Top Albums of 2015 | Mike Rengel

2015MusicAnyone who still harbors memories of the vitality and romance of finding weirdos like you will not only relate to but celebrate the naked vitality coursing through Beach Slang’s The Things We Do.




Perennial disclaimer: This is by no means an attempt to determine the undeterminable “best” albums of 2015. It’s fun to compile a list of favorites, compare notes, engage in vigorous, good-natured debate, justify your own picks, and hear others’ rationales for theirs. But you can’t grade and quantify these things; art is subjective. That said, these were my favorite and most listened-to records of the year. Not that I heard everything released; that’s impossible. But I am seeking out new tunes on a daily basis, as well as listening to music pretty much 90% of all waking hours, so I’d like to think I did a respectable job of hearing a semi-representative segment of the endless sea of sounds.

Before we kick things off, for a personally curated Spotify playlist containing selections from the following albums, and plenty more of 2015’s bounty, point your internet engine here!

Courtney Barnett | Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Milk!/Mom + Pop)

Courtney Barnett is a triumph of substance over flash, wringing meaning and great insight out of remarkable tales of micro moments and the mundane. That’s not to say “boring.” Read: action packed; small scale. It’s an approach that, coupled with her deadpan vocal style, means casual listens might not immediately hammer home how insightful, witty, and frequently deeply affecting her songs are.

Sometimes I Sit and Think… further develops the blend of coffeehouse acoustic jams, garage rock (almost reminiscent of the fuzzy, buzzy, ramshackle indie pop of New Zealand’s venerable Flying Nun label), and lo-fi singer/songwriter that characterized Barnett’s 2013 collection The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. Tunes like “Depreston” and “Boxing Day Blues” occupy the affectingly personal, low-key, sparse, country-folk end of the spectrum, with “Pedestrian at Best” a stonking, overdriven rocker showcasing her wryly funny, idiosyncratic allure. Bouncy, infectious opener “Elevator Operator” is somehow equal parts They Might Be Giants, mid-1990s Blur, and The Kinks. “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party” navigates the divide between introverts and extroverts via wiry guitars. “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)” embodies and exudes the exhausted alertness of jet lag and temporal/spatial displacement via a languid, yet twitchy groove.

You can almost hear Barnett’s fine-toothed gears moving as she observes and describes; she’s one of those songwriters who sees the story in everything, but on a small scale via character sketches and short stories. While I don’t rank my favorite albums of the year, Sometimes I Sit and Think… has been a consistent insta-answer whenever anyone asks me “What have you been listening to?”

If you’re short on time, stream: “Pedestrian at Best”/“Depreston”—two distinct songs that for some reason I feel are linked, and that do an outstanding job of illustrating the multiple sides of Courtney Barnett’s musical personality.

Father John Misty | I Love You, Honeybear (Sub Pop)

Josh Tillman retained some of the arboreal, pot smoke–saturated country-folk sound in which he wrapped his debut album, but on I Love You, Honeybear, he uses it as a launching pad into the persona of a louche crooner, steeped in lushly orchestrated, Nilsson-esque 1970s West Coast singer-songwriter soft rock. Irony, romantic fatalism, and moral nihilism butt up against sincere declarations of devotion and the importance of love in an otherwise meaningless world. The genius of what Tillman has crafted is not only the fascinating attention to detail permeating every note of music and inch of the liner notes, but that it’s nearly impossible to truly tell where the winking artifice ends and the raw heart begins.

If you’re short on time, stream: “Bored in the USA”

Line & Circle | Split Figure (Grand Gallop)

L.A. by way of Ohio gothic jangle mavens Line & Circle evoke the spirits of IRS Records while not once coming off as derivative. Haunting, atmospheric, and rhythmic, the songs feature clarion, ringing guitars, all anchored by Brian J. Cohen’s vocals, which have a fascinatingly obfuscated, yet resonant quality. Building on a series of cryptically tantalizing preceding singles and EPs, Split Figure strikes a thrilling, welcoming equilibrium between dramatic gestures and unbridled joy.

If you’re short on time, stream: “Split Figure”

The Amazing | Picture You (Partisan)

All year long, I’ve kept coming back to Picture You, the remarkable latest offering from Swedish group The Amazing. They mix gauzy, folky indie (a lá The Clientele) with stretched-out but centered voyages reminiscent of Red House Painters, and subtle fragments of delay-driven guitar and create dynamic songs that shift from shuffling whispers to arresting crescendos and back again. The band’s triple guitar setup—coupled with organ and mellotron—allows the creation of intricate webs of sound, sometimes thunderstorm-rumble loud, but sometimes soft as a gentle spring rain. Each track is a progressive journey: atmospheric, melodic, and highly textural. This makes for a record that slowly and steadily unfolds and deepens like a burgeoning friendship.

If you’re short on time, stream: “Picture You”

Hop Along | Painted Shut (Saddle Creek)

Wiry, angular alt-rock, tempered with moments of acoustic folk, alt-country, and pop punk, all bursting with twin guitar interplay and Ginsu-sharp melodies. Frances Quinlan’s voice is a revelation, oscillating between a whisper and an arresting shout at a moment’s notice. Listen to her yelp, with precision anguish and passion, “The world’s gotten so small and embarrassing!” in “Waitress” and try not to stare back, blinking in admiration and dumbstruck amazement.

If you’re short on time, stream: “Waitress”

Chvrches | Every Open Eye (Glassnote/Virgin)

Less “punk” in spirit than their debut but no less engrossing and enchanting, Every Open Eye is Chvrches’s trademark electronic, emotional gut punch honed to a swirling, gleaming sheen. Lauren Mayberry’s lyrics have become slightly more universal, yet heartfelt, and her vocals remain stunningly forceful and versatile. This is how you get bigger without growing smaller inside.

If you’re short on time, stream: “Clearest Blue”

Public Service Broadcasting | The Race for Space (Test Card)

English duo Public Service Broadcasting employs silly pseudonyms (J. Willgoose, Esq.; Wrigglesworth) and build electro-rock songs (with bits of funk and folk tossed into the capsule for good measure) around samples from old public information films, archival footage, and propaganda material, in an attempt to “teach the lessons of the past through the music of the future.” Think of it as an after-hours dance-rock party in the NASA mission control room. The Race for Space (the group’s second album) is an undeniable booty-shaker; it’s also frequently incredibly thoughtful and moving, with certain tracks, such as put-a-lump-in-your-throat “The Other Side,” soaring with the grandeur of an electro-prog M83.

If you’re short on time, stream: “The Other Side”

Jon Hardy & the Public | Restless City (self-released)

(Technically, this came out in the final quarter of 2014, but didn’t get a digital release until January 2015, so I’m counting it here.)

After falling out of a tree and breaking several vertebrae several years ago, St. Louis’s own Jon Hardy is fortunate to be alive. The hardships he’s endured makes the sheer existence of a brand new album from him and the Public (the first full-length since 2007) both improbable and fortifying. Restless City takes Hardy’s unpretentious, passionate rock-and-soul sound and working-class ethos and burnishes it with chiming post-punk guitars. (Dial up “Shot of Love” for a driving, evocative, impassioned example of the dynamic in action.) It’s a sonic step forward that doesn’t feel forced; rather, it’s a natural evolution. The songs are steeped in St. Louis, full of familiar urban vistas and references for we natives without being insular. (Check the heartbreaking slow burn tale of star crossed lovers in “Me and Mary” or the unruly, fervently supportive, streetwise brothers in “Through the Window.”). There’s a universality to Hardy’s interpersonal dramas and stories of people simply working as damn hard as they can to survive—that, coupled with the strong songs and clear production, transcends local and regional appeal. More than anything, Restless City pulses with the inherent turmoil, beauty, conflict, and deep-seated issues facing St. Louis (not to mention America as a nation) in 2014, 2015, and beyond, reflecting the big picture via tales of individual lives. The title track doesn’t explicitly reference Ferguson—it predates the tragedy of Michael Brown—but its evocative, sorrowful, yet hopeful and celebratory snapshot of City of St. Louis street life captures the zeitgeist in a way that would make you think it had been written in response.

If you’re short on time, stream: “Restless City”

Grimes | Art Angels (4AD)

Claire Boucher continues to straddle the line between arty inventiveness and “hook you on first listen” pop appeal better than nearly anyone I can think of. The songs are frequently frenetic, but never anything less than fully focused. Each tune is an evolution in miniature. The fact that Boucher is a one-woman force, having written, performed, produced, engineered, and done the artwork for the entire album all herself, makes the record that much more impressive.

If you’re short on time, stream: “Kill V. Maim”

Beach Slang | The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us (Polyvinyl)

Do yourself a favor and run, don’t walk, and give a listen to Beach Slang’s debut LP. The Things We Do is bursting with sincere, powerful, jagged, yet melodic punk-y rock that captures a sense of teenage careening around in an attempt to escape stasis and forge meaningful connections. This is fist pumping, genuine, and flat-out fun stuff. There’s a little Westerberg, a little Japandroids, and zero pretension. Front man and songwriter James Alex harnesses youthful, earnest belief in the healing power of rock music, cold beer, hot stage lights, late nights, and seeking out and holding on for dear life to like-minded friends in a world that doesn’t seem to understand you. It’d be easy to dismiss Beach Slang’s brazenly heart-on-sleeve M.O. as caricature, or overly serious, but anyone who still harbors memories of the vitality and romance of finding weirdos like you (not to mention the value in continuing to find them as grown-up oddballs) will not only relate to but celebrate the naked vitality coursing through The Things We Do.

If you’re short on time, stream: “Ride the Wild Haze”

Honorable mentions:

The Church | Further Deeper (Unorthodox)

35 years (!) into the game, Steve Kilbey & Co. continue a run of quietly but assuredly making some of the most vital music of their career. I won’t front: I was wary upon hearing that Church linchpin and guitarist/songwriter extraordinaire Marty Willson-Piper wouldn’t be a part of this album, but new recruit Ian Haug (formerly of Powderfinger, and a longtime Church fan to boot) not only ably fills in, but breathes a noticeably fresh perspective into the group’s sound. Featuring heavy, jangling alt rock with a twisting, adventurous prog scope, Further Deeper is another shifting yet direct, mysterious yet enlightening missive from the Church’s never-ending journey across physical and metaphysical realms.

If you’re short on time, stream: “Delirious”

The Weather Station | Loyalty (Paradise of Bachelors)

These folky Torontonians, featuring a rotating cast of characters backing front woman Tamara Lindeman, boast cascading, gentle, but firm arrangements, suggesting a dream union of Peter Gabriel and Joni Mitchell.

If you’re short on time, stream: “Way It Is, Way It Could Be”

Bully | Feels Like (Columbia/Star Time)

Feels Like is fierce, supple with sinewy guitar solos, and arresting in the way that Alicia Bognanno’s spectacular howl of a voice leaps forth from speakers, seemingly in 3-D. Bully sound easy—the melodies instantly grab hold of you and the fuzzy, bouncy basslines (Kim Deal would be proud) are tailor-made for bopping along to—but this immediacy belies the frustration and combination of anger and being pissed off at yourself that are packed into every song. Feels Like is a compact and powerful return salvo against the struggles and indignities of a life where nothing comes for free and every accomplishment requires a fight.

If you’re short on time, stream: “I Remember”

Amason | Sky City (Fairfax)

Vocals alternate between English and Swedish as effortlessly as the music shifts from driven indie pop to floaty, folky Alan Parsons–esque art pop.

If you’re short on time, stream: “Went to War”

SOAK | Before We Forgot How to Dream (Rough Trade)

Nineteen-year-old singer-songwriter Bridie Monds-Watson dreams vividly. Recording as SOAK, Monds-Watson evokes a less strident, but no less emotionally potent Sinead O’Connor. She has much to say, and she says it seriously and with conviction. The slowly unfolding songs on this debut album are built around shuffling and probing acoustic (but occasionally electric) guitar. Coupled with her voice (a quivering, not-forceful-but-hugely-impactful Northern Irish accented thing of mesmeric beauty), each track feels like a pre-Internet stab at communication reaching through isolation; aural zines from an attic bedroom in a Soundcloud impaage. “Blud” is a Spector-folk navigation of the minefield of her parents’ divorce, fitfully weathering her dissolving family’s disquietingly untethered environment. “Oh Brother” feels like standing under a sodium street light in a grayscale town, and quietly pulses with a survivor’s heartbeat, almost recalling very early U2 in their most sparse and raw moments. “B a noBody” inches along with spare piano and quiet guitar, occasionally punctuated with cymbals, a keen musical representation of shyness. It speaks of the tentative, anxious, yet emboldened young adult experience with its arresting opening lyric: “The teenage heart is an unguarded dart.” “Sea Creatures” ups the tempo slightly, gliding along on a fleshed-out arrangement, flush with strings and tympani. “Garden” passes for an upbeat number, but it’s still aching and trembling, terrified of vulnerability, yet it’s thrilled at the prospect of something so simple, yet so human as lying down in the backyard next to the person you fancy, vibrating with the beautiful terror of inexperienced desire. SOAK excels at truly giving listeners a sense of sharing her discoveries (check out the ringing “Reckless Behaviour,” full of the allure but refusal to get sunk by youthful indiscretion), discoveries that are cycles of familial discord and still-new romantic pain.

If you’re short on time, stream: “B a noBody”

Tobias Jesso, Jr. | Goon (True Panther)

The improbably named Tobias Jesso, Jr., looks like an anthropomorphic mop with the sad eyes of a sheepdog, and flies in the face of accepted standards of probability by being 110% sincere. Goon is a quiet but never sleepy slice of 1970s Los Angeles AM Gold: little more than voice, piano, and acoustic guitar that evokes Valotte-era Julian Lennon and early, pre-radio-gloss-and-skeezy-allegations Howie Day.

If you’re short on time, stream: “How Could You Babe”

Petite Noir | La Vie Est Belle/Life Is Beautiful (Domino)

Cape Town artist Yannick Ilunga melds downbeat, negative-space electronic trip-pop with dark, progressive rhythmic explorations. His vocals are gripping and haunting, recalling Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke in his most intense moments. Bits of old-school soul and R&B rub up against dissonant post-punk rhythms, making great use of the quiet-loud dynamic. The album bears spectral imprints of Ian Curtis, 808s-era Kanye, contemporary South African music, and dissonant, droning electronica.

If you’re short on time, stream: “Freedom”

Guy Garvey | Courting the Squall (Polydor)

Mancunian “master of arresting imagery” Guy Garvey’s first solo album has roots in Elbow’s more rhythmically clattery moments, but with a looser vibe. And while Elbow are no strangers to integrating prog and art rock into the vast stew pot that is their sound, Courting the Squall occasionally gets more overt with moments like the stonking Minimoog wig-out in “Angela’s Eyes.” It’s also packed with breezy acoustic moments, horn-punctuated jazz, and folky tenderness. It’s a record that doesn’t supplant his day job, but fully and naturally complements it.

If you’re short on time, stream: “Harder Edges”

Tanlines | Highlights (True Panther)

Endearing, chunky synth-pop that emits a pleasantly chill, but not somnolent, persistently analog feel. It’s as if Tears for Fears were good-natured Brooklyn bros. Sprinklings of acoustic and electric guitar merely add to the atmosphere. Not everyone had a computer in the 1980s.

If you’re short on time, stream: “Palace”

White Reaper | White Reaper Does It Again (Polyvinyl)

Half an hour of frenetic punk leavened with power-pop and a weird-ass sense of humor, all lit up like a pinball table on bonus and triple ball at the same time. Positively roaring wind-sheared guitars (check out the bonkers solo in album finale “B.T.K.”) are intermittently enhanced by interesting synthesizer embellishments, like in “Wolf Trap Hotel,” “Friday the 13th,” and “Make Me Wanna Die.” Distorted vocals carry shout-along choruses and hooks that lodge in your head at first listen. The melodies and song structures often hearken back to late 1950s and early 1960s pop/proto-rock (see “On Your Mind”). White Reaper sounds as if it’s careening around blind corners while wrapped in a several-feet-thick layer of foam. White Reaper Does It Again is gleefully impervious, whip-smart, catchy as hell, and explosive.

If you’re short on time, stream: “I Don’t Think She Cares”

Cheerleader | The Sunshine of Your Youth (Bright Antenna)

The debut LP from Philly group Cheerleader is a postcard from the place where dream-pop meets power-pop. I like to imagine it as a small club with lots of writing on the walls that sits on a gorgeous bend on Highway 1 going up the California coast, way up past San Francisco. The Sunshine of Your Youth is shiny, but not soulless or mechanically over-processed (thanks to a simpatico production from Mark Needham, who has helped bands like Bloc Party and the Killers achieve a similarly big, clean sound while still maintaining a semblance of nuance and heart). Cheerleader is a highly melodic, instantly attractive, ebullient-but-not-obnoxious band, delivering a sonic rah-rah that’s quite apt given their moniker. “Do What You Want” couples the propulsive, artsy indie-pop of Ra Ra Riot with the off-kilter yet highly accessible dance-pop of Foster the People, replacing piano with a Guster-style acoustic guitar, and even managing to make a bit of whistling in the intro sound cool. “Perfect Vision” bounces along with a confident, electro stomp reminiscent of the Naked and Famous. “Haunted Love” sounds like Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s sighing indie jangle bursting through a dissipating marine fog. And both the title track and “The Quiet Life” are optimistic and subtle, but movingly anthemic without being overblown.

If you’re short on time, stream: “Haunted Love”

Wilco | Star Wars (dBpm)

What’s better than a new Wilco album? A new, free Wilco album! What’s better than a new, free Wilco album? A new, free, surprise Wilco album! The dropped-out-of-nowhere, whimsically named, possibly copyright-baiting Star Wars is the band’s own little surprise rebel attack on the music industry’s shield generators. On Star Wars, Wilco sound like they’re having more fun than they’ve had in years, melding Krautrock and anything-goes White Album–era Beatles, and crafting a taut set of songs that are immediate, askew, lighthearted, and serious. (For bonus fun, take a few minutes and try to mentally conjure a theoretical, highly uncomfortable permission-seeking meeting between Jeff Tweedy and George Lucas.)

If you’re short on time, stream: “Taste the Ceiling”

Drake | If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (Cash Money/OVO)

Not Aubrey’s best record ever, but a very good one that’s fascinating for its singular ethos; even the brags radiate a serious, downbeat, restless nocturnal hustling vibe. If You’re Reading This is the hip-hop equivalent of one of those Matthew McConaughey Lincoln ads.

If you’re short on time, stream: “You & the 6”

Wild Ones | Heatwave EP (Topshelf)

Twenty minutes of sumptuous dream pop, supported by rivers of synths, piano, and Danielle Sullivan’s versatile, beguiling vocals. These songs are supple and slow-dance ready. Heatwave is beaded with the humid condensation of bar-lit early 20-something nights out, and pulses with the tentative thrills of early adulthood discovery and a sense of having all the time in the world.

If you’re short on time, stream: “Show Me Islands”

Josh Rouse | The Embers of Time (Yep Roc)

Veteran, Nebraskan-in-Spain singer/songwriter Josh Rouse has referred to the stealthily released The Embers of Time as his “surreal expat therapy record,” and while it’s clearly marinated in depression, doubt, and self-examination, Rouse does it without the insularity that can befall art that comes from recovery. Instead, he channels his struggles and revelations outward into songs full of dry wit, tenderness, warmth, and emotional fluency, all set to a mix of Countrypolitan pop-twang, late 1960s/early 1970s-era Dylan, and folk rock. This is a subtle, soulful album, one that’s weathered a spiritual darkness and emerged to blink and smile at a sunrise that felt as if it’d never arrive.

If you’re short on time, stream: “Coat for a Pillow”

EL VY | Return to the Moon (4AD)

The National’s Matt Berninger and Brent Knopf (once of Menomena and at present of Ramona Falls) collaboration, EL VY, contains shades of Berninger’s day job. In some spots, it’s more nervy, while in other places, it’s relaxed and more visceral. A number of the songs have this intellectual, yet physical indie-gospel-funk thing going on. Berninger’s lyrics are typically vivid, but this time feel more direct, less cloaked in metaphor or koan-like turns of phrase: He’s tender, mysterious, playful, weird, remorseful, boisterous and downright sexual. Return to the Moon is no mere side-project indulgence; it’s a fully-realized swirl of smirking, forlorn, upbeat attraction.

If you’re short on time, stream: “Happiness, Missouri”

Young Guv | Ripe 4 Luv (Slumberland)

Equal parts Girls-era Christopher Owens indie-freak and the variety of early-’80s college radio, including bright, Cheap Trick–esque power pop, jangle pop, elastic New Wave, and the white boy R&B ghosts of Hall & Oates. (“But Hall & Oates aren’t dead!” you might protest. Shhhh…just you shut your mouth.)

If you’re short on time, stream: “Crawling Back to You”

Ben Folds + yMusic | So There (New West)

Ben Folds’ collaboration with chamber pop ensemble yMusic displays a skillful, dynamic, often playful symbiosis. Folds comes across not so much a bandleader or dictator, but instead an equal partner. There’s an enthusiasm and mutual admiration in every note both artists play; the performances are naturally intertwined, not grafted together. So There flows with energy. “Capable of Anything,” driven by a steadily increasing tempo and swirling woodwinds and strings, is a highlight, as is the unguarded, apologetic, slow-building “I’m Not the Man.” “Phone in a Pool,” about how sometimes we make the same mistakes over and over again, and the value of going “off the grid” from time to time, exemplifies the “new Ben.”

Folds is always a consummate performer and professional artist, sometimes serious, but often cloaked in various grades of aloofness and smart-assery, yet on So There, it sounds as if he’s experiencing the emergence of a long-gestating revelation, as if in working with yMusic, he’s finally found an outlet for the “people’s symphony” sounds he’s been hearing in his head for the past 20 years. This is Folds evolved, rehabilitated, as if he’s had an ancient layer of scuffed-up protective coating scraped off him. If this album is any indication, it’s only the beginning of a productive, engaging new chapter in Mr. Folds’ already fascinating, half-underground/half-overground career.

If you’re short on time, stream: “Phone in a Pool”

Kendrick Lamar | To Pimp a Butterfly (Interscope/Aftermath/Top Dawg)

Sprawling, dense, challenging, honest, immersive, admirably perplexing examinations of race and fame wrapped in flowing poetry, funk, and jazz. I won’t pretend I have the chops or smarts to talk about Butterfly in a way that nails its influence and relevance to the zeitgeist. But I can say, firmly, emphatically, this is a record that’s not merely an artifact of its time, but instead a Rosetta Stone key to understanding the changes, chaos, beauty, and confusing sense of society simultaneously getting more and less understanding, empathetic, and accepting that defined the year 2015.

If you’re short on time, stream: “These Walls”

I ran out of gas and time with the blurbs, but I’m hitting the “like” button on these:

Best Coast | California Nights (Harvest)

Say Lou Lou | Lucid Dreaming (à Deux)

Laura Marling | Short Movie (Ribbon Music)

Belle & Sebastian | Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance (Matador)

Colleen Green | I Want to Grow Up (Hardly Art)

Waxahatchee | Ivy Tripp (Wichita/Merge)

Jason Isbell | Something More Than Free (Southeastern)

Matthew Good | Chaotic Neutral (Warner Music Canada)

Beth Bombara | s/t (self-released)

Jamie xx | In Colour (Young Turks)

Blur | The Magic Whip (Parlophone)

Craig Finn | Faith in the Future (Partisan)

The Waterboys | Modern Blues (Kobalt)

Björk | Vulnicura (One Little Indian)

Steven Wilson | Hand. Cannot. Erase. (Kscope) | Mike Rengel

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