I feel the need to once again apologize for such a long gap in posts. When we opened the store, I planned on making these blog posts a regular sort of thing, y'know, sharing thoughts on music in general, and life just continues to get in the way. I guess you could say that, at least we must be busy enough that I rarely have time to get some thoughts together, much less type them out in a blog. That does not mean that I have turned my back on music. Au contraire!
I've been listening like a busy little bee judging and compiling all the info about my favorite music of the year 2015 (so far), and here I am about to share those thoughts with you. I assume you will most likely disagree...I mean, everyone has an opinion, right?...but these are my thoughts and my hope is that something will click for you, and you will feel the push to investigate that music too. After all, we are now living in a culture where you have to seek this music out...it will no longer just jump into your lap. So here are the frontrunners for the first fifty percent (that means they might have a good shot to land on the year end list too):
1) BLUR--The Magic Whip
Maybe it seems cliche, but I REALLY love this Blur album. It seems like the culmination of something Damon Albarn has been searching for since the band sort of fell apart 15 years ago. Amazingly, it was pulled together mainly by guitarist Graham Coxon and producer Stephen Street after the band had a little time off to jam on some ideas while in Hong Kong in 2013. It's a little Damon's solo album from last year, Everyday Robots, a little Albarn project Gorillaz, a little another Albarn project The Good, the Bad, & the Queen, and a little Blur! A sense of being surrounded by millions of people who all seem connected through portable devices, yet seem more lonely and distant due to a lack of direct human contact, seems to pervade this album and is indicative of where it was created. It rocks, it's melancholy, it has heart, sadness, and even a little party in tracks like the singalong, "Ong Ong". There's even a little, dare I say it, Britpop in songs like "Lonesome Street" and "I Broadcast". "Go Out" even seems a little dark and dangerous. It would be a shame if this were the last Blur album, but at least it would be one to be proud of if it had to end on a high note.
2) SUFJAN STEVENS--Carrie & Lowell
Stevens eschews any desire for commercial success in favor of his art. What a brilliant choice he makes here. A sort-of diary observation of life as a child with his mother who has now passed and a stepfather who remains close years after his divorce from his mother, some of the observations contained in these quiet and personal hymns is almost too much to bear upon repetition. After speaking with those who attended Stevens' concerts this spring, every attendee equated the show to having a religious experience, including lots of crying and holding lovers close. The soft folk balladry in these songs goes beyond typical folk music and enters that Nick Drake-y territory where the lyrics in combination with the music become overwhelmingly moving and effective. I am convinced one reason this clicks so much with listeners is that we all have stories of growing up like this, and the way he articulates them allows us to relate to him on a personal level. It doesn't hurt the music is beautiful to boot.
3) ROISIN MURPHY--Hairless Toys
Probably the least known artist in the US near the top of this list is Ms. Murphy (Roisin is pronounced Ro-sheen). She was the lead singer of quirky electro-funk/pop band Moloko for over a decade from the early 90's, went solo in the mid-oughts, first making a very experimental album with producer Matthew Herbert (Bjork), then a super-commercial electronic dance album called Overpowered. When that album didn't sell the bucketloads EMI expected it to, Roisin decided to take time off, had a child, met another man and had another child, and seven years later has returned to sharing her music with the world. Hairless Toys is largely an experimental album mixing minimal house music and the unique stories and emotions Roisin conveys with restraint and sensuality. Less is more, and being one of the most underrated vocalists from the UK, she understands this here, and uses her voice as a tool of expression more than as simply a singer. Mini-forays into country ("Exiled") and ambient ("Unputdownable"), the eight lengthy songs here create an intimate portrait of a woman's internal dialogue after travelling the world and then settling down to become a homebody, and the disparate emotions that come with the territory.
4) FATHER JOHN MISTY--I Love You, Honeybear
One of the most refreshing albums to be released this year, Honeybear acts as a cynical love letter from Josh Tillman to his wife. Formerly the drummer for highly respected indie band Fleet Foxes, Tillman seems to be carving his own path of unique artistry here. Singing like a folkier version of Harry Nilsson mixed with Beck, this album has tunes galore, and who else could come up with lyrics like "Oh I just love the kind of woman who can walk over a man, I mean like a god damn marching band". Get it now!
5) FFS (FRANZ FERDINAND & SPARKS)--FFS
As the penultimate track on this album states, "Collaborations Don't Work", Franz Ferdinand and Sparks set out to prove that old mantra wrong with FFS (google what social media does with those letters if you dare). Franz have been around for about a dozen years and made a few albums, all sort of twitchy northern-UK funk and pop. Sparks have been around for about 40 years and made over 20 albums, and no matter if rock band, electropop, or orchestral angle, they always deliver with Ron's baroque-style keyboard playing and brother Russell's histrionic vocals to rival Freddie Mercury at his most operatic. While their concept sounds British, Sparks are actually from Los Angeles, using humor as a tool to create riveting lyrics, and they have already collaborated with artists as far flung as Faith No More, Erasure, Jane Wiedlin (Go-Go's), Giorgio Moroder (Donna Summer), among others (so they know their way around a collab). FFS brings out the best in both bands, and while leaning a little more toward Sparks in the song department, Franz pump up the rock side usually lacking in later Sparks material, making for the best sounding Sparks album in over 30 years. Russell Mael and Franz' Alex Kapranos do most of the vocal duties, usually sharing songs instead of just letting one or the other take over from song to song. It's amazing how well their voices compliment each other, and at 16 songs the album is so good, one never tires of it. Here's hoping for another record, and check out the new classic, "Piss Off".
When not curating installations of her art at MOMA in New York (as happened this spring), Bjork is busy making art. Vulnicura is her latest masterpiece, and signals a return of sorts to the kind of music that made her so lauded by critics and fans alike. Unfortunately, the album had a difficult birth, being based on the dissolution of Bjork's romantic relationship to longtime partner, Matthew Barney. She always can be relied on to pick interesting collaborators, and this album is no exception, using electronic producers Arca and the Haxan Cloak, who bring back the strings to delve deep into the sadness at the core of this project. It's even told chronologically as though it was a story, with the final three songs as a bit of retrospection. Even former collaborator Antony Hegerty returns for a guest appearance. Then there is the artwork...wow...
7) SUSANNE SUNDFOR--Ten Love Songs
Sundfor is a star in her home country of Norway, and has begun to start catching on more in other countries. US listeners might know her from the theme to the Tom Cruise film Oblivion (with M83), or from guest appearances on the most recent Royksopp album, but her clear as a bell voice that most resembles an ABBA member with gothic tendencies is at the forefront of her own recent spectacular solo album. Whether dark or light, electronic or acoustic, Sundfor's voice is the star of the show, and the album centerpiece, the ten-minute "Memorial" (once again with M83), shows how fearless she is by placing a 5-minute piano/orchestra interlude in the middle of the song which is in the middle of the album. The fact that most of these "love" songs are also about the loss of it or falling out of it is not lost on the listener either. Marvelous stuff.
8) LOWER DENS--Escape From Evil
Baltimore may have had riots earlier this year, but Lower Dens have little outright angst in their music, as Jana Hunter's soulful voice swoops from one octave to the next like a less-witchy Siouxsie Sioux. The band itself rides that delicate Chris Coady-produced sound a la local peers Future Islands and Beach House, and while Hunter brings a certain androgyny to proceedings, the music is nothing short of pleasurable and textured, draped with keyboards and perfectly placed guitar shadings. They even dabble a bit in krautrock, but mostly this is a vehicle for Hunter's voice and lyrics, and she is a star in the making. Look out Karen O...
9) BELLE & SEBASTIAN--Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
Stuart Murdoch and co. return with a new lease on their career, taking some definite musical detours with their first album in a few years. Incorporating more pop and dance elements into their sound, the lyrics are still focused on the personal and things very British. While the album was produced by Ben H. Allen (Washed Out, Matt & Kim, Animal Collective) in Atlanta, the poppier songs lean more toward Saint Etienne's style of discopop (see "Enter Sylvia Plath"), and may be a step too far for those traditionalists who want B&S to churn out the same type of indie rock time after time. Murdoch saw the need to change things up just a little, and for the most part it works. It doesn't hurt that this album's opening track, "Nobody's Empire", is one of Stuart's most affecting tunes ever.
10) COURTNEY BARNETT--Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit
If you don't know about Courtney, you should probably get out more. The best thing to come from New Zealand since Hobbits, Courtney is a feisty young singer-songwriter with a punky edge who tells it like it is. Sometimes things just come along and knock you out, and Courtney is that kind of a surprise. Lift that rock and check her out now. Her song and video for "Kim's Caravan" are particularly good for a debut album.
11) HOT CHIP--Why Make Sense?
Fun and funky indie-dance from the UK...Each album has a unique colored cover
12) UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA--Multi-Love
Psychedelic project now incorporates more R&B in the mix. A winner!
Still around! Possibly the catchiest rock record you will hear all year (and one of their best)
14) THE APARTMENTS--No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal
First album in decades from introspective Australian indie band with poignant lyrics about dealing with the death of singer Peter Milton's son
Is it rock? Indie? Gospel? Trip-hop? All of these and one of the most interesting records of the year too
16) THE VACCINES--English Graffiti
Super catchy British rock with a move toward something a bit more accessible to US listeners
17) WOLF ALICE--My Love is Cool
Debut from British group mixing male and female vocals over backdrops that shimmer and shine, recalling a more aggressive Sundays at times...
18) MARC ALMOND--The Velvet Trail
Almond stuns again with his 22nd solo album, his most accessible album in years, featuring Beth Ditto
19) PAUL WELLER--Saturn's Return
This latest album in Weller's saga of great albums continues the trend. If you miss things like Oasis...
20) DUTCH UNCLES--O Shudder
Quirky indie with a nod to David Sylvian's Japan and Roxy Music. Angular riffs and melodies with a suave delivery
21) JAMIE XX--In Colour
XX sound sculptor makes what is, in effect, a brilliant mixtape
22) LAURA MARLING--Short Movie
Marling plugs in and continues to electrify with her fifth album
23) BLACK RIVERS--Black Rivers
2/3 of the Doves make their own mark with this great record
24) MODEST MOUSE--Strangers to Ourselves
They're baaaaacccckk after a long hiatus, and recharged
25) SARAH CRACKNELL--Red Kite
Saint Etienne's lead singer with first solo album in almost 20 years, girly and British
26) BUILT TO SPILL--Untethered Moon
First in eight years highlights their best qualities, like they never left
27) MARINA & THE DIAMONDS--Froot
She continues to grow and explore what makes great female pop music
28) OH LAND--Earth Sick
Crowdfunded and recorded at home, Nanna Fabricius keeps getting better with an album that sounds personal AND professional, featuring her mom on background opera vocals
One of the best bands to come out of Scandinavia keeps moving forward with their happiest to date
Proves his Prince-ly love with this album of experimental R&B that'll keep pulses racing
31) MELODY GARDOT--Currency of Man
Gardot explores the blues more than ever, and shines on fractured and haunted orchestral ballads
Las Vegas own answer to Sylvester, Shamir has delivered one of the summer's most fun albums with pipes to match
33) SWERVEDRIVER--I Wasn't Born To Lose You
It's a shoegaze revolution with Swervedriver making their first in well over a decade. Buzzy!
Polished to a perfect shine by producer Mutt Lange, Muse return to rock their hardest in a while.
35) JACK LADDER & THE DREAMLOVERS--Playmates
Australian Jack Ladder comes on like a mix of Nick Cave and Depeche Mode...What else could you want?
36) JOSE GONZALEZ--Vestiges & Claws
One for the Nick Drake set, this album certainly qualifies as one of the most haunting and beautiful of the year
37) LITTLE BOOTS--Working Girl
Little Boots continues working hard to show what it means to be a working girl...electropop at it's best
38) SHRIEKBACK--Without Real String or Fish
The Shriekback legacy continues with this their best album since 1986's Big Night Music...only currently available from their website
Mostly a Colin Newman show now, the latest Wire album brings the band full circle, allowing them to play some of the catchiest music in their vast 40-year catalog.
40) FLORENCE & THE MACHINE--How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Florence has found more vulnerability in her delivery this time around, and she is more the better for it.
Thanks for reading! Thoughts?...