There’s this weird thing about music appreciation, where, in our cultural reaction to emotional and subjective pieces of art, we sort music into lists. The 100 best guitar players of all time, best albums of 1975, top 5 track 1 side ones, greatest accordion album of the century, that sort of thing. Here’s an activity for you: think of a situation, any situation. Break-up, quitting your job, graduation, shopping, sports victory, whatever. Now type “best (situation x) songs” into Google and see what it spits out.
The best thing about these lists is that, by design, every single person who reads one will disagree with it. Obviously, individual writers have
stupid opinions unique perspectives, but more importantly, the list is inherently a critically vacuous tool that attempts to describe value not through actual merits but placement relative to other music.
Year-end lists are probably my favourite in this regard. At every step, the list-maker undermines the very premise. The list claims to consider all the music released in a year, but is published in early December, so as to get more hits from Christmas shoppers. Oops, you’re a human experiencing time linearly, you’re not physically capable of listening to all the music produced in a year. Stick to major label releases and other albums that hit a moderate level of success, because a personal connection to music isn’t important unless other people share it. Under no circumstances should the list include an a bestselling album, though. Anyone who listens to more than a few albums will be comparing apples to steak anyway, so the numbering comes out arbitrary.
Anyways, here’s my top 10 albums of 2015:
10. Baden Powell – Poema on Guitar
I love Yoko Kanno’s soundtrack for Cowboy Bebop so very much, but I recognize the limitations of what is essentially pastiche work. Like, if you enjoy Forever Broke or Farewell Blues, man, wait until you hear Ry Cooder (or Blind Willie Johnson, for that matter) and Miles Davis. Kanno does extraordinary work, though, and it was after listening to her Brazilian-influenced work on Wolf’s Rain that I stumbled across Baden Powell, and in doing so I found an entire body of work that connected all sorts of disparate artists in my music collection. Baden Powell (not to be confused with Baden-Powell) is a technically incredible guitar player who plays with ferocity, passion and sadness. Dirtier, angrier and sadder than your average mush-mouthed flat-affect samba-jazz, Powell plays powerfully, emotively, and precisely. Poema rarely sounds like a single guitar, but often sounds like a man channeling a furious rainstorm through his fingers.
9. The Chieftains – San Patricio
(unbelievably, I can’t find this album on youtube. Maybe check spotify?)
I’ll be honest with you, I’m not crazy about a lot of this album, but in terms of ambition, scope, and total, unrepentant craziness, I don’t think I’ve heard an album this impressive in the last year. Again, that’s impressive in the sense of that it really left big impression, whether that was a positive or negative impression is kind of up for debate. It’s a concept album about Irish immigrants from the United States who where drafted into the Mexican-American War and ended up switching sides. It features the best-known Celtic band in the world collaborating with Mexican bands of all sorts of genres. They’ve got mariachi, bolero, norteño and other stuff that I don’t even know the name of. At one point the Bagpipe Battalion of Mexico City shows up and starts playing Jarabe Tapatio. Liam Neeson recites a poem over a lilting irish march that slowly transitions into banda. It’s a total mess, but for every sweaty intercultural handshake of irish ballad and bolero (featuring Linda Ronstadt or Los Tigres del norte or whatever), there’ll be a genuinely affecting rendition of a folksong you’ve heard 8000 times.
I think my favourite piece might actually be the very first song. So, ok, check this out, Son Jarocho has a lilt to it, but it really doesn’t map to the Irish lilt (you can think of both of these in relation to swing, where the notes and beats don’t fall exactly where the math says they ought to). So what do you do when you want to combine two traditional tunes without compromising either feel? The delightfully bonkers solution was to offset the melody of the jig so that the hitch in rhythm would shake out even. Here’s Sonny Brogan’s Mazurkas. Here’s La iguana
Here’s something completely different:
8. Hey Rosetta – Second Sight
I’m pretty inured to sleepy indie rock at this point. Really, I am. Pretty vocal harmonies, maybe an unconventional instrument, string-skipping open drone arpeggios and spacey production have been in currency for at least a decade now, and there’s a lot of stuff out there for the listener who likes Snow Patrol but just finds them too intense sometimes. I went to see Stars at the Winspear Centre, but after Hey Rosetta’s opening set, I knew I had to pick up Second Sight.
Hey Rosetta sets themselves apart on this album in a couple ways. They write stuff that they care about, and they perform it like they want you to care about it too. The compositions have hooks and dynamics, and the whole album moves in shimmers. I’ll also say that drummer Phil Maloney might be the best drummer working in the sleepy indie rock genre today. He does a lot of brilliant subtle stuff in the fills and in the feel of the songs.
7. Janko Nilovic – Soul Impressions
I heard this sweet riff in a youtube review of a Jay-Z song (Death of Autotune, which I can’t find on youtube, although here’s the instrumental version and, uh, here’s an autotuned version) and tracked it down to a library music producer from Montenegro. I tracked down a compilation of his work, and proceeded to freak myself out on this sweet, funky, psychedelic library music. Look. It’s fake. I know it’s fake. Somehow, when you listen to it, it lacks some sort of ineffable authenticity, some sort of rawness that you are expecting that never quite materializes. That doesn’t matter, somehow. Out of a crew of anonymous studio musicians comes a fantastic, hard-hitting jazzy proggy funky album. Don’t worry about where it came from or why it was made, just sink into those sweet fusion grooves. This album sent me into a month-long quest for psych-rock that I’ve only recently come back from. Plus, it has an instrumental song with an “EXPLICIT” warning. Can’t beat that.
6. Mati Zundel – Amazonico Gravitante
I fished this out of the CJSR extras bin about three years ago, but I didn’t really have a chance to listen to it because the CD drive on my computer was broken (still is, actually). When I finally took a stack of CDs to the computer lab in Rutherford library to get some new study music, this disc quickly became a favourite. This might be the sweatiest sounding album I’ve ever heard. Sweatier than Cal Tjader’s trombone player. Sweatier than James Brown getting on up (Cold Sweat is disqualified just because it’s the wrong kind of sweat). This album just grinds its way through filthy cumbia, long-lost Andean huaynos, and grungy bonairensi dancehall. Rappers lament and shout over synthesizers, accordions, drum machines, and charangos. This album is a goddamn party starter.
5. Neil Cicierega – Mouth Sounds
You know that bit from the Simpsons where Sideshow Bob steps on rakes repeatedly, and it goes from being kinda funny, to being not funny, to being funny again? Imagine an album that ran with that strategy until it became art. Mouth Sounds is not just a concept album about Smash Mouth’s pervasive influence on pop music, it’s a treatise on making art from trash and trash from art, until that line is so blurred that you cannot tell the difference. Using tracks isolated from Guitar Hero video games and other sources, Mouth Sounds is a perverse pop music hell that demands that you examine the tropes and structures that underlie modern music. It might take a couple tries, but please, listen to this album a couple times. At least until Melt Everyone reveals to you what a well-produced remix it is. I put this on the stereo at work to mess with my co-workers, and eventually it drove us all into the madness of actually really liking it. It’s like a mind virus.
4. Tom Waits – Rain Dogs
Yoko Kanno has a tune called Bad Dog, No Biscuits that opens with a section of Tom Waits’ Midtown , before taking off into ska-jazz madness, and really, that’s what got me into this album. I long considered Tom Waits to be my parents’ music and he didn’t really connect with me, but Rain Dogs got through by turning down the sentimentality of his early lounge act stuff without going too far into experimental incoherence. There are a lot of different versions of Tom Waits, but he’s always operated on the Louis Armstrong–Cookie Monster continuum of vocal distortion. Here he’s right on the frontier between weird old jazz-blues and the howling junkyard wolfman he would later become. There’s just so much going on here. Lounge and punk and proto-jazz and weirdo eastern-European accordion dirges. Pour yourself a couple fingers of gin in a pint glass, build a trash fire in the parking lot of your work, think about your failures and listen to this album.
3. Screaming Females – Rose Mountain
I used to be a true believer, but I lost faith in power trios a long time ago. I think I just realized how unambitious a lot of power trio music is. Never mind that, though. The days of darkness have passed and I may enjoy guitar bass drums once more because of the searing, visceral Screaming Females. The riffs are big and crunchy, but not dumb. The solos are technical and blistering, but not wanky. Okay, not super wanky. All guitar solos are wanky. That’s just a fact. Rose Mountain takes you on a 12 city tour of angst, doubt and misery and then dumps you in an industrial park of whatever the final city is.
I think this one actually did come out in 2015. It’s almost as though I’ve undermined the premise of my article to tell you about ten awesome albums that I got into last year. Almost like I needed that thin premise of structure just to go on and on about music that I love.
2. PUP – (Self-titled)
I caught the video for Dark Days on MuchMusic, of all places. I legitimately did not know they still had a music video program, and it was pure coincidence that it happened to be on while I was at my parents’ house, which is probably the only place that I regularly visit that has a television. PUP gets a lot of mileage from cranking out snotty pop-punk with just enough technical flair. Lots of unusual time signatures, lots of left-turns in song structure, but still straightforward enough to be unmistakably punk.
1. Royal Canoe – Today We’re Believers
Note: this playlist include a lot of the album, but not all of it. Get on Itunes or something. It’s worth it.
It’s been a full year at least since my friend Sam recommended this album to me, and it’s still in very high rotation in my life. Royal Canoe actually did nothing for me on first listen, but weeks later I was humming their tunes and I had to go back and reconsider, and I’m so glad I did.
I think what put me off at first was the sheer boldness of this album. I can’t really think of other music that it sounds like. Time signatures that would give Dave Brubeck a headache, but which never sound obtrusive. Vocal modulation like Ludacris, but delivering heartfelt lyrics about life in Winnipeg. Synthesizers from space, samples from the garbage, disco strings, jazz guitar, hip-hop drumming, and every once and a while a trumpet or harp or banjo walks by in the background. And in all the weirdness, utter confidence from the band that you will come to appreciate just what they’ve accomplished here.
Check out this video where they talk about writing songs about culture shock while living abroad, the desperate enjoyment of Winnipeg’s spring, the perverse pride of staying while friends leave your desolate prairie city, and the frustration of adulthood’s moving goalposts. Seriously the breadth and depth of songwriting topics is kind of astounding for a band whose music is this danceable.
The numbers on this list are arbitrary, but Today We’re Believers is absolutely my favourite album that I came across in 2015.