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:
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.