Tuesday, December 29, 2015

best of 2015

In an attempt to dial this back from previous years I'm just going to post my top 10 plus two others that I think deserve mention. I was going to skip doing my long drawn-out list this year since there are so many lists out there and most of them are uniformly the same. Since they've started coming out I've discovered that none of the records I selected for my list showed up in anyone else's that I've read and none of what's on their list showed up in mine, so therefore I figured it might actually be useful. My best of the year mix will still be posted next week.

1) Beach House—’Depression Cherry’ (Subpop)

It was a long journey for me with this album, as it is with most new Beach House albums. Perhaps one of the reasons they’ve become my favorite new(er) band is because their work demands repeated listens. They’ve also entered a category with the Cure as a band whose music I find I can’t always fully judge until I’ve witnessed the songs in a live setting. A lot of what helped get this album’s hooks into me was seeing them play all but two songs from it at First Avenue in September. Since then it’s been difficult to get out from the endless loop of this album that I’ve subjected myself to. After the release of ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’ less than two months later I found myself listening to the two next to each other trying to figure out which one I liked better. While it’s difficult to for me to single out any Beach House album as being better than another (they all suit different situations and the overall quality of their albums as a whole is always very consistent) ‘Depression Cherry’ wins me over mostly for its hazy, emotional psychedelics and dreamy, aching drones. When ‘Bloom’ came out I remember talking about how I wish they would figure out a way to incorporate the haunting mystery of the first two albums with the glossy pop sheen of ‘Teen Dream’ and ‘Bloom’ and with ‘Depression Cherry’ I think they’ve done exactly that. They are my favorite band operating at peak form right now and I wish them all the success in the world.

2) Low—’Ones and Sixes’ (Subpop)

When ‘C’mon’ came out in 2011 it was a new high-point in the band’s long history and a welcome, invigorated return-to-form that fulfilled promises that had only been hinted at in the band’s preceding handful of records. ‘The Invisible Way’ added some more dimension to their rebirth, but with ‘Ones and Sixes’ they’ve delivered in an even bigger way. It somehow marries the chilly spareness of the first three records with the wide-eyed lushness of ‘C’mon’ and ‘The Invisible Way’ while delivering a double LP that rivals ‘Things We Lost in the Fire’ (the most common candidate for the band’s best record) for sheer impact. Varied songs all exploring new territory and subtleties in their ability to establish a hypnotic mood paired with minimal production with just the right amount of grit. From the first bars of ‘Gentle’ to the cloudy fadeout of ‘DJ’ the album doesn’t let up for even a moment. It’s great to hear the band in such peak form 25 years into their career.

3) Panda Bear—’... meets the Grim Reaper’/’Mr Noah’ EP (Domino)

The chilly reception that this record received upon its release is very surprising to me. Most people that I discussed it with unanimously agreed—’I like it, beautiful production, but it’s still nowhere near as good as “Person Pitch.”’ For a brief period I rotated the two next to each other and found that ‘... Grim Reaper’ actually delivers on a lot of psychedelic abstraction that ‘Person Pitch’ could only hint at. Pete Kember’s (aka Sonic Boom) brilliant production is largely responsible for this fact—every sound is so carefully sculpted and placed, every mix so thick with layered detail and all delivered with way more clarity than is typical for an album this psychedelic and atmospheric. ‘... Grim Reaper’ is one of those records that practically creates its own universe. Where ‘Tom Boy’ often fell short both idea and songwriting-wise, ‘... Grim Reaper’ succeeds. On top of that the sessions for the album were so fertile and inspired that they yielded two companion EPs—’Mr Noah’ and ‘Crosswords.’

4) Kurt Vile—’b’lieve i’m goin’ down’ (Matador)

I was a little worried when I heard that Kurt Vile was doing another double LP—’Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze’ had some really great, extended songs, but as a whole it was really inconsistent and lacking in the focus that made ‘Smoke Ring for my Halo’ so great. When I put the first disc of three LPs on my turntable, though, my worry quickly melted away. Even the songs that I wasn’t that initially impressed with all ended up having something to offer, plus there’s a beautifully haunted quality to all of the songs here, even the self-conscious opener and lead single ‘Pretty Pimpin.’ It seems that Vile was able to carry the haunted quality of the Rancho de la Luna wherever he took the rest of these songs—there’s an amazingly consistent sound present considering the fact that the record was recorded in a million different studios on both coasts. Plus, drafting Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa is always going to be a good move.

5) Beach House—’Thank Your Lucky Stars’ (Subpop)

The announcement of this album seemed completely improbable. I couldn’t believe when it showed up on my doorstep. The night before I found myself unable to sleep until the digital files were available to download on Subpop’s website. How could they have already finished a new album? Would it be any good? Wouldn’t it just sound exactly like ‘Depression Cherry?’ As it turns out the album didn’t resemble ‘Depression Cherry’ much at all even though it was recorded at almost the same time—’One Thing’ seems close to ‘Sparks’ and ‘Rough Song’ seems like a more minimal ‘10:37,’ but the similarities end there for the most part. ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’ seemed to revive the haunting, mysterious vibe of the first two Beach House records even more than ‘Depression Cherry’—it didn’t seem too concerned with presenting anything with much mass appeal, either. What I find so fascinating about it is how it manages to carry the haunted early Beach House vibe without relying on any of the usual tricks that bands (including themselves) normally use to cultivate an air of mystery around a set of songs—there is less reverb on this album than on any other Beach House album, plus you can understand every lyric without referring to a lyric sheet. What’s more, every song seems to be written from a different character’s perspective which hints at some kind of overarching narrative. Somehow when they put all of the melodies, lyrics upfront and unadorned it had a similar effect to Grouper’s ‘Ruins’—it only made the mystery deeper and more resonant. While compiling this list I initially thought I should group the two albums together, but it seems to me that the two were so distinctive from each other that in a few years no one is going to be able to tell that they were released within a few months of each other, so it seems unfair to lump them together under the same umbrella. Two Beach House albums in a year? Probably the best thing to happen to me in quite a while. I would’ve been fine with waiting another two years, but now I have two albums to tide me over until the next one arrives.

6) Thee Oh Sees—’Mutilator Defeated at Last’ (Castle Face)

There it is—’Drop’ seemed like it was building up to something and this seems to be what it was. Brigid Dawson’s harmonies were great to hear again in the context of the LA-based iteration of the band that John Dwyer introduced on ‘Drop.’ When the album came in the mail from Castle Face about a month before it hit the shelves (there’s a label that it always pays to pre-order from) and I posted it on Instagram a random comment popped up on my feed—’”Sticky Hulks” is my SHIT!’ Yes, my friend. Yes, it is. ‘Sticky Hulks’ is the centerpiece for me of a vastly strange and out-there record even by Oh Sees standards—it’s built from a beautiful organ line that gives way to some growling and squealing fuzzy guitar lines from Dwyer followed by some varied loud/quiet dynamic verses laying hooks down like a breadcrumb trail back to the real world as it goes.

7) The Black Ryder—’The Door Behind the Door’ (Anti-machine Music)

After four years in the making this album was delayed another two years by what I’d guess was label meddling—perhaps this album wasn’t typically shoegazey enough for Mexican Summer. It’s admirable that the band has taken up the mantle of putting this lovingly put-together album out into the world themselves and it seems to have worked well for them. The fact that they’ve been across the country opening for the Jesus & Mary Chain has been enormously helpful it seems—when I finally got to see the band after six years of being a fan they sounded immense and enveloping, which is a great way to put ‘The Door Behind the Door’ in context. These are some thickly layered songs rich with texture and sound floating in and out of the mix displaying some beautiful, emotionally powerful and complex content. I’m often complaining about what a shame it is that people are so put-off by emotionally rewarding midtempo music that addresses regret and longing because that tends to be why albums like this one fall between the cracks. I’m always arguing that music heavy with regret can prove to be surprisingly uplifting and hopeful—listen to ‘Let Me Be Your Light’ and try not to let that chorus tug at your heartstrings. Go ahead. I dare you!

8) Deerhunter—’Fading Frontier’ (4AD)

After the mild misstep of 2013’s ‘Monomania’ Deerhunter have returned to the sound they explored with 2008’s ‘Microcastle’ and made it somehow even dreamier than before. While it seems somewhat familiar it adds a lot of color to their pallette as well—’Ad Astra’ is a rewarding highlight as is the head-bobbing ‘Snakeskin,’ which is the best and most unique song the band have released in years. They’ve managed to marry their affinity for bubbling electronics and atmospheric guitars seamlessly on tracks like ‘Living my Life’ and ‘Breaker’ as well. It’ll be interesting to see what they do with these tracks live—hopefully it’ll be similar to the amped up versions that they unleashed on crowds of the ‘Halcyon Digest’ material.

9) Tamaryn—’Cranekiss’ (Mexican Summer)

It took a while for this record to sink in for me—this theme of indie bands trying to resurrect the sounds of the 80s is starting to wear a bit thin for me and ‘Hands All Over me’ really grated when I first heard it. Once other tracks began to appear it seemed like it would still be worth giving this record a chance. I was a huge fan of ‘Tender New Signs’ and thought that it showed them beginning to take their ultra-dreamy version of shoegaze inspired sounds in an interesting direction so I got a little worried when I heard that Tamaryn was breaking from guitarist/songwriting partner/producer and moving in a more synth-oriented direction. As it turns out the results aren’t as drastically different as I’d initially thought and the title track hit the perfect balance of a more accessible sound that also built upon the work she’d been doing before. Dreamy guitars, vivid layers, up-front vocals and hooks. It’s difficult not to fall under its spell.

10) Godspeed you! Black Emperor—’Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress…’ (Constellation)

This is about as concise and straight-ahead as Godspeed have ever been. ‘Asunder…’ builds nicely on the two-track ‘Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada’ EP from 1998. It’s more of a continuous 40-minute piece rather than a full-length album. It’s taken the drones from 2011’s ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!’ and incorporated them seamlessly into the two main movements. Finally ‘Peasantry or “Light Inside Light”’ is the most uplifting and beautiful piece of music they’ve done since the title piece of ‘Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven.’

A Few Extras that Deserve a Mention:

Death and Vanilla—’To Where The Wild Things Are’ (Fire)

Malmo, Sweden’s Death and Vanilla followed up their self-released, self-titled debut with a more pop-leaning offering on Fire Records this year. Usually written off as Broadcast stand-ins due to their retro-electronic leanings ‘To Where The Wild Things Are’ does a decent job of putting some distance between them and Broadcast (who, before singer Trish Keenan’s death in 2011, were written-off as Stereolab soundalikes—just a friendly reminder of how ridiculous that comparison seems now). There are some brighter pop moments (‘California Owls,’ ‘Follow the Light’) alongside some of their best reverb-drenched creepers (‘The Optic Nerve,’ ‘Arcana’ and ‘Hidden Reverse’). It leaves a stronger impression than their 2012 debut as well as their self-titled EP, but somehow lacks tracks as strong or instantly memorable as ‘Lux’ or ‘From Above’ which were released together as a single last year.

Jessica Pratt—’On Your Own Love Again’ (Drag City)

One of the reasons I made the effort to travel to catch Beach House on the first leg of their tour in support of ‘Depression Cherry’ was because they picked Jessica Pratt as their opening act. It seemed like the perfect night of music to me—she’s the type of singer-songwriter who I can listen to even when I’m not in the mood to listen to earnest, acoustic-based ballads. She also has one of those 60s-influenced tremulous voices that actually achieves a heartfelt effect rather than a grating, trite, overwrought affectation (as it does in so many warbly singer-songwriter’s voices in the 60s). During ‘Strange Melody’ she drops her lyrics and instead spends half of the song wordlessly singing the song’s complex, haunting and definitely strange melody and rather than make you roll your eyes thinking ‘Oh brother!’ it captures and holds your attention with an otherworldly quality achieved with nothing but a human voice, some hand-plucked acoustic chords and a little tape hiss. It has a similar effect to when Leonard Cohen starts his ‘na-na-na’s at the end of ‘Joan of Arc’ off of ‘Songs of Hate.’

Carlton Melton—’Out to Sea’ (Agitated)

If more jam bands sounded like Carlton Melton then the whole concept of jam bands would not seem as patently ridiculous as it widely considered to be. Admit it, the term ’jam band’ awakened an unconscious eyeroll. When I first heard 2013's ’Always Even’ it seemed to me that the band would be better suited to a double LP format, and ’Out to Sea’ is as much evidence as I would need to believe that my suspicion was correct. What's most impressive is when these tracks achieve an overlap of hypnotic beauty paired with some truly enveloping psychedelic drone and layers of sun-drenched feedback. Simply perfect!

A Few New Discoveries:

Cate le Bon—’Mug Museum’ (Wichita)

I got curious about Cate le Bon after seeing her play guitar in the live iteration of White Fence that toured behind last year’s ‘For the Recently Found Innocent.’ After finding a few vinyl copies of 2013’s ‘Mug Museum’ and passing them by I finally got around to listening to the songs off of it and promptly began kicking myself for not having grabbed one. Naturally, after getting one and playing it to death I picked up her other two releases (2009’s ‘Me Oh My’ and 2011’s flawless ‘Cyrk’) despite vinyl copies of her albums suddenly becoming a pain to track down. It’s difficult to describe her style—it’s definitely a bit of a 60s influenced style of rock songwriting, but with a razor-sharp raw and minimal edge. ‘Cuckoo Through the Walls’ is the best example of her commitment to disquieting minimalism. My favorites on ‘Mug Museum’ are ‘Cuckoo…’ as well as the duet ‘I Think I Knew’ and the title track. ‘I Can’t Help You’ might be among the most perfect opening-track-as-statement-of-purpose songs that I’ve come across in recent memory.

Tropic of Cancer—’Restless Idylls’ (Blackest Ever Black)

Speaking of a pain to track down, none of the many releases that Camella Lobo has released as Tropic of Cancer’s physical releases are available domestically, which makes ordering them and fiddling with currency conversions a necessity. Anyone familiar with the music on this record isn’t going to be surprised that I love it—dark, minimal, reverb-drenched guitars, atmospheric, hazy synthesizers, Lobo’s low croon and a fantastic drum machine loaded with Laurence Tolhurst from the Cure’s early ‘doom’ trilogy-era standard drumbeats (listen to ‘Faith’ if you don’t know what I mean) and those rambling, romantically bleak tracks that could (and often do) go on forever. It seems like it was made for those early morning commutes I spent so much of this year making. Lobo released the 3-song ‘Stop Suffering’ EP this year as well which takes a slightly brighter, more optimistic approach (well… relatively at least) and builds nicely on the excellent production presented on ‘Restless Idylls.’ While Tropic of Cancer has a huge discography mainly built on EPs I’m really hoping another full-length will arrive soon as doom and gloom this perfect is always best when it’s an immersive album-length and this lone album is so strong it just makes you want more and more and more.

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