Monday, December 28, 2015

My Favorite Songs of 2015 - Part 3

Putting 2015 to bed!

10. Joanna Gruesome - “Last Year” (Peanut Butter)

The way this song shapeshifts from a fun and capable punk jam into the catchiest, most blissful twee pop tune you’ve heard in ages is one of my favorite musical feats of the year. Just give it a listen and try not to be charmed so hard you immediately hit the back button.

9. Craig Finn - “Saint Peter Upside Down” (Faith in the Future)
The Hold Steady have grown out of their drunken bar band persona into a more grown up one, and that’s probably because the band, despite flourishes of youthful reverie still found in their music, is getting old. Finn has been sounding more world weary on his recent releases, and boy oh boy does he sound world weary here. No more than on Faith in the Future’s “Maggie I’ve Been Searching for Our Son.” I coulda picked that one. I love that song, but the martial energy of “Saint Peter Upside Down” felt like the sort of music I wish the Hold Steady were making right now. It’s got cryptic hallmarks, it takes place in a bar, and has references to saints, mysterious seedy characters, and lines like “Now she’s up in her room watching Disney cartoons/ She always cries when they’re kissing the prince.” It’s a tremendous little song buried in the back half of Faith in the Future, but Finn has more confidence and swagger here than he’s had in years and man oh man I hope he carries that with him.

8. Natalie Prass - “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” (Natalie Prass)
Holy SHIT. That’s my reaction every time this song ends. It’s like musical theater or something. If you strip this song down to its bones it’s an aching and vulnerable little tune about a broken relationship. It passes the test of being a beautiful song on its own merits, but the insane amount of orchestration that is crammed into this one by Prass and producer Matthew E. White is astounding. It should sound like a mess, and instead it sounds freaking epic. It has it all. hushed woodwinds ultimately give way to big brassy horns and the shifting instrumentation punctuates the shifting emotion Prass imbues into every chorus. The vocals veer from fragile to empowered over the chorus of five minutes. The line “Our love is a long goodbye” sounds sad and heartbreaking at first and by its refrain at the end it sounds matter of fact. It’s an incredibly moving track, but every five listens or so I put aside a listen to just admire the musicianship and production because goddamn, I don’t know how the hell you make music that sounds this rich.

7. Frank Turner - “Silent Key” (Positive Songs for Negative People)
Frank Turner's Positive Songs for Negative People is his most radio friendly to date, and I thought a lot of the songs ended up feeling a little rote, a little too slick, a little too tailored to a broad audience. It doesn't feel like he's actively selling out or anything like that, and it feels like Mr. Turner is making a progression as he sees fit, but the results are just...fine, you know what I mean? So once you come across "Silent Key" on the back end of the record it knocks you flat on your ass. It's a huge song, and it's one of the most earnest and emotional tracks of the year. It's what Frank Turner excels at when he's on his game. The song plays out as a fictionalized conversation between astronaut Christa McAuliffe and a four-year-old Frank Turner having a conversation over ham radio in the minutes following the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. It's a devastating piece of work that elevates the whole album.

6. Hop Along - “Powerful Man” (Painted Shut)
Frances Quinlan might not be a world famous superstar, but holy shit does she sound like one on Painted Shut. The pipes on this woman, goddamn. Just give this track a spin and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

5. Beach Slang - “Too Late to Die Young” (The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us)
A terrific article on Grantland called Beach Slang “2015’s Best, Most Sincere Rock Band” and I’m hard pressed to come up with a better one-line description of this band. The songs feel mainlined from frontman James Alex’s heart and on the showstopping standout “Too Late to Die Young,” you feel the weight of his forty years (and 20 in punk rock) like a burden, but not one that’s too heavy to overcome. It’s strange calling someone who’s been in the business for as long as Alex one of the best new voices in indie rock, but it’s hard not to when his songs feel like the most honest and optimistic songs of the year.

4. Father John Misty - “Chateau Lobby 4 (in C for Two Virgins)” (I Love You, Honeybear)

You’re going to be hard pressed to find a more romantic song released this year, and that it’s coming from someone with a curmudgeonly reputation (if it’s not all an act, which I’m not ruling out) is like one of those news stories where they find someone alive trapped under the rubble of a collapsed building after a week. Perhaps it’s Josh Tillman’s seriousness that makes these deeply personal songs about his love for his wife and finding real love in a world full of morons make you feel like you’re a part of a triumph of the human spirit. That even in the darkest and beardiest of places, love wins.

3. Fred Thomas - “Bad Blood” (All Are Saved)
One thing I love about “Bad Blood” is that the vocals get faded out, but looking at the lyrics sheet, there are more words. But they’re blasted out by a droning synthesizer. “Bad Blood” isn’t the catchiest song on All Are Saved, but it’s the one that I kept coming back to. It’s basically a dirge about having to deal with people you straight up hate, two-facedness, and being stuck in the “scene” and I got stuck on it. I was amazed at some of the stream of consciousness one liners Thomas drops in this track

2. Courtney Barnett - “Elevator Operator” (Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit)
Trader Joes, day after Thanksgiving, there 5 minutes before open to pick up milk on my way to work. “Elevator Operator” is blaring from the speakers outside usually reserved for more subdued grocery store fare. I love hearing songs in unexpected places. I’d listened to Courtney Barnett’s debut LP a dozen times already, but hearing “Elevator Operator” there and then turned the song on its head. I had nothing to do but stand there and listen and appreciate Barnett’s unique brand of storytelling songwriting that calls back heyday Craig Finn. Someone finally unlocked the door and the music kept playing as I walked back to the dairy section before abruptly shutting off right before I grabbed a gallon of milk. Pure unbridled fun and joy, that song, right there.

1. The Mountain Goats - “Heel Turn 2” (Beat the Champ)
“I don’t want to die in here” became my mantra this year. I listened to this song when I was in the hospital or undergoing treatment, and I listened to it a lot. I listened to it when I wasn’t in the hospital. I listened to it all the time. It gave me great comfort. It’s a beautiful and perfect song. It takes the very black and white world of wrestling and populates it with the inner emotional struggle of one of that world’s characters, and the story of a beloved hero turning to the dark side out of personal necessity, despite the “president of the fan club up there choking on his tears” is a powerful parable of the importance of doing what is necessary for one’s survival, the opinions of others be damned.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

My Favorite Songs of 2015 - Part 2

20. Matthew E. White - “Take Care of My Baby” (Fresh Blood)
I saw Mr. White open for the Mountain Goats when we were living in Minneapolis and he was a delight. And then I forgot about him. And then I randomly got this album, put it on, and holy shit, I was grooving around the bedroom. How can a big white dude like that sing with so much soul?

19. Waxahatchee - “Poison” (Ivy Tripp)
“Is this on Merge?” I asked Jenny when we listened to this album in the car right after it came out. Sure enough. Merge Records. Makes sense, since this sounds like a Merge record from the 90s. Just the distortion on the guitars, the raw, earnest vocals, the general heartswelling vibe. Katie Crutchfield forever.

18. Wilco - “Magnetized” (Star Wars)
The Song Exploder podcast did an episode where Jeff Tweedy discussed his process and how it birthed this track and it was the most inspiring thing I heard all year. Listen to it here. The chorus is so simple and beautiful and full of sweet affection for Tweedy’s wife, but never sappy, as is his way. Though I lost the man, the man hasn’t lost it.

17. Sufjan Stevens - “Eugene” (Carrie & Lowell)
I know the detail of the man who taught Stevens how to swim calling him Subaru is meant to draw out a really sweet sort of reaction, and I’m a sucker. It’s tough to pick just one track from Carrie & Lowell, as the sonic and thematic link between the tracks is so strong, but “Eugene” is the feeliest.

16. Julien Baker - “Sprained Ankle” (Sprained Ankle)
It takes guts to put yourself out there in song, but it takes more guts to do it on a track that is stripped down to its bones. A little plucked guitar and some atmospherics are the only thing that keep Baker’s raw vocals company. It’s a little monument that says it is OK for music to be simple and beautiful.

15. The Tallest Man on Earth - “Dark Bird is Home” (Dark Bird is Home)
I’m a sucker for any song that has strings come in towards the end. It’s an easy triumph, and the strings that crash in on this track’s climactic moment are excellent. I do not understand how this album got a universal “Eh” from the rock chump community.

14. Bill Ryder-Jones - “Tell Me You Don’t Love Me Watching” (West Kirby County Primary)
Though the rest of West Kirby County Primary is pretty standard folky brit-rock, the opener is a slow, lurid scene. It could come across as trashy, but there’s enough self-deprecation to make the guy watching his ex from afar a sad and mournful thing.

13. Titus Andronicus - “Fired Up” (The Most Lamentable Tragedy)
TMLT is a lot to unpack, and its two most immediate and accessible tracks come back to back in the middle of the record. “Fired Up” edges out “Dimed Out” because I’m a sucker for big, anthemic choruses and calls to action and the Springsteen that resides in the blood of these New Jerseyites. Excuse me while I find a brick wall to run through.

12. Laura Stevenson - “Claustrophobe” (Cocksure)
I’m pretty sure Laura Stevenson is my spirit animal. I feel like these days I want to find music that matches the sound of my spirit, and the prechorus and chorus of this track is pretty much a perfect match. Strangely, this song kept coming up on shuffle. I had the whole album on my phone, in addition to ten other albums, and this one was always the first or second song that would pop up when I shuffled. So maybe the universe was trying to tell me something. If so, it worked.

11. Mikal Cronin - “Turn Around” (MCIII)
I waffled between “Turn Around” and “I’ve Been Loved.” On the one hand, that hilarious Natalie Imbruglia-parodying video was hilarious and my introduction to this incredible record. But on the other, Cronin’s performance of “I’ve Been Loved” on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast was what really drove it into my Top 10. And of course the last six songs are a song cycle, so what do you do with that?! I’ll stick with “Turn Around” here because it exemplifies what Cronin does best: garage-pop with sweeping orchestral flourishes and brain-melting melodies.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

My Favorite Songs of 2015 - Part 1

I feel like I'm a hoity toity self-diagnosed "Album Person," but if I really look at my habits in the mirror, when it comes to consuming a particular year's new music, I'd almost always rather listen to a 30 song playlist of the year's best tracks than listen to the year's best album in its entirety. I mean, it depends on the album, but I'm a crave variety so this makes sense. Ask my wife. It's hard enough for her to get me to take leftovers to work. There are certain meals we straight-up just don't have around the house anymore because I got sick of them (roast chicken, chicken noodle soup, it goes on). My usual protocol for new music consumption involves taking an album I have been looking forward to, or one that has been touted by reputable sources, or one that has a cool album cover/title and I put that record on my iPhone with ten other albums. I don't listen to music in the car much anymore but if I'm at work setting up for the daily Kids Cafe program or doing the money or discharging the book drop, I'll put all of the music on shuffle and skip around until I find something I can latch onto. The process is tried and true, and it keeps my best of list from being 50% track ones.

Every year has at least ten songs that are absolute worldbeaters. Those are songs that I'll always carry with me. Every year also has about 20-40 songs that are damn good but are more products of the moment and will channel more nostalgia when I listen to them down the line. Still, a good song is a good song, and I like making these lists because I like looking a back at the good songs from years gone by and reevaluating down the line. It's like making a fun little time capsule filled with great tunes.

30. Car Seat Headrest - “Something Soon” (Teens of Style)
Wunderkind Will Toledo caught the attention of Matador after making 12 albums over the last 5 years and putting them on Bandcamp for no one. The chorus bears a world class hook that unfortunately bends to the will of an instrumental/whoa-ing outro piece that goes on wayyyyy too long. This is effectively a two minute song that ends and you IMMEDIATELY throw it on again. But that’s the pop purist in me talking and this young man’s talent and drive is a goddamn inspiration. Note: I promise this is the last time I will talk about chorus repetition etiquette on this list. I also promise to never refer to myself as a “pop purist” ever again. I just can’t understand why great bands ruin perfectly lean pop songs with fat and gristle.

29. Yo La Tengo - “My Heart’s Not in It” (Stuff Like That There)
Ever the purveyors of obscure covers, YLT plucked Darlene McCrea’s 1964 tune from a hat and turned out an astoundingly lovely and sad song in typical YLT fashion.

28. The World is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die - “January 10th, 2014” (Harmlessness)
Emo revivalists TWIABPAIANLATD go deeper and bigger on their excellent new record. At its core the track is about a vigilante woman hunting down murderous bus drivers (based on a true story) but on its face it’s a big, sweeping track with back and forth boy/girl vocals that is just one of the many highlights of Harmlessness, which, is likely going to top the “Shoulda Been on my Best of 2015 If I Wasn’t So Preoccupied/Lazy” list I put out in March or April).

27. Beach House - “Majorette” (Thank Your Lucky Stars)

Beach House’s chill vibe has never really been my thing. Ever since their debut came through music staff in like 2008 I have found their music to be intensely lovely but hard to sink my teeth into. After watching Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None,” which takes its name from a Beach House track, I revisited the band and found that they released TWO albums this year. I admire that sort of boldness. I tuned out about four songs in, but “Majorette” stuck with me.

26. Mac DeMarco - “Peter’s Pickles” (Some Other Ones)
I think I like Mac DeMarco better when he’s not singing. His album of instrumentals was a treat. “Peter’s Pickles” instantly reminds me of chilling on the driveway sidewalk chalking with Rosie this summer.

25. Destroyer - “Time’s Square” (Poison Season)
If you’re gonna put three versions of the same song on your record, that better be one damn good song. Can’t tell if it’s top-shelf Dan Bejar or I’m just stockholm syndromed from listening to the thing so many times.

24. Death Cab for Cutie - “No Room in Frame” (Kintsugi)

Ben Gibbard is finally writing break up songs about Zooey Deschanel. And it’s like throwback Death Cab. The track is light, fun, and heartbreakingly cutting.

23. Kendrick Lamar - “How Much a Dollar Cost” (To Pimp a Butterfly)

Honestly, take your pick from To Pick a Butterfly. I’m just gonna go ahead and side with President Obama on this one. It’s a concise and powerful piece of storytelling and dizzying talent.

22. Desaparecidos - “Ralphy’s Cut” (Payola)
Payola is what my political id feels like. I can’t pay attention to politics anymore. It’s too depressing. I’ll vote leftie, I still feel all of that stuff, but most of my energy is focused on being a good dad. These songs are how I feel in my heart. “Ralphy’s Cut” became my favorite because it’s was the one that kept getting stuck in my head the most.

21. Jeff Rosenstock - “I’m Serious, I’m Sorry” (We Cool?)

Despite being a really fun record, We Cool? has some heavy moments tucked away inside. But “I’m Serious, I’m Sorry” feels devastating. Every single time.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

My Favorite Albums of 2015

It’s always fun seeing how a year of music shakes out. That’s why I keep making these lists. I derive a great deal of personal pleasure ranking the things that I like. It’s a way to put a year in perspective. I like going back and looking at Year End List’s of bygone years (going all the way back to 2003) and I can remember who I was then, and every album is almost always tied to at least one moment or feeling or whatever from that year (with the exception of some of the late-to-mid 00s where the lists ballooned and there was a decent amount of filler, although even then I probably can tie it to reviewing it for music staff at KJHK which is a fond memory, I suppose).

My 2015 list is in order, but ask me to reorder it six months down the line and it might be different. That happened in 2012 when I put Father John Misty’s debut LP in the top spot over Japandroids Celebration Rock and in the intervening time Celebration Rock has become THEE landmark 2012 record for me. It’s the one I remember best. It's the one I still listen to on a regular basis (and somehow I don't have it on vinyl what gives?). But these things aren’t meant to be perfect. It’s why I don’t do a Best Of anymore. I used to obsess over qualitative judgments and now it just boils down to personal preference. I spent my KJHK years embedded in cultivation. Through music staff and ultimately as director I was trying to make sure the station was covering all of the bases. I listened to a way more diverse array of music back then, but by the end of my tenure I felt supremely burnt out and spent the following year listening to pretty much nothing but the Lemonheads’ It’s a Shame About Ray and Come On, Feel the Lemonheads. Ultimately I was able to reset and check out new music, but I just stuck with what I liked, which is indie rock, and pretty much exclusively that. My tastes have become incredibly boring and while a hip hop or electronic or ambient record will occasionally strike me, I’ve become sonically unadventurous. It’s like the Amish kids going out on rumspringa and after all the hard partying returning to the simple life of guitar music.

Jenny and I were looking for houses on Zillow the other day. We do this a lot. We open the app, tweak the settings to our prospective price range and requirements, and then check out the offerings neighborhood by neighborhood. My favorite album in high school was the Descendents Milo Goes to College, and I find it hilarious that my life has become “Suburban Home” with all of the biting satire removed. “I want to be stereotyped/I want to be classified,” “I want to live long/ I want a suburban home,” “I don’t want no hippy pad/ I want a house just like mom and dad.” Jesus Christ. That’s my life now, though. We had a kid and it stripped away all of my ego, or at least the I’M NEVER LIVING IN THE FUCKING SUBURBS parts I cultivated when I was 16. Maybe that accounts for my now totally safe and comfortable musical leanings. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the stuff that’s going to be consensus Best of 2015 stuff this year.The importance of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly but after doing my due diligence and listening to it once I knew it wasn’t going to be something I was going to throw on when I was doing the laundry, much less find the time to unpack all of the dense and heady stuff crammed into that record. Which is funny because I associate Good Kid, M.A.A.D City with folding laundry and an Odyssean trip to IKEA to buy a computer chair. Just look at that sentence and feel how lame I am. I feel it too. Every single day. I should have my invisible credentials stripped. Honestly, I threw them in the gutter when I gave up and quit writing for print. As Dillinger Four said, music is none of my business.

Honestly, I don’t listen to nearly as much music as I used to. I spend an hour and a half in the car every day and I pretty much exclusively listen to podcasts or audiobooks. At home it’s mostly family time, and while sometimes I’ll put on music when we’re hanging out in the toy room, you can’t very well listen to the new Deafheaven or Baroness record with a toddler. I listened to the soundtrack to Frozen more than I listened to any of the albums on this list. It’s just what my life is like now, and I’m OK with that because I get into just enough new music every year to satisfy the part of my music brain that is still curious. Mostly it’s to keep up with bands I love (The Mountain Goats, Destroyer, The Tallest Man on Earth) or bands who I have high hopes for based on my limited interaction with their music (Courtney Barnett, Father John Misty), but every year there are a few records that come out of the blue and knock me on my ass and that’s why I still put in a little effort to find new stuff. I’d love to see this list a year ago and think to myself, “Who the hell are Hop Along? Or Julien Baker? What? Laura Stevenson is putting out a new record that’s awesome!” 

Anyway, these all filled the gaps between all the medical drama and all the insane joy of fatherhood in one capacity or another, usually overlapping, and I can't wait until I can go back to worrying about things that don't really matter.

15. Mac DeMarco - Some Other Ones (Self-Released)
I was a big fan of Mac DeMarco’s 2014 release Salad Days but his proper 2015 release--Another One--felt a little too samey. Some Other Ones, the instrumental album released a couple months after Another One, on the other hand, got a ton of play around the house. It was a perfect summer record, capturing all of the laid back vibe of DeMarco’s unique tuneage without any of the boring, dopey vocals.

14. Joanna Gruesome - Peanut Butter (Slumberland)
Once you get past the horrible (but yeah, pretty hilarious) band name, you get a really terrific young band who seamlessly blend the worlds of shouty, throbbing punk rock and sugary sweet indie pop. Their Welsh band’s second longplayer is sneaky good. Before you know it you’ve listened to the whole thing and you’re starting over again. Personally, it was very hard for me to get past the first track--”Last Year”--because it’s just so damn good I wanna listen to it over and over and over again. I do this thing every year, where I put all the songs for my prospective Top 40 Songs of the Year list and put them on shuffle in the car. After a while I start skipping tracks. The less apt I am to skip a track, the higher it charts, and I don’t think I have skipped “Last Year” once. I digress. I can still barely get over the fact that Joanna Gruesome made the list and Joanna Newsom didn’t.

13. Waxahatchee - Ivy Tripp (Merge)
The week this album was released I put it on in the car during a family outing. “Is this on Merge?” I asked Jenny, who I’m guessing just looked at me like what the hell are you talking about? “Look it up and see if this is on Merge Records. It sounds like a Merge album from the 90s.” Sure enough, Katie Crutchfield’s latest great leap forward as a singer/songwriter/asskicking indie rock musician was released by Merge. It’s the perfect place for her now. Her 2013 sophomore LP Cerulean Salt was quite a fragile record, full of hushed, heartbreaking vocals. Ivy Tripp isn’t without its pensive moments. The album deceptively opens with a blown out synthesizer and Crutchfield’s aching vocals but gives way to a bunch of songs with distorted guitars, 90s alt-rock radio sounding hooks (that’s meant as a compliment), glorious harmonies, and a sonic palate so different from Cerulean Salt it’s dizzying.

12. Beach Slang - The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us (Polyvinyl)
Beach Slang’s sound can be very easily defined as the Replacements-meet-Jawbreaker. That’s going to be the general consensus. There’s really no way around it because yep, that’s exactly what they sound like. AND YET. I love this record. It helps that I love the Mats and Jawbreaker, but the more I listen to this record, the more I think it’s less of a direct copy and more of a broad anthemic, ramshackle indie/punk sound. The way this record sounds is the way my aura would sound if auras had sound. The other thing working in Beach Slang’s favor is the quality of songwriting, which is excellent, and even though the emotive standout “Too Late to Die Young” sounds like equal parts “Here Comes a Regular” and “Condition Oakland,” I listened to that song dozens of times this year and got chills every time. Frontman James Alex is a Pennsylvania punk rock lifer and there is a world weary quality to these songs that makes them so engaging. That and some really, really catchy hooks and killer riffs.

11. The Tallest Man on Earth - Dark Bird is Home (Dead Oceans)

Though I probably most associate the new Mountain Goats record with my week of isolation in April, Dark Bird is Home was also in heavy rotation. The day after I took the radioactive iodine, I sat out on the back patio drinking coffee and listening to Kristian Matsson’s latest little masterpiece. It’s been wonderful watching Matsson develop his sound from sparse, finger plucked guitar and a serious Bob Dylan jones into something fuller and fresher and distinctly his. Watching Matsson get better and better, album after album, is so much fun. It's not like I'm waiting for him to slip up, but I genuinely don't know where how he could get any better and sure enough, album after album, he does.

10. Julien Baker - Sprained Ankle (6131)
I feel serious dread when I stumble across teenagers this talented. Julien Baker is a 19 year old college student from Tennessee who made one of the most devastating records of 2015. And that’s really all I have to say about this stark and gorgeous record, which speaks for itself.

9. Mikal Cronin - MCIII (Merge)
Mikal Cronin is frequently mentioned in the same breath as the psych-rock yin to his garage-pop yang, Ty Segall. The two came up and played together in bands in Orange County and have since gone their (mostly) separate ways and achieved individual success. Segall’s output is sprawling whereas this is just Cronin’s third album in five years. I gravitate toward Cronin’s masterful pop tunes because that’s just my sensibility, and holy shit, they’re so damn good. I was late to the party on his 2013 LP MCII, which certainly would have made my year end list had I discovered it in time. It’s just right up my alley. Cronin is an ace at molding big melodies, deceptively deft songcraft, and, this time around especially, some emotionally fraught subject matter. The album is cracked in two: six songs of bright, string-laden, and occasionally mournful Californian pop and a six song songcycle about a period of despair recovering from back surgery. Cronin talks about it on his episode of WTF with Marc Maron, and listening to that podcast I felt a certain kindred spirit with the guy. I guess that can happen when you graduated high school the same year as someone and you came up with the same music on the radio and followed similar trajectories into punk music.  

8. Laura Stevenson - Cocksure (Don Giovanni)
I didn’t even know this one was coming out. Probably because I still routinely spin and greatly enjoy her 2013 album Wheel. So, with no lead up, this one landed in my lap and I didn’t quite know what to do with it. I wasn’t ready Laura! I didn’t really like the album cover, and I didn’t really like the title so, for no good reason, I put it on the shelf and went about not listening to music (which I did a lot this year). But then I put it on while doing the dishes and I thought that Cocksure was a remarkably accurate title for Laura Stevenson’s fourth LP. With each successive album her confidence has grown and on Cocksure she’s displaying some serious sonic swagger. Lyrically though, Stevenson still excels at capturing all of the fucked up self doubt of twentysomething existence with aplomb.

7. Hop Along - Painted Shut (Saddle Creek)
Hop Along frontwoman Frances Quinlan’s voice needs to be categorized as a distinct musical instrument. The range she draws out of her throaty pipes is astounding, and her insanely emotive vocals--which always sound like they’re on the verge of totally giving out--push Hop Along’s endlessly listenable second album. Painted Shut is a thoroughly engaging off kilter batch of punky indie rock jams. Insanely, I discovered Hop Along through a Fantasy Football podcast, which I guess shows you what kind of year it has been and how out of touch I am these days. Regardless, I listened to Painted Shut an insane amount of times. It’s a fun record, with some really catchy melodies, but there’s a raw and distinct beauty to these songs that is exhausting. And any time I finish listening to a record, take off my headphones, and say “holy shit,” that’s basically my ultimate seal of approval.

6. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)
I listened to Sufjan Stevens’ Seven Swans a lot right after Rosie was born. I tasked myself to find quiet, yet engaging music to play in the wee hours of the morning when she slept on my chest and Jenny slept in the bed. This was our nightly routine, and I feel all weepy and nostalgic thinking about it now. That tiny girl, the quiet, gorgeous music, the peace of being a father, the hours and hours of playing FTL on the iPad from midnight to 5:30 am. These are potent memories. So upon hearing Stevens’ latest album, which returns to the starkly orchestrated and banjo-focused arrangements of Seven Swans, I promptly listened to the album ceaselessly for two weeks. Carrie & Lowell is a tough album to listen to, but it’s so beautiful and deeply felt and earnest it’s easy to get wrapped up. It’s a heavy meditation on memory, death, and forgiveness and one of the year’s most powerful works.

5. Jeff Rosenstock - We Cool? (Quote Unquote)

There’s this little indie/pop punk/folk punk/DIY middleground that appeals to me on every level. It’s nostalgic, catchy, emotionally charged, ramshackle, and supports marathon relistening. Jeff Rosenstock (as well as his bands Bomb The Music Industry and Antarctigo Vespucci, discovered when my obsession with We Cool? reached a fever pitch and I NEEDED MORE GODDAMNIT!) firmly resides in that aforementioned middleground and was one of those rare “What the hell, I don’t know who this is but I’ll give it a listen” albums that I don’t get enough of because I honestly don’t know where or how to find the good stuff anymore outside of the coolest people in my Facebook feed.

4. Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear (Sub Pop)
Josh Tillman comes across as a prickly artist type but goddamn did the man write one of the best album’s of love songs I’ve ever heard. The real, unadulterated affection Tillman puts on display for his wife here is sweet and staggering, and should they ever divorce, well, I’ll throw this album against the wall because it would just be too much to handle. Naturally, if you are married, or in love with somebody, these songs will resonate down to your core and bring you closer together. This Fall I saw two beautiful young people share their first dance as a married couple to “Chateau Lobby #2” because there’s really nothing more romantic than a dude belting out a profession of love to his wife and then, unable to profess any further with words, brings in a goddamn mariachi band. 2015 showed the world to be an ugly place but I Love You, Honeybear is a necessary contrast to all of the violence and hate that surrounds us.

3. Fred Thomas - All Are Saved (Polyvinyl)
“Who is this brilliant weirdo?” I wondered aloud, halfway through All Are Saved. And after about three seconds of internet research I learned that Thomas was the bandleader for Michigan indie-pop stalwarts Saturday Looks Good to Me. I was delighted by that. Saturday Looks Good to Me’s All Your Summer Songs was big when I was hosting an indie-pop-centric radio show in college, and though I can’t remember any of the songs off of that record, I very distinctly remember plugging in the band name, track, and album title into the interface we used to publish the Now Playing part of the station’s website. Where was I? Oh yeah, Fred Thomas is brilliant. The dude is a gifted pop songwriter and yet his latest solo record (his 8th!) is a murky wash of electronics and borderline stream of consciousness lyrics that take us to the dark recesses of Thomas’ mind and memories. The lyrics feel imperfect, like first drafts, and that’s what made me love them so much. Editing out a line like, “It’s like everyone we know collectively vomited up a pile of brown sweaters or something” would take away from the magic.

2. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom & Pop)

There is no cooler record this year than Courtney Barnett’s “debut.” I don’t feel right calling it a debut, even if it is Barnett’s first “proper” LP, because her dual EP collection The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas was both a sparkling debut and basically an album in its own right. I tried swearing off reading music reviews this year but for some reason I read all of the year end lists and was annoyed that everyone is acting all surprised that her “debut” LP is so accomplished. It’s like c’mon she worked out the kinks on those EPs damnit!  I got sidetracked, which is fine, because I can tie that into Barnett’s songs, which often feel tangential which is one of the things that makes them so fresh. Australia has a long history of providing fun, unique, dare I say QUIRKY pop music that has its own distinct vibe and feel, and Barnett is right up there with the Church and the Go Betweens. She’s a marvel. Pure liquid fun without being at all fluffy. There’s weight to the tunes, and while I didn’t connect with it on a really deeply emotional level that’s OK too because that certainly didn’t keep me from playing the hell out of this album. And I think just about everyone who heard this record felt the same way, or at least the staff at Trader Joes on Ward Parkway the day after Thanksgiving when I got there five minutes before they opened and they were absolutely blaring “Elevator Operator” from the sound system. That’s a seal of approval if there ever was one.

1. The Mountain Goats - Beat the Champ (Merge)
Beat the Champ was announced the day after I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I immediately ordered the deluxe edition LP to have something to look forward to over the forthcoming emotionally taxing months. The album was released a week before I underwent a week of isolation for radioactive iodine ablation and I spent most of my isolation listening to the album. It’s not just about wrestling. Of course it’s not just about wrestling. It’s an album about the lives of the people who wrestle--both real and imagined--as a metaphor for the important ideas kicking around in John Darnielle’s psyche. The birth of a child is told as the birth of a tag team in “Animal Mask.” Pure perseverance is told through a wrestler so tough he proclaims “Everybody’s got their limits/ Nobody’s found mine” on the quick hitting “Choked Out.” “Heel Turn 2” tells the story of a beloved wrestling hero betraying the trust of his fans and turning heel as a means of pure survival, both artistically and personally. “I don’t want to die in here,” Darnielle sings. Those lines resonated with me, obviously, but beyond that they got me through not only that shitty week trapped in my old basement bedroom at my parents’ house, but the summer where I thought I was going to have to have chest surgery, and the fall where I found out no I didn’t need chest surgery but I did need extensive neck surgery. They got me through the hospital. They got me through the three weeks of recovery. They are getting me through the aftermath where things look a lot better than they have in a long time but I’m still not out of the woods yet. In a sense Beat the Champ is just an extension of the relationship I’ve always had with the Mountain Goats. I have used John Darnielle’s songs to get me through the tough times since I first heard them when I was 17 or 18, and I’ll continue to do so for the rest of my life because no songwriter on earth is that tapped in to the human experience. Darnielle played a live solo show at the Lawrence Arts Center in at the end of the summer and that hour and a half was the most peaceful and wonderful hour and a half of 2015. It was bizarre feeling so comforted, and so OK with everything in the midst of feeling so definitely not OK I had taken to seeing a special cancer psychologist to find ways to cope with the dread and anxiety of what is honestly a very, very treatable cancer. But when you’re constantly the weird exception to the rule, and the treatments aren’t working 100%, dread is inevitable. And at the worst times I would retreat to a spare bedroom, put my headphones on, and listen to the Mountain Goats.