Here we are, at the cusp of me trying to write love letters to my favorite albums of 2015. I need to do this without becoming excessively long-winded and while still describing the general aesthetic of the artists involved so that maybe you’ll want to listen to them if you haven’t. This was a difficult list to make, as utilizing Spotify Premium (as much as it aggravates me sometimes) and having a job that allows me plenty of alone time means that I listened to more music than ever before in a calendar year.
It should be noted that I found 2015 to be absolutely stacked in terms of quality releases. Perhaps the blue-chip releases (for me, anyway) were down from previous years, but it was honestly awful to whittle away at my original group of albums. I will now shed a metaphorical tear for each one that didn’t survive the swing of my critical blade.
Today brings my list of the first 10 albums outside of my top 20, the honorable mentions that were still among my favorites released over the past 12 months. They’re listed in alphabetical order with an accompanying Spotify link to each album. As always, these are my opinions, and they are wildly subjective. Thanks to anyone reading this for joining me in my quest to spew my passion for music all over the internet; it’s a true privilege even for a guy whose blog URL is impossible to ever remember.
And So I Watch You From Afar: Heirs
Heirs is quite a joyous album, always adventurous in its pursuits but never burdened by the complexity of its parts. ASIWYFA are most certainly gifted musicians; the ratshit guitars that pervade Heirs are likely to appeal to anyone looking for wank-fest fretwork devoid of much in the way of vocal interference. That doesn’t cut into the band’s desire to provide something more, though, as this is an album that manages to still be enjoyable to listen to while simultaneously proving itself as difficult. The frantic ending of “Run Home” is based around a pretty simple progression even if the surrounding elements are turned up to 11, and the stuttering and later lurching power of “Heirs” is ceiling-aiming post-rock at its majestic best. There is plenty of room in music for technical proficiency and pop sensibility, and Heirs proves just that.
Beach House: Depression Cherry
I can’t claim to really understand the title of the first Beach House release in 2015, nor can I claim to understand how the duo was able to release two fleshed-out albums in the same year to begin with. Depression Cherry, much like any other Beach House album released since their 2006 self-titled debut, doesn’t bother with stretching out the band’s sound. Instead, the goal is clearly to refine and refine and refine the coal until it becomes a diamond. Beach House are fully intent on reaching the pinnacle of dream pop perfection, and it’s hard to argue with the results. “Sparks” is the eyes-closed best the band has ever recorded, fuzzing up lead guitar notes to ethereal effect. “Days of Candy” makes a bid for inclusion on the soundtrack of a faded film that exists before either band member was born, while the lurid bass notes of “10:37” are an unceremonious mood-setter.
Mikal Cronin: MCIII
The promise of a bigger Mikal Cronin album sure was an enticing one. While the San Francisco-area multi-instrumentalist excels at personalized pop songs, it sounded nice to be treated to a lusher soundscape. All promotional material aside, that didn’t really happen, thus leaving a lot of fans and critics a little disappointed. I confess to being a little underwhelmed at first myself, but once I set my expectations aside, I heard a lot of really excellent songs. “Turn Around” opens the album with that great weeping-string chorus, “iv) Ready” is as rocking as Cronin has gotten in his solo work yet, and “Different” is chillingly gorgeous. One thing I now believe is that Cronin has the skill set to tackle several genres, and his voice is so utilitarian that it is always going to work. Still shy of 30 with plenty of experience under his belt, Cronin continues to peel away layers as he gets more introspective. MCIII may just be an extension of MCII, but I’m having a lot of trouble discerning why that’s a bad thing.
Dan Deacon: Glass Riffer
I bet Dan Deacon has a lot of fun making music. Every song on the playfully titled Glass Riffer is brimming with life, starting off with the hooky vocal interplay of “Feel the Lightning” and ending with the marching band insanity of “Steely Blues.” In between these starkly contrasted songs lie several more pop gems, including the loop-infested “When I Was Done Dying,” which features Deacon’s love of jamming every word he can think of onto his lyric sheet. “Meme Generator” dives deeper into electronica, while “Learning to Relax” doesn’t really heed its title’s advice. Deacon has no problem getting in touch with his experimental side, and he’s proven that time and time again, but the smallest in the sequence of Russian dolls he creates is always undeniably accessible pop.
Metric: Pagans in Vegas
Metric have always blended physical instrumentation with electronic elements to create hook after hook, and while Pagans in Vegas mostly sticks to the script, it’s decidedly more interested in amping up the digital end of the band’s sound. Emily Haines returns with her charming and comfortingly familiar voice, once again reminding us that how she sounds is a whole lot better than what she is singing; lyrics remain an afterthought here. I certainly don’t care, though, as songs like the bouncy “Cascades” and the poppy “The Shade” will get me to sing along no matter what the words. It’s interesting to see Metric trying to teeter its proclivities more toward one end of its sound. Messing with this dynamic while adhering to the core of the band’s sound should continue to keep things fresh as the years roll on by.
Kurt Vile: b’lieve i’m goin down
The 35-year-old singer-songwriter Kurt Vile has toyed with more lush instrumentation than you’ll find on b’lieve, but his strength has always been in six-string reflections on life and perception. “Pretty Pimpin” rejuvenates the time-honored tradition of a great Kurt Vile album opener, embodying the power of the best ’70s rock music with zest and a self-effacing grin. It’s the best song on a really good album, but it’s far from the only of Vile’s new songs worth examining. The piano of “Bad Omens” leads beautifully into the finger-picked dream of “Kidding Around,” and the honest admission of not really knowing what he’s doing in the world on “Dust Bunnies” fits Vile’s modus operandi to a tee. Much like Beach House, Vile does things the way he does them, and they just happen to work.
Kamasi Washington: The Epic
I’m going to get this out of the way right up front: The Epic is three albums in one, and I don’t plan on listening to it very frequently. It’s a wide-open expanse of jazz and experimentation, of freak-outs and unwieldy ideas. It’s also highly impressive, a standout entry into the modern realm of alternative music when alternative music means a million different things. The Epic isn’t likely to be what Washington is remembered for in 2015 thanks to his participation on Kendrick Lamar’s far more digestible and far more popular album, but that’s sort of a shame. I absolutely don’t consider myself a jazz historian or even a fan of the genre as a whole, but the galloping energy of songs like “The Message,” the interloping scattershot nature of “Change of the Guard,” and the blaring funk nod of “Re Run Home” are all fascinating. The Epic is a bit beyond me, and I know it. That’s probably why putting this thing on at work here and there keeps my mind running in circles as I try to make sense of how something like this exists when my cellphone is a fucking robot.
Nathan Williams, the singer-songwriter behind the slightly surfy pop-punk outfit Wavves, has always had it in him to give into writing more apparent hooks and avoiding ugly filler. He comes through at last on V, an album stacked with short and jumpy guitar songs doused in fuzz and boundless energy. Multiple songs on the album address headaches, alcoholism, and the yearning for someone else. This isn’t unusual in popular music by any stretch, but it’s sort of telling that Williams is more lyrically direct at a time when he’s also more musically direct. “Heavy Metal Detox” is a really strong opener, all springboard guitars and hazy vocals, but it’s far from the best song on V. “Way Too Much” and “My Head Hurts” revel in their own indulgences, using traditional chord progressions played for maximum impact and coming away all the better for it. The cheerful cooing over the top of the depressive words in “My Head Hurts” is a nice juxtaposition to strive for, and Williams holds up his end of the bargain more often than not across the entire brief album.
Waxahatchee: Ivy Tripp
I read that technically fewer individuals appear on Ivy Tripp than the substantially more sparse Cerulean Salt, and it’s awfully hard to believe. Ivy Tripp may not have the intimate charm of Waxahatchee’s last record, but it sure does feel a lot bigger. Katie Crutchfield remains wholly invested in her project, turning her world into our world with each new release. She begins Ivy Tripp with a deep trench of a synth line, highlighting her own unimpeachable voice for a couple of minutes before launching headfirst into the unfairly catchy “Under a Rock.” “Rock” is the fullest-sounding Waxahatchee song to date, escalating into bigger drums and guitars than we’ve heard from the band yet. “Poison” is also quite stacked, and I’ll never complain when Crutchfield harmonizes with herself to create a vacuum-sealed chamber of goodness. Ivy Tripp has all the strengths of Katie Crutchfield on full display, even bringing to light some new ones along the way. Once all of this comes together, there’s a good chance we’re going to have a classic on our hands. And also, how great of a line is “you’re less than me/I am nothing”? Like the artist behind it, it’s direct as hell and pretty unforgettable.
Chelsea Wolfe: Abyss
Abyss is a great name for an album made by an artist who has ever-so-gradually been slipping into some sort of dark metal chasm from the comparably safe heights of melancholy danger folk. The environment on Abyss is a harsh one riddled with thunder clap guitars, sudden descents into pits of relative silence, and gripping percussion. Wolfe uses her beautiful voice to channel her inner demons, sounding like a fucking ghost for almost all of her latest album. “Carrion Flowers” starts things off with abject doom, with “Iron Moon” furthering the path into damnation with walls of guitar despair. The thrumming “Color of Blood” and the string-aided titular track end the album as confusingly as it began, signifying a new direction for an immense talent. This is, in a way, metal without the screams and cluttered instrumentation, and Wolfe’s voice and lyrics stand out clear as day.