2015 wasn’t a typical year in music. Critics worked hard to construct a narrative – about streaming services, about T. Swift’s dominance, about branding within music – but in my mind the year was just a year of good releases from all corners of the music world. The indie (is that still a word?) heavy hitters came out and did what they do with solid albums – Father John Misty, Sufjan Stevens, Deerhunter, Grimes, Beach House, Joanna Newsom, Jason Isbell, Kurt Vile and Courtney Barrett released great music, but based on their past efforts we kind of expected them to continue down that path. What we have then, is a short list of music from the edges – a five pack of exceptional albums that you may have missed this year.
Kamasi Washington – The Epic
Across genres, the biggest and most significant artistic statement of the year had to be Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and the genius behind the musical arrangement for this album was avant-garde saxophonist Kamasi Washington. He followed up Kendrick’s release with a masterpiece of his own – The Epic. It’s deeply rooted in the work of other sax gods like John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, but also uses big choral arrangements that are undeniably influenced by Ennio Morricone’s classic soundtrack work.
Pure Bathing Culture – Pray For Rain
For their sophomore full length they sought out John Congleton, a producer based in Dallas, Texas, whose task was to help them pull back the layers and get to their true essence as a band. The results are impressive. Whereas their first album – Moon Tides – sounded like it was purposefully looking back for inspiration, their new one – Pray For Rain – feels like the band has settled comfortably into their own skin. It’s heavy on synths and drums without feeling nostalgic. They sound fresh and untethered. As always, Sarah Vesprille’s voice is the anchor – sensually pleading and crooning over icy keyboards and shimmering guitars.
Jim O’Rourke – Simple Songs
O’Rourke has spent a lifetime collaborating on ground breaking music. He was a member of both Wilco and Sonic Youth and produced albums by Smog, Joanna Newsom, Stereolab, Superchunk, John Fahey and a myriad of others. Simple Songs is his first solo studio album in almost 6 years and it feels well seasoned and fully realized. Lead off single “Friends With Benefits” is an instant classic built loosely off a template of From the Mars Hotel – era Grateful Dead and Steely Dan’s perfect Aja phase. It’s 70s rock at its best – smart, irreverent, jazz and folk inspired.
Jessie Baylin – Dark Place
Her previous full length – Little Spark – might be one of the best albums of the last decade, so following it up was no easy task. As with the last one, she worked with genius producer Richard Swift and Dark Places is a worthy follow up. While her earlier work tapped into soulful ballads and wistful countrypolitan string arrangements, she keeps it down and dirty on the latest. Fuzz bass, overblown keyboards and nasty surf guitar lay the bedrock, but it’s Jessie’s smokey Nashville voice that keeps you coming back over and over.
Phil Cook – Southland Mission
There are no discernible rough edges on Cook’s Southland Mission and that’s just fine. A student of the J.J. Cale way – he has the Southern Rock choogle down to a science and dispatches it generously throughout his latest. This is exactly what you want in this type of roots music – it’s easy, heartfelt and keeps you moving down the road. He’s played and produced a mess of brilliant records, most importantly he manages and is a sideman for the excellent Hiss Golden Messenger. Southland Mission will do nicely to tide us over until the next HGM album arrives.
A FEW MORE MUSIC NOTES:
Petty – Warren Zanes (of Del Fuegos fame) has just penned the ultimate Tom Petty biography. No one titles these bios as “authorized” or not anymore, but this one was, by all means, written with Tom’s blessing. If this New Yorker article doesn’t get you psyched for it, then you may not be a music fan.
Steven Hyden – The best music writer in the country (for my money) is Steven Hyden. His main gig at Grantland suddenly came to halt when ESPN insanely pulled the plug on its most relevant property. It’s unknown where Hyden will land next for a regular column, but in the meantime he has a new book to pre-order – Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me. He’s an entertaining follow on twitter @steven_hyden and you can still delve into his vast collection of exceptional Grantland writing online.
And lastly… A Chrissie sighting out West – Instagram shots of Dan Auerbach (of The Black Keys) and Chrissie Hynde (from The Pretenders) in Richards Swift’s rural Oregon studio National Freedom just get my blood pumping. Bring on 2016 and a bunch of new releases. AJ