm guitar and it now floats free to color and comment where needed. That’s both brave and disconcerting, but adds to the tension that is the core of their sound. The other uncoupling is bassist Ian Miller and drummer Jeff Fagundes. In most bands, this is the rhythmic core, and the pocket or groove they lay down is the compositional bedrock. Here it is most often Evans and Fagundes who are complimenting each other and holding the center, leaving Miller to add his growling tone to the melody. Again, this shift only further heightens the tension. And boy is Grievances a tense record. It isn’t noise, nor is it metal, slowcore, sludge, nor anything but Kowloon Walled City. Welcome to your own genre, gentlemen.
04. Low - Ones And Sixes
In a year where I listened to hundreds and hundreds of metal albums I found nothing as heavy as the drop at the three-minute mark in “No Comprende”. Low has always been heavy in lyrical content but the wall-rattling bass there took me by surprise. In fact, Ones And Sixes took me by surprise on almost every listen. Some moment would show itself and I’d have to rewind and listen again. It could be just a little motif, never repeated, or a slight snarl to Alan Sparhawk’s delivery of one word, or the first time hearing “Into You” on headphones versus speakers and the quaver in Mimi Parker’s delivery caused my throat to tighten. I finally saw Low this summer at Eaux Claires; they played five songs from this album and it made me look forward to it all the more. It didn’t disappoint. Ones And Sixes is their best album since Trust, and I can imagine a day where it surpasses even that high bar. If I keep finding new things to hear I’m sure it will.
03. Bob Dylan - Shadows In The Night
Bob Dylan’s tribute to songs Frank Sinatra made famous during his 1950s run on Capitol Records is my most played album of 2015. At first it was a late night listen, the subdued, almost catatonic arrangements perfect for the wee wee hours. Then it was my morning record, a comfort as I had my first cup of coffee. Then it was my work is done album, thrown on as I switched to relaxation. No matter the time of day or night, Dylan’s best record in fourteen years brought me peace of mind. His voice may be broken, but his ability to sing isn’t. I never understood that knock on him for he’s long had great control over his imperfect instrument. He wields his old man croon masterfully, crafting a love letter to his youth through a lens of experience. In a just world, this would become a classic like Willie Nelson’s Stardust. But this isn’t a just world, so it’ll have to suffice as a classic in my little universe.
02. Pinkish Black - Bottom Of The Morning
The best apocalyptic synth punk duo in North Texas keep getting better. I freely admit to once again having zero critical distance here, and once again it doesn’t matter. I saw them play these songs dozens of time as they sharpened them in shows leading up to the recording. I visited them at the studio as this was being made, where I got to hear a mellotron in an amazing sounding room and thus check off something from my dream list. In the end though, none of that matters. From the blown-out sound of the lead synth to Daron Beck’s clearer and stronger vocals to Jon Teague’s engaging fills and ringing cymbals on “Burn My Body”, Bottom Of The Morning is the surest, strongest statement they’ve made to date. For some time I’ve been enamored of “Everything Must Go”. Even in it’s embryonic state early in 2014 I could tell it had the potential to be something very, very special. But it never quite seemed to reach it until they got in the studio. Thankfully, what they achieved is what I think is the best summation of their strengths to date. The build is exquisite. Daron’s left hand bassline is the real beat, with Jon freed to play counter to it; the result is a lurching uncomfortable sway. The release of the last two minutes, with Jon’s shifting beat, the forward mix of the blown-out speaker sound, the way Daron’s Arp Axxe swirls and wavers and how it all falls away to sonic dust? It’s Pinkish Black. It’s why I’ve seen them play over 50 times.
01. Benoît Pioulard - Sonnet
I think I could argue that Benoît Pioulard had the best year of any artist in 2015. From the solo albums Sonnet, Stanza (I & II), and Noyaux, to Perils, his collaboration with Kyle Bobby Dunn, no artist has released more music I enjoyed in 2015. To pick only one to highlight seems unfair, but Sonnet is the one I’ve listened to the most and foisted on the most friends, so by those metrics it gets the nod. As with the Low album, I’m constantly hearing new things. It’s both a dense and textural album and one of great peace and quiet ambience. Oftentimes it evokes its density with silence and its quiet through a loud wash of guitars so indistinct as to become merely a sound floor for life around it. It’s not a puzzle, nor is it clear. Constructed through deconstruction, it feels like a field recording but isn’t. I can’t do it justice. I can’t even give it a genre or a comparison to try to illuminate it at all. Sonnet is what Sonnet is. Sonnet is my favorite record of 2015.