So here we are, a whole month into 2016, and we’re finally putting up our favorite records of 2015. I’m sure you’ve all been checking in daily since mid-December, waiting with bated breath to hear what we’ve been listening to all year. I say “you,” as if there are still people who read this thing–don’t worry, we know full well the only “people” still reading this are the robots who keep posting comments about working from home and erectile dysfunction. Honestly, those spam-bots write more on this blog than we do. It’s the future, and the future is weird.
As always, we’ve highlighted our favorite records of the year–the ones we love the very most and think everyone should hear. One big difference, though–we decided to completely forgo ranking the albums this year. At the top you’ll find each of our respective picks for album of the year, but after that each record will be listed in alphabetical order by artist. So read on, erectile dysfunction robots! This one’s for you!
Chris’s Favorite Album of 2015
by This Is The Kit
On “We Are In”, the penultimate track on This Is The Kit’s exquisite Bashed Out, Kate Stables sings “Today we are the same age / we have both been far away / but today we’re in the same place.” I’ve listened to this song many times this past year, my first full year as a new father, and for me it’s come to describe the miracle of new life–of welcoming an eternal being into mortality to share this brief span of history together, of how in the grand scheme of things, the 31 years that separate my son and I are pretty insignificant. From a widescreen perspective, we really are the same age, just like we really are in the same place. Of course I have no idea what Stables is actually singing about, but that song has become so entwined with new fatherhood for me that I’ll never untangle it. A similar thing happened with “Spores All Settling,” a beautiful banjo-laden track that felt like a balm when our cat of several years passed away in the spring (”so open out and let the clean air in / you wash away, let’s get some weather in”). In fact, I’ve had moments like this with every song on Bashed Out–whether it’s looking out at the Gulf of Mexico and singing “all we need is the sea / because the sea sorts you right out” to myself, or adopting “get up off your rusty dusty” into my personal positive self-talk (as in “Come on Tobler! Get up off your rusty dusty! You got this!”). It seems Stables’ impressionistic folk music makes the perfect canvas for me to project whatever I happen to be feeling at the time, making each song more personal and precious with each new listen. Every song is a gem, hewn out by Stables, but then buffed and polished by the attention I’ve given it until it shines with a soft, warm glow–reflecting back whatever I face toward it. Bashed Out has become more of a companion than a record for me this year–and as Stables repeats in the closing refrain of “Magic Spell”, it really is “rare and remarkable.” –Chris
I just said to Chris, “I’m on my 4th iteration of the Sorority Noise write-up. I’m ready to just say, ‘It’s an awesome album.’” It’s not like I haven’t gotten kind of sappy with other entries, that seems to be my go-to, but I just think this is a very powerful album. It isn’t your usual ‘emo’ nonsense. It’s ‘emo with a message.’ I will admit that I originally gave Sorority Noise’s Joy, Departed a chance because I thought my wife might be interested. Like many of us, Brooke went through a phase in high school that was defined by punk, emo, and ska; however, unlike most of us, she is still sort of in that phase (fortunately she hasn’t asked me to bleach my tips or wear a puka shell necklace). When it came out, articles about Joy, Departed were describing it as “post-emo” and “what happens when an emo band grows up”. I’ll repeat that it’s a powerful album, both musically and thematically. Joy, Departed is a mature treatment and approach to mental illness and the struggle not only to live personally with it but to live with people who don’t understand the true nature of mental illness. I think the highlight comes in the second to last track “Mononokay” where the lead singer, who has admitted to suffering from serious depression, sings, “Call me depressed and tell me to get over it. It’s not in my head and it’s in my blood.” -Logan
I think the text conversation between my brother Ty and I concerning Brandon Flower’s The Desired Effect is better than anything I would write (emojis will be included):
Ty: If the vast majority of the money in the world exists as nothing more than computer data and money represents human labor and we spend an enormous amount of time and energy maintaining computers and their networks….do we live in The Matrix? Are we giving ourselves to money so we can buy an inferior digital version of ourselves? The answer is yes. That’s just a crack-pot theory “rider” I added on to this message that is just to say, I think Brandon Flower’s album is as good as you say ☺. It’s amazing. I love it. An active Mormon who makes good art…..I have to reevaluate all my experience now that everything I thought I knew was wrong!
Logan: I’m so glad you’re loving Brandon Flowers’ new album. So good. And now that you are having to see the world anew, Brooke and I will save a place for you next Sunday during Sacrament meeting
Ty: Maybe I’ll send an inferior digital version of myself to sac meeting.
(Rant about socialism, conservatism, and Ty moving into our guest room.)
Ty: My favorite line (among many) from the Desired Effect “All my life I’ve been told to follow your dreams but the trail grew cold.” Springsteen wishes he came up with that one.
Logan: Now now. Springsteen would have said ‘road’ instead of ‘trail’ and The Boss would have said something about his dream breaking down on the side of Hwy 9…just as a saxophone comes in.
Logan: Dang. I would listen to that song.
(Long discussion on the new Star Wars movie)
Ty: I keep BFlowers playing in my car always. That album’s AMAZING. Like a sunny summer pop album but with a dark underside like Springsteens Tunnel of Love maybe. I’m curious what album you found that’s better. Keith Richards? -Logan
If you had told me in 2011 that Carly Rae Jepsen, a pop-singer that rose to fame with the help of fellow Canadian Justin Bieber, would have one of the best albums of 2015, I would have totally believed you. “Call Me Maybe” is the jam. EMOTION (or rather E•MO•TION, because life is difficult and typing should reflect the struggle) seemed to enter my radar amidst hushed whispers of, “Hey, have you heard CRJ has a new album coming out? Well it is supposed to be kind of amazing.” And it is. It really is. E•MO•TION is a Frankenstein’s Monster of pop-perfection. The star-studded production team took the best parts of pop music from just about every era (with some extra special attention on the 80s), mashed it all together with Carly Rae’s young and airy vocals, and added just a dash of saxophone to create something wonderful and endlessly playable (I am in the process of confirming this claim). -Logan
I recently had the chance to watch 1996’s Space Jam in a rented out theater. I walked away from that saying two things over and over again, “Watching basketball players act is rough,” and “Whoa. Do you remember Jock Jams!?” Jock Jams was a compilation CD put out by ESPN that featured pump-up songs like “Get Ready for This” and “Whoomp! (There It Is).” They were everywhere. You’ve heard these played at every sporting event you’ve ever been to. Terrible songs. Absolutely terrible songs, even if they weren’t forever associated with the briny stench of my high school gymnasium. These songs were meant to fire you up and they just didn’t do it. Chvrches Every Eye Open succeeds where those songs failed miserably. This record is beyond upbeat–the music and the lyrics seem to be competing with each other on every track to see which can get you to attack life with renewed vigor. I’m waiting for the day when my friends’ mothers begin sharing inspiring photos on Facebook with Chvrches quotes like, “we will take the best parts of ourselves and make them gold’ (this quote will be attributed to Abraham Lincoln and a Minion will be saying it). Every Eye Open doesn’t let up until the final track “Afterglow,” which is a perfect and gradual closer for what is an exciting album. -Logan
Sometimes a record comes along at just the right time–your defenses are down and it’s able to penetrate far deeper than if it had entered your life at any other time. Somehow, Daniel Martin Moore has managed to do this to me more than once (first with 2010’s Appalachian-set lost-masterpiece Dear Companion, then in 2012 with In The Cool Of The Day, an ostensible “minor work,” wherein Moore revisits traditional southern hymns from his childhood)–and now he’s gone and done it again with Golden Age. I wasn’t particularly anticipating any of these three records, but all of them have burrowed down deep into my musical soil, sprouting the kind of love and dedication usually reserved for sacred things. DMM writes fairly straight-forward folk songs, delivering them in a clear-eyed tenor that betrays no guile, here usually accompanied by simple piano accompaniment. Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) often has a hand in DMM’s records–and his wild-eyed cinematic vision broadens the scope of Golden Age just enough to catch a glimpse of something grand in the periphery (he shows up in a more corporeal sense with a fuzzed-out guitar solo on “Our Hearts Will Hover” that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Let It Be). Sonically, this record is the perfect soundtrack for the slow descent from autumn into winter, the cold slow exhale that takes all the leaves with it, leaving a gentle stillness behind. It’s not sad (in fact the overall tone of the record is optimistic–“our Golden Age is here” after all), it’s just content to be still, and to find some beauty and wonder in the stillness. -Chris
I don’t think Father John Misty (real name Joshua Tillman) and I would get along. I am basing this on next to nothing. He’s probably a fun and pleasant guy. Heck, who knows, maybe if I did get to know him I’d think we got along splendidly and he’d be the one saying about me, “Nah, not my style. He’s a bit much for my tastes.” The only thing I am basing this on is his music, and his music is exhausting (we all judge the personality of the artist off the music they produce right?). I Love You, Honeybear is tough–J. Tillman comes across as self-involved and cynical throughout the album. “Bored in the USA” is the prime example, and his apathetic swagger while performing the song on David Letterman was this album come to life. So… that sounded pretty negative for a “favorite album” post. I mean, I don’t do this whole blogging thing much anymore so I’m probably off my game (most would argue I had no game to begin with). But the thing is, while I Love You, Honeybear is all of those things I said earlier, it is also tender, beautiful, and, perhaps most importantly, genuine. There might be some cringe-causing moments but above it all, Tillman’s sincerity and the beauty of the music comes through. -Logan
Kieren Hebden (as Four Tet) makes exactly the kind of electronic music that moves me most–it’s inventive and surprising, often warm and inviting, and it sounds like a human being made it. Morning/Evening especially fits this bill–it consists of two 20-minute tracks, each one representing one of the titular times of day, much like the ragas of Hebden’s Indian heritage. “Morning Side” is particularly enchanting, riding its rhythm like a small boat bobbing slowly on an ocean swell, while the voice of beloved Indian playback singer Lata Mangeshkar loops over the top, adding a celestial sheen to the whole thing. “Evening Side” is predictably more sedate, but not to a fault–it manages to be a thoughtful, if slightly less memorable, representation of the waning hours of the day. The earlier comparison to ragas is especially apt on Morning/Evening–not just in theme, but in execution–this is electronic music not for dancing or clubbing so much as for contemplation and reflection–music made to soundtrack time spent outside, walking alone, instead of inside, dancing with sweaty strangers. And if it sounds like I prefer one of those to the other, it’s because I do. -Chris
In a Stereogum article earlier this year, the writer said she didn’t like a particular band because they “never (look) like they’ll die if they stop… there’s no bloodlust.” While that’s a pretty dumb reason to write off a musician, I can at least relate to wanting that kind of urgency from your music. I only bring it up here because no one will ever level that same criticism at Hop Along’s Frances Quinlan–when this woman sings it sounds like you’re listening to every last nerve ending fry in her body. It actually does sound like she’ll die if she stops. And Quinlan’s voice is only part of what makes this band so amazing–they’re dynamic and ingenuitive, at turns crunchy and jangly, hurtling each song toward its inevitable climax and catharsis. All of this, though, just lays the groundwork for Quinlan’s real gift–her exquisite songwriting. Each of Painted Shut’s ten songs are knotty and poetic, painting vivid scenes with a shrewdness and empathy that feels earned–some are pulled from her own life, like the unpleasant encounter with a restaurant patron in “Waitress,” or witnessing a man beat a child but staying silent afterward in “Powerful Man”–others are pulled from the tragic lives of others, like Charles “Buddy” Bolden’s public nervous breakdown in “Buddy In The Parade,” or Jackson C. Frank’s private one in “Horseshoe Crabs.” Relying less on verse/chorus structure and more on the push/pull of the narrative, she ends almost every song with some sort of lyrical gut-punch, which the band then wrings for all it’s worth. All of this adds up to one amazing album, one you urgently need to hear. -Chris
Joan Shelley is from Louisville, Kentucky, one of America’s true hidden gems. Ever since I moved to the Midwest nearly seven years ago, Louisville (which is a short two hours south of where I live) has managed to become one of my very favorite cities in the whole world. Depending on who you ask, Louisville is either the southernmost Northern city, or the northernmost Southern one–the state it sits atop is often dismissed as backwards at best, but this beautiful city on the Ohio River has a vibrant culture and thrumming artistic community that provides a convincing counterpoint to the presumed bible-thumping toothless hillbilly. I don’t know if Joan Shelley shares my romantic impression of her hometown (distance, even just a couple hours, is the most sure way to romanticize anything, to be sure)–but I can’t help but hear some of what I love about Louisville in her songs. Shelley herself contains similar contradictions–for all intents and purposes she writes fairly straight-forward folk songs, but wraps them up in ways that gently nudge them into dronier, more ambient territory, giving them room to breathe and a life beyond the ghettoized tenements of so much contemporary folk music. On this record, those layers are provided by several other Louisville natives–like the wonderful Daniel Martin Moore, who produced–Nathan Salsburg, who contributed his unparalleled guitar work–and Will Oldham, whose voice flits in and out of the edges of these elegiac ditties. Even with these talented collaborators, the record still feels uncommonly intimate, like every sound is just there to provide context for Shelley’s bell-clear voice–a voice that stands out like a bright bold thread in the lush tapestry around it. That thread winds through an unbelievable first half, from “Brighter Than The Blues” through “Easy Now”–some of the downright most beautiful songs I’ve heard all year–and into a mistier second half, illustrated by the short, daydream-like “Lure and Line” and “My Only Trouble.” All together, Over And Even sounds ancient, like it’s always existed–or perhaps more accurately, like it’s never fully existed, except maybe in the twilight between the trees of a Kentucky river bank. Or okay, I might just be romanticizing again. -Chris
Like a lot of people, I first heard José González in 2005 when his extraordinary cover of The Knife’s “Heartbeats” hit the US (specifically in this rather gorgeous commercial). Since then, I’ve stayed a casual fan of Gonzalez’s, but over the years I’ve noticed that most of my favorite Gonzalez tracks tend to be his takes on other people’s songs – Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” Nick Drake’s “Cello Song,” Arthur Russell’s “This Is How We Walk On The Moon”–while the rest of his oeuvre just sort of languished in my “like/don’t love” category. All that changed last winter when I picked up Vestiges and Claws— which is, in my mind, the absolute most stunning thing González has ever done. Like all his records, it’s hypnotic and enchanting–with his motorik guitar work providing the skeleton upon which the meat of the songs are hung. What’s different here, at least to my ear, is that his distinctively percussive guitar playing seems to be purely in service to these well-crafted songs, and not the other way around (I think this is how you could generally describe his cover songs – which is probably why I love them so much). The songs themselves are breathtaking–they sound lush and full, friendlier and less jagged than most of González’s past work. Songs like “Let It Carry You” and “Leaf Off/The Cave” are stunning in their simplicity and grace, only to reveal their complexities over time. Other songs, like “Every Age” or closing track “Open Book,” are the closest González has ever hewn to traditional songwriting, simple and straightforward in both sentiment and execution, and they’re better for it. This record soundtracked most of last winter for me, and has stayed a constant companion all year. -Chris
It’s really no secret how much I love Josh Ritter–the man is responsible for some of my most sacred musical experiences, both live and recorded. But even with that history, Sermon On The Rocks initially left me a bit cold. “Getting Ready To Get Down” was the first time one of Josh’s lead singles didn’t completely bowl me over (for reference, that list includes “Joy To You Baby,” “Change of Time,” “The Temptation of Adam,” and “Wolves”–all unimpeachable masterpieces in my mind), and even though I’ve since come around to love “Get Down,” I originally approached Sermon On The Rocks with some trepidation. And being totally honest, it still didn’t win me over my first few times through. It had its high points: “Where The Night Goes” is some first-rate Boss-worship, “Henrietta, Indiana” is another notch on the belt of one of our generation’s best folk-song storytellers, and “Homecoming” is completely and ethereally incredible. But the piece as a whole didn’t quite win me over. That is, until I realized how much my ten-month-old (at the time) loved it. And I mean, LOVED IT. He still does. Every time I turn this record on, when those first few organ punches on “Birds of the Meadow” hit, he immediately grabs whatever’s closest and sturdiest, because he needs some serious support when he’s rocking out (his go-to dance is a good-ol-fashioned headbang while holding onto something, anything, sturdy enough to support his little 24 lbs of dancing fury). It didn’t take long for me to realize that the more I played this record, the more I got to hang out with this tiny head-banging version of my son–and you know what, after about 50 times through it, this Sermon has me converted. -Chris
I loved Low’s 2013 album, The Invisible Way. That record was maybe one of the “warmest” they’d ever made–recorded with Jeff Tweedy at the Wilco loft, it sounded lived in and comfortable, like warm autumn light falling in from a window. I bring it up because Ones And Sixes does not sound like that. It is not warm and it certainly does not sound comfortable. If The Invisible Way was fall–painted in shades of orange and yellow–then Ones And Sixes is winter–icy, barren, bleak. Everything about this record is wintry, right down to the album sleeve. The drums are ultra-compressed, the keyboards sound like they’re coming up from under a frozen lake, and the abundant reverb gives everything a glassy, reflective sheen. All this makes a pretty stark canvas to paint on, but if there’s anything a group from Duluth, Minnesota, know how to do, it’s how to make something this cold and barren beautiful–and my gosh, are these songs beautiful. Aside from the indelible melodies and celestial harmonies you expect from Sparhawk and Parker, the beauty in these songs comes from their little details, like tiny prisms in the ice–like when everything drops out at the end of “Spanish Translation,” leaving just piano and the ghost of Parker’s voice hanging in the air, or when the palm-muted guitar rises up from the sludge in “Innocents” and slowly unravels into something vast and gorgeous, or the oscillating effect that spins the tightly-wound “Kid In A Corner” off its axis and out into space. The album climaxes in the nearly ten-minute-long “Landslide”, when what starts out as a cacophonous rage of guitar and feedback crumbles into a sublime Parker melody that continues for minutes on end–it feels like breaking through some sort of storm and coming out upon a beautiful frozen vista–cold and ominous, a little intimidating, but breathtaking all at the same time–kind of like this whole record. -Chris
I spent a summer in northern Wyoming with my cousins when I was about 14 or 15 years old. Wyoming is a great place for a boy that age because, as far as I could tell, there are no laws in that state. I grew to love fireworks and distrust firearms that summer but most of all, I watched wrestling. This was at the height of wrestling’s popularity when the WCW and WWF went head to head every Monday night. Not in the ring, but in ratings. This ratings war was brutal and surprisingly, very real. Stars bounced between the two organizations for bigger and bigger paychecks, spoilers on the results of WWF’s matches (taped a few hours ahead of their airing) were broadcast live by the WCW, and wrestlers from WCW/WWF got into actual fights. Because of this highly competitive environment both companies had to constantly shock and surprise the audience and I ate it all up. I had my favorites and I hated their nemeses. I recreated the best wrestling moves and takedowns on my cousins and I had a vivid nightmare of The Undertaker locking me in a coffin. So with this background you can understand my excitement upon hearing that The Mountain Goat’s next album would be based around John Darnielle’s childhood love of pro wrestling. I find myself getting caught up in the drama of the album as though I were watching those old matches between Diamond Dallas Page and Eddie Guerrero (brother to Chavo Guerrero who is featured in his own song on Beat the Champ). Behind the ringside drama of “Foreign Object”, “Animal Mask” and “Choked Out” (which are fantastic!) are the reminders that pro wrestlers are killing themselves in order to entertain, literally. Murders and accidents occur (“Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan”) but more often than not, pro wrestlers die young from the tremendous toll they inflict on their bodies. It turns out jumping off of a ladder and crashing onto a table 5 nights a week can have some lasting effects. So although I put aside pro wrestling ages ago and in no way does this album elicit any sort of renewed desire to get back into the… sport, I get swept away each time I hear it. -Logan
As a resident of Indianapolis for almost seven (!) years now, I feel I have a responsibility to stump for all things Nathaniel Russell. I was a late-comer to his work as Birds Of America–but now it’s been a few years since he’s done anything under that moniker (if you, like me until recently, haven’t heard any BOA yet–do yourself a favor and give a listen to Current Carry or What Was Birds: 2000-2011—they’re both quiet treasures). As far as I know, Sunlight is the first (musical) project Russell’s put his name on in several years–and it’s a good one. A reflection on fatherhood and aging, it’s slow and contemplative and bathed in ambient tape-hiss throughout–imbuing these gorgeous melodies with a sense of candidness–as if they weren’t so much recorded as captured, plucked straight from the air, like fireflies in a jar. They feel precious. A friend of mine described the record as “responsibly melancholy,” and while it made me laugh at the time, I’ve come to think that’s a rather perfect description. In fact, you could probably classify a lot of my favorite music that way–and I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. We could all stand to be responsibly melancholy every now and then. -Chris
It’s hard for me to express what I love so much about Nils Frahm. At first blush it’s easy to slot the pianist/composer’s work as ambient, and I often listen to him that way–but there’s so much more to engage with in his work that sometimes it feels silly to treat it like background music. It’s curious and thoughtful, inventive and sometimes even funny, as he takes a melody or chord, then stretches and kneads it in strange directions until it becomes something else entirely. He’s known for his dramatic live improvisations, but I’m most impressed with how his composed work already sounds so improvised, so natural. I also love Ólafur Arnalds, who’s responsible for some truly gorgeous music of his own, though his tends to sound more deliberate and cinematic. Frahm and Arnalds are labelmates and good friends, and after releasing some 7-inches and EPs together over the last couple years, this fall they decided to finally release it all together as the 2-disc Collaborative Works. The pieces on disc one range from droney synth experiments to piano duets and are, almost without exception, completely beautiful. But the real treat here is the second disc, which contains the soundtrack to Trance Frendz, a film chronicling their all-night jam session last July at Frahm’s Berlin studio. What was originally supposed to be a quick film for fans soon became something else entirely–in their words, “…instead of ending the session after the first take we continued to improvise throughout the night, ending up with several new pieces written and recorded in 8 hours with no overdubs and no edits.” I sincerely believe music is a sort of magic we’ve somehow been blessed to wield, and to hear two wizards conjure something so beautiful together in real time is a treasure. Collaborative Works may not be a true album per se, but it’s still one of my absolute favorite recordings of this or, frankly, any year. -Chris
For those of you keeping track, Passion Pit and Sufjan Stevens are the only artists on my personal year-end favorite’s list that have previously appeared. I know this probably doesn’t mean much to you, but it’s actually quite meaningful to me. Each year, I start an entry about how I’m afraid I’m not picking my favorite albums of the year but rather the albums released this year by my favorite artists (Portugal. The Man always seem to be the artist I connect this to). A lot of my favorite artists released an album in one way or another this year, and for whatever reason, they didn’t make the cut–Josh Ritter, Foals, The National’s Matt Berninger (as EL VY). I will never say I’m hip or current but at least I’m still finding new music to fall in love with and that will join the pantheon of performers I adore. But then there’s Passion Pit. I can’t escape it. Sonically, Kindred isn’t that big of a departure from Gossamer (Passion Pit’s 2012 release), and that isn’t a bad thing, but I think what really draws me to this record is the sense that Michael Angelakos, who is Passion Pit, is happier and stronger. Manners and Gossamer are beautiful records, and if you only superficially listened to those albums you might be shocked to discover that underneath that sugary pop perfection, were some dark lyrics that gave us a real glimpse into the artist’s personal pains and struggles. Kindred allows us to see that Angelakos is finding strength, support, and security. In my mind, it’s somewhat of a callback to Roky Erickson’s True Love Cast Out All Evil–he album itself is beautiful but with an understanding of where the artist was and, because of this record, where they are now, it is heavier and more meaningful. -Logan
I am so incredibly happy to live in a world where this mad Willy Wonka version of Ryan Adams exists–a version of Ryan Adams who, after all these years, has finally established an enclave in the neon haze of Los Angeles where he and some like-minded compatriots can churn out whatever the heck they want, whenever the heck they want, in between playing pinball and posting Star Wars memes, of course. It’s only this version of Adams that, in the wake of his recent divorce, would re-work every song on Taylor Swift’s blockbuster 1989 in an act of genuine catharsis, share bits of it on Instagram, and then, allegedly because of Swift’s positive response, decide to release it as a full-fledged follow up to last years’ self-titled record. Honestly, Adams has always been a strange, prolific auteur (see his laundry list of “lost albums”)–but I love the fact that he’s in a place where he can just own it, without concern for genre tags like “alt-country” or marketing BS like “a return to Heartbreaker.” My hunch is, you already know if this is for you or not–but listen: not only is this a beautiful collection of music, it’s a beautiful testament to the weird and frankly wonderful pop music landscape of the 21st century. And with all due respect to Ms. Swift’s original record (which I loved), the fact that Adams elevated “Welcome To New York” from a pandering cringe-fest to a legitimate jam deserves some kind of mention. -Chris
I’m not going to attempt to write much about Carrie & Lowell, except to say that it might be an actual big-M Masterpiece. That word gets thrown around with lots of Sufjan’s work, and for good reason–he works on a scale and with a talent that warrants that kind of hyperbole. But with Carrie & Lowell, he’s done something completely different. Borne out of the grief and confusion after losing his estranged mother to cancer, it’s a stark reflection on death and love and family and faith, and it feels messy and open-ended, raw and without precedent. It’s naked and spartan in a way that belies the complexity of expressing this kind of personal anguish–and I honestly don’t know how you do that, not on this level, not in a way that feels this universal, not without sacrificing what makes it ache in the middle of your chest. The truth is, only Sufjan Stevens, with his talent and experience to this point, could make something this perfect, this perfectly imperfect. -Chris
Last February I was in Chicago for a few days–my wife and I and our infant son stayed in an Airbnb in Lincoln Park and I took the ‘L’ downtown for classes. It was freezing and there was snow in mounds as bundled up strangers huddled on curbs and train platforms. Waxahatchee’s Ivy Tripp had recently leaked, and I listened to it incessantly on my iPod as I walked around the city (that’s right! I still have an iPod! How very 2006 right?). I fell in love with this record quickly over those few days–as far as I’m concerned, it was the perfect way to experience Katie Crutchfield’s odes to communal loneliness–in the crisp and vibrant Chicago midwinter, surrounded by perfect strangers. I’ve listened to Ivy Tripp a lot in the intervening months–and every time I do, the impression it left on that weekend comes drifting back, kind of like a silhouette on the back of your eyelids–the organ drones of opener “Breathless” forever assuming the wispy shape of exhaled breath on a cold ‘L’ train platform in February. -Chris
Well we weren’t planning on doing a favorite songs post for 2014, but then Logan sent me an email with his favorite songs and some brief write-ups, then I couldn’t help doing the same, and before we knew it, we had a list that we both agreed should probably be shared. But we didn’t want to do too much more work, so we present to you our favorite 30-ish songs from 2014, un-ranked and accompanied by our first-draft non-proof-read write-ups!
Logan’s list is on top, Chris’s is on bottom, and both are in alphabetical order. Click on and enjoy!
Here’s a short playlist I made a few weeks back after seeing The National open for Arcade Fire in Chicago (I promise to write something about that soon). It seems like there’s been a slew of one-off songs lately featuring the unearthly baritone of one of my favorite leading men, Matt Berninger, so I decided to throw all the ones I could find together.
They’re all varying degrees of awesome, but some stand out a titch more than others. The Forms song, for example, is hands-down one of my favorite songs of the year thus-far, while Matt’s duet with Sharon Jones over a Booker T groove is a very very close second. I also have a real soft spot for that Clogs tune. Enjoy!
For the last several years, the beginning of the Christmas season at our house has been marked by The Sounds of Sufjan. His Christmas EPs (released in 2006 in this fantastic box-set) are just about the perfect holiday accompaniment I could ever hope for: they’re at turns silly, hopeful, reverent, corny (in the good way), jubilant – you know, all the things that Christmas can be. So naturally, I’ve been waiting eagerly for any word about volumes 6, 7, 8, etc. etc… Well this year, CHRISTMAS CAME EARLY!
Gloria! Songs for Christmas, Vol. 6 (actually recorded some years ago) just saw the light of internet-day this morning! The 8 song set includes some help from the National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner, as well as Arcade Fire’s Richard Perry – so that’s pretty fun. You can download two of the tracks over at Between hipsters and God there is Sufjan Stevens, or stream the whole thing below (via rawkblog). Merry Christmas ere’body!
UPDATE: It appears the songs are no longer available. It was fun while it lasted!
Top 21? But weren’t there 25 last year? Well yes. And it was only 15 the year before that. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re not that rigid around here – all we really care about is letting you know what we’re loving right now and that’s about it. If we only fall for one record next year then you can probably expect “WiAC’s Top 1 Album of 2011”. It’ll be a good one, though. We promise.
That said, this year was a great year for music. But it was great in a different way than the last couple years. In 2008 and 2009 we fell hard for debut records by new bands (Grand Archives and Harlem Shakes, respectively), but this year our top 5 went to nearly all familiar faces. In fact, I think when we look back on 2010 what we’ll remember most was how artist after artist that released an anticipated album just seemed to deliver – and not just by making good records, but often by making the record of their career. In a year where we listened to more music than ever, we just couldn’t deny that these were the albums we enjoyed the most. Period.
Finally, remember that this list represents our favorite albums of the year, and not necessarily the best albums of the year. If we had to pick what we thought were the very best albums critically, this list would probably look a little different. But we’re not critics, so we’re going to skip all the posturing and taste-making mumbo-jumbo. These are simply our very favorite albums of the year – the ones that made us laugh, cry, dance, smile, press repeat, wet our pants, etc. Basically, this is what we’ll remember when we look back on 2010…
To get ready for the All Hallow’s weekend here’s a playlist of what we think are genuinely creepy songs. With only a few exceptions, they’re mostly low-key acoustic songs, the kind you might hear around a campfire, somewhere far out in the woods. Only a couple deal with “monsters” per say (one mummy and one vampire, respectively), the rest are centered around the real-life kind of monsters – bloodthirsty sociopaths on hellish road-trips, spurned-lovers who become violently unhinged, and nightmarish butchers who come for your children in the night. A lot of the tunes are pretty, but if you listen close, these songs will keep you up at night…
To be honest I don’t quite know what I was expecting from Sufjan Stevens this past Saturday. I certainly wasn’t expecting so much dancing.
Nearly all the dancing was by Sufjan and his band that is. I have never encountered such a static and unmoving crowd. People weren’t even nodding their heads. (Having never seen the man before, is there a Sufjan concert rule I’m not aware of, no dancing or something like that? Its like The ArchAndroid never happened.)
Its all really a shame too because when performing the songs from his latest album Sufjan moved. I don’t quite now how to describe his dance moves, which maybe, like the man himself, were entirely unique.
During the non-Age of Adz tracks (which there were few of) Sufjan stood fairly motionless in the center of the stage with guitar or banjo around his neck but still delivered like only Sufjan can.
In between tracks Sufjan gave insights into The Age of Adz, the influences, the themes, and what he was trying to do as well as not trying to do while making the album. (Chris already did an excellent job covering these.)
The true highlight came with the 25 minute + “Impossible Soul.” As Chris noted this song is an epic and performed live it is absolutely electric. On the way out of the theatre I heard a few people criticizing Sufjan’s use of auto-tune during that song, which is a shame, because that has to be one of my favorite moments on the album. Sufjan puts T-Pain and Antoine Dodson to shame.
The most jarring moment of the evening came with the finale. Lynsey and I both thought to ourselves as Sufjan started “John Wayne Gacy, Jr” that this couldn’t be the last song of the evening, this wouldn’t be the song to end it all on. Well it was. Chilling.
Although it’s been five years between Sufjan Steven’s triumphant Illinois and the new Age of Adz, the indie troubadour has been far from silent – a full-length collection of b-sides and outtakes, a box-set of five Christmas EPs, a mixed-media symphonic composition, producing a gospel-folk record (2008’s fantastic Welcome to the Welcome Wagon), and contributing several one-offs to various compilations (including the 10+ minute “You Are The Blood: on last year’s Dark Was The Night compilation) is quite enough to fill five years for just about anyone. And that’s not even including the surprise All Delighted People EP that popped up last month. I’m just saying, for all that’s been said about “Sufjan’s Return:, he hasn’t really been that absent.
He did experience a bit of a creative crisis following his creation of The BQE though, and it sounded for a little while like he may not even produce another album. He was fairly open in interviews about his concerns about creating music in an album-format and the futility of writing songs in the download generation, as well as his turn from precious indie folk to spacey electronic compositions. So I’ll admit I was worried for a bit that we really might not see Sufjan for a while. Gratefully, that’s not the case, and instead of disappearing into some mountainside cave, he’s given us The Age of Adz, a challenging record that’s different than anything he’s ever done before. Frankly, it’s different than anything anyone’s ever done before. Indeed he has traded in his banjos and acoustic guitars for blips and bloops and space-age dance beats – in interviews he’s described how he didn’t allow himself to use those instruments he was so comfortable with, instead trying to write songs from a completely new starting point. On top of that, he didn’t allow himself the luxury of his usual thematic songwriting – there is no US state or New York expressway or Chinese zodiac to tease meaning out of – so instead he had to turn inward for his source material – resulting in some of the most personal and explicit songs we’ve ever heard from him.
Completely pulling out the rug from under his own songwriting techniques, both sonically and lyrically, might prove an ill-fated artistic exercise for most artist’s – but like I wrote after seeing him perform some of these songs last year, this music is still unmistakably Sufjan. It’s also unmistakably brilliant.
I have been adoring Sufjan Stevens’ recent All Delighted People EP – it’s 60-minutes of beautiful music that is both completely new and unmistakably Sufjan. He’s tinkering more with electronic instruments and drum machines, and his recent turn at symphonic scoring shines through brilliantly on several of the songs (see “Djohariah” and the title-track). My absolute favorite track is probably “From the Mouth of Gabriel”, one of the shorter songs on the record that somehow utilizes electronic glitching, swirling woodwind orchestration that calls to mind Jonsi’s recent LP, and stunningly gorgeous choral arrangements – all in just about 4 minutes.
But as much as I’ve been loving this taste of what Sufjan’s been up to, I’ll admit that I’ve thought it curious that some of the strongest songs from last year’s tour didn’t show up – songs like “There’s Too Much Love”, “Age of Adz”, and “Impossible Soul”. I’ve been fairly confident they’ll show up in one form or another soon… but I wasn’t sure if it would be on a proper album, another EP, or some other internet-assisted way. Well, now we know: Sufjan’s got a new record! Woot!
It’s called “The Age of Adz” (pronounced Odds), loosely named after the apocalyptic paintings of the eccentric Louisianan artist Royal Robertson (1930-1997), and it’s coming October 12th. While Robertson seems to be the inspiration for the general tone of the album (that’s his work on the cover), it’s not based on him per say – or on any other specific theme for that matter. According to Asthmatic Kitty:
This new album (is not) built around any conceptual underpinning (no odes to states, astrology, or urban expressways).
So a state-project this is not. Additionally:
We can say it shows an extensive use of electronics (banjos and acoustic guitars give way to drum machines and analog synthesizers), and an obsession with cosmic fantasies (space, heaven, aliens, love), to create an explicit pop-song extravaganza, augmented by heavy orchestration, and maybe even a few danceable moments. Enjoy Your Rabbit meets the BQE. But with songs. Verse, chorus, bridge, backbeat. Gated reverb. Space echo. Get your boogey on.
Well today’s the day, and just as the prophets foretold, it came like a thief in the night. We’ve been waiting for over a year to hear recorded versions of the songs Sufjan Stevens played on that brief midwestern tour, and today we finally can. At least some of them, anyway. This morning, he released the All Delighted People EP via his Bandcamp page â€“ 8 songs/60 minutes that you can stream for free or purchase for just $5. According to Bandcamp:
All Delighted People is built around two different versions of Sufjan’s long-form epic ballad “All Delighted People,” a dramatic homage to the Apocalypse, existential ennui, and Paul Simon’s “Sounds of Silence.” Sounds delightful, yes! The song was originally workshopped on Sufjan’s previous tour in the fall of 2009. Other songs on the EP include the 17-minute guitar jam-for-single-mothers “Djohariah,” and the gothic piano ballad “The Owl and the Tanager,” a live-show mainstay (and Debbie Downer if you ask us; what’s it doing on a “Delighted” EP?).
According to the Asthmatic Kitty website, it’ll be released digitally on iTunes/Amazon/etc. on Monday, and physically sometime in December (hopefully). Cool? Very cool.