Here are Independent Ethos’ picks for the 10 best albums we heard in 2015. They are presented in no particular order because it is the only thing we would argue about with these records. Where available, all titles link to the item description page on Amazon. If you purchase via the link provided, you will be financially supporting this blog.
The guys in Deerhunter are not content to stagnate in their sound. Following the creepily noisy Monomania (Vinyl Matters: Deerhunter’s Monomania), the Athens, Georgia, based quartet, produced Fading Frontier, a diverse record featuring smooth, crystalline guitar lines that were missing from the last album. Bradford Cox’s voice sounds clearer without losing any of its sneer. The instrumentation includes a sparkling harpsichord (“Duplex Planet”) and things like castanets and droning synthesizers that add waves of atmospherics. There’s even some funky guitar work for “Snakeskin.” Deerhunter have never sounded more fun and cozy. (Hans Morgenstern)
Son Lux is Ryan Lott, a classically trained musician that has mostly created alternative music that fuses genres. From classical music to digitized pop sounds, Bones is an exploration that pushes boundaries in different directions. In this full-length album, Lott is accompanied by guitarist Rafiq Bhatia and drummer Ian Chang, who help create an even bigger sound for Son Lux. But it is not only the sound that packs a punch, Lott wrote the lyrics for the album, which can dwell in dark moods. In “I Am the Others,” he asks “Am I the only one?/Where are the others?” Finally answering, “I am the only one.” The stand out of the album is “Change is Everything,” which has a sound that slowly builds up to a kind of controlled chaos. (Ana Morgenstern)
For those who miss the ’90s alternative rock of bands like Bettie Serveert or Th’ Faith Healers, Seattle’s Chastity Belt comfortably fill that void. Mixed for maximum reverb effect by Matthew Simms, the guitarist for legendary British post-punk band Wire, Time to Go Home, gets the slacker sound of ’90s down pat. It wouldn’t be what it is, however, without the swagger of lead singer/guitarist Julia Shapiro. The band’s second album is also just stuffed with great song craft. Take the syncopated layering of “Joke,” that piles on the instrumental tracks and is driven by Annie Truscott’s simple, high-toned bass line. The all-female quartet also display a keen feminist sense of humor we love. (HM)
During my first listen of Sufjan Stevens’ new album Carrie & Lowell, I was immediately transported to an intimate world inhabited by loss, grief, loneliness and unresolved childhood trauma. However, in the midst of what I would call one of the saddest albums this year, there is also lots of love, understanding and even redemption that give the album a positive spin. Carrie & Lowell is autobiographical and narrates Stevens’ early years, his relationship with his bipolar mother, Carrie, and his stepfather, Lowell. The sound is stripped down and folky and melodic with Stevens’ hushed voice — almost a whisper — a contrast to the enormity of the personal narrative woven throughout the album. Here’s another album that deserves repeated listening, as the songs compose a larger picture together. (AM)
With Depression Cherry, the Baltimore duo of singer/keyboardist Victoria Legrand and guitarist Alex Scally take both a step forward in their song-craft while glancing behind. Gone are the live drums that made their former albums sound more organic. Instead, the duo brings back the electronic precision of the drum machine, a key element of their early sound. Despite something being lost in the lack of vital drums, Scally is in prime form offering entrancing guitar loops while Legrand shows she’s not afraid to go outside of her comfort zone of dreamy, hushed vocals with a bit of speak singing and layered, noisy voices. Read more in my full length review: Beach House grows into its own with Depression Cherry – a music review. (HM)
Viet Cong returned with a more sharply developed sound that leaves behind the psychedelic fuzz of their introductory 2014 EP Cassette and embraces the Canadian quartet’s icy post-punk DNA. Bassist/vocalist Matt Flegel’s voice is more upfront and delivered with a confidence missing from the early effort. The music is more diverse, recalling precursors like Gang of Four and Wire but also featuring stellar moments of experimenting with drone craft, like the epic “March of Progress,” which opens on propulsive drum pulses against a shifting hum of organ that sounds like Boyd Rice but switches to a quirky, layered bright finale that recalls the noisy, more deadpan parts of Brian Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). (HM)
I don’t think I ever liked a Wilco album as much as Star Wars. The Chicago alt-rock group sprung their ninth album on fans as a free download back in July. They must have known they had a good record to give it away for free. It’s their least indulgent record ever at a brisk 34-minute running time. The songs all have their own catchiness with mostly fuzzed out guitar work, but “Satellite” stands among probably the greatest songs of the year. Building on a repetitive chiming guitar line and gradually swelling propulsive drums and rhythm guitars to an ecstatic freakout of noise that threatens to come undone while still hanging on to the song’s essential grove to the very end. Downright entrancing work. (HM)
Hailing from Melbourne, Australia, Courtney Barnett has the ability to find the fun in banality, with lyrics that focus on the mundane. Her songs are easy to relate to and delivered in a speak/sing fashion that sometimes veers into melodic. Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit is Barnett’s debut full-length album in which her loose style is coupled with a grungy sound reminiscent of the ’90s indie scene. It is Barnett’s exceptional ability to deliver these effortless capsules of everyday life with remarkable wit and sense of humor that make listening to Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit a rewarding experience. (AM)
The quirkiest yet still one of the most catchy records came from Cory McAbee, the frontman of the Billy Nayer Show, a group known for using high concepts as springboards to their albums. McAbee even directed a few stellar indie movies as part of the albums (The American Astronaut, a sci-fi musical western stands as one of his best works). He is at work on another film with the help of fans, and his solo debut Small Star Seminar is the jumping off point for it. It’s a strange concept album in that it speaks to self-perception and self-worth while filled with fear and insecurity delivered with both incredible sincerity and wry irony. The music recalls the deadpan quality of Laurie Anderson and the intricacy of The Talking Heads. You can stream the entire album on Bandcamp, but it’s not available on vinyl. (HM)
Keegan DeWitt – Queen of Earth (Original Score)
Keegan DeWitt did not only add a mysterious, unsettling element to Queen of Earth, the latest film by Alex Ross Perry (An interview with Queen of Earth director Alex Ross Perry), but he has also created an album that can stand alone (so it’s a shame it’s not available on any format besides streaming). The haunting instrumental score is equally dark and beautiful. Songs unravel slowly and put you on alert or a different state of mind directed inward. De Witt said he used a wrenchenspiel because “it sounded broken.” Indeed, the album is a mood piece that perfectly transmits the mental unraveling of the woman at the heart of the film. Wind instruments and high-pitched chimes create jarring sounds woven through tense, suspenseful moments interrupted by melodic bells that settle the mood back down. An aural journey that is disquieting but gorgeous. (AM)
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Year’s best vinyl reissue:
Red House Painters 4AD catalog
Consistently fetching hefty prices on the secondary market, the vinyl versions of the first four Red House Painters album, released by 4AD Records in the early to mid-90s, were finally reissued by the UK-based label on vinyl this year. The dynamic, moody music, sometimes boxed into the slo-core sub-genre of alternative rock, begs for the attentive and deliberate plays. There’s no better format than vinyl for such music, especially considering some songs peter up from hushed whispers and distant mumblings, building to epic musical meanderings (I’m thinking “Evil”). Also cool, 4AD finally released for the first video for the band’s first single, from 1992, the brilliant downer about growing old, “24.”
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Finally, this weekend, we will share our best in film.
All images courtesy of the bands. Except Red House Painters reissue. That was edited from an image from turntablelab.com.