We are almost halfway through the year, and there have already been some great releases in 2015. With a stockpile of potentially great albums coming down the pipeline soon (Chance the Rapper, High On Fire, Beach House, Deafheaven, Frank Ocean, Jai Paul, Kanye West, Joanna Newsome, Majical Cloudz, Ghostface Killah, PJ Harvey, Radiohead, and allegedly, The Wrens) I’d like to take a breather and appreciate some of my favorite albums from the year so far. To try to keep some semblance of control, I’ve limited my list to 20 albums released prior to June 1st. Below are albums 20-11.
An Autumn For Crippled Children, The Long Goodbye
Joey Bada$$, B.4.DA.$$
Built to Spill, Untethered Moon
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress
Lightning Bolt, Fantasy Empire
The Mountain Goats, Beat the Champ
Collin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld, Never Were The Way She Was
Thee Oh Sees, Mutilator Defeated At Last
Fred Thomas, All Are Saved
20. The Amazing
When I listen to The Amazing’s latest release, Picture You, I really want to visit Sweden. Based solely off the sprawling, lush tracks on this Swedish band’s third album, I can’t help but imagine the idyllic landscapes – the Scandinavian Mountain Chain standing majestically upon the horizon, the soft hush of the Baltic Sea’s waves crashing onto beaches near the Gulf of Bothia, majestic castles set amongst the miles of fertile greenery. This fantasy vacation stems mostly from the beautiful arrangements and pristine performance executed by the band on Picture You.
Despite the glimmering production of the album, there seems to be little studio tinkering going on. Instead, the band is able to create an organic, pastoral sound that can mystically meander about for stretches of seven to ten minutes. Despite this the loose song structures, you never feel like a track has overstayed its welcome. Instead, you float along for the ride, the tranquil vocals, soothing organs, and pitter-patting drums slowly pushing you along. The lazy gait of the album creates a cocoon of calmness you’ll want to surround yourself with again and again. Those Swedes must be some pretty chill folks.
19. Action Bronson
Action Bronson has built up an underground following over the past several years with a handful of mix-tapes, two self-released albums, and two EPs. As hilarious and fun as these early releases could be at times, they all had moments of weakness, a lack of focus that often beleaguers mix-tapes. Based off of the intoxicating power on Mr. Wonderful, the biggest thing missing from those early efforts is an age-old staple in music – the tried and true chorus. Most of the tracks on Mr. Wonderful contain a centerpiece hook holding together Bronson’s comical portrayal of what it’s like to be a “Big bearded Buddha bangin’ bitches in Bermuda.” Instead of relying on some big name vocalist to come in and pump up his tracks, Bronson sings the majority of the melodies. He’s far from Frank Ocean, but there’s also something endearing about his nasally, slightly off-key vocals.
Despite a more mainstream approach, Bronson’s talents as an MC are still on full display, fluidly moving from references to Serge Ibaka to the Iron Chef to The Golden Child with the greatest of ease. When he is bragging (as rappers are wont to do) it’s about silly things like his ability to cook and the insane amount of pot he can vaporize in one sitting. Mr. Wonderful is the music equivalent of Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke road trip, a fun-filled journey from one outlandish story to the next. Musically, the production on the album follows this same helter-skelter journey, moving from the 70s soul of “The Rising” to the bluesy jam band feel of “City Boy Blues” to the 80s rock riffs of “Only in America.” For those who are looking for more substance, you might be looking in the wrong place for a statement on world affairs. While hip-hop acts like Run the Jewels, Vince Staples, and Kendrick Lamar receive accolades for their lyrical analysis of injustice and poverty, Action Bronson just wants to have a good time, and with Mr. Wonderful you’re welcome to join in on the best joy ride since Coolio took us on a “Fantastic Voyage.”
The Twerps’ Range Anxiety seems pretty simple on the surface – basic pop songs, jangly guitars, and two-part harmony. On the whole, it’s pretty harmless, breezy music that is unobtrusive and calming. In a weird way, this nonchalant, mosey from one good-natured melody to the next suits the over-riding theme of the album – that everything’s not going to be all right and, that’s okay. “New Moves” bemoans how “the days waste away,” “Back to You” complains that “Somebody out there is doing better then me,” and “I Don’t Mind” hammers home the defeatist attitude with Martin Frawley singing “I don’t mind if we have to give it all away.” This dichotomy of joy in the face of sadness is best seen on “Adrenaline” when Julia McFarlane faces death with a smile: “Things are in the ground but we’re still having fun.”
Throughout the album, Frawley’s monotone delivery can seem both melancholy and light-hearted within the same breath. It never feels like he’s exerting much energy as he sings, almost as if he might be plastered to his couch in a depressed stupor as he mumbles into a microphone. But again, he seems cool with it. Since childhood we have been told that when facing adversity we should pick ourselves up by our bootstraps and face the day. This is a nice sentiment and all, but I’d much rather throw Range Anxiety onto the turntable and bask in the joyful bliss that is accepting your sadness and letting your bootstrapping state of mind wait for another day.
“I Don’t Mind”:
[Profound Lore; 2015]
In the five years since ISIS broke up, we’ve seen some interesting developments in the world of metal. The influence this seminal band has had on metal as a genre can’t be overstated. You can hear the ISIS ambience in post-black metal acts like Deafheaven and Woods of Desolation, and the definitive sludgy tone of the legendary Boston quintet can be heard within doom metal upstarts like Windhand and Pallbearer. Aaron Taylor could have rode off into the sunset after his masterwork with ISIS, satisfied with his impact on the world of metal, but thankfully for us, he has continued tooling away at a genre that is more interesting than ever.
It isn’t any wonder that his latest music project Sumac has released one of the most innovative albums of 2015. Sumac’s The Deal is one confounding album. It’s soft. It’s loud. It’s ambient. It’s crushing. But more than anything, it’s volatile. The true beauty of Sumac is their ability to turn on a dime, moving from ¾ time, to 4/4 time, to 7/8 time all within the same song that nervously jumps from cut-throat speed to an abrupt, murky halt. The drum work of Nick Yacyshyn (from the band The Baptists) is a major character in the scheme of things, threatening to bubble over into madness with a frenzied tumult on the snare that would make JK Simmon’s character Miles Teller blush. In the quieter moments, the guitars let out ghastly wails and in the heavier interludes, they pour out, pulpy and masticated, like meat from an unforgiving grinder. I don’t even know what to label this album (post-metal? Metalcore? Jazz metal?), and maybe that’s the point. As long as Aaron Taylor is at work in his cauldron of chaos, the metal Gods will be listening with bated breath.
“Thorn in the Lion’s Paw”:
[In the Red; 2015]
It’s easy to pigeonhole Wand as just another lo-fi garage rock band from the West Coast. Sure, they’ve toured with Mikal Cronin, are featured on John Dwyer’s In the Red record label, and front-man Cory Hanson does do a good Ty Segall vocal impression with his singing. Despite these connections and parallels, Wand are a different beast altogether. These other West Coast staples usually remain rooted in their power chord anthems, but Hanson often ventures outside the simple confines of the garage, performing swooning, extraordinary guitar solos that journey up into the cosmos, telecaster transmissions sent to any extraterrestrial interested in hearing some great music. There are definitely catchy pop songs per garage rock decree, but the reason you listen to Wand is not for the melodies – it’s for Hanson’s guitar acrobatics.
To be honest, labeling Golem as a garage rock album would not be doing it justice. At times it’s pysch, glam, and punk all rolled into one mind-altering listening experience. But most surprisingly, the album often gets lost in an unexpected doom metal cacophony, the riffs halting to a plodding pace, allowing for the spacey smoke rings to blossom within the ether. Ty Segall dabbled with this genre back in 2012 with Slaughterhouse, but that album never sounded this thick and threatening. Golem refuses to stay faithful to any one genre, and the listener gets to reap the rewards of their adulterous disregard.
15. Dan Deacon
To label Dan Deacon’s music EDM would be missing the point. The boisterous tracks on Gliss Riffer are definitely dance-inducing and the beats are discothèque fare, but there is so much more going on in Deacon’s strange electro-concoctions. As with Deacon’s 2012 masterpiece America, the album starts off with upbeat, hummable tunes that will ease you into the listening experience. While songs like “Feel the Lightning,” “Sheathed Wings,” and “Meme Generator” are amiable, easily digestible tracks, Deacon’s attention to detail can be found if you dig your way through the layers of warm synth. Beeps and squeals rummage just below the surface, adding life to already energetic songs.
Once Deacon has you acclimated to his zany, digital atmospheres, the second half of the album arrives. The last few tracks on the album are sprawling 6-8 minute electronic opuses that churn and expand, mutating and growing with each passing minute. The first half of the album may ask you to get up on your feet and dance, but the second half insists that you sit back, shut your eyes, and give yourself up to the technological expanses. As with these latter tracks, Deacon has created another album that evolves into something completely different by the end.
“Take It To The Max”:
14. Speedy Ortiz
After the success of Speedy Ortiz’s debut Major Arcane, I expected the band to suffer from the sophomore jinx. It’s not that I doubt the talent of this Massachusetts indie rock outfit; I just didn’t know how they could follow up such a fantastic debut. Fortunately, Speedy Ortiz crushed my negativity out of the ballpark with Foil Deer, an album more intricate and mature than their first effort. The band’s success has only bolstered Sadie Dupuis’s confidence as a singer/songwriter. Her voice is confident on “Raising the Skate” with her shouting, “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss,” and throughout the album her imagery and unique phrasing explore the human condition.
While Major Arcane was recorded in just four days, the band spent month’s piecing together Foil Deer and this meticulous endeavor can be seen in the details found within each track. It’s rare to find a rock band putting as much care into their songwriting craft as Speedy Ortiz does on this album. Every song has abrupt shifts, moving from one catchy riff to the next, all somehow pieced together like an indie rock quilt. Cozy up to Foil Deer and listen to Dupuis as she tells you one profound bedtime story after another.
“Raising the Skate”:
The Good Fight
[Mello Music Group; 2015]
Oddisee’s 2015 effort is named The Good Fight, and I can’t help but think he’s fighting against the mainstream music-making machine. Throughout the album he spits harsh criticism. On “Want Something Done” he pinpoints the shallowness in mainstream hip-hop – “If you’ve got a message in your records than you’re collecting dust,” and on “What They’ll Say” he reveals the uphill battle he’s taking on – “Yeah, I could dumb it down and get a buck.”
However, Oddisee refuses to dumb things down on The Good Fight. His lyrics seem straightforward and conversational, but before you know it, sleek wordplay and intelligent allusions are flying past you faster than chocolate on Lucy’s conveyer belt. Despite Oddisee’s lyrical fortitude, musically the album plays like a 12-pack of easily accessible hits. “That’s Love” should be this summer’s “Happy” and “First Choice” shows Oddisee singing better than any other rapper out there, sans auto-tune. The tracks bounce between Marvin Gaye’s soul and J Dilla’s boom bap. Instead of relying on samples and layer upon layer of over-dubs, most of The Good Fight is performed by a live band, bringing jazzy undertones and smooth vibes. That’s really the brilliance of The Good Fight – it will have your head bouncing to the upbeat sound and have your brain working on overload with the complex lyrics. As the commentary at the end of the album says, Oddisee makes you “Use your head for more than a hat rack.”
Man It Feels Like Space Again
Many may see Pond as a side-project to the more widely popular Tame Impala (only one member of the band hasn’t served time with Pond), but this is an unfortunate misconception. Their latest effort, Man It Feels Like Space Again, is evidence that these Vegemite stoners deserve more credit for the mind-expanding mischief they’ve concocted over the course of six albums. Not that you should take their bubbly, far-out mix of melodies seriously – these songs are meant to be silly and fun. It’s this complete lack of pretension that makes their rumpus ride more deserving of accolades from psych-pop aficionados. While Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker ponders the emotional struggles that come with loneliness and isolation, Pond opts to sing songs with titles like “Elvis Flaming Star” and “Heroic Shart” (yes, “shart” – that magical contraction of the words “shit” and “fart”).
This type of folly is just one element of the band’s sense of freedom on their most adventurous album yet, Man It Feels Like Space Again. Musically, the band is just as feral, each track leapfrogging from one legendary 70s sound to the next. “Zond” and “Outside is the Right Side” are wacked-out, funky prowlers that resemble a collaboration between Funkadelic and Frank Zappa (Frankadelic?). “Elvis Flaming Star” and “Holding Out For You” are what it might sound like to experience an acid trip through Marc Bolan’s eyes. “Heroic Shart” and the eight-minute closer “Man It Feels Like Space Again” ignite a full-fledged psychedelic prog-trip to the dark side of the moon. Maybe Tame Impala will always be the over-achieving shadow cast over Pond, but I still enjoy the rampant childishness of the slacker offshoot.
“Elvis’ Flaming Star”:
[One Little Indian; 2015]
It would be difficult to find a 2014 Top Albums list that didn’t feature FKA Twigs. My list might be one of the few devoid of the British singer/songwriter’s LP1. It’s not that I totally disregard her efforts. I just felt like it wasn’t as innovative of an album as others seemed to think. I’d heard the same type of woozy, disorienting modernism before, but I couldn’t quite put a finger on it. Then, of course, I heard Bjork’s Vulnicura, and I realized that not only is FKA Twigs mimicking what Bjork has been doing for 30 years, but it’s poorly executed in comparison to the Icelandic musician.
One listen to the complex arrangements on Bjork’s Vulnicura, and it’s clear who is the true Queen of electro-orchestration. On the album she chronicles the downfall of a relationship, one emotionally draining, ornately constructed song at a time. The album’s complexity requires multiple listens, each taking you deeper into the darkened corners of heartbreak and anxiety. Bjork, as always, uses her voice as an instrument, swooning, whispering, and growling out her anguish as her composure unravels. Vulnicura is a reminder that Bjork is still one of the bravest, most uncompromising musicians of our time.