Sunday, December 13, 2015

Best Of 15: The Top 20

When I waded in with my mid-year report back in July, my musical cup runneth over enough that I picked 20 albums to celebrate. Then it became a bit of horse race to see what would stay on the list, and in what position, and what would drop off. In the final analysis these adjustments are not really about quality but are a reflection of what albums became the soundtrack of my life and defined 2015 for me. 

Remarkably, the six top spots remained exactly the same and six others also stayed on the list, which made it tough for later releases to horn their way in. But horn in they did, helping to create what I now present to you as The Top 20 of 2015.

1. Holly Miranda - Holly Miranda Watching Holly perform many of these songs solo at The Studio in Freehold, NJ only served to solidify my judgment that this is the album she was born to make.

2. Gecko Turner - That Place By The Thing With The Cool Name Sometimes it seems as if the world has gone mad. I prescribe more Gecko. Pursue your happiness here.

3. Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear  The world of music could use more people like Josh Tillman, who brings a dyspeptic flair to everything he does. This album is a masterpiece and behind the jokes is something as serious as his - and your - life.  He's also a pop culture critic of rare perspicacity, as proved by his pointed jab at Ryan Adams covering Taylor Swift.

4. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly  What, I'm going to speak for Kendrick Lamar? Here's the man himself, quoted by at his Terminal 5 concert earlier this year: “People have said a lot about this album. They done said ‘album of the year,’ ‘album of this generation’ and all that s**t. That’s cool. But on some real s**t, making this motherf**kers album was therapy. Not only for you, but for me… [It’s] some s**t that y’all can feel whether you insecure, vulnerable, mad, happy, angry, sad. You pop this motherf**ker's tape in, and you love and you live this s**t.” I love it and live it and I think we're going to be alright. But, Kendrick...tape?

5. Natalie Prass - Natalie Prass Natalie Prass is full of surprises and Matthew E. White's sympathetic and masterful production couldn't be more perfect.

6. The Amazing - Picture You Though the elements are familiar, there's a sense of discovery that makes it all seem fresh. European rock music at its finest.

7. Killing Joke - Pylon The original lineup of this legendary band is at full throttle - 35 years after their classic debut. 

8. Phil Cook - Southland Mission Since his band Megafaun broke up, there have been a lot of folks depending on Phil Cook to make them sound great in the studio and on the road. They might find him a little harder to book now that he's made this gem of an album.

9. Wilco - Star Wars It was fun to watch the ripples from the surprise release - for free, at first - of Wilco's ninth studio album. But what lasts are the songs and the sense of six brilliant individuals playing as one.

10. Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell - Sing Into My Mouth In which Sam Beam and Band of Horses frontman Bridwell set their iPods on shuffle and sing the heck out of whatever they love. Beautifully arranged, too. And if Beam wants to do a whole album of Sade covers, sign me up.

11. Guilty Simpson - Detroit's Son Even if I hadn't had the opportunity to go deep with Guilty in a wide-ranging interview, I would've noticed him coming into his own on his best full-length yet. The spectacular beats are by Katalyst from Quakers.

12. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit It's a good thing Barnett is so approachable - otherwise her dazzling lyrics and protean talent would be overwhelming. She pushes her voice and guitar into some new places on her debut full-length and there's still the sense that she will go further in the future.

13. Missy Mazzoli with Victoire and Glenn Kotche - Vespers For A New Dark Age At first the rapturous beauty is almost distracting. But then you realize Mazzoli is using it to hold off despair. Such is the power of art.

14. Jamie XX - In Color Unlike many who work mainly with electronic sounds in a pop context, Jamie is as deft with silence as he is with sound, giving his up-to-the minute collages a timeless elegance. For more good times, check out the remix EP of the album's doo wop to hip hop summer smash.

15. Boogarins - Manual Their debut album went platinum in their home country of Brazil, helped no doubt by their relentless live attack. The U.S. might catch up a little with their second album, which has added a soaring inevitability to their gorgeous psych-rock explorations. Don't let the name put you off - it's a type of jasmine flower that is said to smell like "pure love." This album is sweet indeed.

16. In the Light of Air: ICE Performs Anna Thorvaldsdottir Not yet 40, Thorvaldsdottir continues to astonish with her grasp of orchestration and structure. This album, spectacularly performed and recorded by the International Contemporary Ensemble, features the four-movement title piece, which brings to mind Eno crossed with Sibelius, and Transitions, for cello and electronics. While there is a darkness to her work, it's never hopeless. I learned from Meet The Composer that Iceland, where Thorvaldsdottir is from, is of comparatively recent volcanic origin. Maybe that's why artists like her and Bj√∂rk are so unbeholden to the past. Can't get enough of Anna? Check out Clockworking by Nordic Affect, another excellent album which includes her Shades of Silence among other Scandinavian works.

17. Leonard Cohen - Can't Forget: A Souvenir Of The Grand Tour Now 80, the Canadian poet can be forgiven for indulging in a little nostalgia - except every song on this patchwork collection of live performances sounds fresh from his pen. There are also two previously unreleased songs, including the wry blues of Never Gave Nobody Trouble, and two covers, one of which finds him fearlessly taking on George Jones. Quietly miraculous. 

18. Matthew E. White - Fresh Blood For his second album, White dialed up his sound with more players and an even more assured set of songs. He's always going to have a modest voice but he plays well to his strengths. There was nothing modest, however, about his performance atBRIC Arts Center in March, where he led a 20-piece orchestra. He was unafraid to take command of the stage - and the audience - delivering an impassioned and warmly inclusive set that showed him at his best. More, please. 

19. BADBADNOTGOOD with Ghostface Killah - Sour Soul In the last week or so Wu Tang Clan has been in the news quite a bit, in relation to the multi-million dollar sale of a very limited edition album to "pharma-bro" Martin Shkreli. My only hope is that some of this tabloid coverage will shine a little light onto Sour Soul. The Wu's Ghostface Killah chews the scenery with vigor on this collaboration with Toronto-based ensemble BADBADNOTGOOD, which provides enough crime-jazz swagger to burn. Kendrick Lamar got a lot of credit for incorporating elements of jazz into the tapestry of To Pimp A Butterfly, but nothing on that album swings like Sour Soul.

20. Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL - Mad Max Fury Road OST No Grammy nod for this all-but overwhelming heavy metal symphony? For shame. Hopefully the Oscar voters will get the memo.

Here's the playlist - if you hear something you like, make sure to click through to the album. There's not a bad song in the bunch.

What's topping your list? Let me know where we overlap - and where we don't. Soon to come: overviews of The Best of The Rest Of 15, Classical & Composed, Reggae & Hip Hop, and Singles & EP's. Subscribe above to make sure you don't miss anything!

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