Thursday, December 31, 2015

Get Old Forever: My Favorite Albums of 2015

Editor's note: You can hear me and Jay Breitling run down our favorite albums of the year on CompCon (parts 1 and 2) and I'll be playing two hours of my fave rock jams of 2015 on Stuck In Thee Garage on Friday. 

Sometimes it's hard to put years in perspective when you're still so close to them. From a general news standpoint, 2015 was flat-out fucked. Crazy-ass mass shootings on the regular, idiotic acts of aggression from pretty much every global power and some up-and-comers, a dogshit political system dredging up the lowest of the low in the latest U.S. presidential election folly.

But fortunately, I'm not here to talk about that crap. I'm here to talk about the rock, and in 2015, it was good. So without further ado, here are my 15 favorite albums of the year.

15. METZ - II
No sophomore slump for this Toronto trio. Just more lacerating punk blasters that don't let up. No love ballads here, folks. All ass-kicking all the time.

14. Stove - Is Stupider
It was a sad day when Steve Hartlett decided to end Ovlov, but fortunately he decided to keep forging ahead with Stove, which is essentially him doing everything. And by everything, that means bringing the Dino Jr.-esque rock jams with aplomb. Would have made the top 10 if it had come a little earlier in the year.

13. Faith No More - Sol Invictus
Faith No More called it a day in 1998, a good 15+ years after forming in the Bay Area. Frontman Mike Patton kept working at a frantic pace with his various projects, but he reunited with FNM in 2009 for the occasional live show over the next few years. The reunion finally resulted in a new album this year, and it was as ferocious as anything FNM did in the '90s. It was a good year for reunited rock bands.

12. Swervedriver - I Wasn't Born to Lose You
Speaking of reunions, Swervedriver also released their first album since breaking up in '98 (and reuniting for occasional gigs in the last few years). And like Faith No More, it was like they never left. Just glorious shoegaze anthems from a band that specialized in such rock goodness.

11. Kuroma - Kuromarama
Kuroma is the brainchild of Hank Sullivant, formerly of the Whigs and a touring guitarist for MGMT. This album came out of left field for me, but it was a beautiful surprise: Cool psych-rock with an inherent poppiness that shines through. Super-catchy and super-good.

10. Eagles of Death Metal - Zipper Down
Before the events of November 13 in Paris made Eagles of Death Metal a household name for all the wrong reasons, the release of Zipper Down marked a glorious return to the hard rock boogie that Jesse Hughes and Josh Homme traffic in. It's an album of good-time jams that seems about as far from terror attacks as you can get. Sadly, the band and the album will always be associated with the Bataclan tragedy, but it's nice to see that they're going to keep forging ahead and will play Paris in the spring.

9. Titus Andronicus - The Most Lamentable Tragedy
Patrick Stickles is nothing if not a big idea guy. Always has been. This time around, Titus rolled out a 93-minute double album rock opera that delves into manic depression and drugs both over- and under-the-counter. And oh by the way, it rocks most steadfastly. Always interesting and thoroughly impressive.

8. Pile -You're Better Than This

This Allston band just keeps getting better. Constant gigging has honed Pile's chops to the point where every show is a must-see experience. You're Better Than This is a good document of the band's sound, as mastermind Rick Maguire leads the group through various death-defying twists and turns. Far from conventional, the closest comparison I can draw is the Jesus Lizard, which produced similarly jagged sound blasts two decades ago. Maguire isn't a lunatic exhibitionist like JL's David Yow, but his yowling vocals and whisper-to-a-scream song structures certainly resonate similarly. Tempos shift and shimmer, guitars thrash and trill, drums thunder and brush. An immersive experience that rewards listeners looking more than standard rock songs.

7. Krill - A Distant Fist Unclenching

Yet another album from an interesting local post-punk band led by a deep-thinking and unconventional frontman, Krill made tremendous strides in 2015 with an excellent record and killer live shows...and then promptly broke up. Singer-bassist Jonah Furman's reasons for breaking up the band are unclear to me, but it's a damn shame because Krill was pretty goddamn great. A herky-jerky yet super-tight trio, Krill is distinguished especially by Furman's quirky yelp and his super-deep lyrics (mein homie Jay Breitling does a superlative job deconstructing them in his excellent review of the album). Like Pile, Krill built a large local following among indie rock fans and bands alike before deciding to go out on a high note. In retrospect, maybe "It Ends," the final song on A Distant Fist Unclenching, was actually foreshadowing what happened several months later. Whatever the case, Krill will be missed.

6. Sleater-Kinney - No Cities to Love
Rock reunions are a dime a dozen these days, it seems. And a lot of them are inevitably disappointing cash grabs (ahem, looking at you, hasn't happened yet, but c'mon). Not the case with Sleater-Kinney, who surprised everyone in January with a new album, tour and box set. A decade after the band's last record, S-K delivered a short (32 minutes) but impressive album that ranks up there with any of their previous recorded output. A lot had happened in that time off: Carrie Brownstein became a comedy star on "Portlandia" and had also formed the excellent Wild Flag with S-K drummer Janet Weiss, who kept busy by playing with Stephen Malkmus and Quasi as well. Corin Tucker had formed her own band and released two albums, in addition to starting a family. But after secretly recording No Cities to Love, the band sounded like they picked up where they left off. Tucker's vocals are as powerful as ever, the songs careen and pummel and Weiss pounds the drums with fury. The songs are short, catchy bursts of punk energy. Hopefully, this will lead to more down the road.

5. Mikal Cronin - MCIII
Already established as a prolific and prodigiously talented artist both on his own and with his pal Ty Segall, Cronin's latest expands his poppy garage-rock sound with orchestral flourishes and melodies that entrench into your brain pan. There are still flashes of fuzz guitar, but they're part of a tuneful whole as opposed to the be-all, end-all. "Say" is a catchy rocker that intertwines guitars with horns, "Made My Mind Up" is an upbeat guitar-driven tune, and "Feel Like" and "I've Been Loved" are melancholy slow numbers. Side 2 is a concept suite of songs that build slowly, rock furiously on "Gold" and "Ready" and then settle back down with the wistful album closer "Circle." It remains to be seen whether Cronin appears on the new Segall record (which is out next month) and plays bass in Segall's band like he did before MCIII came out. Cronin may just have moved into a new level of indie rock stardom for that, but I wouldn't be surprised if he did it anyway.

4. Speedy Ortiz - Foil Deer
After taking the indie rock world by storm in 2013 with Major Arcana, Speedy Ortiz could have followed it up with a similar collection of '90-echoing guitar tunage. Instead, Sadie Dupuis and crew explored some new sounds and ideas on Foil Deer and create a satisfying and interesting sophomore release. "Raising the Skate" states the mission plan ("I'm not bossy, I'm the boss") and Dupuis never lets you forget that she's calling the shots. New guitarist Devin McKnight of Grass is Green seamlessly steps in to replace former axe dude Matt Robidoux (although in truth, McKnight joined the band in early 2014) and gives the songs a muscular rawk sound. Dupuis, who left her gig teaching poetry at UMass Amherst, is adept at writing interesting turns of phrase and gives the band a lyrical depth not seen in most young bands. Speedy isn't content to color between the lines: "Puffer" has almost a pop-R&B feel, marking a departure from the sound on the band's debut, while "Dot X," "My Dead Girl" and "Zig" are filled with twists and shifting tempos while remaining ever tuneful. A bold statement from a promising band.

3. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit
If you're an Australian rock fan, Courtney Barnett's success in 2015 (which included a Grammy nomination) probably didn't come as a surprise because she's been bouncing around playing in bands in Melbourne for a few years now. But here in the U.S., I only heard of her last year when a few of her EPs were re-released. And even then, I wasn't prepared for how great her solo debut is. I heard some comparisons of her sound to Nirvana's Nevermind, but I think Barnett reminds me much more of Stephen Malkmus, both vocally and musically. She has a wordy, almost talk-singing style at times, while the band rocks furiously at times and laconically at others. Barnett's lyrics are wordy ruminations on the mundane aspects of everyday life but her laid-back delivery is compelling, especially on slow-burners like "Small Poppies" and "Depreston." But on upbeat numbers like "Pedestrian at Best," "Dead Fox" and "Elevator Operator," Barnett and her band prove they're no slouches in the rock department.

2. Palehound - Dry Food

Palehound is another act led by another strong female fronter, Ellen Kempner that blew up (at least in the indie rock world) in 2015. Right off the bat, the album opener "Molly" is driven by a powerful riff and uber-catchy chorus and we're hooked; it's my favorite song of the year. Kempner, 21, is a skilled guitarist whose licks are all over  the album; even slower songs like "Easy" feature hot skronkity guitar breakdowns at the end and the '70s AM Gold of "Cinnamon" has a tasty riff that runs throughout. The introspective lyrics are reminiscent of Kempner's one-time roommate, Speedy Ortiz's Sadie Dupuis, with several songs contemplating the after-effects of a bad breakup. The title track is quiet and devastating: "You made beauty a monster to me/So I'm kissing all the ugly things I see." Live, the band is terrific. Kempner and Palehound have a bright future ahead of them.

1. Jeff Rosenstock - We Cool?
My favorite album of the year is from a guy I'd never heard of before. I saw a tweet from Weezer's Rivers Cuomo repping the excellence of We Cool?, so I figured I'd check it out and it grabbed me right from the start. The Long Island-based Rosenstock's sound on his second album definitely has some Weezer-esque elements, but there's also the world weary punk fury of Titus Andronicus in there as well. Starting with the lead track "Get Old Forever," the album takes a sardonic yet thoughtful look at life in the protagonist's early 30s, watching as his friends get married and real jobs while he's still playing punk rock/getting drunk alone in bars/being a general fuck up. There's nothing maudlin about the songs, though: "You, In Weird Cities," "Hey Allison!" "Beers Again Alone" and "Hall of Fame" are anthemic singalongs that get more rousing each time you listen to them. Rosenstock balances out the heaviness with quieter songs like "All Blissed Out" and album closer "Darkness Records." These songs should be all over rock radio...if there was a rock radio that played music like this. Rosenstock is no rookie; he's been in various punk bands since the late '90s. If there was any justice in the world, he'd be huge. In the meantime, let's hope he keeps making albums like this.

Honorable mentions: Protomartyr - The Agent Intellect; Infinity Girl - Harm; Destroyer - Poison Season; Viet Cong - s/t; Mike Krol - Turkey; Nai Harvest - Hairball; Thee Oh Sees - Mutilator Defeated at Last; Chandos - Rats in Your Bed; Joanna Gruesome - Peanut Butter; Wilco - Star Wars; Mac McCaughan - Non-Believers; The Woolen Men - Temporary Monument; The 20/20 Project - Tapes and Crates; Iron Maiden - The Book of Souls; Jesse Malin - New York Before the War; Barrence Whitfield and the Savages - Under the Savage Sun.

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