Monday, December 21, 2015
COLUMN: Best of 2015 - Music
It's time for my annual indulgence, people.
Let's just call it my own special holiday tradition. It's that magical week when the guy who usually writes silly columns about cats suddenly fancies himself a music critic. But you see, this is the one time of year when I can validate my life as a pop-culture junkie. Some people accuse me of wasting my life listening to music and watching endless TV. No, sir. What I'm doing is highly important research for this, my annual picks for the 10 best records of 2015.
10. Grimes, "Art Angels": Canadian singer-songwriter Claire Boucher has been making esoteric electronic-based albums full of beeps and bloops for years now. What's always eluded her, though, are decent tunes. Finally, with her fourth record, she's brought a pop sensibility to her wild experimentalism, and the results are magical.
9. Avid Dancer, "1st Bath": I almost skipped Avid Dancer's set this year when the band opened for BORNS at a Daytrotter gig in Davenport. I'm glad I didn't, because Avid Dancer was the highlight of the evening. This is indiepop with heart and a laid-back West Coast vibe that's enjoyable from start to finish.
8. Cheatahs, "Mythologies": With the reunions of heralded bands like Ride, Lush and Swervedriver, 2015 was a renaissance for the blissed-out wall-of-sound genre called shoegazing. While most of the attention's been placed on the reunions of bands of yore, groups like Cheatahs are carrying the shoegazing torch to a new generation of fans. With every release, this multinational band oozes more and more confidence. Great stuff.
7. Blur, "The Magic Whip": How great a band is Blur? Great enough to record a comeback album on a whim and have it be one of its best. Blur called it a day back in 2003, but occasionally the band re-forms for festival appearances and quick tours. Last year, Blur was set to headline a major festival in Tokyo, but the event was suddenly canceled, stranding the group in Hong Kong for a week. Bored, band members set up shop and recorded the majority of "The Magic Whip" in five days. You'd never know. It's a welcome return from a group so beloved that fans just won't let it split up for good.
6. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, self-titled: In today's music scene, bearded folkies playing acoustic guitars come a dime a dozen. Rateliff, who plays in the Quad-Cities frequently, was always a bit of an exception. With heart-on-his-sleeve lyrics and a fiery stage intensity, he's always been captivating. But this year, he dropped the folk, picked up a horn section and reinvented himself as a whiskey-fueled soul belter — and the world took notice. "S.O.B." might be the most depressing feel-good single of the year, but you just can't listen without a smile on your face and a stomp in your step.
5. a-ha, "Cast in Steel": One day, a-ha will get the respect they deserve. Most people dismiss the band as the Norweigan pretty boys who brought us the falsetto fiesta known as "Take On Me" back in the '80s. In the U.S., a-ha frequently and erroneously gets called a "one-hit wonder." In the rest of the world, though, the band has enjoyed a lengthy career. So lengthy, in fact, that they've split up, reunited, split up AGAIN and now reunited "one last time" for a 10th album — and it's a career highlight full of the same majestic torch songs and baroque balladry that true fans have cherished for decades.
4. Robin Guthrie & Mark Gardener, "Universal Road": OK, so it's probably a given that I'm going to love an album that involves the frontman of my all-time favorite band (Mark Gardener from Ride) pairing up with the guitarist of my second all-time favorite band (Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins). These guys could record synchronized belching and I'd be first in line to buy it in every format. But this record lived up to my every expectation and then some. Guthrie's always been capable of sonic atmospherics that speak directly to the soul, but Gardener's knack for a good hook takes that beautiful noise and transforms it into coherent dreampop for the ages.
3. Kendrick Lamar, "To Pimp a Butterfly": Just when I was afraid that commercial hip-hop had irreversibly fallen through a dumbed-down rabbit hole of trap queens and assorted whips and nae-naes, Kendrick Lamar showed up and saved the game. "To Pimp a Butterfly" is unapologetically urban and pulls no punches in its representation of modern black culture. It's a record of empowerment, accountability and triumph, without an iota of compromise. If you care about commercial viability, you don't release a single called "King Kunta" that references Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man." Kendrick Lamar is the smartest rapper in the game now, and THIS album should be the new blueprint.
2. Belle & Sebastian, "Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance": On the other side of the word "unapologetic" come Belle & Sebastian, the Scottish band that gives the word "precious" a reason for existing in the dictionary. Always in danger of veering into self-parody, the band has made a career of crafting pop songs so delicate and fragile that you fear their CDs might disintegrate in your hands (or at least run away if you speak to them in a harsh voice). This new record, though, ditches Belle & Sebastian's traditional dour pop in favor of synths, dancing and a word I never thought I'd use to describe the twee-est band on the planet: fun.
1. CHVRCHES, "Every Open Eye": When the sampling synthpop trio CHVRCHES arrived on the scene a couple years ago, it was a breath of fresh air. Most electronic bands try to match hard-edged beats with some over-the-top shrieker. In Lauren Mayberry, CHVRCHES found a singer capable of carrying the necessary angst without any posturing or faux rock-goddess pap. The end result was emotionally charged thumpers you could relate to. Rather than changing the formula for album No. 2, CHVRCHES just upped the game and came out with a perfect record of pop gems that stay in your head for weeks. It's clear now that this little band with the awkwardly charming singer has its sights set on global stardom. No other record came close to No. 1 this year. That's a musical wrap for 2015. Next week, I'll share my picks for the year's best TV. See you then.