These are a dozen CDs I have been listening to for the first half of 2015. It's already been an amazing year for recorded music so far. It's hard to know how many of these will still be in heavy rotation in my CD player when I compile my end of the year list, but some of these are too good to ignore. I am arranging them here in a rough semblance of alphabetical order.
Cortney Barnett can turn an off-handed comment into a punk rocker's manifesto. When her keenest observations are backed by power pop hooks and razor sharp guitar licks, they speak with authority. The Aussie singer-songwriter has become something of a fixture among indie rock fans and XPN listeners. What surprised me most of all, at a sold-out show I caught last week at the Union Transfer, is that fans at that show ranged from 15 to 75, and that none of them went home disappointed to have their ears so blissfully shredded. Few performers can bridge a generation gap that large.
Fr. John Misty. "I Love You, Honey Bear." (Subpop) Josh Tillman, the former drummer for the Fleet Foxes, released his second solo album this spring under his stage name, Father John Misty. It reeks of a West Coast vibe generated from your above average 'shroom high (I mean that as a compliment). Think of the Eagles and those Laurel Canyon songwriters back in the mid-1970s and you'll have a good idea of the kind of feel-good sound Tillman is searching for. Jennifer Jonson, in her 405 review, put it this way: "he is more archtype than alter-ego. I Love You, Honey Bear is drenched in predictable debauchery and misogyny, but just when you think Tillman is method acting or keeping up appearances, he strays toward self-conscious profundity."
Heartless Bartards. "Restless Ones." (Partisan) The Heartless Bastards' lead signer, Erika Wennerstrom, sounds like an edgier version of Lucinda Williams. She howls her lyrics more than she sings them but the angst she unlooses feels like a shot of 86 proof Jack Daniels. Janis would be proud of her. Her band rocks as hard and plays as tight as any in indie rock. Restless Ones may be their most accomplished album. "Black Cloud," "The Fool" and "Wind-up Bird" are three that will test the sound limits of your car stereo speakers because they are all crank worthy.
Ray Wylie Hubbard. "The Ruffian's Misfortune". (Bordello Records) The Ruffian's Misfortune is full of fine, smoky grooves with just the right amount of gravel-road growl, and the quiet songs like "Barefoot in Heaven" and "Too Young Ripe, Too Young Rotten" are played and sung with a strength that rivals rowdy hell-raisers like "Bad on Fords" and "Chick Singer Badass Rockin'," the latter a high-octane tribute to women with guitars and attitude in equal proportion. Hubbard can sound defiant, sorrowful, or compassionate with the same degree of emotional power, and whether he's bragging about bad deeds or mourning a life gone wrong, Hubbard's lyrics are intelligent and perceptive, and he draws his characters with a clarity that's artful but never pretentious.
Kendrick Lamar. "To Pimp a Butterfly". (Spacebomb) The hip-hop CD of the year so far, bound to be near the top of the national ten best lists come December. Lamar's second full-length album is loaded with ear-pleasing loops and clever rhymes. "My Baby Don't Understand Me" could be straight out of the Marvin Gaye canon of 1973 while "Christy" suggests Lamar might have a career in music theater if the hip hop career doesn't take off. Don't take the Broadway bet. Kendrick Lamar has "superstar" written on every track.
James McMurtrey. "Complicated Game." (Complicated Game) I caught an abbreviated McMurtry solo set at the XPN Non-Comm conference in May and McMurtry unveiled some of his best songs from this collection of world-weary tunes. Using a deadpan West Texas drawl and some fancy string work on his acoustic guitar, he held several hundred listeners in the palm of his hand as we collectively waited for the next ironic, hilariously ironic bon mot to drop out of his mouth. If you like to hear home spun narratives in your favorite songs, this is a record you will endlessly return to for its wit and wisdom.
Mbongwana Star. "From Kinshasa". (World Circuit) If you liked "Kongotronics" by Konono No. 1 back in 2004, you'll appreciate this Republic of Congo nod to that wonderful album of Afro-pop inventiveness. Employing the same "thumb pianos" as Konono, and singing retro tribal chants that sound as if they were recorded back in the '50s in Sun Studios, the recording has a live "street performance" quality to it that makes the music feel alive, visceral and relevant. If you want to imagine what it's like to be standing on a street corner in Kinshasa, hearing the next big African thing, this is a CD to get. "Malukayi", one of the stronger cuts on the album, features Konono.
Sufjan Stevens. "Carrie & Lowell". Stevens most thoughtful collection of songs yet. This one plunges headlong into an emotional exploration of the meaning of family and its emotional trappings. It's named after Steven's mother, a long-time drug addict, who frequently left Stevens to the care of his detached step-father while she spiraled into the abyss. Sung with the kind of confidence and off-the-cuff earnestness of Nick Drake, this is Stevens' most mournful collection of songs but a celebration of life's great unanswerable questions.
Waxahatchee. "Ivy Tripp" (Merge). Katie Crutchfield performs under the name Waxahatchee, a creek near her home in Alabama. This is her third album and it received a rare rave from the New Yorker back in March. She received a welcome boost from guitar virtuosos Tegan and Sara during a summer tour two years ago and her Cerulean Salt CD was hyped as one of the best albums of that year. "Ivy Tripp" may be even better. The first cut, "Breathless" is a reflective gem that might be one of my favorite songs of the year so far. She's a talent to watch, for sure.
Ryley Walker. "Primrose Green" (Dead Oceans Records) I caught Ryley Walker at the Boot and Saddle back in February, opening for a band not nearly as accomplished as he is. He bought to mind the timber and singing style of Tim Buckley but Buckley could never match the tasteful ease that Walker brings to the guitar. His finger picking style has a luminous, relaxed almost classical quality. One of his encore tunes was Van Morrison's "Fair Play" from Veedon Fleece and that said as much about his savvy musical choices and influences as anyof the originals he performed. He's not a rocker, but don't that stop you from indulging this great CD.
Sleater-Kinney. "No Cities To Love." (Subpop) It's been 10 long years since Sleater-Kinney released "The Woods". There have been some notable side projects, including a Carrie Brownstein solo album and the Wild Flag debut. But you'd never know they were gone as a unit if you give "No Cities To Love"a spin. It's arguably their best record yet (and that's saying something). Loaded with bleeding finger riffs and howling guitars, this is a record the Buzzcocks, the Stones or the Who would have been proud to claim as their own. Visceral, in all the best ways possible. "Gimme Love" and "Hey Darling" are two that deserve radio play.
Songhai Blues -- Music In Exile (Atlantic) Three years ago, when armed jihadist banned music in their hometown, Songhai Blues decided it was a good time to relocate from their home town to the capital of Mali, Bambako. That may explain the title of this remarkable collection of songs. Combining the blues licks of Mali's greatest musician, Ali Farka Toure, with the swirling, ethereal easiness of Morocco's desert bedouins, Tinariwen, Songhai Blues has crafted their own African masterpiece. This one is a sure bet to make my final list in January. "Soubour" is a track to find on YouTube if you're curious to hear an instant classic.