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:
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
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