Saturday, December 19, 2015

My Top Ten Albums of 2015 (and other years)

Matt Domino provides you with his favorite albums of 2015 or any other year.

Hello, my Puddlers.

Another year is coming to an end. It’s been a wild one for me. I got out of a dead end job and into one that challenges me on a daily basis and where I work with some of the best people I’ve ever known. My sketch comedy group performed at least one show a month from April to December and I think I got a real future in this thing! SNL, Hollywood, Broadway, I don’t care which one it is—I just wanna be famous!

I still continue to write fiction badly, but it is the one thing I truly enjoy doing more than anything else. Maybe someday I’ll be good at it and you might be able to read something that I’ve done that’s worth reading. This blog continues to remain a relic of my misguided and dreamy 20s. But, hey, at least you can read a lot about Mad Men and the NBA!

And, ah yes, Mad Men came to a close this year. I certainly felt a sense of loss after the series finale. It’s difficult to truly describe why that show affected me so much, but I still think about its themes, lessons and characters every day as I try to accept love and give love to others; as I attempt to allow myself to be one with the rest of my fellow man and embrace them for all of their faults and understand that my faults are manifest as well and that it is all right.

But, as is my custom at the end of every year, here is a long list of albums I loved and listened to this year. That doesn’t mean they all came out in 2015 (though a great majority of them did)—it just means I listened to each of these albums obsessively for some portion of this odd, disturbing, and certainly dark year. But with darkness comes light, and with light, comes light sabers and The Force Awakens. So, as before, we step both boldly and with reservation into the oncoming new year, as if it were a cold, rushing stream, running through two sun-covered banks.


Gemma – As Ever (2015)

So what if one of my best friends is one of the minds behind this fantastic record of electro-R&B, this one has to be on the list. The title track has one of the most grin-inducing melodies of the year and my boy, Erik Gundel, can’t hide his love of Max Tundra even in the deepest soul beats he lays out here.

Tobias Jesso Jr. – Goon (2015)

The resurgence of 60s and 70s Laurel Canyon pop was in full effect in 2015 and Tobias Jesso Jr.’s record was at the front of the pack. A mixture of Harry Nilsson, Jackson Browne, Randy Newman and Graham Nash, this record has sadsack pop pleasures all over it.

Viet Cong – Viet Cong (2015)

Normally I’m not a fan of industrial, self-serious rock, but I liked this one! There is no denying the insistent groove on “March of Progress” and the unbridled energy on “Pointless Experience” comes close to Bowie at his late 70s best.

Link Wray – Link Wray (1971)

This is one of those records lost to time, but thankfully I found it this year. “La De Da” is worth the price of admission alone, with its haggard McCartneyesque melody and bass playing.  Homespun swamp-rock with a sense of classic pop.


George Harrison – Extra Texture (1975)

OK, so George hit a rough patch in the mid-70s and this isn’t one of his better efforts by a long stretch. Still, that still doesn’t make it bad. “You” (a leftover from the All Things Must Pass sessions is perhaps the fifth best song of his solo career) is a hidden gem. And “His Name Is Legs (Ladies And Gentleman)” is one of George’s strangest, but hardest rockers.

Panda Bear – Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper (2015)

After four solo albums and ten Animal Collective albums (not counting their great EPs), there are people who are sick of Panda Bear’s “thing.” I actually forgot about Person Pitch existed for a few years. Then I listened to Panda Bear Meets the Grim Repaer and fell in love all over again. From the otherworldly choiring in “Sequential Circuits” to the bouncy “Principe Real” and the banging (yes, banging) “Boys Latin” it’s an album that you can simmer in. Its not something to listen to all the time, but it’s a record to put on when you have to make a complicated meal.

Jeff Lynne – Armchair Theater (1990)

There comes a time in your life when you are listening to a Jeff Lynne solo album from 1990 and you think, “What the hell happened to me?” But then you remember that from 1985-1990, Lynne helped produce five hit records (Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever, Cloud Nine by George Harrison, Mystery Girl by Roy Orbison, and both Traveling Wilbury’s albums). And that, hey, ELO had some undeniable hits. But Armchair Theater is a strangely affecting record full of songs with melancholy (“What Would It Take” and “Don’t Say Goodbye”) and triumph (“Lift Me Up”) that, if sung by Petty or Harrison, would have been canonical.

Low Cut Connie – Hi Honey (2015)

There are some of us out there who never get tired of the Stones or the Faces, who can’t get enough of well done boogie rock. And then there are those who think it is redundant and boring. I am most certainly in the former camp and this album hits all the right notes, from the tinkling piano and distant background shouts, to the “Brown Sugar” slide guitar. You won’t find a more fun listen than the 3:24 of “Me N Annie” anywhere else in 2015.

Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass (2015)

This record led the charge for “best of the year” when it came out in January and it still holds up almost 12 months later. There was a lot to like about this album: the hard struggle to see its release, Prass’ beautiful voice, and the Dusty Goes to Memphis style production. Prass’ self-titled debut is as solid as they come, full of rich sounds, melodic twists and turns and memorable songs. “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” goes up there as one of the best album openers in recent years. The piano on “Never Over You” was quite possibly my favorite recorded sound in 2015. And at 39:06 you can’t go wrong with giving it a spin.

Led Zeppelin – In Through the Out Door (1979)

I’ve written my fair share on Led Zeppelin and what they mean to nearly every male currently over the age of fifteen, so I’m not going to dive deep into Zep lore. All I’m going to do is make a simple plea for their least loved album.

It could’ve been one long night of drinking or it could just be that my tastes have slowly eroded over time, but In Through the Out Door hit me hard this summer. “In the Evening” has always been one of my favorite Zeppelin songs. When you have the benefit of looking back at their entire career as a whole entity, it’s a song that sounds like the end. Plant’s voice is strained and drenched in reverb, Page’s riffs are the musical equivalent (sorry, Ennio) of a gunslinger heading to his last showdown, and underneath the fading bravura there is an undeniable tone of melancholy. “Fool in the Rain” is better once you’ve stopped hearing it on classic rock radio and “All of My Love” is maudlin, but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad.

There are definitely songs that only a mother (or insane person like me) could love. “Hot Dog” is a silly, random country number that no one wanted Zeppelin to do. “Carouselambra” is overblown, features at least four different movements and perhaps the most unintentionally funny synthesizer sound on record. (P.S. I love this song.) “I’m Gonna Crawl” aims for an air of stately burden, but doesn’t find it.

And then there is “South Bound Suarez,” which is probably the lost gem of later day Zep. Bonzo is locked in and Page’s guitar playing is as peppy and jubilant (more George Harrison than “Bring it on Home”) as it ever was and John Paul Jones’ piano playing is a treat. Sure, it’s got their worst album cover and is basically the thesis statement for why punk had to exist, but this record deserves a shot!

10. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit

A lot of rock-writer hard-ons were raised upon this album’s release at the beginning of the year, but I couldn’t say the same for myself. My reaction was more, “Did everyone flip out over Sheryl Crowe this much in the early 90’s?”

Now, just because I didn’t pitch a tent doesn’t mean that I didn’t like this record. Courtney Barnett can write a song and her singing cadence creates a world unto itself. This is a record with 11 songs that fit snugly into the rock canon and that’s nothing to shrug your shoulders at. “Character Operator” and  “Pedestrian at Best” provide a potent 1-2 punch—a shot and beer special in track sequence form. The melody on “Debbie Downer” is fantastic right down to the Go-Go’s keyboards.

But, for me, few tracks got better this year than “Dead Fox.” Sure, the Sheryl Crowe parallels are on full display, but so are the Lou Reed ones. It’s difficult to create a tone of nonchalance in a song while managing to avoid cool detachment. On “Dead Fox,” Barnett takes her nonchalance and marries it to real paranoia as she worries about making decisions among the minutia of all of the information provided to us daily in modern life. This makes the song more than an amiable rocker with great swirling guitars, but something to hold onto.

9. Ducktails – St. Catherine (2015)

The Real Estate empire spread far and wide in 2015 with releases by both Ducktails and Alex Bleeker and the Freaks—each led by members of the band. Though I’ve never been a supporter of Real Estate (for no other reason than laziness), sometimes you need a little bit of dreamy psych-pop in your life. St. Catherine amps up the mellotron in a way that would make the Moody Blues proud, while managing to find a place to add a bit of Feelies-style melodicism.

Where Tame Impala, on Currents, took the joys of their powerful psychedelia and tried to marry it to perhaps too many different styles, Ducktails are content to marinate in the afterglow of a trip—and that experience usually comes with a shimmering feeling that is found on songs like “The Disney Afternoon,” the strange surges of energy on “Medieval,” and (depending on where you drop) soaring moments of pastoral beauty that are found on “Into the Sky.”

Tame Impala have made psychedelia prominent (as prominent as you can be in rock now) again through the unabashed power, explosiveness and uncanny Beatlesque hooks on their records. On St. Catherine, Ducktails prove that psychedelia is still enjoyable in more mellow doses.

8. George Harrison – 33 1/3 (1976)

This isn’t necessarily a good album, but I enjoy the hell out of it in a, “well, things could be a whole lot worse than an all-time great songwriter creating an MOR album with light spiritual undertones and an ode to Smoky Robinson on it” kind of way.

Perhaps I’ve read too may of Richard Ford’s Bascombe novels, but one of the things I appreciate in music is when an artist finds a snug spot in middle age and cranks out an easygoing listen—an album that people were lukewarm towards when it was first released because their expectations were sky high for a legend, but has aged gracefully because of its craft. Maybe I’m just getting older and sometimes I just enjoy mellower sounds and masterful slide guitar washing on my brain.

There’s no reason not to expect greatness from your favorite artists, but I think maybe now I’m at a point in life where I appreciate just how hard it is to be consistently great. And an album with the Stevie Wonder funk of “Woman Don’t You Cry For Me,” the surging organ work and ephemeral light of “Dear One,” the 70s game show rock of “This Song,” the synthesized gospel of, “See Yourself,” the guilty hooks of “Pure Smoky,” and the masterful off-the-cuff pop of “Crackerbox Palace” (one of George’s best) is still pretty damn great.

7. Colleen Green – I Want to Grow Up (2015)

2015 was a fantastic year for female artists. Taylor ruled the charts with 1989 until Adele swept in with 25 full of her amazing voice and boring songs. Beyonce lurked in the ether. Miley Cyrus was weird, unsettling and made you wish that she’d eventually find the right adult material (not like THAT) to match her voice. Missy came back. Chastity Belt made heavy, echoey rock. Courtney Barnett (we covered her) was hanging around. Sleater Kinney reunited. There was a lot to like.

But there was perhaps no more blissful listening experience in 2015 than Colleen Green’s breakout I Want to Grow Up. With its bright pink cover and image of the cool-looking (and quite cute!) Green in a dunce cap/party hat and sunglasses, the record announced itself as smart, sharp and very funny, no-frills rock. Songs like “Things That Are Bad For Me (Part I)” with its unstoppable power chords and shifting backbeat make you wonder why rock n’ roll ever has to become complicated. Green sings with a bright monotone and shades her cadence which just the right amount of character (a falsetto here, a vague growl there).

In recent years there’s been a very safe trend back towards the grunge rock of the early 90s (hey, its been 20 years…lets revisit!), but Green channels (no pun intended) Green Day at their best on I Want to Grow Up. There are plenty of bands and songwriters who would kill for that.

6. Wilco – Star Wars (2015)

Look, this is my list, so if a Wilco album comes out during a given year, it’s going to make my top ten. I’m a die-hard Wilco homer and will forever be one.

My bias towards Chicago’s finest aside, Star Wars was truly a fantastic album—concise, energetic, melodic and experimental. On “More…” during the chorus, Tweedy manages to reach a new level of Lennon-esque populism in his melodies. The song builds to a powerful coda that merges the fizzy pop found on The Whole Love with some of the more wonky angles that were all over last year’s Sukirae.

“Random Name Generator” is something that would’ve come out of the A Ghost is Born sessions (think “I’m a Wheel”) or fit nicely on Loose Fur’s Born Again in the USA (still one of my all-time favorite albums).  “You Satellite” is ferocious and, despite Wilco’s long history of playing around with noise and extended feedback, still manages to add a higher aspect of craft to the way they manipulate sound into melody. “Taste the Ceiling” could have been a Sky Blue Sky outtake, which shows you how vastly underrated that album is. “Where Do I Begin” has a surprising coda that gets me every time. And “King of You” has their crunchiest riff since “Kingpin.”

The album closer, “Magnetized,” is one of those songs that Tweedy pulls out from time to time that manages to tread on so many Beatles style tricks (the rolling Ringo drums, the haunting, but poppy White Album piano, strange studio noises that seem to have no earthly origin), but still remains uniquely Wilco.

I know I say this every time they release a new record, but its my favorite thing they’ve ever done.

5. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)

I’m not going to try and contextualize all of the rage and the messages about race and poverty in America that are on this record and have already been written about at large over the course of the year. All I want to talk about is the record itself. It’s obviously a heavy and densely packed album, but it is probably the most musical record released this year. I mean, there is just so much music on every track.

Whether it’s the amplified P-Funk of the opening track, “Wesley’s Theory,” or the gritty, angry, disco funk of “King Kunta,” every second of every song has some detail or sound to pay close attention to. Who else would even make “Institutionalized” in 2015? And “Hood Politics” shifts from its opening Bill Withers keyboards to the bending rubberband synthesizers of its second half when Kendrick is yelling, “shit is boo boo”—which is probably my favorite vocal hook of the year.

And I don’t think there are ten more compelling performances put on record than what Kendrick does on “u.” The second half of the song, when he steps into character as a distraught, clearly drunk man, nearly transcends music and turns into actual dramatic theater. There’s off-kilter saxophone, drifting voices—its like someone lying on a made bed, barely able to stay conscious after drinking so much and listening to someone play the saxophone from down the hall. It’s simultaneously unsettling and awe-inspiring and like nothing I’ve ever heard on record before.

4. Kurt Vile -  b’lieve i’m goin down… (2015)

Kurt Vile records are like seeing an old friend after a few years. You may not have stayed in touch for a bit, but after shooting the shit for a bit, its like no time has passed at all, you step back into a world that is familiar to you both. With the opening, circular riffs of “Pretty Pimpin” you know that nobody other than Kurt Vile could have made b’lieve i’m going down… There’s a downtrodden aspect to Vile’s songs, strange things happen, people get punched in the face, fall down, seem to be frequently confused but manage to laugh at everything that happens to them. There is a certain, quiet beatitude to all of the subjects in Vile’s songs.

If you’ve read anything about this album, you know the main points are that Kurt added keyboards, banjos and pianos instead of his normal expressive guitar playing. But the guitar is still absolutely at the center here. “Dust Bunnies” has riffs and a rhythm that is distinctly Kurt Vile.  Whereas “Shame Chamber” and “Girl Called Alex” seemed to be the central, musical points of view on Walkin On A Pretty Daze, here the central tracks are “Wheelhouse” and “That’s Life, tho (almost hate to say)” two downer tunes that deliver up some of the less appealing realities in life (“But you gotta be alone to figure things out sometimes/Be alone sometimes even in a crowd of friends” and “When I go out I take pills to take the edge off or to just take a chillax man and forget about/Just a certified bad ass out for a night on the town”). But all that gives way eventually to “Lost my Head there,” which is perhaps is most poppy and traditional song to date.

Vile’s records are long. He meanders through his songs and lyrics, but there is something hypnotic about the music he makes. With each successive release, he becomes increasingly fascinating.

3. The City – Now That Everything’s Been Said (1968)

We all know that Carole King is a national treasure (I’m an unabashed Gilmore Girls fan, so I definitely know), but not all of us knew that she made this record. Recorded after King left New York and moved to Laurel Canyon and only re-released this year, this album serves as the bridge between her Goffen/King days and her Tapestry era. And, look, if you don’t like 60s pop, you’re not going to like this record; but if you do, then this is an absolute treasure.

The opening track, “Snow Queen,” is a classic late-60s melody full of lightly-psychedelic guitar, piano, symbols and Mamas and the Papas style harmonies. Next up is King’s version of “I Wasn’t Born to Follow,” a song she gave to the Byrds. I have always loved the Byrds version, but I now believe this to be the definitive rendition. King’s piano playing is stately, the drumming is deep and rhythmic there are flourishes of organ and picked guitar that are straight from Big Pink. In other words, it’s a show-stopper.

 “Paradise Alley,” is a track that Todd Rundgren spent is entire career trying to write. King’s supernatural ability to create a hooky chorus is on full display.  There are even odd detailed lyrics like, “The mail was late arriving / the pills were all for me.” That track gives way to “Man Without a Dream,” which is sung by Danny Kortchmar. It’s a tune that is more Neil Young than Carole King, with a lazy, shuffling melody that slowly picks up steam. The piano playing a drumming are in lock-step creating a powerful rhythm that still manages to remain bittersweet.

The album closes with “All My Time,” which starts with a crash of cymbals and King singing, “The world exploded / And all the funny people who were with me flew away.” The music isn’t overly psychedelic, but it is King at her most trippy, especially during the propulsive chorus. With its variety of melodies and tempos, “All My Time” seems like King’s attempt at an “A Day in the Life” style album closer—and she comes damn close.

2. Liam Hayes – Slurrup (2015)

I’ll take the heat for this one. Slurrup is the latest album by Liam Hayes (aka Plush) who has had a long career as a craftsman of fully wrought pop in the classic sense. Slurrup opens with the title track which consists of studio chatter that gives way to a psych-rock soundscape featuring 1965 guitars, weird late-70s keyboards and wonky background noises, which places it firmly in the vein of Todd Rundgren in 1973-1974—and of course I love that.

Slurrup is the sound of a professional pop songwriter playing fast and loose, touching on the genre’s hallmarks without sounding too redundant. He’s not swinging for the fences, but simply making a cohesive 13 song album with no tracks over 4:30. It’s a fun, engaging listen from start to finish, from the Something/Anything progressions and changes on “Nothing Wrong,” to Help-era Beatles ballading on “Get it Right,” to the very Super Furry Animals-ish “Greenfield,” and the positively grooving, “Keys to Heaven,” which Phil Lynott would’ve had a field day covering.

As an old guy smoking a slow-burning, expensive cigarette in a brown wool coat and a hefty, long grey scarf probably once said, “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”

1. Julia Holter – Have You in My Wilderness (201)

In the interest of full disclosure, the reason this album is my favorite of the year may have a little something to do with recency bias. The record came out in September, but I only just got around to listening to it over the past month. However, not a day has gone by where I have not listened to it. Doesn’t that have to count for something? Though I can understand if this undermines whatever credibility I have left as a person who writes about music periodically.

Look, A LOT of music comes out during the course of a year and there are plenty of records to fall in and out of love with during that time span. When you add the fact that you are never truly the same person throughout the course of 365 days (the person I was in April or May is most certainly not the same person I am, now, in December), the whole thing becomes incredibly complicated.

All of that philosophical musing about the nature of identity and the passing of time doesn’t change the fact that this album is a stunner. It has all the basic fundamentals of a classic: a cover with a fantastic photo and a well-chosen font that could easily become iconic, a poetically vague but substantial-feeling title, and songs that leave you both emotionally drained and humming their hooks every morning in your stumble to the shower. Great albums, whether they are obsessed over in their conception or merely the result of loose-playing lightning in a bottle, leave the listener with the perception that each detail is in exactly the right place. On “Vasquez,” every busy, shuffling snare hit feels essential; every psychedelic run of violin rises at exactly the right time. After the majesty of its initial harpsichord notes and the hooks of its opening verse, “Sea Calls Me Home” leads you through an unrelenting march that eventually ends with a breathy, but dynamic ending that leave you off-balance. Along the way you have odd runs of round bass, perfect melancholy lyrics like, “It’s no wonder they’re shipping all my clothes,” stand out and strangely sung words like “mirror” seem to be a signal of something larger. There is a break with melodic whistling, but within that whistling you can hear Holter straining, some whistles stall.

It is an impossibly beautiful record— I could write another 1,000 words simply on how the verses of “Silhouette” may have the most stirring melody that I have heard on a record released in the past fifteen years. But between its moments of breathy vulnerability and steadfast determination, it is nothing if not human. At a time in my life when I find myself simultaneously paralyzed by all of the atrocities in the world, driven to stillness simply by the sheer scale of horrible things that happen to people each day, while also being numbed to that fundamental and visceral aspect of life due to the fact that the bad news is delivered to me in steams of information on platforms that come with their own little sets of bracketed numbers ( Inbox (1) ) or red notifications that tell my brain that I am wanted by someone in some way—that my online behavior has been approved in some way based on the normative behavior that any subset of people who know me a certain way, in a certain role, recognizes—being reminded of the basic grace of being human through 45 minutes of music is important. It’s a small bit of solace and joy.