2015: A Look Back

The Best Of 2015

by Benjamin Ray

The Top Ten

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10. Datura4, Demon Blues

Many critics will put Tame Impala’s new record in their year-end list, because something about a dull, melancholy, electronic, vague, melody-free coffeeshop swoon gets everybody excited. Screw ‘em. This album kicks ass with electric guitars the way great albums used to, and it’s fun, and classicist, and free of horseshit. Sometimes, that’s exactly what you need, especially while driving.

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9. Blur, Magic Whip

The veteran Britpop band roared back to life with a timely, modern and quite amazing record. Damon Albarn sounds revitalized when working with Graham Coxon again; after his detours on solo albums and Gorillaz records, a dash of guitar and spirit seems to have given him new musical life. Like much of Blur’s music, the songs take a few listens to fully absorb, but more importantly the disc straddles the sound of old with the current indie/alternative rock scene that Blur helped influence, making this release far more than just a reunion or comeback attempt.

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8. Viet Cong, Viet Cong

Dark, difficult and abrasive, Viet Cong’s debut has all the hallmarks of the lo-fi noise rock that inspired it (think Joy Division, Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine), but louder. The wall of noise is punctuated by keyboards, providing a welcome relief, but given the right mood (winter in the Midwest), it’s easy to get lost in this one.

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7. Royal Thunder, Crooked Doors

The songwriting duo at the heart of Royal Thunder broke up before making the record, but recognized their creative strengths and recorded these songs together anyway. The tension and raw emotion that must have been present is palpable in the lyrics and songs on this fine album, and if the sound is sometimes messy or dull…well, that’s just how the mind feels after a breakup. But much of the music is arresting, pulling strains of progressive rock, arena rock, Southern rock and soul together through Miny Parsons’ voice and Josh Weaver’s terrific guitar work.

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6. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell

I’ve never been a fan of Stevens’ precious, self-serving brand of indie pop, which is precisely why I liked this record so much. There is no ornamentation, no drums, just the sound of Stevens confronting his life and laying bare his soul after the death of his mother (Carrie). His troubled history with her involves bouts of mental illness and substance abuse interspersed with happy childhood memories, and the lyrics evoke that in a way that is honest and vivid. Anyone who has lost a parent, who has struggled with a relationship with a parent, or who wishes they could get a message through to someone they love who is obviously lost and hurting, will feel both bummed out and uplifted by Stevens’ words. The music here – mostly folk strumming and decent melodies – is secondary to the powerful lyrics.

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5. Widespread Panic, Street Dogs

The mantle of Southern rock has been handed over to these guys, and it’s in good hands. The 10 songs on this intoxicating disc were recorded live in the studio, most on the first take, with Duane Trucks (younger brother of the Allman’s Butch) on drums and a “studio” that used to be a church. Many of the songs are around six minutes long, with plenty of jamming and hints of ‘70s rock alongside the expected bluesy and country rock influences, but the final sound is modern and refreshing. Guitarist Jimmy Herring is the star by a long shot, ripping off solo after riff like his life depends on it, turning this into one of the great guitar rock albums of the year.



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4. Finger Eleven, Five Crooked Lines

Canada’s post-grunge stars got a shot in the arm with the success of “Paralyzer,” and then took some time to record this follow-up. Rather than rewriting Them Vs. You Vs. Me, the band reaches back to their classic rock influences (Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel) to turn in an excellent album that sounds little like their previous releases. The opening “Gods Of Speed” is all old-school metal frenzy, “Come On, Oblivion” is dense Gabriel-inspired prog-metal, “Absolute Truth” has a touch of psychedelic wonder and “A New Forever” is original and inspired. The band worked up a head of steam, recording this one in just two weeks, and that energy and inspiration spills over in the performances.

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3. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly

In one fell swoop, Lamar not only recorded the best hip-hop album of the year but probably the most socially important one as well. A gifted lyricist, Lamar touches on social causes (the white-hot Black Lives Matter movement), his own feelings and failings and the failures of both politicians (for rigging the system) and Americans (for failing to better their own situation when it’s easier just to blame “the man”). This self-awareness is laudable, but only gets better because of Lamar’s emotional delivery, his collaborations with rap and funk legends and the broad diversity of the music on display, which recalls Outkast’s masterworks Stankonia and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Regardless of how you feel about hip-hop, this is an album that needs to be heard, not the least for the incendiary cover art of a gathering of bare-chested black youths swarming the White House lawn. A magnificent disc.



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2. Gov’t Mule, Sco-Mule

Gov’t Mule had worked with special guests on stage in the past, but working with jazz guitarist John Scofield seemed to awaken something in the band and especially in guitarist Warren Haynes. This disc captures in fantastic audio quality the 1999 show and the results are simply stunning; in short, this is one of the greatest jam-rock live records since the Allman Brothers’ At Fillmore East. There are no lyrics, only jazz-inspired hard rock, with muscular guitar solos, rumbling bass (check out the strut of “Kind Of Bird”), killer keyboard solos (“Doing It To Death”), some great drumming and a knotty intensity that comes from a combination of adrenaline-infused live shows and a decade of jamming together with the band. Gov’t Mule would collaborate with Scofield again to lesser results; this stands as a testament to a night where they got everything right.



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1. Gary Clark Jr., The Story of Sonny Boy Slim

 It takes guts to turn away from the music that made you famous so soon after your major-label debut. It takes talent to make the new approach seem like the original was just a fling. Clark’s album is a stunning study in character and black music influence, a grounded kaleidoscope of emotion and ambition that was only hinted at on the blues-rock of Black & Blu a few years ago. Kendrick Lamar may have spoken about and to the country as a whole, but Clark gets into the minds of the day-to-day lives and struggles of money issues, fatherhood, relationships, spirituality, the weight of the world, love, honesty, bluster, dancing, sex, loss. He then sets it to songs that pull from pretty much every strain of American music (deep blues, rock, gospel, funk, soul) with intensity and grit. As Jason Warburg put it, “This is what albums are for.”


Other Notable Releases

Adele, 25: This wasn’t so much a record release as an event, with the British soul songstress breaking a record for most albums sold in a single week in an era where people don’t really buy albums anymore. You couldn’t get away from “Hello” for a while there, but that’s okay, because in one fell swoop Adele and her team of songwriters and musicians re-established her as the predominant pop voice of her generation. That the songs all sort of sound alike after a while is beside the point, although it may become an issue in a few years when the hype falls away and we actually take a closer look at the content within.

Songhoy Blues, Music In Exile: A surprise upon first listen, this disc comes by way of a bluesy African trio more immersed in American music than that of their own continent. Some great blues riffs and topical songwriting are to be found here; worth a listen when you have a chance.

Alabama Shakes, Sound And Color: Perhaps somewhat defensively, Alabama Shakes opted not to rewrite their successful first album for their sophomore release, instead dialing back the vocal prowess and adding flourishes of electronics, psychedelia and melancholy to their signature roots-rock sound. The gamble pays off; it’s the same band as before, embracing modern sounds as well as their influences, and it’s a fine piece of work.

Muse, Drones: Loud riff-rock with a heavy message about our current dystopia as seen through Muse, who has covered such topics before in “Resistance” and The 2nd Law. Not always memorable, but quite compelling.

Mark Ronson, Uptown Special: Ronson, a longtime producer, and Bruno Mars collaborated on the early-year hit “Uptown Funk,” one of the catchiest singles of 2015, albeit one not totally indicative of this album as a whole. Ronson uses his industry tenure to turn out an album indebted to the ‘70s, with glossy yacht rock and funk stompers mixing in with Stevie Wonder-inspired pieces and a touch of hip-hop. It’s a tad calculated in spots, but a lot of fun nonetheless.

Notable Songs

Noel Gallagher, “Ballad Of The Mighty I”: Noel’s album Chasing Yesterday felt like it was doing just that at many points, which turned off non-Oasis fans looking for something new. It’s a solid album, but never better than on this closing track, a five-minute bass-led stomp over the Britpop allusions of the other tracks. Honestly, it’s one of the best songs of the year.

Will Butler, “Anna”: The Arcade Fire guitarist’s first solo album was a brief 27-minute excursion into weightless songwriting, a chance for the man to unwind after the Serious Themes of his band’s previous few albums. You won’t ever confuse anything on this disc with anything on Reflektor, but that’s kind of the point, and nowhere is it illustrated better than “Anna,” a finger-snapping popcorn-jumpy tune with horns, piano, swag and a grin. If the rest of Bowie’s Young Americans had sounded like this, it could have been a classic.

Everclear, “Sugar Noise”: The beleaguered ‘90s alt-rockers roared back to life with their best disc in 14 years, one that is drawn from both their early-career energy and Velvet Revolver’s sleazoid guitar crunch. It wasn’t a great album, but it was good, particularly on the overdriven opener “Sugar Noise,” which brings the spirit of Contraband back to life for three Slash-inspired hard rock minutes.

Disappointments

Neil Young, The Monsanto Years: Young had a chance to seize on the political climate of 2015 here just as he did in 2006 with Living With War, and he missed it. That Muse and Kendrick Lamar did it better is beside the point; Young can be as cranky and anti-establishment as anybody, but his railing this time around just didn’t hit home, his targets of big-box stores, Starbucks and genetically-modified food things that Americans don’t really think about too much. In particular, as ISIS gains traction around the world and we are increasingly in danger of a xenophobic President Donald Trump, as gun violence is off the charts and people of color feel racism hasn’t improved these last few decades, songs about coffee and Best Buy and corn just don’t hold a lot of weight. Young’s best dig is at Citizens United, though, which has corrupted the electoral process much more openly and legally than we had known about before…proof that he still has something to say.

Surfer Blood, 1000 Palms: Unless you’re a big fan of 311, which this band has evidently turned in to, stay away.

Mumford & Songs, Wilder Mind: I’m not saying they had to write “I Will Wait” again, or continue down a path of bluegrass for their career, but this detour toward mediocre, forgettable rock was one that should not have been taken. The band lost its voice and sounded like everybody else.

The Decembrists, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World: We used to be able to rely on Colin Meloy to turn out wonderfully odd prog-rock-chamber pop albums about centuries-old love or fantasy stories; even when the band played it straight, “Down By The River” was one of that year’s best songs. But Meloy plays it too straight here, opening up the curtain to talk about his feelings and the joy of being a dad. Artists do this a lot, and it’s fine, but Meloy was one of the few we didn’t expect to travel down this path. The result was a disc with little of the fire and charm of previous records, and not one Decembrists fans are likely to play repeatedly.




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