Thursday, December 17, 2015

All Around Sound's Favorite Albums of 2015

I doubt that anyone who's experienced the year can/would be willing to argue against 2015 as one of the best year's we've seen in music in quite sometime. It was an embarrassment of riches - featuring much anticipated follow ups from everyone from Adele, Joanna Newsom, Panda Bear, and Sufjan Stevens to releases from consistent mainstays like Dan Deacon, Laura Marling, and Mount Eerie. 2015 was a year that wouldn't let up in terms of excitement inducing releases and yet which such an exorbitant amount of releases this year, I've sought fit to narrow down the albums I personally feel deserved attention. Enjoy this unranked list of favorites in no particular order and feel free to chime in with your own.

Beach House - Depression Cherry
"There's a place I want to take you" Victoria Legrand coos on Depression Cherry opener "Levitation" and if there was ever a thesis statement not only for the album but Beach House's entire oeuvre, it is this. Depression Cherry, the duo's fifth album (and the first of the two albums they've released this year) continues in the vein of Legrand and Scally's transportive brand of dream-pop. Their inspirations and influences are diverse and likewise are the sounds the two evoke of the record - from 60's girl pop on "PPP" to the shoegaze reminiscent wall of sound on first single "Sparks". Where Depression Cherry sets itself apart from sixth album Thank Your Lucky Stars' mood music and ultimately won me over over the former is its insistence. Depression Cherry moves as quickly as Beach House allow themselves to go and finds the duo offering up some of the most winsome melodies they've had to offer.

BRAIDS - Deep in the Iris
Montreal art pop trio BRAIDS have certainly come a ways from me only being able to remember the song "Plath Heart" off debut album Native Speaker. Each subsequent record has not only seen the threesome embarking on more and more innovative musical ideas but also saw the trio embracing the more poppy element of their enchanting experimental pop. Deep in the Iris builds on Flourish//Perish's aural accessibility by blending it with probably the most personal songwriting Raphaelle Standell-Preston's ever done. Whether a straight up break up/make up song like "Taste" or the fiery rape culture call out of "Miniskirt", BRAIDS refuse to pull any punches creatively and the result is an album of intense, memorable songs.

Cemeteries - Barrow
While I was certainly into the debut record The Wilderness by Cemeteries' Kyle J. Reigle, it was his side project Camp Counselors and what it said of his unfettered creativity that truly got my interest piqued for Reigle's eventually return to the Cemeteries moniker. And he certainly didn't disappoint. Barrow - a record nearly three years in the making wastes no time in combine Reigle's various interests and explorations in that time period into a cohesive and deeply engaging record. It's concept is loose but Reigle's horror fandom shines through and galvanizes the record along with a much more electronic twist. And yet it still imagines to retain the sheer immersive dream-pop quality of Reigle's debut, with the tweaks to the sound solving the more listless qualities and expanding the sound into an utter strength.

The Dø - Shake, Shook, Shaken
Technically released last year pretty much everywhere but here in the States, there was very little doubt I'd enjoy this record considering how in love I was with almost every one of the singles. Shake, Shook, Shaken is perhaps the most The Dø's most straightforward pop effort and yet, it's far from a simple, predictable endeavor. The duo's experimentalism is explored on a more subtle level - dictating the song's subject and narratives instead of actually influencing the song's sound. Shake, Shook, Shaken is firmly rooted in electro pop unlike the genre-jumping Both Ways Open Jaws but even with the focus on the electronic, The Dø never forget to give the organic elements, most notably Olivia Merilahti's emotive vocals, ample room to breathe.

The Dodos - Individ
In all honestly, when I first listened to the new Dodos record I was pretty unimpressed. Mostly because finding their footing several albums prior, Individ didn't appear to offer much in the way of the duo altering their percussion-heavy sound. I might've been spoiled from previous release Carrier and its external elements - namely in it serving as an tribute to Chris Reimer of Women. For me, Individ was a grower but I doubt it would've needed to be if I was less invested with factors outside of its musicality. It's a record that listening to it now, I can't possibly imagine not being into. It's another consistent effort from the duo and sometimes consistency is the hardest thing to maintain. The explorations in guitar tone that formed the backbone of Carrier are carried over here as the duo grow ever more confident in their musical voice.

Empress Of - Me
Though the time between Empress Of releases seemed maddening at time, the fact that they've all been pretty consistently amazing made the wait justified and the announcement that Lorely Rodriguez was finally putting out her debut full length such an exciting one. Unlike other producers who rush to release a full length after getting buzz, Rodriguez spent her time configuring her sound, doing it all on her own terms. The result is a record that's pretty much flawless front to back and such a personal offering, it's hard to imagine at times it's meant to be a dance record. With Me, Rodriguez cements her place as a producer of note and ushers in a whole new cycle of anticipation.

Hop Along - Painted Shut
There's no denying that Hop Along's Frances Quinlan has one of the most distinct voices in rock and on Painted Shut. she's able to pair her graceful, emotive roar with a set of personal, engaging narrative. Less is more for Quinlan and though she's allowed more of herself to shine through, she's managed to captivate and intrigue with a sort of withholding element to her songwriting. Painted Shut shows Hop Along firing on all cylinders; the songs are more insistent, the riffs more angular, the melodies more infectious. Hop Along have always been a strong band but Painted Shut shows the time spent between albums can do wonders even for the best band as the band return stronger still with a collection of songs that elevate and glorify the mundane. There's no infusion of drama necessary when you've got as capable a songwriter as Frances Quinlan at the helm.

Jenny Hval - Apocalypse, girl
When I first discovered Jenny Hval through "Mephisto in the Water" that I was so beguiled by its beauty that I missed the sociopolitical nature not only of the rest of Innocence is Kinky but of much of Hval's art. On Apocalypse, girl there's no mistaking it. Her targets are clear from "Kingsize" as she talks about everything from subversive subcultures, to "soft dick rock" and yet, it and the rest of Apocalypse, girl never comes off like a radical rant. Instead Hval tackles in probably the most accessible/universally applicable track "Take Care of Yourself", the notions of femininity. Of how as you get older, societal expectations shift towards procreation and nurturing but not of the self. Women's bodies are rarely acknowledged as being their own in a variety of cultures and Jenny Hval points out the inherent hypocrisy in caring about a woman only after propagation and only then in regards to her offspring and homemaking ability. What makes Apocalypse, girl the kind of album you return to is that while it's ideas are heavy, their packaging is not. It's a beautiful, rebellious record that combines Jenny Hval's dry humor with her very serious ideas of womanhood and rejection of the feminine/cultural ideal.

J Fernandez - Many Levels of Laughter
Several years and three EPs later (two of which have seen re-releases from their initial cassette run), Chicago's J Fernandez has emerged from the bedroom pop moniker with his debut full length Many Levels of Laughter - a collection of psych pop gems that manages to pay homage to the genre while pushing forward Justin Fernando's own addition to the pantheon. It's a record that belies the fact that despite J Fernandez expanding into a tight knit four piece, it was still very much a creation of Fernando's solo exploits. It's a complex multi-layered work that's catchy but also intimately introspective.

Julien Baker - Sprained Ankle
Her rising popularity wouldn't surprise anyone who's actually encountered the debut album from Tennessee singer/songwriter Julien Baker. Sprained Ankle is a fully realized debut not only of considerably lyrical ability but of devastating emotional depth. While this will no doubt bode well for her continued output, there's no denying that Sprained Ankle is stunningly mature. On it, Baker reaches the perfect balance of sincere expression of heartbreak and hope for the future without chaffing sentimentalism. That right there is a testament to Baker's narrative strength - able to craft an honest break up record that holds up against continuous listens.

Lady Lamb - After
When setting out to follow up her terrific debut full length Ripely Pine, Aly Spaltro turned inward. Not in the introspective way most singer/songwriters plumb their emotive depths but Spaltro dove deep into her mind and returned with After, a surreal collection of songs with shifting perspectives and varying narratives. In a way, it's not all that different from Ripely Pine considering Spaltro's narrative strengths and yet, that inward dive and embrace of abnormality resulted in an absolutely charming batch of songs that are as interesting as they are emotionally resonant. The fact that it's not based on Spaltro's life doesn't make songs like "Sunday Shoes" or "Spat Out Spit" any less visceral or effective. The fact that Spaltro can imbue the fantastical with a sense of real lived-in emotion is a testament to her songwriting prowess and is the main reason After comes across as such a grand success.

Natalie Prass - Natalie Prass
Despite the absolute strength of first single "Bird of Prey", when I discovered that Nashville native Natalie Prass created music in a folk pop style before her more Muscle Shoals style album I was more than a little wary. Ultimately what sold me on her self-titled debut album (besides the absolutely amazing Matthew E. White assisted arrangements on "Bird of Prey") was Prass' commitment to the album's elected style. Instead of being karaoke-esque, Prass sells not only her interest but her delivery that shows she knows exactly where she's treading and she's not doing so lightly. Even with some of the affected drama on album cuts "Christy" or "My Baby Don't Understand Me", the album coasts and banks on Prass' sincerity. While you might be able to argue whether or not Natalie Prass' soul turn is authentic, you can't argue that it isn't believable. Because it's so damn good.

North Highlands - North Highlands
When I first saw North Highlands on a bill along with ARMS and Hospitality, I was instantly smitten with their genre-blurring form of danceable pop rock. They ended up being the first of the three bands that performed that night to release their debut record and it quickly became a favorite of mine. Which made the news that the former Brooklyn band were calling it quits as their members set about moving to different corners of the country all the harder to swallow. Luckily for fans of the band, North Highlands sought fit to release their final record almost a year after their final show together and if nothing else, it's a rather great way to say goodbye. The self-titled record is break up record of sorts as songwriter Brenda Malvini found herself falling less and less in love with New York City. North Highlands have always reveled in a sort of attractive lyrical vagueness but North Highlands brings us a bit closer to Malvini's true emotions as she readies to act on them. And yet despite its function as double-fold breakup record, it's moves along with a casual plod. It allows itself to dip into synthy dance breaks and doesn't forget to let itself have fun and in that way it's a perfect snapshot of the band: happy creating music together even if it's the last chance they have.

Olivia Quillio - Get Down and Pray
Considering the release of her debut album The Bomb happened just last year, Olivia Quillio's follow up was pretty unexpected. But after heartbreak and a cross-country move which she essentially used as a songwriting retreat, Olivia Quillio returned with her strongest batch of songs to date and an album that was leaps and bounds better than her already enjoyable debut. Get Down and Pray might be a bit of a genre roulette and yet, each song is wonderfully sincere; forged in the fire of experience but arranged for universal appeal. Olivia Quillio proved early on in demos that she's was a skilled popsmith and Get Down and Pray is a testament to that, packaging up her personal experience with love, rejection, heartbreak, and acceptance with beguiling ease.

Pearl and the Beard - Beast
Beast, the third and final album from chamber pop trio Pearl and the Beard, is the summation of years worth of work together as band. On Beast, Jocelyn Mackenzie, Emily Hope Price, and Jeremy Lloyd-Styles are in peak form musically and creatively. From the heady rush of harmonies "You" and "Again Animal", soulful "River" or crackling "Devil's Head Down" and "Take Me Over", Pearl and the Beard are certainly not at a loss for ideas and yet, they've made a career out of incorporating a multitude of ideas in service to a greater goal. While that's an impressive feat for three singer/songwriters working together, it's even more so when you consider the fact that Pearl and the Beard's egalitarian songwriting has resulted into sonorous mesh of timbres as the trio trade not only songwriting duties but vocal and instrumental duties as well. Beast is Pearl and the Beard at their most grand, their most inherently majestic and they certainly don't disappoint aided in part by two album's worth of creative blueprints. If Beast truly is their final album, Pearl and the Beard ensure that they go out on an absolute high.

Purity Ring - another eternity
If you had told me a couple years back that I would fall in love with a Purity Ring album I would've laughed in your face but another eternity, Purity Ring's sophomore full length effort is so impressively complex yet so unavoidably catchy that it's not only won me over instantly but inspired me to go back and reexamine their previous efforts. another eternity's production is immaculate; at once simple seeming and artfully intricate, Purity Ring have clearly put in a ton of time finding exactly the right sounds and samples and other electronic elements they wanted but even then the pairing of those with Megan James' vocal work results in an absolutely beast of a production - unstoppable in its infectious sweep and enthralling in its complexity. I might not have understood the buzz around the time of their debut but another eternity proves that it certainly was worth it.

Seoul - I Become A Shade
I'll admit when I first encountered Montreal trio Seoul and their self-defined label of ambient pop, I was a bit wary. That is until I actually heard music from them when all doubt and assumptions of pretension evaporated away. Seoul is a band of serious music makers and as such, their record is truly a cohesive effort - segues and continuations; spilling into and building off of one another, I Become A Shade comes off effortless smooth and most importantly - insanely well crafted. The fact that the band worked on it for years before readying it for its auspicious debut speaks to how seriously the trio take their craft and yet with some of the most memorable, ear-catching memories I've heard all year, they're not too serious to make music that's actually enjoyable to listen to. I Become A Shade is a creative endeavor worth celebrating as it balances accessibility with auteurship for a debut album that's certainly going to be hard to beat.

Son Lux - Bones
Just when I think that Son Lux have outdone themselves, they release a new album to completely turn that notion on its head. Though they were featured previously on Lanterns, Bones is the first Son Lux record to usher jazz guitarist/composer Rafiq Bhatia and drummer Ian Chang properly into the band and although Ryan Lott didn't need an infusion of newness in the band's sound, it certainly is appreciated. It's hard to imagine a song like album standout "Undone" existing on the record without the jazz chops of both Bhatia and Chang as Lott strives to and ultimately captures the spark of the trio's impressive live energy.

Torres - Sprinter
On her self-titled debut Torres' Mackenzie Scott arrived with a stunning beautiful set of songs that properly introduced Scott as a singer/songwriter of note. Unsurprisingly she drew comparisons to that of her friend/fellow singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten and as apt as they might've been then, on her sophomore record Sprinter, Scott returns to set herself apart. Where Scott's hurt and discomfort mostly took lyrical form on Torres, with Sprinter, Scott arrives in a blaze of badassery. Sprinter is beautiful, yes but it's not afraid of being abrasive or unflinchingly honest.

Viet Cong - Viet Cong
Name drama aside, there probably wasn't a single other album I've encountered this year that so acutely nails the cohesive nature of the album format like Viet Cong's self-titled album. Sure, each song is a self-contained slice of riotous but precise noise rock but also, the album as a whole marches purposefully toward intensely climatic album ender "Death" that when it finally gets there, not only to the end of "Death" but the album itself, it functions on a whole other cathartic level. While last year's "Cassette" introduced audiences to the band formed from the wreckage of Women, the self-titled full length is a true statement of intent - an artful and meaningful expression of grief, anger, and the human condition that's refreshingly solid and whose outright sincerity is bound to appeal to listeners whether the sort of high energy grit of Viet Cong is normally their bag or not.

Honorable Mentions:

Beach House - Thank Your Lucky Stars

Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment - Surf

Friend Roulette - I See You. Your Eyes Are Red.

GEMS - Kill the One You Love

Hip Hatchet - Hold You Like A Harness

Jessica Pratt - On Your Own Love Again

Jonna Newsom - Divers

Landshapes - Heyoon

Laura Marling - Short Movie

Palm - Trading Basics

Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell

Towkio - .Wav Theory

Villagers - Darling Arithmetic

Waterstrider - Nowhere Now

White Reaper - White Reaper Does It Again

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