The Year In Music 2015: Spencer’s Picks

barnettBy Spencer. It’s my favorite time of year again—time for each of S&N’s contributors to weigh in on their favorite music and movies of 2015. If you’ve been reading this site for a while, you know we rarely agree on much. But this year, I suspect we’re going to see a lot of the same suspects popping up—at least in the area of music, where a few artists managed to establish themselves to near-universal acclaim. One of those artists is Australian singer/songwriter Courtney Barnett, who earned some moderate buzz in 2014 with her impressive live show and her offbeat release, The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas, and has now followed it up in 2015 with a full album of irreverent worldplay and post-grunge riffage that, in my opinion and no doubt many others, is the album of the year.

Before I finish singing the praises of Courtney Barnett, though, here’s my complete list for the best albums of 2015:

1. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
2. Glen Hansard – Didn’t He Ramble
3. Villagers – Darling Arithmetic
4. Jamie xx – In Colour
5. Phil Cook – Southland Mission
6. Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats – The Night Creeper
7. Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass
8. Leon Bridges – Coming Home
9. Josh Ritter – Sermon On The Rocks
10. Chris Stapleton – Traveller
11. Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
12. Adele – 25
13. Houndmouth – Little Neon Limelight
14. Foals – What Went Down
15. Noah Gundersen – Carry The Ghost
16. Carla Morrison – Amor Supremo
17. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
18. EL VY – Return To The Moon
19. Boy & Bear – Limit Of Love
20. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment – Surf

cb3The title alone—Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit—pretty much lets you know what to expect from Courtney Barnett. It’s a masterpiece of snark, but it’s so much more than that. Barnett is a storyteller like Bob Dylan, a firebrand like Patti Smith, a guitar shredder like PJ Harvey, a contrarian like Ani DiFranco, and an ironist like Kurt Cobain. Her words bite, toying with your expectations with each turn of phrase and eviscerating everything around her, herself included. “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you / Tell me I’m exceptional, I promise to exploit you / Give me all your money and I’ll make some origami, honey / I think you’re a joke but I don’t find you very funny,” she sings on “Pedestrian At Best,” a song so withering with self-deprecation and disdain, it makes Generation X sound like a bunch of Pollyannas. Musically, her guitar work is dirty but lighthearted, like on the mid-tempo number, “An Illustration Of Loneliness (Sleepless In New York)”—the closest thing Barnett does to a love song, and one that might just be the evil twin to Adele’s “Hello.” And nowhere does she rock harder than on “Small Poppies,” a blistering buildup of guitar noise that sounds like it belongs on a stage more than an album (which I mean as a compliment). It’s sharp, aggressive stuff, but you know that anyone who writes a song called “Debbie Downer” must be anything but. Unconventional in the best way, it was my favorite album all year, and one I’ve never stopped coming back to.

hansardMoving on to the rest of the year’s best albums, Glen Hansard put forth maybe his most sophisticated solo work to date on Didn’t He Ramble, a collection of Van Morrison-esque rock and soul that impressively showcases the former Frames frontman’s vocal and songwriting prowess. Fellow Irishmen Villagers made their much-overdue American breakthrough with Darling Arthimetic, an intricate album of acoustic songs that are so complex, they’re simple. On the other side of the spectrum, Jamie xx (of The xx) went solo and made maybe the perfect electronic album with In Colour, a rich, multilayered soundscape that’s built for both earphones and clubs. Inexcusably, we never got around to reviewing Phil Cook on the site, but I can tell you that virtually all of our contributors fell in love with the Americana-meets-Grateful Dead vibe of Southland Mission.

uncleacidTurning to the harder side of things, Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats filtered a love of Black Sabbath-era occult metal through their vintage amps to give me my favorite guitar rock album in years. Natalie Prass delivered the rare album on which Pitchfork and I agree, drawing comparisons to classic 70s soul but crafting it with a breeziness that sounds positively modern. Not so with Leon Bridges, whose Coming Home is so authentically retro, you should be legally required to listen to it on vinyl. I don’t need to gush any more about Josh Ritter than I already have, suffice it to say that my love for Sermon On The Rocks only builds with multiple listens. Rounding out the top ten, surprise breakout star Chris Stapleton may be easy to dismiss as this year’s Sturgill Simpson, but he does deserve his newfound status as the next in a long line of country’s saviors—having put together a collection of stoner country anthems that seem built to rescue Nashville from itself.

alabamashakesWho would’ve guessed that Alabama Shakes were so much more than a one-trick pony? They may have abandoned their faux-60s devotion on Sound & Color, but they gave notice that they’re capable of going experimental without sacrificing any of their appeal. With 3.4 million albums sold in just a week, Adele pretty much owns popular music at this point, and 25 was a welcome “hello” after a long absence. Houndmouth’s “Sedona” might have been my favorite single of the year, but Little Neon Limelight proved them more than a one-hit wonder; it’s a fun, edgy slice of roots rock with just enough Midwestern wit to appeal to both the indie and mainstream crowds. England’s Foals may be the most underrated Britpop band of the decade, and What Went Down is their most eclectic, most searing work yet, combining the listenability of Bastille with the defiance of Blur and Pulp. Likewise, Noah Gundersen proved he’s more than just easy-listening with Carry The Ghost, a riskier set of balladry that may not match the heights of last year’s album of the year, but expands on his possibilities just the same.

carlaI normally only include fifteen albums on my year-end list. But 2015 offered too deep a field to ignore the likes of Mexico’s Carla Morrison, whose electropop experiment, Amor Supremo, flouted the limits of what Spanish-language music can be. Or Jason Isbell, who had his commercial breakthrough with Something More Than Free, a slightly more upbeat successor to 2013’s Southeastern. The National’s Matt Berninger engaged his fun side with EL VY, a quirky departure full of unorthodox production (courtesy of Menomena’s Brent Knopf). Boy & Bear did nothing particularly groundbreaking, but Limit Of Love was too much fun to listen to—like a blend of Coldplay and The Shins, back before either of those bands started to suck. And finally, Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment recalled the renegade spirit of A Tribe Called Quest while doing the impossible—making hip-hop sound interesting again.

wilcoAnd now a word about this year’s disappointments. You know, the releases from artists who typically deserve high expectations and utterly failed to meet them. Wilco’s Star Wars had a joke of an album cover, and a set of songs to match; let’s just hope this was a sneaky effort to lower the bar for the other big Star Wars release coming out this year. Mumford & Sons went mainstream with Wilder Mind and sacrificed everything worth loving about them in the process. Whatever the logic might have been behind Dr. Dre’s Compton, all I can say is that after a decade-and-a-half absence, it would have been nice to hear the man rap more than a verse or two. Death Cab For Cutie’s new one, Kintsugi, was so boring I can’t even write an interesting insult for it. And if Sufjan Stevens hadn’t already exposed himself as the M. Night Shyamalan of music, then Carrie And Lowell finished the job.

Those misses aside, 2015 was a year filled with fantastic music—so much so that I couldn’t have possibly listed all the worthy titles out there. Let me know what I overlooked!


10 thoughts on “The Year In Music 2015: Spencer’s Picks

  1. I really dug Courtney Barnett too. There are about 4 albums up there that I am unfamiliar with that I need to check out, my only disagreement is El Vy, I dig a couple of their songs, but the album fell a little flat.

  2. Nice list. Some overlap for me. Courtney Barnett just hasn’t clicked with me, which is strange because so many people whose taste I usually share are really into her.

    I agree with your misses though not always the accompanying insult. The Sufjan really connected with a lot of people in a very emotional way. I’m not sure why, but it didn’t hit me.

  3. I went after Sufjan so hard because, with each new release, I’m reminded how much I loathe him—so much so that I think we need to revise our outlook on his entire back catalog. Has he done a single great song other than “Widows In Paradise”? How much of Illinois was unmitigated crap, heralded mostly by hipsters who thought it was brave and innovative to put a clarinet on everything? He’s even admitted the whole 50 States project was a promotional gimmick he never actually intended to complete (to which, all I can say is, “duh.”). So the M. Night Shymalan comparison seems apt when you realize that, with each passing crappy release he unloads on us, it exposes how talentless he always was, how reliant his whole reputation was on gimmickry—no? Maybe my vitriol seems excessive here, but the guy irks me; he’s like the poster boy for the worst excesses of pretentious indie rock.

  4. Yes, “irks” seems like the right word! I half agree with you. I never understood the lavish devotion to the Michigan or Illinois albums. But there are gems on there. His Christmas EPs are a bit much taken all together, but he nails a beautiful, rustic midnight seasonal hymn or two. For me, Seven Swans is where it was at. Gorgeous record. Good songs. No gimmicks, no extraneous noise. I think that makes me guilty of the indie-est of claims: “I prefer his old stuff.”

  5. Sufjan talentless? I can get why someone might not like him but to say he has no talent might be one of the most asinine things I’ve seen in a while. The dude writes symphonies, plays multiple instruments, and has an amazing voice for God’s sake. That takes talent that someone who plays guitar should be able to recognize. If you said he was tasteless or boring that could be argued but talent can’t. Also your M Night Shymalan claim doesn’t hold water because Shymalan is universally panned by many where as Sufjan is celebrated by most.

  6. Haha, fair enough. Maybe “talentless” might be the wrong word choice. Let’s go with “overrated.” I stand by every other word I wrote though. 🙂

    The funny thing is, this gets into what we mean when we call someone “talented.” I have this argument often with my parents over the type of singers you hear on American Idol or The Voice. On a purely technical level, yes, of course they’re talented—if we use that word solely to mean “skilled.” But when they use that talent to make terrible, cliched, hackish music, does the word “talented” start to seem a little more misplaced? At the very least, it loses some of its meaning, inasmuch as the word as intended to be a compliment, yet we are being asked to apply it to someone whose work does not merit it—quite the opposite. To cite another example, take someone like Yanni. He has all of the same skills that you ascribed to Sufjan Stevens—he writes symphonies, plays multiple instruments, can sing well—and he uses those talents to make music so bad that forcing someone to listen to it should be categorized as a human rights violation. So in that sense, I think questioning Sufjan’s talent is fair game.

  7. Again in the circles we run in you’ll find at least 9 out of 10 that would agree with the Yani thing but your hard pressed to find that many that feel that way about Sufjan. You and I have a lot of overlap in our taste preference but there are some places where we diverge drastically. In my opinion, Which I know you think cheapens the argument but when it boils down that’s what it is, Sufjan is an amazing song writer that I connect with on many levels, I loved Age of Adz(possibly my favorite Sufjan), Seven Swans, the two states albums and I love this new one. The only one I didn’t connect with was the Chinese zodiac one and a lot of the Christmas stuff. (I’m not a huge Christmas music fan) one of my many faults. I hate pretension and don’t want to ever come off as pretentious and I don’t think that is Sufjan’s persona ( I got to see him on this latest tour and the show moved me) but again I can see where you might get that from the so called Gimmicks you claim he hides behind. I just think your wrong. The beauty of art is that we can argue and disagree and that there is something for every type of person including a Sufjan or a Yanni

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