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

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.

This river’s bigger than I am

Phosphorescent is Matthew Houck, and Matthe Houck is Phosphorescent. Any doubt that was the case was quickly quelled as Houck took the 930 Club stage in an all-white, gold-trimmed cowboy suite – complete with 5 gallon hat and gold glitter boots – in front of 5 band members dressed as inconspicuously as one can be.

There was a certain level of egotism involved in how Houck demanded the spotlight as he strolled onto the stage with Sun, Arise (An Invocation, An Introduction) playing in the background. But any semblance of narcissism vanished as quickly as Houck picked up his guitar and started on track #2 – The Quotidian Beasts.

You see, what makes Phosphorescent’s music great is that it’s melodically transcendent and lyrically relatable. As you listen to various tracks, you can’t help but feel like Houck is talking about you – the lyrics describe a moment or a feeling or a circumstance that everyone knows all too well.

What made this show great was that transcendence and relatability manifesting itself in a live performance. At no time was that more apparent than during the first song following a transition from full band to solo set – Muchacho’s Tune. Muchacho’s Tune is the title track for Phosphorescent’s most recent album (my 2013 Album of the Year) and the first track written following an emotional breakdown that led Houck to a week of seclusion in Mexico that resulted in his best work to-date.

Muchacho’s Tune is simple and soulful. It speaks to redemption – a theme that flows throughout the album but is never more clear than on the title track – but more importantly that redemption doesn’t just occur – it takes time, work, and understanding. “See I was slow to understand/ This river’s bigger than I am/ It’s running faster than I can, though lord I tried.”

Who can’t relate to Muchaco – and who hasn’t sung his Tune.

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.