Five Songs from 2015

And so we come to another tradition in my stream of year-end rituals. The day after sharing my top ten albums of the year, I turn to the individual songs that thrilled me the most. In this instance, I don’t intend or purport to name this quintet as the absolute best of 2015, although they can certain all jockey for that title. Instead, this is simply a way for me to celebrate a few more exceptional musical creations. That means I’m largely eschewing music from any of the ten albums cited yesterday. As with most rules, there is an exception.

Kacey Musgraves, “Biscuits”

My favorite album of the year contains what is likely my favorite single of the year. This song exemplifies the abundant charms of Musgraves’s Pageant Material, especially in the playfully ingenious use of language that still radiates plainspoken simplicity. On any given day, I might hold up a different bundle of lyrics as the lines I adore the most. For today I’ll go with: “The holiest of holies even slip from time to time/ We’ve all got dirty laundry hanging on the line.” Hell, I’ve even got a favorite cover version (albeit one toward which I have a strong personal bias).

Carly Rae Jepsen, “Run Away with Me”

I watched with mighty skepticism as Jepsen’s album Emotion collected rave reviews bursting with shocked delight, even though I was very happy a couple years ago to unashamedly tout the pleasures of her breakthrough single. When I finally listened to it, I wasn’t a full convert (the throwaway songs push it too close to earning the dreaded “uneven” tag), but the peaks are pure bliss. At its very best, I can imagine this as the music Debbie Gibson would have made if she kept progressing creatively after Out of the Blue. I mean that as about the highest of praise I can bestow on a pop record.

Waxahatchee, “Under a Rock”

I didn’t know I wanted a throwback to the alternative music of the mid nineteen-nineties, when the influence of grunge dappled every last thing little morning dew, but here we are. That opening “Maybe” is the sound of whole era of college radio condensed into a single word. Somewhere, Tracy Bonham is collecting spiritual residuals.

Holly Miranda, “All I Want is To Be Your Girl”

“The days are short/ But the nights are long/ We could fuck in the sun/ And dance ’til dawn/ And all I want is to be your girl.”

Janelle Monáe and Wondaland Records, “Hell You Talmabout”

Nothing less than a sonic gut-punch. Let the protest guide the music, let the music underscore the protest.

Top Ten Albums of 2015

It’s been a few years since I recommitted to the task of offering up a yearly list of my personal favorite albums from the preceding twelve months of music, doing so because I was writing for Spectrum Culture. It was part of our year-end obligation as music critics. Because my top three albums that year prominently featured women performers, the editor-in-chief decided I was some sort of swooning sucker for female musicians. Never mind that my pick for best of the year matched the whole site’s collective selection for the same honor and that male-dominated acts comprised exactly half my top ten, which, you know, mirrors the male-female ratio in the world. To him, I was forever tagged as the music writer who’d grant women performers some sort of critical assessment affirmative action. Were I still writing for Spectrum Culture, he’d never let me hear the end of it once I turned in my list of the best albums of 2015. I’m not, though. This list belongs to me.

There are all sorts of rapturously received records that are not represented here. Maybe I’m out of step, but I found many of the year’s critical darlings — Sufjan Stevens, Tame Impala, Julia Holter — to be on the snoozy side. And here I’ll admit my prevailing indifference against most rap and hip hop since Public Enemy slipped into irrelevance leaves me shrugging my shoulders at Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, probably the consensus pick for album of the year. Still, this list shouldn’t be about what I couldn’t warm to. Great music is for celebrating, and I’m not actually claiming this list to be authoritative. It’s personal, albeit informed. So no more dwelling on omissions. Here are my choices for the best albums of 2015:

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1. Kacey Musgraves, Pageant Material — Plain and simple, Musgraves and her collaborators deliver the best songwriting of the year. There’s a little subversion to the messages contained therein, including charming but pointed refutations of the confining tropes of the current country music model. Pageant Material is a declaration of fierce independence, powered by deviously good hooks, expert playing, and lyrical turns of phrase that are both endlessly clever and natural as can be. It offers a sly revolution, with a wink and a smile, and then the occasional blindsiding roundhouse. Other albums in 2015 were more baldly innovative, but none were more consistently perfect.

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2. Grimes, Art Angels — This is the masterful music that has been the longterm promise of Claire Boucher’s unabashed explorations. Art Angels is a slam-bang inversion of pop and dance music, ferocious and coy at the same time. It’s a sonic sparkler sending off unexpected flares in all directions. For all the wild experimentation, it’s always clear that Boucher is in complete control. Hers has been an intriguing voice for some time. Now it’s the voice that’s leading the charge into next wave of borderless possibility.

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3. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit — Punchy and witty, Barnett’s proper full-length debut resonates through the paradoxical assurance of its groping hesitancy. The Australian singer-songwriter gives the impression of someone feeling her way through her own songs, as if the potency of her slacker revelations are a scalding surprise.

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4. Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear — The bedraggled troubadour continues his headlong tromping through the marshy wilds of his psyche. The gloomily grandiose alter ego of J. Tillman reflects on his place in world, most notable a courtship that proves settling down can leave one even more uneasy than before, but that the perpetual discombobulation is the most gratifying part of the experience.

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5. Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love — The needle was merely lifted. The record spun on. Sleater-Kinney’s comeback record doesn’t redeem the notion of band reunion, but it does further cement their place as the greatest rock band of their generation. The give-and-take between the trio is spectacular and properly exhausting. The whole album fairly glistens with a coating of salty sweat that comes from a night in the mosh pit.

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6. Kurt Vile, B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down — Easy-going and intimate, as if Vile decided to pull back a little bit after the fulsomeness of 2013’s fine Wakin on a Pretty Daze (there are no songs lolling toward the ten-minute mark here). It’s a good call. He doesn’t need the sprawl. It obscures the intricate smarts of his songwriting, a quality that has never been more upfront.

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7. John Grant, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure — Grant continues dispensing his signature soundscapes of the rapturously odd. Grey Tickles, Black Pressure offers up an engaging blend of cascading melody, gonzo pop culture references, and offhand morbidity. There are comparisons to be made — Nick Cave comes to mind — and yet no one is really like him.

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8. Chvrches, Every Open Eye — Say a prayer for the buzzy band on their sophomore album. Many of the champions of the Scottish dance-pop trio Chvrches vanished upon the release of Every Open Eye. It’s too bad. This album is better: just as strong at the peaks and far more consistent.

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9. Colleen Green, I Want to Grow Up — Every generation gets the Jen Trynin they deserve. The millennials have clearly built up a lot of good karma, because their Jen Trynin is fantastic.

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10. Shamir, Ratchet — Airy electronica and funk from inner space, coiled into unexpected textures that are somehow reassuring. It’s a debut album that feels like the thumbprint suggested by the cover: distinct, individualistic, and surely impossible to reproduce.

The New Releases Shelf: Art Angels

grimes.jpg(photo source)

I really liked Visions, the album released by Grimes in 2012. But I also found it to be a little uneven, prone to digressions that didn’t quite spin into full-fledged, satisfying tracks. Peaks and valleys are to be expected (and the peaks were absolutely glorious), but it’s nice when the valleys are worth strolling through, too. Still, every indication was there that Grimes was poised to make an album that could be deemed great without reservation. All she needed to do was take another artistic step forward. Turns out that step I hoped for is more of a long jump. Her new album, Art Angels, is plain old astounding.

With her new album, Grimes (the performing moniker of Claire Boucher) delivers an wickedly wise deconstruction of modern pop sounds, stripping tracks down to their core sounds and then embellishing them with elegant aural flourishes. That may be no more clear than on what is arguably the album’s centerpiece, “Kill V. Maim,” already one of the most discussed tracks on the album thanks to Grimes’s blissfully wackadoodle explanation of its meaning. Whether the supposed reimagining of a classic film character as a gender-bender space vampire is genuine inspiration or a spirited put on, the song pushes towards delirium, beginning with an airy, slightly sedated disco riff that gives way to a pulsing beat and brash vocals. In time, Grimes bends her voice through electronic fiddling to sounds like a kewpie doll that’s just giving in to a rush of demonic possession (“You gave up being good when you declared a state of war”). Meanwhile the song’s music keeps building in tempo and fullness, Grimes dotting its already maniacal wonders with little bits that alternately call to mind Ray of Light-era Madonna and the bizarro jolts of Cibo Matto. I suspect that no matter how many times I listen to it I’ll never quite be able to tell where it’s going. I find that thrilling.

Inspired sonic experimentation abounds on the album. “Easily” is built on a simple piano melody that keeps stopping abruptly, occasionally with the melty shock of audio tape being manually stopped, “Realti” often gives the impression of a pop song turned inside out, and “World Princess part II” percolates along to the jaunty underpinnings of video game sounds extracted straight from a thoroughly bedazzled subconscious. “Artangels” builds a genial sonic flow that sounds like an early Mariah Carey hit as reimagined by the Tom Tom Club in an especially playful mode, although, in a signature move, the lyrics carry slightly incongruous melancholy (“Angel, baby, you got me feeling kinda blue/ Think I need you and you know the things I would do/ Everything I love is consolation after you”) as the song seems to trace the whole arc of a relationship, from promise to heartbreak to personal rejuvenation (“That’s right, that’s right, that’s right/ I don’t need your medicine/ Gonna dance all night/ I’m high on adrenaline”).

The boundless musical creativity of Grimes is given further strength by the tough intelligence she brings to her lyrics. The songs don’t wilt under scrutiny, revealed as interchangeable odes to flashing light club life. She strikes back against the members of the music press (particularly Pitchfork) who confidently misinterpret her (on “California”: “You only like me when you think I’m looking sad”) and adds real teeth to the flares of anger on “Flesh Without Blood” (“Baby, believe me/ And you had every chance/ You destroy everything that you love”). And she recruits an ace collaborator in Janelle Monae for the pushback against objectification in “Venus Fly” (“Oh, why you lookin’ at me?/ Oh, why you lookin’ at me?”). Despite the pointed assertions within it, Art Angels never comes across as a treatise. It’s clearer and less compromised than that, offering open-eyed status rather than arguing a single side. It’s a state of the union address delivered from a superior pop landscape of the future. Grimes is already there, beckoning for everyone else to follow.

The New Releases Shelf: Every Open Eye

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(photo credit)

Any question about whether Chvrches will be able to adequately follow up the arresting pop from their debut album, The Bones of What You Believe, is eradicated within the first seconds of the Swedish band’s sophomore release. Every Open Eye doesn’t roar to life or even explode into being. Instead, album opener “Never Ending Circles” simply is from the very beginning, as if a needle had been dropped square in the middle of a eternal pop epic. The track builds its extended chorus on a fantastic hook, but it feels deliriously as if it’s all hook, indeed hooks overlapping other hooks until it becomes a steely, swirling chain fashioned out of repurposed disco balls, preferably by a metallurgist in strobing platform heels. Great as the peaks of their prior album were, there was a sense that Chvrches was of the moment, unlikely to duplicate, much less build on their artistic success. On the evidence of Every Open Eye, those doubts can be shaken off like so much sweat after a riotous hour or two on the dance floor.

As before, Chvrches draws upon the history of pop music from about the time synthesizers and other electronics started to usurp the iron throne guitars rested comfortably atop. The disco of the nineteen-seventies flows into the new wave of the eighties and that burbling eddy is met by spidery tributaries of house and trip hop and just about any other subgenre reflexively filed into the “Dance” section of the record store. The resulting body of sound is jubilant and bright, though its often marked by lyrics that hold more complicated emotions, such as the confident stroll of “Leave a Trace,” which concedes, “You took far too much/ For someone so unkind/ I will wipe the salt off from my skin/ And I’ll admit that I got it wrong/ And there is grey between the lines.” Lead singer Lauren Mayberry has one of the great voices in current pop, in part because she slinks up rather than bulldozes in, the layers of emotion emerging in an almost novelistic fashion. She helps the songs tell a different story than is immediately apparent.

There are times when one preceding era becomes a little more prominent, as on “High Enough to Carry You Over,” which moves with a little more on an eighties feel thanks in large part to Mayberry yielding lead vocal duties to Martin Doherty, his thin, emotive tenor placing it on level ground with any number of quasi-anonymous Brit bands that moved in and out of MTV rotation in the decade that it defined music. That’s not a bad thing. Many of those songs that flashed into temporary prominence were amazing. More often, though, the songs sound like they were crafted by someone whose psyche was shaped by a ride in a racing time machine. The charging “Keep You On My Side” has a periodic twinkly, cascading keyboard line that Giorgio Moroder might have dropped onto a single thirty years ago, but it also has the pounding insistence of the sort of dance music that only emerged a decade or two after that. Weirdly, thrillingly, this loose, lucid amalgamation of sonic signatures make the whole album simultaneously come across as sweetly timeless and fiercely modern.

I adore the bounding “Empty Threat,” the churning triumphalism of “Playing Dead” (“You can tell me to move and I won’t go/ You can tell me to try and I won’t go”), and the sugar-laced sadness of “Afterglow.” More important than the affection I feel for the individual pieces, I appreciate that they fit together on the same album, distinctive enough and yet clearly manifestations of the same musical vision. Every Open Eye is precisely the sort of outing I hope to encounter from a band in their beginning stages: one that signals purpose and, just maybe, permanence. And, by God, you can dance to it.

The New Releases Shelf: Pageant Material

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Best as I can determine, the only significant flaw of Pageant Material, the new album from Kacey Musgraves, is that it seems to inspire a unstoppable fleet of music writer think pieces, the sort of essays that helplessly consider music only in the context of some imagined greater trend. It can’t simply be that her second album for Mercury Nashville is a splendid example of songcraft, warmly and wittily performed. It somehow has to provide entry to commentary of the very nature of modern country music, usually delivered with withering condescension by music writers who’ve probably not listened to more than a half-dozen new country songs in the past year but are all too happy to adopt a purist attitude, certain that Blake Shelton is no Hank Williams.

I match the description of someone with only limited exposure to the broader music genre. I can’t contextualize Pageant Material against the output of Musgraves’s labelmates and marketplace rivals, and I don’t care to. The album doesn’t need a grand evaluative thesis attached to it. Entirely on its own merits, it’s a wise, relaxed marvel, grounding Musgraves in the obligatory culture of southern living (she hails from Texas) while also firmly declaring her independence from the expectations that come with that. Musgraves knows the rules, but that doesn’t mean she cares to play the game, which she addresses directly on “Good Ol’ Boys Club”: “There’s a million ways to dream and that’s just fine/ Oh, but I ain’t losing any sleep at night/ And if I end up goin’ down in flames/ Well, at least I’ll know I did it my way.” That’s the track that’s garnered a flurry of attention, given the perception that it takes a swipe at Taylor Swift, the slender Paulie Cicero of the music business. Musgraves rejected that reading while still remaining a little cagey about it, but the overall point of the song is echoed elsewhere on the record, as on the title track, which acknowledges her distance from the refined southern darlin’ suited for the runway before settling on a confident appreciation for her lack of accompanying artifice when she sings, “Sometimes I talk before I think/ I try to fake it but I can’t/ I’d rather lose for what I am/ Than win for what I ain’t.”

Across the album, Musgraves and her songwriting collaborators (Musgraves has a piece of every song, except a hidden track cover that closes the record) create a marvelous sense of place and purpose, returning to well-worn country song tropes while miraculously avoiding a descent into cliche. “Dime Store Cowgirl,” is a  pledge of allegiance to country girl simplicity (“I’m happy with what I got/ Cuz what I got is all I need/ Just cuz it don’t cost a lot, don’t cost a lot/ Don’t mean it’s cheap”), and “This Town” breaks down the inevitable tack of gossip in a small community (“This town’s too small to be mean”). Then there’s lead single “Biscuits,” which just might be the best track of the year, managing to slyly encompass just about every message Musgraves deploys across the album, with a killer hook and brightly playful lyrics (“Takin’ down your neighbor/ Won’t take you any higher/ I burned my own damn finger/ Pokin’ someone else’s fire”). And it’s all packed into just over three brisk minutes.

The pleasures on the album keep unfolding, such as the tender “Somebody to Love” (“We’re all livin’ til we’re dyin’/ We ain’t cool, but man we’re tryin'”) or album opener “High Time,” which is about as plaintive and elegant as a song can get when it’s (likely) about getting stoned. There’s barely a misstep to be found. I doubt Musgraves intends what’s here to be some big statement, beyond a clear expression of herself. Pageant Material needs have no greater intellectual heft or voluminous subtext. It can stand as one of the most important albums of the year simply because it’s one of the best albums of the year. Think on that.

The New Releases Shelf: Holly Miranda

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These Holly Miranda albums take time. After the 2004 debut release that she hawked at shows, the by-then former Jealous Girlfriend released a proper solo bow in 2010. That didn’t even have a quick turnaround time from studio to record store, with it sitting idly on the shelf until Miranda signed with XL Recordings in 2010. That pairing of artist and label wasn’t meant to last, though, and Miranda started working on her next album on her own, eventually connecting with Dangerbird Records. The result is technically her third album, and yet it bears her own name. Like all self-titled releases that come later in a career, it begs examination as to why that choice was made.  Is it the result of a lack of ideas, or, as with the most recent St. Vincent full-length, does it imply that this is the performer’s most clear statement of artistic self yet?

In the case of Holly Miranda, it seems the performer is signaling that a rewarding creative reboot is underway. There are statements throughout the album of a vigor so renewed that it feels like a freshly formed identity is shimmering into place, that a stronger sense of self is not only being expressed but has recently been discovered. As she sings on the ruminative “Until Now,” “I never even tried to run fast until now/ There’s been no comfort in this sound until now.” And it’s not hard to fathom why the sound of this music might be comforting, to her and to anyone who might listen in. The lush pop construction is like a blanket fresh from the dryer, a little too irresistible to get wrapped up in.

All that soft sonic richness can sometimes be a little too plush, bogging a song down in its own elegance. “Everlasting” is almost too tender, and “Pelican Rapids” pushes dreaminess into the realm of sleepiness. Like many artists who traffic in this sort of sound, Miranda is most interesting when she throws some flinty surprises into the mix, as on the fantastic single “All I Want Is to Be Your Girl.” It’s immediately sugary-sweet with just a tinge of that distorted sixties girl group pop that sometimes feels inescapable in the modern indie-pop world, and then it delivers the curveball with the attention-getting opening lines “The days are shorter but the nights are long/ We could fuck in the sun and dance til dawn.” Wonderfully, there’s no sense of provocation to the lyric, no Phair-ian baiting for attention. It’s as tender and kind-hearted as anything that might show up on a She & Him record, and it works all the better for it.

Across the album, Miranda shows the range that can exist within her style. “Whatever You Want” is a more successful version of that take on nineteen-eighties pop if disco had never died that Rilo Kiley tried a few years back, and “Desert Call” is a seductive shuffle of a song with a powerful vocal, the sort of thing that could have been the emotional centerpiece of a old Linda Ronstadt album, which I mean as a mighty compliment. I even get charged up by some of the nifty flourishes, such as the little echoes of lines on “Come On” (“Not scared, not scared”). None of this material necessarily is so profound or brilliantly artful that the need for a gradual pace of creation can be found within the tracks, but it’s also strong enough that it helps make an argument for the virtuousness of patience. After all, music this good is welcome any time.

The New Releases Shelf: I Love You, Honeybear

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Though I suppose it doesn’t matter so much on record, Father John Misty definitely looks the part. The identity adopted by Josh Tillman, at least as far back as the exemplary 2012 album Fear Fun, calls to mind some odd and mildly lackadaisical man of the cloth, which is roughly what the singer-songwriter presents with his lanky frame, propensity for bargain suits, and a beard so thick and bodacious it looks like the merest provocation could send it scuttling off to begin a new life as an especially posh footstool. He looks like he’s comes in from a gnarly forest after a misguided spirit quest, or maybe he’s presiding over some chill SoCal cult that worships melancholy melodies.

Luckily, it’s not only the visuals that help sell the persona. Tillman crafts music that resonates with a spirituality of the creative soul. He’s a storyteller who somehow mixes a fabulist streak with a commitment to fierce emotional honesty. He’s constantly engaged in spinning a tall tale of impeccable truth. On Fear Fun, that often manifested as a modernized version of the nineteen-seventies saga-spinners of the Laurel Canyon scene, as though he were co-writing with the ghosts of his newly claimed Los Angeles home. Accordingly, the new album, I Love You, Honeybear, moves forward on the fictional time continuum by a few years, with Tillman’s alter ego making a record that smacks of the greatest late decade disco-soul that never was. “True Affection” begs for a floor of flashing rainbow lights that folks might get around to dancing on once they’re done nursing their Tanqueray and Tabs, and “The Ideal Husband” lopes along like it’s lazily trying to make it way through a torrential downpour of shiny streamers. It’s party record for the part of the night when eighty-five percent of the attendees have collapsed into the rec room shag carpeting or wandered off to sleep in the shed.

It’s also a great record about falling in love, precisely because it addresses the transformative experience as less misty wonderfulness and more of an opportunity for confusion and a healthy touch of panic. As he sings on “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” (candor is one of the defining qualities of the album), around some moody, softly-intoned guitar licks that could have been transplanted from a John Lennon record, “I can hardly believe I’ve found you and I’m terrified by that.” On some level, it’s the story of his courtship with Emma, who became his wife, and while Tillman occasionally betrays some twisty complications (“The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment” opens with the lines, “Oh, I just love the kind of woman who can walk over a man/ I mean like a goddamn marching band”), it’s clear the relationship is ultimately a victory for him. As the album opening title cut asserts with gallows affection, “But don’t ever doubt this/ My steadfast conviction/ My love, you’re the one I want to watch the ship go down with.”

I Love You, Honeybear has the intimacy of an album composed entirely on acoustic guitar, in a lonely room with a cigarette burning nearby and a glass of scotch untouched but ready in case of emergency. But it’s also been given added sonic richness with the deployment of tender strings, unobtrusive piano, and, in one memorable instance, a coldly ironic laugh track (on “Bored in the USA,” which has been an cool kid sensation since Father John Misty introduced it last fall). Tillman says the textures stem from Emma confronting his artistic struggles by saying, “You just can’t be afraid to let these songs be beautiful.” In opposition to Tillman’s initial worry, that choice didn’t turn the tracks into treacly glop. Instead, it gave him the fortitude to take the next appropriate step as a creator, finding the right backdrop for a flaying open of his suddenly, spectacularly vulnerable soul.

(picture nicked from elsewhere)