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. Last week I posted the first half of the list (you can check it out HERE), and this week we will be looking at the top 10 albums.
In 2012 I deemed Torche’s Harmonicraft one of the happiest metal albums you’d ever hear. The band’s reliance on hummable harmonies and double guitar leads made for an album that was one part Sabbath, one part Thin Lizzy, one part Beach Boys. As much as I loved this joyous album, I was tempted to question whether Torche should still even be considered a metal band with such boisterous melodies. 2015’s Restarter is reassurance to the Torche faithful that this band is heavier than ever.
If Harmonicraft was a joyride down a cotton candy log flume, then Restarter is a methodical trip on an uncompromising wooden rollercoaster that leaves you beaten and bruised but happy all the same in your battered shape. Hints of the band’s sludgier days with Meanderthal can be found throughout the album, but unlike their debut, they’ve learned how to balance out the bleak, stoner metal riffage with their proclivity for creating songs with uplifting melodies. The result is an album that jerks the listener around, moving from an eviscerating wall of distortion to an abrupt, doomy halt, to a skyrocketing chorus, all in the matter of minutes. With Restarter, Torche has found a way to hold on to the mainstream accessibility captured on Harmonicraft while still staying true to their menacing, murky metal roots.
In 2015 Torres has returned with her sophomore effort The Sprinter and left any remnants of hope behind. Unlike the message of her first album, the nine songs on The Sprinter all provide the same solution: just runaway. Whether it be past friendships, broken relationships, or religion, each song explores the idea that cutting ties is better than dwelling on the past. Scott’s one time message of hope isn’t the only thing that has changed. The production on The Sprinter is more sinister, fuller, and more intricate then her more forthright debut. It’s no coincidence that PJ Harvey producer Rob Ellis is at the helm because Scott, whose first album resembled that of a singer/songwriter, has taken on an emotional heft and artistic devotion that hearkens back to the 90s work of Harvey.
Scott has also evolved as a lyricist. The Sprinter as a whole is a series of stories told from varying perspectives. In the liner notes Scott thanks famous authors, including Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Sylvia Plath, Ray Bradbury, Joan Didion, and J.D. Salinger, and her affinity for constructing tales like these literary legends is apparent in her lyrics. “Strange Hellos” could easily be about Holden Caulfield from Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. The lyrics from “The Harshest Light” could be mistaken for a Sylvia Plath poem (“All alone with my brain,/ just a misguided woman”), and the Texan portrayed in “Cowboy Guilt” could be a character drawn from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men. The biggest growth of all for Scott though would have to be her voice. The once innocent soprano now resonates with a trembling vitriol. She sings with a complex mix of emotions, warbling with sadness, growling with frustration, and shouting in defiance. On The Sprinter, she has bridged the gap between her lyrics and her vocals, resulting in a riveting, emotive creation that begs the attention of your ears, your mind, and your heart.
On their sophomore release, this trio of 20-somethings from Calgary, Canada burst from the confines of the recording studio with a frenzied dissonance and unbridled fury that could only come from the womb of Nirvana. METZ’s first release also had a distinct 90s edge, but the self-titled debut was more indebted to the hardcore styling’s of Jesus Lizard than anything from the realm of grunge. The Jesus Lizard is still the most prominent forebear on II, but the album has its more melodic moments that, in combination with the harsh distortion, call back to the brilliant blend of punk and pop that Cobain and crew created 25 years ago. There’s a distinction I need to make: this isn’t Nevermind, pop-genius era Nirvana; this is the band in its final incarnation – In Utero. On tracks like “Spit You Out,” “Landfill,” and “Wait in Line,” you can almost imagine Steve Albini at the producing helm, Kurt at his angriest and most dissonant, and the band at its most belligerent. At that point, Nirvana had no interest in appeasing the masses, and either is METZ on II.
Alex Adkin’s voice is far from the gravely tenor of Cobain, but II does show Adkins growing as a vocalist. He often sounds more like Johnny Rotten than the David Yow impersonation he put on with their first album. The snotty, abrasive singing gives the album a slightly different edge than the more in your face self-titled debut, although it wouldn’t be difficult to get the two albums confused. On the surface, II seems like a re-tread of what worked on their first effort, but there are small tweaks that give this effort a slightly more disorienting feel. The guitars, while still buried in crunch, are woozier and blurred with psychedelic nausea. We may never have another Nirvana, but thankfully Cobain’s brilliance lives on today in the music of bands like METZ.
7. Sleater Kinney
No Cities To Love
When I first heard about Sleater Kinney reunion in 2015, I had mixed emotions. I was definitely excited to have the crew back together, but I worried a new album would be riddled with the same problems that befall bands when they try to create music after a long hiatus (basically, they become an imitation of themselves). Instead, the three of them have acknowledged that time spent apart: Corin Tucker releasing solo albums, Janet Weiss serving as drummer for Stephen Malkmus’s Jicks, and of course Carrie Brownstein’s work with both Wild Flag and Portlandia. Instead of trying to recapture their former glory, they’ve created an album with No Cities To Love that is contemporary and mature.
Unlike other bands that try to rekindle their former glories, Sleater Kinney has nothing to prove. Instead, No Cities To Love is a collection of ten great songs with the album clocking in at just over a half hour. It also doesn’t feel forced. Instead, you can sense the kindred love shared by the ladies of the SK beast they’ve been feeding all of these years, dusting off their signature cutting guitar riffs and passionate, call/response vocals. Lyrically, the band focuses on current issues with the same fire found on past political efforts like One Beat and All Hands On the Bad One. “Price Tag” explores the struggles of a middle class family in modern day America, and “Gimme Love” questions why all lives aren’t valued the same in our country’s current worldview. It may not be the angst-riddled furor found in the band’s early work, but these girls still have some fight in them after all these years.
6. Panda Bear
Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
It’s weird saying that Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is Noah Lennox’s most straightforward album because there really is no such thing as an uncomplicated Panda Bear album. The bleeps and gushing synths still run amuck and his meditative, swirling repetitions still ensnarl you in a mist of digital garble. Despite the distinctive Panda Bear sound remaining the same, the album as a whole seems more welcoming, more pleasant, more roomy. Not that there’s anything wrong with the claustrophobic environs of Person Pitch or the enveloping pits of Tomboy – even with the album’s sinister title, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is a happier album on the whole.
A big part of this positivity shift is found in the songs because these are definitely songs in comparison to the experimental soundscapes of the past. Tracks will still venture of into otherworldly terrain, but for the most part, this album is comprised of a dozen electronic pop songs. It has its darker moments (“Tropic of Cancer” is a meditation on his father’s death and “Lonely Wanderer” is a song exploring loneliness and regret), but even on these tracks he finds a way to present these more depressing themes in a way that is calm and accepting. It’s clear with Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper that Lennox has found peace with himself and the little family he’s formed in Lisbon, and this album provides the listener with just a glimpse of his peaceful nirvana.
5. Courtney Barnett
Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
[Mom & Pop/Marathon/Milk!; 2015]
It’s no secret that we here at BDWPS worship at the church of Bob Dylan. The site is named after him (and a Minutemen song), every month around 10 minutes of our podcast is dedicated to his legacy, and we’ve even visited his hometown. Our affinity for Bob is due to the influence he’s had on the musical landscape over the past 50 years. I’d argue that there’s not an artist on this list that has not been influenced (directly or indirectly) by the music of Bob Dylan. But the most Dylan-esque artist to emerge in 2015 has to be Courtney Barnett.
On her debut Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Think, Courtney Barnett captures Dylan’s ability to write songs that are random, hilarious, and poignant. She creates stream-of-consciousness stories with what seem like inconsequential details of “Sim City,” “the ceiling is an off-white,” and “a California bungalow in a cul de sac,” but when you put the haphazard minutiae together a deeper meaning is revealed. “Depreston” at first seems like a simplistic tale of house hunting but the details reveal the sad memories left by the aging former tenants. “Elevator Operator” presents a story of a depressed slacker but reveals the misplaced values of society when he’s talked down from jumping off a building with the plea of “I’d give anything to have skin like you.” All of these complex stories are presented as simple songs, Barnett singing/talking with an Australian drawl as if she could care less about the world around her. But if you dig a little deeper, this young woman has a lot to say about pollution, corporate greed, and superficiality. Dylan’s sad eyed lady of the lowlands has finally arrived and brought one hell of a debut with her.
4. Jim O’Rourke
[Drag City; 2015]
When I heard Jim O’Rourke had a new album, I anticipated what the post-classical composer would come up with this time around. Would it be the experimental rock of his days with Gastr De Sol? Or would it be the electronic, kraut environs found on his work with the likes of Faust and Fennesz Would it be the improvisational jazz that marked his early work? Or would he draw influence from his time spent with noise rockers Sonic Youth? With an album title like Simple Songs, I should have known better than to expect something avant garde.
Instead, O’Rourke has released an album of eight songs that could, on first listen, be defined as “simple.” The album plays like a mid-70s folk-rocker, his voice reminiscent of Cat Stevens and his arrangements breezy and familiar. Echoes of Steely Dan ring throughout the album, and just like the great Donald Fagan, O’Rourke has created an album that is easily accessible while still containing multifaceted song structures, jazz chord progressions, and wry lyrics. O’Rourke has a knack for flipping the listener on a dime, moving from “Please don’t cry” to “I might enjoy that,” from “Been a long time my friends” to “since you crossed my mind,” and from “I’m so happy now” to “and I blame you.” The result of these constant left-turn punch-lines results in songs that are both humorous and genuine. But the real genius of O’Rourke is in the complexity of his arrangements. He’s truly a composer at heart and listening to the intricacies of his songwriting makes one wish Beethoven had written just a few pop songs in his time. Fortunately, we have O’Rourke around to show us how to compose music that is witty, smooth, and complicated all at the same time. Simple Songs is pop music at it’s most sophisticated.
“All Your Love”:
3. Viet Cong
[Jagjaguwar/Flemish Eye; 2015]
Over the past decade we’ve seen a lot of bands labeled as “post punk” but based solely off of Allmusic.com’s definition of the genre, “…a more adventurous and arty form of punk, no less angry or political but often more musically complex and diverse…forged into more experimental territory,” most of these artist are merely imitations of the past. Viet Cong, on the other hand, has found a way to meld their post-punk influences into an audacious blend that is refreshing and unprecedented on their debut, self-titled album. On “Pointless Experience” woozy guitars conjure up memories of My Bloody Valentine, the bounding bassline burrows from the underbelly of Gang of Four, and the dense white space of The Jesus and Mary Chain attempts to drown out the shouts of front-man Matt Flegel. Despite these obvious inspirations, Viet Cong take these various hues and arrange them upon the musical canvas into something that is wholly new and dynamic.
Viet Cong is the music equivalent of a “Twin Peaks” episode – mysterious, bizarre, and dark, with a shocking twist just around the corner. It’s a lively listen that will keep your interest throughout due to the band’s ability to write eight varied tracks that, despite their deviations, all feel like they emerged from the same insular womb. A song can be manic, melodic, and maleficent all at the same time. The album ends with a 10-minute prog rumination, aptly titled “Death.” The song begins as a sprawling dirge, slowly building toward the aggressive outro, a jolting 5-minute bolt of pulsating drums, crashing cymbals, and shrieking guitars. Over all the bedlam Flegal howls his vision of the end, “Accelerated fall / An orbital sprawl/Expanded and swollen.” If this is the band’s take on “going out with a bang,” then the Grim Reaper is in for one hell of a death knell.
2. Father John Misty
I Love You, Honeybear
Father John Misty’s latest album I Love You, Honeybear is a wacked out reflection on the highs and lows of a budding relationship, but his work hasn’t always had a penchant for the strange. His early work under his real name J. Tillman consists of pretty clear-cut, somber folk songs. But in 2012, Tillman must have experienced some sort of Shakabuku (or as Debi in “Grosse Point Blank” describes it “A swift, spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality forever”) because suddenly, without warning, he quit his job as drummer for one of the biggest bands in the world (Fleet Foxes) and packed up his van with supplies and mind-altering drugs. Along the way he met a French-Canadien shamen in southern Washington (who he did drugs with), and he took a pit stop at Big Sur where he disrobed and climbed a tree (and did more drugs). This nude tree-climbing exploit is of course Tillman’s moment of Shakabuku. In an interview with SPIN he explained, “I was sitting in a tree scratching my head like an ape and I just started to laugh my ass off. I couldn’t take my pain seriously. I admitted to myself that I was good at being funny and writing songs, and that’s what I did. It took ten years of creative wheel-spinning to see that it was allowed to be fun.”
His journey eventually led him to the singer/songwriter promised land, Laurel Canyon. While living there and recording Fear Fun, he met Emma Elizabeth, his now wife. She also happens to be the inspiration and lightning rod to his latest album I Love You, Honeybear. With love as his rudder, the chaotic spirit of Fear Fun has been steadied, and the result is a more focused, heart-felt album. I Love You, Honeybear catches the listener up on the narrative, focusing on his recent marriage. The one time self-loathing ladies man has now settled down learning to accept that, even when everything around you makes you bitter and cranky, love can wash it all away. However, anyone fearing that Tillman has softened his humor-laden lyrics need not worry, although this time around the jokes have a little more bite. Don’t let those sensual vocals fool you – this is one cranky man, and the dichotomy between his sweet voice and bitter message makes the listening experience all the more enjoyable. There are moments throughout the album where emotions of joy, anger, and sadness collide, creating one hell of a powerful Shakabuku. Then again, all of us could probably use a little spiritual kick to the head once in a while.
“Bored in the USA”:
1. Sufjan Stevens
Carrie & Lowell
[Asthmatic Kitty; 2015]
If Age of Adz was a crack in the mystery that surrounds Sufjan Stevens, then 2015’s Carrie & Lowell is the line between reality and fiction being burst at the seams. Sufjan has officially stepped out of the shadows, baring his soul with reckless abandon. Carrie & Lowell, named after Sufjan’s mother and stepfather, is a rumination on death, exploring the regrets and depression that come with it. Sufjan has revealed in interviews that his mother struggled with substance abuse, drug addiction, and was both bipolar and schizophrenic. The songs reveal his feelings of disconnect and abandonment while still admiring his mother despite all her foibles. The entire album rings like a modern take on John Lennon’s own psychoanalysis of his relationship with his mom on The Plastic Ono Band. Much like this classic, Carrie & Lowell is riveting, sincere, and heartbreaking. Mythology, demons, dragons, and fossils all intermingle, but the most powerful metaphor of all is the ghost of his mother that haunts each track. Throughout the album, he mentions an apparition or spirit lurking in the shadows. The production furthers this ghostly feeling. Most of Sufjan’s work is extravagant and over-the-top with trumpets, strings, and in the case of Age of Adz, blaring synths, but Carrie & Lowell is understated. There is still a lot of magic going on in the background, but it’s unobtrusive and hiding below the surface, much like the memory of his mother.
This is more than just an album about his mother’s death – it’s Sufjan struggling with his own depression and feelings of emptiness. Each song comes back to the realization that everything comes to an end. On “Should Have Known Better” he admits “No reason to live/ I’m a fool in a fetter,” and on “Eugene” he reveals “I’m drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away.” In other songs he imagines what it would be like to drive off the edge of a canyon, pondering “Do I care if I survive this?” and reveals “There’s only a shadow of me; in a matter of speaking I’m dead.” The most shocking moment may be on “John My Beloved” when he sings “Fuck me, I’m falling apart.” It’s unsettling to realize that a man who is so blessed with talent, both musically and mentally, is unhappy and has legitimately considered suicide. Much of his past work is so upbeat – how could the guy who joyfully sang about a forefather zombie uprising be consumed with sadness? When I listen to Carrie & Lowell, I can’t help but think of fellow joy-maker Robin Williams and how unexpected it was to hear about his suicide. For the first time, I hope Sufjan’s songs are more fiction than fact.
“John My Beloved”: