2015 Best Music

Hooray! Here we are at the end of another year, which means its time for another year end music column! If you are here, you’ve probably read one of these before, so welcome back! If you are new it means I met you in the last year and thought you were cool enough to let know this exists! Double hooray!

So let’s talk about 2015. Its always hard for me to separate the music that meant something to me from the experiences I had throughout the year. This year we moved into a new house, did a full remodel, tried working at a game company again, released a pretty good record with some pretty cool folks and met new friends in Petaluma. Lots of change for me as life slows down from the pace of Brooklyn and Los Angeles. I’m still not totally settled into it and find myself wishing for the city life here and there. But the allure of country living is strong. Sitting back and just letting things take a little longer teaches patience and appreciation. I think the dichotomy of wishing for the fast pace, but accepting the slowed down nature of my life is represented in my selections this year.

Oh! I made a new thing for this year’s edition. Its a continuous mix of standout songs across a variety of genres from things I really enjoyed. Some are from the albums mentioned below, but most are not. See if anything stands out to you.

 

  1. Chelsea Wolfe – Abyss

Abyss is just an album in the same way that The Shining is just a movie or The Stand is just a book. Chelsea Wolfe has managed to fill this record with as much gloom, sadness and horror as those seminal works and basically pioneer the ‘Doom Folk’ genre at the same time. She tours with metal bands and has tons of indie cred from getting name dropped by important musician types. She totally deserves all of it. Carrion Flowers, Iron Moon and After the Fall are all outstanding songs that I have listened to many times this year. They are all expemplary of the style that Wolfe is going for. Big dramatic haunted house soundtracks featuring bizarre instrumentation and arrangements that keep the listener on edge. Her voice is angelic and demonic at the same time, conjuring all kinds of ghostly images and makes the hair on my arms stand up. Smaller, quieter tracks like Crazy Love and Survive provide a respite from all the doom and gloom while not feeling unnecessary or inconsequential. You need those songs to get a gasp of air before being sucked back down into her bizarre, tortured world. My favorite album of the year.

2. Blanck Mass – Dumb Flesh

I mean look at that cover art. What the hell is that? Folds of skin overlapping each other and creating creases and seams you aren’t sure are supposed to be there. Is that an actual body part? The music on this album makes you ask the same types of questions. There are so many layers of noise, vocals, synths, and god knows what else happening all the time, that you can never be sure of what you are hearing. Is that a person or a synth? Drums or a vocal sample? Benjamin Powers from Fuck Buttons is the only member of Blanck Mass and he uses the side project to explore a darker, more industrial realm than his main gig. These songs don’t follow any kind of preset format, but like Fuck Buttons, he someone manages to hit crescendos on top of crescendos. You think the song is at its absolute peak and then he reveals a whole other level you didn’t think possible. In songs like Cruel Sport and Detritus its absolutely staggering. The fact that he also released a rescore of an obscure Italian horror film and put out the totally insane Great Confuso this year as well just means the guy has reams of material still to come. Headphones required for this album. Probably drugs too.

3. Lost River OST – Johnny Jewel

No matter what you think about Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, the fact that he got an amazing score from The Chromatics’ Johnny Jewel is undeniable. This monster clocks in at 37 tracks and almost 2 hours of music, the movie was almost wall to wall music. There are classic 80s style synth songs like Yes (Theme song to Lost River) in here as well as oddities like Deep Purple and Cool Water so the record covers a lot of ground, however it never overstays its welcome. Like the film, the soundtrack is determined to take you through its emotional highs and lows and uses lots of dialogue samples from the film to weave its own particular version of it. Johnny Jewel is really emerging as a master film composer and I cannot wait to see what he does in the future. Now release the new Chromatics record already!!

 

4. Failure – The Heart is a Monster

2015 was the year of the 90s band reunion and personally, I found the feeling similar to when they released those stupid Star Wars Enhanced versions. Why are you ruining my childhood?! Watching these old bands come back for one more go round was like watching a train wreck in slow motion over and over. Refused reformed and made a terrible record. Smashing Pumpkins had their worst album ever. Even goddamn Third Eye Blind has a record this year. Ugh.  The only one that worked, was the long long awaited album from Failure, a band whose last album was 17 years ago. That’s a really long wait but I think it was worth it. Fantastic Planet came out in the late 90s and was immediately hailed as a classic. The songwriting and energy was impeccable. They seemed like a band on the verge of something huge, so of course they broke up. 15 years later the record has taken its place as a cult classic and an inspiration to tons of bands that followed. So what do you do as a follow up a decade and a half later? You don’t fuck with it. Ken Andrews and Greg Edwards stuck to the same types of songs they were writing back in the day and deliver them with gusto. The space guitar effects, the lazy tempos and drugged out soundscapes all seem totally appropriate again in the retro 90s music scene that’s popular now, but with the gift of maturity they can write songs about something other than getting stoned. The best song on the record, ‘I Can See Houses’, analyzes the irrational fear of flying in an airplane as it takes off. Its such a simple sentiment but coming from a band who has already had a career it takes on new meanings and I’m glad to be able to peek into that world.

5. A Swarm of the Sun – The Rifts

A couple Swedish guys I never heard of made the best post-rock record of the year and they did it with a very simple setup. Take some guitars, drums and piano and use vocals at the right time and you can make something powerfully emotional. These songs trace a story about a criminal who gets run through the justice system and comes out changed. The lyrics are all about loss and pain and the music reflects this in long passages of brutal heaviness, using repetition to really drive home the concepts that the album seeks to explore. ‘These Depths Were Always Meant For Both Of Us’ is a standout track at the end of the album which finally comes full circle and reveals that only with another person can you make it through the hard times that life has in store for you. This whole album plays like a meditation on that simple theme. Powerful stuff.

6. Health – Death Magic

On the surface Death Magic is a one song album. Every tune has a similar sound and feel. Benjamin Miller’s lyrics explore drugs, sex and death exclusively, often times using the exact same phrase in multiple songs and honestly, in a different context could easily be mistaken for Avril Lavigne outtakes. However, HEALTH are not a band to be taken lightly and every move seems thought out and purposeful. The album flows from one song to another, bouncing between upbeat, dance-able tunes before shifting into the percussion driven noise rock that got them started. This creates a really hypnotic feel that sucks me in. I feel like I am lost in Los Angeles at night. Driving on some freeway, stoned to the gills trying to remember whats so great about being alive.

7. Pentatones – Ouroboros

Pentatones are another band that I knew nothing about, but managed to surprise me with a really solid record of songs. Hailing from Berlin and incorporating influences from The Knife, 80s songs and found sound, they manage to turn out one great song after another. Franziska Grohmann has an amazing voice that can take many forms, an important asset in these songs since sometimes they want to be playful, sometimes dark and creepy and sometimes just beautiful. Albrecht Ziepert‘s writing and production also deserve kudos since he is the only real member of the band and every song hits lots of the right emotional spots without coming across as rehashed. Pretty sure I could tour NoNight with this band and it would be an awesome double bill. Someone set that up for me.

8. NewRetroWave – Magnatron

This was a Bandcamp find that I made one day searching for 80s synth music and boy did it deliver. This is a compilation from the NYC based record label NewRetroWave and features a bunch of their artists, however it’s not the scattershot hodge podge you expect from a comp. Instead this feels almost like one band making an album, a testament to the genre and to the musicians and songs chosen to be featured on it. 80s retro synth tunes are really popular, and for good reason. For 30 somethings like me, these tunes conjure memories of our childhood, while younger kids can listen to this and imagine what they missed. Check out this label and all their releases, most of them are rock solid.

9. Rival Consoles – Howl

Ryan Lee West is the main guy behind this project, and as a guitar player turned composer, he uses his old instrument to inform many of his pieces. You hear echoes of it in the songs Looming and Walls, but its his beat making and sample choice which really make these songs stand out. He uses very little to communicate mood, instead relying on space and silence to help carve out his sonic territory. Howl moves like a piece of modern classical music, tracks blurring into each other with only a vague sense of breaks between songs. What you are left with is the emotional resonance of the piece as a whole, somewhere between sadness and longing.

10. It Follows OST – Disasterpeace

Better known as a video game composer, Disasterpeace turned in a really outstanding score for this phenomenal film. Its main title was in my head for weeks and if I sing it or play it for Katie she immediately wants me to stop because she is afraid some demon is walking up behind her. Its not easy to stand out in the current field of composers for film and tv, but nothing else sounds like this right now. Can’t wait to hear what he does next.

 

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2 thoughts on “2015 Best Music

  1. Great list, Ben. I was really excited to see Chelsea Wolfe first-up in your list. I’ve been really into that album for the past month or so (added “Carrion Flowers” to a mixtape not too long ago) and it reminded me how we have shared tastes, which makes me feel better about myself. 😉 At the same time, where our tastes differ, I found new and exciting things to listen to. The easiest difference is your love of soundtracks, where I don’t normally dwell (hell, I barely *watch* movies these days), so I was taken completely off guard by the Lost River and It Follows OSTs. Goddamn! Likewise, I hadn’t heard the Blanck Mass album, but have fallen in love with it. Thanks for introducing us! I had to back out of going to see Failure (along with …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead and Local H) in October and I’ve been kicking myself ever since. Thanks for making me feel worse by including them…

    Like Ben, I dug through Bandcamp a lot this year. Finding good music there is like an archeological dig. Mostly you find useless crap, but every once in a while you find something wonderful. And because of the format, it’s usually a diamond in the rough; Bandcamp is where you can find artists who are still developing their voice and producing works that might lack the polish of signed-to-label bands, but also lack the editing that can dilute one’s point of view. Below are a few of my favorites from this year, many are in that category of “diamond in the rough” (even though some of them have been around for years…) I didn’t listen to enough this year to proclaim a “best of”, so consider these “things that came out this year that I liked”, instead.

    Vowws – The Great Sun – A two-piece out of LA (by way of Australia) who play gothic, emo, new wave, pop. I’ve gone to see them a few times now and have been one of ~5 people there. Talk about feeling like you got in on the ground floor! But I’m really in love with this band (own a t-shirt and everything). Matt (vocals & Guitars) and Rizz (synth, drum machines, electronics, and vocals) put on an energetic, dark, powerful show. They are on tour with Jennie Vee this winter along the west coast and recommend you see them.

    We Lost the Sea – Departure Songs – It’s not often an album as a collective material object is a stunningly beautiful as this one. The music and the album art are just that- art. Listening to this album takes me on a journey that makes returning back to ‘normal’ life a melancholy experience. Post-rock doesn’t get any better than this. I’d kill to see a We Lost at Sea/Sleepmaps concert…

    Christian Fitness – Love Letters in the Age of Steam – Second solo album by Andrew “Falco” Falkous guitarist/singer of the great bands Mclusky and Future of the Left. The songs here don’t take themselves too seriously, but are smart and well-arranged. Sounds to me like a John Reis project (Drive Like Jehu, Pitchfork, Rocket from the Crypt), but with a distinctly British bent.

    White Reaper – White Reaper does it Again – Garage rockers White Reaper would have been on a Sunset Overdrive sequel, for sure. Another progeny of Jay Reatard, a southern band who makes loud noise, but writes melodies and arranges rock with a pop sensibility. They are playing this Friday at the Echoplex, opening for TogetherPANGEA and that might just be a good show…

    Flavor Crystals – The Shiver of the Flavor Crystals – Shoegaze that just melts over you, like good music to drive at night through a desert to. They are from Minneapolis, and that’s literally all I know about them. But their music is the only thing that matters and this album takes me places, baby.

    Hey Colossus – Radio Static High – I’ve been looking for someone to take up the void left by the sobriety of Jane’s Addiction for a long time- art rock with its own tempo and energy. Hey Colossus comes about 50% to fitting the bill (hell, the song “Radio Static High” starts off sounding like a cover of “Up the beach”…), but they also transcend those conventions by getting really nasty, using distortion and crass attack of frat rock (“March of the Headaches” sounds like GWAR performing a Primus song). The results are a little schizophrenic, but entertaining. This is another band that feels like they don’t quite know
    their voice yet (despite being around for 12 years now) and are being pulled in two different direction, but you can see glimpses of something good here (I’m partial to the Art Rock stuff).

    He Whose Ox is Gored – The Camel, The Lion, The Child – Besides having a great name, He Whose Ox is Gored have managed to combine elements of some of the greatest metal bands of all time- sometimes sounding epic like “classic” (ben’s word) Isis to synth-driven Fear Factory, to riff-mongering Mastodon (note: the album was mixed by Matt Bayles, Producer of several Isis and Mastodon records). There’s a lot going on in this album, they are clearly influenced by powerhouses in the world of metal, doom, prog-rock, shoegaze, etc., but are still able to bring their own voice to the table. A genre melding voice.

    Kill Your Boyfriend – The King is Dead – Italian shoegaze/Noise/post-punk band I know nothing about. Their sounds are layered and sometimes sporadic, but it all comes together into an earnest, if rough-edged, tribute to love gone bad. They feel like a band who’s one more album away from figuring out their voice and becoming something special (they started
    out as a two-piece and recently became four
    ).

    Chad Tuthill – Torch of the Tigress – Appears to be another one-man-band from a guy I know nothing about (well, a bass player from San Diego who has been in several bands as well as a part-time music journalist…?). But he’s created a collection of songs that are poppy, yet complicated, a day-time ride down the PCH without going the Ben Harper/Jack Johnson route. Favorite song = “Jaagide”

    Birds in Row – Personal War – French hardcore/metal band that rips. If you need
    to wake up in a hurry, give ’em a listen.

    Honorable Mentions (aka not Bandcamp finds):

    Ceremony – L-Shaped Man – First of all, a funny story: Ben bought his house in Petaluma from the aunt and uncle of the lead singer. Ceremony was a punk band that had some good records, but over the years have become Joy Division. But I really love this album. Gloriously simple, but memorable.
    De Lux – Generation – LA locals who play a dance/electronic style pop with some very catchy melodies.
    Pond – Man it Feels Like Space Again – The band Nicholas “Paisley Adams” Allbrook left Tame Impala to form (I may have just made that up, but he was in Tame Impala for a while). This album is a little hit-or-miss, but has some great songs. “Zond” is clearly influenced by Flaming Lips, other tracks have a very Tame Impala bent. As a whole, the album makes me happy, even if I can’t clearly articulate why…

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