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.

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