Top 10 Albums of 2015


Pre- (r)amble: I don’t talk much about myself on this site, but it can be important to know something about the person choosing these albums. After all, a 19 year old college student will likely be into an entirely different set of music than a 65 year old who grew up listening to Beatles, Stones and Hendrix records when they were new. Anyway, I’m a 38 year old guy who had his first child in 2015. The combination of age and a child means I don’t have the free time to investigate new music as I once did (though I still spend a hefty amount of time on it), nor do I have the same patience for new bands that don’t impress quickly. I, and many peers at the same point in life, are largely relying on new music from old favorites for inspiration. So, when you read this, know that your writer doesn’t really care about Kendrick Lamar, Grimes, or any of the indie-pop/rap/R&B I see on most year-end lists. If other people dig it, that’s great, but it does nothing for me. I tried. Really, I did. But if that’s what’s cool I’d rather just listen to The Pixies for the 100th time (their self-titled album is playing as I write this). That’s the kind of person I am right now, and that’s the place this list comes from.

  1. Mercury Rev – The Light In You (Bella Union)

It didn’t take much for Mercury Rev to get Album of the Year honors in 2015. All they had to do was simply return to the achingly beautiful music they made on Deserter’s Songs and All Is Dream. Great melodies, soaring orchestrations, and emotionally honest lyrics.

 

  1. The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Mini-Album Thingy Wingy (A Records)

Not sure if this should even count as an album, but it’s been a thin year for new music I loved, so here we are. MATW has seven songs covering a lot of stylistic ground including a 13th Floor Elevators cover, an instrumental, a song sung in Slovakian..etc., but the band’s aptitude for psychedelic songwriting is a constant.

 

  1. Tess Parks and Anton Newcombe – I Declare Nothing

Another album with participation from Brian Jonestown Massacre leader Anton Newcombe. This time he’s collaborating with Canadian singer Tess Parks whose half-gravelly/half-dreamy voice is mesmerizing. Early listens had me thinking the album was rushed and the songs repetitive, but further listens reveal the genius lurking beneath the surface. Hopefully this is an ongoing collaboration and not just a one-off.

 

  1. Uncle Acid and The Deadbeats – The Night Creeper (Rise Above Records)

This was my most highly anticipated release of 2015. It didn’t live up to my unrealistic expectations, but anyone who has grown to love the band’s mix of Sabbath, Crazy Horse and the dark side of the late-‘60s will be happy with The Night Creeper.

 

  1. The Twerps – Range Anxiety (Merge)

The Australian band’s second album is an increasingly rare example of indie-rock done right. A summery-sweet mix of The Velvets, The Clean and C86 sounds.

 

  1. The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Musique De Film Imagine (A Records)

The final of the three BJM-related entries in this list, MDFI wasn’t a typical album, but rather a largely instrumental soundtrack to a French film that doesn’t actually exist. As film music it’s a total success, and Anton is working on more film scores to come, so that’s pretty cool.

 

  1. Sunder- Sunder (Tee Pee)

French band Sunder’s album was a small step down from last year’s album (when they were known as The Socks), but still a highly entertaining mix of proto-metal thunder and LSD-munching late-‘60s psychedelic mind warpage. The title of the album opening “Deadly Flower” neatly sums up the two side of Sunder.

 

  1. Royal Headache – High (What’s Your Rupture?)

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve only heard this album once, and it was on Spotify, through crappy headphones, while I was at work. So, take this for what you will but I thought this was much better than their debut. Kinda punky stuff (in a 1970s way), but with soulful vocals that make it far more engaging than it might have been otherwise.

 

  1. You Am I – Porridge and Hotsauce (You Am I)

More full disclosure: I’ve only had this album for about two weeks so I haven’t been able to spend much time with it. That said, I’m parking it at number nine for now because everything You Am I has put out for the past 20+ years is good and I don’t hear this being much different. Now, can they please get an American record deal? They recorded the thing in Brooklyn (at Daptone Studios) for chrissakes!

 

  1. Cold Beat – Into The Air (Crime On The Moon)

Another album I’ve only heard on Spotify through headphones at work (they were going to send me a CD to review, but flaked on it). Reminds me of early Blondie (and a forgotten NY band from a decade ago called The Hong Kong) thanks to Hannah Lew’s Deborah Harry-ish vocals, but with punkier music that sounds like Wire circa-Pink Flag, despite some synthy passages.

A Wailing Of A Town: An Oral History Of Early San Pedro Punk And More 1977-1985 by Craig Ibarra (End FWY)


There’s an abundance of local punk scene oral histories available on the marketplace right now. It seems like every year or so a book like American Hardcore, NYHC, Treat Me Like Dirt, or We Got The Neutron Bomb comes out and immediately becomes a valued part of my rock library. That said, I approached Craig Ibarra’s oral history of San Pedro’s punk scene with a healthy dose of trepidation. The issue I anticipated was a simple one – the most well-known punk bands from San Pedro (i.e. the ones that would get the most ink) are The Minutemen and Saccharine Trust, both of whom I respect, but find their music too obscure and angular to enjoy. Oddly enough this was never a thought in my head once I dove into the book. Even if we’re talking about bands I don’t like or don’t know (some lesser known San Pedro bands get covered), the story of how localized punk scenes took shape in the ‘70s and ‘80s is always fascinating to me. San Pedro is no different in that regard, as author Craig Ibarra (who became involved in the Pedro punk scene at age 13 after hearing Black Flag’s Damaged) presents firsthand accounts from all the important local players, from musicians to scenesters in non-chronological order, but with a total cohesion that never comes across as disjointed or scattershot.

While the stories about misfit youths, clashes with law enforcement, struggling to find welcoming venues and labels, starting bands despite a lack of musical proficiency…etc. are similar to the ones read in other local punk histories, San Pedro wasn’t your typical punk mecca. It’s a port community within Los Angeles, with a large working class and Latino population, and definitely not the kind of place where people had an excess of money for punk accoutrements like leather jackets, high-tech equipment, or recording costs. Sure, it was geographically close enough to Hollywood that the Pedro punks would go there to see the Hollywood bands play, but it was also far enough that to fashionable members of the Hollywood scene, San Pedro may as well have been Iowa. The fact that they didn’t dress, play or act like standard issue punk rockers made San Pedro bands like The Minutemen the ultimate outcasts, the kind who are too out there to even find acceptance among other outcasts. The fact that they didn’t care probably made them cooler than anyone else. The book abruptly ends in 1985, with D. Boon’s death in a car crash bringing the Minutemen to a premature end, just as they were coming closer to making a national impact. It would have been nice if Ibarra included a brief section on the years after Boon’s death just to let you know that a local scene still existed (Ibarra himself began playing in local bands in the late-‘80s), but I guess that’s a story for another book. A crucial addition to your punk library.

Tall Dwarfs – Weeville; Chris Knox – Seizure (Captured Tracks/Flying Nun)


Even though the Tall Dwarfs formed in 1981, the duo of Chris Knox and Alec Bathgate didn’t get around to releasing their first full-length album, Weeville, until 1990,  only done EPs throughout the 1980s. To me the album is something of a minor classic, and one of the best to come from Flying Nun, the label which is to New Zealand indie rock what Motown was to Detroit R&B. The sound of the Tall Dwarfs is hard to convey with words, because it’s unique to the two band members and their acid-skewed world view. The duo play stringed and keyed instruments, but the percussion comes from primitive loops. You’d think this would make them sound rigid and tethered to the repetitive simplicity of the rhythms, but they neatly sidestep that trap with highly developed song ideas. The only artist I can think of that’s somewhat similar to the Tall Dwarfs is Robyn Hitchcock. Not that they sound much alike, but both are steeped in the songwriting of classic 1960s artists (Beatles, Dylan, Kinks, Velvet Underground…etc.), yet both attack it like artists coming out of the punk era (Soft Boys for Hitchcock, Toy Love for the boys in Tall Dwarfs), with an experimental sense of humor, coupled with flashes of aggression and surrealist imagery.

Weeville lets listeners experience all the different facets that make up the Tall Dwarfs’ music. Album opener “Log” is a piano-led ballad that could have come directly out of the Ray Davies or Syd Barrett songbook, but again, there’s something in the backwards sounds that crop up throughout, which could only have come from the Tall Dwarfs. The band’s punk roots get aired out on “Breath”, “Pirouette”, “The Winner” and “Ozone”, though the lo-fi performances and crazy lyrics have little in common with The Ramones, Clash or Sex Pistol’s kind of punk. My favorites among Weeville’s sixteen songs are the aforementioned Stooges/T. Rex romp “Breath”, the acoustic “Crawl”, and “Lucky” which features some very atmospheric slide guitar from Alec Bathgate. But really, all the songs are filled with interesting and creative performances that you should seek out. Also, don’t forget to check out the lyric booklet which has artwork for each song created by Knox and Bathgate that’s as fascinatingly twisted as the songs themselves.

Released one year prior to Weeville, Chris Knox’s solo album Seizure is like a reduced version of the Tall Dwarfs. The concept of live instruments over pre-recorded percussion is still the same, but without Alec Bathgate there to play Knox’s foil, and add another layer of vocal harmonies and instrumentation the songs feel held down by those repeating loops. Knox’s songwriting and lyrics are still fascinating though, and working alone he explores more personal stuff like sexual identity (“The Woman Inside Of Me”), anger towards New Zealand’s music industry (“Statement of Intent”) and decaying sexuality (“All Men Are Rapists”). He also gets romantic on “Not Given Lightly”, which might have even been a hit in more commercially minded hands. The lyric booklet lacks the great artwork featured on Weeville, but Knox does aspiring guitarists a favor by listing the chord progressions to his songs.

These 2015 reissues from Captured Tracks don’t seem to add anything to the original versions except another record company logo. There’s no new liner notes, no bonus tracks, and the sound doesn’t appear to have been remastered.

Creation Artifact – The Dawn Of Creation Records 1983-1985 (Cherry Red Records)


The story  of Creation Records usually focuses on the label’s biggest acts from the 1990s (Oasis, Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine, Ride and Teenage Fanclub, to name just a few), but the truth is it took years for Alan McGee’s visionary indie label to find success, having been active since 1983. Creation released a steady stream of music during those early years, most of which received little notice until this five disc box-set, which gives listeners an almost complete look at the label’s formative years from 1983-85. You probably know The Jesus and Mary Chain’s mind-blowing records from this era, but they were an outlier of the Creation roster at a time when McGee made a habit of signing bands that burned with the ambition to participate in their local scene (which centered in around McGee’s music venue The Living Room), but lacked the ability to make songs which lived up to their enthusiasm. Basically this box-set is the sound of young musicians, songwriters, label owners and producers all learning on the job.

The first two discs recap Creation’s singles from ’83-’85 (minus Slaughter Joe and Les Zarjaz, whose songs were not available due to licensing issues). There’s over 50 songs on these discs, but only three could be called classics: The Jesus and Mary Chain’s apocalyptic “Upside Down”, Biff Bang Pow’s “The Must Be A Better Life” (essentially “Melt With You” for Orange Juice fans), and The Loft’s “Up The Hill And Down The Slope”. Among the rest are a few scattered signposts of the juggernaut Creation would become – The Pastels off-key melodies would inform My Bloody Valentine, Ride’s Byrds + effects pedals formula is taken for a test drive by Revolving Paint Dream, and Primal Scream’s jangle-pop debut single from 1985, “All Fall Down” is accounted for. There’s also a few musical detours that were intriguing, but were ultimately discarded as Creation matured, like the X-Men’s take on garage rock which is zany fun but forgettable, and The Moodists, an Australian import that had a lot in common with The Birthday Party and The Scientists. Most interesting of these is Meat Whiplash, who released a solitary single which sounds exactly like Psychocandy-era Jesus and Mary Chain and was even recorded by the Reid brothers.

The first part of disc three is split between rarities and album tracks from the early Creation roster, including a pair of Mary Chain demos, anemic songs from McGee’s early band The Laughing Apple, and ’70s post-punk holdovers The Membranes. The back half of the disc is made up of live recordings from The Living Room, featuring a handful of Creation bands (The Legend!, The Loft and Jasmine Minks) alongside various punk-era oddballs who had little enough to do with The Sex Pistols and The Clash that they were still viable underground acts in the early-’80s (The Mekons, Alternative TV and The Television Personalities). The sound is pretty lousy though, and I can’t imagine anyone returning to it very often.

Disc four houses demos from what are to box-set listeners, by now familiar Creation bands (The Jasmine Minks, The Moodists, The X-Men, The Legend!…etc.). Once again the sound isn’t great – a reminder of an era when demos were usually recorded on cassettes – but it’s nice to get additional looks at Meat Whiplash and The Moodists. Disc five comes from a half-dozen BBC sessions and gives you eight more tracks by The Loft (who had a nice New York proto-punk influence in their songs), interesting sessions from The Moodists and Meat Whiplash, as well as the lesser likes of The X-Men and The Bodines, the latter of which sound like an amateur version of Echo and The Bunnymen.

As has come to be expected, the sound on Creation Artifact is great, and the liner notes are almost as crucial as the music, containing a history of Creation’s early years and band biographies. While the music is rarely great, the excitement and enthusiasm is constantly palpable. The only question left – and it’s one I can’t answer – is, are you willing to pay box-set prices to hear that?

 

Them – Complete Them (1964-1967) (Legacy)


When Them debuted in 1964 with “Don’t Start Crying Now” b/w “One Two Brown Eyes”, the Belfast band immediately placed themselves on the cutting edge of the UK Invasion. The songs were steeped in the blues and R&B, but they were also rhythmically driving and dangerous sounding in an all new way. Them were not polite young boys, looking to hold hands and drink milkshakes. They were, as the punning title of their first album would tell you, Angry Young Them. Over the next three years they released two full-length albums and a handful of singles that were vital to the foundation of what is today known as garage rock. Plus they did the original version of “Gloria”, a rock standard if there ever was one, that’s been covered by everyone from The Doors, to Hendrix, to Patti Smith. Because band members came and went with alarming frequency, singer Van Morrison is the central character in the story of Them, as he’s the only person to play on every song on this three disc set. Even though he’s held in high public regard mostly for his successful solo career, he was at his unhinged best in Them, with his electrifying vocal style dominating blues standards like “Baby Please Don’t Go”, or “Bright Lights, Big City” as easily as covers of contemporary folk rock like “It’s All Over Now (Baby Blue)” (which would be sampled by Beck 30 years later on “Jack-ass”) and “Richard Cory”, or his own self-penned material (“All For Myself” is as convincing a blues song as white people produced in the 1960s).

If you purchased the 1997 double-disc set The Story Of Them, I hate to break it to you, but you need to trade it in and upgrade to this new collection. First of all, the remastering is fantastic, and Van Morrison’s liner notes are informative. More importantly, it includes the original versions of several songs which were presented in badly rechanneled stereo mixes on The Story Of Them, even using additional percussion which wasn’t part of the original recordings. Why Deram used these mixes (which date from compilations released on Parrot Records in the 1970s) is a mystery, but it doesn’t matter anymore, because now you can hear these songs as they were originally meant to be heard. Even better is this collection’s third disc, which includes previously unreleased demos and alternate takes, one song (“Mighty Like A Rose”) left off the previous compilation for space, and a half-dozen live songs recorded for the BBC. Many of these previously unheard versions are similar to the originals, but there is a noticeably tougher take of “Go One Home Baby” and an alternate take of “Turn On Your Love Light” with a different, and absolutely deranged, rave-up arrangement that doubles the length of the original. Again, I’m sorry but you just gotta buy this.

 

33 1/3: Beat Happening by Bryan C. Parker (Bloomsbury)


I acquired Beat Happening’s self-titled debut album about six months ago, and have had a lot of questions about it ever since. Mostly I wanted to know how an album of low fidelity recordings by a trio of unseasoned musicians (vocals, guitar and drums – no bass) whose lyrics were almost child-like, came to be; and I wanted to know why it sounds so wonderfully out of step with everything else, even thirty years later. Bryan C. Parker’s book helps answer those questions over the course of twenty-six chapters, each one covering a band-related subject corresponding to a letter in the alphabet. “A” is for action, “B” is for Bret, “C” is for Calvin…and so on. At the center of the story is the band’s leader Calvin Johnson, a decidedly unique character who basically helped put Olympia on the punk map with his band and record label, K Records. Think of him as something of an Ian MacKaye of the Northwest, minus the aggression, as the two shared an almost identical vision of needing to make something happen locally, no matter how much work it took them. Parker does admirable work here in describing the origins of the band’s sensibilities (improvisational theater and early exposure to feminism are both key), and how those sensibilities put them at odds with punk as the scene was getting more violent and exclusionary. As with all volumes of the 33 1/3 series, I’ll judge Parker’s work on how much it enhanced my understanding of the album and whether or not that enhanced perspective made me want to revisit it with fresh ears. He’s successful on both fronts.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Mini Album Thingy Wingy (A Recordings)


Brian Jonestown Massacre singer Anton Newcombe has been a busy guy in 2015 – first he released a mostly instrumental full-length soundtrack to a nonexistent French film, then a collaborative album with singer/songwriter Tess Parks, and now this seven song mini-album recorded at his Berlin studio in 2014 and ’15. A lot of artists can’t maintain that kind of pace without sacrificing quality, but Anton has put out some of his best stuff during periods of hyper-productivity, and sure enough I don’t detect any signs that he’s rushing his process to keep up with himself. Cohesion isn’t much a of a factor, however; with each of these songs feeling like a separate thread that could be returned to later for deeper exploration. It opens with another songwriting collaboration with Parks called “Pish” (Anton takes the lead vocals, unlike their previous meeting), reminiscent of The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s own mid-’90s song “She Made Me”, crossed with The Velvet Underground’s “Ocean”. These are good things. Next up is “Prsi Prsi”, an almost Morricone-like song which features guest vocals from Vlad Nosal, and is sung in Slovakian because, well, why the hell not? “Get Some” is a classic garage-rock tale of teenage boy/girl drama. What follows is a rather unexpected cover of “Dust” by The 13th Floor Elevators. It’s an awkward song vocally and lyrically, yet it’s effectively rendered here, with Alex Maas from The Black Angels adding some understated electric jug sounds. “Leave It Alone” follows; a simple, yet powerful, song reminiscent of John Lennon’s first post-Beatles albums. An instrumental song, “Mandrake Handshake”, is fine if a bit unexciting, giving way to the closing “Here Comes The Waiting For Sun”, a full-on lysergic rush of psychedelic rock, complete with backwards guitars and vocal tremolo, which sounds nothing like the Doors or Beatles songs it’s sorta named after. As with all Brian Jonestown Massacre releases, this mini-album is highly recommended.