Jul 5, 2017

2015 Year In Review Part VI: The Albums

Thanks for joining me (both of you!) on another yearly trawl through my favorite music of the year, even if it is a year late once again. But no promises for 2016. Despite my best intentions, I'm not even going to try to predict when that'll go up. In the meantime, I leave you with my favorite of all of the annual lists - my 75 favorite albums of 2015.

75. Graveyard - Innocence & Decadence (Nuclear Blast)
74. Carousel - 2113 (Tee Pee)
73. Goblin Rebirth - Goblin Rebirth (Relapse)
72. Dick Diver - Melbourne, Florida (Trouble in Mind)
71. Glenn Mercer - Incidental Hum (Bar None)
70. Galley Beggar - Silence & Tears (Rise Above)
69. Gruesome - Savage Land (Relapse)
68. The Machine - Offblast! (Elektrohasch)
67. Blur - The Magic Whip (Warner Bros/Parlophone)
66. Zombi - Shape Shift (Relapse)
65. Baroness - Purple (Abraxan Hymns)
64. Hope Drone - Cloak of Ash (Relapse)
63. With The Dead - With The Dead (Rise Above)
62. Chris Forsyth & Koen Holtkamp - The Island (Trouble In Mind)
61. Golden Void - Berkana (Thrill Jockey)
60. Lucifer - Lucifer I (Rise Above)
59. Abyssal - Antikatastaesis (Profound Lore)
58. Mother Engine - Absturz (Fuzzmatazz)
57. John Krautner - Fun With Gum Vol. 1 (Burger)
56. Carly Rae Jepsen - EMOTION (Interscope)
55. Vhol - Deeper Than Sky (Profound Lore)
54. Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free (Southeastern)
53. Tau Cross - Tau Cross (Relapse)
52. Failure - The Heart Is A Monster (Failure Records)
51. Kadavar - Berlin (Nuclear Blast)
50. FFS - FFS (Domino)
49. Mikal Cronin - MCIII (Merge)
48. WAND - 1000 Days (Drag City)
47. Death Alley - Black Magick Boogieland (Tee Pee)
46. Cattle Decapitation - The Anthropocene Extinction (Metal Blade)
45. Shamir - Ratchet (XL Recordings)
44. John Carpenter - Lost Themes (Sacred Bones)
43. Khemmis - Absolution (20 Buck Spin)
42. Dungen - Allas sak (Mexican Summer)
41. Titus Andronicus - The Most Lamentable Tragedy (Merge)
40. Valkyrie - Shadows (Relapse)
39. Mondo Drag - Mondo Drag (RidingEasy)
38. Ecstatic Vision - Sonic Praise (Relapse)
37. Bell Witch - Four Phantoms (Profound Lore)
36. Acid King - Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere (Svart)
35. Locrian - Infinite Dissolution (Relapse)
34. Sir Richard Bishop - Tangier Sessions (Drag City)
33. Horisont - Odyssey (Rise Above)
32. Christian Mistress - To Your Death (Relapse)
31. Sacri Monti - Sacri Monti (Tee Pee)
30. High On Fire - Luminiferous (EOne)
29. Uncle Acid - The Night Creeper (Rise Above)
28. Protomartyr - The Agent Intellect (Hardly Art)
27. The Silence - Hark The Silence (Drag City)
26. Napalm Death - Apex Predator-Easy Meat (Century Media)
25. Eternal Tapestry - Wild Strawberries (Thrill Jockey)
24. The Amazing - Picture You (Partisan)
23. Matana Roberts - Coin Coin Chapter Three (Constellation)
22. Fuzz - II (In The Red)
21. Thee Oh Sees - Mutilator Defeated At Last (Castle Face)

20. Six Organs of Admittance - Hexadic (Drag City)
Ben Chasny has always been a sonic explorer. Whether bouncing between hushed folk and electrified psych-rock, he's always pushing forward and searching for new sounds. This led to the creation of his own composition system, the eponymous Hexadic system, the results captured on tape here. With help from friends, including former Comets On Fire bandmate Noel Von Harmonson on drums, these are more rock leaning than folk leaning and build to steady crescendos.

19. Prurient - Frozen Niagara Falls (Profound Lore)
Prurient is just one of the many recording aliases for Dominick Fernow, a prolific American that dabbles in noise and electronics, having collaborated with wide reaching explorers such as Wolf Eyes and John Wiese, among many others. This is Fernow's debut release for the ever dependable Profound Lore label, a double disc release that encompasses many of the sounds he's explored over the years while crafting new, darker soundscapes. It's a lot to absorb, but well worth the trip.

18. Thou & The Body - You, Whom I Have Always Hated (Thrill Jockey)
This is a team-up between two of the more probing and prolific doom metal outfits going right now, Baton Rouge's Thou and Portland's The Body. The former uses a more traditional set-up to approach their intense doom, while the latter reaches a bit further to incorporate noise and electronics. The resulting cacophony is intense and engaging, highlighting the strengths of each other while also pulling out some surprises. The best way to hear this is the Thrill Jockey version, which tacks on an additional four tracks from a latter session (including a Vic Chesnutt cover).

17. Lightning Bolt - Fantasy Empire (Thrill Jockey)
On their first album in five years, the Providence noise duo of Brian Gibson and Brian Chippendale finally recorded an album in a proper recording studio. Which may seem counterintuitive for a home brewed noise project, but it actually allows for better definition of the band's peaks and valleys, cleaning things up just enough without sacrificing the power. Another slightly unexpected development is the growth of Chippendale's voice, moving beyond just the cavernous howls to actual singing. I don't know if it was the time away or what, but this is as exciting as these guys have sounded since 2005's Hypermagic Mountain.

16. Wand - Golem (In the Red)
This was the first record of 2015 for Los Angeles' Wand, a psych rock quartet led by Cory Hanson that shamelessly pulls influence from the seemingly disparate poles of fuzzy, Ty Segall adjacent garage rock and 1970s progressive rock (not to mention lengthy D&D gaming sessions, apparently). This brings a freshness to the overcrowded garage rock scene, injecting a level of fantasy and glam that we didn't necessarily know was missing in the first place. Fortunately, they also bring the riffs and off-kilter weirdness that keep you from anticipating just where they're headed next.

15. All Them Witches - Dying Surfer Meets His Maker (New West)
The rise of Nashville's All Them Witches has been a really interesting, and inspirational for other up and coming bands, one to watch. After self-releasing their second album, Lightning at the Door, on Bandcamp, the band's reputation grew tremendously, leading to performing at Bonnaroo and their signing to New West and a huge level of anticipation in all of the stoner rock corners of the internet. It lives up to the hype, though slightly dodges expectations by incorporating even more soul and Southern rock influences beyond what had been hinted at before. The songs I keep returning to are the lengthier jams, but the whole album is a blast and a proud step forward.

14. Gnod - Infinity Machines (Rocket)
I first discovered the prolific Salford krautrock band, Gnod, through the 2013 Chaudelande compilation of two previous releases. It was exactly the kind of sound I was searching for a the time - noisy, repetitive, rhythmic abrasion that pulled from all corners of the members' record collections. This was the first contemporary release of theirs I'd heard, further cementing them as ones to watch. It seems to capture the various moods of Gnod while incorporating a handful of new inputs - spoken word samples, saxophone and piano, resulting in the best kind of schizophrenic mess. As one comments on The Quietus' review put it best, "Gnod are the new kings of anti-psych cats asshole slab jazz maximalism". Indeed.

13. Tribulation - The Children of the Night (Century Media)
This Swedish band started out with a death metal sound that sort of echoed that of their country mates, Entombed, though subsequent releases have found them slowing down a bit and injecting some more atmosphere and melody. It seems, on The Children of the Night, they may have finally hit the perfect balance and perfected their progressive approach to death and thrash metal. The tr00 kvlt crew probably won't even claim these guys as metal any longer which, even if fair, means it'll be their loss. With the piling on of solos and the addition of organ and xylophone, there ends up being more than a little classic rock and prog in this album's DNA. If Ghost are the Swedish Blue Oyster Cult, this might make Tribulation the Swedish Hawkwind.

12. Sleater Kinney - No Cities To Love (Sub Pop)
When Sleater Kinney announced their indefinite hiatus in 2006, it sort of felt like the band's reunion was going to be inevitable. It was hard to believe that these three didn't have more in them to share with the world. Not to mention, the quiet handling of the break without any of the "farewell tour" brouhaha made the reunion seem more possible. I don't think any of us expected it to take a decade, but thankfully they found the time to not only tour again, but to also record another killer studio album. The result is a step back from the experimental, probing The Woods and back towards the easy accessibility of their middle period. Not to dismiss this as lazy, the band's songwriting chops are as a sharp and incisive as ever, these are just less slippery songs that are boldly political and deeply personal.

11. Ufomammut - Ecate (Neurot)
Hecate was the Greek goddess of crossroads, often depicted in trimorphic form and associated with borders, walls and realms outside the bounds of the living. Ecate is the seventh album from the Italian trio Ufomammut, featuring six tracks that explore (H)Ecate's many manifestations. After the sprawling double album Oro releases from 2012, Ufomammut steps back a little and tightens things up, resulting in a delicate balance between the thundering doom of their early releases and the more atmospheric work explored in depth throughout Oro. It's an immersive, perfectly composed 45 minutes that makes use of synths, drums and chanted mantras to build the sections of tension and release. While I still love Oro, this is about as perfect a single disc distillation of their sound that one could ever expect.

10. Leviathan - Scar Sighted (Profound Lore)
Jef Whitehead is one of those troubled artists that makes it difficult for people to root for and inspires those tiresome separating the art from the artist debates all over various forums. With that said, it's also hard to deny the powerful music he has created over the years and, to my ears, Scar Sighted just might shoot straight to the top of that list. His usual black metal intensity is used relatively sparingly throughout Scar Sighted, as launching points to explore death and doom metal, industrial noise and musique concrete by twisting them into haunting new forms. Fortunately he also shies away form the misogyny that haunted his earlier work, keeping the chaos more internal than directed outwards. The resulting is a messy, chaotic noise that hints at the likely turmoil within.

9. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom + Pop)
Courtney Barnett was one of 2015's more unlikely success stories. Her highly literate and retro indie rock sound is decidedly out of step with the popular sounds of the time, but she somehow managed to capture an international level of buzz that even some of the hottest mixtape rappers would kill to have. It doesn't hurt that Courtney herself is endlessly charming and relatable, but the music remains her highest selling point. Although she spent over a year writing the songs, she gave her band less than a week to study them. The resulting album has a ramshackle charm and loose vibe that only serves to underscore the wit of her sometimes nearly spoken lyrics. An endlessly replayable and fun album.

8. Sunn O))) - Kannon (Southern Lord)
Though they've never actually gone anywhere, it has been a long six years since the last proper Sunn O)) album - the instant classic, Monoliths & Dimensions. That album was so stunning and revelatory for me that I couldn't wait to hear where they'd go next. While many seemed to be disappointed by this relatively brief (it clocks in at barely more than half an hour) follow-up, I thought it was another engaging entry in their catalog and an interesting challenge to hear them tighten things up. The duo of Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley operate with a significantly reduced crew from the last album, though collaborators both old (Attila Csihar, Oren Ambarchi) and new (Steve Moore) do drop by to help. The three titular pieces are recorded so crisply and cleanly that I feel like this is the duo's version of an old Blue Note jazz session (a comparison that makes sense to me, if to no one else).

7. Monolord - Vaenir (RidingEasy)
Although only a few years old at this point, Hermosa Beach's RidingEasy label has already made a name for itself by releasing quality stoner and stoner adjacent rock. While Sweden's Monolord leans more heavily (heh, I see what I did there) on the doom end of the spectrum, there are still enough hazy doom riffs to fill a hundred vans with pot smoke. I was already a fan of their 2014 debut, Empress Rising, but this one pushes the band's sound forward in almost every direction. The trio takes inspiration from bands like Electric Wizard and YOB, pummeling the listeners with a crushing heaviness and sonic intensity. There are a few cosmic detours, including the "Planet Caravan" like "The Cosmic Silence" that allow the intensity some room to breathe, before plunging straight back into the void.

6. Pinkish Black - Bottom of the Morning (Relapse)
Despite their rather depressing origin story, the Texas duo of Pinkish Black rose from the ashes of The Great Tyrant to forge forward with a stunningly original take on heavy music. Comprised solely of a drummer and a synth/keyboard player, Pinkish Black immediately starts out quite distinct from most heavy bands. Although the lyrics are rooted in death and despair, the rhythm heavy music surrounding them often feels like a triumphant catharsis while pulling in inspiration from a surprisingly wide range of influences - fusion era Miles Davis, the soundtracks of Goblin and krautrock's drive. It's a heady mix and heavy task for only two members, but Daron Beck and Jon Teague manage it and put out one of the year's most exciting releases in the process.

5. Ryley Walker - Primrose Green (Dead Oceans)
While I'd been reading Ryley Walker's name in recent years, usually in the context of the other young guitar players that take inspiration from folks like John Fahey and American primitivism (William Tyler, Steve Gunn), it wasn't until this album that I was able to check him out. What stuck out to my ears more, though, was an indebtedness to the English folk of the last century, most specifically John Martyn. It's inevitable that such comparisons pop up, given that even the album art makes this out to be a lost '70s folk classic. But they are also valid, as Walker is an immensely talented guitarist and songwriter. There's a touch of jazz to the proceedings as well, mostly thanks to his backing band, but Walker's guitar playing remains the star here, particularly the variety of moods and tones he is able to employ. This guy is going to be fascinating to follow.

4. Elder - Lore (Armageddon Shop)
Over the course of their first two albums and an EP, Massachusetts trio Elder managed to craft a reputation as a highly dependable stoner doom act both on stage and on record. With the release of Lore, their third full-length album, however, Elder has blown all expectations out of the water. Lore is an extended trip through space and time that brings in a heavier progressive rock influence, while never sacrificing the heft and weight of the doom with which they started. There are numerous twists, turns and abrupt shifts in tone and style, though none are placed without careful thought for the overall flow of the album. There are hints of psych-rock and even folk sprinkled throughout, but the end result is a heavy as hell progressive stoner doom album that is ready to take anyone on one hell of a ride.

3. Kamasi Washington - The Epic (Brainfeeder)
I'd been tangentially aware of this L.A. based saxophonist via his contributions to albums by Thundercat and Flying Lotus, but he really got my attention via his appearances on To Pimp A Butterfly. Given how little attention I pay to modern jazz, I figured that his debut studio recording might give me an excuse to check in. I wasn't expecting to encounter something this tremendous. As audacious and wide-reaching as a debut record could ever be, the fittingly titled release spreads out for nearly three hours over three individual discs (or six vinyl sides, if you prefer). The amazing thing is that every second of this is earned and worth hearing. Washington is a fantastic bandleader, wringing out excellent performances from a twelve person (including two vocalists) band. It incorporates vocal jazz, Miles and Trane inspired pieces, hip-hop rhythms, and nearly every mood jazz has given us over the past half century. It's an impressive debut and I cannot wait to see where his career goes from this point.

2. Steven Wilson - Hand.Cannot.Erase (KScope)
In case you hadn't noticed by it's placement as #1 on my list from 2013, I was a big fan of Steven Wilson's last solo album. I missed out on much of his previous work, whether through Porcupine Tree or any one of his numerous other outlets, but I've quickly become a fan of the work released under his own name. And, in any other year when the album below didn't exist, he likely would have notched yet another #1 from me. This is another concept record, this time a fictional retelling of the real life story of Joyce Carol Vincent, a woman that died, alone and unnoticed, in her London flat. Yes, it's a very sad story, and Wilson never shies away from that, but his thoughtful lyrics expand her story to a universal meditation on humanity. While not as classically '70s progressive rock as his last album, this is still stunningly complex and beautiful music with a talented guest list, including the gorgeous vocals of Ninet Tayeb.

1. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly (Top Dawg)
This one was pretty much a lock for my top spot from the second spin, which came immediately after the first. I'd already been a big fan of Kendrick's, his previous album was my #5 for 2012, but nothing prepared me for the direction he'd take with this record. While his lyrical talents were no surprise, I'd never have expected him to so seamlessly integrate soul, funk, free jazz, poetry, and politics into one of the most engaging and sonically dense records I've ever heard. Without a doubt, this stands up among the hallmarks of politically and spiritually aware black music - James Brown, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Gil Scott Heron, George Clinton - all obvious influences with their fingerprints (literally, at times) all over this album. It's simply awe-inspiring, whether you are in it just for Kendrick's flow, or for the top shelf production, or his timely and inspired meditations on racial inequality and institutional discrimination. The cover art is very fitting. It is indeed a political statement, but a chaotic one in which everyone is invited to participate - the guest list includes the aforementioned Clinton, Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, Snoop, Ron Isley, Flying Lotus, Pharrell Williams, Dr. Dre and Robert Glasper among many, many others. But it's Kendrick himself that holds it all together, constantly probing, pushing, questioning, raging, falling, rising, surging, struggling, flying. Undoubtedly the album of 2015, and likely for many years to come.

Jan 8, 2017

2015 Year In Review Part V: The Tracks

We continue now with my favorite 75 songs of the year. As per my somewhat standard disclaimer, the traditional notion of a "single" is virtually meaningless in an age of multiple exclusive promo streams, YouTube, Bandcampe, etc. - so these are just 75 tracks that made me happy in 2015.

75. "Dumb" - Jazmine Sullivan f. Meek Mill
74. "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)" - Jamie xx f. Young Thug & Popcaan
73. "Cumbia de Donde" - Calexico
72. "Sapokanikan" Joanna Newsom
71. "Grief" - Earl Sweatshirt
70. "Dream Lover" - Destroyer
69. "Will of the Ancient Call" - Crypt Sermon
68. "Dope Cloud" - Protomartyr
67. "Can't Keep Checking My Phone" - Unknown Mortal Orchestra
66. "In the Dreams of the Dead" - Tribulation
65. "Autodidact" - Swervedriver
64. "Brought to the Water" - Deafheaven
63. "False Hope" - Laura Marling
62. "Speed Trap Town" - Jason Isbell
61. "All Day" - Kanye West f. Theophilus London, Allan Kingdom & Paul McCartney
60. "Run Away With Me" - Carly Rae Jepsen
59. "Backlit" - Kowloon Walled City
58. "Sagres" - The Tallest Man On Earth
57. "Mutant Standard" - Oneohtrix Point Never
56. "On To Something Good" - Ashley Monroe
55. "Sparks" - Hilary Duff
54. "Sedona" - Houndmouth
53. "Carrion Flowers" - Chelsea Wolfe
52. "Huarache Lights" - Hot Chip
51. "Dimed Out" - Titus Andronicus
50. "Demon" - Shamir
49. "Dime Store Cowgirl" - Kacey Musgraves
48. "Stonemilker" - Bjork
47. "Something Soon" - Car Seat Headrest
46. "History" - One Direction
45. "Honeymoon" - Lana Del Rey
44. "Coffee" - Miguel
43. "Ozymandias" - Horrendous
42. "A Quick Death in Texas" - Clutch
41. "Lonesome Street" - Blur
40. "Pretty Pimpin'" - Kurt Vile
39. "Nobody's Empire" - Belle & Sebastian
38. "Twist My Fingaz" - YG
37. "If It Takes a Lifetime" - Jason Isbell
36. "The Hunt Eternal" - Dead To A Dying World
35. "Lift Me Up" - Vince Staples
34. "Paul" - Girl Band
33. "Snakeskin" - Deerhunter
32. "The Yabba" - Battles
31. "The Black Plot" - High On Fire
30. "The Rhythm Changes" - Kamasi Washington
29. "Missing U" - Dam-Funk
28. "The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt." - Father John Misty
27. "Clearest Blue" - CHVCHES
26. "The Book of Souls" - Iron Maiden
25. "A New Wave" - Sleater Kinney
24. "Biscuits" - Kacey Musgraves
23. "Accelerate" - Susanne Sundfor
22. "Let It Happen" - Tame Impala
21. "Feel You" - Julia Holter
20. "Depreston" - Courtney Barnett
19. "The Blacker The Berry" - Kendrick Lamar
18. "Really Love" - D'Angelo
17. "Sweet Satisfaction" - Ryley Walker
16. "Should Have Known Better" - Sufjan Stevens
15. "Hello" - Erykah Badu
14. "Bitch Better Have My Money" - Rihanna
13. "Ship To Wreck" - Florence + The Machine
12. "Pedestrian at Best" - Courtney Barnett
11. "Kill v. Maim" - Grimes

10. "I Really Like You" - Carly Rae Jepsen
Honestly, I wasn't a huge fan of this song upon first hearing, it felt too cutesy and a little too on the nose to get me excited about the follow-up to her big breakthrough album. But as I got to know its parent album better, the song's simple charms wormed into my head and heart. While not my favorite track on the record, see below, it's still another great single from an artist that is proving herself to be the furthest thing from a one-hit wonder.

9. "The Legend of Chavo Guerrero" - The Mountain Goats
While I'm not an obsessive Mountain Goats stan, I've grown to be a big fan of most things into which John Darnielle pours his energies, whether it's a book, a blog post or a new album. I particularly love it when he digs into his, ahem, nerdier pursuits - as he does on his latest Mountain Goats record, exploring the world of professional wrestling. No matter the filter, Darnielle remains an astute observer of the human condition and a killer song writer. "The Legend of Chavo Guerrero" joins an already lengthly list of beautiful songs he's written.

8. "24 Frames" - Jason Isbell
As you can see in the list above, I was really pleased with what the former Drive-By Trucker had to offer on his latest solo record. "24 Frames" was the best of an already very strong bunch, using the number of frames that pass by the camera in a single second to tell one of his typical introspective, heartbreaking tales. It earned it's place on the list from the very first time I heard its most crippling line, "You thought God was an architect / Now you know he's something like a pipe bomb / Ready to blow".

7. "Can't Feel My Face" - The Weeknd
This was another inescapable pop song from 2015 that I didn't like all too much on my first exposure. It didn't help that I was really loath to actually engage with The Weeknd, since I wasn't all that impressed with his initial woe is me misogyny schtick. But he's developed an undeniable talent for writing a killer pop song when he wants, and this being one of the best of those. There's an inescapable Michael Jackson vibe in how effortless this feels and how easily it worms into your head.

6. "Angels" - Chance The Rapper f. Saba
Even without a proper release, mixtape or otherwise, under his own name in 2015, it was still a productive year for Chicago's rising superstar. After the collaborative release with some of his Chicago area friends, more on that soon, he released "Angels" - the lead single for his highly anticipated third full-length mixtape. Produced by the Norwegian Lido, this song bounces along as a conflicted ode to both Chicago and the two sides of expectations on Chance's career, bolstered by gospel harmonies and a horn section. It boded well for that third mixtape.

5. "Gimme All Your Love" - Alabama Shakes
It's been really cool to see this band so quickly adopted by the mainstream rock industry and Grammy voters. Not that either group means all that much, but it's still a kick for me when a genuinely talented new group slips through the cracks. It helps, of course, when you've got the powerhouse vocals of Brittany Howard leading the way. "Gimme All Your Love" didn't get quite as much radio shine as "Don't Wanna Fight" did, but I found this to be the longer lasting of the two.

4. "Making the Most of the Night" - Carly Rae Jepsen
I was really disappointed to see how quickly Emotion sank. Sure, it came with unrealistically high expectations when following up one of the best pop singles of the past half decade, but I'm still baffled that it didn't connect more with fans and radio listeners. The more time I spent with it, the more charms were revealed, and this was the track I played the most. It didn't have the biggest names attached to it, like some of the other tracks on this album did, but it didn't need them either. This was just a burst of near pop perfection that required no extra help.

3. "Sunday Candy" - Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment
The name may not seem familiar to the uninitiated, but anyone who watched the December 5th, 2015 episode of Saturday Night Live won't be able to forget the infectious joy that Chance The Rapper brought to the stage while performing it. The album this came from was the brainchild of Nico Segal and his band The Social Experiment, friends of Chance from Chicago's incredibly underrated music scene. The whole album is well worth tracking down, but this was the clear standout for a reason - it's a sweet tooth's earnest dream, with Chance's unabashedly professing his love for his grandmother. Only a heartless person couldn't find the charm in this one.

2. "King Kunta" - Kendrick Lamar
I'll likely have more to say about Kendrick Lamar in the coming days, so you'll have to forgive me being a little brief on this one. To Pimp A Butterfly was, among many other things, one of the most profoundly impactful political statements of the year. And "King Kunta" was one of the most impactful moments within it. Starting from the titular references on down, I could unpack the lyrics for days. But I'd much rather have you click on the link above and experience it for yourself.

1. "Alright" - Kendrick Lamar
Yes, his name has popped up a lot on this list, particularly in the top two spots. And, yes, you'll be reading it again before my yearly lists are finished. But it's all with good reason and if I were to select any single track from To Pimp A Butterfly to show off just why I find it to be such an important, life-affirming record, "Alright" would be it. It's the shining moment of hope amidst the anger, pain and confusion. That shining moment of hope that both negates and underscores that anger, pain and hurt. It's an important moment of hope. That shining moment of hope that doesn't excuse or forgive the anger, pain, and hurt, nor should it. That shining moment of hope that we all may need to cling to a little more tightly right now.

Jan 6, 2017

2015 Year In Review Part IV: The Live Albums

Even though I don't make it out to nearly as many live shows as I used to, the live music experience is still key to my enjoyment. Here's ten live releases from 2015 that spent a lot of time filling my ears.

10. Drive-By Truckers - It's Great To Be Alive! (ATO Records)
Although this is the band's fourth live release and that we're several years past the band's "classic" line-up, this seems like what may stand up as the definitive live document for this killer band. It's three discs long and draws from the band's entire discography, giving a great taste of their deep catalog and how the songs are brought to life on the stage.

9. Grateful Dead - Dave's Picks Volume 15 (Rhino)
After years of watching from the sidelines, 2015 was the first time I'd been able to take part in the Dave's Picks series as I ordered the last two volumes of the year from the band's site. Volume 15 features a show from Nashville back in 1978, near the end of the Godchaux era line-up. Though it lacks many of the obvious jam vehicle highlights (no "Dark Star", no "China > Rider"), the set more than makes up for it through a great "Estimated Prophet > Eyes of the World" and a lovely "Wharf Rat".

8. Jack DeJohnette - Made In Chicago (ECM)
Recorded at the Chicago Jazz Festival in 2013, this set captures DeJohnette in a reunion of sorts with some of his old AACM cohorts - Muhal Richard Abrams, Larry Gray, Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill. It's a wide ranging set that is both electrifying and lovely, a terrific document of legendary jazz artists. Good on ECM for making the set available to a wider audience.

7. Chris Robinson Brotherhood - Betty's Blends Vol. 2: Best from the West (Silver Arrow)
I've become a big fan of these guys over the past few years, appreciating the band's cosmic R&B funk take on the jam band scene. This set captures seven songs from the band's summer 2014 West Coast run, kicking off with their second set jam vehicle, "Vibration Light Suite". The Betty in the title is Betty Cantor-Jackson, the legendary archivist for none other than the Grateful Dead. She brings her great ear to the CRB, with grand results.

6. Ty Segall Band - Live in San Francisco (Castle Face)
Castle Face's ongoing live series that documents their bands live in San Francisco has been a blessing, continued here capturing Ty Segall and his band in a raucous set at The Rickshaw Shop. The set is heavy on 2011's Slaughterhouse, though one of the set's highlights is the chooglin' take on "Feel" from his Manipulator album. If, like me, you've yet to been able to get out to see a live Ty Segall show, this is probably your best next bet.

5. Neil Young & The Bluenotes - Bluenote Cafe (Reprise)
Even if we never do actually see Archives, Volume 2, I'm thankful that Neil's camp at least continues to dribble out occasional entries in the Archives Performance Series. This set is drawn from the tour following 1988's This Note's For You - not typically thought to be a career highlight. But this set reveals that while the album may have disappointed, the live configuration was pretty damn tight. There are plenty of highlights, but disc two is the bee knee's for me, culminating in a twenty-minute take on "Tonight's the Night".

4. Grateful Dead - Dave's Picks Volume 16 (Rhino)
For the last entry in 2015, Dave reaches back in the vaults for a show from March 1973 - when the band was fresh off the career highs of the 1972 European and late summer tours. As I expected to it going in, the half-hour "Dark Star" that led into "Eyes of the World" and a wonderful "Playing in the Band" was the highlight, but the entire show is a worthy addition to the collection of any Deadhead.

3. Phish - Amsterdam (JEMP)
We didn't get a Phish archival physical release in 2014, so I was pleased when it was announced that June was going to bring us an eight-disc box set comprised of three nights at the Paradiso in Amsterdam during the winter and summer of 1997. That year was a killer one in general for the band, these shows are among the peaks of a peak year. There are plenty of highlights spread over the three nights, including a gorgeous "Ghost" and a half-hour "Stash".

2. Grateful Dead - 30 Trips Around the Sun: The Definitive Live Story (Rhino)
The Dead celebrated their fiftieth anniversary in 2015, highlighted by some reunion shows that brought Trey Anastasio in to stand in for Jerry Garcia and some archival looks back into the past. I wish I'd had the spare $700 sitting around to get the massive 80-disc porch crusher that contained one entire live show for all thirty years of their touring career. Instead, I had to settle for this four-disc distillation that pulled one song from each of those shows. It's still an incredible trip through the band's history and showing the evolution of the group's sound through new members and new technology.

1. The Velvet Underground - The Complete Matrix Tapes (Universal)
As great as the Re-Loaded box set was, this four-disc set was the true holy grail of 2015 for Velvet Underground fans. The collects material from the band's two night stint at San Francisco's The Matrix in November of 1969. At this point, the band had released their self-titled album back in March and were working on what would become Loaded the following year. As you might expect, the band presents the material is sometimes drastically different form from what they'd had been, or would be, in their studio configurations. An absolute treasure trove of material from a legendary band at their absolute peak.

Jan 5, 2017

2015 Year In Review Part III: The Reissues / Compilations

Rolling along here, let's move on to my ten favorite reissues and compilations of 2015.

10. Iron & Wine - Archive Series Volume 1 (Black Cricket)
Even though I've liked the growth we've heard from Sam Beam over the years, I still love the material he first recorded under the Iron & Wine name back in 2002 and 2003. Which is why I was very excited to see the first entry in his Archive Series, which collects rare and unreleased tracks from the recording sessions of The Creek Drank The Cradle and The Sea & The Rhythm. If you are at all a fan of those records, this will be a worthwhile addition to your collection.

9. Ty Segall - Ty Rex (Goner Records)
As I mentioned in my EP wrap-up when talking about the Mr. Face double 7", there has been an element of glam rock creeping into Ty Segall's work over the past few years. This compilation helps explain why, as it pulls together two EPs worth of T. Rex covers. While he doesn't go for the obvious hits, it's still a lot of fun and easy to hear just how compatible the two artists are.

8. Swans - Filth (Young God)
I've really loved following the resurgence of Michael Gira's Swans over the past half decade or so, even though I missed out on their original run by being too young and in the wrong place at the wrong time. So I was pleased when Young God put together this lovely multi-disc reissue of their debut album from 1983, which adds on EP material and live performances from the era. Even without where the band would go, it's an important document of the noisy New York scene from the early 1980s.

7. Kenny Knight - Crossroads (Paradise of Bachelors)
The private press record from Colorado's Kenny Knight has been a highly prized collector's item for those interested chasing down those particular dark alleys of the music collecting world. Fortunately Paradise of Bachelors rescued the album from private shelves and in doing so proved that sometimes these private press records are very much worth reaching a larger audience. After spending many years in garage rock bands, Knight recorded this record in 1980 under the heavy influence of American Beauty-era Grateful Dead. Full of melancholy and pedal steel, this is a great time capsule.

6. Van Morrison - Astral Weeks / His Band and the Street Choir (Warner Bros.)
Growing up, I was never much of a Van Morrison fan. I'd heard "Brown Eyed Girl", "Moondance" and "Domino" so much that I thought I never needed to explore any further. Yeah, that was pretty wrong-headed, but fortunately these two reissues turned me around. Astral Weeks in particular won me over, particularly the lengthier tracks. Even Street Choir sold me on his R&B side. Probably not necessary for his diehards, but much appreciated for those of us just dipping in our toes.

5. Faces - 1970-1975: You Can Make Me Dance, Sing or Anything (Rhino)
I'm not sure that this presents the definitive versions or remasters of the band's work, but this was a much appreciated way for me to get all of their essential material for less that $40 - and it sounds just fine for me. This retrospective set collects the band's four studio albums (each including bonus live cuts, outtakes and session tracks), as well as a bonus disc of non-album singles and other stray droppings. For a guy (like me) that grew up hating Rod Stewart, it's been fun discovering just how great this band was.

4. Sun City Girls - Torch of the Mystics (Abduction)
As I've explored various corners of the musical world, particularly in those that tie back to folk and psych rock, I've kept coming across the name Sun City Girls as a touchstone. Add in discovering Sir Richard Bishop through his work in Rangda with Ben Chasny and Chris Corsano, and I started to feel like his former band was some missing chunk of my musical life. Their work isn't all that easy to track down these days, so I was happy to see a reissue of what many consider their most seminal work. And it's easy to see why, this reveals a group that never ceased searching and absorbing influences from, quite literally, all over the globe.

3. The Velvet Underground - Loaded Re-Loaded 45th Anniversary Edition (Atlantic)
The fantastic reissue campaign for The Velvet Underground's studio output concludes here, unless they're seriously seeing big money for a fat Squeeze era package, with the band's final album with Lou Reed. The album itself is terrific. Even if it never gets as experimental or "out" as their earlier releases, it's still a handful of some of the greatest rock and roll songs ever recorded. This deluxe box set adds in mono versions, demos, outtakes and an entire live set from Max's Kansas City. Essential for VU fans, almost as essential as their other archival release from 2015 (but more on that later).

2. Miles Davis - At Newport: 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 (Sony Legacy)
I waffled on which list to include this with. While it technically is live material, it just seemed to make more sense in this category (complaints about this decision can be sent directly to the editor at the address on the tin). This collection does pretty much what it says, collecting a series of Miles' performances at the Newport Jazz Festival between 1955 and 1975. Most from the original Rhode Island location, but the later sets come from the German, Switzerland and New York variations. Anyone familiar with Miles' career knows exactly how much he evolved in those two decades and the music within is very reflective of that, ranging from an all-start jam with Thelonius Monk and Zoot Sims in 1955 to the extended "Funky Tonk" workout of 1975. Essential stuff.

1. The Flaming Lips - Heady Nuggs: 20 Years After Clouds Taste Metallic 1994-1997 (Warner Bros.)
When The Flaming Lips issued the three-disc Finally the Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid collecting back in 2002, it was an essential piece of my expanding musical universe. While this rounding up of that weird period after they broke into the alternative nation and crashed into Beverly Hills 90210 isn't quite as definitive, I've still found it to be a thrilling trip through a confusing point in the band's history. The EP material from this era is really nice to have, but what won me over was the blown-out fuzz and noise of the live disc included. This material won't be for everyone, not even some of the Lips' biggest fans, but I enjoyed the hell out of it.