I haven’t posted a weekly update in a while, so it’s about time. A lot happened, but I’ll stick to the highlights.
I hung out in wine country, biked about 500 miles, and finally saw my Japanese metal superheroes Boris in concert. Then I found myself on an extended deep dive into all the 60s jazz that I skipped over in the past. This total immersion is resulting in another evolution of taste.
2015 was an incredible year for music, full of surprises and second comings, weird new genres and unbelievable evolutions of existing sounds. Of course, every year is great for music as long as you’re open to new sounds. That’s how this whole thing works.
Every year, I enjoy writing down my favorites as I go along, adding them to a simple text file on my laptop. Sometimes I add stars to the albums when I realize I’m completely mad for them. For some albums, this means I find myself listening day after day, racking up dozens of plays. For others, this means that I’m struck so deeply on an emotional, intellectual, or even physical level that I can’t bring myself to listen again for a few days. Both experiences bring lasting rewards, especially when considered in the long view. This is why I love looking back and appreciating the permanent impact from these powerful pieces of music.
As it turned out, this year’s list included over twenty starred albums. I left a handful for my Best of 2015 Honorable Mention list, but the rest were simply indispensable. My list would not be complete without all of these albums.
So please, read on and enjoy. These are the 17 best albums of 2015.
“Where the fuck did Monday go?”
David Bowie is actually dead. It feels strange to say this. More than any other artist on the planet, Bowie always seemed to move beyond mere mortals. To the world, he was larger than life. His work was timeless, always a step ahead and off to the side from everyone else. Even his most popular songs felt beamed in from another place, with a unique sensibility that could come from no one else. He is universally beloved by entire generations, despite remaining as weird as a man can be.
Infinitely more important to me, however, is the space he occupied in my life. David Bowie is the one and only artist to have been there all along. I mean this in the most literal sense.
He starred in one of the first films I can remember watching, Jim Henson’s dark fantasia Labyrinth. Despite playing the villain, he was a magnetic attraction. Enigmatic, beautiful, always a touch removed from the teenage heroine and the viewer alike, he was the spectral vehicle and its destination in one. As the Goblin King, he invited my young mind on a journey with the promise of adventure, tinged with a little fear and weighted by potential loss. There were high stakes for reaching out to take his hand, but the rewards unfolded past the horizon. I was smitten before I knew it.
Growing up in the 80s and 90s, past the peak of his commercial popularity, I swam in the echoes of David Bowie’s legacy. He was so far ahead of the game that I never quite caught up. My earliest radio memories were filled with older icons like Roy Orbison, The Beach Boys, and of course, Bowie. I would bicycle around my forested neighborhood singing Pretty Woman, I get Around, and The Man Who Sold The World. I had no grasp on time, never differentiating between oldies and current hits. The music simply was what it was, the soundtrack to my childhood, the intangible spirit in the air.
I’m a little lost without you
That could be an understatement
A little over a week ago I wrote about Arthur Russell’s Corn. Another posthumous monument to an artist who died long before the world could appreciate his genius, it got me spelunking into the vast caverns of his discography, picking out old gems for an even closer look.
I found this wonderful fan-made video, using footage from a Soviet animated short, Girl And Dolphin, by Rosalie Zelma. Paired with the dreamlike love song A Little Lost, it’s an achingly gorgeous way to spend three minutes.
It’s hard to describe to a newcomer exactly what Arther Russell does that’s so ineffably unique. He’s a cellist, composer, and otherworldly disco producer who crafted some of the strangest and most deeply affecting music the world has ever known. His singing is deeply felt, vulnerable, and nothing like any classic vocalist.
Arthur Russell was unforgivably ignored in his lifetime, but I am so thankful that the massive body of work he kept to himself has been thoughtfully collected and released in the years since. He may have died before I was 10 years old, but he’s now one of my favorite musicians ever.
The man’s brief career began in the 70s collegiate avant-garde scene, collaborating with Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Rhys Chatham, and most notably, Allen Ginsberg, accompanying the beat poet’s live work on cello. He moved into the gritty New York disco scene and crafted some of the most alien dance singles of the era before finally crafting his own masterpiece. World Of Echo, a solo journey of vocals, cello, soft percussion and electronic effects, is the only full album released during his lifetime, as Russell died of AIDS in 1992, nearly broke.
I just heard the sad news that pioneering jazz hero Ornette Coleman has died of cardiac arrest at age 85. The man left an astonishing legacy of progressive and experimental music that has influenced forward looking artists of all stripes for decades.
More important to me, he’s crafted some of the most innovative and profoundly affecting jazz albums I’ve ever heard. I’ve shared a few key moments from his epic discography below.
Yesterday I wrote about and shared the 18 minute title track for Zs’ upcoming album, Xe. You can listen here. I later realized that the band’s own Soundcloud page held a second lengthy piece, called Corps. It’s another fantastic slice of weird avant jazz that’s got my anticipation off the charts at this point.
The tune opens with a guitar riff marrying Dick Dale surf licks with Steve Reich minimalism, creating a line for the insistent percussion and tenor sax asteroids to dance over. Think Misirlou fucking with Electric Counterpoint and you’re on the right page. The rhythm loosens up, allowing the drums and saxophone to each billow up and take turns leading the sound. It’s a fantastic, tightly wound jam that ends in an effervescent free-jazz cloud.
Because the band absolutely thrives in a live setting, here’s a brief, energetic take on the song:
Now that I’ve fallen into a youtube hole and saved a load of Zs videos, you’ll likely see a handful more of these posts before the album drops on January 27th.
Protip: you can order the album directly from Northern Spy Records for $17 on vinyl, right here: XE On Northern Spy.