Friday, December 18, 2015
2015 in review
This year, I often felt like I was sneaking new music in. I started a new job, put out a record and saw a two-decade obsession finally bear fruit. Honestly, there wasn't all that much room for anything else. But as I look back through the year's releases, I see quite a few that made an impression.
Genre pretty much went out the window, which is the way it ought to be. Last night, my wonderful girlfriend, Alex, and I spent some time sharing our current pop obsessions, which seem to be everyone's current pop obsessions. I love all the songs making the rounds: "Hotline Bling," "The Hills," "Here" (the latter is probably the single of the year for me). Bieber's "Sorry" is another in-the-air favorite that will not leave my brain. I did file jazz, metal and general-purpose year-end lists for various polls, but looking back, none of them feel definitive to me. That orderly, fenced-off approach doesn't reflect how music fits into my life. The other night, some friends and I sat around spinning vinyl ranging from the latest Sheer Mag 7" (my album of the year, even though it isn't an album) to the new Fleetwood Mac Tusk reissue, the stellar Laddio Bolocko box set and, just because, Bob Dylan's Infidels. It's all sitting by my turntable, along with a ton of other records that captivated me at one point or another recently: Sonny Rollins's The Bridge, the Eagles' One of These Nights, Keelhaul's Triumphant Return to Obscurity, Pat Metheny's 80/81, Blue Öyster Cult's Tyranny and Mutation, Roky Erickson's The Evil One, Joni Mitchell's Hejira, the Stooges' Fun House, etc. (I'm proud to say that the craw set and STATS LP are there too.) Music.
It's all in play at all times. It has to be a free space. In that spirit, here are some of the records that I enjoyed this year, that happened to come out this year, in no particular order—10 of them will eventually make up my Pazz and Jop ballot. Links to Bandcamp only, because that's where online music really lives
Krallice Ygg Huur (self-released)
This record to me is pure astonishment. It's my favorite thing Krallice has ever done—and that's saying a lot because I love much of their prior work, especially the self-titled debut and 2011's Diotima—and one of my favorite things that either Mick Barr and Colin Marston have ever done, which is saying even more. (Close call with Annwn and Skullgrid, respectively.) The amount of musical information here is staggering, as is the confidence and majestic flair with which it is rendered. This is art music, plain and simple, the vanguard of contemporary composition, that happens to be transmitted in a format we might refer to in shorthand as metal.
Sheer Mag II (Wilsuns/Katorga)
Probably the release I really and truly felt the most of any that came out in 2015. It's a four-song EP, but as an aesthetic statement of purpose, it's as weighty as any album I heard this year. The soul, the smarts, the wounded swagger. This is just pure rough rock-and-soul attitude filtered through an at times dauntingly complex sophisto-pop aesthetic. And vocals to melt your heart and cut through whatever distraction might be unfairly monopolizing your spirit on a given day. This just kicks so, so, so much ass.
Henry Threadgill Zooid In for a Penny, in for a Pound (Pi)
Zooid just keep pushing. One of the most insular bands on earth, and one of the most fascinating to stand outside of and cast one's listening gaze upon. I heard this music at Roulette a year ago, and it seemed like a new high bar for the group. The album completely does the set justice. So much beautiful detail, either when the band is cooking in its trademark oblique-chamber-funk mode or stripping back for mini sonic dioramas of curious detail and staunch refinement. Oddities and wonders abound, and they're only amplified by heightened attention. When you put on a Zooid record, you listen, and you listen to the members of Zooid listening, each playing their part in Threadgill's imaginative wonderland.
Mayday Parade Black Lines (Fearless)
Not a new band, but a new one to me. Mainstays of the Warped Tour scene and exponents of an emo offshoot that's near and dear to my heart and probably best exemplified by Say Anything's 2004 masterwork, …Is a Real Boy. Hugely passionate and anthemic pop-oriented rock music with a belt-to-the-rafters theatrical bent and an undercurrent of showy self-laceration. This album is totally, knowingly over-the-top and, if you're as into this sound as I am, eminently replayable.
Milford Graves and Bill Laswell Space / Time • Redemption (TUM)
I saw these two play duets at the Stone last year, and the chemistry was lacking. They find a groove on this album simply by coexisting. This is basically an ambient release, elevated above the mundane by the primeval thump of one of the mightiest and most mysterious percussionists on earth, and Laswell's melodic and textural know-how, which can blur into wallpaper-ism but here seems subtle and right and soothing and benevolent. To me, this is a logical sequel to Sonny Sharrock's Guitar (one of my very favorite records of all time), and not just because a) there's a track named for Sonny here and b) Laswell produced Guitar. Mystical, swirling, churning tone baths.
Jeff Lynne's ELO Alone in the Universe (Columbia)
I'm not an ELO completist, but I aspire to be one someday. Jeff Lynne's lifelong project, i.e., crafting Beatlesque pop music of limitless accessibility that doesn't apologize for its sly surreality and lyrical eccentricity, is a worthy one, and judging by this album, and by the outstanding live show I saw at Irving Plaza last month, he's still operating at a very high level. There are a handful of songs here ("When I Was a Boy," "One Step at a Time") that feel like future greatest hits, which, given the depth the ELO greatest-hit pool, is really saying something.
Stanley Cowell Juneteenth (Vision Fugitive)
I spent a fair amount of time with this one but it didn't feel like anywhere near enough. I hear Juneteenth as a cousin of Dave Burrell's breathtaking 1979 solo-piano version of Windward Passages, one of those albums where a pianist translates the vast orchestral universe inside their head to the keys. This feels like a magnum opus for Cowell and an important reminder that this giant continues to do great, vital work. Further thoughts here.
Voice Coils Heaven's Sense (Shatter Your Leaves)
Another EP that delineates an entire sonic world. This, like the Krallice record, seems to me to be a state-of-the-art example of not exactly where music is at this moment, because nothing else really sounds like Heaven's Sense, but of a sort of speculative future of music, where pop could end up if diligence and wisdom and higher instincts prevailed. Demanding, yes, but so sensuous and pleasurable and coherent at the same time. There are hooks in "An Atrium" that have run through my head for days. If you consider yourself a fan of so-called progressive music of any kind, or of pop that aims at a kind of ethereal complexity and sweeping and refined emotional heft—I'll throw out Kate Bush and Yes as two inadequate touchstones—you must, must, must hear this. The descriptor "haunting" has been drained of most of its meaning, but it applies here.
Mary Halvorson Meltframe (Firehouse 12)
Another release with a kind of fierce beauty and interiority to it, but while the Voice Coils EP is all about high-wire ensemble dazzlement, this is stripped back and close to the bone. A simple description of what Meltframe is—meditation on and deconstruction of melody—feels way too clinical. This is an album that sings with emotion. A personal language on a common instrument, spoken plainly—sort of the rule for how all jazz ought to feel but rarely does. All the approaches to the gorgeous and carefully selected source material work equally well: harsh, subdued, dense/effects-heavy, sparse/unadorned or one melting gradually into the other.
Tau Cross Tau Cross (Relapse)
A debut album that sets forth a strikingly well-formed band concept. Shades of Killing Joke, Motörhead, recent Prong and, yes, mid-to-late-period Voivod (that band's Michel "Away" Langevin is Tau Cross's drummer). Gloom-painted postpunk–meets-thrash-meets–hard rock with outstanding hooks and tons of variety; surprisingly, the folky tracks work as well as the ragers. Rob "The Baron" Miller's impassioned delivery brings real grizzled pathos. Further thoughts here.
Black Star Riders The Killer Instinct (Nuclear Blast)
The group that began life as the Band Once Again Known as Thin Lizzy but Without Phil Lynott is now, thankfully, rolling up their sleeves and doing it the hard way: forging ahead and making new music. This album sounds like it could have been made anywhere from about 1983 through 1989, but no one for whom music like this—hook-forward, arena-scaled, cheese-oblivious hard rock—holds any appeal is going to care about its "relevance." This album completely, wholeheartedly rocks. The Riders pay homage to Lizzy, yes, but really they're just honoring the tough-guy songwriting tradition in general; there's just as much Bon Jovi in here, and that's fine by me. Fantastic songs—well, on the first half of the album, at least—and a frontman, Ricky Warwick, who's easy to believe and root for.
Title Fight Hyperview (ANTI-)
There's apparently some sort of subgenre-oriented skin-shedding going on with this record—hardcore-gone-shoegaze, I believe—but since I'm not familiar with Title Fight's past work, I'm taking this at face value. Hyperview is simply a lush and enveloping melodic indie-rock album, undergirded with post-hardcore muscle and glistening with a melancholy emotional mist. The color field of guitars and the raw-throated cries that burst out from beneath them lead to a kind of mood-drunkenness that's a pleasure to get lost in. It helps that the songs themselves are as strong as the atmosphere.
Jack DeJohnette Made in Chicago (ECM)
As I indicated here, the quintet heard on this album has evolved considerably since they recorded this album at the Chicago Jazz Festival in 2013, but Made in Chicago still holds up as a supergroup effort that capitalizes on every bit of its enormous potential. The stars here, and I think Mr. DeJohnette would agree, are Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill, and the presence of a master drummer-leader who also happens to be one of the best listeners in jazz only makes their contributions—both as composers and improvisers—sound that much sweeter (or nastier or more otherworldly, depending on the moment). Not just great artists sharing the stage, but the sound of a group aesthetic crystallizing, and the stage being set for future wonders.
Laddio Bolocko Live and Unreleased 1997–2000 (No Quarter)
Post-hardcore colliding with funk, free jazz, sound collage and psychedelia in a totally organic way. The prog impulse channeled into fiercely danceable body music, fueled by one of the greatest drummers of our time, Blake Fleming, who I first came to know through the illustrious and incredible Dazzling Killmen. I'd always felt that I hadn't quite gotten the complete picture regarding this band from its earlier No Quarter compilation, The Life and Times of…, and this release confirms it. A heady barrage of archival material, some quizzical and fragmented, some gorgeously dialed in and fleshed out. (I adore the groove-science "Afrostructure" series, which falls somewhere in between these two poles.) The final stretch of this sprawling set, with the studio version of the two-part cosmic-groove-prog opus "How About This For My Hair?" and a live set from Slovenia that's so intense it feels like it could leave scars (but is also wonderfully subdued and sensitive in spots), is the reason why archival releases like this are essential to the musical ecosystem: to bring to light bygone marvels you never knew existed.
Sonny Rollins Quartet With Don Cherry Complete Live at the Village Gate 1962 (Solar)
Speaking of bygone marvels. We maybe had a clue with this one in the form of Our Man in Jazz, but did we really know the enormity of what went down until now?
Blind Idiot God Before Ever After (Indivisible)
BIG share Laddio Bolocko's NYC-via–St. Louis trajectory, as well as their wide-open conception of what rock-based post-hardcore music can sound and feel like. Another Laswell production, and a balletic, rumbling behemoth of a comeback album. Everything about Before Ever After sounds to me like an improvement on the already-intriguing formula that BIG advanced on their late-’80s/early-’90s work. Can't wait to see where they go from here.
Revenge Behold.Total.Rejection (Season of Mist)
J. Read is like a gigantic mutant rat that leaps out of the darkness, chomps on your leg and refuses to unclench its jaws as you flail about in agony. The man is a driven psychopath behind the drums and one of metal's truest, most original underground voices. On days when I lose faith in the idea of metal, grow weary with its self-straitjacketing conventions, I can still reach for a Revenge album—and specifically this, which is easily the band's most compelling record to date—and feel something. Pure, seething soul and fire, and the deft commingling of chaos and precision. Just when you think this album is a total blastbeat blur, it snaps back into focus with a skull-rattling rawk breakdown or cave-prog precision attack. If you want to know my "metal album of the year," it's a tie between this and Ygg Huur—despite what my ballot says below; again, feelings change and evolve, which is why polls are just arbitrary snapshots in time—albums that represent two very different extremes of "extreme metal" that actually feel, you know, extreme. Further thoughts here.
The Bad Plus and Joshua Redman The Bad Plus Joshua Redman (Nonesuch)
This album didn't top my 2015 jazz ballot, but if I were casting said vote right now instead of a few weeks back, it probably would. The Bad Plus Joshua Redman is a near-perfect record, an exemplary illustration of everything we already know the Bad Plus does well—at this point, their sonic fingerprint is as instantly recognizable as that of, say, the Who—given a smart tweak/kick-in-the-ass via the presence of a contemporary tenor-saxophone master. This quartet was already great four years ago, but here, there's a sense of shared purpose that feels hard-earned through hours and hours spent together onstage. Instantly memorable compositions, performances that move with convincing emotional purpose and with utmost concern for the musical material at hand, whether it's crisp, refined and determinedly melodic or sprawling, choppy and, well, determinedly melodic. Jazz always needs more song-focus, more band-focus, and the Bad Plus keep showing us how handsomely those philosophies can pay off. Here, they have some very able assistance. Not really measuring by length here, but this is the 2015 "epic" for me.
So yes, maybe I'm getting in a small dig at Kamasi Washington's The Epic there (and also, more explicitly, in the Stanley Cowell blurb linked above). The Epic certainly wasn't an album I disliked, but nor was it was one I connected with on any deep level. I heard glossy, tastefully updated retro bombast with strong melodies, some truly ass-kicking post-Coltrane/turbo-bop moments and long stretches of not-much-happening. I'd hold up any of the jazz albums listed above as far better examples of "where jazz is at" than The Epic any day. But then again…
Kendrick Lamar To Pimp a Butterfly (Top Dawg / Aftermath / Interscope)
The Kamasi-wave wasn't really about Kamasi. It was about Washington's role in this thorny masterpiece, which topped every poll both because of its sociopolitical urgency in a year where the topics Lamar dealt with on To Pimp… were not only impossible to ignore but impossible not to despair over, and because, well, it was an enthralling LP, period, a searing self-interrogation that balanced every menacing boast with a choked-up sniffle. Everyone seemed to want to tell me that the album I just described was actually D'Angelo's Black Messiah. I didn't quite connect with that one, either, but I believed every last second of this.
Iron Maiden The Book of Souls (Parlophone/Sanctuary)
Same goes for this. I like Iron Maiden, which seems weird to say, since they're a band beloved by their fan base in an uniquely rabid way and ignored by pretty much everyone else. Honestly, I just don't know the catalog that well, but The Book of Souls was an instant "yes, please" for me. I love the way the visceral, bottom-heavy production sound combines with Bruce Dickinson's heroic yet endearingly strained-sounding vocals, and I love how itself this band remains, how committed they sound to this thing called metal that is really, for them, simply Iron Maiden Music. Like the Black Star Riders album, The Book of Souls rocks in a timeless way. I didn't once make it through the entire LP in a single sitting, but whenever I checked in with it—from archetypal single "Speed of Light" to that hammy yet genuinely touching 18-minute finale, "Empire of the Clouds"—I felt uplifted and inspired.
Weather Report The Legendary Tapes 1978–1981 (Legacy)
This hits me in a similar way: a supremely confident band, doing its thing. As a group, Weather Report had a strange magic—virtuosic daredevilry, yes, but also festive melody and childlike wonder and a certain kind of zany party-prog verve. None of the truly great acts that we label as "fusion" (ahem…) really sounded anything alike, and this release helps us see Weather Report for the style-transcendent anomaly that they were, and adds to the welcome hoopla surrounding the Jaco documentary release (and my own private hoopla surrounding a recent deep immersion in the Jaco–Joni Mitchell collaboration).
Morgoth Ungod (Century Media)
Deactivate brain. Rage. Repeat. (For those who related to this, as well as my Obituary and Asphyx gushing over the years, you need to hear Ungod.)
Kirk Knuffke Arms and Hands (Royal Potato Family)
This cornet specialist continues to record in all kinds of interesting contexts, bringing fresh ideas to each situation. I agree with the core mission statement of Arms and Hands—that bringing together Bill Goodwin and Mark Helias was a fantastic idea. (Lamplighter, another 2015 Knuffke session featuring Goodwin, is also well worth your time, and from what I've read and the samples, this sounds awesome.) Another example of jazz-as-personal-sonic-signature, in personnel, mood, repertoire.
David S. Ware / Apogee Birth of a Being (Aum Fidelity)
Heart-burstingly passionate trio music—perhaps the single most convincing document of post-Ayler free jazz I've heard—from 1977, reissued here with extra material. Apogee, a working band with Cooper-Moore (then Gene Ashton) on piano and Marc Edwards on drums, is, to me, every bit as compelling as Ware's later, better-known quartet with Matthew Shipp, William Parker, etc. Massive.
Killing Joke Pylon (Spinefarm)
The only reason this one wasn't on here before is that I hadn't yet had a chance to spend good time with it. As with ELO, I'm not a Killing Joke completist, but I aspire to be one. I adored KJ's 2010 album, Absolute Dissent, but sort of slept on 2012's MMXII. I need to go back and remedy that, because this new one is another monster. Menace, beauty, relentless momentum, enthralling texture. Few bands can conjure such a pervasive, well-shaded sensation of gloom.
Elder Lore (Armageddon Shop)
Whoo boy, does this thing kick ass. A few people (one being my friend and former colleague Steve Smith) had tipped me off to Lore during the course of the year, but I didn't really dig in till just now. I'll reprise a line I just tweeted, because it sums up my thoughts well: This is like recent Mastodon gone full prog, with vastly better production. I'm still digesting this, but it seems to me that the quality of the songwriting on Lore matches the enormous ambition on display here, which is sort of insane given how high these guys are clearly aiming.
A documentary that aims for and achieves definitive status via its smart balance of the personal and the musical. Watching this, you feel like you're seeing Jaco from all sides. Moving and insightful testimony from collaborators (Peter Erskine, Joni Mitchell, Wayne Shorter, et al.) and confidants (Bill Milkowski's contribution is particularly valuable). Breathtaking footage. A complicated life, dealt with sensitively yet unflinchingly.
Napalm Death Apex Predator — Easy Meat (Century Media)
Namechecked below but deserves a special shout-out. What I love about newer Napalm Death is, paradoxically, how clean it sounds. The current incarnation of this band is miles away from state-of-the-art extremity; by comparison, the Revenge album above makes 2015 Napalm (at least the recorded version) sound like Chuck Berry. But I'm fascinated by the way they've refined their craft for maximum accessibility and coherence, while remaining committed to speed and abrasiveness, and a genuine sense of purgative rage, embodied by Barney Greenway. You can hear everything that's going on in this music, and there's great care taken in the composition, pacing, mood. Extremity isn't really the issue: Napalm Death is, at this point simply, a great, adventurous rock band.
P.S. Phil Freeman's guide to the ND discography is essential for those of us who know bits and pieces of the band's long, complicated history but not the whole thing.
2015 Jazz Ballot (with regard to this poll)
1. Milford Graves and Bill Laswell Space/Time • Redemption (TUM)
2. Jack DeJohnette Made in Chicago (ECM)
3. Henry Threadgill Zooid In for a Penny, in for a Pound (Pi)
4. Mary Halvorson Meltframe (Firehouse 12)
5. The Bad Plus and Joshua Redman The Bad Plus Joshua Redman (Nonesuch)
6. Stanley Cowell Juneteenth (Vision Fugitive)
7. Wadada Leo Smith and John Lindberg Celestial Weather (TUM)
8. Kirk Knuffke Arms and Hands (Royal Potato Family)
9. Jon Irabagon Behind the Sky (Irabbagast)
10. John Zorn Inferno (Tzadik)
2015 Metal Ballot (with regard to this list)
1. Revenge Behold.Total.Rejection (Season of Mist)
2. Black Star Riders The Killer Instinct (Nuclear Blast)
3. Iron Maiden The Book of Souls (Parlophone/Sanctuary)
4. Tau Cross Tau Cross (Relapse)
5. Blind Idiot God Before Ever After (Indivisible)
6. Krallice Ygg Huur (self-released)
7. Morgoth Ungod (Century Media)
8. Royal Thunder Crooked Doors (Relapse)
9. Napalm Death Apex Predator — Easy Meat (Century Media)
10. Embodied Torment Liturgy of Ritual Execution (New Standard Elite)
10 Best Shows I Saw in 2015
1/13 - Celebrating Charlie Haden (The Town Hall)
2/13 - John Zorn, Steve Coleman, Milford Graves + Marc Ribot, Trevor Dunn, Tyshawn Sorey (Village Vanguard)
2/26 - Xylouris White (Bowery Ballroom)
3/15 - Charles Lloyd Quartet (Village Vanguard)
5/10 - Morpheus Descends (Saint Vitus)
6/11 - Feast of the Epiphany + Travis Laplante (IBeam)
6/20 - Dead Moon + Borbetomagus (Pioneer Works)
6/29 - Rush (MSG)
8/21 - Krallice (The Stone)
10/5 - Jack DeJohnette’s Made in Chicago (Cornell University)
With a special honorable mention for Ayahuasca, Godstopper, Couch Slut and Pyrryon at BRIEFCASEFEST 2015.