I would say that 2015 was a wonderful year for music. In fact a great year. Beautiful new recordings from some of my favorite artists and several who have been around for awhile but were new to me. As streaming continues to grow in popularity for the masses, it is good to still see a plethora of wonderful physical packages in the form of vinyl LPs and extensively designed box sets reissuing classic collections and never before released studio and live performances.
Reviewing my list, I seemed to have been attracted to two main categories; straight ahead guitar based rock and roll bands (Courtney Barnett, Sleater Kinney, Velvet Underground Wilco and the Pretty Things) and electronic or orchestral mood pieces with etherial vocals or stunning harmonies (Beach House, Joanna Newsom, Bjork, Sufjan Stevens, the Milk Carton Kids and Tame Impala). Even Bob Dylan surprised me by recording a soft album of crooner like standards (and pulling it off), a sort of celebration of Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday year.
So here are my favorite music releases of the year. Not in any particular order except for the new albums on top and the archival releases towards the bottom. Most of my picks here are vinyl sets but almost all are available on CD as well. Check them out yourself or gift one to your closest music lover.
Wilco, Star Wars. What a ballsy title for an album, especially this year. The band first released this surprise of an album over the summer online for free to any takers. The physical versions followed in the fall with one of the best album covers of the year and full of pop-rock and alt-country hooks plus lost of fuzzy guitar sounds.
Courtney Barnettt’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, combines the looseness of Nirvana with the causal quirky vocal style of Liz Phair and Chrisie Hynde of the Pretenders. A trashier, sassy sound from this Aussie that restores your faith in minimal rock and roll with cleaver lyrics.
Joanna Newsom Divers. Ethereal floating complex music that demands your attention. Sit back and let this harp player, with a voice like a child angel, surround your senses. A stunningly beautiful creation.
Bjork, Vulnicura. This is her heartbreak album, written after her breakup with artist Mathew Barney. Rhythms, beats, fractured and abstract melodic orchestrations and choirs, designed to coincide with her art show at the MOMA earlier this year. Personal precise, organized music like this can sound dry or depressing, but Bjork is one of the few artists who makes maudlin sound magical. It seems that many artists these days see their creations as a continuous work and Bjork is no exception as she released a second version called Vulnicura Strings this past month with only strings and her voice.
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love certainly doesn’t sound like a reunion record from a band that took a ten year break. It’s a fresh sounding power-punk record full of exciting rock and roll. I saw them live only once back in the late 1990s. Who would have thought that one of their guitar players and singers would turn out to be so funny.
Beach House, Depression Cherry & Thank Your Lucky Stars. Hardly anyone releases an album a year anymore like bands did in the 1960s but Beach House released these two albums just two months apart. Song titles on Depression Cherry like Levitation and Space Song perfectly describe how I feel about their music. Songs that effortlessly float around the room with multi vocal layers and minimal electronic keyboard synthesizers and dashes of guitar. In a way they are like Mazzy Star after one small cup of coffee. Still slow and moody, but much more awake.
Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell. You can read elsewhere about the troubling and heartbreaking life of Steven’s mother Carrie, but this album of tragic personal loss and religious faith is surprisingly one of the most beautiful and uplifting albums I’ve heard in years. The intimate beauty of Sufjan Steven’s voice is extremely haunting and brings me back some to of the early 1970’s singer-songwriters or the stark nakedness of John Lennon’s first solo album. Not sound wise but lyrically. Play Carrie & Lowell while you are working and it’s simply a beautiful listen. Sit and pay attention to the music and the lyrics and it will make you cry. Probably my favorite album of the year.
Bob Dylan, Shadows in the Night is an album of songs originally sung by Frank Sinatra. Dylan made it at the same Capitol Records studio where Sinatra also recorded the original versions. Dylan’s slow, romantic arrangements contain none of the overly produced lush orchestration found on the originals. This is not the swinging Sinatra style but Dylan as the low key crooner. Who would have thought that Bob Dylan would ever attempt to make an album like this…he did and he succeeded.
Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, The Traveling Kind. I first heard Emmylou Harris on those two great Gram Parsons solo albums in the early 1970s. She harmonized on virtually every single track on those records and when she released her own first album after Gram’s death, I went to almost every show of hers when she came through San Francisco. Rodney Crowell was in her touring band at that time and sang with her on many of her early albums. The Traveling Kind is their second full on collaboration in three years and an album I initially skipped over due to the very mediocre (IMHO) album cover. But when I finally picked it up, it’s been in heavy rotation on my turntable. Great songs, great arrangements and wonderful performances.
The Milk Carton Kids, Monterey. They been been compared to Simon & Garfunkel, the Everly Brothers and the Smothers Brothers. They present harmonies that make you quiver. Stunning and simple, acoustic folk music and tender ballads played on two acoustic guitars and sung by two beautifully voiced Californians.
Tame Impala, Currents. Tame Impala is pretty much the brain child of one guy, Australian Kevin Parker. He used to make modern psychedelic albums with guitar heavy jam pieces and now with Currents, he has gone with a mostly electronica based soulful dance sound with hardly a guitar to be heard. I would say more in the vein of Daft Punk. A party record, a dance club record, a lounge sound? Upbeat glorious poppy electronica is probably the best description this time around.
Bob Dylan, 1965-1966 The Cutting Edge. So there is this 50 year copyright rule. You have to put out unreleased recordings within this fifty year period of time to retain the rights to those recordings, otherwise they fall into the public domain. So over the next few years you will see many acts from the 1960s putting out collections of alternate takes or live concerts as limited online sets or as heavily curated lavish packages for collectors. The Beatles and Dylan started doing this in 2013 and 2014 respectively and this season, Dylan and Sony Music have gone all out by releasing what many Dylanologists believe is the holy grail of Bob Dylan’s most prolific period. In 1965 and 1966, Dylan released three of his best albums ever; Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde. Albums transforming him from folk artist to folk-rock icon.
Several versions of the Cutting Edge were released this year including a double CD or 3LP Best of set, an expanded 6 CD collection and a massive 18 disc CD Deluxe Collectors Edition (limited to 5000 copies) containing books, 45 records and the entire recording sessions, including every single note Dylan recorded for these three albums. Every take, showcasing the recording evolution of songs like Just Like A Woman, Queen Jane Approximately, Visions of Joanna and Like A Rolling Stone. A Dylan archivists wet dream.
Any true Bob Dylan fan should pick up at least one the Best of collections to hear dramatic different versions of some of Bob Dylan’s most iconic works.
The Velvet Underground, The Complete Matrix Tapes was recorded over several nights at the Matrix club on Fillmore Street in San Francisco in 1969. Some of these recordings have been released on other collections in the past however never before from pristine 4 track soundboard tapes. This is not only an historic archival release, but this raw power performance of the Velvets led by Lou Reed (in front of a very small audience) is pure primal rock and roll at it’s finest. Great sound and great music from a band that was truly ahead of it’s time.
David Bowie, Five Years 1969-1973. A great set of remastered records by David Bowie is always welcome. This first collection of an ongoing series of box sets of his work, contain some of his finest and most popular recordings. It includes the albums David Bowie (Space Oddity), The Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Aladdin Sane and the extremely underrated covers album Pin Ups. Also included are Live Santa Monica ’72 and the last Ziggy Stardust show at the Hammersmith Odeon.
The Kinks. The 60s LPs. The Kinks are my second favorite band. EVER! They wrote about middle class Britain and swinging London like nobody else. I mean why would anyone else even bother. Ray Davies is surely one of the best songwriters of his generation.
But their in-print catalogue is really a bit of a mess, with no real constant set of records or CDs available. The curation of their wonderful catalogue has been less than perfect. During the 1990s and into the first decade of this century, expanded sets came and went and now in the past year there have been two parallel series of vinyl reissues of their 1960’s output. First, all of their UK albums up through Arthur came out only in England (and as expensive imports in America) and were sourced from digital files (this is a discussion for another time and most mortals won’t even know the difference). Then late this summer, several of their early albums were quietly released in the USA with no fanfare and were all analogued sourced. The rest of their 60’s output in analogue versions are due here by the end of December. Once again the Kinks catalogue confuses their fans.
I’d say buy this Anthology collection and you’ll have all the Kinks you need. But if you do want several of their individual albums I’d go with Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, Face To Face, Something Else By the Kinks and Arthur. God Save the Kinks!
Otis Redding Soul Manifesto 1964-1970 & Aretha Franklin The Atlantic Albums Collection. Rhino Records has been one of the best reissue Labels of the past 25 years. They continually release smart stylish theme based packages of music along with full catalogue box sets from individual artists. This year saw sets from two of America’s best soul singers, both of whom recorded for Atlantic Records. Both sets include almost their entire output for the label with Aretha Franklin’s including 19 CDs and Otis Redding’s set including 12 CDs. This is some of the best soul music you’ll ever hear.
Bruce Springsteen, The Album Collection Vol. 1 1973-1984. This set contains the best albums Springsteen ever made and these remasters sound better than ever. Even though I still to this day follow his musical output, these seven are the albums I keep going back to. They show his growth from the next Bob Dylan (Greetings from Asbury Park) to his cult status with epic, romantic cinematic songs (the Wild the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle) right up to Born to Run, which could have possibly killed his career with all of the media hype at the time. Born to Run transcended the hype and Springsteen’s career solidified with his extremely long and powerful live shows and records like Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River and 1984’s Born in the USA, an album that confirmed his Arena Rock standings. I still find it amazing that just before he made USA, he recorded the extremely lo-fi and Woody Guthrie like Nebraska. A wonderful modern American folk record.
Procol Harum LPs. You probably don’t know these records but you do know A Whiter Shade of Pale, the most played song in the United Kingdom…Ever!! Procol Harum became a soulful bluesy. prog-rock type band with amazing blue eyed soulful vocals by Gary Brooker and lyrics by Keith Reid. Their organ player Mathew Fisher contributed to their original signature sound and original lead guitarist Robin Tower would become one of the 70s guitar gods.
These UK vinyl reissues (with expanded tracks) miss their wonderful and better first five albums but add alternative versions and outtakes in a companion second disc in most of the packages.. Aside from Procol Harum Live: In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, I originally skipped these later albums back in the day, but this reissue program introduced me some to some epic recordings. Some that work better than others. Still, one of my favorite reissues of the year.
Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs. A good friend shoved the CD version of this collection in my hands about eight years ago when I was roaming around Amoeba Record in San Francisco. She said, “you need to buy this now”. And so I did. The appropriatly titled 69 Love songs was first released in 1999. I totally missed this band until this collection was introduced to me. 69 Love Songs is full of smart and snarky pop songs. Some trite and partially realized and others much more developed, but as a whole it all works wonderfully.
The CD set can still be found here and there but this new reissued box set contains four 10″ vinyl records in a slipcase presenting three hours of bittersweet romantic longing.
Red House Painters 4AD Boxset. I used to see Mark Kozelek’s Red House Painters perform live around San Francisco throughout the 1990s. Dirgy and slow moving songs that were loud yet quietly folksy and psychedelic at the same time. It was as if you played a 33 & 1/3 record at 16 RPM. Their music is slow. Very slow. But their records are beautiful as are the minimal photographic covers of all of their releases on the 4AD label. This set collects all of their main albums in one limited edition box set. The initial pressings were on gold pressed vinyl. Great records that go perfectly with a bottle of wine or your favorite cannabis (available legally in several American States).
The Pretty Things, Bouquets from a Cloudy Sky. You’ve probably never heard of the Pretty Things. Why? They never had a hit in the United States. I get it but I still don’t understand why most folks have no idea who that were. Bluesy brit rock band, garage punk band, rock opera creators (their SF Sorrow Album preceded the Who’s Tommy), psychedelic pop artists, glam rock band, power pop balladeers. Contemporaries of the Rolling Stones but dirtier. They were Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page’s favorite band and they recorded two albums on Sawn Song, Zeppelin’s own label.
This massive CD package commemorating the band’s 50th anniversary, contains almost all of their recording plus a book and even reproductions of the legal papers granting them the returning rights of their song publishing after so many years. I’ve spoke earlier of archival reissues, but I got to say that this is probably the most career spanning set I’ve seen in a very long time.
If you really love rock and roll. Check this band out. So much to explore.
The Beatles 1+ The Video Collection. Yeah yeah yeah you’ve heard all these songs countless times before, but this CD/DVD/Blu Ray set contains 50 of the Beatles greatest songs in video form. Some live television performances plus all their groundbreaking and pivotal promo films for songs like Paperback Writer, Rain, Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane, Hey Jude and Revolution. You can’t go wrong with this video and music collection and it still amazes to witness their musical and visual transformation in just seven short years.