My Favorite Albums of 2015 (1-10)

I’m going to take a deep breath here before I reach the culmination of my efforts. Now we’re down to my 10 favorite albums of the year, the ones I played again and again and again. These things soundtracked my days at work, any time at my computer, my nights before sleep, and everything in-between. They’ve all made my life a whole lot more enjoyable, and they’ve even given me new perspective on music and artistic expression along the way. I love these albums, and I hope you’ll check them out if you already haven’t.

10. Adventures: Supersonic Home

If I make a music list, it’s going to include some unabashed rock music with ties to the endearing world of ’90s indie. Adventures fit the bill perfectly, and Supersonic Home has the big riffs, slightly quirky vocals, and playful hooks that my dreams are made of. The band don’t waste time noodling around, instead preferring to get down to the business of making memorable songs that never overstay their welcome. Adventures also have the benefit of possessing three unique voices that can be deployed in numbers at any point for any desirable effect.

“Dream Blue Haze” at once feels like it’s running away from something only to fall into just the perfect ending. The tangled quiet of “Your Sweetness” dares to bridge the gap between beauty and ruin, while the album closer and title track brings everything to a head with a big, bold bang. It isn’t that Supersonic Home is reinventing the wheel or changing the world of indie guitar rock to come, it’s that it does an exemplary job of capturing why so many of us fell in love with this kind of stuff in the first place.

09. Jamie xx: In Colour

Jamie xx is a vital part of The xx, a band known for doing as much with silence as it does with noise. It was perhaps a bit surprising, then, when Jamie’s first full solo album revealed itself to be a relatively busy exploration into multiple forms of electronic music. Jamie finds ways to create atmosphere out of thin air, craft stunning pop choruses, and loom large with thick bass lines. His work leans into the experimental world while one foot is still firmly planted in the land of song structure, and the result is a concoction of truly interesting but accessible music.

Take opener “Gosh” for example. The pulsating rhythm is pierced by whining leads and layered synths, never betraying itself as an all-out pop song but still proudly flashing its melodies in the process. “Loud Places” and “SeeSaw” both feature xx singer Romy to great effect. On the former, the duo create the most memorable and direct pop hit on the album, while the latter is a more fleshed-out version of what would otherwise be a scary-good xx track. The steel drum lead-in on “Obvs” is a complete misdirect that underplays how emotional the song will become, while the cyborg half-funk of “Girl” is a pretty good cap on a diverse group of songs. Jamie xx has a lot of ideas, and I hope he keeps letting them all out at once.

08. Sleater-Kinney: No Cities to Love

Most of the time, and I know this isn’t by rule or anything, bands aren’t all that interesting when they come back after a decade or more away from the fray. Sleater-Kinney care not for my generalization, however, as No Cities to Love is as fierce and restless as anything the band have ever done. That’s saying a lot, but the squealing guitars and pounding rhythm section have emerged from the hiatus with as much life in them as ever, a fact made clear right from the opening notes on “Price Tag.”

The sneering bridge on “Price Tag” and the lurching menace on “No Anthems” are merely one side of what the older, wiser Sleater-Kinney have to offer. The verses of “Fangless” are seriously dance-able, while the title track has a downright hummable hook. Let us not forget the dirty stomp of “Bury Our Friends” or the wistful qualities of “Hey Darling” either; 21 years into their career, these three women have enough ingenuity, power, and chops to keep going as long as they want to without any immediate fear of becoming anything less than engaging.

07. Speedy Ortiz: Foil Deer

When Sadie Dupuis is in charge, anything goes. Dupuis is the reigning goddess of off-kilter guitar riffs, riffs that skirt around the edges of melodies and still pack an unfathomable amount of punch. She knows when to pull the strings; she’ll back off and get pretty, she’ll pummel you to within an inch of your life, and she’ll get close enough to pop conventions to leave you wanting more. “Raising the Skate” and “The Graduates” are miraculous guitar pop singles that manage to channel the skewed charm of Pavement while occasionally ramping up the muscle. “Dot X” is a sick, deadly half-ballad. I don’t know exactly what “Puffer” is, but Dupuis is on record as saying it’s an attempt to capture her love of hip hop.

If some of the first-timer magic is gone from Dupuis’ music, that’s because she’s replaced it with ferocious confidence. Now she’s ranging in and out of traditional vocal melodies with determined precision. She’s unleashing into her choruses rather than simply placing them after verses. I could easily write at length about the merits of both Foil Deer and its fantastic predecessor Major Arcana, pitting the two against each other until perhaps I could almost come to an answer as to my preference. But I’d rather not, because Speedy Ortiz deserves better. Sadie Dupuis’ guitar lines are every bit as poetic as her lyrics, and she’s one of my very favorite musicians at the height of her game today.

06. Desaparecidos: Payola

It didn’t seem likely that Bright Eyes leader Conor Oberst and his friends would ever release another Desaparecidos record. The first was an enthralling and energetic burst of refreshing punk delivered in 2002, and news of a proper followup always seemed to fizzle before anything concrete happened. Then there it was, the glorious 14-song Payola, another deafening blow to the ears when raucous guitar pop needed it the most.

Only two of the songs on Payola even hit three-and-a-half minutes, and that’s just fine. Desaparecidos understand that abbreviated and hook-filled manifestos are the very best kind, delivering the catchiest political fervor known to man on songs like “The Left is Right,” “Golden Parachutes,” and “Slacktivist.” Sure, this is an album condemning the often sick nature of modern politics, but it’s a big, broad, fun one. Oberst lines the walls with vocal hooks, coming out swinging on every single song here. The guitars and synths (!) are enormous all throughout, and the lyrical content is excessively on-the-nose to the point that it’s both wildly entertaining and easy to take note of regardless of your beliefs. This is pop-punk of the highest order.

05. Father John Misty: I Love You, Honeybear

It’s pretty amazing what happens when Josh Tillman gets a microphone in his hands. Any mentions of Tillman used to be prefaced with a blurb tossing off his time as a player in Fleet Foxes, but the singer-songwriter has more than made a name for himself in his solo career. As good as Fear Fun was, I Love You, Honeybear is a whole different animal, a predator willing to feast on anything in its path. Tillman’s considerable wit is used to disarm and dismember, tearing apart its targets even when doing so seems unsavory.

Tillman has made his combination of folk, rock, and piano structures a worthy platform for his familiar and pleasant voice. It’s kind of fitting that he’s able to prop up his obnoxious statements with music that’s so easy to like for so many. When Tillman’s string-tinged arrangement calls for tender moments on “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment,” he instead tears apart a female acquaintance with lines condemning her narcissism and sense of self-importance. The country lament of “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Cow” is counterbalanced by skewed romanticism, while the takedown of modern life provided on the title track is backed by a laugh track to make sure we know Tillman believes himself just as fallible as everyone else. This is a personal statement drenched in sour grapes, one outspoken enough to toe the line of good taste without giving it a second thought.

04. Jeff Rosenstock: We Cool?

During his time in the underrated Bomb the Music Industry!, Jeff Rosenstock took the concept of sharing music to a whole new level. While Rosenstock was always a constant, his band lineup changed virtually every day, and live shows even featured participation from fans who happened to know the material. It’s fitting then that a man with this much to give through his songs has decided to turn inward a bit on his second solo outing. Rosenstock uses We Cool? to further his claim as the musician who might best understand what it means to age as an eccentric artist. These are reflections on the past with an eye to the future, not desperate pleas to leap into a time machine.

Musically, Rosenstock has turned into a more carefully considered version of himself. His songwriting is sharper than ever, but he’s still willing to destroy his vocal chords trying to hit notes he can’t, explode into punk anthems with little forewarning, and toss in instrumentation and tempo changes that don’t seem all that appropriate until they land. The sharply realized ode to realizing you’re a different kind of adult than your friends on “You, In Weird Cities” feels just as at home on this album as the country-tinged downer “Beers Again Alone.” Then there’s “I’m Serious, I’m Sorry,” a heartbreaking look at a wasted night and a wasted life. What about “Polar Bear or Africa,” a Big Rock Song with a destructive hook that seriously wants to know what the fuck we’re doing? Rosenstock is gleefully diverse in his approach to the period of life he knows he’s in now, and it’s magical.

03. Grimes: Art Angels

For what seems like a while now, Claire Boucher’s Grimes have been critically fawned over by all of the high-brow media outlets out there. While I could always appreciate the thought and talent put into a universally-respected album like Visions, Boucher’s soundscape wasn’t the kind of thing that was likely to inspire me to make non-academic revisits. All of that changed in 2015, as Art Angels finds the pop luminary looking at the styles of our times through her own slanted lens.

Boucher supposedly churned out Art Angels in about a year after ditching much of the work she’d done on her original followup to Visions. The fact that it’s hard to imagine such a quick turnaround is a testament to how well put together all of the songs on this album are. “California” is pitch-perfect pop, melding an unforgettable melody with the almost childish voice that Boucher likes to employ from time to time. “SCREAM” boasts a quick-fire delivery and an angry side to the singer I had yet to encounter. Then there’s the stadium rave of “Kill V. Maim,” perhaps the song that best encapsulates Boucher’s assault on what it means to be a woman in 2015. This a record full of outsized hooks, deafening bass, and electronic layering that lays to waste what all of those things have come to mean in the sonic mainstream.

02. Hop Along: Painted Shut

It would be reductive to say that Painted Shut is the Frances Quinlan show, but holy shit. The Hop Along singer began this venture as a solo folk act, but a full band aesthetic has treated her well, giving her a much more powerful backdrop to use her voice as the hammer of God. Quinlan is comfortable with the ever-popular indie girl coo, but she’s even more adept at going straight off the rails and letting her raw rasp dig in. She has the right tone for any occasion, whether it be the plaintive “Waitress,” the unassuming anthem “Horseshoe Crabs,” or the rolling “Sister Cities.”

Painted Shut is an exuberant rock record, a collection of songs dedicated to showing that sometimes it pays just to do what you love and let it rip. Full of big hooks, bracing leads, and thunderous drums, these songs are written both to give Quinlan an expansive canvas and to hook ferociously into your brain. There isn’t a skippable song on the album. Opener “The Knock” is a guitar pop killer, “Happy to See Me” is a tormented acoustic nightmare, and the disjointed “Waitress” is a diary entry you didn’t even know you wanted. It’s easy for me to imagine the end of “Waitress” addressing those of us who still want guitar music at the forefront as Quinlan yelps “we’ve long closed now, still you and some others stick around.” Yep, I’m still here, and I can assure you that I’m not going anywhere.

01. Deafheaven: New Bermuda

The beginning seconds of New Bermuda feature bells tolling, bells that foretell a sludgy riff tearing its way into the mix before it’s possible to get truly comfortable. This is a fitting metaphor for an entire album that, much like the same band’s 2013 masterpiece Sunbather, refuses to stay in one place too long or shift in a predictable direction. But New Bermuda isn’t Sunbather; while all of the bombast and snarl is still intact, Deafheaven embrace a wider array of influences and ideas to bring into the world a perfect followup.

There are five tracks on this album, and none of them want to be pigeonholed. It’s easy to call out the chugging guitars that form verses in “Brought to the Water” and “Luna” as homages to the band’s ’80s fore-bearers, but it’s a lot less easy to decide what to call it when both of those songs turn into a monster of an entirely different breed. The chiming melting pot that bursts out on the former and the fist-pumping crescendo of the latter represent decidedly accessible moves (musically, at least) that a band more afraid of looking soft wouldn’t dare attempt. It’s these decisions that allow Deafheaven to defy easy categorization and make music that goes to the top of the mountain.

New Bermuda is a slingshot, bringing to light a new George Clarke in the context of true compositions. The album eschews the short, transitional tracks of its predecessor in favor of getting down to business, and this permits Clarke’s haunted growls to run up higher in the mix while embodying the same surreal imagery as always. On the shockingly gorgeous “Come Back,” Clarke sums up what his band does perhaps without meaning to, screaming “ugliness stretching toward the chandelier/pale with pain.” And you fucking feel it.

No band member refuses to shine on New Bermuda, as Kerry McCoy’s guitar work continues to define a black metal sound more dynamic than exists in active musicians participating in more traditionally melodic genres. The slippery indie rock outro to “Come Back,” the Hammett-squall of “Baby Blue,” and the earnest Joy Division verse of “Gifts for the Earth” prove there isn’t a stone Deafheaven want to leave unturned. This is an exciting piece of music, proof that there is always room to expand established lines of thought. So the next time some curmudgeon tells you music just ain’t like it used to be, smile and be eternally grateful it isn’t.

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