How willing am I to try to practice my own sort of anti-consumerist consumption of culture? That I’m willing to publicly give a shit about the recent past!
In my year-end posts on music, I’ve tried to resist the temptation to be aspirational– raving about stuff I hope I get around to liking– but this means that, each year, there’s lots of stuff I intend to listen to and don’t, or stuff that I only get to loving once the year’s gone. So, in 2015, I decided to stick with those records: I didn’t listen to any new music at all until April, and have stayed with 2014 songs and albums that were just beginning to grow on me when the year ended.
My second-round 2014 keepers– maybe like cake from last week’s birthday party, but I think more like a pair of comfortable shoes– are mixed in with my 2015 favorites, both in this post and the next one (on favorite songs, which’ll be coming in a few days). Albums with a (*) next to them aren’t, thank goodness, on Spotify, so they aren’t part of this playlist; instead, I’ve added links to Bandcamp, Youtube, or artist download sites.
(2014 AND) 2015 ALBUMS
Allo Darlin’, We Come from the Same Place. I can’t believe what a douche I was as I tried to dismiss this record. My first line was like, “eh, it’s Belle & Sebastian but less melodically nimble and sexually ambiguous.” Then I was all, “it’s Camera Obscura but less poised.” But I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about: Elizabeth Morris projects hope, nostalgia, and real un-winsome longing in a way that just destroys other indie pop frontpeople. The music is simple, the album is paced like a good film, I’m done trying to resist.
Braids, Deep in the Iris. Partying in the winter means partying even though you are either wondering if you’re getting sick, or getting over being sick. In October, I had the joyful experience of taking an ibruprofen, packing Kleenex, and being D.D. to four healthier friends for the chance to see this fierce and weird band play their hearts out for a little crowd at a Seattle gallery. Braids’s show and album share a physical intensity and joy that I rarely feel in bands who use so many synths; and, more than their (thanks Alex for this description) Feels-y first two records, Iris is about the lyrics– and what fucking lyrics!
(*) Katie Dey, asdfasdf. Like the first half of Pure Guava, I listen to this to be reminded just how little you can give a shit as you still labor over every detail…
Ex Hex, Rips. One night, in a foul and preoccupied mood, the only thing that made me happy was Rips‘s chugging and irresistible put-down, “How You Got That Girl.” Feeling much better, I cleaned the kitchen and let the record spin out, thinking: Mary Timony is a lot sharper and tougher than the clingy, narcissistic goofballs she sings to on her latest band’s latest record. Rips‘s musical resources aren’t as abundant as other hooky loud old-school guitar-pop albums I love (Majesty Shredding comes to mind): Timony’s voice is narrow and gruff, the performances are unflashy. But it’s the toughness (Timony’s and her band’s) and the melodies that make it stick.
FREEMAN, FREEMAN. After years of worsening addiction, Aaron Freeman had his life saved by his wife and his beloved soft rock; so, on his latest post-Ween album, there’s a lot of both. Without Deaner along, the musical imagination is diminished, but I still love Freeman’s goofy and uncompartmentalizeable temperament: check out the run from the confessional “(For a While) I Couldn’t Play My Guitar like a Man,” the wheeling fake-Arabian “El Shaddai,” and the dippy pubes-inclusive kid’s song (love song?) “Black Bush.” And with less emphasis on timbre, the music is more about Freeman’s temperament, how he loves things— Loggins and Messina, stallions, chipmunks— by pretending to love them. Don’t we all?
Imarhan Timbuktu, Akal Warled. An unbelievably good record of contemporary Saharan dance-band music: complex, funky, engrossing in its flow and its tunefulness both. Leader Mohamed Issa Ag Oumar is front and center— that’s his stinging snaking guitar, his nimble voice, his songwriting— and the personality he projects is not as somber as that of, say, Tinariwen. Instead, he floats and leaps joyfully, and his band (who’ve kept nightly live gigs for years) follows him upward.
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly. Still struggling with how to write about this album, in all its freewheeling grandiosity and rage and love. Lamar is celebrated as a rap “spokesperson” by institutional powers that would be happy to defang his politics and undermine his assertion of the right of Black people to liberation, dignity, or majesty. “Hood Politics” explodes, “Alright” is a heartbeat-hit of a political moment, but this album doesn’t otherwise slice up well: it’s a single 79-minute experience. Give yourself the time and listen to it straight through.
Low, Ones and Sixes. In their twenty-plus years, Low have sounded a lot of different ways, but Ones and Sixes is the first of their electronics-based (as opposed to rock trio-based) albums I’ve liked: the first time the airy guitars, rumbling un-pianoish synths and drum programming have gotten to my heart. In fact, it’s my favorite album of theirs since the all-analog Things We Lost in the Fire. It sounds like Midwest winter, but what else is new? It’s nice, too, when two people have been harmonizing as long as Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have, to hear them learning brand-new maneuvers with their voices, as they do on “Kid in the Corner” and “Gentle.”
Lower Dens, Escape from Evil. Veering toward an indie idea of accessibility, some bands– I think of the Mynabirds, High Places, or the Eternal Summers– sacrifice what was wonderful about themselves in the first place. But as Dens frontwoman Jana Hunter (who I’ve loved ever since this weird song fell on my head from the internet) brings synthesizers and straight grooves to her band’s third album, her songs get better and the band seems to find more of itself. I’ve had four different people catch twenty seconds of this record from my laptop and ask, “–hey, wait, what was that?”
Ron Morelli, A Gathering Together. Only a snob would say this album– a noise-artist sensibility grinding, stretching, pounding down and warping techno sounds— is a devolution of techno. You don’t have to buy composer (and head of the similarly-musically-fucked and harsh L.I.E.S. label) Ron Morelli’s pessimism, any more than you do old-school black metal’s satanic spew, to let his music shake your soul or chill your bones.
Neel, Phobos. From the co-creator of Voices from the Lake, one of my all-time favorite techno records, a record that is Voices‘s anti-type: rather than wading with you into a midnight river, this one lands you a dusty gray moon, one with a surprise in store (since this is not just an ambient album, but, in its own way, a narrative ambient album).
Ought, Sun Coming Down. Blaring and circular, nihilistic and gleeful, working itself into a rapture that then crumbles into chaos, Ought’s music possesses what Robert Christgau once called “the rock and roll virtue of sounding like you mean”: there’s nothing in Tim Darcy’s lyrics that the music won’t tell you already, but Darcy’s own sneering, yelping voice– stretched on this record until it sounds like Tom Verlaine’s or Jimmy Stewart’s– is its own sick pleasure. Play loud.
(*) Jessica Pratt, On Your Own Love Again. I loved this record from first listen– it’s a physical pleasure to listen to it. But I took it as nostalgia– for English folk or English psychedelia or something. Then, the more closely I listened, the less I could place the details: Pratt’s keening mumbly voice; those close-mic’d, double-tracked nylon guitars; the dabs of clavinet or droney organ; the painterly abstraction of the words. Who did I think she was imitating or following exactly?
Sleaford Mods, Chubbed Up: the Singles Collection. England’s musical tradition of white working-class lefty rage runs a lot deeper than America’s. These Nottingham mates are dropping albums and singles all over the place— here’s where I started, but Chubbed Up is where I’ve stayed longest— and I hope Jason Williamson’s poetry and bile don’t eat a hole in his liver before they succeed in burning Downing Street to the ground.
Sunstrom Sound, Autumnal. The autumn entry of a season-keyed series of digital-only ambient albums: warm drones and percolating synthesizers that hiss occasionally into icy dissolves and crackles.
Voices from the Lake, Live at MAXXI. I’ve listened to music more and more on vinyl since my son was born: it works to spend forty-odd minutes in one place, drawing pictures or reading books or building trains, with a break in the middle and a big beautiful not-too-destructible sleeve to handle for his entertainment. I love the warm and slightly squashed sound of vinyl; I love that I’ve inherited half my mom’s beautiful collection; I took Helen’s tip on a player with an exceptionally good stylus and cheap everything-else— but I don’t think I’m a vinyl fetishist. Not, at least, a fetishist like Editions Mego, Spectrum Spools, Modern Love, or any of the other labels who release my favorite techno. Their records are big, handsome coffeetable-book things, often broken, I suppose for extreme-audiophile reasons, into double-LPs. The result is pretty to look at but runs completely counter to my immersive, environmental aesthetic experience of actually listening to this music. Like Live at MAXXI: a liquid, suspended-hours composition Donato Dozzy and Neel created for a museum exhibition in Rome. Broken into fours, the music means less. Taken together, it runs like a midnight river.
Yo La Tengo, Stuff like That There. My album of the year. I can’t think of another active band as complete as Yo La Tengo. They’re crate-diggers and consummate musical craftspeople, but their music is never remotely impersonal or “professional”; Ira and Georgia are a going-on-thirty-years couple, but the sentiments of their lyrics are never cozy or facile; their range of timbres have been established at least since 1994’s Painful but “Ohm,” say, or “Rickety” still sound utterly fresh. This album– like the show Helen and I saw caught promoting it– is joyful and omnivorous, wise and never less than loving.