Here are records that were released in 2015 (except where noted) that I found myself repeatedly listening to and really enjoying. I can’t vouch that these are the best albums of the year, but I sure like them. In fact, looking at the “best of” lists released so far, I can say once again that I haven’t heard of over half the artists on those lists, let alone their music, so you know that most of what I’m listening to is not culturally significant—at least not in terms of pop culture.
D’Angelo, Black Messiah
Released in the middle of December last year, it’s hard to think of this as a 2014 album, so I’m not going to. It’s an amazing record, soulful, funky, melodic, and gorgeously arranged—the song “Really Love,” for example, opens with an ominous low note that opens up into a harmonically sophisticated string quartet that fades into some nimble classical Spanish guitar work before transforming into loping, jazzy R & B. Then, of course, there are those layers of D’Angelo’s voice that make up so much of the texture of these varied songs. Musically, Black Messiah recalls ‘80s funk as well as classic ‘70s work by Marvin Gaye—especially the more politically charged songs like “1000 Deaths” and “The Charade”—and Al Green. It is a bona fide masterpiece.
The Decemberists, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
Despite the four year gap between the records—when The Decembrists went on hiatus—What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is clearly a follow-up to The King is Dead. As good as The King is Dead is, though, it seems to me that the songs on What a Terrible World… are better, richer, more sophisticated while losing none of their accessibility. Because the band’s songs have become more straightforward, abandoning some of the quirkiness of their earlier music, some listeners have lost interest. But The Decemberists are not watering down their music and selling out. Rather, they’re transforming by opening themselves up, which is always tricky business. As the singer tells us in the opening track “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” “We know, we know, we belong to you / …We had to change some, you know, to belong to you.” And they do it with aplomb.
Wilco, Star Wars
I hadn’t exactly given up on Wilco in recent years, but I haven’t been inspired to spend much time with their past three albums. I expected the same with Star Wars. However, the title and the incongruous cover—an odd painting of an angora cat on a black pillow in front of a vase with three tea roses on a slate gray background—should have been a clue that I was in store for something different. The opening track, “EKG,” a brief instrumental featuring angular, dissonant guitars and a shifting time signature lives up to the cover’s singular weirdness. Granted, most of the songs following “EKG” probably would have fit comfortably on The Whole Love or Wilco (The Album), but the new songs feel unfinished, exploratory, their edges a bit more jagged, catching the ear more urgently than some of the songs on those other albums. As a whole, Star Wars feels more open to whatever shows up than anything Wilco has done in a long time, if not ever. This is my favorite Wilco album since 2004’s A Ghost is Born.
Joe Jackson, Fast Forward
Fast Forward may be the best album the prolific Joe Jackson has released since the ‘80s. Originally intended to be four EPs of songs recorded in four different cities (New York, Amsterdam, Berlin, and New Orleans), Jackson decided instead to release it as an album featuring four tracks per city. Each section of the album features musicians from the city in which it was recorded, and usually one or two of the songs have some kind of relevance to the city like the lively cover of Television’s “See No Evil” in the New York section or the references to Germany in the Berlin section. Still, the cities don’t make much of an impact on the sound of the songs except New Orleans, where the rhythms and horn arrangements are unmistakable. A few songs try too hard, most notably “Far Away,” which is ambitious in all the wrong ways, but Jackson tends to undercut his pretensions with his still snotty humor, as in “Keep on Dreaming,” which opens with this little insight: “God must think he’s God or something / Lording it over us / Seems to like to make us feel ridiculous.” It’s nice to hear Jackson in such fine form.
John Zorn, The True Discoveries of Witches and Demons
Is it prog rock, jazz, or metal? Who cares when you have such a group of talented musicians as Zorn has collected here to play his genre-confounding music. The music surges on time signatures that slip around in tectonic shifts, propelled by Kenny Grohowski’s manic drumming and Trevor Dunn’s massive bass, while John Medeski’s organ simmers over the white heat of Matt Hollenberg’s and Marc Ribot’s guitars. It is the aural equivalent of the violent storm that Satanist Dr. Julian Karswell conjures in Jacques Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon, the movie from which Zorn has taken his album’s title. This is fun, energetic music meant to be listened to loud.
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
Who would have thought, after a ten year hiatus, Sleater-Kinney would ever return? More to the point, who would have guessed they would sound so good? A number of punk and post-punk bands have reformed in recent years and recorded new albums with varying degrees of success. Sleater-Kinney, however, has released an album that rivals their best. The fuzz bass on the opening track “Price Tag” is practically perfect, until Janet Weiss’ muscular drumming kicks the song askew, and Corin Tucker’s voice is better than ever, though I’ve joked that at times she sounds like Geddy Lee on testosterone. No Cities to Love is vibrant, sophisticated rock music from what has proven to be one of the best bands to have come out of the ‘90s.
Los Lobos, Gates of Gold
After a cursory listen, Gates of Gold sounded like just another Los Lobos record in the vein they have been tapping, with little variation, since 1999’s This Time. And while it may be that, repeated listenings have also revealed a rich album. Yes, the album is split between the contributions of Cesar Rosas and collaborators Dave Hidalgo/Louis Perez, and, yes, Rosas’ contributions are traditional forms—blues, cumbia, norteño—while Hidalgo/Perez draw more from modern rock traditions. But within that familiarity there is real soul and some surprises, modest though they might be, like the moody “When We Were Free” or the hypnotic, modal progression of the album-closer “Magdalena.” This is a solid album by a great band. In fact, it’s so good that I’m going to dust off Tin Can Trust and The Town and the City and give them a few more spins. I suspect there’s some gold there, too.
Opening an album with the mournful tones of a cello signifies the proceedings are going to be “serious,” which is certainly true of Vulnicura, the album Björk wrote and recorded in the shadow of her breakup with artist Matthew Barney that is dominated by spare string arrangements accompanied by liquid, electronic beats. But Björk’s often breathy, confessional singing—along with her trademark articulation of English, “A jux, ta, po, si, tion in spay, ee, eece”—are so intimate and vulnerable it’s hard not to pay attention. What Björk has wrought is shot through with beauty, an intersection of pop and classical chamber music allowing Björk to showcase her idiosyncratic voice, much as Antony Hergarty does with his band Antony and the Johnsons, so it’s little surprise when he actually makes an appearance late in the album. Somber the album may be, but it is also compelling.
Bob Dylan, Shadows in the Night
The premise of Shadows in the Night, almost sounds like a joke: Bob Dylan covering ten songs from the Great American Songbook that had all been recorded by Frank Sinatra. Let’s face it, Dylan is a keen interpreter of song and can be an expressive singer, but he’s not a technically good one, and the songs he records on Shadows in the Night benefit from a singer who can actually negotiate their difficulties. Maybe that’s what makes Shadows in the Night such a pleasant surprise. Dylan’s strengths as a singer suit him well, but, as with any master performer, he also exploits his weaknesses to clarify his interpretations. Truth be told, the record finds him in good voice too—for Dylan at least. He hasn’t sung this smoothly in years. The arrangements, prominently featuring a haunting steel guitar, are sensitive and minimal, stripping the songs down to their essentials. They evoke the wee small hours of the morning in a way that does these songs—and Sinatra—justice.
Some albums not from 2015 that I spent quality time with this year:
Tom Waits, Alice; Louis Armstrong, Hot Fives & Sevens—Vol. 3; Led Zeppelin, Physical Graffiti; The New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers; Jason Isbell, Southeastern; Thelonious Monk, Underground; Sidney Bechet, [Don’t know the title]; Mel Tormé, Mel Tormé Sings Astaire; Mike Watt, The Secondman’s Middle Stand; Brooklyn Rider, Brooklyn Rider Plays Philip Glass; Rempis/Johnston/Ochs, Spectral; Swans, To Be Kind; Television, Marquee Moon; Nick Lowe, Jesus of Cool