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, friends and followers (and random surfers): today’s the day that I finish the 2015 Album Of The Year Tournament and select the album that I consider to be the best musical thing I’ve heard in the past 12 months. In the prior installments of this tournament (linked above), I boiled 32 original contending discs down to a tight, tested Final Four, as follows:
Clutch, Psychic Warfare
Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People
David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock
Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat
As I always do in Final Fours for these sorts of writing projects, I am shifting from a straight single elimination process 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 of the six mini-tourneys: 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. If I end up with a tie between albums, I will do a sudden death song-by-song analysis to pick the better of the two. If I’m still tied at that point, then it comes down to a gut decision, as happened in the most lengthy (and widely read) contest of this variety, March Of The Mellotrons. Otherwise, though, this process has always resulted in a clear winner. Let’s hope that’s the case here.
Are you ready? Here we go . . .
Clutch, Psychic Warfare vs Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People: Both albums are returns to high-level form after dips in quality curve, with Ezra Furman bouncing back a bit more strongly from a bit of a lower low point, in large part because of the emergence of his new band, The Boy-Friends. Furman’s album is far more personal and confessional than Clutch’s, though one of Psychic Warfare‘s best moments, “Our Lady Of Electric Light,” finds singer-lyricist Neil Fallon delving into the dark spots of his soul a bit more than he usually does. That song and “Son Of Virginia” are fine, career-high examples of an under-appreciated facet of the Clutch experience: slow-building rock anthems that grab you gently at first, then shake you hard once they get going great guns. I’d rate “Son Of Virginia” as one of the best tracks in a long career filled with great songs, a worthy album closer to a truly song disc, start to finish. As I ponder these two discs, it ultimately comes down to a matter of how I listen to them: as good as Ezra’s disc is, there are some tracks I’ve come to skip on occasion when they pop up in the earphones (being able to track and see this phenomena over time is a nice facet of using iPod data), while I never skipped through a single track, ever, on Psychic Warfare this year. That pushes it over the top in this particular contest. Decision: Clutch, 2 points; Ezra Furman, 0 points.
Clutch, Psychic Warfare vs David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock: David Gilmour’s album provides all the expected, and wonderful, guitar and vocal moments that I love and expect from one of my favorite singers and string-benders, and he deploys his great musical assets on a collection of warm and engaging songs. Textures range from the nearly ambient stillness of “5 AM” through the jazzy “The Girl In The Yellow Dress” to the crunchy anthemic R&B strut of “Rattle That Lock.” It works well as a collection of songs played on their own, and as a cohesively flowing singular creative entity. Clutch’s collection of songs are loosely bound thematically via a Philip K. Dick inspired narrative about how events and appearances are not always what they seem to be, but the resonance of the words and story-telling on Psychic Warfare is a little bit more arch and observational than the more heart-based narratives crafted by Gilmour and his novelist wife, Polly Samson. As noted in earlier rounds, I consider an album of this quality from David Gilmour to be something on an event, since he’s never been terribly prolific in his solo output. I’m going to give Gilmour the edge here on that front, happy as I am to have him back in regular rotation on my musical boxes. Decision: David Gilmour, 2 points; Clutch, 0 points.
Clutch, Psychic Warfare vs Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat: It’s always something of a challenge to rate extreme music like Napalm Death against more accessible fare, like all three of the other albums in this Final Four Round Robin. I typically default not to comparing such cross-genre competitions directly to each other, since points of common reference are few, but rather assess each as an achievement within its own sonic sphere. Viewed through that lens, Napalm Death score a bit more highly in this contest: Apex Predator — Easy Meat is easily the best extreme metal album I’ve heard this year (and in many recent years, actually), and its experimental approaches to sonic variety within a genre that’s often regrettably monochrome is admirable. Psychic Warfare is clearly a strong disc, but it’s not mining any new musical lodes through its engaging rock and roll gallop. I’ve written before that extreme metal is an acquired taste, and that before people develop it, they tend to think that it all sounds the same. Having spent lots of listening hours over many, many years exploring the harder, darker sides of music, I can tell you this: Apex Predator — Easy Meat does not sound quite like anything else released in 2015, and it’s a special record accordingly, worthy of both available points in this particular contest. Decision: Napalm Death, 2 points; Clutch, 0 points.
Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People vs David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock: These two discs both win props and kudos for exploring a variety of sonic textures and song styles, keeping listeners on their toes as the two singers lead their bands through their paces. Both albums are also emotionally rich, tackling some tough topics in their lyrics, while deftly balancing the darkness with moments of sweetness and light. At bottom line for me, the veteran gravitas that Gilmour brings to Rattle That Lock trumps the earnest youthful enthusiasm that Furman offers on Perpetual Motion People, perhaps because as a parent and a gentleman of a certain age, the themes of family, loss and love resonate a bit more clearly with me. On a similar front, I also appreciate the fact that Rattle That Lock is a collaboration between Gilmour and his wife, despite the barbs that get tossed his way for trading the lyrical acerbicism of long-time collaborator Roger Waters for Polly Samson’s gentler, more abstract and less political observations. The love between the lines shines through, and I like that a lot. Decision: David Gilmour, 2 points; Ezra Furman, 0 points.
Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People vs Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat: In the same ways that Napalm Death’s achievement within their musical field trumped Clutch’s achievement in theirs, I’ve got to apply a similar lens here when assessing two radically different approaches to music making, and judge Napalm Death’s accomplishment to be superior to Ezra Furman’s. Apex Predator — Easy Meat sits as the crowning achievement in a trilogy of socially aware, sonically adventurous records, and both of its predecessors ranked highly in my year end reports at the time of their releases. If long-time guitarist Mitch Harris’ leave of absence ends up being permanent, then this record will mark the end of an important musical era for a group that I count among my all-time favorites. It’s got a lot more heft in this contest accordingly, as charming and likable as young Ezra’s best album to date may be. Furman’s future may be brighter than Napalm’s, but right here, right now, the noisy monster carries the contest. Decision: Napalm Death, 2 points; Ezra Furman, 0 points.
David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock vs Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat
Well, eyeballing the numbers above, it actually all comes down to this contest for the title of 2015 Album Of The Year, with Napalm Death and David Gilmour having earned four points each, to Clutch’s two and Ezra Furman’s zero. I’ve been sitting here at the computer for quite some time, staring at the screen thinking, then getting up and doing other things, then coming back and staring some more, because this is probably the hardest pairing I’ve faced in this tournament in terms of the quality of the music at hand, how to assess achievement in radically different genres, what I wish to publicly communicate by naming an album of the year, and how these albums impact me on an intellectual and emotional basis. David Gilmour’s album is important to me as a new high-quality entry by a non-prolific artist into a much-loved canon. It’s an easily shareable album, comfortable for friends and family members alike. As rarely as I listen to commercial radio, I’ve already heard Rattle That Lock‘s title tracks a few times on the air, so assume it’s winning listeners on a popular front, too. Napalm Death are far more prolific than Gilmour, and I find it awe-inspiring that they are releasing some of their very best music so deeply into their very busy career. Apex Predator — Easy Meat was the first 2015 release I acquired this year, and I’ve kept most of its songs on my gym, car and commuting iPods throughout the year, so it’s easily my most listened record of the year. Of course, among the 100 or so most played albums in our household, it’s the one with the least spins on the Family iPod, since its appeals aren’t universal, by a long shot, for folks with finite patience for such harsh, intense music. And I know that such sentiments extend well beyond the walls of my home, so that naming Apex Predator — Easy Meat as my album of the year would feel somewhat reductive in terms of what I hope to achieve by publicly sharing lists like these: nobody who’s not already versed in such music would likely read this report and make a decision to buy their first Napalm Death album. Citing David Gilmour’s new disc, on the other hand, might sway a skeptical Pink Floyd fan, or might make somebody who heard “Rattle That Lock” (the song) on the radio decide to investigate Rattle That Lock (the album) further. I have felt like David Gilmour’s album is important to me this year due to the scarcity of his output, is emotionally resonant as a creative endeavor, and is musically warm and inviting, almost diametrically opposed to off-putting engine blasts crafted by Napalm Death. And as I wrap this thing up, I find myself wanting to share and celebrate the warmth and beauty of Rattle That Lock a (little bit) more than I want to share and celebrate the caustic bile and fury of Apex Predator — Easy Meat. Thus . . . Decision: David Gilmour, 2 points; Napalm Death, 0 points.
And that gives us a winner . . . ladies and gentlemen, please allow me to introduce:
David Gilmour’s Rattle That Lock is my 2015 Album Of The Year
It feels good and right to type that, as the gut seems to agree with the brain — which isn’t always the case. Hopefully it feels right (or at least definsible) to you too, if you’ve been following along with this exercise in thinking out loud, while typing. Thanks for your time, either way.
I’ll leave this to sit in its current format for a couple of days, then will consolidate all of the elements into a single article for posterity’s (and search engine’s) sake. That’s always a satisfying step at the end of these sorts of contests. I will also note that next year will mark the 25th consecutive year that I’ve named an Album Of The Year in public spaces. Here’s hoping that it might be an easier process for me in 2016!