by Josh Kohan
With Sun Kil Moon’s spoken word epic Benji and War on Drugs’ hypnotic Lost in a Dream recorded in 2014, that year will go down as one of the most musically inspiring. It was a year for rock veterans to produce career-solidifying classics as well as a few new (relatively) guys on the block to prove they are here to stay. It would be impossible to expect 2015 to be as solid. However, with long-awaited releases by Blur, Sleater-Kinney, Modest Mouse, and Desaparecidos, 2015 proves that some of the greatest bands listen to Neil Young’s (who also released a ridiculously unique album this year) advice by stubbornly refusing to “fade away”. On a personal note, 2015 is an even more remarkable year than any other because on the Sunday evening of June 21st (Father’s Day), my wife gave birth to our daughter. For most of the fourteen hour labor, my 2015 Spotify playlist was playing in the background – the only sounds my wife wanted to hear to take her mind off her constant contractions. So although 2014 produced Beck’s Grammy-winning Morning Phase, 2015 will be even more extraordinary as the smooth saxophone of Kamasi Washington and the dramatic vocals of Sufjan Stevens’ “Should Have Known Better” and Jason Isbell’s “24 Frames” will be forever linked to our beautiful baby girl. And thus the best five albums that have come out so far are:
5. Kamasi Washington The Epic (Brainfeeder)
The jazz solos and interludes by Kamasi Washington are the obvious zenith on Kendrick Lamar’s ambitious but bloated sophomore album To Pimp a Butterfly. Although a good record in its own right, if it weren’t for Washington’s contribution, the album wouldn’t be as notable. A sort of session musician for the likes of Flying Lotus, Broken Bells, and Lamar, it takes a lot of egotistical balls to title your first solo record The Epic. With a running time of three hours, Kamasi Washington’s triple album debut is indeed the jazz “epic” of our decade. Never have I heard a modern jazz record this nostalgic, obviously calling upon all of his influences, yet at the same time, sounding this innovative.
Admittedly, I am no jazz aficionado or master of music theory. But I do own and cherish a few Miles Davis and John Coltrane albums and have some passing knowledge from my father of the ‘70s experimental jazz rock scene that included such legendaries as Pharaoh Sanders, Phillip Upchurch, and Larry Coryell. Rather than going song by song through Washington’s seventeen tracks, many of which are over ten minutes long, “The Epic” is easier reviewed based on its immediate and lasting impressions.
Upon first spin, Kamasi Washington is a musical force to be reckoned with. His saxophone style is smooth and sexy, composing the piano and drum arrangements to range from relaxingly controlled to deliberately frantic. This is jazz that is as appropriate on a sunny afternoon barbecue as it is for a steamy intimate bedroom scene. There are of course the easily comparable melodies that bring to mind later 60’s and ‘70s era Coltrane and Davis.
On subsequent spins, Washington’s guest appearances’ unique sounds stand out to dazzling effect with their solos. Most notable is electric bassist virtuoso Steven “Thundercat” Bruner, who shines here intensely especially on the more uptempo tracks. Of course the jazz guitar is also in use in full force, calling back a more experimental time in jazz and rock music. And the soulful sounds of Patrice Quin on backing vocals pop up throughout the album giving a more contemporary R&B feel to certain tracks such as in album opener “Change of the Guard”. If I had to choose an album highlight, the first track on the 3rd disc, “Re Run Home” would be the best place to see Kamasi Washington bringing all musical elements together in chaotic synchronicity.
But there is something else buried amidst these three hours besides a generational bridge: pure satisfaction. Jazz enthusiasts may scoff at this very approachable record as “introductory jazz”, or “jazz light”, but for the uninitiated, The Epic is dazzling in the infinite themes and imagery that are produced while Washington wails out on his sax. Washington goes full-throttle to convey as many styles, narratives, and influences as he can. And it all works brilliantly. As such, The Epic is an obvious inclusion in the top albums of 2015.
4. Blur The Magic Whip (Parlophone)
Blur’s new album is seriously addictive. The first three songs on The Magic Whip, “Lonesome Street”, “New World Towers”, and “Go Out,” are packed full of such irresistible hooks and melodies. Then, suddenly, these catchy beats give way to the whimsical and otherworldly sounds of “Ice Cream Man” and “I Thought I Was a Spaceman”. Yet, the beats continue as “I Broadcast”, a track whose blazing guitar riffs could easily have appeared in any of their nineties albums, wails out of my speakers.
Blur’s back and forth between bubble gum and trepidation is what makes The Magic Whip instantly remarkable. And nowhere is this better represented than on the album highlight, “There Are Too Many of Us”. I read that Blur, all together for the first time since 1999, recorded while on a world tour hiatus in Hong Kong — a crowded, neon-electric Asian metropolis where the phrase “sensory overload” is a gross understatement.
There is a lot of contrast in The Magic Whip, a record that is introspective and cerebral but never sedentary. A great example of this would be the aptly-named song “Pyongyang”. Here, Damon Albarn’s distinctive wry voice is heard in the “perfect avenues” of the North Korean capital painting beautiful springtime images of Asian Cherry blossoms in contrast to “The giant mausoleums falling/The great leaders fading”. As “Pyongyang” is filled with vast and ambitious imagery, the album’s next song, “Ong Ong” is more directly short and celebratory.
With quirky background piano and sing-a-long “la la las”, this could have all but negated the record’s more somber moments. But just when you think Blur did everything they could on a single album, record closer “Mirrorball” uses what I believe is the Chinese Pipa instrument to let the listener soak in all that has been accomplished in twelve inspired songs. Thus, as much as Blur’s music on this record is groovy yet experimental, it is also meticulously mixed. All the rock, jazz, funk, synth, and soul elements work for and against each other in increasingly contemplative and seductive ways.
Time will tell whether or not The Magic Whip will be labeled Blur’s grand “comeback” album. However, Blur aren’t merely studio sycophants; Magic Whip makes it crystal clear that Albarn and co. are pop sound pioneers of the highest order.
3. Courtney Barnett Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom & Pop/Marathon Artists/Milk!)
On her first official LP, Australian rocker Courtney Barnett sings with such an infectious deadpan humor, I can’t help but imagine a down-under punk-rock Aubrey Plaza with a guitar. Thus, Barnett’s persona is instantly likeable, her catchy collection of rebranded rock n’ roll immediately gratifying. Take her radio single “Pedestrian at Best”, which on the outside is filled with playful rhymes and alliteration, but sung with a deep inner insecurity and self-reflection that is absolutely worth more discovery on subsequent listens.
There is a free-wheeling confidence in Barnett’s songwriting that all but covers up a subliminal but not-so-serious feminist commentary as in “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)” where Barnett repeats “I’m thinking of you too”. I can’t tell if she is being completely forthright about the sadness of having insomnia in a cubicle-sized New York apartment or making a mockery of the whole situation. One of the best tracks is “Aqua Profunda”, a completely uninhibited nineties garage band throwback that doesn’t seem to make any statements other than to just rock out and have fun. Then on “Dead Fox”, Barnett’s humor and wit are revealed amidst semi-serious social commentary.
It is clear that a lot more substance is going on beneath the surface of this record, but it is also just as refreshing to take the record at face value – don’t over think; just listen and enjoy one of this year’s finest albums.
2. Father John Misty I Love You, Honeybear (Bella Union/Sub Pop)
The immediately soothing sounds of guitar strumming and piano tapping are the first sounds you hear on former Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman’s latest record. This first track, “I Love You, Honeybear”, recalls Honky Chateau-era Elton John. In fact, Tillman’s newest project, Father John Misty, is full of early seventies influences ranging from psychedelic rock and jazz to soulful folk and country. Look no further than track 2, Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins), where the martyr-like status of Nick Drake is resurrected. But as much as this is an old-fashioned album in the strictest sense, all eleven tracks are infectiously contemporary. The third track, “True Affection” introduces synthesized harmonies to his folk sound that wouldn’t be uncommon on a Sufjan Stevens’ album.
As much as Tillman’s music is smooth and orchestrated, the record is also a lyrical achievement. The middle of the album is full of stories from the experiences of Middle America. One of my favorite tracks, “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment” details what should be a fondly remembered one-night stand turning into a depressing disappointment. Tillman writes and sings with such infectious humor and cynicism that we can’t help but to sing along as the song closes: “Until she said she sounds like Sarah Vaughn/I hate that soulful affectation when girls put on/Why don’t you move to the Delta?” Moreover, on “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Cow”, Tillman doesn’t take long to attack the redneck townies at the local watering hole.
On the triumphant “Bored in the USA”, Elton John is summoned once again as Tillman takes center stage with his piano and sings about “white person problems” with what sounds like earnest soulful emotion. But with canned laughter and applause, is this merely satire on the narcissistic live solo performer on late night television or rather a mocking commentary of our values or lack thereof? The fact that this song was chosen to be played on Letterman, makes it all the more auspicious.
On I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman is composing a musically articulate canvas on which to paint relevant themes of the modern age with a cynical wit and musical prowess.
1. Sufjan Stevens Carrie and Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)
Back in April, I had the privilege to see Sufjan Stevens live at the Palace Theater in Albany. Before jumping into a collection of his “greatest hits” from his catalog, Stevens started off by playing his entire new album Carrie and Lowell in its entirety. Sublime and at times somber, Stevens used remarkable electronic transitions with an epileptic display of light and sound. In the background, a film footage slideshow from his own Oregon childhood was projected to bring the motifs of death to life for the audience. This was the best concert I have been to this year, and easily fits into my top ten all-time.
Out of all the records released in 2015 so far, Carrie and Lowell is the walk-away winner. A deeply personal concept album dedicated to his late, troubled mother and his beloved stepfather, Carrie and Lowell is a courageous record that bears Stevens’ soul but is profound in its accessibility and versatility for the listener. It is probably presumptuous to claim that this is Stevens’ masterpiece, but it is evident that Carrie and Lowell is his most expertly crafted and intensely resonant. Here, the sparse and haunting folk sound of Seven Swans is combined with the opulent orchestrations and arrangements featured on Illinoise, but it also uses the minimalist electronic synth of Age of Adz as an extra layering.
Opener “Death with Dignity” uses acoustic folk melodies with complex instrumental scaffolding to highlight Stevens’ ever impressive vocal range and introduce all the themes that will be presented: death, remorse, forgiveness, to name a few. There is a lot of sorrow in these songs but there is also optimism with echoes of beauty and lightness.
Album highlight “Should Have Known Better” is next and is mesmerizing in its haunting splendor. This is a sad song about regret that, as the electronica elements begin, gradually introduces themes of hope. This may be the best song Stevens has ever written, and the best track of 2015.
That isn’t to say the rest of the album is a comedown; far from that, each song on the record is extremely introspective but rewards in different musical ways. Another standout, “All of Me Wants All of You”, contains guitar and organ orchestrations which become deeper as the song progresses. In the minimalist “Fourth of the July”, the simple keyboard melody cuts through Steven’s harrowing childhood epiphany “We are all going to die”. And on album closer “Blue Bucket of Gold”, Stevens gorgeously sings to grandiose effect, “Once the Myth is told/Tell me you want me in your life”, reconciling past misgivings with illumination for the future.
For Stevens, the story of Carrie and Lowell must be told as there is too much emotion for one man to carry. These are the life-affirming songs about the human experiences and the flawed but cherished people that have forever shaped us.
Honorable Mentions: Sleater-Kinney No Cities to Love, Kendrick Lamar To Pimp a Butterfly, Modest Mouse Strangers to Ourselves, Tallest Man on Earth Dark Bird is Home” and Surfer Blood 1,000 Palms