This year didn’t quite live up to the high expectations I had back in January. Artists like Chance the Rapper, Frank Ocean, Jai Paul, Kanye West, PJ Harvey, Radiohead, and The Wrens didn’t make good on their promise for a new full-length album in 2015. Fortunately, others were there to pick up the slack and provide us with some great albums. Below you will find this year’s edition of what I consider the top 40 albums of the year. To read the first 20 entries (40-21), CLICK HERE. On this list you’ll find albums from varying genres and possibly a few albums that are new to you. In a time where you can look up any song on a streaming service and hear it instantaneously, I hold on tightly to a love for the album as a whole, a collection of songs that work off each other, building toward one major theme or mood. As you will see in the list below, I’m a bit obsessed with new music and the art form that is the album. I take great pride in this list and hope that you find something worth checking out by the end.
(To hear my choices for the Top 10 Songs of 2015, go check out the latest Podcast HERE)
Torres returned in 2015 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. Mackenzie Scott’s one time message of hope isn’t the only thing that has changed. The production on The Sprinter is more menacing, 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. Scott thanks famous authors in the liner notes (Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Sylvia Plath, Ray Bradbury, Joan Didion, and J.D. Salinger), and her affinity for constructing tales similar to these literary legends is apparent in her lyrics. “Strange Hellos” could easily be about Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, the leading expert on phonies. 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, Scott 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.
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, and one part Beach Boys. As much as I loved that cheerful album, I was tempted to question whether Torche should still even be considered a metal band with such joyful 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 roller coaster 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 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 pop sensibilities captured on Harmonicraft while still staying true to their menacing, murky metal roots.
Ones and Sixes
[Sub Pop; 2015]
Low has been making music for over 20 years. To sustain such a career, a band must learn to evolve, but surprisingly, Low’s approach remains much the same – slow, measured tempos, haunting harmonies, and droning guitars. However, if you look below the signature signs of a Low album, there has been a steady morph taking place throughout those 21 years of work. The band’s early albums were more atmospheric and evocative, while their efforts in the 2000s emphasized melody over ambiance.
If 2015’s Ones and Sixes is any signifier, the band is now heading into a darker, more intense direction with distorted guitars and cold, electronic drum tracks rumbling just below their signature swell of vocal concord. Low has never been known for their cheerful demeanor, but the tracks on Ones and Sixes are the bleakest in memory. It’s fitting that the band would take on a more glum aesthetic for an album that focuses for the most part on the issue of immigration in the United States. Tracks like “No Comprende” and “Spanish Translation” express disappointment in a country that seems to be taking a step backward in terms of tolerance while “Kid in the Corner” and “The Innocents” capture the perspective of those who have no other choice but to attempt to cross over the border. In a time where a politician can gain notoriety for spewing hateful, bigoted rhetoric, Low’s foreboding dissidence is the necessary omen we are in dire need of.
17. Tame Impala
I think Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker is slowly becoming a real life version of Don Draper, and the connection goes deeper than just their mutual ingenuity. Unlike most dramas, the antagonist in Mad Men never really showed growth. Instead, he continued his cycle of infidelity and alcoholism, followed by a fleeting realization of his mistakes before returning back again to his vices. Even the finale suggested that he hadn’t really changed during his West Coast spirit quest, finding only an idea for a Coke advertisement waiting for him on the cliffs of Big Sur. Instead of seeing Mad Men mastermind Matthew Weiner as a pessimist, I like to believe he wanted to show the struggles found in the human condition, that internal yearning for change and growth followed by the eventual return to our bad habits.
On Currents, Parker deals with this same perpetual struggle with change. Early in the album on the aptly titled “Yes, I’m Changing,” Parker insists that people are able to learn from mistakes and grow. However, by album closer “New Person, Same Mistakes,” he reveals his return to his “demons,” and he questions why he “Feel(s) like a brand new person/ but make(s) the same old mistakes.” On the first two albums, Parker seemed like an insecure loner in need of companionship, but on Currents, he’s a brash, confident man about town who always puts himself first. On “Eventually” he breaks up with a girl telling her “I know that I’ll be happier,” followed by the aside “and I know you will be too, eventually.” He follows this break-up song with “The Less I Know the Better” and “Past Life,” both exploring the feelings of jealousy that arise when you see a past lover with someone else. On “The Less I Know the Better” he seeks revenge by rubbing another relationship in her face, and on “Past Life” he contemplates calling her, realizing that he hasn’t changed after all. On an album of less than flattering lyrics, “’Cause I’m a Man” might be the most contentious of all. In it, the narrator explains his infidelities to his girlfriend in the most machismo of ways, singing “I’m a man, woman,/ don’t always think before I do.” Once again, the song explores the idea of this inability to change, stuck in a current of temptations that continues to pull him away from the shore. I can understand why someone would be offended or disgusted by the selfish, vindictive person portrayed on Currents, but I also commend Parker for discussing human error in the most blunt of ways. Break-ups can be poisonous. People can be egocentric. And yes, men can be assholes. What makes artists like Kevin Parker and Matthew Weiner so great is their unwillingness to blur the edges, laying the faults of mankind out for us to see in all their ugliness.
“The Less I Know The Better”:
16. 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 members of SK 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.
so the flies don’t come
[Ruby Yacht/The Order Label; 2015]
According to milo, he isn’t a rapper. He prefers to call himself a poet. This sentiment is repeated throughout his 2015 mixtape, so the flies don’t come, and his use of rhyme, wordplay, and metaphors help to back up this claim. On album closer, “Song About a Raygunn,” he bluntly states, “I don’t even really even have to rap/ My nigga it’s about if you can talk good.” This is a refreshing assertion in a time where mush mouths like YG, Meek Mill, and Jeezy top the hip-hop charts with songs that have the literary merit of the Christian Grey series. Instead of barking out lyrics about booties and bong-hits, milo calmly recites lyrics with obscure references to Perseus, the Hagakure, and Haruki Marakami. This isn’t just a guy “rapping [his] booklist” as he states on “Going No Place,” rather his references work toward deeper themes that reveal themselves as the pieces all come together. “Going No Place” explores the feeling of apathy in the face of despair and “An Encyclopedia” builds toward a reflection on the burdens of being a black man in America.
But I have to disagree with milo’s declaration that he’s just a “clumsy poet.” Yes, he’s skilled as a wordsmith, but his vocal delivery highlights his abilities as an MC as well. He conveys his mix of hard-hitting and hilarious soliloquies with a calm, monotone voice that still cuts with sharp observations and loaded language. The production work of Kenny Segal blends perfectly with milo’s tranquil vocals. The beats are simple, the basslines jazzy and unobtrusive, and the synths ethereal and strangely mesmerizing. “Going No Place” sounds like a sample of 90s era Eels, and “Sleeping Under the Echo” tree features a tripped out guitar strumming lightly over reverberated wood blocks. The combination of Segal’s strange soundscapes and milo’s prosaic lyrics makes for an album that is the hip-hop equivalent of Ulysses – challenging, unusual, and, with time, extremely rewarding.
Sun Coming Down
One look at the presidential race in the two respective parties, and it is easy to assume that the United States has lost its mind. Leading the GOP is Donald Trump, a megalomaniac millionaire who outdoes himself daily with more and more offensive/ludicrous statements that somehow only bolster his standing with conservatives. Young democrats have found their flavor of the week in Bernie Sanders, a self-declared socialist whose idealistic platform seems highly unachievable in a beltway that is more partisan than ever. One can’t help but wonder how these two unlikely candidates have gained such a following.
I like to believe it’s not so much the message of this duo that has excited the American people – it’s the fact that they are outsiders. Both candidates have refused to take money from corporate entities and special interest groups, the usual suspects who have put a stranglehold on the government, making citizens feel frustrated and powerless.
Ought’s 2015 release Sun Coming Down mirrors this frustration. Much like their debut, Sun Coming Down is only eight tracks, and as a result, there’s no filler here. Instead, it’s 40 minutes of sardonic post-punk that remains securely planted in the dilemmas of living in the present tense. A common motif in punk rock is to inspire listeners to fight back, but for the most part, Sun Coming Down simply tells us it’s better to just ignore the carnage and give in. Musically, Ought continues to borrow heavily from the past, taking the anxious aura of Television and running it through The Fall’s combative lens, the guitars constantly bumping up against each other, heightening the tension found within the neurotic music. The Fall’s influence can also be heard in Darcy’s Mark E. Smith vocal delivery, occasional slipping in some David Byrne for good measure. It may not be 1979, but the same feelings of uncertainty still ring true, and Ought’s brand of post-punk sounds fresh despite its obvious influences. An album of hopeless, anxiety may not sound like the most uplifting listen, but in a time where Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are our only hope, a little snark may not be such a bad thing. “Beautiful Blue Sky” says it best: “I’m no longer ‘fraid to dance tonight/ ‘cause that is all that I have left.” Here’s to dancing in the dark times.
“Beautiful Blue Sky”:
[Loma Vista; 2015]
When HEALTH first started, they were noise-art to the extreme. If you want to test someone’s intestinal fortitude, put on that self-titled debut, turn it up as high as you can without bursting eardrums, and sit back to face the carnage. The drums were tribal bedlam. The guitars were shattering dissonance. The synths were icicles, sending chills down your spine. But amidst all this chaos, Jacob Duzsik’s vocals eerily sang vaporous melodies like a deceased choirboy stuck in limbo. Despite all the madness, the vocals represented the deus ex machina, keeping the sputtering tank from crushing over mankind.
Keeping this history in mind, the fact that 2015’s Death Magic is at its core a pop album shouldn’t be as jarring as it has been to longtime HEALTH fans. The album still features some of the same moments of turmoil, but Duzsik’s vocals are much more prevalent. The animalistic drums of old are, for the most part, replaced with drum-machined EDM rhythms better suited for a dance club than a sacrificial fire dance. The synths can still send shocking jolts, but they are more likely to create a soothing backdrop to the memorable hooks than add to the disorientation. It’s pretty shocking to hear a band that once drew inspiration from the experimental wanderings of the Boredoms now sounding more like Depeche Mode than anything from the world of no wave. But for anyone thinking HEALTH has sold out to the mainstream, be assured that the masses would be taken aback by the vicious assault that lurks in the pop shadows, waiting to trounce. The band has evolved and found ways to create dips and counter balances to the torrential downpour. HEALTH has also matured when it comes to lyrics. In the past, the lyrics seemed inconsequential to the more attention grabbing theatrics of the music, but Death Magic focuses on the realities of dealing with and facing death. On “Life” Duzsik contemplates “Life is strange/ we die and we don’t know why.” Other tracks echo this helpless feeling of fear and loss, but there are also moments of strangely reaffirming messages. On “New Coke,” Duzsik goes from “we’ll be gone before we know it” to “Life is good” in only a few lines. In combination with the sweaty, ominous house music that propels the album, Death Magic is a drug-infused rave for those who would rather relish the joy of living than spend their short time on earth fearing the negative. I’m sure old school fans will balk at the band’s more accessible approach, but life is too short to cater to the haters.
The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam
It’s rare to find an EP on my year-end list simply because I don’t feel a 15 minute album can accomplish what a full length LP can. Some bands have produced some of their best work in EP form (TV On the Radio’s Young Liars, Fleet Foxes’ Sun Giant, and Radiohead’s Airbag) but these are exceptions to the rule. Despite my reservations toward the EP format, I couldn’t help but include Thundercat’s The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam. This album of jazz fusion achieves more in its 16-minute run time than most bands create over the course of their entire careers.
In the past, Stephen “Thundercat” Buener bass guitar has played an vital part in the works of Erykah Badu, Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar, and even Suicidal Tendencies, but on The Beyond, his slithering wave of funk-fused bass theatrics take center stage. Despite the tireless finger work going on, his smooth style is soothing and placid. In combination with the sensual guitars and soulful organs, the album conjures up the early works of Stevie Wonder and Al Green. Thundercat may not match up vocally with these legends, but he sure makes a go at it with his soft, whispered falsetto. His vocals match up well with the album’s meditation on death. Album opener “Hard Times” is an angelic reflection on what it may feel like to die while “Song for the Dead” explores the cosmos for answers on the afterlife. And even on album highlight “Them Changes,” a song that sounds like it could easily be a lost hit from the 70s, he focuses upon the pain, singing, “drowning in pain/ Somebody help.” For an album that teaches us that life is short, I can’t think of a better format that the brevity of the EP.
[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 a spot-on Ty Segall vocal impression with his singing. Regardless of these connections and parallels, Wand are a different animal 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 is 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.
10. Joanna Newsom
[Drag City; 2015]
Joanna Newsom’s Divers is her most accessible album to date, but understand that this statement is a bit misleading. It still features here intricate, baroque harp opuses that are far from the mainstream, bubblegum pop mold, and her distinctive voice is as nasal and strange as ever. But in comparison to her last two efforts (2006’s Ys was composed of five songs that clocked in at 10-20 minutes each, and 2010’s Have One On Me was a triple disc album), this is as straightforward as Newsom gets – 11 songs with only one breaking the seven-minute mark.
Despite her step toward songwriting norms, Newsom is still a complex and puzzling nut to crack. You can’t just simply listen to one of her songs to truly appreciate her genius; you have to dedicate time and focus all of your energy on her literary prowess. This time around, the overall theme is how we deal with loss. Every song deals with death in some capacity, whether it be the death of the seasons, the death of a culture, or the death of a relationship. If you’re not already blown away by her elaborate arrangements, melding ornate orchestration with songwriting reminiscent of Joni Mitchell, her lyrics are chock full of precise word choice and jarring imagery. If you want to hear a straightforward song about lost love, listen to Adele’s “Hello.” But if you’d like to hear a song of a deep-sea diver that symbolizes that same divide, all over the spilling, twinkling sound of fingers tickling harp strings, then Newsom might just be a challenge your up for. A few months ago, Newsom said that Spotify is the “villainous cabal of major labels,” and with Divers, she’s created the anti-Spotify album.
Some of the best metal albums in 2015 (Sannhet, Locrian, An Autumn for Crippled Children) follow in the black-gaze footsteps laid by Deafheaven with their pioneering 2013 album, Sunbather. Deafheaven could have easily returned to the hazy, dark well that propelled them into the forefront of post metal, but on New Bermuda, they embarked on a new journey, exploring new waters.
The shoegaze/metal fusion is still evident, but other influences have made their way to the surface. “Luna” shows the band at their harshest to date, opening with a thrash metal riff and moving swiftly into an melancholy outro of dripping, echoey guitars. On “Baby Blue,” a Kirk Hammet inspired guitar solo breaks-up the otherwise doomy daze of the 10-minute slow burner. “Brought to the Water” has so many left turns that by the time the piano outro arrives, you’re not even surprised. It’s clear from the first track that Deafheaven has no intention of looking back, and as a result, there’s never a dull moment on Deafheaven’s latest vicious voyage into the unknown. It’s easy to get lost in Deafheaven’s New Bermuda triangle.
8. 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 lighthearted 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 forthright 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 its most sophisticated.
“All Your Love”:
7. 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 merge 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 Twilight Zone 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 nurturing nest. 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 a mesmeric death knell.
6. Father John Misty
I Love You, Honeybear
Father John Misty’s latest album I Love You, Honeybear is a whacked 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.
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”:
As I stood in line waiting to get into the Destroyer show a few months ago, a couple of women in front of me turned around and asked, “So who do you think Dan Bejar sounds more like: Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen?” I hesitated to respond, jumping back and forth in my mind between the luminary songwriters. As this episode revealed, it’s hard to define Dan Bejar’s work, a strange combination of a snarky stand-up comedian, mocking everything around him, and a poet, taking the nuances of life and revealing their frailty through insightful and distinctive metaphors.
Over the years, Bejar has given various genres his unique twist, whether it be his folk singer classic City of Daughters, his 70s folk-pop, Bowie-esque Streethawk: a Seduction, or his venture into smooth jazz in 2011 with Kaputt. In each effort, he took on traditional tropes of the genre and turned them on their head. 2015’s Poison Season shows Bejar doubling down on the sounds of Kaputt, kicking the sultry saxophones and spacious horns up a notch, bringing in lush orchestration and airy synths. If Kaputt was Bejar’s best Kenny G, than Poison Season is his Frank Sinatra standards album. While Bejar may never have the swoony tenor of Ol’ Blue Eyes, his sultry approach to the distinctively classic sound is just as timeless and captivating. Poison Season is a reflection on New York – no Sinatra’s, rather Lou Reed’s seedy underbelly. The album is an hour-long oeuvre that explores every dirty alley of the city that never sleeps. Track by track, Bejar takes us on a stroll through the city, referencing graffiti, cathedrals and the shores of the Hudson River. The persistent saxophone throughout the album gives a noir aesthetic, as if Bejar is trying to solve an internal mystery of loss and loneliness. Musically, the album also takes the listener on a wild, late night exploration of the five boroughs. “Midnight Meet the Rain” is a sexy, latin-funk fusion straight from a 70s blaxploitation flick, while “Hell” is a buttoned-up, string-heavy rococo reflection on self-loathing. “Archer On the Beach” is brooding soul music, “Bangkok” is an over-the-top, dramatic piano standard, and “Dream Lover” could easily be a E Street Band classic. Despite all the various styles implemented, the songs nicely complement one another thanks in large part to the constant sax and trumpet that create a bridge between environs. Bejar may have once resembled that of a modern Dylan or Cohen, but these days he’s more like an amalgam of Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, and Lou Reed, all wrapped into one mystifying man.
On his first two efforts, I didn’t see Miguel as much more than a cheap Prince imitation. He had the pompadour hair, the gentle falsetto, and the guitar theatrics of The Artist Formerly Known As, but in my opinion, he lacked the songwriting chops. I probably wouldn’t have even checked out his new album based solely off my unsatisfactory experience with his past efforts, but then he said the following in response to a question about neo-soul luminary Frank Ocean: “I genuinely believe that I make better music, all the way around.” As a staunch supporter of Ocean after his expressive 2012 effort Channel Orange, I had to check Miguel’s Wildheart, if only to scoff at his empty, chest-thumping boast. I went into my first Wildheart listen in the crouched, ready to pounce stance, and left the experience feeling relaxed, nourished, and overall surprised by how much Miguel has grown as a songwriter and producer since Kaleidoscope Dream.
For one, his arrangements are breathtaking. Layers of vocals cascade over one another, walls of silky harmony bursting from every corner and creating a warm backdrop to his sensual tracks. I wouldn’t go so far as to compare Miguel to the genius of Brian Wilson, but he definitely has a knack for using vocals to help heighten the album’s more emotional moments. If Wilson knew how to concoct bright and innocent melodies, then Miguel’s Wildheart is the counter point with 13 dark and scandalous songs. I still feel Prince is the most obvious comparison to what Miguel is doing (sensuality +soulful guitars=The Symbol), but my view that he is a knock-off brand has been wiped away with Wildheart. Miguel has taken the most recognizable tenets of Prince’s distinctive sound and brought them beyond the days of partying like it’s 1999. Instead, the album sounds timeless. The dub beats and rock riffage result in a refreshing take on R&B, yet the songs soulful backbone could fit in alongside Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye classics. I see the comparison of Miguel and Frank Ocean as a moot point. Both are phenomenal at what they do, and what they do isn’t the same thing. Frank Ocean can work (Stevie) wonders behind his organ while Miguel’s silky guitar riffs result in something thrilling in a time where R&B has grown stagnant and predictable.
3. Kamasi Washington
Kamasi Washington knows what it means to strike while the iron is hot. A month after having his saxophone work featured on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, one of the most anticipated (and overrated) albums of 2015, Washington released his first solo album, The Epic. This wasn’t just a guy throwing together some jazz standards to capitalize off of his association with Lamar; this is one of the most ambitious albums to come out in 2015. The Epic is just that – a mammoth, three-hour tour de force with some of the most complex arrangements and diverse production to come out in 2015.
A three-hour jazz album may sound like a tedious undertaking, but Washington takes care to bring variation throughout his ambitious journey through the influential jazz genres that came before. Miles Davis fusion meets John Coltrane free jazz meets Curtis Mayfield funk. In spite of borrowing so much from the past, Washington helps bring a modern edge to his mix without resorting to some type of shoddy hip-hop jazz fusion. Washington didn’t half-ass his first solo album, featuring a 32-piece orchestra, a chamber choir, and a ten piece band of some of the most promising young jazz musicians today. As a result, every track is filled verdant and vivid flourishes that make every second a rewarding listen. It’s likely that Kendrick Lamar will look to go a different direction with his next album, but with The Epic, Kamasi Washington has locked his hands on the brass ring and ensured that he will continue to make contemporary and relevant jazz for years to come.
2. 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 has 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 surprisingly moving. 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 basic pop 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.
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 of 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 Lennon’s 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”: