10 Great Albums From 2015: A Look Back On the Year In Music
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly 12/31/2015
It’s been eight years since I began writing an annual year-end feature on 10 great new albums for Boulder Weekly, and the notion of what’s “best” is still far from my mind. As always, this is about sharing, tuning in and turning on, not rating.
As each winter approaches, I simply spend two months seeking out interesting, enjoyable records by rifling through the thousands of emails I receive from labels and publicity agencies all year, reading music blogs and magazines, and querying music-geek friends for their recent favorites. The result of all that listening is a list of about 100 new albums that strike me as worth your attention; that list, whittled down to 10, hopefully includes even one track that feels like a holiday gift to someone who’s yet to hear it.
So if you have time, stop whatever you’re doing, and – after indulging in some obligatory Motörhead to honor our fallen Lemmy – drop a needle on some of the following.
10. It’s kind of been Christmas all year for Nathaniel Rateliff, the Denver indie musician who hit a career jackpot over the summer with his gamble on a wondrous soul niche. After Rateliff and his large band slayed the foot-stomping “Son of a Bitch” onThe Tonight Showin early August, the near-flawless LP Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats was released to wholly deserved, worldwide acclaim. The gruff-voiced, big-hearted Rateliff is suddenly booking Red Rocks rather than little clubs. If you somehow haven’t heard the earnest, down-home soul and R&B of the album that has made him a star, go out and get a copy ASAP.
9. At 80 years old, Leonard Cohen’s darkly soothing voice is in surprisingly good shape — certainly better than Bob Dylan’s was at 60. Cohen is also staying far more creative with song selections at recent concerts than Dylan, who’s kept roughly the same setlist for years. Between that and Cohen’s vibrant, fruitful ongoing collaborations with songwriting partners, this year’s live collection Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour — with its mixture of covers, newbies and vastly underrated oldies — is a remarkably vital, interesting release from a legend who could make a million dollars every night just playing a “Leonard Cohen’s Greatest” set. Hearing the old master sing the lines “There were loved ones / but I turned them all away / now I’m living and dying / with the choices I made” on the George Jones tune “Choices” makes Can’t Forget a must-listen alone.
8. Titus Andronicus has been playing literate punk rock — sort of a more aggressive, New Jersey version of the Pogues — for the last 10 years, butThe Most Lamentable Tragedy is by far the sextet’s most ambitious, and acclaimed, release. Dubbed a rock opera in Who fashion, Tragedy is 29 diverse tracks that meander and muse as widely as the Clash’s London Calling while following a storyline that could take listeners years to digest. The sharp, emotional growl and gall of singer/multi-instrumentalist Patrick Stickles dominates Tragedy, which will move anyone who digs the sweet spot between Minor Threat and James Joyce.
7. In an interview this October, the brilliant young Boise indie-pop singer-songwriter Trevor Powers told me, “I could never do the same thing twice; I could never just regurgitate shit just to do it. If I’m gonna sit down and write an album, I’m gonna make sure it’s something worth saying.” On Savage Hills Ballroom, his third as Youth Lagoon, Powers reinvented himself again, juxtaposing Berlin-era Bowie with sensitive, deftly orchestrated pop commentary on the distancing effects of our technology-ridden age. The only thing more exciting thanSavage Hills, and Powers’ recent performance at the Bluebird Theater in Denver, is wondering what he’ll do next.
6. Not yet 30 years old but already possessing a catalog of six acclaimed releases, the Oklahoma alt-folkie Samantha Crain is what Colorado’s own Sera Cahoone might sound like with dreamier instrumentation and a fixation on magically quotidian storytelling rather than broken romance. July’s Under Branch & Thorn & Treeclocks in at less than 40 minutes but traverses tastefully dense production and tales of mystery and proletariat modern times. The album’s sometimes giant engineering and soaring arrangements are as ambitious as that of Boulder’s own Gregory Alan Isakov, but with a dusty, working-class connection to traditional American music — and her Choctaw heritage — that brings Crain and her music beautifully down to earth.
5. Kurt Vile’s twisted, head-bopping “Pretty Pimpin” was arguably indie-rock’s trademark song of 2015, but b’lieve i’m goin down…also achieved near-universal acclaim because of the prolific 35-year-old’s gentle acoustic-guitar ballads and ethereal instrumental jams. Since leaving the War On Drugs for a solo career, Vile has quickly established himself as America’s mad genius of garage rock, but there is an element of sweetness to songs like “Stand Inside,” and an intricate depth to his acoustic guitar work, that should establish him as a genius of rock, period.
4. Today’s Grammy-winning greats of pop music — for instance, Arcade Fire — are expected to release a new album approximately every three years. It only took 14 months (spanning parts of 1965 and 1966) for a young Bob Dylan to record Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde, three albums that could easily be placed in the 10 most important in rock history. That era of Dylan’s career — the superhuman rock ’n’ roll poetry between his previous acoustic folk and subsequent hermetic country — represents a muse-blessed period that was not only Dylan’s greatest creative streak but perhaps ties the Beatles’ Rubber Soul-to-Let It Be period as the greatest creative streak of anyone in the history of pop music. The Cutting Edge, available in sets ranging from two discs to 16 discs, strips naked for the first time Dylan’s studio sessions for those three iconic, game-changing albums. The collection features “Like A Rolling Stone” as a waltz; “Desolation Row” as a piano ballad; “Visions of Johanna” as an up-tempo hard-rock song, and the lyrics to timeless classics such as “Just Like a Woman” in embryonic form. For some, this is like seeing drafts of Shakespeare’s plays that ended up in the trash.
3. The music heard on “country” radio these days is about as country as Poison was a metal band or Donald Trump is a humanitarian. Wholehearted, intelligent and humble songwriting like that of Alabama-native Jason Isbell might be the rightful destination that country music took from the Carter Family and Johnny Cash through Emmylou Harris, past the cheesy sheen of Garth Brooks and the absolute embarrassment of auto-tuned, xenophobic bro country back to something deep, and deeply Southern. Something More Than Free, Isbell’s fifth album, finds the 36-year-old grandson of a Pentecostal preacher peaking as a narrator, not unlike Elvis Costello circa Imperial Bedroom, crafting nearly every song as carefully as the most well-written TV drama. Isbell, formerly of Drive-By Truckers, is also finally peaking commercially too: Something More Than Free debuted no. 1 across genres on Billboard’s rock, folk and country charts.
2. When I spoke with Dr. Dog singer-bassist Toby Leaman at the beginning of this year, he was amped up for two shows at the Ogden Theatre in Denver that traversed the quirky rockers’ heralded 15-year career of juxtaposing the Band, the Beatles and the Beach Boys through unique Philadelphia shades. Leaman told me that the group’s debut live album, Live At a Flamingo Hotel, was about “purging ourselves of some of these tunes [that have] been in heavy rotation for, like, eight years… some of the songs we were beating into the ground.” That purging is one of the great live albums in recent memory, showcasing one of America’s top rock ’n’ roll performers, not to mention songwriters, at a career crossroads, somehow breathing fire into overplayed heavyweights like “The Beach” and “The Rabbit, the Bat and the Reindeer” while dusting off sadly underplayed obscurities such as “Say Ahhh” and “County Line.” When Dr. Dog plays the Boulder Theater on February 13, we’ll see what the Flamingo Hotel catharsis manifested.
1. Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Pops Staples, who passed away in 2000, was the patriarch of the Staples Singers. The figure he cut in American music history was so deep that he played blues with Robert Johnson, quarterbacked a no. 1 hit with “I’ll Take You There,” jammed with the Band during its The Last Waltz concert, and even appeared in the Talking Heads’ film True Storiessinging “Papa Legba.” Don’t Lose This, completed by daughter Mavis Staples and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy from tracks Pops recorded in 1998, is as relevant and soulful as any music I heard in 2015. “Somebody Was Watching” is a funky, positive spin on mortality; “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” takes Pops back to the birth of the blues; and his cover of Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” is exquisite New Orleans funk. But the highlight of Don’t Lose This is Pops posthumously dueting with his amazing daughter. Unforgettable, indeed.