I was chatting with my friend Ben the other night about how we felt like we both missed a lot of albums from 2015. Neither of us believe 2015 was a year that lacked good music, just that we had missed a lot of good releases. I happened to have purchased very few albums released in 2015, let alone any other year. For myself, perhaps it’s because I spent a lot (a lot lot) of 2015 learning other people’s music. In February, I started a band with my friend Matthew Shelton, eventually becoming ExtraOcular. In June, my (now former) band Labors played Harry Nilsson‘s The Point, in its entirety at The Whistler for their Playing Favorites series. We spent months rearranging a piano-driven album for 2 guitars, piano, bass and drums. In August, shortly after Labors broke up, I started playing with Woodrow Hart & The Haymaker– yet another band’s music to learn. So my album collection didn’t increase this year as much as it has in years past. As it will become apparent later, continuing from 2014, the theme for 2015 is: It’s Great to Have Talented Friends. Here, in no particular order, are my Top 5 albums of 2015:
5. Wilco – Star Wars
As many of you know, Wilco dropped this album out of the blue shortly before their Friday-night headlining set at Pitchfork this past year. For a number of reasons I am a fan of this band, though they don’t make it easy as some of their more recent output has been more than a little disappointing considering their musical powerhouses (Nels Cline, Glenn Kotche). But, in spite of their bewildering choices in releases, I have to say that Wilco has maintained a refreshing approach to being a band these days. They eschew major label tactics (except, again, for putting out safe unchallenging albums- ok, I’m done) continuing with Star Wars. They gave it away for free long before the physical release, asking only for an email to deliver a download link, and in that email suggest buying some other band’s albums. There’s no denying that they are a class act. And, I have to say, having seen them perform a couple times they really seem to enjoy playing- which is unfortunately a strange thing to say about a band. So many bands seem to phone it in on stage lately. On to the album.
This album is a fresh, sometimes intimate, raw collection that brings back some of the energy and sound that I have come to love about this band. On Star Wars you can hear some of the tense pop song energy you might find on Summerteeth as with “Random Name Generator” or “The Joke Explained”; everyone has to mention how the album starts with the free chaos of “EKG”, which brings to mind Sonic Youth or early Flaming Lips or Meat Puppets. Or you might find some of the more intimate swirly pop moments reminiscent of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as with “Taste the Ceiling”. My personal favorites are “You Satellite” which has an almost Velvet Underground feel, and “More…”.
At least among my friends I am in the minority, my top favorite Wilco albums are the little known The Wilco Book and A Ghost is Born followed by Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Summerteeth, and Being There (A.M. is almost another band but incredible in its own right). The bands that have careers like Wilco have to be able to change and adapt and explore album to album. And I feel like Wilco have done that successfully, I just hadn’t liked where they were going lately. They went so far out by exploding pop & rock song structures and went right back to the standard and predictable. Star Wars isn’t safe. They gamble, there’s tension. They have (finally) found a way to explore and take advantage of this line-up’s respective strengths. Nels Cline actually gets to go nuts on this album (“Pickled Ginger”, “Cold Slope”) as opposed to his smooth approach to Sky Blue Sky (which I didn’t ultimately dislike, it seemed to be a start of their decline though). Kotche and Stirratt remain one of the tightest in-the-pocket rhythm sections in rock, and they and, most of all Jeff Tweedy, sound like they’re having fun doing it.
4. Makaya McCraven – In The Moment E & F Sides
To be honest, I’m not sure how I came across this album. I believe I was browsing some blog posts, though I should have heard about this album considering the Chicago jazz stalwarts backing McCraven on this mixed live album with overdubs. I have to admit, I had not heard of drummer Makaya McCraven before stumbling across this album- but I’m very familiar with trumpeter Marquis Hill, whom I’ve photographed for his album The Poet; bassist Matt Ulery whom I photographed for the press of his 2014 album In The Ivory; Tortoise‘s Jeff Parker; and bassist Joshua Abrams both of whom I’ve seen countless times. With that roster among unknown (to me) others, I had to hear it.
Though in some ways In The Moment is a predominantly live recording of a jazz band, I can’t help but be reminded of the work of J Dilla, or thinking this would be what The Roots would sound like if they made a jazz album, or sometimes even a hint of Soul Coughing. The energy, tone, and use of drum loops and samples all contribute to this feeling. But the originality of the compositions, the performances themselves (forgive the phrase) in the moment (listen to Jeff Parker’s lilted playing on “Lonely”), all make this a very fresh and unique album. I played through every song straight through and bought the album immediately after I found it.
This album, like many jazz records, is great nighttime afterparty music.
3. Whirlpool with Ron Miles – Dancing on the Inside
Although I should be rather skeptical of any jazz album (or any other genre for that matter) that has no bass, Chicago/New York collective Whirlpool have made some truly beautiful music. First on their debut album This World and One More (for which I provided cover art, and publicity photos for this album, in the interest of full disclosure) as a trio and on this album as a quartet with guest cornetist Ron Miles fresh off a pair of albums with Bill Frisell and Brian Blade. Whirpool is saxophonist Caroline Davis, guitarist Jeff Swanson, and drummer Charles Rumback.
I really liked their first album, which was an ambient and otherworldly affair, as its title implies. It was somewhat mellower, although Dancing on the Inside does have some more introspective moments, again implying its title. From the first notes of Dancing on the Inside, you start to hear a vibrant change with Davis and Miles’ horn interplay. Where, on This World and One More everything was textural and impressionistic, Dancing is more soaring and expressive, if a little more literal. Davis and Miles’ melodies soar and flutter back and forth- almost teasing as to whose line is which. The cornet and alto sax make a great pair. Rumback and Swanson provide an at times churning rhythm section making a moving foundation for Davis and Miles to play over. Standouts include the title track, “Remedies”, and “Right Where” which has Davis singing, which on an otherwise instrumental album, is a welcome surprise. Though I was joking about the lack of bass on this album, I generally don’t go for much jazz vocal music- but Caroline Davis’ vocals on “Right Where” are beautiful and charming and not at all what you’d expect. People have been mixing jazz with rock (Bitches Brew), jazz and hip-hop (Tribe), and jazz with electronica (Liquid Soul) forever- now we’re seeing, through Whirlpool, jazz with a more contemporary popular music sensibility (gawd, I hate the term ‘indie’ anything). Though I get the impression that the collaboration with Ron Miles may only be this one-off, it’s definitely worth the spin.
2. Charles Rumback & John Tate – Daylight Savings
Readers of this blog may not be surprised to see another album by Chicago’s prolific Charles Rumback on this list (Let alone three mentions in this post). And, to be apparent, I did provide a photo for this album. But this really is just a case of being friends with talented people. Charles Rumback and John Tate’s album Daylight Savings has all I need in an album- one of my favorite drummers on the planet and pair him with a fantastic bassist. Done. In this case it’s New York-based John Tate, with whom I was unfamiliar until I met him taking photos for this album, but have quickly grown to enjoy his work. Most recently Tate has been seen performing on Jeremy Cunningham’s Quartet and Quintet.
Daylight Savings is a sparse and textural album. I’m not sure what there is to say about this album other than it is a perfect example of how much you can do with just a rhythm section. This album moves, has high and low moments, and actually beautiful compositions. It is perfectly recorded, capturing the woody resonance of Tate’s bass and the contrasting taughtness and expansive cymbals of Rumback’s drums. There are even times on I Cover The Waterfront, where you can hear I assume Tate breathing which one might consider a recording mistake, but I love. That’s what you hear on this album: wood, steel, skin, and breathing. This album is improvised jazz at its purest state.
1. Wussy – Public Domain
Though this short EP obviously isn’t a full-length, Wussy’s Public Domain was an interesting and unexpected release from the Cincinnati quintet. Known more for their wailing guitars and walls of feedback over ernest and clever lyrics, this album is in some ways a little out of character, but that’s also what makes it great. Though there are some lovely quiet songs on past albums, and certainly they are no stranger to an acoustic set, Wussy has been trying to distance themselves from Chuck Cleaver and John Erhardt’s previous band Ass Ponys as many early reviews wanted to place Wussy in an alt-country category, which they are not. That’s precisely what makes an EP of public domain and traditional songs a curiosity. But I love it.
On Public Domain Wussy have found some traditional songs that compliment the earnest and plaintive voices of singers Cleaver and Lisa Walker. Though I would never call Wussy a country band, their interpretations of these songs and their similarities to some of their own songs shine a light on something deep in Walker and Cleaver’s songwriting. Though it can sometimes be fun to string adjectives together about the sounds of bands, I’m not sure it does much for anyone. However, I think a major characteristic of Wussy is that they are a Midwestern band. That doesn’t say anything, per se, about the sound of their records- but I think it reflects the tone, subject matter, and earthiness of their work. “Lavender Blue” and “Poor Ellen Smith” could have easily fit in on Wussy’s first album Funeral Dress. The haunting “Wondrous Love”, hymn-like “I Give You All”, and bluesy “Alone” l are less of a departure of sound and more of an expansion or exploration of their sound.
Under (my) Radar
The following are some albums that were released unbeknownst to me (Jim O’Rourke, Dungen, Ólafur Arnalds), or came out so late that in the year that I didn’t get around to purchasing it (The Jellies, Charles Rumback) again- and likely will, in no particular order:
Dungen – Allas Sak
The Jellies – the jellies
Charles Rumback – In The New Year
Deerhunter – Fading Frontier
Psalm One – P.O.L.Y.
Father John Misty – I Love You Honeybear
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit.
Ryley Walker – Primrose Green
Joanna Newsom – Divers
Ólafur Arnalds & Alice Sara Ott – The Chopin Project
Jim O’Rourke – Simple Songs
File Under: Rediscovering
The following are some albums were on heavy rotation at some point or another this year, not allowing for anything new to get spun. As a side note, I ironically missed both their shows in Chicago.
Luna – Their. Entire. Oeuvre.*
Ryan Adams & The Cardinals – Jacksonville City Nights