Tuesday, December 22, 2015

My Top 40 albums of 2015

I think I listened to more music than any year since my heyday reviewing albums for Fufkin.com. I listened to at least 175 albums at least once full through this year. Ranking them, even more than usual, was very tough and once you get past the top 14 or so, things get pretty incremental. And past 40, there are another 30 to 40 albums that I really dug. At least.

1. FFS -- FFS: The team up of Franz Ferdinand and Sparks allowed the Scottish post-punkers to expand their stylistic reach while the veteran art-poppers were freed from a singular concept and revisited many of the various approaches they have employed over the past 43 years. They found a common sensibility and knocked out a bunch of knock out songs. Even better, the vocals of Alex Kapronos and Russell Mael meshed wonderfully, and recording the album in just two weeks resulted in lively performances. This is a hook filled, varied pop-rock album of type that you don’t see too often nowadays.

2. Jessica PrattOn You Own Love Again: Pratt is a special songwriter, her numbers going from drony, folky pieces that unfold into unexpected pop songs, keyed by wonderful chord changes and resonant melodies. Her delicate finger picked guitar and reedy, engaged vocals are the best possible vehicle for her songs. The production seals the deal. This is lo-fi with a purpose, as the fidelity of the living room recordings serves to enhance the haunting qualities that these songs naturally had.

3. Kamasi Washington -- The Epic: This triple LP announces Washington and his core of fellow musicians as a major force in jazz. Conversant in both free jazz and more traditional forms, the songs cover a wide swath of sounds and emotions, all played warmly and creatively, with improvisations never overwhelming the song structures. The original compositions are exciting and the outside material is well selected. Washington wholly succeeds in bringing decades of jazz into an effort that is forward thinking and classic.

4. Ryley Walker -- Primrose Green: The blend of jazz and folk that artists like John Martyn and Tim Buckley touched on many decades ago gets the full treatment on the second album from Walker. Working with top flight jazz musicians, Walker composes some beautiful songs, while other songs are made for the band to rock out and get creative. It’s not pure jazz, but it’s certainly not just another folk rock album. And the fact that Walker’s vocals nearly match his guitar prowess makes for great album.

5. Girl BandHolding Hands With Jamie: This Irish band is often compared to The Fall, primarily for how they approach their singing and lyrics. Girl Band is also often described as noise rock, and it’s true -- they sure are noisy. But what really impresses on their debut album is how they turn noise into something catchy. The song structures are very simple and they create hooks out of simple things, like repetitive fuzzy bass parts or guitar squalls. Some songs are just pure tension, but it is inevitable there are some explosions. At no point do they take themselves too seriously, while the music teems with excitement.

6. Julia Holter -- Have You In My Wilderness: Holter finally decided to concede something to accessibility, allowing her vocals to come through clearly, with the rest of the music falling suit. This doesn’t take away from her arty approach, as her melodies are sophisticated and arrangements and choice of instruments don’t edge her too far into pop. But she can’t help herself, and there are a number of catchy, immediately appealing songs, which provide balance with the moodier, more atmospheric material. These songs cohere into an album that moves into many different feelings.

7. Gaz Coombes -- Matador: The former Supergrass front man adds some color by working with more electronic instrumentation on this album. But it’s not like he’s gone full Radiohead. He’s still the same songwriter who has been making hummable tunes with a strong whiff of melancholy that serves him all the better as he ages. He just so happens, on his second solo album, to have composed his best set of songs since Supergrass’s In It For The Money album (coincidentally, the band’s second album). So Coombes is back in peak form, making for a very compelling listen.

8. Shamir -- Ratchet: This genderqueer 21-year-old manages to evoke the classic electronic edged R & B of the early ‘80s (in the vein of Michael Jackson and, especially) Prince with more modern styles. His smooth countertenor vocals are surprisingly expressive, he already knows how to craft both Grade A beats and hooks, and his personality is infectious.

9. Royal Headache -- High: These Aussies are yet another Oz punk band that relies heavily on classic R & B structures. Falling somewhere between The Saints and The Happy Hate Me Nots, these are fluid and melodic songs that rock like crazy. Moreover, the vocals and playing imbue them with a lot of feeling, giving the direct lyrics extra punch.

10. Lianne La Havas -- Blood: This album is a gigantic leap from La Havas' fine singer-songwriter debut. Here, La Havas, working with an array of top flight producers and musicians, creates a modern update on the jazzy, lite-funk sounds of the ‘70s. Her songs percolate in a manner akin to Chaka Khan and Stevie Wonder, and her voice is so powerful, and she, unlike many modern singers, only deploys that power when needed, letting her expert phrasing do the rest.

11. Motor Sister -- Ride: I still haven’t heard the original Mother Superior songs that this band, led by the Mother Superior’s former frontman Jim Wilson, redo with aplomb. Scott Ian of Anthrax, his wife Pearl and a killer rhythm section show that I really need to dig up those originals. This is killer hard rock, kind of like taking great lost Free and Rory Gallagher songs and adding an extra Queens of the Stone Age layer of modern rock power.

12. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah -- Stretch Music: The New Orleans trumpeter has really developed a great mix of classic and modern jazz, with electronic augmentation that adds a modern rock touch to some songs. These songs are a little bit streamlined, and the directness actually adds resonance to this strong collection of tracks.

13. Courtney BarnettSometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit: Sharp, witty observant lyrics, a buoyant personality and some driving rock tunes can take you a long way. Barnett’s engagement and enthusiasm are equaled by her sharp guitar playing and a rhythm section that keeps things moving.

14. Richard HawleyHollow Meadows: After a foray into psychedelia on his last album, this is more of a classic Hawley album. The Scott Walker inspired vocals, songwriting that is in the vein of ‘50s and ‘60s balladeering, and novel-quality lyrics, all wrapped up in a romantic and ruminative vibe. Hawley’s guitar playing is as wonderful as ever and I wonder if he is capable of making a less-than-terrific album.

15. Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment -- Surf: This album cements the current vanguard of Chicago hip-hop as a hot spot of innovation, as the Social Experiment, with emerging superstar Chance The Rapper and collection of musicians (some who came up the ranks with Kids These Days) blend an array of genres and sounds into intelligent, life affirming music. This generous collection is full of highlights, topped by the best song released in 2015, the joyous “Sunday Candy”.

16. Susanne Sundfør -- Ten Love Songs: This Norwegian singer-songwriter puts everything together on her sixth LP. She is in the vein of artists like Bat For Lashes and others of the post-Kate Bush Art Pop Brigade. Sundfør has songs with incredible drive and intent and others that are lush and beautiful. She can craft a good hook, but also conjure up a wonderful epic centerpiece in “Memorial”. This is someone who should be better known throughout the world.

17. Swervedriver - I Wasn’t Born to Lose You: While people often trash reunions in a kneejerk fashion, I find that many of them work quite well. The ones that work best are where key players have kept their careers going in other forms, meaning their songwriting and playing haven’t atrophied. This was certainly the case here, as frontman Adam Franklin’s solo work kept him on top of his game. The result is more powerful guitar rock, with the serious six string work and crashing rhythm section combining with gossamer melodies, making for the band’s best album since Mezcal Head.

18. Eleventh Dream Day -- Works for Tomorrow: Returning to a two guitar attack for the first time in ages, EDD turns in what may be its most explosive LP since their days on Atlantic Records. This album is in league with efforts such as Beet and El Moodio, with Rick Rizzo and Janet Bean each passionately singing, which is the only way one can with music this rocking.

19. Songhoy Blues - Music in Exile: This young Mali band perfectly balances American blues with their native styles, making for an album that belongs in the rock section, not the world music section, but sounding like very little else in the rock genre. There’s no formula here whatsoever, as some songs have classic riffs, while others fuse the blues to Mali rhythms. A fresh approach on classic styles.

20. Negative Scanner -- Negative Scanner: A great debut full length from this Chicago post-punk band. These guys come from the crankier side of post-punk, slotting in somewhere between Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Effigies. These are ripping tunes, with two guitarists who are somehow busy, yet spare, and songs that do a great job of creating, and sometimes releasing, tension. Rebecca Valeriano-Flores is a powerhouse frontwoman, which is necessary with all the energy this band produces.

21. The Chills -- Silver Bullets: Martin Phillips’ struggles with drugs and his health never eradicated his talent, and this new edition of this legendary Kiwi band continues the legacy admirably. The Chills have a particular way with melody and rhythm, creating an intent jangle/strum that can cover a wide array of emotions. This is only lacking a killer cut or two, but in all other respects this is prime stuff.

22. Deerhunter -- Fading Frontier: The most accessible album by this band is full of gentle indie pop songs that evince a real positivity. Bradford Cox swirls psychedelia and other styles, with a melodic sense that is reminiscent of folks such as Peter Gabriel, Pete Townshend and Pete Shelley.

23. Ashley Monroe -- The Blade: The second solo album from this member of Pistol Annies. Monroe’s songs have rock and blues edges at times, without ever straying from her country roots. While this is modern country, it doesn’t turn its back on the classics, with Monroe putting smart and clever takes on classic themes, breathing fresh life into songs about cheating and love.

24. ProtomartyrThe Agent Intellect: I was drawn to Protomartyr’s last album due to all the comparisons to The Fall. But the band that comes through strongly on this album is Girls Against Boys. And that’s not a bad thing. I love the Protomartyr sound, which is cool and inviting. If the ratio of good songs to great songs tilted more towards the latter, this would rank higher.

25. Ought -- Sun Coming Down: This Montreal band comes closer to The Fall, but also plays songs with a rubbery melodies that remind me of The Dismemberment Plan. There’s also a little bit of Pavement in the mix. These songs sometimes meander, before pulling together in a compelling fashion, often revealing some genuine guitar power. The best is probably ahead for these guys.

26. Andra DayCheers to the Fall: About half of this album sounds like the closest thing to Amy Winehouse to come around in quite a while. Day is that good of a singer. She works with some great folks, including Raphael Saadiq on a couple of tracks. This is a very well done modern retro soul album, with some jazz undertones.

27. Bill Fay -- Who Is the Sender?: This is basically Life Is People, Pt. II, but it just doesn’t have as many killer tracks. But there aren’t any duds either, and Fay’s measured songs are beautiful. Moreover, his ruminations of life, society and faith are some of the smartest observations you will hear on any record. Fay’s music is a real calming force.

28. Nozinja -- Nozinja Lodge: Nozinja, a/k/a Richard Mthethwa, is the father of Shangaan Electro, a modern offshoot of Nigerian music that, due to its use of older electronic instruments, has a retro gloss. Nozinja blends local sounds with funk and reggae and whatever else comes to mind, on vibrant songs that percolate and dare one not to dance. This is a fresh sound that deserves further exposure.

29. The SonicsThis Is the Sonics: One of the greatest garage bands ever is able to keep the fire burning, 49 years after their last album, because the three surviving members still have it, to varying degrees, and their hand-picked new rhythm section is boss. The new songs are worthy of the canon, as the guys still know how to create deranged blues rock sounds and pump them up. The covers are also very well chosen.

30. Young Fathers -- White Men Are Black Men Too: The follow up to a Mercury Prize winning debut is far from a sophomore slump. This Scottish trio mixes everything from hip-hop to Radiohead-style modern rock to older rock influences (like the repeating garage rock organ figure on the amazing “Rain or Shine”), and their intensity and vocal presence is invigorating.

31. Le Butcherettes -- A Raw Youth: On the band’s third album, their blend of goth, new wave and hard rock gels better than ever. The hard edged, serious numbers are balanced by a few relatively poppy numbers. Teri Gender Bender is a real force, both with her excellent singing, which covers a wide range of moods and emotions, and her smart, incisive lyrics.

32. Stealing Sheep -- Not Real: The mix of folk harmonies, simple songs and clever electronic arrangements is quite wonderful when it all clicks. The title cut is one of the year’s best songs, and there are a few others that are nearly at that level.

33. Olivia Chaney -- The Longest River: Chaney deservedly garnered more attention for her Nonesuch debut. She is kind of the Sandy Denny to Laura Marling’s Joni Mitchell, offering up contemporary and respectful versions of older folk songs, while offering some fine originals. Her crystal clear vocals are stunning.

34. The Cairo Gang -- Goes Missing: Emmett Kelly’s latest is a scruffy rootsy pop album that is the closest I’ve heard anyone come to sounding like Liquor Giants. These songs are melodic as all get out, evoke a lot of great ‘60s and ‘70s pop and his vocals are charming.

35. Fantasma -- Free Love: The latest project from rapper Spoek Mathambo, Fantasma mixes hip-hop and funk with South African township music. The rhythms are creative and the group really knows how to build a hook. This is a debut that promises even more down the road.

36. Tom RobinsonOnly the Now: The first album in 20 years from the renowned rocker and protest singer finds Robinson in fine declamatory form. Working with everyone from Billy Bragg to Ian McKellen, Robinson bounces from rock to folk to a few other styles, showing that he still can pen a catchy tune and rake a little muck.

37. Beach SlangThe Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us: Great anthemic rock from this Philly band. The subject matter of the lyrics is limited, as is the music, for that matter. But the intense performances and many sing along opportunities make for a rousing LP.

38. Roger Lion -- Roger Lion: The team up of Joe Pernice and producer Budo works well, because putting Pernice’s melodies and lyrics to electronic backgrounds is no stretch whatsoever. The biggest problem with the album is that it’s a bit slight at 29 minutes. I hope they work together some more.

39. The DarknessLast of Our Kind: This may be the most consistent Darkness LP, mixing outright hilarious rockers and glammy pop songs, with barn burners that may or may not be tongue in cheek. The performances are uniformly excellent, as this band excels at ‘70s arena rock.

40. Laura Marling -- Short Movie: I may be selling her latest short, but she’s set such a high standard. Here, she works more in a full band format. She still has a Joni Mitchell vibe on some tunes, but she has developed a hard edged yet tender persona that makes her folk songs really hit home.

A few other things:

Most welcome reunion: While seeing The Sonics was great, it was even better seeing Chicago band Frisbie return to the stage, with a promise of an album in the future.

Movie of the Year: Mad Max: Fury Road

Book of the Year: Kate Atkinson -- A God in Ruins

Albums I didn't get: The Kendrick Lamar album has some great songs, but the album as a whole is bloated, and a lot of songs could stand some editing. This album is getting more credit for what's it's about than how it is about it. The Tame Impala album was disappointing. I had no problem with Kevin Parker's sonic approach, I just thought the hooks were missing.

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