Top 10 Albums of 2015 + Honorable Mentions

Better late than never – my top 10 albums of 2015 + honorable mentions.

 

1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

There isn’t much left to say that hasn’t already been said about this powerhouse of an album. The most culturally and socially relevant album of my lifetime, To Pimp a Butterfly is the platform on which Kendrick attacks issues of race in America unlike any artist before him. The strongest track is “Alright,” which has become the soundtrack of the modern day civil rights movement. But more than just the chant of “We gonna be alright” being belted out across the country in the wake of unarmed African Americans being killed by police, “Alright” has an underlying cynicism about the current state of race relations that is poignant.

The album packs a punch start to finish. From the radio and club-friendly “King Kunta” to the angry, heart throttling beat on “The Blacker the Berry” to the album’s closing song “Mortal Man” where Kendrick engages in a conversation with Tupac. This is an album that we will tell our children about, if they don’t ask us about it first.

2. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free

Jason Isbell has experienced enough heartache to last multiple lifetimes. Though the majority of it is – by his own admission – his doing, it is these experience that provide him with a unique ability to tell stories through his music that almost anyone can directly relate to. Isbell has been around the block, from the Drive By Truckers to the 400 Unit to now putting out two incredibly well-done solo albums. While 2013’s Southeastern announced his return to music, 2015’s Something More Than Free has solidified him as one of America’s most talented, if underappreciated, singer songwriters. The album’s first single “24 Frames” is powerful, conveying the fleeting nature of most everything in life, and the need to let go of things beyond your control. But for me, the standout track is “Flagship,” where Isbell’s desperate plea with himself to not repeat mistakes from past relationships comes through beautifully.

3. Radical Face – The Bastards

Ben Cooper, aka Radical Face, actually released this as four separate EPs (The Bastards: Volumes I, II, III, and IV) beginning in 2011 and concluding this past year. The Bastards is a break from his concept album trilogy The Family Tree (set to be completed in 2016), which follows “the story of a fictitious, sometimes otherworldly 19th century family called The Northcotes.” I often try not to include these types of compilation albums in end of year lists, but The Bastards comes across cohesively both in theme and sound. The standout track is the “Nightclothes,” which serves as a sweeping, haunting closing the album.

4. The Wonder Years – No Closer to Heaven

It’s a little depressing that it’s even possible for there to be an album that is a throwback to my angsty teenage years, but alas, I’m in my 30’s now and fully allowed to reminisce. No Closer to Heaven harkens back to pop-punk’s glory days at the start of the millennium, when Brand New, Saves the Day, and Alkaline Trio were ruling the roost. This album is great because it’s deep – conceptually, musically, lyrically. It takes you for a ride you might not expect, but once engaged, all you can do is hold on and enjoy it.

5. Twin Shadow – Eclipse

While great in spurts, previous albums by George Lewis, Jr. – aka Twin Shadow – could, as a whole, seem limited at times. Not so with his newest endeavor, Eclipse, which represents a giant step forward for Lewis. Stadium-sized tracks permeate the album, including “To the Top” and “Old Love/New Love.” If this progression continues, I can’t wait to hear what he comes up with next.

6. Kurt Vile – b’lieve I’m going down…

Whether labeled lo-fi, stoner rock, slacker rock, or what have you, for me Kurt Vile was the artist equivalent of apples – I feel like I should like them, but everytime I try them, I’m left wholly unsatisfied. That all changed with b’lieve I’m going down…I had trouble NOT listening to this album. It can be a good driving soundtrack, background music to a solid book, or as Mr. Cohea put it, a “mellow remedy for a slow-moving afternoon in the office.”

7. Tame Impala – Currents

Though released in July, Currents didn’t appear on my radar until November, but thank god it did. The album kicks off with the nearly 8-minute “Let It Happen,” and only picks up steam from there. With synth hooks as catchy as they come, this album didn’t escape critical acclaim – it was #4 and #13 on Spin and Rolling Stone’s Albums of 2015 lists, respectively.

8. Leon Bridges – Coming Home

Way outside my musical comfort zone, Leon Bridges’ Coming Home was a revelation to me this year. As a 5’9” white dude with few musical inclinations, soul is about the last thing I have. But every time I listen to this album, I feel like the ghost of Marvin Gaye.

9. Mumford and Sons – Wilder Mind

Yes, it’s different. But it’s also sooo good. As one Ryan Townsend said: If you really liked Mumford’s previous albums, you don’t like this album. I think that’s true to an extent, except that I always had a soft place in my heart for Mumford, and I still think this album is awesome. Listen to it, enjoy it, accept it.

10. Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy

The only reason this album isn’t higher is its lack of “hits.” A “rock opera” clocking in at 93 minutes and 29 tracks, The Most Lamentable Tragedy is truly a behemoth. Though the sum often feels greater than its parts, if you don’t have an hour and a half to spend getting your eardrums beat in, standout tracks include “Dimed Out,” “Fired Up,” “I Lost My Mind (+@)” and “Come On, Siobhan.”

 

Honorable Mention

  1. Grisbee – Sail Another Day
  2. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie and Lowell
  3. CHVRCHES – Every Open Eye
  4. Disclosure – Caracal
  5. City and Colour – If I Should Go Before You
  6. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
  7. Brandon Flowers – The Desired Effect

The 45 Best Songs of 2014

2014

 

There’s no sugarcoating it. As years go, 2014 was a difficult one for me.

I climbed some hills, descended into some valleys, traveled halfway across the globe and spent a week not talking to anyone but Motel 6 front desk clerks.

Throughout it all, I carried these songs with me and now wish to share them with you.

I wish I could write 400 words on each track but I have a whole new year to get to … To quote that great EELS song, “If you’re small and on a search, I’ve got a feeder for you to perch on.”

Whatever that means.

Sufjan Stevens “A Little Lost” single
Twin Shadow “To The Top” single
Alvvays “Archie, Marry Me” Alvvays
Bleachers “Rollercoaster” Strange Desire
Jack White “Lazaretto” Lazaretto
Operators “Cruel” EP 1
Spoon “Inside Out” They Want My Soul
John Mark McMillan “Monsters Talk” Borderland
TV On The Radio “Careful You” Seeds
Porter Robinson “Sad Machine” Worlds
Ingrid Michaelson “Girls Chase Boys” Lights Out
M83 “I Need You” Divergent Soundtrack
Tokyo Police Club “Feel The Effect” Forcefield
Cloud Nothings “Quieter Today” Here And Nowhere Else
The War On Drugs “Red Eyes” Lost In The Dream
Future Islands “A Dream Of You And Me” Singles
Pigeon John “All The Roads” Encino Man
Foxygen “How Can You Really” …And Star Power
Sun Kill Moon “Ben’s My Friend” Benji
Lykke Li “Gunshot” I Never Learn
The Rural Alberta Advantage “To Be Scared” Mended With Gold
The New Division “Stockholm” Together We Shine
Hamilton Lelthauser “Alexandra” Black Hours
Panama Wedding “All Of The People” Parallel Play
U2 “Invisible (Red Edit)” single
Interpol “All The Rage Back Home” El Pintor
Strand Of Oaks “Goshen ’97” HEAL
The Gaslight Anthem “Dark Places” Get Hurt
Speedy Ortiz “American Horror” Real Hair
Vacationer “The Wild Life” The Wild Life
Sharon Von Etten “Everytime The Sun Comes Up” Are We There
BRONCHO “Class Historian” Just Enough Hip To Be Woman
Conor Oberst “Zigzagging Toward The Light” Upside Down Mountain
We Were Promised Jetpacks “Safety In Numbers” Unravelling
Handsome Ghost “Blood Stutter” Blood Stutter EP
Passenger “Heart’s On Fire” Whispers
Young Fathers “Soon Come Soon” Soon Come Soon
Sylvan Esso “Coffee” Sylvan Esso
Warpaint “Disco//very” Warpaint
Taking Back Sunday “Better Homes And Gardens” Happiness Is
Mariachi El Bronx “Wildfires” Mariachi El Bronx III
The Lees of Memory “Open Your Arms” Sisyphus Says
Ryan Adams “Kim” Ryan Adams
Matthew Ryan “Boxers” Boxers
Matt Pryor “Ex’s And Oh’s” Nine Forty Live

Best Albums of 2014 – Version Rossi.0

In direct opposition to my 2013 list, 2014 was a year of highly anticipated albums that for the most part, I thought, delivered on their anticipation.

Anticipating upcoming albums is a funny thing. If it’s a band you have followed for some time, you are generally looking forward to something similar to their old stuff. Something welcoming and familiar. Many times, however, that’s not quite what you get. If it’s a new band, there are multiple ways you might have come to your place of anticipation – word of mouth, good early publicity, etc. Or maybe it’s a band you’ve known about, dabbled in but could never quite get into, but have reason to believe this new offering will be different. Three of the albums in my top 10, in particular, were highly anticipated, at least by me.

However, some came out of nowhere. There were albums that hooked me from the first listen, while still others that grew with time. I started putting a tentative list together about a month ago, and the way it has shifted since that initial list is testament, I believe, more to my wide range in tastes than anything else.

So, without further ado, below is my top 10 albums of 2014. Please, tell what I missed, why I’m wrong, and what you also loved this year!

1. The War On Drugs – Lost in the Dream

From a personal standpoint, the most highly anticipated album of 2014. And man, did it ever deliver. I was a bit late to the War on Drugs game, only having really started to appreciate the work of Adam Granduciel with their 2011 release, Slave Ambient. But that album was enough to get me excited for what came next. Lost in a Dream feels is deep. It’s the only way I know how to describe it. With every listen – which is likely now going on 100 for me – I hear/feel/experience something different. But I think the greatest compliment I can pay to this album is that EVERY time I listen in, it feels as if Granduciel is right next to me, playing the song for the first time. It’s that real.

2. Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams is back, and in a big way. It’s evident not just in how this album is everything that every Ryan Adams fan had hoped for in his return from “retirement,” but it how he’s come back into the spotlight the only way he knows how – unapologetically. From covering whatever the hell he feels like (see here, here, and here) to chastising a fan for a camera flash that set off his Ménière’s disease. Ryan Adams toured hard this fall (and I was there), including the late night talk show circuit with Jenny Lewis. And why not – this album deserves to be heard far and wide.

3. Perfume Genius – Too Bright

Perfume Genius, aka Mike Hadreas, has been on my radar for about three years – after his debut LP Learning but before encore Put Your Back N 2 It. His first two albums were personal, dark and haunting. You felt as if you were watching him play each song behind a one-way mirror, with him unaware that anyone was listening or watching – a personal window into his soul. Too Bright, on the other hand, is Hadreas’ coming out party. Subdued opener I Decline lures you into the belief that you are in for the same ol’ same ol’. But that’s quickly rejected as in-your-face single Queen breaks out singing “No family is safe, when I sashay,” followed by grunts coupled with a catchy electronic hook. Hadreas’ previous albums saw him coupling the topics of sexuality and depression, as if there were intrinsically linked. But Too Bright has Hadreas breaking out from behind the glass, comfortable with who he is and exclaiming he is here to stay, in a big way.

4. Future Islands – Singles

The biggest missed live-performance regret of my year come by way of Baltimore-based Future Islands. For the first half of 2014, the band was playing domestic and international shows at known but not large or iconic venues. But that all changes in the second half of the year, as Singles gained in popularity, and word of their electric live shows spread across the indie music scene. That meteoric rise in popularity culminated in a much-talked-about performance on Letterman. My fear is that small, intimate venues won’t be on the tour circuit for Future Islands for the foreseeable future. Good for them.

5. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues

One of the strongest albums of the year burst onto the scene in its first month. Speaking of highly anticipated albums, the first album from Against Me! since lead singer Laura Jane Grace came out as transgender in a Rolling Stone article in 2012 fits snugly into that category. Admittedly, the album title that leaked some six months prior to release led to much of that anticipation, but this album delivered in a big way. From the first track to the last, Grace’s vocals and lyrics come across as raw, personal, tortured, unapologetic, and in-your-face. Remember when punk rock was overtly political? This is a throw back to the heyday.

6. The Gaslight Anthem – Get Hurt

I love the Gaslight Anthem. They have become entrenched into a list of a dozen or so bands that carry loftier status for me. Get Hurt is what it is, and it’s not what it’s not. Brilliant, right? What it is is an attempt by Brian Fallon and company to be taken more seriously as a band, to come out of the shadows of cult-status and announce themselves to a wider audience as a “serious rock band!” This is apparent, not only in the album itself, but also in the marketing campaign that surrounded its release. Hell, Fallon himself declared Pearl Jam to be the album’s biggest inspiration. What Get Hurt is not is the same ‘ol heart-on-sleeve, teenage-angst-filled combo of dance-alongs and ballads thats permeated their previous albums. This new way works, too.

7. G-Eazy – These Things Happen

Every year, one rap album is able to crack my top 10. This year’s entrant – G-Eazy – comes from the same lyric school as 2012’s representative, Kendrick Lamar (unofficially, at least). Though G-Eazy hails from almost 400 miles north on I-5, the beat style and themes covered are very similar. They include dealing with newfound success, sacrifice, and staying true to self. But the theme throughout this album that resonated the most with me is Gerald Earl Gillum’s apparent internal struggle between living in the now and an obsession with dying young. This is something everyone has dealt with at some point, but G-Eazy verbalizes it better than most.

8. Copeland – Ixora

Copeland is back doing what it does best, writing songs that combine relatively simple piano or guitar chords with deep lyrics and the haunting voice of Aaron Marsh. I was skeptical Copeland’s music could still resonate with me, but that skepticism was misguided. This is a strong album from front to back that gets better with every listen.

9. Lana Del Ray – Ultraviolence

Another highly anticipated album, following up on 2012’s strong LP Born to Die and mini-album Paradise, Ultraviolence beat back Del Ray’s haters by featuring moody songs that stuck with you long after they ended. Del Ray’s unlikely (or, maybe more accurately, “self-constructed”) path to fame is well-pronounced, but for all the hate, you have to give her credit for the staying power.

10. The Antlers – Familiars

This album doesn’t ebb and flow, doesn’t have climaxes or songs that are better than others, or even many catchy beats. What it is is steady, strong from the beginning to the end. This might not be an album I listen to much in a year, or even remember in 5 years. But I enjoyed it this year as a background soundtrack of sorts, able to be played while reading, writing, or working.

Honorable Mentions:

  1. How To Dress Well – What is this Heart?
  2. Sun Kil Moon – Benji
  3. Matthew Ryan – Boxers
  4. Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain
  5. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
  6. Ben Howard – I Forget Where We Were
  7. Jenny Lewis – The Voyager

2014 Week of the Concert

The vast majority of my posts for Pop Heart Etc. consist of concert reviews. This week will be no different – just more of the same in a condensed period of time. Here is my concert-going schedule for the upcoming week. Reviews of each will follow shortly after.

Monday, September 8
Ryan Adams @ 930 Club in Washington, D.C. (This is an album release show for Ryan’s upcoming self-titled album)

Wednesday, September 10
The Gaslight Anthem w/ Against Me! @ 930 Club in Washington, D.C. (Gaslight is touring on their newest album, Get Hurt)

A Throwback Worth Throwing Back For

Brand New at FillmoreI have been on a bit of a losing streak recently when it comes to seeing bands from my youth some 10 years past their prime. While most of these shows – but not all – had been of the anniversary/reunion-type, they did all have another thing in common – they were extremely disappointing.

– The Ataris’ “So Long Astoria” 10 year anniversary tour earlier this year, of which Ryan posted about in March (I saw them in DC, and my review would not have been as kind as Ryan’s)

– Thursday’s “Full Collapse” 10 year anniversary tour back in 2010

– Jealous Sound’s “Kill Them With Kindness” 10 year anniversary tour in 2013

So much so that I had begun to question a couple things. Yes, whether they were worth my time and money. But more importantly, whether they were harming the memories from my youth of seeing the same bands. There is something unsettling about seeing someone on their last leg trying for one last gasp, whether it be a musician, athlete, politician, etc.

So I was necessarily skeptical about seeing my all-time favorite band – Brand New – at the Fillmore in Silver Spring, MD. Would this just be a repeat – a band from my youth trying their best to stay relevant, despite evidence to the contrary?

No, this was not an anniversary show. But Brand New has been one of the most enigmatic bands of the last decade and a half – touring when/where they want, going silent for long stretches of time and reappearing without any new material, refusing to give interviews, being detached and cold with audiences and fans. So it was anybody’s guess what to expect.

They did not disappoint. This was the 5th time that I had seen Brand New live, and their performance end up trailing only a 2003 show at the House of Blue Sunset Strip in Hollywood, CA.

Touring without new material is often a hit for audiences – you are assured to hear songs from whatever your favorite album may be, rather than half the setlist being compiled of tracks nobody knows. That was the case here. Brand New played a well-rounded mix from 3 of their 4 studio albums, with debut album “Your Favorite Weapon” being the odd man out.

See below for a setlist.

Rossi's Top 10 Albums of 2013

MuchachoLooking back on this year’s top 10, I think this may be the most eclectic list I have put together to-date. A sign of my musical tastes shifting as I get older? While that could certainly be the case, I pin it on something else – slight disappointment from a few much-anticipated albums this year from bands for whom I have high expectations. Many of these albums can be found in the “Honorable Mention” section below, meaning they weren’t exactly “bad.” Just didn’t meet my high expectations for them.

However, a few new artists (at least new to me) stepped up with some strong albums in 2013. Six of the albums below are from artists that I had not listened to at any great length prior to this year. I believe that’s a result of both factors mentioned above – shifting tastes and my seeking out new music in the face of disappointment from a few of my favorite bands.

Here it is, your 2013 Top 10 Albums, with a Spotify playlist featuring the standout track from each album.

10. Mikal Cronin – MCII

Every time I listen to this album, I feel like I am right back on the left coast. That is not a bad thing.

9. Radical Face – Family Tree: The Branches

Radical Face – AKA Ben Cooper – has become one of my favorite artists. His last album – The Family Tree: The Roots – was #6 on my 2011 list, and remains a part of my regular rotation. This album continues the “Family Tree” series in similarly strong fashion.

8. Local Natives – Hummingbird

I had heard a lot about Local Natives leading up to the release of their debut, Gorilla Manor, in 2010. And while I enjoyed that album, Hummingbird is far stronger throughout. A great work of indie rock.

7. Volcano Choir – Repave

You can sign me up for anything that involves Justin Vernon. This album gets stronger with every listen.

6. Frank Turner – Tape Deck Heart

Coming from post-hardcore band Million Dead, Frank Turner has carried much of that same angst into his solo career, even though the genre has changed over to more folk/americana. It’s the blending of  past and present that makes this album so fun.

5. Gregory Alan Isakov – The Weatherman

There’s nothing complicated about this album, just genuinely good song-writing from an artist I’ve followed for a while. Its simplicity is what keeps me coming back for more.

4. CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe

An album that feels familiar the first time you listen to it. A great sound from a band that I believe has even bigger things ahead of it.

3. Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety

An album that is both upbeat and haunting, sexy and serious at the same time. In any given month of 2013, a different track from this album was on my favorites list.

2. PAPA – Tender Madness

PAPA broke onto the scene through a series of singles that came out over the course of 2012 and 2013, so by the time the album dropped in October of this year, it was much anticipated (at least by me). For a couple months, this was going to be my #1. Tender Madness is chock full of potential singles, dance-a-longs, sing-a-longs, ballads, and tracks that are just fun to listen to. I LOVE this album.

1. Phosphorescent – Muchacho

I came across this album almost by accident – which seems to happen a lot with the advent of Spotify. While Matthew Hauck (the man behind Phosphorescent) had several previous albums before Mucacho, I was unfamiliar with him until this year. While Muchacho stuck out to me almost immediately, my true appreciation for the record came through going back and listening to Hauck’s earlier releases. It was through this process that I began to notice his experimentation with different sounds and vibes, and realized that Muchacho was a culmination of everything that had come before.

The album is great from the first track to the last track, utilizing hints of rock and roll, folk, indie, and just good ‘ol Americana. The album has a depth to it that you feel more and more with each listen. With Hauck apparently writing the majority of the album detached from modern society in a small community in Mexico, it seems he had plenty of time for soul-searching. And this album is the result of that search.

Honorable Mention:

The World is a Beautiful Place & I am Not Afraid to Die – Whenever, If Ever

Arcade Fire – Reflektor

The Head and the Heart – Let’s Be Still

Jake Bugg – Self-Titled

The National – Trouble Will Find Me

Okkervil River – The Silver Gymnasium

Tegan & Sara – Heartthrob

Flume – Self Titled

Underappreciation, Transformative Style, Old Age, Etc.

Earlier this week, the wife and I attended a show at the 9:30 Club – both of our favorite music venue (at least I think I’m pretty sure it’s hers too). We received the tickets as part of our wedding gift from two good friends. That’s what a good friend who stands up for you at your wedding does – gets you a personal gift that reflects something that made you great friends in the first place – the gift of live music.

Anyways, the show included three acts – Matthew Ryan, Laura Stevenson and the Cans, and the Gaslight Anthem.

Five observations from the show:

  1. Matthew Ryan is incredibly underrated. With a career spanning the better part of two decades and over a dozen albums, Ryan is one of the greatest singer-songwriters of our generation, yet can barely draw 200 people when performing as the opening act for a sold-out show. This is unfortunate.
  2. I am getting too old for a mosh pit. I think my neck and back agree.
  3. Laura Stevenson and the Cans are not terribly appealing. Despite only 2 EPs and 2 LPs, limited-to-no commercial success, and a real lack of originality, they had an unsettling an aura of pretentiousness about them on stage. Not my favorite.
  4. However, fun fact about Laura Stevenson – her grandfather composed ”The Little Drummer Boy” and “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
  5. The Gaslight Anthem really has something going. They’ve been able to tap into a variety of musical genres and appeal to a wide array of social subcultures – rockabillies, hipsters, punks, jocks, etc. I even saw a few card-carrying members of the AARP in attendance. A style this transformative is a recipe for both critical acclaim and commercial success.