Monday, January 25, 2016

Albums 2015 - Top Ten

2015 was an exceptional year for music.  Here are my top-ten favorite albums of 2015, and check out my ten runners-up and honorable mentions.  Hey, better late than never.  Enjoy. . . .

1. Ghost: Meliora (8.5/10)

Meliora is Ghost's third LP, released in late summer of 2015. The title is a Latin adjective meaning "better" and so it is that the album continues an upward trajectory for the Swedish occult-metal band, adding to their mock-ecclesiastical mythos. Ghost's breakout debut Opus Eponymous mined a spooky mediaeval aesthetic exemplified by a traditional proto-metal sound, while their playful sophomore album Infetissumam (previously reviewed here) skewed baroque, incorporating disparate elements like disco, surf-rock, and choral music. By contrast, Meliora is the band's take on 20th century modernity and futurism (its cover references Fritz Lang's 1927 sci-fi film Metropolis) .

Accordingly, on Meliora, the band's musical palette explodes with new color, detail, and variety, reveling in the uninhibited cocaine decadence of 70's and 80's AOR and Swedish pop - think Queen, Styx, Europe, and Roxette. Luxuriant production comes courtesy of fellow countryman Klas Ã…hlund, best know for his work with Robyn, Madonna, Usher, and Katy Perry. Make no mistake, however - Ghost haven't gone pop. In fact, the band alleviates any concern that they were going soft by amplifying their core metal attributes. Drums crash, riffs gnash, bass lines growl, and keys shred like never before. Even frontman Papa Emeritus' typically nasal delivery carries a new level of power and menace, swaying gracefully between operatic croon and gravely hiss.

Meliora's singles, high octane "From The Pinnacle to The Pit," epic "Cirice" (the band's best so far), and swaggering "Majesty" hit all the right marks - drawing musical influence from Metallica and Deep Purple - but the album really pays off when it challenges expectations. "He Is," a sentimental ballad anchored by delicate acoustic guitar and piano, recalls Roxette's saccharine late 80's hits, while "Mummy Dust" resembles a more aggressive outtake from Queen's Flash Gordon soundtrack released earlier that decade, finding the band in high gear with its galloping rhythm, chugging riffs, and a laser-sharp keytar solo - a live show highlight.

Meliora debuted in the Billboard top-ten, earned a Grammy nomination, and secured Ghost a national audience with a TV performance on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. No small feat for a band whose members are perpetually anonymous, never appear publicly out of mask and costume, and have a cheeky obsession with the devil. Have they sold their souls at the crossroads? Nah. Ghost's success is built squarely on hard work and talent - conceptual focus and clever marketing, inclusive commitment to the fans, and acute dedication to the spectacle of rock & roll. Meliora is a high point for the band and one of the most entertaining albums of the year.

2. Black Breath: Slaves Beyond Death (8/10)

Future prospects for Seattle death metal five-piece and blazing live force Black Breath were uncertain after drummer Jamie Byrum was struck by a car in 2014, but the sticksman made a full recovery and the band roared back better than ever in 2015.  On their third full-length, Slaves Beyond Death, with first-rate production by Kurt Ballou, the band transition from the simple hardcore punk motifs of previous albums toward more complex compositions. Guitarist Eric Wallace ups his game with some beautiful leads while frontman Neil McAdams ditches his usual husky bark and goes full-on growl.

3. High on Fire: Luminiferous (8/10)

Matt Pike and his dependably righteous thrash-meets-sludge metal power trio High on Fire returned last year with their seventh album, Luminiferous, also produced superbly by Kurt Ballou. 2012 saw a resurgent band release one of their most brutal and uncompromising albums yet, De Vermis Mysteriis, so this time Pike shifts course - experimenting with more vocal melody, catchier hooks, and stylistic variation while maintaining the savage energy fans expect.

4. Baroness: Purple (8/10)

Savannah progressive sludge metal foursome Baroness bounced back with their fourth and best album in 2015 after a three year hiatus caused by a catastrophic tour bus accident in England, and subsequent lineup change, while promoting their overlong and meandering dad-metal double disc Yellow & Green.  By comparison, Purple is lean, ferocious, and focused - built on urgent tempos, fist-pumping hooks, epic singalongs, and a triumphant mood that catapults the band into entirely new territory.

5. Mini Mansions: The Great Pretenders (8/10)

Los Angeles three-piece Mini Mansions - co-founded by Queens of the Stone Age bass player Mike Shuman - released an excellent sophomore album early last year. The Great Pretenders is a swirling musical cocktail that shakes up an infectious mixture of glam, new-wave, and psychedelia while roping in a few of the band's friends like The Arctic Monkey's Alex Turner and The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson to lend some vocals. Not entirely vintage but not entirely contemporary, the band flexes some serious songcraft on this album (previously reviewed here).

6. Blur: The Magic Whip (7.5/10)

After a twelve year absence, beloved Brit-pop foursome Blur made a rare comeback in 2015 with an understated and quirky grower that sometimes recalls material from the band's popular "Life-trilogy" series of albums while exploring new and varied textures. Though their last record Think Tank received critical acclaim, co-founder and lead guitarist Graham Coxon's absence was sorely missed. To many fans the band went out on a sour note so The Magic Whip is a welcome, if sentimental, reunion.

7. Tame Impala: Currents (7/10)

Previously marketed as a "band", it turns out psych-rock phenom Kevin Parker wrote and recorded Tame Impala's first couple breakout albums alone. Though Parker still takes a rotating crew of fellow Aussie bandmates on tour (previously reviewed here), his third album Currents sounds even less like a group effort - less wall of guitars, more Off The Wall. Channeling Michael Jackson via Boards of Canada, Parker creates a sensuous and drowsy collage of slithery basslines, boom-bap rhythms, and falsetto vocals - all bathed in a degraded melt of vintage synthesizers, filters, and vocoders.

8. Failure: The Heart is a Monster (7/10)

Dormant for nearly two decades, LA-based alternative rockers Failure embarked on a stellar reunion tour in 2014. Fan reaction was so fervent that the band launched a crowdfunded effort to record and release a fourth album The Heart is a Monster - an ambitious collection of new songs, instrumentals, and re-tooled b-sides dating back to the band's inception. Most of the album measures up to Failure's classic material, mixing undeniable pop hooks with off-kilter noise rock, but it's frustratingly overlong and poorly sequenced.  With tighter editing this could've been an AOTY contender.

9. Eagles of Death Metal: Zipper Down (7/10)

Up until recent months, Jesse Hughes and his merry band of greaseball rockers Eagles of Death Metal were relatively unknown - reserving their energy for the devoted few but still drawing sizeable crowds at mid-size clubs like the Bataclan in Paris. Tragedy aside, fans of the band - cofounded by Hughes' bromantic bestie Josh Homme of desert rockers Queens of the Stone Age - were treated last year, after a seven year hiatus, to another untamed mix of T. Rex and Rolling Stones pastiche carefully designed to get asses shaking.

10. Windhand: Grief's Infernal Flower (7/10)

With it's bluesy aesthetics and clean vocals doom metal is fairly inoffensive, even getting affectionate coverage in high-brow media like NPR, but when hookless songs lumber on for ten, fifteen, and thirty minutes things can get tedious. Windhand, fronted by honey-voiced Dorthia Cottrell, buck that trend on their third album Grief's Infernal Flower - helmed by veteran Seattle-based producer Jack Endino. This time the band shorten song lengths, dial back the monotonous dread, boost the vocals, and focus on sticky melodies and grunge-era guitar pyrotechnics.

Albums 2015 - Runners Up & Honorable Mention

In alphabetical order. . . .

The Arcs: Yours, Dreamily, (6.5/10)

Dan Auerbach, front-man of blues rock duo The Black Keys, temporarily ditched his longtime drummer pal Patrick Carney and launched a new collaborative side-project last year - The Arcs. The band's debut Yours, Dreamly, bests the Keys' recent material, exploring more soulful textures. It doesn't all work, but its lush slow jams and vintage aesthetic make the journey worthwhile.

Artificial Intelligence: Timeline (7/10)

North London drum & bass duo Artificial Intelligence released their second LP, Timeline, last year - their first for revered label Metalheadz. Timeline shifts easily between sunny liquid rollers and dank breakbeat workouts and though it doesn't shatter many molds stylistically, the album is superbly consistent and stirring from start to finish. Easily one of Metalheadz's best artist albums since Goldie's Timeless.

The Atomic Bitchwax: Gravitron (7/10) 

Despite their ridiculous name, The Atomic Bitchwax are no joke. Formed in Long Branch, NJ, in the wake of Kyuss' early 90's stoner rock genesis, a throwback hard rock genre built for outlaws and burnouts riding Harleys and muscle cars, these guys have been unleashing dependable rock fury for a while now. Packed with galloping drums, killer riffs, and blazing solos, their sixth album Gravitron just cooks. Perfect for high-speed road trips down desert highways in your vintage Camaro.

Break: Simpler Times (7/10)

Much of the appeal of drum & bass is the genre's fussy obsession with aural minutiae and next-level sound design, but it takes uncommon talent to combine technical prowess with actual songcraft. Genre stalwart Break does just that on his third LP Simpler Times, comprising a dozen tracks that draw liberally from dancehall, reggae, dub, drum funk, neuro, liquid, garage, and throwback jungle. Break does occasionally dip into new age and jazz-fusion tropes - rain sticks, wind chimes, wah wah guitars - but that's easily forgiven on a long player so engaging and well produced.

Disclosure: Caracal (6.5/10)

English brothers Disclosure took the pop world by storm in 2013 with their breakout debut Settle, exposing international charts to the underground sensibilities of UK garage while introducing many listeners to eventual superstar Sam Smith. Forgoing a futile attempt to recreate the success of that album, the duo released an understated follow up last year - Caracal. Enlisting the vocal talents of a menagerie of pop stars like The Weeknd, Lorde, Miguel, and Sam Smith, Caracal presents a solid collection of late night grooves that fortifies Disclosure's status as a pop music powerhouse.

Jamie xx: In Colour (6.5/10)

In 2006 experimental dubstep producer Burial dropped his acclaimed self-titled debut and ignited a nostalgic reverence among young bedroom producers for a bygone era of pirate radio and underground raves they never experienced firsthand. So it is that Jamie xx, co-founder and producer of mopey indie-pop group The xx, cut a solo record in 2015 that mines the same territory Burial did nearly a decade back - sampled breakbeats, menacing hoover bass lines, vintage jungle MC chatter, contorted r&b vocals - only this time polished for Coachella crowds and top-40 radio.

John Tejada: Signs Under Test (6.5/10)

John Tejada's tenth album Signs Under Test, issued via microhouse and minimal techno institution Kompakt, was the soundtrack for the winter season upon its release last February. An icey mixture of brittle snares, muffled kicks, and glistening electronics, Signs Under Test is a rare beauty - baring a gratifying resemblance to UK techno duo Orbital's mid-90's classics Snivilisation and In Sides.

Mark System: Final Approach (6.5/10)

UK drum & bass producer Mark System's debut LP, Final Approach, is an exercise in assured minimalism. No wailing r&b singers or brooding MCs, no spastic drum edits or flatulent bass freakouts, no tangents into dubstep, juke, or any other dancefloor trend - just deep subs, snappy breaks, and crystal clear production. The album glides patiently, ascending and diving with a warmth and simplicity increasingly rare in the genre.

Swervedriver: I Wasn't Born to Lose You (6.5/10)

Shoe gaze always evoked a sense of accelerated motion. All that distorted electric guitar and white noise conjured the roar of engines or the rush of wind. Swervedriver knew this - incorporating hi-octane riffs and automotive references all over their 90's repertoire. So it makes sense that the cover of their long awaited comeback depicts bare feet through an open car window off a remote desert highway. This time the vibe is placid contentment, so on their fifth album the band ease back with a drowsy set of songs that detour through psychedelia and blues rock.

Torche: Restarter (6.5/10)

Torche's last album, Harmonicraft, was excellent due to its atypical pop-punk sensibilities and frontman Steve Brooks' refusal to stay in the closet. Despite the band's tough sludge metal pedigree, that album featured cartoons and rainbows on its cover and songs titles like "Kiss Me Dudely." The band play it much safer on Restarter - a more conservative fourth outing mostly comprised of grinding riffs sure to appease fans that grumbled when the band took a left turn last time. Still, there's monolithic beauty here, and the band did put a fun number on there called "Loose Men."