Top Ten (or 15) Albums – 2015

Heads-up… Wordpress has for some reason deleted their spell-checker tool, instead depending on the individual’s browser to pick up the errors–which is NOT fool-proof, especially in copy-paste situations.  So I apologize in advance for anything I missed in editing.  I hope WordPress will soon correct this lapse in judgment.

In case anyone needs some last-minute Christmas ideas, thought I’d help out and post my top-ten a little earlier than usual this year.  A lot of stuff came out and it feels like I bought most of it.  I’m sure there are albums I missed.  I know there’s a new Prince record that came out digitally within the last month that I haven’t listened to yet.  Didn’t pick up the Neil Young & the Promise of the Real record, even though I really meant to.  And I’m sure there’s that one thing I should’ve known was out there that I completely overlooked that will make it onto a revised top ten list later…  (By the way, last year’s list should be revised to put Against Me’s “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” at #1.)  But in general I feel good about this year’s list. You can check out the also-rans in my previous post, if you missed it.

Here’s the top ten, with 11-15 to follow below:

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You probably can’t see all of that since it had to compress to fit in the window…but the full-sized picture is very neat and well-spaced, trust me.  Here’s where we are…

1. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
I think I started talking about this as being the best record of the year the day after buying it.  I’m pretty sure I’ve even mentioned that on the blog once or twice, so this probably isn’t a big surprise.  I’ve described it as Josh Tillman’s visceral love letter to his wife.  (Josh Tillman is aka “Father John” in case you didn’t guess that.)  With lyrics as sweet and loving as you can imagine, but also gritty and a little ugly, it’s the most accurate portrayal of being in love I’ve ever heard committed to vinyl.  How sometimes you’ve got stars in your eyes, but other times the irritation sets in and all you can think about is how, “…she says like literally, music is the air she breathes.  And the malaprops make me want to fucking scream. I wonder if she even knows what that word means–it’s literally NOT that.”  It’s lush, it’s beautiful, and it’s real.  And it won me over immediately.  (The title track is breathtaking as well, but I’ve talked about it before so I’m not repeating myself.)

2. Bottle Rockets – South Broadway Atheletic Club
I wouldn’t have anticipated this one being on the list a few months ago.  I’ve liked the Bottle Rockets for some time, but I’ve rarely been as swept away by one of their records as I was by this one. (Although “Zoysia” came close.)  I recently wrote a post about how important it was to go see them play in-store at Vintage Vinyl on the release date of this record.  But I’ve probably been a little short-winded on the record itself.  It’s stellar.  It’s a relatively quick listen and each song delivers.  There’s one song I don’t like as much as the rest of the record, but even that one’s completely enjoyable–just not as enjoyable as the rest.  There’s nothing to complain about here.  From the working man’s anthem “Monday Every Time I Turn Around” to Brian Henneman’s love-letter to his dog to the poignant lyric “I’m a wheel no matter what shape I’m in” (“Shape of a Wheel”) it delivers on every level. I’d have been just as comfortable putting this one at #1.

3. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
I was a little surprised to hear myself saying, “It’s not going to be my number one, but it’ll make the top five.”  I’m on record as having adored Isbell’s previous record “Southeastern” and being a huge Isbell fan in general.  Got into his writing years ago when he was still in the Drive-By Truckers, and he got his hooks in me deep.  “Something More Than Free” is a damn fine record.  There are songs on it that immediately feel like old friends upon first listen (in particular “24 Frames” and “Children of Children” come to mind) and it’s a good listen.  It’s just that “Southeastern” knocked me off my feet while this one asked me politely to sit down and enjoy it.  That’s no bad thing.  I did enjoy it.  🙂  This album was #1 in Rock, Country, Indie, and Folk the week it came out and #3 overall.  Also #3 on this list, by coincidence.  It’s probably a great starting point for those who’ve never heard him, and for long timers, you’ve got a lot to hold onto as well.

4. Craig Finn – Faith in the Future
Craig Finn is known as the lead singer of The Hold Steady.  He has a “love it or hate it” delivery/voice.  I love it.  Even if you don’t, it’s hard to deny that his narrative-driven lyrics are a cut above any other writer working in the genre today, drawing you into a town you’ve never lived in with residents you’ve known your whole life.  Finn doesn’t exactly write concept albums…he has more of a concept career.  You feel like you’re walking around the small town in his head with every new release.  Some people are recurring.  Some people show up and leave.  And sometimes it’s just a song about drinking too much and making hazy memories.  His solo albums are a little more soft-spoken than The Hold Steady, but there’s still great stuff there.  “Faith in the Future” is a nice, relaxing, deep listen.  You’re lulled into false security by the music, but once you start listening to the lyrics, you realize he’s talking about a family trying to escape a religious cult, himself being hopelessly in love, and also mourning lost friends.  He’s a deep guy.  You should really explore that depth sometime.

5. Mumford & Sons – Wilder Mind
One of the more controversial releases of the year, just because there’s no banjo on it. That’s dumb.  It’s a great record, banjo or no banjo.  (And I PLAY the banjo, so I know what I’m talking about!)  This record had been reviewed to death before anyone even heard it.  Most people reacted to just the idea…  It put me in mind of people screaming “WHY DID DYLAN PLUG IN!?!” at Newport…  Here’s the long and short of it.  If you like Mumford for their deep, thought provoking lyrics and passionate melodies, you’ll like the record.  If you only like the banjo, there are Bluegrass bands a dime-a-dozen and I’m sure you can find one.  I think this is a great record.  Controversy alone would’ve promoted it to the top 5…but it deserves to be there anyway.  Most telling moment for me was when they were playing it in Barnes & Noble one day and I stayed until the end, even though I had it in my car and could’ve played it on the ride home.

6. Motorhead – XXXX: Bad Magic
I don’t know if the “XXXX” is supposed to be in the title or not, so stop asking me.  I’ve seen it there in reviews, but personally opt to just call it “Bad Magic.”  Motorhead (particularly frontman Lemmy Kilmister) has been plagued with health issues recently.  I’m a little concerned that they may be reaching the end of a long road…but if this were the album they went out on, I’d be cool with it.  It’s a great record.  Powerful and blood-pumping.  If nothing else, it’s worth the price just to hear their version of “Sympathy for the Devil.”  Lemmy singing that song makes the kind of sense you don’t get every day.

7. The Mountain Goats – Beat the Champ
Kevin McDonald from the Kids in the Hall referenced this album in a tweet he wrote, referring to it as a beautiful folk-rock record about professional wrestling.  That’s exactly what it is.  It’s silly and fun, but also heartbreaking and deeply emotional to anyone who appreciates the industry and gets what the road-life is like for the wrestlers.  I’ve been a wrestling fan forever, and this one spoke to me on a lot of levels, especially in a year where we said goodbye to Roddy Piper, Dusty Rhodes, and Verne Gagne.  Made me laugh with “I’m gonna stab you in the eye with a foreign object.”  Make me almost cry with “Work like a dog all day.  Born to chase cars away.  Die on the road someday. I try to remember what life was like long ago, but it’s gone you know. Climb the turnbuckle high…take two falls out of three.  Blackout for local TV.”  If you’ve ever loved the sport–and fuck you, it’s a sport–then you need to hear this record.

8. Refused – Freedom
This is probably the first album I really fell in love with this year and I was very glad to hear it.  I was a little worried about how the year was going, musically until I popped this one into the player and thought, “FINALLY a Top Ten contender!”  Refused put out a record like 20 years ago called “The Shape of Punk to Come” that pretty much hit the nail on the head.  They disbanded pledging never to reunite.  So of course they reunited.  And this year, they put out “Freedom,” a great hardcore album with plenty of screaming, riff-changes, time-signature changes, and crazy energy.  There isn’t a moment’s rest on the album…and that’s perfect.  Kind of sounds like “The Shape of Where Punk Went.”  (Except it’s much more metal than punk.)

9. Brian Wilson – No Pier Pressure
I adore Brian Wilson.  “No Pier Pressure” was apparently intended to be a Beach Boys album until it became clear that Mike Love remains only on Mike Love’s page.  I listened to this record as soon as it was on my radar this year.  It’s classic Brian.  People have been complaining about some of the choices made.  Yes, there are drum loops.  Well… “Pet Sounds” had bicycle horns and barking dogs.  Who do you think you’re listening to?  He’s going to make odd choices and be a step outside of where you think he’ll be.  And that’s very much present here, but so are the beautiful melodies and heartwarming lyrics you’re used to.  I found this to be a really charming, at times moving listen.
This list was completed a few days earlier, but yesterday my roommate gave me a copy of this record on vinyl for Christmas that was part of a promotional thing Brian did with Barnes & Noble where he autographed some copies…  So I’ve now got Brian Wilson’s autograph!  I’m glad this was already on the list and I didn’t have to move it up because of how excited I am about that!  🙂
(As a side note, if you haven’t seen “Love & Mercy” yet, it’s out on DVD and Blu and probably on Netflix or whatever…so check it out.  You don’t need to like the Beach Boys.)

10. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love
You probably know Carrie Brownstein as “is that the girl Fred Armisen is dating from Portlandia?”  You’re way off…but yes.  She’s also one of the guitarists/vocalists in Sleater-Kinney, and was that long before Portlandia was a gleam in Armisen’s hipster glasses.  (That said, I really like Fred Armisen.)  Sleater-Kinney went away for a while, like most bands seem to…but they came back strong with “No Cities to Love.”  It’s punky, it’s fun, and it’s deeply catchy.  Put it on and have a good time.  Talk note Taylor Swift…this is what girl-power ACTUALLY sounds like.

And because I can’t just like 10 things and move on…here’s the 5 that *almost* made it, expanding our list to 15.  (As usual, actually…  This really shouldn’t be a surprise at this point.  I think it happens every year.)

15.pngIt’s very frustrating that this photo is easier to see all the names and stuff than the top 10, but what can you do?  Here’s what just barely fell short…

11. Coheed & Cambria – The Color Before the Sun
Coheed has made a career of writing sci-fi concept albums that are all part of a greater story and all related to one another.  This was their first album that was not part of the concept.  You get the sense that Claudio (lead singer/guitarist/the guy who does all the stuff) had a kid and wanted to write some songs about his day-to-day.  This put off a bunch of Coheed fans, who just want the story.  But I think it’s great.  It holds up perfectly well with the rest of their discography, musically.  Musically it sounds pretty happy and upbeat, although lyrically it has some anger and a little bit of a dark edge in places–the lyrics are definitely a different look into the band…  But in general, if I had to pick one word to describe it, that word would be “fun.”  Pick it up, if you’ve been on the fence.  You’ve been missing out on a great listen.

12. Metric – Pagans in Vegas
Metric’s previous album “Synthetica” was my number one record of whatever year that was…  “Pagans in Vegas” has a similar vibe to it.  Which might make one wonder why it’s not properly in the top ten.  It was under consideration, but ultimately “Synthetica” hit me at the right time in the right place, and this one was good but hit me at a different time when I didn’t need it as much.  I like it.  It’s singable and a great listen.  In true fashion, they’ve remained able to feel pop-danceable, but also somehow anarchic.  Totally what you want out of a Metric record.

13. Pokey LaFarge – Something in the Water
A little surprised that this wasn’t in the actual top ten.  Great rootsy, folky, jazzy record.  Totally legit.  Feels like you step into a different time with speakeasies and all that bullshit every time you listen to it.  It was on and off the top ten a couple of times.  In brief, I think the above just stands a cut above it…but believe me it was a tough call.  Really like this one.  It’s fun.

14. Lamb of God – VII: Sturm Und Drang
Lamb of God is one of those cookie-monster-vocal metal bands where you can’t understand a damn word he’s saying and it’s a stupid processor not the guy’s actual voice (even though he’s a really good singer without it).  And yet I love it.  Really great riffs and stuff.  This one is heavily informed by the manslaughter charge that Randy Blythe was up against leading into the record and you can feel the weight of that…but with him free and clear, it’s kind of a good weight.

15. Iron Maiden – Book of Souls
I love Iron Maiden.  It was a VERY tough call to put them this low on the list.  There are some REALLY great songs on this record.  “The Red and the Black” is an amazing song.  But.  But…  This is the worst-mixed Maiden record I’ve ever heard, and I’m counting “X Factor” in that.  Plus…it’s just too long.  It’s a double-disc, and it should’ve been cut down to one.  But the bigger problem is the mix.  The mix is so bad I’m actually concerned for Steve Harris’s hearing, and it kept it from being a top ten album; almost pushing it into being an “also-ran.”  Great songs…bad mix…averages out to a just-okay record.

…and that’s it!  That’s my top 15 of 2015.  Are there any I missed?  If so, write your own list.  I don’t get paid to do this.

See you next time…for…stuff!  If I don’t blog before then, have a holly-jolly Christmas.  I’ll be listening to Dave Brubeck’s Christmas record and Aimee Mann’s “One More Drifter in the Snow” all week to get in the mood…even though we’re going to be near Springtime temperatures in St. Louis.

Also, as a side note, there was a “Planet Earth” documentary playing in the background as I wrote that last paragraph and I just saw a tiger bite the head off a monkey.  So that’s my Sunday wrapped up.

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