Monday, April 4, 2016

My Top 100 Albums of 2015: Some Observations

Now that the calculations are complete, the posts are posted, and the tweets are being tweeted, I've had some time to sit back and reflect on my top 100 albums of 2015. Here are some random observations:

  • Female artists rule! Three of my top four were unique female artists (Julia Holter, Jenny Hval, and Joanna Newsome) from the "experimental-artsy" school, and there are a large number of solo women on the list, from the country-pop of Kacey Musgraves, to Julien Baker's delicate and pain filled "Sprained Ankle", to crooner Lana Del Ray, the always quirky Bjork, old-timey Martha Scanlan, the atonality of Circuit des Yeux, etc., etc.
  • Some of the more interesting releases in 2015 were combos consisting of DJs or electronic music artists, and African musicians: The Very Best, Fantasma and St. Germain.
  • More and more, I notice that my choices fall into distinct categories, despite my general dislike of categorization. There's a bunch of straight rock 'n' roll (bordering on retro) like Thunderbitch, the Sonics, Blitzen Trapper. There's a load of electronic, art-pop outfits like Grimes, Purity Ring, Dan Deacon, Viet Cong and Jenny Hval. Country, folk and Americana are covered in Eric Church, Josh Ritter, Barnstar, Lord Huron, Steve Earle, Ryan Culwell, and Rayland Baxter. Baroque pop is represented by San Fermin, Beirut and Nate Reuss. And singer-songwriters dominate through almost all of these categories.
  • While artists from the U.S. dominate my list with 66 of the 100 spots (which is more than in previous years), Scandivanians are overrepresented (on a per capita basis) as always with two artists from Iceland, four from Sweden, and two from Norway. And of course my Home and Native Land is second the U.S. with 12 entries.
  • I'm feeling less and less happy with my scoring system. (I give 30 points for creativity, 20 for chops (aka musical ability), 20 for melody, 10 for lyrics and 20 for feel.) It tends to bring the artsier, more experimental stuff to the top of the heap at the expense of some of the great rock or Americana offerings that may lack a ton of creativity. Mind you, when I tried the experiment of giving "feel" half the score with the other devoted to all the other criteria, my top three didn't change. I did see a ton of lift for bands like The Sonics, Thunderbitch and Courtney Barnett.
What did you notice about my list? Anything with which you vehemently disagree?

Thursday, March 31, 2016

My Top Albums of 2015: #25-1 (with commentary)

#26-50 #51-100 Good albums that didn't make the cut
#25: Viet Cong, Viet Cong
A gloomy and dark outing characterized by extensive use of electronic sounds and oddly harmonized vocals. Absolutely mesmerizing.
#24: The Tallest Man on Earth, Dark Bird Is Home
Kristian Mattson continues to expand his sound beyond his "single man with an acoustic guitar" beginnings. The fact the he's always played with a percussive, energetic, full sound (even by himself) makes his move to using a full band and sound less jarring than you might expect. Anchored, as always, by exceptional lyrics, open tunings and his always expressive voice.
#23: Nate Reuss, Grand Romantic
A Fun. album in all but name, Reuss' "solo" debut features loads of "ear worms" with Wall of Sound production and great hooks.
#22: Asaf Avidan, Gold Shadow
This Israeli singer has one of the most original and powerful voices out there. Like a number of powerful singers over the years, there's an element of androgyny here: it could be a male or female voice. On this collection, he wraps his remarkable pipes around songs equal part crooner, Wall of Sound and Brill Building.

#21: Modest Mouse, Strangers to Ourselves
One of the quirkiest bands out there is back after eight years with an almost new lineup, although you'd never know it: their unique sound remains intact. Songs twist and bob in unexpected ways, accentuated by Isaac Brock's chanting voice.
#20: Grimes, Art Angels
Wildly varied and ambitious, Canadian Claire Boucher's 4th album as Grimes is a tour de force with techno, pop, dance and rock colliding in all sorts of wild ways.
#19: Death Cab for Cutie, Kintsugi
The 8th Death Cab for Cutie album (and first released since Chris Walla left, although he apparently played on the record) is melancholic, both in words and sounds. "Black Sun" is a particular stand-out: cool and haunting.
#18: the bird and the bee, Recreational Love
Smart, well-crafted dance music with electronic beats and Latin rhythms
#17: Circuit des Yeux, In Plain Speech
This is a dark, dramatic album featuring Haley Fohr's distinct (and mesmerizing) baritone (an unusual range for a female singer). Listening to this album is like listening to a symphony with each song representing a different movements. There aren't a lot of lyrics, and the music is relatively dark with dramatic builds and a hint of atonality.
#16: Susanne Sundfør, Ten Love Songs
Even thought she's Norwegian and not Swedish, Susanne Sundfør seems to have reached across the border and absorbed the ABBA-derived Swedish genius for pop melodies. This collection of (duh!) 10 songs showcases her genius for expressive pop with an orchestral sweep.
#15: Telekinesis, Ad Infinitum
Telekinesis is, with very few exceptions, Michael Benjamin Lerner sitting in his home studio producing great synth pop with unbelievable hooks and strong rhythm.
#14: Ryan Culwell, Flatlands
An exceptional tour of a specific area (the Texas Panhandle) from this talented singer-songwriter. The songs are thick with dust and wind in these tuneful character sketches. "Amarillo" and the title track are fantastic.
#13: My Morning Jacket, The Waterfall
My Morning Jacket makes big, generous rock 'n' roll with a strong hippyish vibe and corresponding sense of optimism (just listen to album opener "Believer (Nobody Knows)"). The musicianship is exceptional throughout and the palette extends to soul and jam-band sounds.
#12: Matt Pond PA, The State of Gold
Terrific synth-pop!
#11: Josh Ritter, Sermon on the Rocks
There is, IMHO, no better singer-songwriter than Josh Ritter in the U.S. today. His musical curiosity and Dylanesque lyrical gifts raise him well above the pack. On his latest LP, he moves from the intimate post-divorce setting of his previous release (The Beast In Its Tracks) to a broad collection of Americana in which he often occupies the voice of characters at the edge of America.
#10: Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
Grief has produced some amazing works of art. Add this album to the list as Stevens brings his considerable talents to bear upon his mother Carrie's 2012 death and his parents' relationship. Beautiful and touching without ever crossing into maudlin.
#9: Toro y Moi, What For?
Chad Bundrick's "sound" evolves constantly (to the point where it's very difficult to even characterize). This is a highly melodic and poppy outing with a sheen of Beatlesque psychedelia. 
#8: Fantasma, Free Love
If you like South African music (think Juluka or the raw Indestructible Beat of Soweto that inspired Paul Simon to create Graceland), then give this album a whirl. A fusion of traditional South African styles (such as mbaqanga), hip-hop, house, electro-pop. Breathtaking!
#7: The Very Best, Makes a King
Comprising a Malawan vocalist and a British DJ, The Very Best brings together a wonderful blend of sounds and influences into something that manages to sound organic and seamless. It ranges from troubadour ballads like "Mwang Banga" to great dance tunes like "Sweka."
#6: John Grant, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure
Quirky hardly begins to describe John Grant. First there's his voice, deeper than most to begin and then further distinguished by by his sometimes growly, sometimes offhand delivery. Then there's his subject matter...
#5: Dan Deacon, Glass Riffer
Fair or not, there's a tendency to think of electronic music as cold, unnatural, and/or club-centered. Dan Deacon blows this image with this upbeat, lively, fun collection of beats and chants. There's a sense of play throughout in the driving chanted words (it's hard to use words like "verse" and "chorus" here).
#4: Joanna Newsom, Divers
It's almost impossible not to hear Kate Bush at her most experimental in Joanna Newsom's voice. She's spectacularly talented, and relentlessly inventive and creative, coming up with a sound that I suspect most people will either love or hate.
#3: Purity Ring, another eternity
As with Dan Deacon's Glass Riffer, this is a terrific example of how electronic music can be lush, warm and tuneful. Every track is strong, but "Heartsigh" is a particular highlight.
#2: Jenny Hval, Apocalypse, girl
One of the most original albums I've ever heard, this is like one extended tone poem on what it's like being a woman in today's world. At times sacred, at other times profane, the range of sounds and thoughts, connected by repeated phrasing, is breathtaking.
#1: Julia Holter, Have You In My Wilderness
Julia Holter is a remarkable talent, producing mini-symphonies often tied around her harp playing and orchestral arrangements.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

My Top Albums of 2015: #50-26 (with commentary)

#1-25 #51-100 Good albums that didn't make the cut
#50: Of Monsters and Men, Beneath the Skin
Proving that their debut wasn't a fluke, this Icelandic quintet produced another strong collection of dramatic, melodic folk-rock with some baroque touches.
#49: Ibeyi, Ibeyi
These Franco-Cuban twins ("ibeyi" means "twins" in Yoruba, the language their ancestors spoke when brought to Cuba by Spanish slavers) produce a unique sound with their deftly interwoven voices, use of traditional Cuban percussion, and Afro-Cuban influences.  

#48: Holly Miranda, Holly Miranda
Holly Miranda is a fantastic American singer-songwriter with an expressive voice. This collection of melodic, alt-rock pulls in a number of sounds but is often anchored by simple chiming guitar lines that work with her voice to create something moving. Listen to "Mark My Words" for an example.

#47: Pale Honey, Pale Honey
It's almost impossible to put a list of top albums together these days without an artist (or, more often, artists) from Scandinavia. Thus we come to Pale Honey, a Swedish duo consisting of Tuva Lodmark and Nella Daltrey whose debut features deceptively simple beats and guitar riffs supporting the typically great melodies Swedish artists seem to produce (it's like they've all absorbed ABBA through their bloodstreams).

#46: Martha Scanlan, The Shape of Things Gone Missing, The Shape of Things to Come
Listening to Martha Scanlan is like turning on a radio somewhere in Appalachia 50 years ago. You can practically hear the hiss in the scratching fiddles and the dirt in the voice.

#45: José González, Vestiges & Claws
The next Swede on the list, José González (also known for his work with Junip) has a highly original sound with his fingerpicked and percussive style on nylon-string guitar, plus the vaguely African chords and simple handclapped rhythms. This is his third such collection and my only criticism is that he will, eventually, need to expand beyond this sound to avoid repetition.

#44: Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear
Josh Tillman, better known previously as the drummer for Fleet Foxes, reinvented himself as Father John Misty and has produced one of the more original albums of the year, a tuneful, inventive and musically roving set of songs anchored in Americana, soul, and classic songwriting.

#43: Kurt Vile, b'lieve i'm goin down
Vile is one of the great lyricists at work today, and his folk-rock often features dobro and gains strength from the slightly cynical sneer in his voice. 

#42: Beirut, No No No
Super strong songwriting and always inventive, perfectly chosen instrumentation (the band must play about 40 different instruments)

#41: Shana Cleveland & the Sandcastles, Oh Man, Cover the Ground
The first solo album from the La Luz singer and guitarist is a trip, haunting, melodic and adventurous. "Itching Around" catches the vibe here with its slow-burn of a rhythm and dramatic dobro.

#40: Andy Shauf, The Bearer of Bad News
Saskatchewan-singer-songwriter Andy Shauf writes sharply observed and finely drawn songs in the vein of Elliot Smith and Ron Sexsmith, executed with simple arrangements that perfectly suit these tales of damaged small-town folks.

#39: James McMurtry, Complicated Game
Simply put one of the best singer-songwritiers in America. He's not got much of a voice but uses this limitation as a strength. I don't think there's anyone better at capturing the challenges, despair and hope of the average American these days.

#38: Barnstar, Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!
[Caveat emptor: I know the leader of this band!) Bluegrass covers and originals produced by a group of incredibly skilled and passionate musicians. It's rare that a cover is better than the original but just about every cover here performs that miracle ("Sequestered in Memphis" and "Stay With Me" stand out in particular). And you've got to see them live!

#37: Joel Plaskett, Park Avenue Sobriety Test
This is the quiet side of Nova Scotia singer-songwriter (and Canadian indy rock icon) Joel Plaskett. Often quiet folk-rock with the occasional upbeat number tossed in and strong songwriting throughout.

#36: Jill Scott, Woman
This is a coherent and thematically linked album of R&B and soul driven by Scott's fantastic voice and exquisite arrangements.

#35: San Fermin, Jackrabbit
While not quite as impressive and stunning as their debut, this is still a strong and musically ambitious collection that piles elements of pop, jazz, and orchestral music into a unique sound.

#34: Anna von Hausswolff, The Miraculous
Imagine some sort of slow, crunchy death metal in which the guitar is replaced by church organ (and the shrieking lead singer replaced by an opera singer) and you'll have some sense of Anna von Hausswolff's highly original sound. "Pomperirossa" is soaring and majestic.

#33: Destroyer, Poison Season
Dan Bejar's voice is whimsical, quirky and somewhat an acquired taste, but it is a key ingredient in giving unique flavor and tone to this group of classic Brill Building songs.

#32: Young Fathers, White Men Are Black Men, Too
A multi-racial trio from Edinburgh, Young Fathers combine pop and hip-hop into a sound that's like a less rocky and more experimental TV on the Radio.

#31: Titus Andronicus, The Most Lamentable Tragedy
A punk opera (I'd write "concept album" but I suspect that phrase turns the stomach of most hard-core acts) 29 songs long and ranging all over the map, from country-rock, hard rock, and punk, to Springsteen-like anthems.

#30: Bjork, Vulnicura
It's Bjork. What more do you need to know? The album cover says it all: sparkles, twists, and otherworldliness.

#29: Beauty Pill, Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are
Experimental electronic pop underlined by strong melodies and some world music sensibilities. "Afrikaner Barista" is a stand out, as is "The Prize." 

#28: St. Germain, St. Germain
A wonderful blend of Malian sounds and house music 

#27: Patrick Watson, Love Songs For Robots
The Montreal-based, Polaris Prize winner has created another winning collection of quirky alt-pop with his delicate and expressive falsetto wrapping itself around moody lyrics about the difficulty of connecting in this world. It's backed by an expansive musical palette, ranging from Andrew Bird-like sounds to the '60s vibe of "Grace."

#26: Low, Ones and Sixes
Low is a husband-and-wife-led band with an (appropriately) low, quiet yet highly emotive and dramatic sound.