My Favorite Albums of 2015
For the past few years, I’ve written up an annual review of books I’ve read. Interestingly, I’ve never done a review of albums, even though I’m more passionate about music than almost any other creative medium. So here we are: favorite (not “best”) albums of 2015, including a few released in 2014 but for which I was late to the party. To quote Rob Gordon from High Fidelity, these are organized “autobiographically”. Warning: hyperbole ahead.
Top Six Picks
Swans, To Be Kind
After a 20-year sonic relationship with Swans, relentlessly absorbing every recording, all I can say is that To Be Kind is peerless. It cuts with more depth, speaks with more truth, lingers far longer. Unshackling the doom metal of the previous album The Seer, the songs levitate on complex, masterful percussion, and the hammer of guitars pounds at precisely the right moments, while relentless, propulsive bass carries the oracle of Michael Gira’s voice across the nearly three hours (triple LP!). This is what the gods listen to when they get stoned. “Screen shot” is the opening track; Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.
Modest Mouse, Strangers to Ourselves
Anyone who argues that this isn’t Modest Mouse’s best album isn’t listening. While older records relied on howling and accordions to make a point — and convincing points they were — Strangers to Ourselves steps into a cadence of world-class songwriting that delivers on the promise of We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank with the best lyrical and arrangement work from Isaac Brock to date. The deft, soft-eyed killer gleam of “Shit in Your Cut” is a perfect example: “When the doctor finally showed up. / Oh boy! / His fur was soaking wet. / He said that “this should do the trick” / We hadn’t told him what the problem was yet.” The layers of music, lyrics and ideas peel back deeper and deeper on every listen, and the journey never gets old.
Jamie xx, In Colour
I’ll be honest. On first listen, I didn’t get it. The styles meandered, the songs felt thin, the programming solid but not otherworldly. The soul that defines The XX felt missing. The brilliance for some may have been obvious, but I had to keep at it. It was the fifth or tenth or hundredth listen inside my headphones when it clicked: the garage underpinnings of “The Rest is Noise” transcended into something more-than-music, a sort of passage into the head- and heart-space of a guy willing to give you a trip in full color if you just shut up and buy the ticket.
Bob Moses, Days Gone By
Probably my most anticipated album of 2015 after the astounding All in All, Bob Moses (a duo from NYC, not actually a guy named Bob Moses) delivered above and beyond expectations. Elegantly weaving guitar and piano-driven pop ballads onto a vibrant fabric of the deepest house beats you’ve ever heard, these guys deliver one of the classiest and persistent dance records since the heyday of Leftfield and Underworld. “Too Much is Never Enough” may not be the best song on the record (it’s tough to choose), but it’s emblematic of their sonic aesthetic.
GoGo Penguin, v2.0
I am a jazz snob. I adhere to a paleo diet of Blue Note-era Monk/Miles/Coltrane/Adderly/etc, and rarely deviate into anything post-1969. Not that it’s bad music (often the opposite; just listen to this prodigy) but because a) the songs lack the divine fire of the greats and b) the recordings feel bleached in digital cleanliness. A few contemporary groups transcend this. The Vijay Iyer Trio are outstanding; BADBADNOTGOOD are fun as hell. But v2.0 from GoGo Penguin easily climbs into the top 5 of my jazz collection — as good as Blue Train or Mingus Ah Um or Round About Midnight or anything. The songs weave between soft ballads and full-ensemble swing, and the detail of the musicianship is incredible; every piano hit, every bass vibration, every high-hat is effortless and precise and perfect. “Hopopono” is only one slice of this tour de force, and if this doesn’t convince you that jazz as art is as alive as ever, then I can’t help you.
The Orb, Moonbuilding 2703 AD
2015 was a comeback year for electronica acts: Leftfield, The Chemical Brothers, Aphex Twin and others casually dismissed the vacuum of the past decade with new album releases. Some of these new records were even good. But The Orb’s is the only one I listen to over and over (and over). Launching off the psychedelic cue of their past discography, the album settles into long, smokey grooves that are tenderized, seasoned, and roasted into perfection across four beefy cuts of spacedub that constantly shapeshift into new flavor and texture. It’s tough to pull out one of the four tracks as “best”, because Moonbuilding 2703 AD really is better consumed in one sitting, but the opening cut “God’s Mirrorball” is a pretty compelling appertif.
The Best of the Rest
Of course it’s not the breathtaking masterpiece of 21 — nothing is — but it holds its own in many ways. “Hello”, of course, is outstanding. Despite one or two flaws (“All I Ask” is unlistenable), some of the deeper cuts, specifically “I Miss You” and “River Lea”, are court-of-law evidence there is no one on her level. No samples needed; you’ve all heard it.
!!! – As If
Following 2013’s world-class Thri!!!er, !!! (pronounced “chk chk chk” for non-initiates), As If finds the band spelunking into deeper house vibes and leaving the punk-saturated noise to the earlier records. The songwriting is a bit thinner, but it would be tough to name a more danceable and fuck-you fun way to spend an hour. “I Feel So Free (Citation Needed)” is the last jam on the record, but its beats and humor are on point (“I feel like it’s just a shower of Grammys in here”).
Foals, What Went Down
Foals, along with Palma Violets, are one of the best UK acts in full-swing right now. They echo the raucous invasion sounds of Oasis and Pulp, but the serrated edge of post-punk is much sharper, and the songs end up with a fair bit of grit and shadow not found in the 90s. “Mountain at My Gates” is their single.
Heathered Pearls, Body Complex
Like the best electronic records, this one transcends the cliches of the genre and achieves a sort of abstract modern art, like an audible MoMA installation. Yes, the house beats are there, but often times they’re not. Instead, the tracks are soaked in a heady swirl of synth ambiance that challenge any definition of “techno”.