2015 Album Of The Year Tournament (Part Four)

Note: My final summary listing of the 20 best albums of 2015 was developed via a six-part analytical tournament involving 32 contending albums. Complete narrative related to this final listing is accessible via the following links:

Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixSummary

Greetings from beautiful downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania! I am here through Saturday for a conference, but will have some downtime today, so am going to try to work my way through the Sweet Sixteen survivors in the 2015 Album of the Year Tournament to boil us down to an Elite Eight. The links above will take you to the earlier rounds and introduction, if you’re jumping in midstream and want the back story. Shall we kick it? Ready, steady, go!

Bop English, Constant Bop vs Hey Colossus, Radio Static High: We typically listen to music in our apartment via the shuffle function of the Family iPod player, rather than playing whole albums through from beginning to end. (I do the latter on my headphones, during train or computer time, typically in the days after I first acquire something new). Bop English’s Constant Bop is what I think of a stealth album: we recognize, know, like and sing along with every one of its songs, but we also often have to go to the iPod for a reminder of exactly what we’re listening to. It’s an unobtrusive, enjoyable, important part of the sonic fabric of our lives in 2015 Chateau Smith, filled with catchy, likable songs. Hey Colossus’ latest album, on the other hand, is a bit more urgent and intense: they blast out of the speakers with such force and vigor and heft that it’s instantly obvious who you’re hearing. The best (and, not coincidentally, most accessible) tracks on Radio Static High do have serious ear-worm potential, but usually it’s the riffs and rolls that get stuck in my head, rather than the words and melodies. But that’s something of an accomplishment in its own right, and few bands can pull off that trick as well as Hey Colossus do. While both artists are excellent at what they do, in this case, I am going to select the album that offers me urgency over comfort, and a unique creative aesthetic over one anchored in a more traditional pop format. It won’t get as many dinnertime mix spins as Bop Constant, but as a standalone record, soup to nuts, Radio Static High is the stronger beast. Winner: Hey Colossus, Radio Static High.

Wire, Wire vs The Fall, Sub-Lingual Tablet: Well, this is an interesting pairing from two of the world’s most esteemed and influential post-punk bands. Wire have been a stop-start endeavor since their inception in 1976, with long fallow periods interrupted by bursts of extreme musical creativity. The Fall got going a year or two later, but Mark E. Smith has never stopped, aided and abetted by a seemingly ever-changing cast of band members — except in recent years, when he’s finally had a stable quintet for five albums in a row. These are both excellent albums, though Wire’s is, perhaps, a bit more comfortable and familiar, fitting in from a sonic standpoint with the best of their ’80s releases. While Mark E. Smith is instantly recognizable on vocals, Sub-Lingual Tablet actually offers some choice new spins on The Fall’s tried and true formula, offering choppy Beefheartisms alongside belching synth numbers, breezy near-jazz, and some thunderous riffage. I’m going to take the unexpected and somewhat uncomfortable in this contest, as The Fall’s new album is among their best, while Wire’s is simply a solid entry in a great catalog. Winner: The Fall, Sub-Lingual Tablet.

David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock vs Kate Pierson, Guitars and Microphones: Another interesting match-up from a pair of veteran band members with nearly a century’s worth of recording and performing experience between them, but also with relatively scant solo catalogs: this is Kate Pierson’s first solo studio disc, and David Gilmour’s fourth. Both albums are exceptionally well produced and filled with engaging, emotionally-intense songs; Gilmour offers an elegy for his fallen Pink Floyd comrade, Rick Wright, and a song about his son’s imprisonment for an act of social protest, while Pearson offers an empowerment ode to trans-gendered youth alongside other matters of the heart and soul. While I’d have been happier if these two discs had met other opponents in this round, since I think they’re both worthy of Elite Eight status, I’m going to go with Gilmour in this case, in recognition of him making a heavier lift on his own record than Pierson does; Guitars and Microphones is as much producer-songwriter Sia Furler’s triumph as it is Miss Kate’s. Plus, wow, it’s just so good to hear Gilmour’s voice and guitar again on a studio album all these years on. He’s one of my faves on both fronts. Winner: David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock.

Thighpaulsandra, The Golden Communion vs Rudresh Mahanthappa, Bird Calls: This is probably the most obscure and eclectic pairing in this round, featuring a pair of artists who aren’t likely on your radar screen if you’re not a fan of jazz or arty electronic music. The sounds on the records are diametrically opposed in many cases, with Thighpaulsandra offering long, sprawling, multi-phase epics (two cuts on the two-hour long album exceed the 20-minute mark), and Rudresh Mahanthappa presenting tighter, punchier jazz numbers. The alto sax man’s band are highly technically proficient from a textbook standpoint, while Thighpaulsandra’s crew are more inclined to Eno-esque found sounds and tortured deployment of traditional instruments. Both albums are richly rewarding, though Thighpaulsandra’s takes a bit more work on the part of the listener. Having made that investment, I see it as the greater of these two albums. I’m happy to have something so weird in the Elite Eight. Winner: Thighpaulsandra, The Golden Communion.

Sleaford Mods, Key Markets vs Girlpool, Before The World Was Big: The two-piece Sleaford Mods knocked off the two-piece Lightning Bolt in the first round, and here again they go head to head against another duo. The differences between these two, though, are striking: The Sleafords are caustic and all electronic, while Girlpool are gentle and mostly acoustic. Girlpool are very American (California sub-species), while Sleaford Mods are undeniably British (working class Northern strain), each bands accents and observations strongly evoking their home turf. Girlpool’s album is the duo’s long-playing debut, while Key Markets is the Mods’ eighth album. That longevity actually hurts Sleaford Mods a bit in this contest, as I actually feel like their preceding album, 2014’s Divide and Exit, is stronger than their latest offering. A trawl through their catalog also makes it clear that they pretty much are what they are: there’s not a lot of growth, expansion or diversity along the way. So in this contest, I’m going to pick youthful naivete over middle-aged cynicism. Plus, with The Fall having already advanced, we’re got the “Northern crap that talks back” contingent represented by the alpha band of the idiom, so this pick keeps the field eclectic. Winner: Girlpool, Before The World Was Big.

Clutch, Psychic Warfare vs Shriekback, Without Real String or Fish: Singer-guitarist Carl Marsh’s return to the Shriekback fold in recent years has been a real shot in the arm for the estimable British group, fortifying singer-keyman Barry Andrews’ ooky spooky aquatic explorations with a bit of proper piss and vinegar, all in support of the highly wordy and literate lyrics that expect from the team. Marsh is heavily featured on Without Real String or Fish, making this one of the Shrieks’ strongest albums since their alt-dance ’80s heyday. Clutch are also firing on all cylinders on Psychic Warfare, a loosely structured, thematically linked song cycle that begins and ends with a world-weary, disbelieving narrator requesting and receiving an affidavit regarding mysterious ongoings in rural America. One of Clutch’s career strengths has been their ability to temper their in-your-face pure rock fury with some extraordinary, slow-build blues rock barn burners (think “Spacegrass” and “The Regulator” and “Abraham Lincoln,” to cite but a few examples), and they add two absolute classics of the form — “Our Lady of Electric Light” and “Son of Virginia” — to their catalog via their latest record. It’s a thrill ride from beginning to end, and that adrenaline rush carries it forward in this contest. Winner: Clutch, Psychic Warfare.

Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People vs Bring Me The Horizon, That’s The Spirit: As noted in the first round review, Ezra Furman’s latest album finds him fronting a band again, and that’s as it should be: while his songs are strong, and he’s quite the charismatic character, his material really rings out most strongly in a full instrumental setting. The Boy-Friends (his band) do yeoman service throughout Perpetual Motion People, ably framing his material in an eclectically entertaining variety of styles and sounds, with music hall jazz rubbing shoulders with country gospel, and Modern Lovers-style rock aiding and abetting herky-jerky indie fare. Through all the settings, though, Furman shines clear and bright, and this album really is one of those rare ones where the whole exceeds the sum of its parts, becoming somehow transcendent in its earnest pursuit of kinetic musical pleasure. Bring Me The Horizon, to their own credit, also do a good job of mixing it up a bit on That’s The Spirit, tempering the core pop-metal at its musical heart with dubstep and emo flavors, deftly avoiding the monochrome tendencies to which similar bands often fall prey. If there’s one thing that chafes with me when assessing the British sextet, it’s that the approach on their admittedly big and accessible latest record seems a little bit forced when viewed through the lens of their back catalog; some — perhaps in the band, but more likely in some corporate front office — saw pop crossover potential, and produced the hell out of the record to achieve that goal. Based on early reviews, I think they’re likely to be highly successful, but the clinical calculation should be a little less obvious to the listener. So I’m going to go with the exuberant, quirky and perky little guy in this contest, which also allows me to have Chicago (Furman’s home) in the Elite Eight mix. Hey, what’s the point of being the home team if it doesn’t give you some advantage? Winner: Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People.

Gangrene, You Disgust Me vs Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat: The first song released from Napalm Death’s Apex Predator — Easy Meat was called “Cesspits.” Gangrene’s You Disgust Me opens with a spoken word piece called “The Filth.” Needless to say,neither act spends a lot of time looking at and exploring the nicer things in life on their latest discs. Gangrene’s record has some of the best backing tracks that I’ve heard on on a hip hop album in recent years, a deliciously oozing stew that perfectly matches its off-putting lyrical concerns. Core members Oh No! and The Alchemist offer distinctive flow, aided and abetted by a collection of guest artists, first and foremost the late great Sean Price, whose last recorded moments appear herein. Napalm Death have only one guest on their latest album — John Bilbo Cook, credited with “token guitar solo” — but the core four and long-time producer Russ Russell deploy the studio to admirable effect, providing sonic variety in the maelstrom of blast beats with interesting vocal and instrumental fills, creating a cataclysmic soundscape that’s nearly over-whelming in its intensity. Apex Predator — Easy Meat is lyrically and musically cut from similar cloth to its two preceding albums, but in each case and at each step, the Napalms have improved on the formula, creatively, commercially, and thematically. Napalm Death are enough of an institution in the metal world that they could succeed by just going through the motions, but the ever restless quartet have never settled for such an approach, and it’s awe-inspiring to see a group this deep into their career working so hard to challenge their listeners and themselves. No contest here, when all is said and done. Winner: Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat.

And there you have it: we’ve now culled 32 very worthy albums down to eight of glittering greatness, poised and ready for the next round. Our next installment with boil it down to a Final Four, at which point (in keeping with my long-standing practices in these tournaments), I will shift to a round robin format to select the winner. Each of the four finalists will be pitted head-to-head against the other three records, with two points available in each mini-tourney: winner gets two, loser gets zero, and ties provide one point to each. The record with the most posts in the round robin will be named the Album of the Year for 2015. How exciting!

But that’s still a couple of reports away. For now, we have to set the stage for the Elite Eight. Taking the winners above and pushing them through a random number table to establish pairings, we end up with the following four contests that will be documented in the next installment of this series. Stay tuned as the tension builds — mainly for me in having to pick between these records while attempting to justify my choices!

Thighpaulsandra, The Golden Communion vs Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat

The Fall, Sub-Lingual Tablet vs David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock

Girlpool, Before The World Was Big vs Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People

Clutch, Psychic Warfare vs Hey Colossus, Radio Static High

2015 Album Of The Year Tournament (Part Three)

Note: My final summary listing of the 20 best albums of 2015 was developed via a six-part analytical tournament involving 32 contending albums. Complete narrative related to this final listing is accessible via the following links:

Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixSummary

Okay, sports and music fans, today we will review the second half of the original 32 contenders in the 2015 Album Of The Year Tournament, ending up with a Sweet Sixteen records who will go head to head in new random configurations as we advance inexorably toward the best of the best in a very good year for new music. Are you ready? Let’s do this!

Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People vs Panda Bear, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper: Ezra Furman and the Harpoons’ album, Inside The Human Body, was one of my favorite records of 2008, offering a delightful introduction to a clever and creative singer-songwriter, ably supported by a nimble band. I didn’t care as much for the records that followed it, especially after Furman disbanded the Harpoons; his “interesting,” shall we say, vocal stylings (think Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes for a general approximation) work better for me with a band than they do in a solo setting. Fortunately, Furman has put together a new band (The Boy-Friends) for his new Perpetual Motion People, and the results are outstanding on all fronts: his songwriting is strong and confessional, the sax and clarinet fortified instrumental tracks are wonderful and whimsical, and Furman sings with more spark, sass and confidence than I’ve heard from him in the past. (He’s bravely embraced his own gender fluidity, and wrote a lovely piece about it for The Guardian that you can, and should, read here). I’m not generally a fan of Animal Collective, Panda Bear’s parent band, but a chance encounter with the Mr. Noah EP that preceded his Meets The Grim Reaper album impressed me deeply and lead me to acquire the full length disc when it arrived. I like it, for the most part, being a fan of the sorts of squiggly synth pop in which he specializes — but all of my favorite tracks on the big album were contained on the preview EP, so it didn’t make as big of a bang for me as I would have liked. Ezra’s perpetual motion continues accordingly. Winner: Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People

The Fall, Sub-Lingual Tablet vs Ought, Sun Coming Down: A very interesting pairing, courtesy the random number generating math monster. If I had to describe Montreal-based Ought’s second album in a single word or phrase, I would pick “Fall-esque:” their excellent combination of vaguely flat speak-sung vocals, angular guitars, oblique song structures, looping bass and four-on-the-floor drum stomp evokes nothing more than the classic early (pre-Brix) era records by Mark E. Smith’s formidable Fall group. It’s a great sophomore record by a band with lots of promise. The Fall themselves, on the other hand, are on something like their 40th studio album (depends on how you count EPs, half live/half studio discs, and the overall rampant perversity of their catalog); they’ve achieved a unprecedented degree of stability in recent years, with Sub-Lingual Tablet standing as the fifth album by the current core five-piece lineup, supplemented on this disc with a second drummer-percussionist. The results of that stability are exceptional: Sub-Lingual Tablet is, to these ears, the finest Fall record since The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country on the Click) — which was my 2004 Album Of The Year. Could The Fall repeat that feat in 2015? They’re moving on to the Sweet Sixteen today, so it’s possible. Winner: The Fall, Sub-Lingual Tablet.

Gangrene, You Disgust Me vs Protomartyr, The Agent Intellect: Protomartyr and Gangrene have both appeared in this space before, the former with a Top Ten finish in 2014’s contest, the latter finishing equally high in 2012. Gangrene is a skunky, skanky, stinky hip-hop collaboration between MC/producers The Alchemist and Oh No!, and You Disgust Me is an apt title for the thematic groove they mine, exploring dark sides and soft underbellies through the rhymes they rip, the beats that frame them, and the found sound samples that link the songs. It oozes like an infected sore, and of course that means that you have to keep returning to it and picking at it, whether it is healthy to do so or not. Protomartyr, like Ought above, often get tagged with “Fall-esque” descriptions, offering a Detroit-centric spin on the Fall’s smart blue-collar guitar rock. Like Gangrene, they also mine the sketchy sides of the street and psyche in their lyrics, and their brooding music ably supports that dark approach. While I enjoy The Agent Intellect, it doesn’t surprise or move me quite as much as 2014’s Under Color of Official Right did. You Disgust Me, on the other hand, builds and improves upon Gangrene’s prior Vodka & Ayahuasca, so in this tight contest between like-minded explorers of the scary spaces in our souls, I’m going to pick the one with more momentum. Winner: Gangrene, You Disgust Me.

Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat vs Sleater-Kinney, No Cities To Love: Sleater-Kinney’s return to active recording and performing was embraced with wide-spread and well-deserved enthusiasm, and their first album in a decade lived up to the anticipation: No Cities To Love is a well-written, well-recorded, engaging and entertaining re-entry to the musical fray, filled with all of the cool guitar, drum and vocal interplay that one would want and expect from the trio. Carrie Brownstein has emerged as a triple cultural threat with her on-screen success in Portlandia and literary plaudits for her recent memoir, Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, and I’ll admit to being a little worried going into this one that marketing forces would skew the music to highlight her above her band mates, but Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss more than hold their own here, and this is a good thing, indeed. A fine and welcome return to form by an important, worthy group. Napalm Death’s Apex Predator — Easy Meat is similarly fine and welcome, building on the thematic and musical successes of Utilitarian (number three in my 2012 list) and Time Waits For No Slave (number three in my 2009 list) before it. This was the first album I purchased in 2015, and it has been on regular spins on my iPod throughout the year — though not so much on the family iPods, since this is one musical passion that the ladies in my life do not share. All of the expected grindcore elements are in place, but the group also incorporates a wide variety of eclectic vocal and instrumental approaches, most especially on the album-opening title track, which lumbers and groans like something from the early Swans catalog crossed with a train derailment. Scary, awesome good. Shortly before the album was released, the band announced that long-time guitarist-vocalist Mitch Harris was taking a leave of absence from the group to deal with family matters; he has still not returned at the time of this writing. I may be reading the tea leaves wrong, but this feels like something of an end-of-era or pivot point moment for the Napalms, and if that’s the case, it’s one of the most worthy milestones in their formidable history, and I’m moving it forward here accordingly. Winner: Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat.

Hey Colossus, Radio Static High vs Public Enemy, Man Plans God Laughs: In 2012, Public Enemy unleashed a sprawling 100-minutes worth of music over two thematically-linked albums, The Evil Empire of Everything and Most Of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear On No Stamp. It was a lot of music, and while some of it was great, some of it, well, wasn’t. Fast forward to 2015: the new P.E. jam packs 11 songs into 28 minutes, and that tight, lean, fat-free approach reaps great dividends with Man Plans God Laughs standing tall and confident in the group’s sprawling catalog. Longtime producer Gary G-Wiz handles all of the instrumental beds on the disc, and Chuck D and Flavor Flav do what Chuck D and Flavor Flav do, world without end, amen, amen. Hey Colossus are a British sextet with a fairly deep catalog dating back to 2005, but information about them is somewhat surprisingly hard to come by online: there’s no Wikipedia page about them, Allmusic doesn’t provide a biography, and their own website is noticeably devoid of typical band biographical details. So I can’t tell you much about them, though I can tell you that their latest album, Radio Static High, is one of the hugest sounding records I’ve heard in a long, long time. Big drums. Big bass. Big guitars. Big vocals. Big riffs. Big production. It’s all big, all in your face, all muscular music — and it’s all deployed in service to a collection of really great songs, that are catchy and memorable for all their crunchiness. If you’re looking for a titanic sounding 2015 record to blast out your auditory pipes, then you’d be hard pressed to find a better speaker shredder than this one. They advance, loudly. Winner:  Hey Colossus, Radio Static High.

Kate Pierson, Guitars and Microphones vs Vulkano, Iridescence: Kate Pierson of The B-52’s is one of my favorite singers, and almost all of my most-loved moments from her group feature her big, bold contralto voice belting out alongside fellow B Cindy Wilson’s breathy, wobbly, sobby soprano. Nearly 40 years into her formidably quirky musical career, Pierson has finally gotten around to issuing a solo album, and it’s a corker. With able assistance by the lately ubiquitous Sia Furler, Pierson delivers a captivating collection of anthemic, emotional, hook-laden songs that serve her voice perfectly, with deft arrangements and punchy instrumental performances driving the singalong melodies straight into your frontal lobe, from which they will emanate ear worms for weeks to come after first exposure. With The B-52’s essentially retired to the oldies circuit, it’s wonderful to have Pierson finally stepping out on her own, and her voice (both how she sings, and what she sings) is an important one that deserves to be heard. Sweden’s Vulkano finished in the number four spot in my 2014 Album of the Year contest with their debut disc, which sort of evoked a cross between The B-52’s and Bjork, with its heavily accented, weirdly translated (Swedelish?), two female singer fortified lyrics atop simple drum and guitar tracks that charmed in their awkward earnestness. Iridescence finds the duo pivoting a bit, offering an album that almost entirely synth based, delivering a softer, smoother, but no less engagement stew of Scandinavian pop weirdness. It’s a delightful, shiny and shimmery record, but its charms pale against the potent Pierson punch of Guitars and Microphones. Game, Kate. Winner: Kate Pierson, Guitars and Microphones.

Lightning Bolt, Fantasy Empire vs Sleaford Mods, Key Markets: Lightning Bolt and Sleaford Mods are both duos, but you’d be hard pressed to find two more different approaches to two-man music making. The Bolts offer pummeling, loud, distorted, dense trans-Plutonian metal built around drum and bass guitar, with squalling, usually incomprehensible vocals layered on top like icing on a manhole cover. Sleaford Mods, on the other hand, are almost all about the words, with the acerbic Jason Williamson spilling all sorts of British bad attitude atop simple loops and beats laid down by  programmer Andrew Fearn. While one would rarely use the word “accessible” to describe Lightning Bolt, Fantasy Empire is at least slightly more user friendly, shall we say, than anything preceding it in their canon, to the point where NPR actually previewed the album for their Prairie Home Companion-listening army of Einstein tote-bag carrying sensitive souls. I suspect there were some tears spilled in some lattes that morning. Sleaford Mods would likely never be featured in such high-brow settings, in large part because Williamson’s keen, spat screeds are about as profanity laden as human speech can be, while still delivering the desired messages. While such story and word based fare often only works the first time you hear it, Sleaford Mods manage the challenging trick of making completely non-singable, non-melodic, story-based music compelling enough to bear repeated listens. In this tight contest, I’m going to picks the furious words over the furious sounds (I’m a writer, so you’d expect that, yeah?), advancing the Mods to the Round of Sixteen. Winner: Sleaford Mods, Key Markets.

Rudresh Mahanthappa, Bird Calls vs Only Real, Jerk at the End of the Line: Only Real is the nom du rock of Englishman Niall Galvin, who mines a slightly less scabrous vein than Sleaford Mods, while looking at some of the same bits of Britishness. Galvin’s debut long-player, Jerk at the End of the Line, offers a mostly frothy frappe of beats, synths, guitars and hooks, deployed in service of the sorts of self-effacing lyrics that you might expect, given the album’s title. There’s nothing particularly innovative, original or unique here, but the record charms despite itself with memorable choruses and awkward bedroom lo-fi earnestness. Rudresh Manhanthappa is an Indian-American saxophonist and composer with a twenty-year recording and performing history under his belt. No surprise that his Bird Calls is the more polished of this musical pairing — though listeners might be surprised as what an incredibly rich and unique record he’s produced as he pays homage to, but never mimics, the great Charlie “Bird” Parker. Ably leading his quintet through their paces, Mahanthappa shines again and again as both composer and alto sax-man, treading a wonderfully adept line between composed and improvised elements in his songs. I consider Bird Calls to be one of the best new jazz albums I’ve heard in many years, so it’s a no-brainer to advance in this particular mismatch. Winner: Rudresh Mahanthappa, Bird Calls

And there we go! That’s it for the Round of 32! Taking the eight winners above with the eight winners identified yesterday, and then pushing the results through the random number generator, we’ve got the following eight contests ahead of us:

Bop English, Constant Bop vs Hey Colossus, Radio Static High

Wire, Wire vs The Fall, Sub-Lingual Tablet

David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock vs Kate Pierson, Guitars and Microphones

Thighpaulsandra, The Golden Communion vs Rudresh Mahanthappa, Bird Calls

Sleaford Mods, Key Markets vs Girlpool, Before The World Was Big

Clutch, Psychic Warfare vs Shriekback, Without Real String or Fish

Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People vs Bring Me The Horizon, That’s The Spirit

Gangrene, You Disgust Me vs Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat

I already see some challenging contests in that mix. My thinking cap will need to be as tightly affixed as my headphones are as I approach this round. I am headed to Pittsburgh for work tomorrow for several days, so not sure if I will have the down time in the evenings to write or not while there. Keep an eye and ear open, though. I’ll get to it within the next week, one way or another.

2015 Album Of The Year Tournament (Part Two)

Note: My final summary listing of the 20 best albums of 2015 was developed via a six-part analytical tournament involving 32 contending albums. Complete narrative related to this final listing is accessible via the following links:

Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixSummary

Having introduced my rationale and plan for a Cup-style tournament to select 2015’s Album of the Year in Part One of this series, I will parse the original 32 contending albums down to sixteen finalists, documenting the process in two posts: half today and half whenever I can write next. I used Excel’s random number feature to create the pairings to preclude any inadvertent gaming of the system. Without further ado, let’s get down to the analysis:

Matthewmaticus, The Sanctified Tape (EP) vs Bring Me The Horizon, That’s The Spirit: The Sanctified Tape is a classic hip-hop mix tape by Cleveland-based rapper/producer Matthewmaticus, who concocts an interesting blend of beats and flow incorporating an eclectic array of sampled sources. “RTA” is a great ear-worm song about the lovely people you meet on public transit, while “The New Bang” effectively name checks Art Blakey in a multi-movement piece with infectiously propulsive musical momentum. It’s a little indie record that smartly delivers some big ideas. Bring Me The Horizon’s That’s The Spirit, on the other hand, is a big, big record: massive marketing, huge chops, major riffs, over-the-top production, you name it, they’re doing it huge here. When asked what kind of music I like, I usually reply “Anything done well,” and this record is a fine example of that sentiment, as I don’t usually like this type of pop-inflected, emotional, light metal rock — but Bring Me The Horizon do what they do so perfectly on this album that I can’t but help to be captivated by the success of their endeavor. While one always likes to root for the Davids of the world, in this case Goliath triumphs readily, with guitar. Winner: Bring Me The Horizon, That’s The Spirit.

Flo Morrissey, Tomorrow Will Be Beautiful vs Girlpool, Before The World Was Big: An all-female contest here between a pair of young, up-and-coming artists, both issuing their first full-length studio albums. Flo Morrissey is British, and her music is airy and haunting, with her clear, high voice rising above tightly-arranged, mostly acoustic musical beds. Fans of Kate Bush would likely enjoy her music, as it offers some of the same sorts of literate, pastoral English chamber sensibilities that the Great Kate specialized in before she got deliciously weird on The Dreaming. Girlpool are a Los Angeles-bred duo, and their performances feature two voices (almost always singing in unison, sometimes a little shouty, sometimes a little flat), accompanied by guitar and bass. There’ s a Grandma Moses/Howard Finster outsider artist vibe underlying their music, which I described earlier this year as a cross between Hugo Largo and The Shaggs. As with Bring Me The Horizon, I don’t normally like this sort of forcefully quirky, Kimya Dawson-esque music, but once again, execution is so perfect here that I’m charmed and impressed by how much it works for me. I think both of these artists have the potential to have big careers ahead of them, but at this juncture, the duo is ahead of the solo. Winner: Girlpool, Before The World Was Big.

Bop English, Constant Bop vs Eternal Summers, Gold and Stone: Bop English is a solo project by James Petralli of White Denim, an eclectic Texas-based band who have been favorites around the Smith household since I stumbled upon their debut album, Exposion, back in 2008. Both the parent band and Petralli’s new project do an exceptional job of creating interesting, entertaining music from a variety of seemingly disparate sources. Constant Bop ups the all-over-the-place ante even further by chunking a wide range of richly-arranged instrumentation into the mix, making great songs even better through the power of creative studio wizardry. Eternal Summers are a Virginia-bred trio who offer powerfully melodic, female-fronted rock music that reminds me of The Joy Formidable. They’re on their fourth studio album, and it’s a good one, for sure, though it doesn’t have quite the bite, magic and spark that Bop English offers this year. Winner: Bop English, Constant Bop.

Wire, Wire vs The Weasels, Also Sprach Larrythustra (EP): I have long considered The Weasels to be among the finest purveyors of music in my former hometown of Albany, New York, and their latest five-song EP does nothing to change my opinion on that front. I’ve been writing about them since 1995 (they finished second to Bjork in my Album of the Year report that year), and their perfectly produced stew of sardonic jazz-blues-rock remains as impressive now as it was then. Fans of Steely Dan or Frank Zappa would appreciate The Weasels’ oeuvre, which features excellent collections of fine session studio work laid down in support of songs that make their wry points both melodically and lyrically. Wire, on the other hand, are Wire: they’re one of those bands whose name is frequently evoked by critics as comparative shorthand for smart, weird, punchy post-punk/post-rock music. Their self-titled latest album further affirms that they do what they do, and they do it very well. It’s a relatively accessible, melodic and engaging beast within their canon, reminding me most on a sonic front of their ’80s classic A Bell Is A Cup Until It Is Struck. I like it a lot, though as a long-time Wire devotee, there’s one aspect of it that I find a bit disconcerting: there are no featured vocals by bassist Graham Lewis, whose sonorous baritone typically provides occasional relief from guitarist Colin Newman’s more nasal vocal delivery. Still, though, it’s a fine, full-length addition to a formidable body of work, and it would be hard to pick an EP ahead of it, no matter how good that EP is. Winner: Wire, Wire.

Clutch, Psychic Warfare vs Brandon Flowers, The Desired Effect: I’m on the record as citing Maryland’s Clutch as the second best live rock band in history (I’d pick The Who as the very best), and I’ve long found their studio works to be equally pulse-raising, with only occasional exceptions. Their 2013 album, Earth Rocker, was one of those rare cases where one of their albums didn’t really work for me; beyond two great singles, it felt a little too slick, a little too corporate, and a little too much like somebody was trying to crossover to a larger audience by honing the basic schtick to a tight, repetitive sheen. I’m glad to report that Psychic Warfare reverses that trend, standing as one of the highlights of their formidable body of work. There’s not a clunker cut in the mix, and the whole thing rockets along like a champ, sucking you into its weird lyrical world of dive bars, Southern Gothic culture, and P.K. Dick-style below-the-surface mysteries and madness. Brandon Flowers is the front man for The Killers, and his second solo album is filled with the same sorts of catchy, punchy rock that you’d expect from his track record, with a bit more confessional flavor, and some interesting pop crossover elements. It’s good listening, but it can’t compete with Clutch’s wallop this year. Winner: Clutch, Psychic Warfare

Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit vs Shriekback, Without Real String or Fish: Courtney Barnett’s debut full-length disc packs quite the punch, with the Australian singer-guitarist-songwriter demonstrating a degree of proficiency at her craft and a gritty sense of musical history that both far belie her relatively tender years. Comparisons to the early P.J. Harvey trio discs, or even to Liz Phair’s near-miraculous Exile in Guyville would not be out of line, and fans of Polly Jean or Liz would be well served in acquiring this disc. It’s gutsy, brassy and bold stuff, channeling the energy of live performance into the audio clarity of the studio efficiently and effectively. While Barnett may admit to sometimes just sitting without thinking, it’s hard to imagine the always cerebral Shriekback from engaging in such low-octane mental activities, except perhaps at the end of a long night in the pub. Without Real String or Fish is a delightful new entry to their long and varied canon, and it finds core members Barry Andrews, Carl Marsh and Martyn Barker working more tightly and frequently together as a cohesive unit than they have in many, many years. The results are spectacular, with several tracks standing tall and confident against the best of their back catalog, in all of its aqueous splendor. Barnett would knock out a lot of the records in this tournament, but unfortunately the (bad) luck of the draw works against her here: Shriekback firing on all cylinders is a formidable beastie indeed, and they carry this contest, for sure. Winner: Shriekback, Without Real String or Fish.

David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock vs Public Service Broadcasting, The Race For Space: The random number pairing generator created an interesting combination here, with one record by an acclaimed maker of space rock, and one record by an emergent maker of rock about space. Public Service Broadcasting’s disc is a delightfully well-arranged collection of songs that seek to capture the spirit of the Cold War Space Age by pairing compelling rhythms and melodies with fragments and samples of vocal recordings from the subject era. It’s cinematic in scope, especially on “The Other Side,” where the drama of Apollo 8’s first manned pass beyond the dark side of the moon during lunar orbit insertion is presented in a epic fashion that will literally make the hairs on your neck stand up from dramatic build and release. David Gilmour knows a thing or two about the dark side of the moon, too, and it is wonderful to hear his voice and his guitar sounding so, well, so David Gilmour-like here. Rattle That Lock‘s songs cover a wide range of styles, with his elegy for fallen comrade Rick Wright, “A Boat Likes Waiting,” standing as an emotional and musical highlight. Both of these albums are strong and compelling, but I’m going to go with the veteran space explorer here, happy to have him active again in my musical cosmos. Winner: David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock.

Death Grips, The Powers That B (Jenny Death) vs Thighpaulsandra, The Golden Communion: Another interesting pairing courtesy the random number generator, with a pair of highly-provocative double albums going head to head. The Death Grips album has something of an odd provenance, with half of it having been released last year, and the new material (subtitled Jenny Death) offering a somewhat radical departure in sound and instrumental approach. I’m honestly not sure why the trio is insisting that it’s all one record, but they’ve been pretty universally perverse in their release practices over the years, so I guess this is just another example of that. Jenny Death has a couple of clunkers, but its best cuts are among the best songs that Death Grips have issued, and the new incorporation of non-digital instrumentation (guitars, bass, organs) significantly expands their creative palette, removing some of the monochrome tendencies of some of their earlier releases. Former Spiritualized and COIL keyboardist Thighpaulsandra’s latest disc also has something of a complex back story, as it’s been a work in progress for many years, and features performances from both of COIL’s late lamented geniuses, John Balance and Peter Christopherson. It’s a harrowing record, nearly two hours in length, filled with strong songs that take their sweet (or not so sweet) time to unfold. They’re challenging — but not to the point of being off-putting, which is a tough balance to manage. Taken as a whole, there’s a lot more great music on Thighpaulsandra’s album than there is on Death Grips’ album, and when you’ve got both quality and quantity in your corner, you deserve to advance in a contest like this one. Winner: Thighpaulsandra, The Golden Communion.

So there we have today’s report, with the following eight members of the Sweet Sixteen standing tall and awaiting future challenges:

Bring Me The Horizon, That’s The Spirit

Girlpool, Before The World Was Big

Bop English, Constant Bop

Wire, Wire

Clutch, Psychic Warfare

Shriekback, Without Real String or Fish

David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock

Thighpaulsandra, The Golden Communion.

In my next posting here, whenever I can get to it (I have a heavy travel schedule in the week ahead), I will tackle the following eight randomly-paired contests to complete the Sweet Sixteen. Stay tuned!

Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People vs Panda Bear, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper

The Fall, Sub-Lingual Tablet vs Ought, Sun Coming Down

Gangrene, You Disgust Me vs Protomartyr, The Agent Intellect

Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat vs Sleater-Kinney, No Cities To Love

Hey Colossus, Radio Static High vs Public Enemy, Man Plans God Laughs

Kate Pierson, Guitars and Microphones vs Vulkano, Iridescence

Lightning Bolt, Fantasy Empire vs Sleaford Mods, Key Markets

Rudresh Mahanthappa, Bird Calls vs Only Real, Jerk at the End of the Line

2015 Album Of The Year Tournament (Part One)

Note: My final summary listing of the 20 best albums of 2015 was developed via a six-part analytical tournament involving 32 contending albums. Complete narrative related to this final listing is accessible via the following links:

Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixSummary

With December 1 around the corner, this is the time of year when I begin to frame my annual Albums of the Year report. 2015 will mark the 24th year that I’ve published a report in either traditional print or digital formats, so it’s a venerable personal tradition for me, and it’s always nice to see that these pieces are typically among the most widely read items on my various websites.  I don’t wait until the very end of the year to do my list, since I think it takes at least a solid month or more of listening before I feel comfortable that something meets both the “strong first impression” and “stands up to repeated listening” tests that I apply in rating albums — so albums released in the last six weeks of the year get bumped into the following year’s report.

For background perspective on what you might expect to see on the 2015 roster, here is the complete list of my “Albums of the Year” from 1992 to 2014. With 20/20 hindsight, I don’t quite know what I was thinking in some of those years, but I stand by my picks as historic facts, for better or for worse:

1992: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Henry’s Dream

1993: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville

1994: Ween, Chocolate and Cheese

1995: Björk, Post

1996: R.E.M., New Adventures in Hi-Fi

1997: Geraldine Fibbers, Butch

1998: Jarboe, Anhedoniac

1999: Static-X, Wisconsin Death Trip

2000: Warren Zevon, Life’ll Kill Ya

2001: Björk, Vespertine

2002: The Residents, Demons Dance Alone

2003: Wire, Send

2004: The Fall, The Real New Fall LP (Formerly “Country on the Click”)

2005: Mindless Self Indulgence, You’ll Rebel to Anything

2006: Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere

2007: Max Eider, III: Back in the Bedroom

2008: Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight

2009: Mos Def, The Ecstatic

2010: Snog, Last Of The Great Romantics

2011: Planningtorock, W

2012: Goat, World Music

2013: David Bowie, The Next Day

2014: First Aid Kit, Stay Gold

On a macro basis, 2015 is posing me a couple of interesting challenges. I usually rank 20 albums in my final list, but the year has been filled with so many rich and enjoyable choices that I’m actually having a hard time boiling it down to so few discs. On the flip side, though, no one album has really risen for me as the standout, clear candidate for the top spot on the list, despite ongoing deep listening and repeated conversations on the topic with both real world and online musical friends.

So this year, I’m going to combine two of the things that have defined my musical writing here on the blog: lists and head-to-head contests. Instead of writing a single year-end report, I’m going to run a 2015 Album of the Year Tournament, starting with 32 very worthy contenders, and then pitting them comparatively against each other until I’ve identified the best of the best by process of elimination. As I normally do with such tournaments (see March of the Mellotrons for the longest example of the form) , once I get to a Final Four, I will compete all four of them against each other round robin style, rather than single elimination. I think this provides a more fair and well-justified end game.

As I note here every year: these articles will obviously be based on the things that I actually listen to, and as musically omnivorous and curious as I am, there are some genres of music that I just don’t experience much, and they’re not going to be represented here. So please resist the urge to castigate me as a tasteless cultural imperialist bastard because I do not recognize the genius of your favorite Bolivian queercore free jazz ukulele and church bell skronk collective. I’m glad you enjoy them, and hope they top your own list when you write it. Also, yes, I already know that this is all subjective. All music criticism is subjective. If there were objective measurements of “good music,” we’d all listen to exactly the same things, and the music industry’s A&R and marketing people would be out of jobs, along with us critics. You don’t need to write to tell me that either. Thank you.

With those preambles out of the way, here are the 32 exceptional 2015 albums I will evaluate as part of the tournament. Worthy contenders, all of them, and I highly commend them for your listening pleasures:

Bop English, Constant Bop

Brandon Flowers, The Desired Effect

Bring Me The Horizon, That’s The Spirit

Clutch, Psychic Warfare

Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit

David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock

Death Grips, Jenny Death (The Powers That B)

Eternal Summers, Gold and Stone

Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People

The Fall, Sub-Lingual Tablet

Flo Morrissey, Tomorrow Will Be Beautiful

Gangrene, You Disgust Me

Girlpool, Before The World Was Big

Hey Colossus, Radio Static High

Kate Pierson, Guitars and Microphones

Lightning Bolt, Fantasy Empire

Matthewmaticus, The Sanctified Tape (EP)

Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat

Only Real, Jerk at the End of the Line

Ought, Sun Coming Down

Panda Bear, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper

Protomartyr, The Agent Intellect

Public Enemy, Man Plans God Laughs

Public Service Broadcasting, The Race For Space

Rudresh Mahanthappa, Bird Calls

Shriekback, Without Real String or Fish

Sleaford Mods, Key Markets

Sleater-Kinney, No Cities To Love

Thighpaulsandra, The Golden Communion

Vulkano, Iridescence

The Weasels, Also Sprach Larrythustra (EP)

Wire, Wire

I will use a random number generator in each round to select the pairings, so I don’t unintentionally give one record a fast pipeline to the finals. Fair is fair, after all. I’ve got a busy travel schedule ahead for the remainder of November, so I will try to shoot for an update a week, with a goal of naming the Album of the Year on or around December 1. The next update will define the first round pairings, and then move us on to a Sweet Sixteen listing. Stay tuned . . . I think it will be a fun exercise!

Farewell, Metroland?

For the first time in 38 years, Albany-based alternative newsweekly Metroland will not publish a new edition this week, following the seizure of its offices and property by the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance. Having just read Paul Grondahl’s interview with Metroland Editor and Publisher Stephen Leon, I’m not seeing any likely scenario where the once vibrant paper is going to be making a return anytime soon in anything approaching its historic editorial and aesthetic configuration.

That’s sad news for me, since I have a deep history with the paper, and I owe Steve and many members of his team a debt of gratitude for allowing me to become part of the Albany cultural community in ways that would have been largely closed to me without my Metroland bylines and connections. While the left-leaning, sometimes sanctimonious paper was certainly not universally loved in and around Albany, it had wide distribution and extensive name recognition, and it was the go-to resource for the region’s cultural calendars for years before the internet rendered it irrelevant.

My history with the paper actually pre-dates my time in Albany. Marcia and I both worked on media and press relations for the Naval Reactors program in Washington, DC in the late ’80s, and Metroland was a thorn in our side for its nagging, niggling coverage of a series of whistle-blower based incidents at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Niskayuna. While I can’t discuss the details or merits of those claims and Metroland‘s coverage thereof, I can tell you that the paper was doing its job from a journalistic standpoint, raising questions and covering angles that the larger daily papers were often missing at the time.

It was my job with Naval Reactors that later brought us to the Capital Region after a stint in Idaho, and through a fortuitous series of personal network connections (thanks, Paul Rapp!) I found myself as one of the new music critics for the paper in 1995 — hot on the heels of a financial meltdown and recovery that ousted the original ownership group and replaced it with Stephen Leon’s team. My first two articles were reviews of records by The Roches and Foetus, and I oscillated between such extremes throughout my time with the paper, eventually branching out into travel writing, interviews, think pieces and other feature work.

I freelanced for Metroland for nearly a year while still working for Naval Reactors, keeping a low profile (beyond my bylines) on both fronts, given the awkward history between my full-time and part-time employer. I rarely went to the Metroland offices during my first year with the paper, which helpfully allowed me to remain largely unrecognized and unknown in the local music community when I started covering it, thereby providing a degree of safe objectivity as I lurked in the shadows at concerts. Even the other Metroland writers had no idea what I looked like or who I was for much of that period, and a former editor once told me she was shocked when she met me, as she expected me to be a leather-garbed, long-haired, heavily pierced rock n’ roll rabble-rouser, based on my writing style and interests.

When I resigned from Federal service in 1996, Steve put me on a steady weekly retainer, which was tremendously helpful as I made the transition from government to nonprofit service. I’m still grateful to him for that key opportunity at a key time. I ended up with over 750 bylines in Metroland between 1995 and 2003, plus probably another couple of hundred pieces that ran without credit, e.g. the “Noteworthy” columns of key upcoming concerts. The first incarnations of my personal website included a lot of these pieces, way back in the days before Metroland itself had much of a web presence. The exposure I gained from my work with the paper directly contributed to my involvement (eventually as on-air host) with Time Warner Cable’s Sounding Board music television show, along with many other freelance writing assignments over the years. It remains a great item on my professional resume.

I stopped reviewing live music for Metroland when I started booking shows at the Chapel + Cultural Center in 2002, as I considered it tacky and unprofessional to fill both roles within the same market. I later asked that my name be removed from Metroland‘s masthead during the early days of the Iraq War, as I was uncomfortable with some of the positions and tone that the paper took with regard to the soldiers, aviators and sailors (and their families) who served at the time, and did not want to imply my approval thereof in any fashion. It was a good run, and I mostly enjoyed it all, except at the very end.

All that being said: even back in 1995, it was something of a running gallows-humor joke among the freelancers that remuneration for our services was going to be neither quick nor efficient, and the lag-time between submission and payment for works often grew to six months or more during my time with the paper. When I was writing every week, this didn’t bother me all that much, since I eventually got to the point where I had a paycheck every couple of weeks — even if it was for work that had run months before. But for those who depended more heavily on these paychecks than I did, it was certainly a burden, and it apparently got worse after I left, when I heard tales of bounced checks and even longer lag times.

I suppose, then, that it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the tax man was treated no better than the creative types who made the paper possible. It’s a slippery slope once you decide to forsake timely payment of obligations, and once you get away with it, it’s a hard habit to break. Still, though, it’s a rotten ending for a business enterprise that made a difference in its own ways. I hope that Steve and the current staff and freelancers (plus their families) will be okay once the dust settles — though I suspect that will be a long, painful process along the way, and that once it’s done, Metroland will either cease to exist, or will become a captive faux alternative arts and culture advertising broadsheet for one of the region’s daily newspapers.

End of an era, either way.

Beloved Royals Take The Crown (And Other Sporting Wonders)

1. My very earliest childhood sporting loyalties were to the Washington Redskins, the North Carolina State Wolfpack, and the Kansas City Royals. I gave up on supporting the Redskins in the early days of the Dan Snyder regime, and while I still root for the Wolfpack (my dad’s and grandfather’s alma mater), they’ve fallen behind Navy and UAlbany (my own academic homes) in terms of my personal loyalties. But my affection for the Royals has never wavered, and you can use the search form on this website for proof that I’m no recent bandwagon jumper, but have stuck with the team through thick and (mostly) thin over the years. Persistence has finally paid off, as for the second time in my life, and first in 30 years, my beloved boys in blue took home the crown last night in their usual thrilling late-inning fashion. What an exciting end to an exciting season! My gut tells me that this team has dynasty potential, so I look forward to future gloating in this space in the years ahead. Go Royals! World Series Champs! Huttah!

2. On Saturday, Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds rushed for two touchdowns, tying Montee Ball for the all-time collegiate record — with six or seven (depending on whether Navy plays in the American Athletic Conference Championship) games to go. He should break the record next weekend, and by season’s end, he should cap a career that will remain on the record books for many, many years. In addition to his on-the-field accomplishments, he’s an excellent student, and will serve his country upon graduation, having earned a degree in one of the most rigorous academic environments in the country. In his fourth year as a starting quarterback, he has led Navy to a 6-1 record at mid-season, and his team is contending for the AAC title in its first year in the conference. It would seem that Reynolds exemplifies all that’s best about collegiate football — and yet he does not even appear on the screen as a footnote in most of the online Heisman Trophy Watches. This is woefully, criminally wrong. Does he need more of a police record to qualify? Should he have left school after his sophomore year to be a proper contender? Is his value as a collegiate player undermined because he won’t be making money for a professional team or its advertising parasites next year? The Heisman Trophy is allegedly awarded to “most outstanding player in college football whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity; winners epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work.” I see no other player in the country with as strong a C.V. on all of those fronts than Keenan Reynolds, and the college football media engine and online echo chamber that sustains it should be ashamed for overlooking him, again and again and again.

3. Marcia and I visited Soldier Field for the first time yesterday on a perfect autumn day to watch her Beloved Vikings play Da Bears. The game was exciting and ended exactly as it should have: with the Vikings winning on a last-second field goal. Outstanding! We were way up in the nosebleed seats, but the views were still good, and being up so high gave me the chance to capture some fun photos, a few of them copied below. A great sporting weekend, all around!

Wall of humanity, cheering on a losing cause.

Wall of humanity, cheering on a losing cause.

Our apartment viewed from Soldier Field; the rightmost in the center cluster of three.

Our apartment viewed from Soldier Field; the rightmost in the center cluster of three.

Dude Brah dreams of fantasy riches. There will be beer.

Dude Brah dreams of fantasy riches. There will be beer.

High in the nosebleed sections at Soldier Field. Go Vikings!

High in the nosebleed sections at Soldier Field. Go Vikings!