Sigh. For the second straight year, I could scarcely keep track of my bills, business papers, and kid’s birthdays in 2015, let alone write bi-weekly reviews for my languishing labor of love, Luddite Stereo. But I never stopped listening, collecting ideas, stashing away snippets of prose, and marveling over the gluttony of excellent music released this year; it’s one of richest collections I’ve heard in a long while. And, happily, while this best-of list is the only thing I’ve written in nine months, it feels like the best work I’ve put out it in a long while, too. I hope you enjoy it.
20) Leon Bridges
“Coming Home” – Coming Home
“I wanna be around” is a simple petition for presence and the indelible hook on the title track of Leon Bridge’s debut album Coming Home. It’s an apropos statement since everything about Bridges seems noticeable; the 25-year old Fort Worth, TX musician is a natural born performer whose effortless tenor and graceful intonations channel the quintessence of early 60’s soul, gospel, and doo-wop singers so utterly, it’s like watching history fold in on itself. Bridges even looks the part, draping himself in the fashionable accoutrements of a bygone era — the fedora, crisp-collared Gabardine shirts, and impeccably pleated, high-waisted wools. He echoes a long lineage of black R&B performers that began with Sam Cooke, marrying Gospel’s passionate fervor to the more secular slant of Soul, shifting from God to girls without sacrificing an ounce of innocence.
What pushes Coming Home beyond stylistic mimicry are the personal lyrical touches that Bridges adds when honoring his mother on “Lisa Sawyer” or undergoing trials of faith on hymn-like “River.” On those lesser known tracks, his voice, dulcet yet soaring, becomes a winged carrier for universal themes of spiritual angst, joyful yearning, and redemption. Of course, the hit singles have extraordinary moments, too, where Bridges’ pure talent induces sighs — a routine word like “boule…..vaaaaaaard” pours out over the sweet surface of “Smooth Sailin'” like maple syrup over hot Texas toast at a Sunday brunch. The title track already feels like an instant classic, promising that once Bridges’ songwriting and storytelling mature to the level at which his voice operates, he’ll dictate gospel and soul’s future as much as pay homage to their past. Odds are he’s going to be around. For a long, long while.
“Breaker” – Fading Frontier
For the last decade, fans have savored the juxtaposition between records in Deerhunter’s catalog— the psych-fuzz noise of Crytpograms pushed up against Fluorescent Grey EP’s scrubbed veneer, the finely crafted crossover potential of Microcastle paired with Weird Era Cont’s spontaneous… well, weirdness. After 2011 masterpiece Halcyon Digest harnessed all of the band’s creative powers, 2013’s Monomania was a conscious recoiling, a grimy smudge of punk vitriol that found them withdrawing from aestheticism for the first time in their career. Fittingly, follow-up Fading Frontier is the quartet’s most concise, glossiest album to date, a coming to terms that finds renowned misfit Bradford Cox embracing his gift for writing pure pop hooks: “You should take your handicaps/ Channel them and feed them back/ Till they become your strength.” That Fading Frontier is a mild-mannered Dr. Jeykll to Monomania’s Mr. Hyde is a contradiction Cox finally seems at peace with.
After being struck by a car and nearly killed in 2014, Cox gained a new perspective on life that illuminates the warm acoustics of “Breaker”: “And when I die/ There will be nothing to say/ Except I tried/ Not to waste another day/ Trying to stem the tide.” The scuzzy guitars and garage-rock acerbity are gone from Fading Frontier, replaced by resplendent synths, bright snares, and an airy production. Deerhunter still makes an art form out of aural manipulation, taking straight sounds and holding them underwater like a stick until they seem bent. Only now, everything looks a little cleaner, the tone more uplifting, and Cox less fearful of his damaged self. If the acquiescence of Fading Frontier signifies the downward arc of Deerhunter’s career, I’ll take it. Duality now resembles symmetry, surrender feels like acceptance.
18) Carly Rae Jepsen
“Run Away With Me” – E•MO•TION
Yeah, I’m just as surprised as you are. I wouldn’t have even sniffed at E•MO•TION were it not for a few music critic-friends who unashamedly christened the “Call Me Maybe” singer’s third album one of their favorite releases of 2015. With a stable of twenty plus producers (including Grammy-winner Ariel Rechtshaid, Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, and Swedish song-conjurer Shellback), E•MO•TION is nothing short of intercontinental studio alchemy. Rippling synths and brain-burying hooks on “Your Type” and “Let’s Get Lost” recall the keen, burnished edges of 80’s-style production juggernauts Random Access Memories and Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time. Jepsen is the horsepower that makes it all go, peppering slap-bass, electro-lite bangers with chameleonic vocal runs echoing vintage Donna Summers (“Gimme Love”) and Janet Jackson (“All That”).
The absence of a mega-hit (“I Really Like You’s” ebullience couldn’t quite transcend that adverb-challenged chorus) could have relegated Jepsen to has-been status (E•MO•TION never cracked the top 10 in the U.S.), but something inexplicable happened. E•MO•TION turned out to be a musical unicorn; the mythical pop album that lost conventional popularity contests but won out by going viral, refusing to be ignored because of the sheer quality of its craft and form. “Run Away With Me” remains the Space Mountain of E•MO•TION’s aural amusement park — titanic, timeless, and giddily spine-tingling after dozens and dozens of rides. It’s canonical without being rote and, like the best of its genre, proudly romanticizes escapism.
That thirty-year old Jepsen’s emotions mostly manifest themselves as teenaged inclinations — driving all night, hoping she won’t be forgotten, taking the long way home, and, of course, boy problems — only speaks to her acumen of knowing her audience and their irrepressible needs. It’s astonishing really (no really, really, really) that a misfit pop album of adolescent yearnings could somehow become every fading hipsters’ guilty pleasure, but it turns out when escape is rendered this compellingly, we could all use a dose. “Take me/ To the/ Feeling!” Jepsen belts and then deftly does.
17) Kurt Vile
“That’s Life tho (almost hate to say)” – believe i’m goin down…
A precarious equilibrium exists inside Kurt Vile and his music — a kind of vibrancy and haggardness you get by mixing uppers and downers just to stay even. In 2013, Vile perfected that beatific Lorezapam vibe on Wakin On a Pretty Daze, a sprawling, classic rock sound that felt so cozy and well-worn it was practically outside the bounds of good taste for indie hipsters. On the aptly named b’lieve i’m goin’ down…, he’s in the same head space, albeit a few drinks deeper and half a step slower. “When I go out, I take pills to take the edge off…/ Just a certified badass out for a night on the town” he mumbles on “I’m An Outlaw” equal parts stoner, street scholar, and self-deprecator. His guitar playing remains languid, feverishly pretty, yet technically masterful, his drawl dripping with languor but wry as a sideways smirk. He’s the shaggy-haired impresario who shows up wasted to his own concert then blows you away.
Vile’s sixth album feels a lot like its maker, scattered yet oddly at peace. Its most meaningful commentary may be how little actual meaning Vile finds in the world around him. Phrases like b’lieve i’m goin’ down… and “That’s Life tho (almost hate to say)” read like drunken, tossed-off tweets, as if Vile sent the album track list to Matador execs via text message and couldn’t be bothered with spelling or caps. Indeed, Vile is living his entire life in lower case, chillaxing, levitating, brushing the teeth of some dude in the mirror he doesn’t know. While his musings may be chemically inspired, they hint at the same sober self-detachment felt by anyone who’s sought quiet solitude in the cacophony of the masses: “You gotta be alone to figure things out sometimes/ Be alone, when even in a crowd.” Vile meanders from one little epiphany to another, and we tag along in the smoke trail, trying to grasp the absurdity of it all.
16) Floating Points
“Silhouettes (I,II,& III)” – Elaenia
In mathematics, the concept of a floating point allows numbers to achieve astronomical magnitude and microscopic precision; in the blink of an eye, 1 billion and one becomes 1.000000001. On Elaenia, electronic artist Sam Shepherd travels to both ends of that chasm, tapping into the vast universality of familiar sounds while conjuring infinitesimal gradations of emotion seldom perceived in ones and zeroes. Shepard, who has a PhD in neuroscience, has always brought a cerebral tilt to beatsmaking that’s enjoyed best from the fringes of the dance floor, but Elaenia is something even more remarkable in its unorthodoxy. It’s the most human-sounding electronic record of 2015, an evocative venture into pattern making and memory elicitation similar to early Boards of Canada albums. Elaenia has a wondrous quality of sounding both hauntingly familiar and unlike anything you’ve ever heard before.
The album’s influences are plentiful and evident; from the sunburst synth flare on “Nespole” to the warm-blooded organ build of “Peroration 6” that harkens back to “Everything In Its Right Place,” Elaenia shares more than a few strands of Kid A’s genetic material (although, fascinatingly, Shepherd claims to have never heard the Radiohead album). “For Marmish” feels like a séance with the ghost of Steely Dan’s Aja while back floating in a pool laden with bath salts — it lasts about six minutes but feels as timeless as it is weightless. Mood-altering suite “Silhouettes (I,II, & III)” is a syncopated maze of swinging jazz snares, lithe bass lines, and string crescendos that splices DJ Shadow with Bitches Brew. It begins with thirteen seconds of silence sandwiched between two Fender Rhodes’ squonks; if ever there was a modern day assertion of DeBussy’s decree that music is the space between the notes, this is it.
Yet for all these comparisons, Elaenia remains a singularity. It’s an unlikely intersection of electronics and jazz, of math and art, of science and spirtuality from a musician and geneticist who, although he’s the son of a priest, doesn’t believe in God. It seeks equilibrium even as it leaves you feeling unsettled. It’s Shepherd’s sonic fingerprint — a sequence of sounds imparting emotional resonance that cannot be replicated, only experienced gratefully.