2015 Music Reviews
Adele, 25 (2015) C-
Still-stunning voice, jejune content: she makes Taylor Swift read like Camille Paglia. Somewhat alarming it took her two years (!) to come up with these eleven tracks, of which the lead single "Hello" is the solely notable number (again, her delivery sells the hook).
Aphex Twin, Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments pt2 (2015) B-
"Hey, here's all the daft shit I didn't put on 'Syro' because I secretly wanted a Grammy. I won that like a madman. Now enjoy what sounds like knives falling on piano strings. -RDJ"
Arca, Mutant (2015) C-
"Alive" and the title track that open this are fully completed tracks - pulsating, vivacious - but then the 'album' sort of breaks off into chunks of sounds and disconnected pieces; just when you think he's building to something special, he takes it in another direction. Music for the easily bored and distracted...?
A$AP Rocky, At. Long. Last. A$AP (2015) C
The fact that he needs so many high profile collaborators and so many notable producers means, to me at least, that he's so inept as a musician he has to be carried completely: judging by his pedestrian (and childish) lyrics, he doesn't get past the usual proclamations/declarations standard to the genre. It's a smooth record, but nothing worthy of repeat visits.
Autre Ne Veut, Age of Transparency (2015) C-
Works better when he isn't over-embellishing every phrase or junking up the tracks too much ("On and On (Reprise)," "Get Out") and sticking to his R&B influences ("Never Wanted").
Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (2015) B+
Blues and garage-infected rock from Australian Barnett, who mixes up some snark with buzzy guitars: pre-made Summer Rock for drinking Black Velvets on a porch somewhere, anywhere. I hope it's okay to admit I find her Aussie accent totally charming ... and it's certainly a high compliment that this record reminds me of the supreme Neko Case.
Baroness, Purple (2015) D+
Too "matchy-matchy," too unafraid to explore new territory, which is an area I feel a lot of progressive rock acts fail.
Battles, La Di Da Di (2015) C
Several albums in and the same thing I've said about their previous releases stands: they are (a.) good at playing their instruments (and with each other) and (b.) completely disengaging (if bouncy, I'll grant it that). They want you to know they can play their instruments. I respect that they can play their instruments. What this has to do with either the Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh track or a delicious Italian meal ("Cacio e Pepe") is beyond me.
Beach House, Depression Cherry (2015) B+
Scally's blaring, distorted guitar on lead single "Sparks" led me to think this was the great duo going in a different direction (... shoegaze-y?), but this album - which strangely required repeated listens - is overall quite subdued: the anxiety and longing that marks their previous releases has turned more relatively serene and accepting - a melancholy that, ironically (considering the title), doesn't sink into full-on sorrow.
Beach House, Devotion (2008) B
Second LP by the formidable duo is exactly how it was described to me: dark lullabies sung by a woman who has probably seen her share of low moments. "Gila," "Wedding Bell" and "D.A.R.L.I.N.G.," despite being early tracks, rank among their best ... even to today.
Beach House, Thank Your Lucky Stars (2015) B+
Legrand and Scally's second release in 2015 required, like "Depression Cherry," multiple re-listens from me, as I couldn't quite decide whether I liked it a lot or just a little (I'm settling on a lot). It's so subdued its treasures snuck up on me: "Somewhere Tonight" is a blissful lullaby and Alex's guitar adds an edge to Legrand's wispy delivery on "One Thing." These two make consistency a very, very good thing.
Björk, Vulnicura (2015) D+
Never been a fan of her delivery (every-thing is pro-noun-ced phon-et-ic-ally; she spastically changes pitch) and always felt her sometimes gaudy aesthetic (on this one: strings everywhere!) masks an inherent vacuity; she has her adherents so I'll leave it to them to judge where this ranks in her discography (although I'd be keen to read a defense of the Antony collaboration, which I think is downright abysmal).
Blanck Mass, Dumb Flesh (2015) C
Opening number "Loam" is glitchy, dark and hypnotic ... but unfortunately the rest of the album fails to follow the promise of that track, consisting of a mish-mosh of blasé electronic dance numbers. This is actually a side-project for a certain Mr. Benjamin John Power, who is half of the notable electronic duo Fuck Buttons. Apparently it takes two Fuck Buttons to make a better-than-average record.
Blur, The Magic Whip (2015) C-
"Go Out" and "Ong Ong" are nice examples of Blur a bit back in old form (catchy beach pop), but the rest of the album is them in drowsy/half-arsed mode ("My Terracotta Heart," "Thought I Was a Spaceman") as Albarn, doing his tired speak-singing, comes across like he just crawled out of bed with a massive hang-over. "Ice Cream Man" would have been rejected by "Yo Gabba Gabba."
Can, Tago Mago (1971) B-
Can, Ege Bamyasi (1972) B
Can, Future Days (1973) B+
I was asked by a friend to revisit these early three releases by the Krautrock band Can, and I'll reiterate what I said a few years ago: I think they were very talented, a little messy and a tad overrated: improvisation that can go very right and very wrong. The self-absorption is clear in "Tago Mago" in which a good deal of the second half turns into nonsense-screaming (babbling, really) and dissonant noises, though there are pieces like "Mushroom" that show them working as one-mind. "Ege Bamyasi" follows the same basic path as "Tago" but seems like they started tightening up their focus a bit. "Future Days" is my favorite of the three - it's them showcasing a more harmonious side to their style (improv gone cosmic!).
Clarence Clarity, No Now (2015) C
Annoyingly indulgent and unpleasantly sloppy (he always sounds like he's in the middle of a crying jag or in some kind of physical discomfort), and only once in a while does Mr. Clarity actually pull things together ("Buck-Toothed Particle Smashers," "The Gospel Truth"). It probably tired him out making it, and it tired me out listening to it.
Coldplay, A Head Full of Dreams (2015) D
Looking back, 2008's "Viva la Vida" was their last solid record and they've been slipping uncontrollably ever since: this record's low-point (relatively speaking) is sampling (and distorting) Barry O. They've always veered close to corny with their sentimentality, now they're a total joke ("My heart boom a boom boom").
Conduct, Fear and Desire (2015) C-
The first two songs ("A Figure" and the title track) start it off on an aggressive (and addictive) note, leading one to believe this is going to be a memorable hardcore punk record, but those two pieces are its relative apex with the rest of the record significantly less than innovative. Punk should be more than just screaming and rumbling instruments ("Onibaba").
Deafheaven, New Bermuda (2015) C
It has its moments, namely when this black metal band from Brooklyn (it's been years, quit chuckling) do these transitions at the beginning and end of the tracks from guttural screaming and thrashing to piano or melodic guitar pieces; the heavier moments, without the breaks in-between, would run together into a one-note slog. Makes you wonder what they would sound like if they ditched the Slayer riffs and garbled primal sounds ... probably something closer to math rock, if you think about it.
Death Grips, Fashion Week (2015) C-
Tracks one and two ("Runway J" and "Runway E") are punishing and aggressive, but afterwards it gets stuck in a rut (maybe because Flatlander and Hill feel obligated to include fourteen tracks in order to spell out "Jenny Death When," a question frequently asked by DG fans anticipating their supposedly final release). Also, is it really the Grips without Mr. Ride? I'm not so sure.
Death Grips, The Powers That B (2014-15) B
The first disc of this double album, "Niggas on the Moon," was my go-to for the Summer of 2014: it's glitchy, in-your-face and sarcastic ("Have a Sad Cum"): it knows how to show up, break shit and leave in the nick of time. "Jenny Death," finally released in 2015, captures Ride and Co. in the same sour mood, except this disc tends to veer into redundant tendencies, rehashing established themes ("Pss Pss," "Centuries of Damn"). Is this the last run for the Grips? I hope not.
Lana Del Rey, Honeymoon (2015) B+
Fourth LP by the increasingly prolific Lana (in human form: Elizabeth W. Grant) starts off in a fantastic and melodramatic fashion, with the title track, the luscious "Terrence Loves You" and "God Knows I Tried" being wonderful compositions (she also recites T.S. Eliot!). At this point in time it's difficult for me to listen to her without interpreting every line as being tongue-in-cheek/sarcastic - a smart mind making meta-commentary on master-slave dynamics - but if people want to take her totally seriously she probably welcomes that too. If anything, it's a few (in my opinion, three) tracks too long ... but asking Lana to not go overboard is like asking the sea levels to stop rising.
Mac DeMarco, Another One (2015) C
The Class Clown who turned out to be a kind of bum savant with his first record (and part of the second) is now in full-on coasting mode. Him pretending to not try hard (but being secretly prepared) has turned into him not trying at all.
Destroyer, Poison Season (2015) C
Peaks entirely too soon with the standout "Dream Lover" where Bejar's overwrought delivery meshes nicely with his boisterous backing instruments ("more horns!"), but thereafter it becomes listless when it's not repetitive ("Hell," all the "Times Square" pieces). Think of it as slightly modernized elevator/"easy listening" music.
DIIV, Oshin (2012) D+
There's shoe-gazing and then there's this rough imitation of that style with 'melodies' that drive themselves straight into the ground. "Thrift-shop-loafer-staring" is a more appropriate descriptor.
Disclosure, Caracal (2015) B-
Improves on repeat listens - "Nocturnal" is the best thing The Weeknd has done to date, "Holding On" (with Gregory Porter) is a fine single - and though not a single track has the power of "Latch" off their debut. They play things very safe, and there's a mechanical quality about it, but there's no denying they know how to construct a passable dance track.
Earl Sweatshirt, I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside: An Album by Earl Sweatshirt (2015) C-
While I identify with the album's title, Mr. Sweatshirt has yet to prove to me he has anything of substance to say, with most of this coming across as passive-aggressive, bleak and paranoid. Depression and self-loathing can help someone produce great art, but I'm not confident he's quite developed enough as a musician/lyricist (he's only 21) to turn personal pain into something magical ... yet.
Brian Eno, Here Come the Warm Jets (1974) A
Before Mr. Eno's interests took him to the ambient genre, he spent time as a glam rocker, and this recording - one of his earliest - is a masterful concoction of playfulness and high artistry, book-ended by two brilliant songs ("Needles in the Camel's Eye" and the title track that ends it on a ceremonious note) to hold together the eclecticness within. This ranks among the best of 70's rock and is more pleasurable than a great deal of Eno's later cold, sometimes robotic recordings.
Deerhunter, Fading Frontier (2015) C+
Easily the most 'tame' thing they've made in a while - accessibility is the last thing I'd expect from Bradford & Co. (that is until they get to the drunken "Leather and Wood"). It's strangely upbeat pop and consciously 'under control' ... to its own detriment (if you don't reach for the heavens sometimes, why even lift up the guitar in the first place?).
Everything Everything, Get to Heaven (2015) B
Feverish post-Bloc Party pop - you can hear Kele in Higgs' unorthodox and sometimes overbearing delivery. It doesn't hurt that the lyrical content is worth paying close attention to - it's a politically-informed record - and Higgs is not afraid to be confrontational/unconventional with his phrasing ("No Reptiles").
Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear (2015) B
The nice thing about Tillman is how his songs seem earnest and earthy but underneath the backup singers and strings there's this nastiness, this bite: on "The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment," he dismantles a fraud (literally); "Bored in the USA" uses sound clips of audience laughter sarcastically. Save us, White Jesus.
FFS, FFS (2015) D+
Both groups - Sparks and Franz Ferdinand - were skeptical this would work and they're right: maybe I'm just biased but most of this comes across as more Kapranos and crew instead of the Mael Brothers ... and the less I hear of tired/robotic Franz Ferdinand the better (FF effectively drown out Ron Mael's keyboard contributions and Russell's voice). They even try a bit of auto-criticism with "Collaborations Don't Work," but self-awareness doesn't redeem the record. You tried, you failed, never try again.
Floating Points, Elaenia (2015) C-
Clean sounding, but it's also kind of spineless, like cheesy jazz/musak. "Silhouettes (I, II & III)" builds to a nice conclusion (those strings!).
Freddie Gibbs, Shadow of a Doubt (2015) C-
I'm not an expert in poetry or anything, but isn't matching the n-word with the n-word at the end of every line kinda ... cheating? He did much better when Madlib was running the show; how many tracks can you write about hoes? Find yourself a nice lady to settle down with, okay?
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, 'Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress' (2015) C
Begins well enough - with the trademark GY!BE build up of guitars on the opening number (clocking at close to eleven minutes) - but then the album gets stuck in auto-pilot of drone for the middle two tracks. Once the 5-Hour Energy drinks kick in they try to bring it back to life for the closer, but then it's too late.
Grimes, Art Angels (2015) B+
So indie queen Ms. Boucher really, really wants to be a major pop star - some may say this release is a bit of a cop-out (she's chucked some of her earlier experimental techniques), but she maintains her artistic integrity ... and she is growing up, ya know. Best moments: the closer "Butterfly" and "SCREAM," in which Taiwanese vocalist Aristophanes seductively whispers in Mandarian while Claire hollers in the background: if Tarantino does another Kill Bill-type movie, it would behoove him to use it.
HEALTH, Death Magic (2015) C
So uniform most of the tracks lack distinction - that is, when they aren't cribbing from the back catalogue of Depeche Mode ("Dark Enough") and Passion Pit ("L.A. Looks"). Their videos suggest a violent edge to the outfit, but their music is strictly vanilla.
Holly Herndon, Platform (2015) D
"Everyone, quick: listen to how I can take a decent, soothing melody and then just completely dismantle it by dragging in effects and samples that add nothing to it and just interrupt the flow until it becomes a mess! I'm on the cutting edge, blokes!"
Julia Holter, Have You In My Wilderness (2015) B-
Relatively straight-forward pop album from the typically experimental Holter - one can sense her self-restraint in every track. This isn't a slight, exactly, but I kind of miss the more free-wheeling Holter records. It's still luscious (in parts) and her voice is enchanting ("Sea Calls Me Home").
Hot Chip, Why Make Sense? (2015) C
Quick, easy and fundamentally negligible release by a group that should know better by now - even the album title is just "Stop Making Sense" reworded. According to the band, it took them "three or four" days to write the entire record ... now, I'm not saying a work of excellence can't be penned in that small window of time, but perhaps a full week of writing might have been beneficial and granted this particular effort a scintilla of durability.
Jenny Hval, Apocalypse, Girl (2015) D+
Tumblr-level free verse meets wafting, lazy ambience. She has a distinctive voice, but it's not enough.
The I.L.Y.'s, I've Always Been Good at True Love (2015) B
Zach and Andy from the Grips/Third Worlds decided to toss this little angry electro-punk record out for free and it's a surprising treat (for fans of such music): I get the sense they're just messing around, but that messing around is infectiously good if you're in the mood to go out and raise some good old fashioned hell with the mates. Or you can raise hell alone. Mr. Ride appears on "All She Does Is Kill Shit."
Jamie xx, In Colour (2015) C+
Two standout singles - "Loud Places" and "Girl" - don't do much to support an album that consists of largely minimalist filler and loops that lead nowhere. For a DJ who is apparently more than aware of how albums need to flow, the transition from "Loud Places" to "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)" (an awful collaboration with Young Thug) is so atrocious Mr. Jamie should be forced to surrender, bury his ego in Bosworth Field and get back with the other members of The xx.
Carly Rae Jepsen, Emotion (2015) D+
A vanilla ice cream cone with sprinkles that gets hurled into a vat of taffy: it's designed for radio replays ... and eighth grade dances. I'm even hearing some Paula Abdul in there, for those who remember her early records - I'm waiting for Jepsen to start dancing with an animated cat. Comparively speaking, Swifty takes more risks.
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) D+
I get the feeling Lamar's trying to straddle the line between gangsta rap and socially-conscious rap - an inherently bipolar arrangement - as he goes from misogyny and self-worship ("this dick ain't free") to concern about race issues in America (the preachy "Mortal Man"): the split is jarring, and he doesn't have the ability to pull off any kind of adequate merger. Those who think this is a landmark statement by a 'major artist' are clearly ignoring the history of music: this is territory covered with more nuance by the likes of Chuck D, Talib Kwali, The Roots and Mos Def (all of them being criminally underrated and under-appreciated). So he glanced at an article by Cornel West and maybe heard of Booker T. Washington ... it's still a self-satisfied record consumed with its own hubris.
Liturgy, The Ark Work (2015) D
It begins, bafflingly, with "Fanfare" which makes you wonder if King Arthur is about to return to the throne ... before breaking into these extended 'songs' that sound like the equivalent of run-on sentences. Whatever Hunt-Hendrix's ranting about nasally gets pushed aside by the screeching, never-ending guitars.
Lupe Fiasco, Tetsuo & Youth (2015) C+
Brevity doesn't seem to be Fiasco's forte, and neither does lyrical coherence: he's so desperate to rhyme everything together the verbiage (at times) veers towards gibberish. The album is overloaded with effects, instruments (banjo! strings!) and even a nod to Vivaldi so it's never a slow ride, but to me the section between "Blur My Hands" and "Body of Work" is him doing his best work.
Marina and the Diamonds, Froot (2015) D
Had to cross-check Wikipedia for this, as it says Ms. Diamandis is actually 29-years-old (!), which is over ten years older than I thought she was considering the jejune lyrical content in this terribly generic pop album ("Immortal," to close it out, is offensively trite). She has the vocal range, but not the heart: even Lorde's debut had more of the latter (and keep in mind Lorde was a teenager when she performed it). Marina should stick to photographing herself wearing thrift store junk because her selfies appear more personal than her music.
Modest Mouse, Strangers to Ourselves (2015) C-
There's a good reason why they took eight years to follow up "We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank": creative stagnation. This is more than evident in three quarters of the record, which is the band rehashing itself and neglecting the memorable hooks and wordplay that mark their best work ("Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996)" is easily the record's lowest moment, some kind of distorted dance debacle that is frankly hard to take; "The Tortoise and the Tourist" is a feeble fable). Brock and crew at least have the decency of ending on a strong note ("The Best Room" and "Of Course We Know"), but by that point the damage was already done.
The Mountain Goats, Beat the Champ (2015) C
Having trouble with the consistency of this Darnielle & Fellows release (the transition from the opening track to "The Legend of Chavo Guerrero" is a good opening example): normally his notoriously self-depreciating/sarcastic lyrics are buoyed by his band's frenetic approach, but he doesn't seem to work in work in personal strife with his affection for "pro wrestling" (inherently fake, of course).
Mount Eerie, Sauna (2015) C-
I'm actually quite glad Phil has a nice-sized fan-base for his music because while he seems like a fascinating guy, I simply can't stand any of his albums (and this goes back to The Microphones). They have always come across as too scattered, half-formed and oddly paced, often changing approaches sometimes mid-track. Many apparently respond to this ADHD-meets-indie rock aesthetic (and hey, if it works for you, so be it), but I remain unimpressed.
My Morning Jacket, The Waterfall (2015) C
"Thin Line" is the shining moment on here for me - it's just a soulful and honest love song - because, for reasons only Jim James and Company know, the band seems to have moved, instead of forward, into some kind of Lynyrd Skynyrd cover-band territory (that's hesitant for grandstanding). "Get the Point" is a dry country-seasoned ballad and "Spring (Among the Living)" is a song in desperate search for vitality.
Napalm Death, Apex Predator - Easy Meat (2015) C+
Some reviewers have commented on how this is a 'departure' from previous Napalm Death albums - now, I'm no expert in grindcore, but saying this, overall, is substantially different from most of the band's recordings is a stretch: every song is the same punch in the gut with maybe a few disposable 'flourishes' (the chorus on "Hierarchies"). Excessive diversity-of-sound was never in the cards for them; excessive aggression is a steady guarantee.
Joanna Newsom, Divers (2015) D+
Lovely instrumentals, but who is this shrill harpy and why is she ruining the classical elements with her insignificant commentary? (Stick to acting.)
Of Montreal, Aureate Gloom (2015) C
Opening track "Bassem Sabry" is one of the best songs Barnes has ever written (so funky!), but the rest of kind of settles into this groove that (aside from "Virgilian Lots" in the middle) becomes surprisingly complacent with itself. If most of the melodies were as eclectic as the lyrics, this might have been more effective ... or maybe I'm just so used to him being over-the-hills theatrical this comes across as something of a letdown.
Oneohtrix Point Never, Garden of Delete (2015) C
I've been mixed-to-disappointed by almost everything Lopatin's put out so far - though I did like his super-experimental and loopy "Eccojams Vol. 1" project (alluded to on this release) - because no matter how good a track starts to sound it's inevitable he'll change it radically in a second. The variety of sonic clips prevents any kind of consistency, although it's certainly never dull.
Jim O'Rourke, Simple Songs (2015) C
Disappointing new record from O'Rourke, who I consider one of the best musicians of his generation - forever busy producing, doing soundtrack work, spending whole concerts banging on random objects. This solo work is nowhere near his best individual releases (including "Insignificance" and the exceptional "Eureka"): it's frail, conventional and Jim's vocals get lost in the instrumentation (come on, man, you have a nice voice!). It isn't until the outro for "All Your Love" that he shows off his compositional skills.
Panda Bear, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper (2015) D+
So apparently Lennox and Portner (Avey Tare), in a desperate need for individual attention, have both released solo records that achieve the same effect: getting into a psychedelic echo chamber, looping lyrics ("Tropic of Cancer") and randomly throwing in various samples as a 'layering' device. The result, for both gentlemen, is deadening and drab ("Boys Latin" never seems to end), which one would expect when the same approach has been recycled over and over: I know "Centipede Hz" was a setback, but they should really and truly keep the band together.
Passion Pit, Kindred (2015) B-
While it's a bit bothersome that Mr. Angelakos' personal project has slipped a bit from the exquisite "Manners" and all the catchy bits on that one, this is still a pretty good third LP, which hits its peak early with the nostalgic "Whole Life Story." His style is such that sometimes he can veer dangerously into musak territory ("Where the Sky Hangs," "Five Foot Ten (I)") and I'm not completely convinced the 'optimistic' lyrics in this one match his personal feelings, but I am all about the power of positive thinking. Let's go.
Pinkshinyultrablast, Everything Else Matters (2015) C+
Four Russian kids who spent too much time listening to Kevin Shields decided to try their hand at the whole 'shimmering guitars with half whispered female vocals' approach. It turns out to be a crisp listen - the timing on "Wish We Were" is fantastic, though the album does seem a bit homogenized ... and, of course, derivative (not that it matters to them). In Soviet Russia, guitars play you.
Prurient, Frozen Niagara Falls (2015) F
Disc one is a ringing endorsement for tinnitus (get your ears checked, everybody!) while most of disc two was probably recorded in a foundry that allowed Fernow to jump around and rant. No thank you!
Purity Ring, Another Eternity (2015) D
Syrupy club fodder that will only appeal to inebriated people 'dancing' at some ungodly hour. Some of it is so comically gauche ("Flood on the Floor") it's almost a parody of bad dance acts. What is Liz Fraser doing these days...?
Jeff Rosenstock, We Cool? (2015) B-
Smart pop-punk marred slightly by Rosenstock's bipolar tendencies - as loud and overloaded as the music at turns can be, it's very capable of slipping the next moment into crushing melancholy, which makes it an uneven (and proudly unpredictable) listen. It's still worth the trip, though, concluding on the dually uplifting/fatalistic "Darkness Records": I disappear ... and I reappear. I'm made of magic.
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love (2015) B-
So the ladies decided to come back and make another record: so be it, you know? Not exactly their best work and hardly a milestone in the genre, but if anything it shows they're all still enthusiastic about making music. Better than doing housework, naturally ... or making mediocre 'satirical' television shows about doofuses of the Northwest.
Sparks, Kimono My House (1974) A-
Steven Morrissey is not wrong: this is a wonderful record. The first three tracks are stellar (Ron Mael's keyboard work that opens up "This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us" is unforgettable) and Russell's delivery (which precedes Freddie Mercury, for the record) is a take-it-or-leave-it aspect to their music. Still collaborating over thirty five years later (this year, they worked on a record with Franz Ferdinand), they prove aging shouldn't stop anyone from making rock and roll.
Vince Staples, Summertime '06 (2015) B+
The Lamar album seems to have distracted people away from what I think is the best hip-hop release of the year, this autobiographical gem by Mr. Staples. It's melancholy ("Summertime"), it's fun ("Norf Norf"), it's timely and the production is top-notch (he wisely gets Clams Casino to help out).
Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell (2015) A-
Suffy's love song/poem of lament to his late mother (and step-dad) reveals him in his most stripped down and raw form - it's so elegantly constructed and so emotionally direct it can't help but chill the listener to the core. It's a gorgeous embrace of finality ("you'll never see us again") and detachment (while never losing touch with his Christian beliefs): I never thought Sufjan-the-Maximalist/Sufjan-the-Jokester could make something this steadily heartfelt without a layer of irony and flourish ... especially after the wacky "Sisyphus" project.
Strange Names, Use Your Time Wisely (2015) B+
Apologies to the band, but this has no right to be as entertaining as it is: it's as if Mr. Benzvi and cohorts dug deep through the YouTube archives in a search for cheesy 80's pop videos and said, "We need to do this exact same thing ... but a lot better." Risky approach, but it pays off ... though of course they were sure to tone down the tacky synths and added a crisp sheen to the production (though a little camp is still ever-present). Feel free to play on loop while driving around Collins Avenue imitating Sonny and Crockett (T-shirts with blazers are optional, stubble and Wayfarers are mandatory).
Sun Kil Moon, Universal Themes (2015) C-
What good is a self-appointed Bard that tells usually banal "stories" which only pertain to himself and consist of mostly run-on sentences? Solipsism this extreme tends to get phased out as one ages, but Kozelek doesn't care in the slightest. "Raw," in this case, is a synonym for "unrefined."
The Tallest Man on Earth, Dark Bird Is Home (2015) B-
His earnestness is ever-apparent - this Swede has really learned from his folk forefathers - though I can't help but feel he plays it a little too safe (which I also said about his 2012 release, "There's No Leaving Now"): once I got done listening to it I thought it was sweet and to-the-point, but didn't exactly stir me positively or negatively. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt for now, but change better be a comin' with the next one.
Tame Impala, Currents (2015) C+
This one appears to have taken a lot of people who really like "Lonerism" for a loop: it certainly does sound like Parker is trying to take his main project in a synth-heavy direction (which is made clear in the opening track, "Let It Happen") but there are too many missteps: the three short 'interludes' don't aid the flow of the record, the songwriting is quite unremarkable and every single second of both "Past Life" (that spoken word aspect is terrible) and the dreadful "'Cause I'm a Man" are difficult to endure. Maybe going backwards isn't such a bad idea...?
Thee Oh Sees, Mutilator Defeated at Last (2015) D-
It's like they decided to record their original jam sessions, claimed it was an album and then put their feet up, pleased with the nothingness they accomplished. The only thing being defeated here is hard work.
Titus Andronicus, The Most Lamentable Tragedy (2015) B
They may reference the Clash and they may veer into the Boss territory, and they aren't as gifted as either, but being a punk means you don't give a damn and they really, really don't give a damn. Does this merit its hour-and-a-half "rock opera" status (there are even intermissions!)? Probably not, but there's a benefit-of-the-doubt aspect that needs to be given to a bunch of folks from Jersey that really want to impress and energize their audience. This has periodic lulls but their sheer determination and a willingness to try everything (choir section! "Auld Lang Syne!" an accordion!) should be praised. Mr. Stickles' delivery can best be described as a rabid dog barking its saliva foam at your car door as you speed away in fear.
Toro y Moi, What For? (2015) C-
Ironic that this begins with the sound of racecars speeding around a track because every second of the album that follows is soft and unadventurous. Even the best track on this, "Empty Nesters," is more of a Shuggie Otis-meets-The Apples (In Stereo) kind of sugary funk. You can do better than this, Chaz ... or can you?
Tyler, the Creator, Cherry Bomb (2015) B-
A completely mixed bag - sometimes Tyler lets his own production get in his own way (as on the fuzzy, messy title track), but for every glaring misstep (the tiresome "Fucking Young") he fixes things immediately thereafter (recruiting Kanye and Mr. Wayne for "Smuckers"). If I had to categorize it, I'd say it was experimental rap: "Deathcamp" sounds like Tyler getting one step closer to metal (if that's possible) while "Okaga, CA" is him inching closer to soul. It won't be to everyone's taste - and his trollish desire to agitate can wear a listener down - but he's trying things. Keep trying you crazy bastard.
U.S. Girls, Half Free (2015) B
Echoey, trip-hop-influenced LP from a certain Ms. Remy, who layers personal lyrics and a piercing voice with looping electronics - she's also a feminist but she's sober about it. The middle section sags a bit ("Sed Knife," the sluggish "Red Comes in Many Shades"), but the shimmering "Woman's Work" and "Window Shades" (which works from a sample from a Gloria Ann Taylor song) balance it out.
Viet Cong, Viet Cong (2015) B
The bookends to this - the screechy "Newspaper Spoons" and the endless Swans imitation "Death" - do a disservice to what I consider a very strong core of an art-rock album (influenced by a certain Ian Curtis-fronted band), starting with the album's gem "March of Progress" (which builds from intense drumming to a brilliant and cathartic chorus ... what is the difference between love and hate, anyway?) and going through to "Silhouettes." The band name is intentionally provocative and not very well thought out (what, was Khmer Rouge taken?) although singer Matt Flegel insists since the band is Canadian it's a moot point (it isn't).
Kurt Vile, B'lieve I'm Goin Down... (2015) C
Same issue with this one that I've had with all the other (and there are quite numerous) releases by Vile: lackadaisical delivery (musically and vocally) in tandem with forgettable content. Many times his songs arrive at their logical conclusion and then just ramble on in a near-loop for a good minute or two more ("That's Life, tho" and "Lost My Head There" being two flagrant examples). Defenders will defend, but I'm not sold at all (and y'all might want to cool on the Guthrie/Dylan comparisons).
The Weeknd, Beauty Behind the Madness (2015) F
Z-grade lyricist and vocalist reminds everyone (a.) he likes the marijuana (b.) he needs the marijuana (c.) "women" (read: female sexual organs) cannot stop thinking about him and (d.) he cannot stop getting more "women" to do what he wants. What a charmer. He's also (e.) sad. Several albums and mix-tapes in, it's the same damn thing. Completely missing: either the beauty or the madness.
Wilco, Star Wars (2015) C+
Freely distributed shaggy dog record by Tweedy & friends: the centerpiece, so to speak, is the entrancing "You Satellite" (which concludes by drifting off into pure noise rock) and it ends, wearily, on another strong moment in "Magnetized" (both these tracks remind me of a folksy Spiritualized). It's a rough draft, but a rough draft by a gifted band.
Steven Wilson, Hand. Cannot. Erase. (2015) D-
Changes its tone so frequently it seems like Wilson's trying to run through every genre he can think of, sometimes mid-song ... and does not possess the skill to make it work over the course of a (very long) album. Adopting several styles usually means you have none.
Chelsea Wolfe, Abyss (2015) C
"Iron Moon" is one of the best tracks Wolfe has ever released, but much of this LP veers between drowsy ("Simple Death") and what sounds like mild disinterest: dark and ethereal ... except without assertiveness.
Young Fathers, White Men Are Black Men Too (2015) B+
Literate, TV on the Radio-ish soul/experimental hip-hop from Scotland (?), a country that has earned a good deal of my money for a certain beverage they produce. Don't be dissuaded from listening to this because of the in-your-face title (they touch on racial issues but it's about more than just that); opener "Still Running," dreamy "Sirens" and "Shame" are among the best tracks produced by anyone this year ... though it runs out of energy in its last third ("John Doe," "Dare Me"). A particularly poignant moment: "What happened to the man who paid his dues? / What happened to the girl who broke the rules?"
Young Thug, Barter 6 (2015) C
Did Mr. Thug and friends have a collective stroke when recording this? Or did they hit record after drinking something stronger than Pepsi and smoking something more powerful than a cigarette? Even with a lyric sheet for each song I can't figure out what he's saying; it's like a random assortment of words mashed together over some admittedly lovely and simple beats (even the usually reliable interpreters at genius.com are baffled by a few of them). Also: women are garbage, wooo drugs, money errywhere, etc.
Zs, Xe (2015) B
Post-Naked City/Black Dice sound experimentation - it might invite some, upon first listen, to dismiss it as random effects, but it actually rewards repeat listens once you get used to their 'technique.' "Corps" and the title track, which make up the majority of the record, border on being danceable ... for people who have no idea how to dance.
Singles of the Year: Courtney Barnett: "Pedestrian at Best," Beach House: "Sparks," Blanck Mass: "Loam," Clarence Clarity: "Buck-Toothed Particle Smashers," Conduct: "Fear and Desire," Deerhunter: "Take Care," Lana Del Rey: "Honeymoon," Everything Everything: "No Reptiles," Father John Misty: "The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment," Grimes (Featuring Aristophanes): "SCREAM," The I.L.Y.'s: "The Sickest Fuck of Them All," Jamie xx: "Girl," Lupe Fiasco (Featuring Guy Sebastian): "Blur My Hands," Modest Mouse: "Of Course We Know," Passion Pit: "Whole Life Story," Pinkshinyultrablast: "Wish We Were," Jeff Rosenstock: "Darkness Records," Vince Staples: "Summertime," Strange Names: "Supernatural Silence," St. Vincent: "Teenage Talk," Tyler, the Creator: "Deathcamp," U.S. Girls: "Window Shades," Viet Cong: "March of Progress," Wilco: "You Satellite," Chelsea Wolfe: "Iron Moon," Young Fathers: "Still Running"