Sunday, December 13, 2015

My favorite recordings of 2015

 Apologies to all of you Adele fans. I didn't include her on my end of the year list because it doesn't make a lot of sense to me to hype a CD that most of you have already heard and that will sell millions of units without any help from me. For the record, I quite like most of "25" and I like Adele. But I am pretty sure I will be sick of her album within a few weeks. These are my favorite recordings of the year. I honestly believe most of these are worth owning and some of them will stand the test of time. 

1.)    Courtney Barnett. “Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit.” (Mom & Pop). Barnett’s second studio effort is a masterpiece that feels at once both casually tossed-off and meticulously planned. Lyrically always inventive, Barnett delivers ear-grabbing catch phrases with the panache of an Academy Award winning actress and a Joyce-ian eye for detail and humor . The internal rhyme of this lyric from one of the CD’s stand-out cuts, “Pedestrian at Best”  gives a sense of its irresistible word play: “I must confess I’ve made a mess / of what should be a small success / but I digress at least I’ve tried my very best, I guess”.  And check out this observational moment from “Elevator Operator”:  “He waits for an elevator (one to nine) / a lady walks in and waits by his side / Her heels are high and her bag is snakeskin / hair pulled so tight you can see her skeleton / Vickers perfume on her breath, a tortoise-shell necklace between her breasts / She looks at him up and down with her botox frown / he’s well-used to that by now.”  Meanwhile, three cracker-jack band mates whip up a wall of noise as tightly poised as battleship cannon while Barnett herself conjures left-handed sonic hand grenades that would make both Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix jealous from their graves.  What’s not to like? This was my favorite record of the year.

2.)    Songhoy Blues. “Music in Exile” (World Circuit).  The title of the album is not meant to be whimsical. It’s as much of a political statement as anything popular culture has come up with in this year of cartoon campaigning and the demagoguery of Donald Trump. When jihadist terrorists took over their Mali city, Bambako, three years ago, this 4-piece collective decided to leave the country. They’ve lived on the road ever since, bouncing from gig to gig and one borrowed couch to another to crash on. That they managed to produce a searing set of blistering African blues as inspirational as this is miraculous. Combining the subtle guitar licks of their homeland’s greatest musician, Ali Farka Toure, with the ethereal easiness of Moroccan bedouin music, “Music In Exile” feels timeless.  “Soubour”, the opening track, is a blues classic.   

3.)    Ryley Walker. “Primrose Green” (Dead Oceans Records). If the organic, natural feel of acoustic guitars floats your boat, this is the one record you need to own from this year’s great crop of albums. “Primrose Green” announced Ryley Walker as an artist to watch in years to come. It’s obvious from the first note that Bert Jansch’s blue print for Pentangle provided Walker’s artistic template. His songs showcase  virtuoso performances on his instrument and Walker’s gorgeous vocals evoke Tim Buckley and John Martyn in their prime. “The High Road” and “On the Banks of the Old Kishwaukee” are tracks to seek out.

4.      Sufjan Stevens. “Carrie & Lowell.”  (Asthmatic Kitty).  Stevens has one of the most wide-ranging curricula vitas in modern popular music. A chameleon of the highest order, he’s dabbled in musical state histories (Illinois and Michigan); Christmas albums; orchestral works; folk music, ballet works and, now, a confessional  tribute to his parents and an intimate case study in bi-polar disorder.  He hasn’t made an album that feels this constrained since “Seven Swans.” He delivers these family tales in an introspective whisper that make the heartache and tragedy feel earned, almost sacred.

     Kendrick Lamar. “To Pimp a Butterfly.”  Eight out of every ten critics have it at the top of their best of the year lists. 11 Grammy nominations herald its historic relevance to the times and draw comparisons to Stevie Wonder’s heyday. In a year when Black Lives Matter protests were callously marginalized by Bill O’Reilly as “a radical group… not all that different from the Black Panther movement", Lamar’s angry album was as politically and culturally relevant as Bob Dylan’s finger-pointing songs of the 1960s and To Pimp a Butterfly became a timely soundtrack to the media’s sound bites of white cops shooting black teenagers.  I didn’t enjoy it as much as some other things I listened to this year, but it’s relevance to what’s happening in America is impossible to ignore.

6.      BC Camplight “How to Die In the North” (Bella Union). After two forgotten piano-based CDs that were ignored by fans and critics alike, New Jersey native Brian Christinzio moved to Manchester in the north of England and quietly went to work on this quirky, gorgeous record. “Bold, campy, heartbreaking and flush with moxie, Christinzo’s third outing is a left-field gem, an indie rock distillation of ‘60s and ‘70s chamber pop tropes that prefers Nilsson over Newman, Todd Rundgren over Lennon and McCartney,” is how James Monger’s review for the All-Music Guide review put it. “You Should have Gone to School" and “Love Isn’t Anybody’s Fault” best showcase the songwriter’s considerable humor and charms.

7.      Mbongwana Star. “From Kinshaha” (World Circuit) If you liked “Kongotronics” by Konono No. 1 back in 2004, you’ll appreciate this Republic of Congo collective called Mbongwana Star. Employing the same “thumb pianos” as Konono, and singing retro tribal chants that sound as if they were recorded in Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios back in the 1950s, the recording has a live quality to it that makes it bristle with visceral power. Imagine you’re standing on a crowded street corner in Kinshasa, hearing the next big thing to come out of Africa and you’ll have a clue. “Malukayi”, one of the strongest cuts, features Konono.

8.      Father John Misty. “I Love You, Honey Bear.”  (Sub Pop). Josh Tillman’s second solo effort reeks of Left Coast hipster irony and white boy L.A. cynicism. Don’t let that scare you away. Think of Glenn Frey and Don Henley ooh-wooing their way through a Jackson Browne cover for an early Eagles’ album and you’ll know the well-produced studio charms of Father John’s sound. The sexually-frank bedroom details of his personal life might provide a tad too much information for the weak of heart, but so did the disintegration of Browne’s marriage back in the mid-1970s when “Late for the Sly” and “The Pretender” became classics. Like Jackson, Josh is a troubadour of the map of the heart.

9.      Waxahatchee. “Ivy Tripp.” (Merge)  Sleater-Kinney got better press and their “No Cities to Love” CD has landed on a lot of “best of the year” lists, but for my money “Waxahatchee” was the cleaner and more listenable feminist manifesto. A native of Alabama but a resident of Philadelphia, Katie Crutchfield put together a collection of songs that plumbs her past and uses the raw material of failed relationships for fodder in ways that even Carrie Brownstein would admire. “Breathless” and “La Loose” showcase Crutchfield’s fuzzy guitar rumblings, a hallmark of the album.

10.  Joanna Newsom. “Divers” (….) After keeping fans waiting five long years for her 2015 release,  Newsom finally delivered another terrific album. Newsom’s strength is an ability to create a world that seems entirely her own vision but that gives her fans access to a place of mysticism and renewal as frequently as they go to church (but that probably offers them a more uplifting experience). If Loreena McKennitt is your cup of mull, you should take a dive into “Divers.”

1    In alphabetical order, these ten records were in heavy rotation in my car stereo during the year and came close to making this 2015 list of favorite recordings. Brandi Carlisle, “The Firewatcher’s Daughter”; The Decemberists, “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World”;  Patti Griffin, “Servant of Love”;  Ray Wylie Hubbard “The Ruffian’s Misfortune”; Jason Isbell, “Something More than Fire,” Kacey Musgraves, “Pageant Material”; James McMurtry, “Complicated Life”;  Sleater-Kinney, “No Cities To Love”; Satellite Hearts, “Desire  Forces the Flow”;  and Tame Impala, “Currents”.