We're wrapping up another year which means it's time to share our favorite music from 2015. This year Zarah Laurence, who is managing editor at the Southeast Arrow, has joined us to talk about the music she was most excited about this year. She also writes about music for the Arrow's blog called StompBox. Astute KRCU listeners may recognize her voice from her time as a reporter intern for the station.
10. The Districts - A Flourish and a Spoil
They may just be a small band from Lititz, Pennsylvania, but The Districts still show a lot of promise. The four young men are fresh faced and college aged, and their rock ‘n roll is just as millennial. Their youth shouldn’t be held against them, though. It’s like how The Smiths developed their own indie style in the pop-filled 1980s. “Young Blood” begins with a drum that sounds like the launching of fireworks and a guitar’s whiny distortion. The Districts add in a mix of folk to their sound, too. Rob Grote’s voice aches with a picking acoustic in “Suburban Smell.” As a whole, the album speaks to the paradox of recklessness and cautiousness in any 20 year old.
9. Blur - The Magic Whip
Damon Albarn has been back on the map in recent years. With the release of his solo Everyday Robots in 2014, the announcement of a Gorillaz record for 2016 and Blur’s album this year, he’s kept himself busy. The Magic Whip picks right back up with Think Tank from 2003. Albarn is free to let his other projects have influence, though, as well. Gorillaz unmistakable electronica is evident in tracks like “Ice Cream Man” and “Thought I Was A Spaceman.” It almost goes back in time to the band’s work from the 1990s and early 2000s. But it’s supposed to. “For diehard fans, It’s a comeback, pure and simple. If Blur doesn’t put out anything else for another 12 years, well, they landed on a good note here.
8. The Dead Weather - Dodge and Burn
Despite Jack White’s announcement of a break from the tour circuit, he shook up garage rock with his side project The Dead Weather in 2015. With the success of Horehound in 2009 and Sea of Cowards in 2010, the band had a lot of pressure to do it again. And they did. “Dodge and Burn” shows the supergroup in all its glory. Alison Mosshart’s grungy alto from The Kills, Dean Fertita’s Queens of the Stone Age desert rock, Jack Lawrence on bass from the Raconteurs and Jack White’s distinctive bluesy undertones comprise the band’s reckless energy. The release of Dodge and Burn is wilder than ever after five years. The single “I Feel Love (Every Million Miles)” is just as edgy, plus some, as White and Mosshart shooting each other in “Treat Me Like Your Mother” from Horehound.
7. Eagles of Death Metal - Zipper Down
In spite of the horrors of performing at the Bataclan in Paris, Eagles of Death Metal continue supporting their latest album Zipper Down and advocating for “peace, love, and death metal.” Although, their sound is more boogie rock than “death metal.” It’s a parody to what a compilation of the Eagles and a death metal band would actually look like. Jesse Hughes and Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme aren’t afraid to look at life on the lighter side. They’re having a good time just playing music. Their campaign “Play it Forward” gives back to the victims of the Paris attacks, however, it goes deeper than even that -- they want to be the bright spot in the midst of brutality. The band has announced they want to be the first to hold a show at the Bataclan when it reopens.
6. Leon Bridges - Coming Home
If anyone can conjure up nostalgic memories of momma’s kitchen and going to church every Sunday, it’s Leon Bridges. The solo artist brings his Texas roots to the forefront of his music. His inspiration from gospel and soul is bringing the genre back to its origins. Bridges is only 26 years old and Coming Home is his debut album, but the melodies are as old school as it gets. It’s the soda fountain of music, essentially. The fact that Bridges can create something so flawless the first time around already has audiences on the edge of their seats for the next one.
5. Modest Mouse - Strangers to Ourselves
With every new album since the start of the members’ careers, Modest Mouse has evolved their approach to music. Strangers to Ourselves received some flack for its over-produced sound compared to older albums, like The Lonesome Crowded West and The Moon & Antarctica, but it can’t be disputed, Isaac Brock is still taking risks. Brock wouldn’t have written “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)” 20 years ago. On the other hand, “Sugar Boats” sounds as if it’s straight out of the archives. The band already reported a part two of sorts to be issued in the near future as well. Besides Strangers to Ourselves, Modest Mouse also re-released Building Nothing Out of Something, Interstate 8 and the EP Everywhere and His Nasty Parlour Tricks this year.
4. Built to Spill - Untethered Moon
Influencers of Modest Mouse, Built to Spill edged the band out with the release of Untethered Moon. The five piece is sticking to what they know best, unlike Brock’s domino-effect boldness. They seem like they could care less about presentation. Untethered Moon comes in a jewel case with a cat and dog album cover for crying out loud. What’s important to them is making good music. In “All Our Songs” Doug Martsch sings "I found a place where I know I’ll always be tethered / And I knew, when I woke up, rock and roll will be here forever." Take “Living Zoo”, for example; it’s the epitome of Built to Spill. Martsch is playful in the use of his lyrics, while remaining serious about his craft. Its simplicity shows music for what it was intended to be.
3. Pokey LaFarge - Something in the Water
St. Louis-native Pokey LaFarge puts a new spin on blues storytelling. The twang and swing in his voice sets the listener smack dab in the heart of America. LaFarge is taking grassroots and Americana sounds and applying them to the new millennium. The barbershop style isn’t dead according to him. And it’s believable after the 12 tracks of Something in the Water. LaFarge hits on the cliché music topics of love and travel and fun, but he does it with Midwest charm. Considering his previous self-titled debut album, Something in the Water offers a balance between the past and the present. He’s accepting of more contemporary influences, yet he won’t stray from his early 20th century foundation.
2. Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear
Father John Misty’s lyrics are arguably some of the sassiest of 2015. Coming from Fleet Foxes as the band’s drummer on Helplessness Blues, he fits to the mellow classification, but with brasher themes. “Bored In The USA” criticizes American politics and culture. “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment” pokes fun at the pettiness of stereotypes. Following the pep of Fear Fun from 2012, I Love You, Honeybear takes a turn in its self-critical lyrics. The album centers on a modern-day analysis of how far humanity pushes civil lines.
1. The Tallest Man on Earth - Dark Bird Is Home
The Tallest Man on Earth took the most prominent 180 this year. From just a man and a guitar on Shallow Grave, Wild Hunt and There’s No Leaving Now, Kristian Matsson is backed with a full band on Dark Bird Is Home. Even so, the singer-songwriter from Sweden still sounds like himself. He’s first and foremost a solo artist, and that doesn’t change because of extra instruments. If anything, it amplifies that aspect. Matsson may be a modern-day Bob Dylan, but the designation is steered in a new direction here. His lyrics are less about storytelling and more about his own personal experiences when compared to his former recordings. Dark Bird Is Home has given Matsson more spotlight than usual. He released a music video for “Darkness of the Dream,” his first ever, just three weeks ago. Overall, the addition of the band merely makes The Tallest Man on Earth stand a bit taller.
10. Ms. John Soda – Loom
This is the first album in 9 years from German duo of Stephanie Boehm on vocals and her music partner Micha Acher. It comes from the Berlin record label Morr Music, a label with a sonic fingerprint whose name could count as a genre of its own. Longing melancholy from analog synthesizers combined with Boehm’s restrained delivery create sounds that are instantly lovable.
9. Dungen – Allas Sak
The Swedish psych-rock band have harvested the most far-out sounds of the ‘60s and 70s and reconstructed them into a package that sounds like the “best of” some alien era. The mix of Swedish vocals, the influence of spaghetti western soundtracks, and the lengthy jazz explorations sound lifted from a yet-to-be made Quinten Tarantino film.
8. Grimes – Art Angels
With each new album from this multi-talented performer it seems that people who write about music are always commenting on how “pop” her once pretty experimental work as become. I don’t disagree but I also think mainstream musicians have been meeting underground artists half-way for quite some time. If artists like The Weeknd, Disclosure, and Sia have a place on top-40 radio, it should only be a matter of time for Grimes.
7. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress
There are perhaps two handfuls of titans of the post-rock genre, and GY!BE are certainly among them, but this band distinguishes itself from the rest of the purveyors of epic and glacial songs by placing a dim light upon a sense of impending doom. The band favors rebellion over technical perfection, and famously criticized the ceremonial approach of Canada’s Polaris prize in 2013, opting to donate their prize money to a Quebec-based program providing music education in prisons.
6. Westkust – Last Forever
These days there is a gauzey buffet of shoegaze bands you can listen to, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t leaders among those throngs of lowered heads. Sweden’s Westkust take the genre to sunnier places and pass vocal duties back and forth between Julia Bjernelind and Gustav Andersson in a way that’s carefree and uplifting.
5. Purity Ring – another eternity
The duo has always had this certain DIY approach to pop music. The band somehow pulls off the trick of extracting poignancy from boredom, which makes the barbs sting with much more potency than they otherwise might.
4. Beach House – Thank Your Lucky Stars (but also listen to Depression Cherry)
We were very #blessed to get two full Beach House albums this year, and while it’s very tempting to make both albums co-inhabitants of my #4 spot, I ultimately decided that the proper way to treat them is as separate releases, and with only ten albums to highlight I had to give the nod to one, and for me it’s Thank Your Lucky Stars, in that it sounds most like the band, which is to say it’s the definition of breathtaking beauty.
3. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
I have to wonder, is Josh Tillman (the real-life name of Father John Misty) the most brilliant troll of 2015? Sonically these songs resemble the cheesiest finds that never leave a thrift-store vinyl bin, but lyrically the persona Tillman has adopted here is a smart aleck of the most severe sort, the kind of person who is so excruciatingly bad you’d expect to find him in a Ricky Gervais comedy. As a fan of witnessing this sort of cringe-worthy bad behavior I found this album to grow into a true delight, and if nothing else it demonstrates how one ought not to behave.
2. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
This album is a grand and brilliant statement, expertly produced with help from elites such as Flying Lotus and Thundercat. It’s a tight ball of enigmas that bounce around one’s headphones. There are Easter eggs and code tucked throughout, including the album title, which Lamar as said was originally titled To Pimp a Caterpillar, which roughly makes an acronym for “Tupac.” The late rapper makes a surprising appearance at the close of this album, as Lamar’s interview subject, using tape from an obscure interview Tupac gave to a Swedish radio station in 1994.
1. The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – Harmlessness
This release has a refreshing accessibility to it, especially when it’s tempting to seek out music that is novel above all else, because there’s this ever-present pressure to show that you’re listening to this thing and this is what’s special about this thing. This album is by-the-book melodic guitar-oriented rock that is youthful and at times bratty and always articulate.
And finally, here's a big-ole Spotify playlist featuring our favorite music. Thanks so much for checking this out with us, and Happy New Year!