Published on January 5th, 2016 | by Dave Scaddan0
Dave’s Top 20 Albums of 2015
As he does each year, writer Dave Scaddan weighs in on the world of music with his Top 20 albums of the year for 2015.
If there’s a theme to my favourite music releases from this past year, it’s that most of them seem to be looking backward, drawing on what’s made great music in the past. It’s hard to imagine what innovations to popular music could possibly be left to make after so much change being injected into the bloodstream of basic rock over the last thirty years or so — a span that basically covers my time as a music consumer.
In that time, rap music has left its mark on every other kind of music while simultaneously threatening to implode on itself, electronics have made music played with instruments seem quaint, metal has mutated into literally hundreds of different strains, and manipulation of other people’s music to create one’s own has become an ordinary path to creating a song.
In terms of great new music being released, 2015 was no 1984 (Purple Rain, Heartbeat City, Ride the Lightning), and no 1993 (In Utero, Midnight Marauders, Enter the Wu Tang), and certainly no 1988 (Daydream Nation, Nation of Millions, Nothing’s Shocking, Straight Outta Compton). But looking at these records, it’s been a decent year. If anything, this year’s best indicate that even if there’s not a lot of room left to grow without blowing up the dome, the dome is still fertile ground.
20) White Hills – Walks for Motorists
Though the sound of White Hills rarely changes, I like it and wouldn’t really want it to. This band has enough age and experience to know what works for them best – fuzzy, spacey rock ‘n’ roll.
19) HEALTH – Death Magic
I wouldn’t rank this as one of the better records out this year if it weren’t for the live versions of these songs. Whether you’re checking them out in person or from a live clip online, HEALTH transforms the techy pop of their recent studio work into an incredibly intense, sweat-splattered performance. On record alone, the slightly tamer renderings capture a capable band with a growing following who still haven’t quite figured out what they are. When they figure it out and bring that live energy to plastic — watch out. In the meantime, watch.
18) Semi Hendrix – Breakfast at Banksy’s
Veteran rapper Ras Kass and producer Jack Splash are Semi Hendrix, making aware, artsy hip hop that combines their skills well. The production is good-times beatlooping, the vocals are hard. We may have seen the last of the great rap crews, but there are still a few slick duos out there.
17) Shopping – Why Choose
Amidst so much heavy-handed worship of olden days soul, metal, and hip hop this year, it was fun to hear a band like Shopping coming up on shuffle play now and then — they interjected a real jolt of punk-pop energy into 2015. Why Choose is fast, fun guitar music that’s more plucked than strummed, like The Knack or The Jam used to make.
16) Blank Realm – Illegals in Heaven
I’ll try a ‘cross-between’ band characterization here: Blank Realm’s latest sounds like a cross between Royal Trux and The Smiths. Illegals in Heaven has the loose, tossed off vibe of Herrema and Hagerty, but also the precious, jangling signature of Morrissey and Marr.
15) Deerhunter – Fading Frontier
I tried this for the first time in the car, driving through rural Saskatchewan in the middle of a sweet, slow Autumn, and now, even listening to it on vinyl at home, when I close my eyes, it’s easy to slide back into that ‘amber waves of grain’ mindset. Bradford Cox even sings those words in the song, Living My Life, and even if he’s referencing America the Beautiful, to me, he’s soundtracking one of the mellowest Canadian prairie Falls in recent memory.
Fading Frontier isn’t all that odd, so if that’s what you look for from Cox, get your mind right and prepare for something more accessible. He knows what he’s doing with people’s expectations — the strangest, most Weird Era-ish track on offer here, Leather and Wood, is followed up with a downright Bo Diddley-esque romp called Snakeskin, and it could totally be played at a Squaresville wedding dance and make your aunts and uncles bite their bottom lips and shimmy the shoulders.
14) Youth Lagoon – Savage Hills Ballroom
Trevor Powers has stripped it down to a very simple, soft style here. After the complex ocean of sound on his last album, there was really nowhere else to go but simpler, and that’s turned out to be a fitting, if obvious choice. Remove all the washed out atmospherics and what’s left is basically a folk record, except that Powers uses synths and sound effects instead of an acoustic guitar. Powers’ lyrics won’t cheer you up any, but I’ve always liked his from-the-heart earnestness. Much like Kurt Cobain with Something in the Way, Neil Young with Borrowed Tune, or J Mascis with Water, Powers can reach places in song that are so intimate, they’re almost uncomfortable.
13) Leon Bridges – Coming Home
For such a young singer/songwriter (he’s 28), Leon Bridges has some deep roots in his style. Coming Home may not appeal to many his age and younger, but for people my age and older, it brings back the sounds of folks like Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, and Smokey Robinson. Backed by a big, smooth band with great organ, sax and female backup vocals, Bridges sounds like he should be playing these songs in a velvet-cushioned club that I’m not cool enough to get into — good thing he puts them on record.
12) Deafheaven – New Bermuda
It took me a while, but I get it now. Why can’t black metal use a shoegaze sensibility as a path to its heaviness? New Bermuda doesn’t bounce back and forth between these styles — as Deafheaven’s previous album does — as much as combine them into a smoother blend that makes the whole concept work better for me this time around.
In the nineties, before I had a dad gut and clear skin, one of my favourite musical happenings of the year would be when a band called Tristan Psionic (from Hamilton, Ontario) would roll through town and bring a few other bands from their Sonic Unyon label with them. Locals would be treated to cosmic, guitar-and-Farfisa soundscapes that could blow up into noise at any moment, and that’s what New Bermuda takes me back to, except that Sandy McIntosh never screamed like his soul was being pulled out of his ass.
11) LA Priest – Inji
Further along in this list are other artists who for some reason decided to Prince-out in 2015, but no one drank more purple rain this year than LA Priest. Sip enough of that shit and your music will be awash in tweaked synths and enough cooing and moaning to make doves cry.
10) Fuzz – II
Any list like this from the past few years must, for me, include something involving Ty Segall. I never tire of returning to the righteous riffage of metal in its nascent form, and that’s what Fuzz are up to on this double LP, worshipping at the altar of Sabbath, Steppenwolf, and The Stooges.
9) Alabama Shakes – Sound and Color
Much like with HEALTH, though these two bands sound nothing alike, Alabama Shakes feel to me like they’re still trying to figure out what they are as a studio band, while there’s no confusion at all about what they are as a live act. Sound and Color gets closer than Boys and Girls did to giving its audience that blown-away-with-feeling feeling that a stage encounter with Brittany and the boys provides. Steeped in bluesy, southern rock flavours, Sound and Color also moves through gospel, soul and garage rock with preternatural ease, and Don’t Wanna Fight is the ideal whisking of all these ingredients.
8) Pond – Man it Feels Like Space Again
Aussie retro-rock at it’s finest — that’s what you get with Pond every time out. They don’t overdo the throwback style like, say, Wolfmother would, and they don’t get mired in any one 60’s rock influence for long, sticking and moving through the whole Zep-Yes-Doors-Bolan-Bowie-Beach Boys barrage until the ears just cling to the ride, enjoying it all.
7) Snakefinger – Live in Melbourne
This early-eighties concert release was one of the great surprises of the year for me. I waited way too long to discover the solo Snakefinger, away from his work with The Residents and his band, The Vestal Virgins. This show catches a guitar savant at work with a post-punk styled band, running through a setlist that burns with edgy energy.
6) Memory Man – Broadcast One
This one really appeals to my tastes in a lot of different ways. For one thing, it’s the first release to feature Edan in quite some time, and even if it’s only one track, that’s still a big deal to me. Secondly, it’s a hip hop concept album that actually works. The record is arranged like a day of local TV programming, a little like a rap SCTV, with news, church shows, kids shows, and ad spots. Lastly, it’s ‘political’ in the same way as Negativland’s best stuff. Broadcast One arranges old school beats under clips and samples from decades of cheesy TV shows to hold a mirror up to our legacy of media mindgames. The result of all this is a subversive, ambitious, funny, disturbing, and laudable LP.
5) Dave Douglas – High Risk
Jazz is not a genre of music I feel knowledgeable about, but like everyone else, I know what I like. After discovering percussionist Mark Guiliana through his pairing with Brad Meldau, I wanted to hear more, and High Risk was the most recent thing he’d played on. I had no idea that Dave Douglas was one of the world’s most highly regarded trumpet players, but I get it now. Along with Guiliana, this record also sees Douglas bringing the electronic edge of Shigeto into his quartet, and the result is a little like hearing Tim Hecker and Miles Davis improvising with a very technically acute, technologically savvy drummer. Without any piano or guitar to provide the familiar framework of standard jazz, High Risk uses sampled atmospherics instead, putting it in a category that the word ‘experimental’ can’t quite capture.
4) Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Multi-Love
Every time I mention this record to someone or read something about Ruban Neilson’s songwriting style and inspiration, everyone seems to be saying the same thing: Prince. I think what people really mean when they say that is: 80s R&B. There was a lot going on in that genre thirty years ago, as soul music needed to find a way to stay on the radio while separating itself from (and reconciling itself with) hip hop — Prince was the guy who did it the best, by processing funk and soul through pop and rock filters until there was nowhere one could turn without hearing that sound.
I loved Prince so much in those years that when people say, “this sounds like Prince,” I want to wonder aloud, which Prince? The electric guitar Prince of Purple Rain? The provocative pop Prince of Dirty Mind and Controversy? The soul-climbing-out-of-disco Prince of For You? A fan needs to know these things, so let’s be specific, please.
Multi-Love reminds me most of the Around the World in a Day / Parade era Prince – the guy who had painstakingly fashioned The Revolution into his house band and was so comfortable with them (and his own superstardom) that he could strip things down a little, focus more on production and manhandle lasting hits like Raspberry Beret and Kiss. UMO will probably never reach such superstardom because this is an artistically corrupted decade, and they don’t base themselves on bravado, booty, or bands-wrapped bills being blown by boneheads, but their musicianship, their tightness as a three-to-five piece, and their flexible songwriting sensibility place them on a deeper plane.
3) Wand – Golem
Of all the bands looking back this year to put their own spins on resurrected styles, Wand are probably the band who would be most likely to fool listeners into thinking their music is actually from several decades ago. Golem is one of two records they released this year; both draw on a 60s garage-psych sound, but while 1000 Days draws on a lighter, folky vibe, Golem is as dark and heavy as its title. Unlike most psych resurrection bands that tend to be drawn to the loose optimism of The Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane, Golem is leaning more to that Blue Cheer, Iron Butterfly side of the genre that once helped lay the framework for heavy metal. Frontman Cory Thomas Hanson is a talent whose bandwagon would, in a sane world, be scraping the asphalt with its undercarriage.
Also, if you like Gary Numan, (and who doesn’t?) you need to hear the seven-inch Wand did this year with their song Machine Man on one side and a cover of M.E. on the other.
2) Tame Impala – Currents
Apart from releasing a great throwback rock record with his other band, Pond, this year, Kevin Parker also released a shot at mainstream-friendly perfection in 2015, and for my money, Currents out-paces anything anyone else has done recently in the vein of vocal pop. Parker, a one-man band in the studio, has his melodies, his production, his funk, his falsetto, his composition, and his barrage of synth in fine form. I feel that to find anything disappointing about Currents’ departure from the big-scope psych-rock guitar experience of the previous two Tame Impala records is to miss the point entirely. Besides, this experience can be approximated by listening to Parker’s other band, Pond. Years from now, many of these more R&B rooted songs will make the fluctuation of a Tame Impala concert even more interesting and entertaining. For now, they are amply updating a style that many others seem bent on revitalizing, even if that style isn’t the sixties rock we expect from this increasingly intriguing band.
Several times on Currents, Parker makes me feel like he’s about to hit a groove so perfect it could rival something like Superstition or Stayin’ Alive. Even if he never quite gets there, I would argue that the Soulwax crew do with their remix of Let it Happen, so, partial credit, Mr. Parker. Keep reachin’.
1.1) Neon Indian – VEGA INTL. Night School
How weird is it that three of my fave five this year were all done by frontmen sharing the following traits:
- a) putting out album three after two successful, similar sounding sophomore stints
- b) one-man banding it in the studio more than previously
- c) shifting from a hippie aesthetic to R’n’B vibes
- d) sounding like Prince when albums one and two would never have provoked the purple parallel?
Well, I’m not going to question the whys and hows, I’m just going to express my joy at the fact that Alan Palomo was able to mentally rescue the VEGA INTL. Night School demos from a laptop he lost on tour. The lesson for artists? Backing shit up electronically is overrated — truly great ideas cannot truly be lost, and those who claim that they can are often just too unmotivated to start over.
Speaking of starting over, Palomo did a style-morph worthy of David Bowie in 2015. He added preppy dress sense, dance moves, grip-the-mic-stand delivery, and a Morris Day haircut to the ensemble, transforming chillwave to can’t-stand-stillwave. The synth-whorl of Era Extrana sounds great over a dance floor diagram, and the track order of V.I.N.S. affirms this strength; the mellow, bouncing waves of side one set up the head bob of The Glitzy Hive and Dear Skorpio Magazine on side two, forcing the vinyl listener to go straight to the second platter (complete with mislabeled RPM speed; it’s 45, not 33). Side three gets straight to business, infecting us with a serious dose of night fever and shamelessly ripping synth riffs from the vocal melodies of Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine. Remember Conga? “Come on, shake your body, baby, do the Conga / No, you can’t control yaselfa any longa?” Palomo remembers, even though that track blew up the radio a few years before he was born — I guess he mined it from his psychic chasms.
By the end of side four, Palomo’s voice is deep in a mellow moan on News From the Sun, resurrecting the soul schmaltz of The Time (you know, to match the hairdo) and closing out an album that’s a pencil-thin-moustache breadth away from being tops in 2015.
1) Dan Deacon – Gliss Riffer
While it may not always have followed a smooth, upward curve, Dan Deacon’s electronic, effects-driven, pop-rocks-for-the-ears, party-in-your-head sound has been gradually reaching for greater and greater heights over his twelve-year recording career. Deacon is one of those musicians who pays such intricate attention to every sound that the more one pays attention as a listener, the greater the aural rewards. Gliss Riffer is Deacon doing well what so many other artists mired in knobs and sliders do badly: he’s making the equipment that was once used to record and modify instruments into the instruments themselves, but he’s adding every tone and structuring every build and every ebb with purpose, never settling for a catchy hook and a cool effects shift to carry a song on its own.
As a vocalist and a lyricist, Deacon is in new territory here as well. His vocals are much clearer than they were on his previous America — a record I’m still trying, and failing, to love. And his lyrics are taking on much deeper, ambitious subject matter, adding to the experience of his staunchly distinct style. While so many others have used modern hyper-manipulative recording software to essentially modulate an old disco template into a newer, more amped-up, visceral form of dance music, Dan Deacon has used the same technology to carve out a swath in the modern music landscape that is really and truly his own. Even though he named this record after an effects fiddling that many have toyed with mastering, Gliss Riffer is a rare realization of that masterdom — not a trip to be missed.