This past year in music marked a significant shift in how albums and songs are enjoyed. 2015 will go down in history as the year that music streaming went mainstream. With Taylor Swift giving Apple Music her royal approval, the music buying public has finally embraced the idea that music should be rented instead of owned. While I have personally resisted this digital transition, I am finally on board with Apple Music and have enjoyed the unprecedented access to artists that were once out of my listening reach. My preference remains one of ownership but I must admit the past year has led to a level of musical discovery on par with the tape and CD hunting of my youth. For this reason, Formulate Infinity has created specific categories to share its favorite 2015 albums. Hopefully, the categories will help express how eclectic my taste have grown over the course of the past year. As always a big thank you goes out to all the family and friends that make it their living to share the very best music!
Album of the Year (AOY): Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats
Great albums have energy. They are timeless. They can be enjoyed by all. Nathaniel Ratliff and The Night Sweets capture lightning in a bottle and run it through a bar-busting, soul-bursting blues-bar amp. Their journey echoes the sounds of Otis Redding, Van “the Man” Morrison and countless others who have bared their souls to a world-weary public. The night is just getting started with this crew and you know you are in good company when you can raise a glass to the home-town band. You need not know the words. Your drunk-ass will find a way to sing along no matter what!
Runner Up: Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly
Kendrick Lamar has his finger on the pulse of America and its pointing right back at you (and me). He has produced a cinematic album that is timeless in its musical references (Dr. Dre, P-Funk, Tupac, Jazz, Soul, etc). The album also serves as an audacious lyrical flame thrower that calls out America for its cultural shortcomings and injustices. Lamar’s soundscapes and lyrics are occupied by the troubling reality that America has not made it as far as it thinks it has. Songs like “Blacker the Berry” challenge the listener to examine the societal mind-traps we all set for ourselves:
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?
When gang banging make me kill a n**** blacker than me?
As Lamar’s inventive posthumous mock interview with Tupac at the close of the album proves, To Pimp a Butterfly is smart, brave, daring and, above all else, damn good music.
Runner Up: Sleater-Kinney, No Cities To Love
No Cities to Love is more than a riot girl reunion. Its is a manic call to arms forged in the raw energy of pure rock and roll. Sleater-Kinney show that they still matter after their long hiatus. The band still has plenty to say and they are not afraid to put their sound up against the post-recession anxiety that looms over us all. No Cities to Love plays with bam-bam feminine gusto. It pushes pure punk power through your living room speakers with the intense sincerity of a band that has nothing to lose. Like all great punk bands, Sweater-Kinney give a a voice to the voiceless. And that voice is screaming with stories that occupy the restless music of No Cities to Love.
Live AOY: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Freedom: Atlanta Pop Festival (Live)
The fact that this album exists in 2015 is a testament to the staying power of Jimi Hendrix and his back catalog of music revelations. My dad hitchhiked to this festival from the Carolinas and was happy to recall that the counter-culture was in full effect when he arrived. The cops were held at bay by the throngs of young concert goers that showed up for a festival billed as the “Woodstock of the South.” This would be the largest audience ever assembled to hear the greatest guitarist to ever live. The music does not disappoint. Hendrix’s powers are on full display. His guitar is alive, his band holds him aloft and the music takes to the sky as guitar notes bend, flex and climb upward. Time capsule be damned, this is a great live album no matter how you frame it.
Boxset AOY Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series, Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965-1966 (Deluxe Edition)
Bob Dylan has always been considered a musical chameleon. His greatest change of musical skin, however, was likely his first. In 1965 he shed his folkie protest-poet pose for the electric mercurial jam of a rock and roll trapeze artist. The Cutting Edge box set captures this intense creative transition with outtakes from sessions that redefined the very nature of Rock and Roll. The release of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde changed everything. “Like A Rolling Stone” blew apart a rock song’s acceptable length. Dylan explored topics and lyric constructs more in line with the beat generation, than rock and roll. What makes the box set so great is that you can hear Dylan and his band mates closing in on a sound that would remake the world and inspire countless others to abandon simple pop ambitions for something more meaningful and true.
Concept AOY Titus Andronicus, The Most Lamentable Tragedy
The Most Lamentable Tragedy is likely the most ambitious album on this list. Named after Shakespeare’s first tragedy, the album tackles the deep stabbing depths of mental health despair. The album is both challenging and rewarding as it explores the very nature of living a life that is constantly measured against one’s fractured self. Music styles change, anthems blast and lyrics take on a complexity only the footnotes of Genius lyrics could explain. Ultimately, the album’s great reward is that these complex issues are presented with the push-punk flare of a great American rock band.
Protest AOY: Desaparecidos, Payola
Desaparecidos can be loosely translated from Portuguese as the “disappeared ones.” Short history lesson, the “disappeared” refers to the people who were arrested and killed by Latin American dictators during the 1970s and 1980s. The Desaparecidos, as the name suggests, have a political axe to grind. Conor Oberst leads the march with songs that are demanding and edgy. The outrage is clear and the breadth of topics covered range from economic injustice and racial profiling to domestic spying and corporate greed. Needless to say, outrage and indignation has never felt so good. The album’s first song, The Left is Right, says it all:
It begins when we chain ourselves to the ATMs
Make a mess when we pitch our tents on the statehouse steps
Now we’re taking it, now we’re taking it back
Now we’re taking it, now we’re taking it back
For the greater good
Goddamn Robin Hoods
Fan the flames, serve them cocktails down at the Stock Exchange
Hear the screams, take our baseball bats to the limousines
They’ll be talking us, they’ll be talking us up
They’ll be talking us, they’ll be talking us up
To the journalists
If there’s any left
You know the Sixties proved that change is hit or miss
Every bloody pacifist concedes the truth
If one must die to save the ninety-nine
Maybe it’s justified
The left is right
Singer-Songwriter AOY: Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear
Father John Misty’s second album hits all the marks when it comes to keen, poetic spill-it-all writing. The satirical, the plaintive, the emotive all coalesce into an enjoyable dare. In the same way that Leonard Cohen sings with a half-wry smile, Father John Misty sings heartbreak like a stand-up comedian who would rather be sitting down. I Love You, Honeybear is full of lyrical twists that keep the listener guessing (and laughing quietly to themselves). Misty’s lyrics are pressed into action with a variety of music styles that serve as the perfect foil to what is one of the best penned albums of the year.
Singer-Songwriter AOY Runner Up: Jim O’Rourke, Simple Songs
If you have not heard of Jim O’Rourke, that does not mean you have not heard him. He has been behind the boards and played with countless bands, most notably Sonic Youth and Wilco. His solo efforts are always well crafted timepieces. Simple Songs is brilliant expansion of his underground catalog. The music and lyrics are layered with precision. The only simple thing about Simple Songs is how effortless O’Rourke makes the finely crafted results seem.
Advance the Avant-garde AOY : Bjork, Vulnicura
Bjork delivers another fascinating turn as musical enigma. She experiments with sound that thrusts longingly through the limitless space she has crafted for herself. What essentially constitutes a break-up album, turns itself into so much more with Bjork at the controls. Like a butterfly that splits from its cocoon, Bjork has released a fantastic album that creates its own atmosphere, rising far higher than the earthly anchors that hold other artists back.
Album with the Most AOY Pop: Jenny Lewis, The Voyager
If an introduction to Jenny Lewis is needed, check out her classic album Rabbit Fur Coat with the Watson Twins. The rediscovery of that album earlier this year lead me to Lewis’s brilliant new release, The Voyager. While Rabbit Fur Coat quakes with Americana heartbreak, The Voyager is something more confident, more modern. The “pop” tendencies of the album never go overboard. Instead, the songs on the album serve as a fresh assertion of what is possible when you take contemporary music techniques and match them with timeless feeling.
Rock N Soul AOY: Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color
The Shakes avoid the dreaded sophomore slump by turning up the soul and expanding the color of their sound. The result, Sound & Color, is enriched by forays into jazz, pop, funk and, at times, psychedelia. The band is still 70% southern charm and heartache but the soulfulness of the band breathes deeper with each added nuance. Brittany Howard leads her talented band mates with the purest, most brutal voice in rock. It’s a deadly combination that will only become more lethal with each new album release.
Jazz-head AOY: Kamasi Washington, The Epic
Three hours of original sax-jazz brilliance is a phenomenal gift in 2015. Kamasi Washington’s sends his free-flowing music straight to the listeners head and the results are epic. The fact that this album exists during the same year as Washington’s other breakout performance, the jazz infused flourishes of Kendrick Lamar’s, To Pimp a Butterfly is amazing. The Epic’s standout compositions and performances are a complete 180 from the hip-hop world that dominates the mainstream. Washington paints with a broad canvas and your ears will be surprised by the directions his music takes you. Much of what The Epic achieves can be viewed as the natural extension of the experimental jazz that John Coltrane threw down so many years ago. It appears the heir apparent has finally arrived.
Surprise AOY: Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, Surf
Surf would not be on anyone’s radar if it were not for the mind-blowing creative fire that was lit by Chance the Rapper’s brilliant Acid Trip. The appeared in iTunes unannounced and surprised fans. The fact that this fulfilling head tripper came free of charge is simply jaw dropping. Sometimes it really is about the music. Chance’s growing collective reaches new heights as Surf beats with an emotive, eclectic heart. The Social Experiment mix multiple musical genres with hip-hop sensibilities and come out ahead in the game. The large cast of performers make for a lively listen, too. Never has an album sounded like such a communal effort. One cannot listen to Surf and not feel like they belong to the Chance collective, too.
Surprise AOY Runner Up: Wilco, Star Wars
Surprise! New Wilco album, oh and its free, too! Enough said. Hot off the heels of the bands 20th anniversary, Wilco has never sounded more confident, more loose that on Star Wars. While the release itself has more in common with Tweedy’s earlier work with Jim O’Rourke and the Loose Furs, the album still rings Wilco true. All the right notes are hit with the relaxed precision of a band that has earned a creative license to try anything. Is there any other band more beloved than Wilco? After 20 years of music making, Star Wars shows the band’s creative peak has yet to plateau.
Americana/ Singer-Songwriter AOY: Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free
The term “country music” has become synonymous with pop chart princesses and brainless bad boys in 10 gallon hats. The term “Americana”now alert listeners to a music that taps into the old bluegrass and country traditions that once helped define the DNA of country rock and roll. Listeners alienated by the plastic music of to the new country world order, will find singer-songwriter glory in Jason Isbell’s finely crafted sophomore effort. From the opening hook of “It Takes a Lifetime” to the last strum of “To a Band I Love,” listeners can be assured that the old traditions are not completely lost. In fact, Isbell proves track after track that he is an artist capable of starting some new ones of his own, too.
Slacker AOY: Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Courtney Barnett’s slacker daydream immediately sends the listener back to a time many Gen-Xers longingly refer to as the “90s.” With her deadpan delivery, her day-to-day musings, and her shrug it off mentality, Barnett makes not giving damn sound pretty damn good. Choruses like “Pedestrian at Best” are at the core of Barnett’s slacker sound:
put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you
tell me I’m exceptional and I promise to exploit you
give me all your money and I’ll make some origami honey
I think you’re a joke but I don’t find you very funny
The listener, however, should not be fooled. Underneath the slacker pose reside some pretty inventive lyrics and sounds. For instance, “Depreston” starts out as a simple house hunting song but ends with surprise musings about a long gone Vietnam Vet who once resided in a suburban home that’s now being sold. Just like the 90s music that came before, there’s much more percolating beneath the surface of “Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit.”