31 December 2015

Favorite Music from 2015

What can I say? I like lists. In what’s become an annual tradition around these parts (aside from the annual tradition of not updating or commenting very often in the first place) here’s my list of favorite music from this year. If there’s a theme that’s emerged here, maybe it’s one of maximalism. Even though some of these albums are “soft” most of my favorite music this year pushed towards an extreme in one way or another: from the day-glo intensity of Hudson Mohawke to Sufjan Steven’s mournful recollection of a troubled relationship with his birth mother, there wasn’t much in the way of middle ground for me this year. Like it says in Revelation 3:16: “So then because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.” Maybe in a year of personal and emotional extremes, I took comfort not in steady feelings or chill vibes but in constant forward motion.

2015 Top 10 Music Albums
(Links all go to Spotify save for the first; Joanna Newsom doesn't have any of her material available on that platform)

A towering achievement of imagination, lyrical composition and instrumentation Joanna Newsom crafts a series of songs that I’ll be unpacking for years. Like gazing into a deep forest pool where the water is just hazy enough to constantly reveal new details and depths. Lead single “Sapokanikan” (which you’ll note, is also my #1 song of the year) was in particular extraordinarily meaningful to me in its recounting of a city (in this case New York) built upon forgotten ancient ruins that in itself will be forgotten in the not-so-distant future. A reminder that even a legacy is a fragile thing; as she describes walking in a city park she sings “all of the 20,000 attending your footfall, and the cause that they died for is lost in the idling bird calls and the records they kept are cryptic at best, lost in obsolescence.” Later in the album she recounts moments and feelings that involve a group of soldier/astronauts in some sort of retro-sci-fi future revolving around an unsuccessful war. She makes an outlandish concept personal, real and filled with touching images and heart-wrenching depictions of distance and loneliness: “but there was a time we were lashed to the prow, of a ship you may board but not steer, before you and I cease to mean now and begun to mean only right here.” Much has been made of the fact that the first word sung on the album is “sending” and the last word the truncated word “tran-;” looping the album around the word “transcending.” I won’t elaborate on that any more than to say that it certainly describes my experience with the album. 

It’s been a longer wait than I had realized for this album. Not that 3 years is that long to wait for a new album (Joanna Newsom’s gap was nearly double this), but as soon as I listened to Art Angels I realized how much I had craved more material from Claire Boucher. This album delivers on the promise of Visions (which still stands as one of the great albums of this decade so far) and so much more. It’s a record which merges dance, pop, indie and experimental sounds but never sounds disjointed. Boucher’s voice and production keep everything from spinning out of balance for a listening experience that’s wonderfully unhinged in its control.

Taking elements from noise and minimal electronic music, John Power, the mastermind behind Blanck Mass (and one-half of Fuck Buttons) delivers a powerful blast of noise that is as forceful as it is beautiful. While some of the tracks can be a punishing listen, none ever overstay their welcome and, more often than not, leave me energized and eager to repeat the experience. 

Is there such a thing as a perfect repeat performance? Usually, when an artist delivers “more of the same,” it’s a negative, but with the artist in question is CHVRCHES, a group with such a perfect sound and drive, why would more wonderfully-tuned, powerfully sung, sparkling electronic pop be a bad thing? Not that they haven’t improved as producers and songwriters: lyrically this album tackles more daring and specific subjects and sonically it’s even “bigger” than their breakout The Bones of What You Believe; but they don’t stray too far from what made them so great to begin with. Every Open Eye is a fantastically bold and technicolor record, maybe not too far removed from their previous work, but it’s a marvelous work nonetheless.

One of my go-to albums this year to put on with almost any kind of crowd. Co-workers? Ratatat. Family in the room? Ratatat. Punk friends who listen to hardcore? Ratatat. Under 8-years old family members? Ratatat. Now, this makes it sound like I think that Magnifique only serves as milquetoast background noise, but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s simply that they compose songs so catchy, so layered and so perfect that nearly anybody can enjoy it. “Rome,” in particular hits my sweet spot for being such a varied composition, but never losing sight of its theme and always with the intent on taking the listener on a journey, that is, if they choose to engage; it’ll serve just fine as party music too.

A devastating tour through Sufjan’s troubled childhood and the far-reaching effects of his mother’s early childhood abandonment and on-and-off presence in his life. Proving the axiom that “the more personal, the more universal,” I found myself moved beyond words and identifying with each story, regardless of how far away they were from my own experience. As I’ve struggled with my own mental health and spirituality this year, I took comfort in his reassurance that “signs and wonders” were enough to keep going; especially considering that his “signs and wonders” aren’t miracles of the type I’ve grown up expecting, but rather a simple pattern of stars and a water stain on the wall. It’s a sparse album, featuring only touches here and there of other instruments besides a guitar and Steven’s own voice, but in that emptiness of sound he creates caverns of feelings and memory for the listener to get lost (and found) in.

Boy, it’s been a long time since we’ve heard from these boys, hasn’t it? And, just like that, it doesn’t matter how long it’s been. Recorded during a reunion tour, The Magic Whip grapples with themes of globalization, loss of community and post-millennial angst. But, as always, it does so with that particular brand of cheerful British melancholy that has become Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon’s stock in trade.

I have casually referred to this as a “breakup album,” though as my wife has pointed out, that’s hugely reductive. There’s a soul-baring incisiveness of the Vulnicura, which charts the tectonic beginnings of a relationship doomed to fail (on the first track she demands emotional respect; one can surmise that if that’s not there in the first place, something is amiss). She sings of the trauma invoked in the ripping apart of her partnership: “Is there a place where I can pay respects for the death of my family?” In all, she ends the album with a song that includes the line “when I’m broken, I am whole and when I’m whole, I’m broken,” a peon to her dedication to rebuilding her life out of the pieces, making the most of it and moving forward. 

An album of breathtaking beauty and, for Esmerine, a surprisingly hard edge; like a razor-sharp glass knife. Often serving as the “string section,” for Godspeed You! Black Empoeror, Esmerine has long had a mission and sound of their own and with Lost Voices they take that sound and stretch it to its agonizingly wonderful breaking point. It’s post-rock as if played by a chamber orchestra, or classical music played by a post-punk band. 
While this album has some definite “skips” (I’m look at you “Warriors") Hudson Mowhake’s second full length more than makes up for these oversights in the near cosmic heights of bangers like “System,” “Ryderz,” and, most notably, “Scud Books.” No other song this year was guaranteed to put a smile on my face and turn around an otherwise bad time as “Scud Books.” Turn it on, crank it, and you’ll see for yourself.

Honorable Mentions: 
So many other amazing artists produced incredible material, it feels a shame to leave them off the list, but, here, in no particular order, are some of the other music I loved the most this year.

Purity Ring - Another Eternity
Sophie - Product
Sunn O))) - Kannon
Chelsea Wolfe - Abyss
Battles - La Di Da Di
Kiasmos - Swept EP
Girlpool - Before the World Was Big
Belle and Sebastian - Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
Levon Vincent - Levon Vincent

2015 Top 20 Music Tracks
The rule I set for myself was to not repeat any song that was included on an already existing album: each album could only have one track that I listed (or else there’d be 5 tracks from Divers alone on this list!).

  1. Joanna Newsom - Sapokanikan 
  2. Hudson Mohawke - Scud Books 
  3. Bjork - Stonemilker 
  4. Grimes - World Princess Part 2 
  5. Chelsea Wolfe - Iron Moon 
  6. Blur - Ong Ong 
  7. CHVRCHES - Clearest Blue 
  8. Girlpool - Ideal World 
  9. Esmerine - The Neighbourhoods Rise 
  10. Battles - The Yabba 
  11. Sufjan Stevens - The Only Thing 
  12. Kygo - Sexual Healing Remix 
  13. Will Butler - Anna 
  14. Ratatat - Rome 
  15. QT - Hey QT 
  16. Blanck Mass - The Great Confuso, Pt. 1 
  17. Calexico - Bullets and Rocks 
  18. Purity Ring - Dust Hymn 
  19. Hundred Waters - Down from the Rafters (Huxley Remix) 
  20. Kate Boy - Northern Lights
Happy New Year's everyone!

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