Shilpa Ray – Last Year’s Savage
This year there was hardly a more fearless, unique voice in rock music — where my listening preferences once again tended toward — than Shilpa Ray. Her style is quintessentially rooted in a bygone era of born-to-lose rock (cf. “Johnny Thunders Fantasy Space Camp”), but Last Year’s Savage finally featured the depth of material to best showcase her highly original perspective.
WAND – Golem and 1000 Days
My pick for the ones to watch. Dudes released two albums of essential psychedelic rock this year. I can’t choose between the metal crunch of Golem or the technicolor flower-punk of 1000 Days, cuz both knocked me out like few other records this year. The fact that this band has now released three albums with in the span of just two years while on seeming endless tour suggests this Los Angeles band is just getting started. Also, I love that WAND has no social media presence whatsoever.
Lower Dens – Escape From Evil
You knew they could do it, but it was still breathtaking how this Baltimore nouveau post-punk unit scaled a new peak with their latest album. Few groups walk the line between urban chill and emotional connection as skillfully and resonantly as Lower Dens. Frontperson Jana Hunter also wrote some important essays this year.
Male Gaze – Gale Maze EP
And before I knew it, I’ve begun eagerly anticipating the garage rock released on Castle Face Records. Ty Segall took the spotlight in my list last year, and now label honcho Matt Jones’s turn. Commanding, nervy, charismatic garage-rock from San Francisco. I just… cannot… stop jumping around, air guitaring and air drumming when this record comes on!
Roísín Murphy – Hairless Toys
There will always be a place in my heart and collection for music like this. The intelligent, seductive, kooky, soulful vocalist formerly of Moloko recorded eight highly polished gems of left-field electronica, one for each year since her last album. The wait was worth it.
Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness
She just releases one unassailable album of melodic art music after another. Don’t let her indie milieu fool you: Julia Holter is one for the ages, whom we’ll be discussing along the lines of Bjork, Robert Wyatt and Kate Bush in years to come.
Etiquette – Reminisce
2015 was the year I made contact with Toronto, interviewing Martha and the Muffins, hitting the streets, having my first taste of poutine (okay, technically that’s Quebec food), and digging into the city’s music scene. It astonishes me how Americans can be unaware of music as good as the debut album from Etiquette. This real-life couple sets second-person narratives of romantic dissolution sung with pitiless clarity to compelling rainy-day downtempo grooves. Toronto’s Everything But The Girl – there, I said it.
Kurt Vile – b’lieve i’m goin down…
I still can’t figure out whether Kurt Vile is a simple-minded pothead noodler or a significant new figure in rock. That duality is part of what makes him fascinating, but at the end of the day we wouldn’t be talking about Vile if he weren’t continually upping his game as a songwriter, musician and recording artist.
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie and Lowell
Can an album this intimate, vulnerable, and specific — songs about Sufjan Stevens’ mother, who abandoned his family for a dissolute spell and returned only to die of cancer — make for enjoyable listening? In any case, this was the return to form that so many have been anticipating, and the codebook revealing a hidden layer of meaning across his previous recordings.
Tribulation – The Children of the Night
This Swedish death metal band did the damndest thing: they made an airtight, accessible hard rock album. There remain plenty of occult references and Gollum-style vocals to satisfy the purists, but lush production, a prominent organ, and hooks galore reveal an expansive set of influences, from goth rock to Pink Floyd psychedelia. Also, I think this is important: Tribulation’s shtick is a little fruity, as epitomized by the Bob Fosse dancer in the bat costume playing the role of “Death” in this video.
FFS – FFS
Easily the best Sparks record in a decade, maybe two, thanks to the chops of… some Scottish group named Franz Ferdinand? Rest assured they can pull off the herky-jerky new wave styles of 80s gems like Angst In My Pants, but the collaboration also gives needed form to the Maels’ adventures in contemporary electro-pop. Preemptively, FFS also recorded a necessary mea culpa, “Collaborations Don’t Work.”
Ghostpoet – Shedding Skin
Not content to monopolizing the British rap quota in the UK’s Mercury Records nominations, Ghostpoet went out on an artistic limb with this surprising mix of too many Brit-rock and trip-hop influences to count. Surprise, surprise – he wound up with another Mercury Records nom. A number of times I think this album shouldn’t work, but Obaro Ejimiwe’s distinct vision and droopy vocal flow invariably pull me back in.
Thus Owls – Black Matters EP
Six tracks of austere, Pinteresque music played for sinister effect, until the final track summons beautiful, emotional catharsis. (Those aren’t tears; I’m just cutting onions.) If anyone else has a jones for Dagmar Krause’s work in Slap Happy and the Art Bears, seek this out at once.
J Fernandez – Many Levels of Laughter
It would seem this kind of studied, reverberant art rock is a self-conscious ‘thing’ in Chicago, as J Fernandez’s debut album can be appreciated in a windy city tradition of the Sea and the Cake, Tortoise (via their percussionist John McEntire’s production work for Stereolab), and the deeply-missed Manishevitz. I’m looking forward to more from this guy.
La Luz – Weirdo Shrine
A tasty juxtaposition of influences, historically appropriate yet seldom commingled, goes far here: twangy surf rock with Shangri-Las (via David Lynch) girl-group vocals.
The Dears – Times Infinity Volume One
Had to sit with this album, the Dears’ first in four years, for several listens before the old magic reappeared — the inspired balance of Gaulouses-smoking cool and Britpop histrionics, of to-the-bleachers passion and Montreal fatalism. They’ve promised a Volume Two for 2016!
Dirty Projectors AWOL
Dirty Projectors are one of those group who make more sense to me the longer they’ve been away. Since their absence makes the heart grow fonder, it was great to see their singers return in 2015. Alice Deradoorian recorded a dazzling album of world trance music, The Expanding Flower Planet, and we even saw Amber Coffman join John Cale on his re-recording of “Close Watch.” Still, for a fresh version of the Dirty Projectors sound — two sirens atop an intelligent, skeletal indie-R&B — I looked this year to the Australian group Alpine.
Silentó – “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)”
While all the older kids memed the shit out of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” this year, my household got a ton of pop music pleasure out of this YouTube hit this year. Parents, with just a little work, you can find dozens of ways to embarrass your pre-adolescent children into submission with this song!
Moon King – “Apocalypse: Roswell”
Ah youth – embracing a motorik groove as if they were the first to discover how to repurpose krautrock. (For that matter: ah, krautrock – furnishing a motorik groove that gives purpose to the discoveries of youth.) Secret Life, the debut album by Toronto duo Moonking has some moments, but this performance video of its two stand-out tracks was one of my jams of the year.
Chrissie Hynde – Reckless: My Life as a Pretender
Elvis Costello – Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink
In a year of top-notch music memoirs, the musical urbanism book prize is split between two books that illustrate how landscapes can shape a musical life. Hynde’s autobiography generated a lot of controversy over how she takes responsibility for a brutal attack by Cleveland bikers (an event that’s been hiding in plain sight in the Pretenders’ classic “Tattooed Love Boys”), but her attraction to the city’s seedy post-hippie milieu reflects the souring of Ohio’s postwar promise: Akron’s soulless suburbanization (cf. “My City Was Gone”) and the Kent State shootings. Her compelling, cautionary coming-of-age story can be hard for readers to digest because the past still seems a live issue for Hynde — only Akron is rendered in clear, unambiguous judgment. Costello’s memoir recalls a childhood shuttled between his mother’s Liverpool neighborhood and his father’s music career in London. The British flats, pubs, palladiums, boardwalks and other settings described here in astonishing detail seem like an alien world to this reader’s American eyes. Perhaps their cultural unintelligibility is why listeners outside the British Isles so often misinterpreted the career moves of Costello’s early, most significant years as just one long, monolithic chip on his shoulder.
“Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten”
This year’s musical urbanism film prize goes to a documentary about the swinging pop music of Phnom Penh in the years between colonial independence and the Khmer Rouge. “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” is a bittersweet valentine to Cambodia’s capital, recalling an era where pop musicians recorded and performed an eclectic array of Western styles to international clubgoers and streetside audiences alike, before the killing fields brought a horrific end to the country’s popular culture. Needless to say, the film has one hell of a soundtrack album.