Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Hunt for Hearth and Home: The Ten Best Albums of 2015

2015 was an excellent year in music. Whether you were looking for pop, jazz, classical, or some weird hybrids of some or all of the above, the year had something you were looking for. Looking at my iTunes, it looks like I picked up 52 albums that came out over the past 356 days, which means that there's going to be a lot of wonderful stuff that I don't get to in this top 10. You can find other works of art by Torche, Sufjan Stevens, Slim Twig, Destruction Unit, Parquet Courts, and lots, lots more. But there are 10 records that, to this listener, stand above all of the wonderful work that has come out this year, and this is them.

Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear 

Father John Misty's Josh Tillman has one of those one in a million voices. Dusty, worn, and haunted,  Tillman's voice seems almost suffocated by the opulence of swirling beauty in his music. It's a dichotomy of style that works perfectly; the trail-worn drifter couching his craft in syrupy orchestration, like Pet Sounds if it was sung by the Dennis Wilson of the '70s, gravelly voiced and jaded. And Tillman is nothing if not jaded; the tracks on Honeybear are miserable meditations on love and death. If you like richly produced, viscous '70s AOR production, give Honeybear a try...Tillman does make an occasional misstep into obnoxious 2015 indie electronica, which is why this album isn't rated higher, but most of the album is aching, heartbreaking, and beautiful.

Hey Colossus - Radio Static High 

I was shocked when I discovered that  Hey Colossus put out two albums this year: In Black & Gold, released in February, and Radio Static High, which just came out in October. Both albums are fantastic, both pushed Hey Colossus deeper and further than they had ever been before, but in the end I had to give the nod to Radio Static High. This album has Hey Colossus at its most laser-focused, no 10 minute songs like on their previous albums, just massive, thick, grimy beasts that coil and uncoil and cover you like musical smog, shoegaze gone evil. It will be interesting to see where Hey Colossus go from here, if they continue their trek into a more traditional 'rock' band (such as it is) or if they use their next album to blast off into the psychedelic stratosphere. Radio Static High reminds me of the self titled album by Comet Control (I wonder if they've put out anything since...): not a wasted moment on the whole record. Fantastic.

Carter Tutti Void - f (x)
The addition of Nik Void to the tandem of Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti is revealing itself to be serendipity with every passing release by Carter Tutti Void. Their live EP Transverse in 2012 was a work of hypnotic beauty, with Void's guitar work splattering metal shards all over Chris and Cosey's minimal electronics. f (x) is a more integrated work that shows how different the trio operates between live and studio settings, with Void's guitar drifting and wrapping among the burbling electronic menace underneath. And make no question about it, 'menace' is the word of the year for Carter Tutti Void; f (x) is club music for a bad ecstasy trip, it's the rave becoming self-aware and crushing the pathetic humans in its midst. This is the perfect record to play for the candy kid in your life that needs to be disturbed a little.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Asunder, Sweet and Other Distresses
Godspeed You! Black Emperor is one of those groups that I really run hot and cold on. In general, I find their stuff to be way too fay and precious and way, way, WAY to overlong. They're too beholden to their samples, of ranting preachers and revolutionary fighters, that the music itself gets shunted to the background and half forgotten. None of this is an issue with Asunder, Sweet and Other Distresses, which is to this listener the best record in their catalogue without a doubt. Asunder takes it's concept from the Godspeed side-band A Silver Mt. Zion, which is stripped down and influenced by sludgy doom metal and experimental noise, both of which are on incredible display here. Produced by an alumni of Steve Albini's Electrical Audio, Asunder is tight and huge; the first moment where the guitars kick in will blow your hair back. And yet, there's still a melody under the waves of muscle...the end of "Peasantry" is achingly beautiful, and it's the blend of power, beauty, and experimentality that makes this album such a rush. If you've never been able to get a handle on Godspeed, there's no better place to start than here.

The Necks - Vertigo

The Necks remind me of Nurse With Wound: amazingly prolific and always variable. You never know what you're going to get with the jazz trio, whether it be standard, traditional piano/bass/drums, something a little more out there and unusual, studio manipulated wizardry, cool improv, etc. Vertigo is definitely of the studio-constructed variety, it's less Kind of Blue and more Bitches Brew, with everything having been chopped and mixed and reassembled into a behemoth that straddles the line between jazz and modern classical strangeness. It's also a little shorter than the average Necks album, if the usual 70 minute song length is enough to turn you away, perhaps 45 minutes will be a little more palatable. Vertigo shows that, in addition to being incredible musicians, The Necks understand the studio as an instrument like few others.

Sunn O))) - Kannon
Next to Swans, Sunn O))) may be the band that most encapsulates the performance as a religious experience motif. It's hard to have your band dress like monks and it to not come across as ridiculous, but Sunn pulls it off, coming across as acolytes who worship the holy amplifier above all else. Kannon is their first non-collaborative album in years, and it picks up right where they left off: doom metal taken to its enormous, nearly infinite, conclusion. The sound washes over you almost like a solid entity, thick black oil dripping from your speakers and swallowing you whole. This is post-metal, post-drone, post-everything, the singularity of all musical existence that is endless in its density. Kannon is the musical equivalent of a black hole.

Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly
My album of the year last year was Flying Lotus' incredible You're Dead!,  a modern retelling of Miles Davis' electric period updated with funk, rap, and electronica. Chief on that album was Lotus' collaboration with Kendrick Lamar, "Never Catch Me," a kaleidoscope of brass and bass and drum machines and some of the most impressive MC skills I've heard in years. Well, Mr. Lamar has pulled pretty much the entire Flying Lotus crew back with him for this solo album, a meditation on the state of the black man in 2015 that is part Dr. Dre, part George Clinton, part Sly Stone, part Miles, and all Kendrick. To Pimp a Butterfly isn't a rehash of You're Dead!, it's much darker, much more political, much more full of rage and anger at what the world has become for the disenfranchised; in a way, Pimp is Lamar's own version of D'Angelo's Black Messiah, another fantastic political record from last year that I missed adding to my list, or even Sly Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On, another record that is heavy on the righteous indignation and produced into a dense morass. To Pimp a Butterfly is the opposite of a feel-good Summer rap album, but it may be the album we most need in these trying times.

Shit & Shine - 54 Synth-brass, 38 Metal Guitar, 65 Cathedral
Warning! Some serious seizure warnings on this one.
Shit & Shine is another band that managed to put out two albums (at least) this year: there was the acid jazz Chakin' and this monstrosity. Shit & Shine may be the inheritors of the Butthole Surfers' maniac smartassery; 54 Synth-brass has that same tongue-in-cheek bastardness that Brown Reason to Live had, only instead of being rooted in Texas punk, it's rooted in purposely-annoying, satirical club music. It does the Motorik thing, it does the vocoder thing, and it's clearly doing everything to piss off club kids as much as possible, like Carter Tutti Void if they were a stand-up comedy act. This is another one of those great albums you can use to clear a room when you just want to end the party and go to bed.

John Grant - Grey Tickles, Black Pressure 

John Grant is an interesting specimen within this list; he's Father John Misty inverted. While Josh Tillman comes across as uncomfortable trying to pepper electronica into his AOR pop, Grant feels right at home with the sleazy analogue squelching of '80s gay club synths backing up his laconic muttering. Grey Tickles is Grant's paean to growing old, as he sings about wanting to go see Joan Baez, hemorrhoid commercials, and obnoxious racist friends. Grant slips perfectly between ugly club anthems and his own take on the well-produced '70s pop, and he feels right at home for both. This was one of those albums I had to go and buy almost as soon as I heard it, it's almost perfect and I had a lot of trouble deciding which record would be my #1 album of the year. If you need proof that modern pop music still has a lot to offer us, the answer lies not in the countless starlets on the radio, but in this mean, cranky old man.

Gnod - Infinity Machines
Never has an album had a more perfect title than Gnod's Infinity Machines. Throughout the 3LP's running time, you feel trapped within the decaying circuitry of an endless, malevolent supercomputer, like Harlan Ellison's AM going through its death throes for all eternity. Infinity Machines is glacial, massive, and pure evil, with vocal samples flitting ghostlike throughout the dying mainframe, so covered with echo to be unintelligible. Within the center of the album is its cold black heart: 45 minutes of black ice spreading over tracks 4, 5, and 6. Infinity Machines is an album that needs to be experienced, it is nothing and everything all at once. If Sunn O))) are acolytes, than Infinity Machines is the pagan God itself, the musical equivalent of H.P. Lovecraft's Azathoth. Listen to Infinity Machines' 2 hours in a single sitting, and you'll never be the same again. I haven't felt this way for an album since Swans' The Seer.

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