At the end of November, I tasked myself with the daunting task of trying to come up with a massive end of year list that included all of my favorite albums of the past year. The problem with this plan was that, when I looked back at 2015, it wasn’t a year where I obsessively listened to as much new music as I’ve had in years past.
This was the year I discovered the podcast and rarely made time to listen to many of the great albums that came out through the year. But somehow amidst all of the weeks of listening to podcasts, I managed to listened to quite a few albums and, for everything I didn’t get a chance to hear when it was coming out, I spent the last few weeks pouring over many of the internet’s end of year lists and talking with all of my friends about their recommendations.
In the end, there are several albums that I am kicking myself for not getting to earlier in the year or several that I just didn’t have time to fit in at the end of this year. Overall, I think that this was an incredibly strong year for music and especially strong year for metal (for those that don’t know, I’m a bit of a metal head).
This list is by no means comprehensive and I’ve tried to include at least three songs that stood out to me. If you notice any glaring absences, please leave us a comment and let me know what I should add to the top of my list for next year.
50. Envy – Atheist’s Cornea
Standouts: “Shining Finger”, “Footsteps in the Distance”, “An Insignificant Poem”
Envy is a Japanese post-metal band who’s singularly brilliant A Dead Sinking Story, released in 2003, got me into post-metal. I’m not sure there was an album that I listened to more that year and I have fond memories hanging out with friends listening to it on repeat through my first summer out of high school. Atheist’s Cornea isn’t their best album but worth your time if you’ve ever enjoy their previous output. What caused this album to make the list was that I have been patiently waiting for a new Envy album for five years and it gave me exactly what I wanted from them.
49. Beach House – Depression Cherry
Standouts: “Sparks”, “Beyond Love”, “PPP”, “Wildflower”
On a short list of albums I was really anticipating this year, Beach House’s Depression Cherry was near the top and it bears the honor of being the only album I preordered. When I finally hear it, I’ll admit that I was a bit disappointed. It was more of the same from the band that totally blew me away on Teen Dream and Bloom. But somehow, I was incredibly disappointed when I first heard this album. On first listen, there really wasn’t a track that blew me away like on the previous two releases which both had songs that had me listening to them on repeat (something I never do). It just weirdly felt off. However, at the insistence of two of my coworkers and friends, I gave it another try and enjoyed it way more than that first listen. Since then, I’ve come back to it several times and recognize that, while it is a good album, it is the lesser of their two releases they put out this year. Where Depression Cherry fits perfectly in with the previous two albums, Thank Your Lucky Stars shows progress from the band. Had the latter album not have been a surprise release, I’m sure this album would be much higher on the list. Both are worth hearing. I just tend to favor Thank Your Lucky Stars.
48. Carly Rae Jepsen – E•MO•TION
Standouts: “All That”, “When I Needed You”, “Making The Most of the Night”
It is unfair to ignore pop music as a genre and, even though it isn’t my favorite style of music, I think there are albums that do demand attention. Let me get this straight, I would never listen to Carly Rae Jepsen on my own accord but felt it necessary to give this a shot since it is near the top of all of my favorite music blogs end of year lists. E•MO•TION plays out like a love letter to 80s and 90s pop music and, it’s because of that, the album is worth your time. I usually don’t buy into nostalgia but this album reminded me of a more innocent time where I could hum along to a crappy pop song I heard on the radio and not fear a flanneled bearded hipster’s judgement. Whoever thought to write a love ballad reminiscent of Prince’s “Diamonds and Pearls: (Jepsen does this on “All That”) is clearly an individual I’d like to meet. The album is full of ear worms and, outside of Jepsen’s voice, has some great music moving it along. The lyrics are mostly vapid displays of unrequited love and Jepsen’s voice shows its limitations in a register that never waivers beyond her comfort. But the pumping, driving, heavily experimental backing tracks are what make this the unique pop album I’ve heard this year. Slap bass, saxophone, beat drops, vocal envelopes, midi keyboards masked with fuzz pedals, dusty drum machines that gave the 80s its sound, and production that doesn’t sound overbearing are what had me coming back to this album after the first listen. It is truly a smart pop album worth hearing that, even those who shun the mainstream music scene, should give it a try.
47. The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – Harmless
Standouts: “January 10th, 2014”, “Haircuts for Everybody”, “I Can Be Afraid of Anything”, “Mount Hum”
I’m not afraid to admit that I really miss emo. I grew up on the genre and am such a sucker for sad, beautiful, rock songs that build into huge climaxes or meander a little too long on a simple jangly chord progression. The past two years seemed to be the years of emo revival and I’ve listened to several bands that claim to be trying to resurrect its sad, Dickies wearing corpse. Most of the offerings have left me feeling nostalgic but, regrettably, often feel like cover songs where the groups wear their influence so hard on their sleeve that it basically becomes the whole outfit. I don’t have an answer to the missing variable on why they simply fail to deliver but I’ve begun to accept that maybe it is my taste that has changed and that my appreciation for the genre seems forced. There have been a few groups that seem to use just the right amount of polish that makes the dusty genre feel fresh. The World Is A Beautiful Place released an album that made me feel both nostalgic and like there was progress being made on the genre. It follows the emo formula pretty accurately complete with the trademark nasally vocal delivery, half time chord progressions that feel like they are slow-mo, driving outros that seem to come out of nowhere, glass bell-like tinkering on the guitar, lyrics that sound like they were torn from old journal pages, a band name that is hard to fit on the album cover, and a devotion to their message that seems authentic. With so many of the classic emo groups such as Mineral, American Football, and The Appleseed Cast doing reunion tours (for the record, The Appleseed Cast still puts out quality stuff), there is a lot to live up to but The World Is A Beautiful Place sounds promising enough to keep me interested.
46. Ryan Adams – 1989
Standouts: “Out of the Woods”, “All You Had To Do Was Stay”, “Bad Blood”, “I Wish You Would”
Just to clear the air, I learned to appreciate Taylor Swift’s 1989 after hearing it for a few weeks when Aly and I were driving around Fort Wayne. While I wouldn’t say it is the best album I’ve ever heard, it is easy to say that the album is pretty smart for a pop album and really well written. So much like the rest of the internet, I was pretty stoked to hear that Ryan Adams, an artist I’ve always appreciated, was going to release an album where he was going to cover the album in its entirety. While it could have failed miserably and seemed like a blatant cash in, Adams does such a convincing job of teasing out the best parts of the original tunes while drenching them in his own influence. In particular, “All You Had To Do Was Stay” almost becomes a rock anthem where the original was a sugary pop tune about unrequited love. “Out of the Woods” is ripe with the sad folk simplicity of Adams’s typical style that builds into a climax of soaring melodies that would seem so foreign on the upbeat power pop tune in which it is inspired. This one, in particular, is light years better than the original and shows just how often the muddled overdubs of every pop album masks the simplicity of the melody. For those that wouldn’t be caught dead listening to the original album, Ryan Adams’s take on the album is really not worth missing. Its fun and I kind of wish there were more albums like it.
45. Monolord – Vænir
Standouts: “We Will Burn”, “Died a Million Times”, “Vænir“
Simply put, Vænir rocks. I seem to always be looking for bands that play incredibly slow, detuned metal with a heavy influence from stoner rock. Thankfully, Monolord mixes the best parts of sludge with stoner metal, hide their vocalist in a psychedelic watery chorus effect, and aren’t afraid to explore epic, long song lengths. For those that are fans of Windhand, Pelican, and Kylesa, this is an album not to be missed. Had I had the proper time to give this repeated listens this year, I’m sure that this would be closer to the top of my list for metal albums this year.
44. Adele – 25
Standouts: “All I Ask”, “Remedy”, “When We Were Young”
What can I say? Adele’s newest grew on me over time and is something that I’ve heard probably more times than anything else on this list thanks to Aly. There isn’t anything wrong with that. I would have loved to hear an album with a little more depth than 21 but it is good for what it is.
43. Kylesa – Exhausting Fire
Standouts: “Moving Day”, “Shaping The Southern Sky”, “Growing Roots”, “Paranoid”
A few years ago, a friend I was just getting to know recommended Kylesa after just a few conversations about the bands I was into. He was shocked I hadn’t heard them since so much of what I listened to was very similar to Kylesa. I started with Static Tensions and have kept up with the band ever since. For those that haven’t ever heard them, they are technically a metal group but they aren’t really a one trick pony. They use dueling male and female vocals between their three vocalists, have two drummers, and often change genres at a moment’s notice. When you turn on a Kylesa album, you should expect influences of psychedelic pop, stoner metal, riff heavy metal, shoegaze, and hardcore punk. In short, they keep things interesting and have yet to disappoint me. Exhausting Fire was yet another solid release by the band and is yet another album where they aren’t afraid to pull out all the stops.
42. Low – Ones & Sixes
Standouts: “No Comprende”, “Landslide”, “Spanish Translation”
I should first admit that Low could very well be in the top spot for my favorite band of all time. Its crazy to me to think that I’ve been listening to them for 14 years now and that everything they have put out has been pretty much amazing. For those that haven’t listened to Low, I’ve always struggled to accurately describe what they do to convey the magnitude that which they are capable. Technically, they are a Mormon husband and wife duo from Duluth, Minnesota. She plays drums and he plays guitar. But its their vocal harmonies and their ability to know how to write tunes that build into life ending crescendos that has always been the draw for me. It is beautiful. It is destructive. It is heart felt. I had the opportunity to finally see the band live this summer at Eaux Claires Music Festival and, out of the bands I saw across the two days, I can’t really think of any band that blew me away like Low did. Alan Sparkhawk, their guitarist, used a single small practice amp and Mimi Parker, their drummer, used a modest drum kit. But the sound was huge and knocked the wind out of you. In the past, their music is fairly minimalist and often comprised of nothing more than their beautiful vocal harmonies to carry each album. In the past few years, they have matured just slightly to incorporate keyboard into the mix and have spent some time perfecting the sound they are capable of in the studio. Ones & Sixes could potentially be their most approachable album since C’mon and is probably equally as good.
41. Björk – Vulnicura
Standouts: “Stonemilker”, “Black Lake”
I have to admit that I barely remember this Björk album. It came out earlier in the year and repeated listens didn’t really occur like they should have. On an old spreadsheet that I rank albums, I gave it a really solid ranking and I’ve weighted my inability to remember it against some of the other albums that warranted repeated listens. I promised myself I wouldn’t put any album on this list where I didn’t have much to say but this one fell victim to being released almost a year ago and so many other albums were consumed after its released. But at the time I heard this album, this blog wasn’t even a thought that I had and really had no plans to spend a great deal of time later in the year writing about the music I listened to. I do remember it being an incredibly sad album for Björk and being incredibly bummed out long after I heard it. Regardless, I’m including it on here because I know enjoyed it and desperately wish my memory wasn’t so poor that I could actually provide more commentary on what I thought of it. Do you guys have a favorite song off this album?
40. The Sword – High Country
Standouts: “Mist & Shadows”, “Tears Like Diamonds”, “High Country”, “Suffer No Fools”
The Sword is one of those few bands that I can say that I first heard when only their first album was released. I’ve stuck with them ever since and have continued to be a fan despite some of their more hardcore fans dismissing their output after the second album. However, I just can’t think of any other band that does the stoner doom Sabbath worship as good as The Sword. Don’t get me wrong, Age of Winter is clearly their best album. From there, Gods of the Earth, Warp Riders, Apocryphon. In short, they seem to get further from their best stuff the longer they are around. However, there was something that was incredibly refreshing about this album in that it seemed like the band was actively trying to break new ground with this one. I definitely liked it more than Apocryphon (a mostly cookie cutter representation of the band without much depth) and may even enjoy it slightly more than Warp Riders (their loosely inspired science fiction album). This one seems to be more “old west” inspired and occasionally borders on making the listener very aware of this choice. The title track even has a rattlesnake sound effect during its chorus. While that may sound incredibly goofy, it works for the song and doesn’t feel forced. Aside from this, the dudes still know how to write a guitar riff and, ten years later, I’m still playing air guitar right along with them.
39. Refused – Freedom
Standouts: “Dawkins Christ”, Francafrique”, “Elektra”
If this is your first experience with Refused, I highly, highly, highly encourage you to take a step back and listen to The Shape of Punk to Come which was released five years ago. Without that album, I’m not even sure that this album would have made my list. Regardless, Freedom is more Refused and that’s an okay thing by me.
38. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress
Standouts: “Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!”, “Piss Crowns Are Trebled”
The latest from Godspeed is their shortest and heaviest album to date. Comprised of four tracks that unusually feature more guitar than past albums, Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress is an album that could have easily been released ten years ago before Godspeed took an extended hiatus. Where Allelujah! Don’t Bed! Ascend! was a collection of unrecorded material written before their hiatus, Asunder is their first collection of all new material. Thankfully, Asunder does not not show the band maturing. Rather, it shows them perfecting their trademark unique orchestral loud-quiet-loud sound. Where I frequently get frustrated with bands who churn out album after album with little to no progression, I’m totally okay with Godspeed releasing more of the same because, while often emulated, nobody does what Godspeed does.
37. Mutoid Man – Bleeder
Standouts: “Bridgeburner”, “1000 Mile Stare”, “Dead Dreams”, “Deadlock”
When I first heard that Stephen Brodsky of Cave In would be working with Ben Koller of Converge, I seriously couldn’t wait to hear what the two of them would do. When the seven song EP, Helium Head, came out last year, there was a period where I didn’t listen to anything else. It had Brodsky pulling out all of his influences of math rock, classic rock, hardcore riffage, and those guitar hooks that never seem to leave your head with Koller keeping it all together like a machine. On a short list of albums I was highly anticipating this year, Bleeder was near the very top. Its fast, frenetic, catchy, and just a damn good rock record. At times, it reminds me of a less psychedelic Mars Volta or an amped up version of the best Cave In scorchers. Sadly, it is an incredibly short record that left me desperately wanting more from the band but left it open for repeated listenings without ever getting tired of what I was hearing.
36. And So I Watch You From Afar… – Heirs
Standouts: “Wasps”, “Redesigned a Millions Times”, “A Beacon, A Compass, An Anchor”
And So I Watch You From Afar could very well be one of my favorite math rock bands. They have been consistent and know exactly how to evolve without leaving the listeners completely baffled by their evolution. Since touring with the labelmates, Fang Island, there is a noticeably more uplifting spirit to everything the bad does. Where Fang Island is known for major key guitar wizardry and soaring vocal harmonies, ASIWYFA previously took the more traditional math rock road by releasing albums that pummeled the listener with guitar and unusual rhythms. On Heirs, ASIWYFA borrow from their labelmates by adding harmonized vocals and mostly stick to major keys to give the album a fun, hopeful feel. And man, it really works. This may be the strongest ASIWYFA release to date and something that kept me coming back for several weeks before I finally had to move onto something new. While listening to the album one morning while at work, an employee heard me rocking out the album in the office and calmly voiced his complaint that the band I was listening to needed more guitar.
35. Beach House – Thank Your Lucky Stars
Standouts: “Majorette”, “One Thing”, “Elegy to the Void”, “Rough Song”, “Somewhere Tonight”
As soon as I was just learning to appreciate Depression Cherry as the newest Beach House album that would probably join the ranks of their previous releases, the band unexpectedly announced that the follow up to Depression Cherry would be released just two months after their previous album. Given that Depression Cherry kind of disappointed me, I was so stoked to hear another offering from the band. Thank Your Lucky Stars is a darker album with a more barren production. The reverb is gone, there are songs about death, and the band takes a step away from what is familiar to them and treads new territory with their songwriting. Its clear to me that Thank Your Lucky Stars probably isn’t the most approachable album in Beach House’s catalog and will probably be off-putting to those listeners who want the dreamy pop that so best defines their sound. But this is the progression I’ve wanted so desperately from Beach House and it shows the band is still capable of being beautiful even when their music is darker than we are used to hearing.
34. Zombi – Shape Shift
Standouts: “Total Breakthrough”, “Interstellar Package”, “Toroidal Vortices”
For those that have never heard Zombi, you’re missing out. Comprised of a drummer and bass player who also both play keyboards, Zombi has been writing progressive rock albums that take their influence from 70s horror movie soundtracks. Its been four years since their last album, Escape Velocity, and me and my friends have been anxiously waiting for them to put out a follow up. Shape Shift is more of the same and that’s a very good thing. Nobody makes cinematic rock music fit for a creepy movie soundtrack and Zombi does it so damn well.
33. Windhand – Grief’s Infernal Flower
Standouts: Sparrow, Crypt Key, Hyperion, Hersperus
A friend of mine introduced me to Windhand a few years back. At the time, I probably wasn’t as interested in the band as I should have been and only discovered their excellent back catalog earlier this year. They play this beautifully 70s Psychrock inspired stoner rock that never seem to move faster than a languid snail. They wears their Sabbath influence on its sleeve and aren’t afraid of writing riffs that sounds like slowed down versions of the Iommi masterpieces. While the song length, which often clocks in at over six minutes, can be a bit daunting given their simple delivery, the album scratches an itch of a genre rarely seen in modern music. Recommended to those metal heads that have had enough of the face melters and to those that prefer kicking back and letting it ride. Such a great album.
32. Sun Kil Moon – Universal Themes
Standouts: “The Possum”, “Garden of Lavender”, “This Is My First Day And I’m Indian And I Work At A Gas Station”, “Birds of Flims”
Mark Kozelek is often in the news for anything other than his music which is too bad. Sun Kil Moon has been putting out incredibly thought provoking, honest albums for over ten years and the music Kozelek has written has had a huge influence on my life and my own songwriting. It is so painfully honest that the listener can’t help but feel a little worried about Kozelek’s well-being. The songs are mostly sad observations that may or may not be pulled directly out of the pages of Kozelek’s journals. “Birds of Flims” seems to be about Kozelek’s experience with touring and being on the road without his wife or friends being with him. In one section of the song, he talks about meeting a girl at a bar, having drinks together, taking her to her hotel room, and not trying to sleep with her. The next passage is him in his hotel room thinking of his wife. The second half of the song is him sleepwalking through restaurants and bars, describing his lunches in various cities, and the snippets of conversations he has had with complete strangers. While this could sound frustratingly boring without the proper delivery, Kozelek has this unique way of delivering his experience so that the listener feels compelled to keep hearing him go through the motions of mundanity. Only a songwriter like Kozelek could do this. While I absolutely loved Universal Themes, it is a worthwhile followup to Benji but it isn’t Benji. That album was the best album I heard last year and is something I still turn on and lose myself in. Universal Themes is more of what Kozelek does so well and I cannot to hear what he does next.
31. Ghost Bath – Moonlover
Standouts: “The Golden Number”, “The Silver Flower Pt. 1 & 2”, “Death and the Maiden”
Ghost Bath is a black metal project that will probably be the most difficult thing to find on this list. Their music doesn’t appear on any of the streaming platforms and I had to buy it in order to hear it. I rarely buy music without hearing it first but remember the days where this was the only way to hear new music. Thankfully, Ghost Bath did not disappoint. On a long list of metal bands I’ve heard this year, Ghost Bath, Vattnet Viskar, and Panopticon were the three biggest surprises. On Moonlover, you should expect fairly traditional black metal with some shoegaze and post-rock influence. Of particular note is the excellent song “The Golden Number” which may have my favorite black metal hook I’ve heard all year.
30. Torche – Restarter
Standouts: “Bishop in Arms”, “Minions”, “Blasted”
Torche’s new album may have been the first album I bought this year. It was released in February and it is still blowing me away. This album comes three years after their incredibly perfect Harmonicraft that I would often introduce to people who were intimidated by metal. There was something that was so uniquely sugary sweet on Harmonicraft that made it sound less like a metal album and more like a pop album. Restarter is a return to form for Torche and is more in line with their early releases such as In Return and Meanderthal. It is detuned, slow, heavy, and brooding but knows when to step on the gas and get going. I’ve always described Torche as the catchiest, happiest sounding metal band you’ll ever hear and Restarter is one of the best of both released this year.
29. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
Standouts: “If It Take a Lifetime”, “24 Frames”, “How to Forget”, “Something More Than Free”
Jason Isbell’s Southeastern was a top choice for my album of the year for 2013. Aly can attest that I frequently pick up my guitar and strum out a few songs from the album which is something I rarely do. I knew going into this year that Isbell was gearing up to release a new one and I couldn’t wait to hear it. But like several albums released this year, I somehow forgot to actually hear it when it was finally released. Thankfully, the friend who originally introduced me to Isbell made sure to get me the new album for my birthday so that there was no excuse not to finally hear it. Something More Than Free is a more country inspired record than Southeastern. The opener “If It Takes a Lifetime” and “Flagship” sound like they would fit perfectly on Chris Stapleton’s newest album but this isn’t a bad thing. I’ve always heard the country influence in Isbell’s music and think he does it incredibly well when he dives deep into the genre. When he isn’t doing more traditional country tunes, Isbell is crafting incredibly catchy, thought provoking rock songs that sound instantly feel like classics. “24 Frames” was the major single from the release and shows how Isbell is so capable of writing a “no frills” rock tune while making it somehow seem so effortless. Something More Than Free is yet another great album from one of America’s great songwriters.
28. Florence + The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Standouts: “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful”, “Third Eye”, “Queen of Peace”, “Ship to Wreck”, “What Kind of Man”
Aly introduced me to Florence + The Machine when we first started dating. Back then, Florence Welch only had one album, Lungs, which Aly let me borrow. It probably took a solid month before I finally returned her CD to her. Welch’s range is one of the most versatile in modern music and she isn’t afraid to get emotive and let her vocal perfection show signs of weakness for the sake of the song. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is probably her most cohesive release to date and has a perfect mixture of progression and familiarity. It knows when to rock. It knows when to take it down a notch and let Welch’s voice carry a song. It knows when to let the instruments behind Welch’s to get their spotlight. To address the latter, the use of horns on this album are done so well. In particular, the horns on “What Kind of Man” give the song an anthemic quality where “Queen of Peace” has an outro devoid of vocals that may carry the most memorable melody of the whole album. The true standout on the album is clearly “Third Eye” which almost doesn’t fit within the album’s style. While writing this review, I pretty much put this song on repeat and it never failed to give me goosebumps towards at the last third of the song where the crescendo peaks and the outro kicks in. More broadly, this is a traditional pop song done with a driving beat that builds into its beautiful chaotic conclusion of overdubbed vocals where Welch is competing herself as she is belting out “I’m the same, I’m the same, and I’m trying to change”. If this is how Florence is choosing to change for future albums, I could deal with an entire album done in the style of “Third Eye”. Where some may be put off by Welch’s quick rise to the front of public attention, How Big is a great entry point for those that need convincing that she is authentically great and talented artist releasing some of the best pop tunes coming out these days.
27. Maserati – Rehumanizer
Standouts: End of Man, Rehumanizer I & II, No Cave
I saw Maserati perform at the Cinema Center here in Fort Wayne. I had been a huge fan of their first album and was stoked to see how they recreated their sound live. They were incredible and also really nice dudes. Their drummer at the time was Gerhardt Fuchs and we spent most of our time, after the show, talking to him. Barely three months had passed when I read that Fuchs died in a horrific accident. It’s hard for me to separate Maserati from this tragedy but only in the way that I wish that we would have had all future releases with Fuchs’s incredible drumming. Rehumanizer is a solid, albeit experimental, step for Maserati. Their sound has always been centered around densely layered delayed loops on top of driving beats. Their tunes are soaring head boppers that always know the exact moment you want the tune to change direction and this album is no different in that regard. The real difference is just how much this one sounds like it should be the soundtrack to a robot dance party or a space western. And I’m totally okay with it. I’d put this one up there with their best material and it could even be a recommended starting place for those that haven’t heard the band. It’s easily approachable and unbelievably catchy. While it seems almost commonplace for post rock groups to add vocals to their sound in order to show progress, Maserati do it in a fashion which feels incredibly fresh. The first of the two tracks that have vocals, Living Cell, dials the vox down in the mix and only add it as another layer of sound in the mix. End of Man also has vocals in the form of a robot voice repeating the same phrase through most of the duration of the song. And it works. So well. For those looking for that often missing glimpse of happiness in their post-rock, you should probably check out Maserati’s latest.
26. Mourn – Self Titled
Standouts: “Your Brain Is Made of Candy”, “Misery Factory”, “You Don’t Know Me”
Technically, Mourn’s first album came out in 2014. However, it didn’t come out stateside until February of this year so I’m including it in this list. Mourn is a band from Barcelona comprised of three members who were 18 and one who was 15 when their first record was recorded. But these kids know how to rock. When I first heard this album, I was stuck in a drive thru during a snow storm picking up food for a sick girlfriend and waited so long that I got to listen to the record twice before I finally got home. Their music reminds me so much of early PJ Harvey and Patti Smith that fans of either artist should instantly appreciate this record. In fact, there are so many tracks on this record that could be b-sides to PJ Harvey’s Dry or Patti Smith’s Horses that I often had to keep double checking that I was still listening to the same band. The guitar playing is angular but knows when to give the listener a hook and the female vocalist carries a deeper tone that makes her sound incredibly older than she really is. I hate having to keep coming back to their age but I would be impressed if this was released by a bunch of 40 year olds. But the fact that they were only 18 when this was recorded has me so excited to hear what they will come up with next.
25. Metz – II
Standouts: “Acetate”, “I.O.U.”, “Nervous System”
Metz is probably best compared to Drive Like Jehu and the Jesus Lizard. They play intense punk music that is noisy, abrasive, and grungy as can be. When they released their first self titled album, I was telling all of my friends who grew up on Drive Like Jehu’s Yank Crime that this band was a spiritual successor in every respect. The follow up, II, blazes through ten songs that make your headspin and there isn’t a moment that doesn’t rock. Man. I love this band.
24. Battles – La Di Da Di
Standouts: “FF Bada”, “Summer Simmer”, “Non-Violence”, “Megatouch”
Clearly the winner for best album art goes to Battles’s latest. I’ve been a huge fan of Battles for about ten years now and would be hard pressed to try and name a better math rock album than their 2007 release, Mirrored. Back then, Battles was a completely different band even though 3/4ths of the members are the same as they are today. La Di Da Di is Battles at their best. It has all of the qualities of their previous effort, Gloss Drop, but somehow seems more refined and more listener friendly than the more experimental Gloss Drop. Where the past album utilized a long list of guest vocalists, La Di Da Di is an entirely instrumental affair that only includes the three core members of the band. I’ve known all along that this album would make my top list but struggled to try and figure out the best way to describe the band for those that have never heard them and am not sure that words can even do justice for their incredibly complex music. Its jazzy. Its mathy. It sounds like electronica but is played by more traditional rock instruments. Its unlike anything you’ve ever heard and La Di Da Di is an album so definitely worth your time.
23. Le Butcherettes – A Raw Youth
Standouts: “La Uva (featuring Iggy Pop)”, “Sold Less Than Gold”, “Stab My Back”, “The Hitchhiker”
On an incredibly long list of bands I’ve seen this year, Le Butcherettes may be near the very top of the best live performance. I saw them open for The Melvins in July and really didn’t have any idea of what to expect. I saw them on the bill, listened to part of one of their albums, and did some Google research to figure out what I was getting into. Terri Gender Bender, the vocalist of the band, may deserve the credit of being the most spastic vocalist I’ve ever had the privilege to see live (and I saw Melt Banana this year). Armed with the vocal range of Bjork but clearly influenced by Siouxsie Sioux, Terri’s voice is easily one of the best in rock music right now. Le Butcherettes, for the uninitiated, are best described as a garage punk band with strong feminist leanings wrapped up in a presentation that occasionally sounds glam rock inspired. A Raw Youth is probably their best release (I listened to all of their previous releases leading up to this one) and is also the most approachable despite its sometimes incredibly heavy lyrical content. “Sold Less Than Gold” is about women who are sold into sex slavery and “The Hitchhiker” deals with the subject of a woman being murdered after being picked up by a truck driver. Both songs are ripe with strange juxtaposition where the music behind Terri’s voice is frenetic and almost playful. If you haven’t heard them yet, I would highly recommend starting here and then exploring their two other albums. If you get a chance to see them live, don’t hesitate. Their live presence is unlike most things I’ve seen so far.
22. Dead to a Dying World – Litany
Standouts: “The Hunt Eternal”, “Beneath the Loam”, “Nacissus”
A friend described Dead to a Dying World as black metal influenced by Godspeed You! Black Emporer. After hearing Litany, this is exactly the best way to describe what you get. This is all I will say about the album. If that doesn’t appeal to you, then the album isn’t for you.
21. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Standouts: “Elevator Operator”, “Depreston”, “Debbie Downer”, “Aqua Profonda!”
Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit is this perfect combination of Rockabilly, 90s grunge, 60s psychedelia, garage rock, classic rock ‘n’ roll, and lyrical poetry. It feels loose and breezily transitions from song to song, jumping through various genres while Barnett’s impressive lyrics hold it all together and keeps it compelling. Her lyrics are smart, funny, and incredibly densely written narratives. The record is best enjoyed with the lyric book held open so that you can read the lyrics as she shouts them in her Australian accent that comes out even when she is singing. There is a good chance that this record would have made it higher up the list but I honestly didn’t really know anything about it until earlier this month and felt like I barely grasped the record before I had to force myself to move on. Its an impressive first album that shows a very promising career that is sure to follow.
20. Mark McGuire – Beyond Belief
Standouts: The Naacals, Sons of the Serpents (so amazing!), Beyond, Earth 2015, Belief
Mark McGuire is a solo artist who often uses layers of sounds to create walls of sounds that take you through cinematic landscapes. Rather than rely on the electronic beeps a boops of an artist who produces instrumental music by themselves, Mark McGuire plays every instrument on the album which often involves real instruments being played to create his sonic soundscapes. Recorded over the course of 26 months, you can feel the passion put behind this release. The last album this guy released, Along The Way, was a huge surprise favorite album of last year. I rarely see post rock albums on end of year lists and always get frustrated by how often the genre is overlooked. Mark McGuire is doing great things right now and this album is yet another solid offering of huge, cinematic, layered masterpieces that you can lose yourself in. I may actually prefer this one due to it being a smidge more dynamic and also being considerably shorter in scope. Along the Way was nearly perfect but had a running time of nearly an hour. This one is paired down to the essentials at 9 songs and feels like a stronger outing.
19. Bell Witch – Four Phantoms
Standouts: “Suffocation”, “A Drowing: II – Somniloquy (The Distance of Forever)”
I was listening to this album at 8am while I was at work. A coworker walked into the the office where I was counting money and exclaimed, “What the fuck are you listening to? It sounds like hell”. I laughed, told her it was supposed to sound like hell, and carried on listening to Bell Witch’s new album cranked as loud as I could handle. . Bell Witch is probably best described as sludge metal that is highly influenced by black metal but, rather than blast beats and nasally screamed vocals, the influence seems to be black metal slowed down to about 50 beats per minute. Four Phantoms is told in four songs that seem to be a part of a greater theme. Rather than have traditional song structures, the album is told through long movements where each track length averages about 15 minutes. In fact, the whole album is four tracks that clock in at just over an hour. For those that are into bands like Wolves in the Throne Room, this album is for you.
18. Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp
Standouts: “Under a Rock”, “Poison”, “The Dirt”, “Blue”, “Air”, Half Moon”
By the second song on this album, I became immediately excited to hear the rest of it. I can’t tell you why but the second song, “Under a Rock”, made me feel instantly nostalgic for the guitar driven indie rock that I have missed so much as of late. The guitars were crunchy, the melodies were sickly sweet and catchy, and the lyrics were smart and insightful. It seems so often that indie, folk, and rock bands are constantly trying to reinvent the wheel when that wheel isn’t really broken. Waxahatchee seems to embrace that idea that there is nothing new under the sun and it is incredibly refreshing to hear someone put out an album that, at first listen, sounds fresh in its embracing of a known formula. Waxahatchee is probably best compared to Cat Power’s earlier career where Chan Marshall used to weave in and out of genres with a sincerity that felt very real. On this one, Katie Crutchfield, the name behind the project, employs a similar tactic often going from guitar driven indie simplicity to experimental minimalism while still staying true to keeping it feeling authentic. According to an interview with Crutchfield, the album takes a name from a term she made up to describe direction-less at any age of adulthood. It’s incredibly relatable and the lyrics are smart and will have many listeners coming back to certain phrases or songs just to try to unlock their mystery and intrigue. After one listen, this is something I immediately recognize that I’ll be coming back to for some time later since it gives me something I so often crave but don’t get in music today.
17. Viet Cong – Self Titled
Standouts: “Death”, “Bunker Buster”, “Continental Shelf”
Viet Cong was hard to ignore this year. If it wasn’t several music blogs claiming its brilliance, it was those other blogs making a news story out of the controversy surrounding the band’s name. Name’s aside, Viet Cong, or soon to be the band formerly known as Viet Cong, is worth your time. It starts brooding and intensely and erupts in total post-punk madness influenced greatly by early Sonic Youth, Television, and possibly even The Beatles. There are so many layers to this one and it only gets better on repeated listens.
16. Desaparecidos – Payola
Standouts: “The Left is Right”, “Radicalized”, “City on the Hill”, “Te Amo Camila Vallejo”, “10 Steps Behind”, “Ralphy’s Cut”
Its been 13 years since the last Desaparecidos album. Back then, I was in my junior year of high school, George Bush was still president, and Conor Oberst, the frontman of Desaparecidos and Bright Eyes, had just released his masterpiece Lifted. These are all relevant topics when discussing Payola because its hard to hear this new album without thinking of where this band originally was 13 years ago. I first became politically active the year I first heard the album Read Music, Speak Spanish. I was blown away by its political commentary being wrapped up in this fun, sing-song delivery that, at the time, had me questioning my understanding of the country’s political system. Also released that year was, Bright Eyes’ Lifted which gave me a personal insight into my conflicted emotions of finding out who I was and what I was doing in life. While it hard to say what my favorite albums were 13 years ago, I look back fondly on those two albums Oberst gave me in 2002. So imagine my surprise when I read that, Desaparecidos had released an album that somehow went under the radar for me. Sure, Oberst didn’t release a companion album this year under a different moniker which gave my personal life perspective but Payola certainly delivered in fueling my current, painful obsession with politics. And what an album it is. On “Radicalized”, Oberst sings “Can’t afford no dream with a G.E.D. / Recruiter shook my brother’s hand / now he’s all he can be / So when his team’s Humvee hit the I.E.D. / Me and my mother we cried / in our new double wide / Around the Christmas tree / Radicalized! Radicalized! / Radical lies! Radical lies!”. This is done in a catchy song hook that could be dropped into any independent radio station without the listener giving a second thought to the lyrics. That is what has always attracted me to Desaparecidos. They sound like any other rock band but their masked intensity and hard leaning political stance is beautifully juxtaposed to their anthemic rock songs.
15. Kurt Vile – b’lieve i’m goin down
Standouts: “That’s Life”, “Life Like This”, “All in a Daze Work”
I first discovered Kurt Vile when a friend of mine posted a link to a song from Smoke Ring for My Halo. The album wasn’t out yet but I spent the next three days going back to the song. When the album was released, it was hard to say that any other album was better that year. I may have even destroyed my LP on account of having listened to it so many times. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t like the follow up, Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze, as much and was a bit skeptical about this new one. What I loved about Smoke Ring was the “no frills” approach to good songwriting and letting the limited production on the songs do the talking. I really like b’lieve i’m goin down but can’t get passed the “previous perfect album syndrome” of Smoke Rings. This is my own hangup but, after a few new listens after first hearing b’lieve, I’ve become a huge fan. I recognize that many of these songs could be found on any of his other records and that there has been little evolution since Smoke Rings. This is especially present on the song “That’s Life, tho…”, which may be my favorite song on the record. It carries a dark, sad message with a self aware sense of humor that is so indicative of Vile’s sound. His guitar work and vocals have always been exceptional. This album is no different. Lot’s of smart finger picking guitar parts and a voice that isn’t afraid to change its dynamic for the sake of the song. The progression in his music is in the new instruments he adds and this one does have a lot more depth than his previous two. I listened to this late in the year and didn’t have an opportunity to listen to it with the lyric book handy (I don’t own it yet) but what I caught was spot on. It was an album that, even though I heard long after it first released, I kept coming back to give it another spin.
14. Baroness – Purple
Standouts: “Shock Me”, “Kerosene”, “Chlorine & Wine”, “Desperation Burns”
When Baroness announced they would be releasing a new album in August, I was so incredibly nervous. Where most critics love their last effort, Yellow & Green, I was so greatly disappointed that I considered not giving the band another chance. There was something about that album that showed a band who had matured past the point of understanding what made them so good in the first place. Where once they wrote these epic, guitar driven songs with riffage that you couldn’t help but play air guitar, they seemed to trade it in for a double album full of songs that were fit for radio metal devoid of any emotion. I couldn’t understand why every music blog I read in 2012 was praising as one of the best metal albums of the year and became frustrated by a new legion of fans that sung its praise. Thankfully, Purple is not Yellow & Green. Rather, this seems to be the perfect melding of more radio friendly rock songs that dominated Yellow & Green and the heavy, guitar driven tunes of Red and Blue. A critique I’ve read from Baroness fans is that Purple is still too radio friendly. Well, I’m here to simply say “so what”. Deal with it. These are some of the best song the band has written and feels almost cathartic following the tragic bus accident that nearly killed the band. It is also the first album recorded with all of the new band members who replaced their former guitar player and drummer. It feels more cohesive than Yellow & Green and its relative brevity trims the filler that plagued the former album. For those that haven’t heard Baroness, prepare yourself for guitar riffs that could knock down house, a rhythm section that features one of the best drummers I’ve heard this year, and clean vocal harmony melodies that are hard not to throw up a fist and sing along.
13. Built to Spill – Untethered Moon
Standouts: “All Our Songs”, “Living Zoo”, “Some Other Song”, “So”, “When I’m Blind”
Built To Spill has always been one of my favorite bands and may have the honor of releasing the album I was most anticipating this year. I can only think of two other releases that had me as excited which are the new Refused and Deafheaven which you will find on this list. But what’s strange is that I waited six years to hear this one and then took almost six months to finally listen to it. Like most albums on this list, I think the delay getting around to it was mostly linked to my new found obsession with podcasts. Regardless, when I finally listened to Untethered Moon, I was quickly reminded that the band doesn’t put out nearly as much I want them to and now I’m worried that I’ll have to wait another six years before Doug Martsch releases something new. When it comes to the new album, I think it may be my third favorite Built to Spill release (Keep it Like A Secret and You In Reverse hold the top two spots). Like all of my favorite albums by the band, this one’s opener is so damn good. I honestly can’t think of any other band that knows how to choose an opening track better than Built to Spill. The album shows that Martsch has still got it yet, as I read after I first listened to this album, we almost didn’t get to hear him get it. Following There Is No Enemy that was released in 2009, Martsch complained of having writers block and was unsure if he would release anything else with the band. It seems that the mundanity of his post-rock band life is the basis of inspiration for this album and he clearly states that in “All Our Songs” when he sings “I found a place where I’ll always be tethered. And I knew, when I woke up, that rock and roll will be here forever.” This album is about getting back to the grind of rock music and I think that, because of this, it makes it such a strong album. It feels less reserved and gives the audience exactly what they have been waiting for. It sounds exactly like previous albums by the band but somehow more mature and just different enough that you recognize its newfound maturity.
12. Lightning Bolt – Fantasy Empire
Standouts: “Horsepower”, “Mythmaster”, “Snow White (& The 7 Dwarves Fans)”
I’m not even sure that this Lightning Bolt album is one of the better albums they have released. It was just so nice to finally hear them working with a recording engineer that somehow managed to record their chaos into something that sounds great. Prior Lightning Bolt albums sounded muddy and without much subtlety to their complex music. In fact, if memory serves me correctly, they may have been recorded at home by the band themselves. Fantasy Empire’s production highlights the incredible drumming of Brian Chippendale who’s drumming is truly super human and worth the price of admission alone. For those that haven’t heard Lightning Bolt, they consist of a drummer who wears a mask with a microphone that is buried in his mouth for vocals and a bass player who has two guitar strings on the third and fourth string rather than bass strings. They play a frantic, explosive blend of metal and math rock that is best explained by simply experiencing the band play live. I had the privilege of seeing them about seven years ago and am still probably suffering the hearing loss of seeing a band as loud as they were. Fantasy Empire is their first album in three years and shows that age isn’t slowing them down. Its just as frenetic and intense and still gets me pumped like they always have been so good at doing.
11. Chris Stapleton – Traveller
Standouts: “Whiskey and You”, “Parachute”, “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore”, “Might As Well Get Stoned”, “The Devil Named Music”
It’s so rare that I hear country music that doesn’t instantly fill me with rage. Most of the country music that plagues our airwaves seems phony and has evolved into this homogenized, heartless former version of itself. It just severely lacks authenticity and every major country hit sounds exactly like every other country hit. Thankfully, Chris Stapleton put out an album that sounds like an authentic throwback to the genre. Country music is supposed to have songs written about turning to whiskey after the love of your life leaves you or lighting up a joint and simply saying “screw it” when more responsible actions are more appropriate. Traveller is an album just like that. Written by a guy who has written songs for Adele, Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentely, Peter Frampton, and Sheryl Crow, Stapleton clearly knows how to write a tune but hasn’t properly released an album until this year. Traveller was inspired by a road trip that Stapleton took after his father died in 2013. When he came back he was feeling inspired to write his first solo album and his wife encouraged him to pick the tracklist out of 15 years of songs that he had written rather than writing an entirely new album. Because of this, the album sounds remarkably fresh and doesn’t have any tracks that are filler. Seriously, the whole album is exactly what I have been wanting out of country music for some time. At times, like on the song Parachute, Stapleton seems to be influenced by the best scorchers written by Bob Seger. While I could never call myself a Seger fan, it works for Stapleton who sounds like a world weary traveler with his gravely, deep voice that sounds so pained in experience. Other tunes such as Whiskey And You and Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore sound like those sad country songs that could fit perfectly on a Merle Haggard album. Traveller might be the most authentic country album I’ve heard since Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music released last year. But where Sturgill released an album that sounded like a throwback to more classic country influenced by modernity, Stapleton’s Traveller is a more modern country album influenced by country music’s classic authenticity. Even if you don’t like country music, you need to hear this excellent release.
10. Panopticon – Autumn Eternal
Standouts: “Into The North Woods”, “Autumn Eternal”, “A Superior Lament”
My original notes in their entirety read: “Post rock inspired black metal with winning results. Some of the best metal hooks I’ve heard all year. Begins with a sad country diddy. Done by one guy”. While I haven’t listened to anything else Austin Lunn, the sole member of Panopticon, has done, Autumn Eternal gave me the best introduction I could have to his music. The album begins with a fingerpicked bluegrass guitar with slide guitar and violin that had me double checking that this was the correct band that was recommended to me as a black metal band. By the second track, Into The North Woods, I got what I came for and nearly had my face melted off in the process. Blast beats, soaring guitars, and what may be choral arrangements buried in the mix, Into The North Woods, could be my favorite metal track I heard this year. It ends with a gentleness that makes you feel like you are coming down from a high but then continues to pummel you to close out the song. From the second track, the album continues its tread down a traditional black metal approach but is peppered with dynamics akin to the best of the blackgaze offerings that dominate the genre these days. I’ve read that prior Panopticon albums are rooted in the unlikely marriage of bluegrass and black metal and often have lyrics that are ripe with political commentary. Since my first Panopticon album blew me away, I have plans to visit the rest of the discography soon.
9. Ought – Sun Coming Down
Standouts: “Passionate Turn”, “The Combo”, “Big Beautiful Sky”
Jangling, driving, and anxious indie rock that wears its influence of Sonic Youth, Television, and even Talking Heads like a proud badge of honor. The album had an intensity that felt like those early college days of finishing a pot of coffee in a matter of an hour, getting the shakes, and picking sardonic fights with people who just “didn’t get it”. The vocalist occasionally reminds me David Byrne with his frenetic delivery of lyrics ripe with sarcastic observations of modernity. The Combo sounds like the band is in a washing machine spinning wildly out of control but the impressive rhythm section manages to hold the chaos together until the abrupt neck breaking change in tempo. This would be the first track I recommend to anyone wanting to get an idea of what this band is capable of doing. Big Blue Sky sounds like Sonic Youth fronted by David Byrne where the chorus of the song is mostly comprised of generic phrases we’ve all said in those awkward moments where we have nothing to say to someone: “How’s the weather today”, “How’s the family”, “Fancy seeing you here”. These are followed by this jarring real moment of “I’m no longer afraid to die because that’s all I have left”. While a stretch, I would definitely recommend this group to someone who is a fan of Jesus Lizard and Drive Like Jehu but definitely to those looking for a band who isn’t afraid to comfortably move in and out of their influences of post punk.
8. Vattnet Viskar – Settler
Standouts: “Dawnlands”, “Colony”, “Impact”, “Heirs”, “Settler”, “Coldwar”
I haven’t spent any time with Vattnet Viskar before Settler. They were a group that I must have started following on social media after a few beers at 2 in the morning and looking for some new metal to blast. If that drunken perusal of new music has ever delivered before, it has never delivered like Vattnet Viskar. This album rules. Inspired by a photo, which is also its album cover, of astronaut Christi Auliffe who died in the Challenger Disaster, the album is not about the explosion of the spaceship but, rather, everything that happened during the initial trip. Their guitarist explains that the photo shows her “so happy, at the peak of life, only to have it gone right after”. While this, at face value, seems pessimistic, the quote and picture are way more complex than it originally seems. The album’s conflict seems to be with man’s view of the world and confliction with the infinite. According to the Pitchfork review, the song “Colony” was written after the guitarist read an article that suggested that insects communication methods are more complex than Google algorithms and is about this very subject. Its bridge is comprised of the vocalist shouting a binary chant which, when translated, is simply the word “we”. This is one of those albums where I can’t but recommend to people who think that most metal vocals are nothing more than nonsensical shouting with no content behind the noise. Clearly, these guys have something to say and do so beautifully. The comparisons to Deafheaven’s Sunbather are definitely warranted but, while I really liked Sunbather, I honestly have to say this album may be better constructed than Deafheaven’s last album. It hit me harder than any other metal album I’ve heard this year and continues to get better with every listen.
7. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
Standouts: “King Kunta”, “How Much A Dollar Cost”, “Mortal Man”, “Alright”, “The Blacker The Berry”
I don’t listen to a lot of rap. Most of what I hear is based on recommendations I get from friends or websites that recommend something so strongly that it is hard to avoid. In years past, this is how I discovered Common’s Electric Circus, The Roots’ Things Fall Apart, Outkast’s Speakerboxx / The Love Below, Immortal Technique’s Revolutionary Vol. 2, Eyedea & Abilities’ E&A, and even Kanye West’s Yeezus. It is not that I don’t like rap. It is just often so hard to separate the good from the bad and, quite honestly, so much of it, to me, is bad. A lot of it seems to be dominated by a lack of depth and consists of songs with basic beats with lyrics that seem vapid and offensive for the sake of being offensive. I kept reading that To Pimp A Butterfly was worth my time shortly after it was released. I gave it a first listen and recognized it was great but got frustrated by its incredibly long running length and almost ran out of steam before I finished it. I returned to it several times over the next few months and found myself a bit obsessed with it and would just listen to large chunks but never completing the album in one sitting. There’s a lot happening on the album and you definitely pick up new things each time you hear it. Recently, I finally had the time to dedicate to doing nothing but digesting To Pimp A Butterfly and found myself completely blown away. The music is fresh and weaves traditional rap music with funk and jazz. The lyrics seem to be painting a larger narrative that plays out cinematically for those that are paying attention and is ripe with social commentary. Its a chrysalis of an album that will hopefully inspire a number of raps albums to come.
6. Beach Slang – The Things We Do To Find People Like Us
Standouts: “Throwaways”, “Noisy Heaven”, “Too Late to Die Young”, “Porno Love”, “Young & Alive”
I had no idea who this band was when I saw them open for Cursive in Cleveland earlier this year. I have to admit that I was a little distracted when I saw them and kind of wish I could go back and see them again after having listening to this album. At the time, only an EP was available and I didn’t get around to listening to it before I saw them. They were energetic and fun and had this presence that remind me of the best rock bands I saw in basements back when I was in high school. Unfortunately, I was in a bad spot to properly enjoy the band in a small bar basement with a bad sound system. Regardless, I was intrigued by their stage persona and made it a point to keep an eye out for their album’s release after I saw them. I just remember being floored by the fact that their guitarist was wearing a Nirvana shirt, fell to the stage during their final track, and I thought she was going to smash her guitar. I haven’t seen something like that in person. Like ever. It would be hard for me to say that The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us is not a perfect album. It is ten songs that clock in at less than half an hour of quick rock songs that will have you flipping the record back over after it is finished. Its the perfect length to turn on, rock out, and continue on with the rest of your day. In fact, I first heard this driving into work at 6:30am and was able to hear the whole album before I even got into work that day. I felt pumped and in one of the better moods I’ve been in at work in some time. As it just so happened, a coworker asked me that day if I could think of a collection of albums that were overly optimistic and that I put on when I needed a pick me up. This is one that I’ll be putting on when I want a quick pick me up or a great album to turn on when its warm outside and I can roll the windows down and take a drive. It might be the best collection of anthemic punk rock songs I’ve heard since Japandroid’s Celebration Rock. In fact, the two bands are on the same label and would make for the most amazing double headlining tour. The songs are mostly about having fun, being drunk, or falling in love. The vocals are gritty but the melodies are sugary sweet and will have you singing the hooks long after the record is over. If you’re looking for the best feel good album of the year, this is it.
5. Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamenatable Tragedy
Standouts: “I Lost My Mind”, “Dimed Out”, “Fired Up”, “A More Perfect Union”, “(S)he Said / (S)he Said”, “Fatal Flaw”
When I first read about this album and discovered it was a five part opera about the vocalist’s battle with manic depression, I was hooked. But like most albums that came out this year, I somehow forgot to actually listen to it. Before I actually put this on, I read about the band and discovered that the members of the group have been in bands I really love like Ponytail. I thought, “what the hell”, I should probably do this. The album feels heavily inspired by the best of Springsteen’s output and manages to take Bruce’s approach to beautifully crafting smart, relatable, and relevant social commentary and turning it inward to examine the dark recesses of the vocalist’s soul. Rather than do it in a sprawling epic six or seven minute songs, Titus Andronicus does this in spastic bursts of energy which makes the 29 song track list seem, at first, like the album might overstay its welcome. Rather, upon completion, you feel compelled to flip the record over and start it again. It moves so quickly that you almost feel like you missed something. This album continued to linger with me long after I finished it and continues to get better with each listen. One of my favorite things I’ve heard this year and is something for anyone who was a fan of Fucked Up’s David Comes to Life.
4. Hop Along – Painted Shut
Standouts: “The Knock”, “Waitress”, “Sister Cities”, “I Saw My Twin”
I had never heard Hop Along before this year and probably wouldn’t have even considered giving them a listen due to their less than stellar band name. They appeared on a number of end of year lists and people I respect were recommending their album so I decided to pop it on and see what all the fuss was about. And wow. This band rules. Its kind of difficult to peg their sound. My first inclination is to call this a punk rock album but, for some reason, I’m reluctant to do so. Most of the songs are a bit aggressive and intense but they aren’t afraid to drop a mostly acoustic song perfectly in the middle of the album. There’s an addictive sing-songy quality to the choruses that had me humming the melodies long after I first heard the album but it also has this abrasiveness that just feels raw. But what makes this album so good is Frances Quinlan’s unique vocal delivery. She screams, she whispers, she wails, she moves swiftly from octave to octave, and it all feels so fluid and natural. While it might be a bold statement, I think Quinlan might be my new favorite female vocalist. There really isn’t anything she can’t do and its been awhile since I’ve heard someone that sounds as emotive as Quinlan in her delivery. Painted Shut occasionally reminds me so much of Lumeria’s catchy hook driven indie rock melodies on top of the powerhouse guitar riffs of Japandroid’s driving Celebration Rock. And there’s some definite influence of the label in which the album was released. Saddle Creek used to be the label to turn to when you were looking for bands that were raw, emotive and offered something that sounded uniquely Midwestern. Bands like Cursive, Bright Eyes, Gabardine, Eric Bachmann, and Azure Ray were among the bands that first introduced me to the label’s unique offerings. And Hop Along fits right in with these groups and should be as well received to any fan of any of these bands.
3. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
Standouts: “I Love You, Honeybear”, “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me”, “Ideal Husband”, “Bored in the USA”, “Holy Shit”
It was hard for me to even be interested in hearing this album. I rarely keep up with music personalities and avoid most blogs that write extensively about the latest in musician drama. On many of those blogs that happened to pop up in my feed, there was Father John Misty. Most notably, I remember him doing a cover of Taylor Swift in the style of The Velvet Underground and then pulling it from the internet due to a dream he had where the ghost of Lou Reed told him to do so. I immediately developed a strange distaste for the guy and I’m not even sure why I felt so strongly about him. Despite this, I decided to pop on I Love You, Honeybear and realized I had made a terrible mistake. What I was reading in the blogosphere was Jim Tillman playing a character and putting out a personality that is clearly the voice on this album. I’m not sure if the real Jim Tillman has the bleak, slanted world view that Father John Misty has on the album but it certainly is very similar to the off-putting personality he puts out there for public consumption. Given the year I’ve had, the almost sarcastic nature in which he presents his bleak world view was an incredibly fresh take on traditional indie folk that can be used to describe his sound. I’ve needed an album like this to help justify my complex emotions of getting older, settling down, losing family members, possibly changing careers, and actively worrying about my future. I Love You, Honeybear could not have come at a better time in my life and I regret not having the proper time to dedicate to it until now. Of particular note is the song “Holy Shit”, where he gives his take on religious based holy wars, our dependence on technology, consumerism, and even environmentalism. This is done with brevity with a light hearted playful pop-folk song that could easily have lyrics espousing unrequited love. The song ends with one of my favorite verses this year: “Oh, and love is just an institution based on human frailty. What’s your paradise gotta do with Adam and Eve? Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity. What I fail to see is what that’s gotta do with you and me.” And songs like “Bored in the USA” could be an anthem for those overdrugged, instant gratification seeking millennials who want more than what the world can possibly offer. I have friends who have tried to get into this album and came away from it feeling like they didn’t get it or it didn’t grab them. It’s not an easy album to take at face value and not something that is easy to put on when you just want to sit back and relax. But it’s hard to ignore this one as one of the best albums released this year.
2. Deafheaven – New Bermuda
Standouts: Just listen to the whole album, dammit.
As soon as Deafheaven announced a new album was coming soon, it became my most anticipated album of the year. Their previous effort, Sunbather, set the standard for blackgaze, a genre noted for its melding of black metal and shoegaze. When I first heard Sunbather, I distinctively remember thinking “this is what I’ve been wanting for far too long”. I take my metal black, my rock of the post variety, and want music that makes me gaze at my shoes. Clunky sentences aside, Deafheaven melded almost all of my favorite genres into one album and did so flawlessly. I was incredibly nervous that New Bermuda would disappoint. How could lightning strike twice? Seriously, there is no way they could follow up perfection with perfection. But man, Deafheaven may have caught lightning in a bottle seeing as how New Bermuda is almost light years better than Sunbather. Clearly, the songwriting is much stronger but the production on New Bermuda ditches the “drench everything in reverb” approach to Sunbather and offers the band some much needed dry crunch. The vocals are still heavily processed but are brought almost front and center in the mix rather than buried amidst the soaring reverb soaked guitars. But enough about production. This album seriously kicks ass and is definitely deserving of all the hype it has received. The band just seems to know the right amount of time to pummel you with crushing blast beats and soaring guitars before giving the listener a chance to head bob into rocking reprieve. This one also shows that the band is completely comfortable adding new sounds to the mix by including slide guitar, piano, and guitar solos wah-wahed into oblivion. For those expecting more of the loud-quiet-loud dynamic that made up their last release, New Bermuda sticks around on the loud and intense side of the band and does so brutally. Its compacted into five songs that never seem to let off the gas and are best enjoyed started and finished in the same sitting. There is a reason for its paired tracklist and is best enjoyed that way. As a final note, I have a lot of friends who have either never enjoyed metal or are looking for new recommendations outside of the bands they grew up with. I frequently recommend Deafheaven as a starting point and have yet to be proven wrong with the recommendation. There’s a lot here to be enjoyed and those that have ever been a fan of bands like My Blood Valentine, Explosions in the Sky, Opeth, or Converge, you should have no problem getting into New Bermuda.
1. Julien Baker – Sprained Ankle
Standouts: “Rejoice”, “Brittle Boned”, “Go Home”, “Vessels”, “Sprained Ankle”
This was an incredibly difficult year for me. I lost my grandmother who was the matriarch of my family and have been feeling the difficult dissolution of my family because of it. I lost a great deal of my prized possessions in a freak flood during the summer and had to deeply question my need for material possessions. I bought a house and gave up a life that has almost felt a bit transient even though I’ve never left my hometown where I have moved every two years. I traveled and felt the great pang of knowing that there is a wide world that I’m not experiencing by my choice to often stay home and be by myself on most days of the week. I spent the great deal of the year balancing my ambition with that mature feeling of thinking that I finally need to settle down into stable adulthood. I struggled with physical ailments that made me feel my age and barely had the money to keep myself healthy. But strangely, I feel like, ten years from now, I’ll look back at 2015 with only fond memories. I grew up quickly and survived and realized that I’m so proud of who I’ve become. And Julien Baker’s Sprained Ankle somehow perfectly encapsulates my year long experience.
Julien Baker was 19 years old when she record Sprained Ankle. But this album possesses an emotional maturity that I wish I had being 12 years her senior. Sprained Ankle is not for the weak of heart. It is a uniquely sad album with a level of honesty that will occasionally make the listener uncomfortable as it often deals with Baker’s confliction with her emotions and her faith. But this is exactly what makes the album hit me so personally since I’ve felt so uncomfortable this year and have often been given the advice to turn to a higher power to fix what ails me. The songs are mostly Baker and her electric guitar and little else. Where it could feel a bit like a singer songwriter album, Baker’s choice of ditching the acoustic, clicking on her reverb pedal and shouting over her amplifier give it that necessary depth that makes the album feel raw but refined. These aren’t preachy folk songs that are commentaries on the evils of the world. These are songs that open the listener up and invites the songwriter in. These are songs of redemption or lack thereof. On the title track, Baker begins “I wish I could write songs about anything other than death” and goes through the motions of describing how much it pains her to be so honest when she sings her songs. This sentiment carries through the album but it doesn’t detract from the her strong songwriting abilities. “Brittle Boned” is about a hospital visit after what may have been a failed suicide attempt. On “Rejoice”, Baker writes about begging for a higher power to hear her “rejoice and complain” but doubts the existence of God. If you’ve ever hit a low point in your life, you can probably relate to this sentiment. You so often want to scream out and be heard but, if you lack religion, who will really hear you? The closing song, “Go Home” on the album seems to be a penned letter to a listener who is worried about the narrator being left alone during a time of great sadness. As she was recording the song, the microphone in the studio picked up a rogue frequency of a preacher speaking on talk radio. Rather than stop the recording process, Baker decided to close the song by playing the modern Christian hymn, “In Christ Alone”, as it has a lot of nostalgic meaning for her and worked well with the song’s message of feeling so empty and alone. Its almost there as a reminder that, even in the pits of despair, there’s some higher power, whether it be through religion or superstitious accident that reminds you that you really aren’t alone.
What were your favorite albums in 2015? I’d love to add even more to my listening list.