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.