Tuesday, December 29, 2015

My Ten Best Albums of 2015 - 5 through 1

As we approach the year’s end, I’m offering you my picks for the Top Ten albums of the last twelve months. As I stated at the outset, this list is as subjective as they come; I've abandoned any pretense at critical “objectivity”! You can read Part One Here. Covered albums ten through six in the first half. Now, Part Two - my totally subjective list of the five best albums for 2015!

Commuting 45 minutes each way to work and back, I listen to a lot of music in the car. As the perfect album length is about 45 minutes,* that usually works out to an album each way. Album number five got into heavy car rotation this late summer and fall.

It is known.

5.  FOALS - What Went Down

FOALS make great driving tunes. I wasn’t familiar with the UK’s Foals, though they’ve been around for a few years. First I heard from them was “Mountain At My Gates” from their latest What Went Down. While that single got my attention, when I listened to the rest of the album I was drawn in. Deeper. Repeated listens as I drove along. “Night Swimmers” is my favorite, with its big, thick meaty, bouncing guitar riffs. “A Knife in the Ocean” is kind of epic. There's a lot here to sink your teeth into.

4. Ryley Walker - Primrose Green

Ryley Walker is a force of nature, finger-picking his way through improvised arrangements and jazz flavored progressions that somehow coalesce into songs on his latest, Primrose Green. Listened to this one repeatedly for at least a month before it’s release at the end of March. The title cut made it into rotation on The Point.

Some tunes veer into true folk territory, like “On the Banks of the Old Kishwaukee” or “The High Road”. Others dabble in the jazz world like “Summer Dress” and “Sweet Satisfaction”. Love discovering a new artist, finding a brand new source for music. Although live... Walker is an undisciplined jammer, and a bit overly self-indulgent.

All the albums in my Top Ten have been solid entertainment for me this year – but my Top Three are somehow more than that. These next three albums are new all-time favorites – I’ll be listening to these three for years to come!

3. Darlingside - Birds Say

Darlingside are a revelation! Had heard the band’s name, as they’ve been playing around New England for a few years, but this is a sort of newer incarnation of the band. With Birds Say, Darlingside became a solid four-piece folk rock band, with solid harmonies stronger than any heard in the genre since the heyday of CSN. “Go Back” was promoted to us at radio, and we’re playing it in rotation at The Point.

The band stopped by the studio and played live back in September. To prepare for the interview I took the album home for a listen. WOW! It blew me away! I was astounded by the tight harmonies, the clever lyrics, the interesting arrangements. It’s hard not to go a little overboard – it really broke through and won over my soul. Live in the studio, the harmonies were jaw-dropping. Give a listen as they perform “God of Loss” and “Go Back

Great albums weave their way into your life. I was listening to and getting to know the album as my girlfriend and I got to know each other. The songs on Birds Say wove themselves into our shared experience in beautiful ways – I sang “Good For You” to her, she loved “Volcano Sky”, “Do you Ever Live” sounded like my heart singing to my head… for many reasons, Birds Say rose into my Top Three.

2. Blur - The Magic Whip

I've gone into great detail elsewhere on this blog about how - personally - this has been quite a year for Blur. The Magic Whip is a big part of why. In true Blur fashion, the album has been bigger in the UK and the rest of the world than it was here in the USA, though it has scored well on some end-of-year lists. Even besides this one. The album's first track "There Are Too Many Of Us" arrived in late March. Had me on the first listen - had no idea Blur sounded like that!

"Lonesome Street" was Whip's actual first single. The song grew on me, though it wasn't an immediate favorite. I'm still not the biggest fan of the second "teaser" track, either, "Go Out". But I'm not complaining. Sandwiched between those two on the album is "New World Towers", a moody piece that sets the other two livelier tunes off nicely.

As you get deeper in, the album truly soars. "Thought I Was A Spaceman" throws off a post-apocalyptic chill vibe that kicks up and intensifies as the song stretches out. Sounded great when they band performed it live at Madison Square Garden in October! See that other article for more on that. "I Broadcast" - the next tune - had an instant appeal for some reason. Might be that, well... I broadcast (http://pointfm.com).

The next five songs make this album incredible and awesome. "My Terracotta Heart" sounds like it could be a song about the band, the Albarn/Coxon songwriting partnership/friendship - or it may be a love song. Maybe both - it sort of shifts in subject. Coxon's guitar licks are very tasty, the individual notes picked out in a lilting, almost classical fashion.

"There Are Too Many Of Us" - praised above - comes next, another change in gears. Find myself singing along with "Ghost Ship", which follows. "I'm on a ghost ship driving my heart... to Hong Kong" - think that's what he's singing. "Pyongyang" is next, based on a visit of Albarn's to North Korea. It has the sort of mini-epic feel "This Is A Low" radiates. Coxon's guitar leads the way with a vaguely menacing, eastern-sounding riff that also manages to smack of spaghetti western soundtracks.

And then we hit "Ong Ong" - pure, beautiful, universal pop rock! "La la la la la la la la la la... I wanna be with you... " The video is charming.

"Mirrorball" closes the album. The last five high-impact tunes set this one up to fail, but instead it rises to the occasion, a perfect album closer, synth strings toward the end lending again a sort of eastern sound to the music. The "surprise" album came together in Hong Kong and the city throws a broad shadow across the work, from the cover art to the many musical echoes from beginning to end.

Blur's Parklife has been called a survey of English pop rock*. The Magic Whip is sort of a survey of Blur. A now mature, reunited band rekindles earlier magics - earlier than Think Tank, certainly. And yet, while looking backwards, they update those sounds, moving forward, simultaneously.

* ("...a summation of British pop music up to that point in all its occasionally contradictory, throwaway glory." http://time.com/75615/parklife-blur-britpop-20th-anniversary/)

They are the ice cream men, dishing out some new favorites with familiar flavors from the Blur freezer: "Magic Whip?"

Try some for yourself...

And then there's #1...

1. Blitzen Trapper “All Across This Land”

I've always loved rock; grew up on rock music. Before I "got my MTV" I used to stay up late on Saturday nights watching Don Kirschner's Rock Concert. Though the sixties and more than half of the seventies were gone before I clued in, still got to wait for the record store to open to get the new Led Zeppelin album when In Through the Out Door arrived. Later still, working in radio, got to meet some amazing talents, like Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Even got to watch as a local band I supported and got to know blew up huge, as Phish went from the stage at Nectar's here in Burlington on to worldwide fame and fortune. Pretty damn cool. Yet Phish aren't known primarily for their albums, but rather for their live performances. Though they've conquered the live world several times over, they have yet to record a Great Rock Album. They have some good ones (Hoist and Farmhouse are my favorites. Your results may vary), but not a singular Great one.

Not bringing this up to dis Phish but instead to praise Blitzen Trapper, because All Across This Land IS a Great Rock Album!

Can't stop listening to it. I've been rather effusive with my praise for the work on social media... and on this blog: "...a real trick to release an album that's timeless enough to sound like it could have come out in the 1970's yet doesn't sound dated today. Blitzen Trapper have managed that with All Across This Land..."

This is quality stuff, "Solid Rock," as Mark Knopfler once sang on that Great Rock Album Making Movies by Dire Straits. Its timelessness allows it to sit comfortably in the Great Rock Album pantheon alongside other American Rock Greats like Tom Petty's Damn The Torpedoes, Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run or John Mellencamp's Scarecrow.

Eric Earley's songwriting here evokes the American experience the way those albums and music from The Band or Neil Young do (yeah, even though those two acts are mostly Canadian). Music that comes from here. That American experience now includes growing up listening to those albums. They're part of the fabric woven anew by Earley's rock and roll songcraft into tunes like "Rock and Roll (Was Made For You)" with its universality and timelessness.

There are, perhaps, echoes of those musicians mentioned above throughout All Across This Land, but they do not dominate. This is not slavish imitation but new creation along the same continuum. A new Great Rock Album! Did a detailed review when it was released here on the blog, and I'll refer you to that for a multi-track run-through. But it's simple, really. If you love rock like I do, you should pick up All Across This Land by Blitzen Trapper. My number one for 2015!

Here they are again:

1. Blitzen Trapper - All Across This Land
2. Blur - The Magic Whip
3. Darlingside - Birds Say
4. Ryley Walker - Primrose Green
5. FOALS - What Went Down
6. The Amazing - Picture You
7. Madaila - The Dance
8. My Morning Jacket - The Waterfall
9. JEFF The Brotherhood - Wasted On the Dream
10. The Mountain Says No - JV

Read About 6 to 10 here.

Check out a couple of free playlists I've made of the year's best music over at 8Tracks.com: