This Was The Year in Music – The Best of 2015

This Was The Year in Music – The Best of 2015

Friday, 08 January 2016

Regardless of how one attempts to say it, words can not express how over-the-top and musically BUSY 2015 was. Every genre of music seemed to experience a year zero; metal bands (and the labels who historically released their music) bravely began reaching out for sounds which hadn’t historically been part of the genre’s repertoire, for example, and artists of other genres could be found developing new, peanut-butter-and-cucumber combinations too. That meant it was either a really exciting time to be a music fan, or a very frustrating one – depending on your sensibilities.

That sense of good, weird excitement manifests obviously in the collections of albums that Ground Control’s critics assembled when they were asked for what, in their opinions, were the best representations of the annum. There is some spice from every corner of the music diaspora here, and it often manifests in some pretty strange places. Read on, reader – and discover what we mean for yourself.

Bill Adams’ Year in Music, 2015
10.) Anti-Flag – American Spring – (Spinefarm/Universal): While it takes about three minutes for the band to warm up (the weakest track on the album also happens to be the first), Anti-Flag starts running after they get their legs under them and don’t take any pause thereafter through the playing of American Spring. Songs like “Brandenburg Gate,” “Song For Your Enemy,” “All of The Poison, All of The Pain” and the less-than-a-minute-long, blurry/brilliant “To Hell With Boredom” all blaze through with unbridled power and passion because Pat Thetic drives each mercilessly; forcing Sane and Chris Head never let the throttle off their guitars. At the same time too, Sane takes the quality levels of many of these songs up a notch or two by adding some great lyric sheets; each song is a searing critique of the global social and political climate (it’s difficult to mis-read lines like “We live in a fabled world/ of dreaming boys and wide-eyed girls/ Where precious few get a fair start/ these times can break you/ these times can leave you torn apart,” and that’s only the start) but remains open enough that it isn’t easily tied to a particular time and place. That openness is one of the most inspiring things about the writing on American Spring; unlike other political punk albums, these songs are not easily tied to any one time because they are social critiques – not stuff just pulled from the headlines.

09.) Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – Freedom Tower – (Mom + Pop/RED/Sony Music): The beauty of Freedom Tower is that – even more so than on Meat + Bone – the album is only interested in presenting the songs, not presenting thirteen tracks “which fit together in this slightly skewed vision of post-modernist composition” as most every other JSBX album has done, and each of them sounds hot, bothered and awesome as the band lays them down too. For example, “Wax Dummy” might just be the smoothest, most swaggering song in the JSBX book, but it’s even better for the fact that it is not earnest. It isn’t earnest and doesn’t over-reach in any way at all, really; it’s just a rock song with a great strut and a smooth motion. Conversely, “Do The Get Down” is all about the beat and Spencer’s own vocal association with it and could have been the best song you never heard come out of the vaults at Stax – but JSBX doesn’t try to force that idea down listeners’ throats; they just play it out, let it stand and let listeners judge for themselves. That confident idea of simply letting the songs stand for themselves is the hook which will get fans on board with Freedom Tower because it is so simple and the songs are so hot that they’re undeniable; there’s nothing ambitious about them, they just each rock like a beast.

08.) Gateway Drugs – Magick Spells – (Cobraside/Dine Alone): Listeners who have called themselves fans of punk rock for a while will likely recognize and be excited by the distinct difference manifest in Magick Spells from the moment “Anu” opens the album. Nothing about “Anu” is rushed; there is no running out of the gate as there has been when other punk bands think they’ve started something new, just a fatigued and methodically strummed E chord to open. Listeners may get the impression that punk might just be done running by that start, but the way the song continues removes all doubt; there is no build in tempo beyond an arrogant stomp, but the song does expand with the help of a multi-part vocal performance from Gabe, Noa and Liv Niles (who, yes, are the children of Knack bassist Prescott Niles – but that’s irrelevant to everyone but historians) and an intoxicating strut which gets listeners hooked first, then lets them totally zone out.

07.) Louise Distras – Dreams From The Factory Floor – (Pirates Press): While it took a bit of time in some sectors, eventually punk crossed over into the mainstream and got formalized by the pop machine and, now, a lot of what arrives often feels like variations on a theme rather than infectious and exciting new music. Now in 2015, it feels frustratingly unusual for new artists to challenge the norm but, on Dreams From The Factory Floor, upstart Louise Distras challenges the status quo on every front and makes a REAL punk album in so doing.

06.) James Leg – Below The Belt – (Alive Records): It might be hard to believe or remember now, but the piano was once the go-to, workingclass compositional impliment – not the classy, poppy flavor-addition it often is now in the twenty-first century. In fact, it has really only been within the last eighty-five years or so that the instrument wasn’t EVERYWHERE; at one time – in addition to being the instrument on which classical concertos were composed – every hard-up and low-down, rough and tumble bar in creation had a piano somewhere on site. Some of those hard-played instruments may have featured some raised finish from where beer had been spilled on it, but they were always at least close to in tune and ready for play during particularly happy hours, and maybe for some really hard pounding on gin-soaked Saturday nights too. Jazz, blues and rock n’ roll would all not sound quite the same as they do if it weren’t for the piano, so it’s ironic that the most common place to find the instrument in the twenty-first century is in a concert hall – its finish well-waxed and meticulous – and seldom sounding as though they’re being played by hands with dirty fingernails.

05.) Cancer Bats – Searching For Zero – (New Damage/Metal Blade): Taking their entire career into account, Searching For Zero represents an excellent, bold and potentially inflammatory step in Cancer Bats’ development: it’s a punk record through and through. “How is such a turn potentially inflammatory,” you ask? Well, the album takes a decades-old musical progression and turns it on its head; over the last few years, it has been very common for punk and hardcore bands to develop increasingly harder edges in their sound before finally making the jump to metal (see the careers of Agnostic Front and Propagandhi, for example), but a move in the inverse direction is virtually unheard of. That rarity is enticing but, even better still, that they do it so well makes the Bats’ fifth full-length a document to not be missed.

04.) Restorations – LP3 – (Side One Dummy): Throughout LP3, Restorations consistently unleash a textural wave of anthemic, mathy rock tones which will take listeners out at the knee first, and then have them begging for more. Songs like “All My Home” (which wins hearts as glassy keyboards fill in the spaces around Loudon as he wonders whatever happened to his friends while he was away on tour) and “The Future” (which shimmers with a rusty horn section in the wings) fill in the underlying colors of a black and blue-eyed portrait and guarantee that those listening will be disinterested in finding an escape from this album. It feels strange to say that because, really, LP3 could never be mistaken for a typically friendly endeavor – in fact the textures on it often feel as though they could easily turn upon listeners at any moment. Even so though, LP3 holds listeners dearly – in its own way – and that’s all it needs to do in order to inspire a love affair in those who hear it.

03.) Awolnation – Run – (Red Bull Records/RED/Sony Music): While AN’s debut album set a pattern for electronic power chording with “Sail” in 2011, there is more overt disillusionment sunk into Run than anyone familiar with the group expects. It is flat-out angry; it questions the world, it questions ethics, it finds frontman Aaron Bruno wading through a tremendous wash of self-loathing and self-doubt (the first lyric listeners hear on the album is, “I’m a human being/ Capable of doing terrible things,” to give readers an idea) from which there really isn’t any reprieve. Well, there are a couple of lighter moments, but that only means the album looks up far enough to see that there might be a bright light before them; that doesn’t change the anger, it just means the album is yelling at something specific.

02.) Dilly Dally – Sore – (Partisan): Beautiful is the band who, in the age of digitally polished and manicured “perfection,” has the courage to just unleash hell with no explanation or apology. That’s what Dilly Dally did this year with their album Sore, and the results are mesmerizing; the sounds are rife with over-distorted tones, but delicate clean ones perch on top to give some relief for those who notice. It’s beautiful; both Dilly Dally and Sore are gorgeous like a split lip.

01.) Round Eye – s/t – (Ripping Records/ILD): How does one summarize an album which, while being obviously part of a well-established genre (Round Eye is undeniably a punk record), does not actually remain confined to that compartment? Round Eye is absolutely that kind of album; it blasts and sprays in every direction imaginable and leaves a godawful mess in its wake, but simultaneously wins listeners with the unspoken challenge to convention that it also holds.

Honorable mention:
Harrington Saints – Fish & Chips EP – (Pirates Press): Short and sweet; this EP is awesome. Fish & Chips was safely in “My Ten” until the moment when I began compiling my list, and THEN it fell off. One listen will prove just how unfair that is and I cannot tolerate such injustice, so it is included here in the closest to a standalone place of honor available.

Best reissues of 2015:
David Bowie – Earthling (vinyl)
Simon and Garfunkel – The Complete Columbia Recordings vinyl box set
Eels – Dreamworks vinyl reissues (Beautiful Freak, Electro-Shock Blues, Daisies of The Galaxy, Souljacker and Shootenanny)
Manic Street Preachers – The Holy Bible (Super Deluxe set)
The Tragically Hip – Fully Completely (vinyl)

Live Album of The Year:
Eels – At Royal Albert Hall – (Eworks/Sony Music): Nuff said. Buy it and listen – you’ll understand, reader.

Return of the year:
Faith No More: It has been entirely too long since Faith No More released an album, but Sol Invictus proved that the reason for it was certainly not because they couldn’t – they clearly just needed a reason.
Sleater-Kinney: With a great new album and a new tour too? Ambrosia!

Ollie Ottoman’s year in music 2015
I don’t know if my feelings will change in the future, but right now I feel like 2015 was a bit lackluster when it comes to music. Maybe it’s because most of the good music came late in the year and I wasn’t able to absorb it or maybe I should just reevaluate my sources. Maybe I’m just becoming an old man. In any case, this doesn’t mean we didn’t have some great standouts this year. Here they are. And here’s to you, 2016! I expect you not to disappoint.

Best albums of the year:
10. Wilco – Star Wars (dBpm): The year of awesome free albums. But what stands out for me (technically a newcomer to this band) is that Wilco kept it simple and straightforward on this album. That might piss some hardcore fans off, but for me, it brings a smile to my face.

09. Faith No More – Sol Invictus – (Ipecac): Nope. Never heard of this band. And it’s all my fault. Sol Invictus, my first taste of Faith No More, proved to be heavy, offensive, yet incredibly elegant. I’m finally starting to understand Mike Patton’s reputation.

08. Deerhunter – Fading Frontier – (4AD): I’m still not sure whether Deerhunter’s music is deceptively simple or deceptively complex. It’s punk, it’s rocking, it’s moody and shoegazy. It’s also probably the album that casts the widest net audience-wise this year.

07. Jeff Rosenstock – We Cool? – (Quote Unquote): Fast, heavy, strong, straightforward and loud. Rosenstock put out a pop-punk beauty of an album that sounds smart and fun and more honest than anything else out there. And he’s letting you have it for free.

06. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love – (Sub Pop): There’s so much that can be said about this album that I’m not even going to start. Let’s just say that in a time of halfhearted meaningless comebacks, Sleater-Kinney managed to do it right.

05. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – Freedom Tower – No Wave Dance Party 2015 – (Mom & Pop): Any year where we get a new JSBX album is a good year. These boys are more DIY than ever and still rocking at a remarkable rate considering how long they’ve been at it.

04. Kurt Vile – B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down – (Matador): The genius of his previous album might never again be attainable, but B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down is definitely along the same vein. Strange and beautiful and it will reward you if you stick with it.

03. Shannon & The Clams –  Gone By the Dawn – (Hardly Art): A definite grower. Gone by the Dawn takes a while, because we simply can’t accept that this band is evolving or maturing. Sadder and more intense than anything I’ve heard them do, and full of personality to boot.

02. toyGuitar – In This Mess – (Fat Wreck Chords): My man Jack Dalrymple does no wrong. In This Mess sounds entirely like a Dalrymple project, from the strumming to the trademark vocals. And they prove that Fat Wreck music can still sound fresh.

01. Radioactivity – Silent Kill – (Dirtnap): Yes, a questionable year for music, but one thing is true: as soon as the first tracks hit my ear holes, I was overwhelmed with the idea that the bar was set. And honestly, nothing topped Silent Kill. I get excited every time I put it on.

Best of the rest (in no particular order):
Line Traps – Selftitled (Self-released)
Speedy Ortiz – Foil Deer (Carpark)
Teenage Bottlerocket – Tales from Wyoming (Rise)
Darkness – Last of Our Kind (Canary Dwarf)
Thee Oh Sees – Mutilator Defeated At Last (Castle Face)
Worriers – Imaginary Life (Don Giovanni)
Underground Railroad to Candyland – The People are Home (Recess)
Treasure Fleet – The Sun Machine (Recess)
Fucked Up – Year of the Hare (Deathwish)
Tenement – Predatory Headlights (Don Giovanni)

Best Album From Last Year I Didn’t Hear Until This Year:
Priests – Bodies and Control and Money and Power – (Don Giovanni): Yes, this is an EP and it sounds exactly like Bikini Kill. But when the results are so great, does any of that really matter?

Best Stand-up Album:
Brooks Wheelan - This is Cool, Right? – (New Wave Dynamics): If SNL is holding you back, might I suggest you get yourself fired from the show. Chances are you’ll get a fantastic stand-up album from it.

Murray Thomas’ year in music 2015
I don’t know if it’s because of a lack of quality music in the national scene, or the abundance of great music locally, but my ears did not stray far from Southern California this year. That may also explain why I only have five discs on this list. But they are good ones.

5. Ty Segall – Manipulator – (Drag City): Okay, this came out in 2014, but it drew most of its attention this year. All the psychedelic rock and fuzzed guitars you can take in one sitting.

4. White Murder – Form Early – (Razorcake/Recess Records): My favorite dual-voiced punks return with a new batch of punchy tunes. Sharp guitars accent sharper social commentary. Whether society at large, or the behavior of their social circle, these women find plenty to attack lyrically, an attack fully backed up by the band behind them. Unluckily a shortage of vinyl delayed the release, so by the time the album came out, the band was no more.

3. Kamasi Washington – The Epic – (Brainfeeder): Epic indeed. Anyone who doubts that jazz is not only still relevant, but still fresh, needs to feast on these three CDs. The sheer amount of music will sate you, but the talent and variety will keep you coming back for more.

2. Le Butcherettes – Raw Youth – (Ipecac Records): Okay, they’re from Mexico, but that’s almost Southern California, right? (Actually, it’s more like Southern California is almost Mexico, but that’s another story…) Le Butcherettes are masters of chaotic punk, the kind of music that seems on the verge of falling apart, but never does. A slicker production on this record (at times this almost sounds like Garbage) doesn’t diminish Teri Gender Bender’s rage at society’s injustices, or the frenzy of her delivery.

1. Feral Kizzy – Slick Little Girl (Elite/Ghoulhouse Records): Lead vocalist Kizzy Kirk digs deep into our inner psyches, dealing with issues of social pressure, image, and insecurity with honesty and compassion.  The band backs her up with dark pop that is both catchy and haunting. Definitely my most played CD of the year.

Reissue of the year:
Bob Dylan – The Best of the Cutting Edge (Bootleg Series #12) (Columbia): Not sure if this really qualifies as a reissue, since almost everything on it is previously unreleased, but I think it qualifies. It revisits Dylan’s most productive period (three albums, one a double, in two years), when his musical and lyrical genius was like a runaway train. Presenting alternative takes, some drastically different from the final versions, and unreleased songs from Bringing It all Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, it offers clues to his creative process; many of these songs grew and morphed in the studio as he tried different approaches. As that is my favorite period of Dylan’s career, this is both a pleasure and an education for me.

Daryl “Darko” Barnett’s year in music, 2015
10.) Six Organs of Admittance – Hexadic – (Drag City): This is my choice for noise rock that just makes you feel edgy and uncomfortable about everything. Another new discovery that I’m going to be delving into the depths of their catalog to find out more of what their whole perspective on life and music is. This fits right next to my new obsession with Nurse With Wound and it’s unsettling noise rock, but Six Organs goes even deeper and scarier.

09.) Dead Weather – Dodge and Burn – (Dragora Grupo Commercial): Jack White and everything he touches fills me with the joy and anticipation I use to experience as a youngster that worshipped Led Zeppelin. The vivacity in what he does makes me believe in the healing power of rock and roll more than any other living creature does. So, ha! This is not to say that I think Dead Weather sounds anything like Led Zeppelin, there is just something about their rock-god mystique that is similar.

08.) Sexwitch – Sexwitch – (BMG / Echo): This is my dirty, guilty pleasure album of the year. Natasha Khan growls and yelps incantations that are chant-like instructions, her method of utilizing magic to induce trance states for our teleportation to another world. The album is a compilation of covers of six psych and folk songs from around the world. I find this album to be absolutely mesmerizing and hope that I’ll get a chance to see it performed live.

07.) Kashkashian, Rothenberg, Schick, Bruzauskas, Snouffer, Houston Chamber Choir -  Simpson  – Feldman, Satie, Cage: Rothko Chapel – (ECM): Evocative, intense and spare, this is contemporary classical music at it’s finest. The mood instilled by these renditions of Feldman, Satie, and Cage is something to feel rested by, but also something to get excited about. Classical music is not dead!

06.) Contact – Brian Eno: Discreet Music – (Cantaloupe Music) &
05.) Kid606 – Recollected Ambient Works Vol. 1​.​5 : Discreet Music – (Bandcamp): This is a tie between these two albums for me, both of which are efforts to recreate the mood and atmosphere of Brian Eno’s 1975 opus of the same name; Discreet Music. Listening to them both, there is no mistaking what it is they are replicating, but they are so very different, from one another and from the original. “Contact’s” version is very symphonic and utilizes classical music instrumentation and sticks closely to the original composition. “Kid606’s” version is closely identical sounding to Eno’s electronic sounding original, but it is longer, deeper, and ever so slightly more hypnotizing. I’m going to be checking out a lot more of the music these two have put out.

04.) Joanna Newsom – Divers – (Drag City): This may very well be what I consider to be the most important new album of the year. You need to take time to access what is happening in Joanna’s life in this album. You need to contemplate her lyrics, you need to let her symphony enter into your veins and breath with her as she lullabies us with these storytelling melodies. What she has done here is not short of miraculous. It’s not a pop album at all. It’s a passionate and complex invitation to each listener to find and tell the stories of our own personal histories for the world to witness. She is our guide, our teacher and muse.

03.) Nurse With Wound – Time Elapsed – (Red Wharf): I only started to listen to Nurse With Wound about 6 months ago, and they have jumped high to the top of my current most favorite musicians. Bestowing upon us a huge catalog of over 70 albums, I’ll be studying their works for years to come. This newest release of theirs is as fresh, deep and mystifyingly complex as anything else I’ve heard from them.

02.) Frank Zappa – Dance Me This – (Zappa Records): The last album Frank finished recording before his death in 1993, posthumously released in 2015 by the Zappa Family Trust. This is a very tight composition with exacting lines of play which create one of the most moody soundtracks I’ve ever heard Zappa produce. Contrasting this work to another released this year, Roxy the Movie – which shows us his rowdy and playful side, we find Frank in a most serious meditation of concentration.

01.) Bipolar Explorer – Angels – (Slugg Records): The New York City minimalist indie rock band continues to capture my attention with their ongoing stream of super-consciousness musical tributes to their fallen band member, Summer Serafin. Angels feels and sounds like a visitation of angels has descended upon, and electrified these men as they express their emotions of memory and loss. This is what music fueled by raw love and emotions sounds like. The single, “Angels,” is definitely my very favorite song of the entire year! Bipolar Explorer remain my number one small label indie band to keep an eye on for future greatness. Hopefully I’ll be interviewing them sometime in the near future.

Honorable Mentions:
Bob Dylan – Shadows in the Night – (Columbia Records): Dylan’s voice is so sweet and alluring in these songs, it’s almost as if he’s channeling Sinatra. Not too hard to imagine that being the case seeing that he recorded this album in the same Capital Records recording studio in L.A. that Sinatra recorded in. It’s not a deliberate tribute to Sinatra, or that era’s music necessarily but maybe an attempt for Dylan to find a deeper sense of inner respect for the suspenseful hope of  romance yet to happen in his own life.

Frank Sinatra – Ultimate Sinatra – (Universal Music Australia Pty. Ltd.): My mom has been listening to Frank Sinatra since she was a teenager back in the ‘40s. She even DJ’d a show specializing in playing his popular tunes at a local radio station in Springfield, Ohio. I’ve listened to this new collection with her dozens of times this year and she continually proclaims what a wonderfully diverse selection of songs it includes, many of which are non-traditional and rare songs not found on other collections. Sinatra is someone that has proved the test of time, and is well worth studying for modern musicians.

Hugh Cornwell – Fall and Rise of Hugh Cornwell – (Invisible Hands Music Limited): Hugh Cornwell is a mystery to me. When I first listened to Rattus Norvegicus back in ‘77 I fell in love with the hardcore mixture of raunchy punk lyrics and a vamped up 60’s Doors sounding organ-laden rock. I loved their first three albums. But then something happened. I missed their work in the 80s when it was released, and coming back to hear their softer, pop sounding material – my jaw dropped. Over time I came to enjoy much of these songs, mainly because of the enduring personality of Cornwell. I’m presently reading his autobiography to gather deeper understanding of what happened to him.

Harmonia РComplete Works Р(Gr̦nlan)
John Coltrane – A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters – (Verve)
Sun City Girls – Torch of the Mystics – (Abduction)
Else Marie Pade – Electronic Works 1958-1995 – (Important)
Jean Guerin – Tacet – (Souffle Continu)

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