Saturday, January 30, 2016

Music Heard on the Island, 2015 Edition

So my last couple of posts got pretty heavy, so let's change it up to something a bit more lighthearted.
2015 was a cool year in music. I liked a lot of what happened last year. Of course, there was some crap, but it seemed like I saw less of it then I did in 2014. Heck, 2015 was the year Justin Bieber finally became somewhat acceptable listening material. That in and of itself was enough to sit up and take notice of the musical year.

2015 saw a lot of great music, and sadly I missed a lot of it. I heard snatches here and there - Chris Stapleton's appearance on SNL left me wanting more, and the Chris Cornell and Sara Bareilles features on Zac Brown Band's new Jekyll+Hyde intrigued me. I still have yet to get to those albums.
2015 was also the year of the comeback. Shania Twain released a live album? Natalie Imbruglia finally stopped feeling "Torn"and released new music? Howie Day still exists and is making music? I didn't listen to any of them, but it's interesting that they came back (see below for more).
And there were a bunch of albums that I listened to in 2015 that, on looking them, actually came out in 2014, or even 2013. Son Little is an excellent modern blues album that caught my attention with the return of Spotify's "Discover Weekly" feature. Vance Joy's "Riptide" pulled me in (get it?), but that album came out last year, too. Whoops.

Anyway, onto albums that actually came out in 2015 and that I did listen to:

1. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly: In March, the Billboard charts were swimming in the sludge that was Meghan Trainor's "Title", struggling to stay afloat with Fall Out Boy, Ne-Yo, and the remaining singles from Mark Ronson's "Uptown Special", none of which were making us dance in the street (RIP David Bowie) the way Uptown Funk did. Meanwhile, people who know more about rap than I do were abuzz with discussion of an impending new album from Kendrick Lamar. Then near the Ides of March, "King Kunta" threw open the pop-culture doors and drop-kicked Meghan Trainor across the room. I think Australian comedian Felicity Ward put it best when she Tweeted:

The rest of the album is amazing, but very differently so. It gets heavy. It's an intense 78 minutes that delves deep into racism in our country, and it takes a couple of listens before it can fully sink in. But it is a beautiful album. One of the coolest parts is that most of the album features live musicians creating the musical canvas on which Kendrick paints his words.  My friend Jon Lehning, a working jazz saxophonist, points out that TPAB is as much jazz as it is rap in some places. I fell in love with it instantly. Check out this video of a live performance.

2. Gavin Harrison - Cheating the Polygraph. I have been a longtime fan of the band Porcupine Tree. It started with, as many of my musical discoveries start, with an interview in Modern Drummer that introduced me to this master of making intricate drumming chops blend into the music so you barely notice. Harrison creates beats at times that I can often only begin to guess at, much less try to imitate. Here he takes Porcupine Tree songs and filters them through big band arrangements, molding them from progressive hard rock into a beautiful bop jazz, while maintaining their progressive sensibilities. The result is a mix of guess-the-PT-song as you enjoy the awesome layers of horns and woodwinds breathing new life into the tunes. The album goes by pretty quickly, but it's a fun ride for jazz fans and PT lovers alike. A Sampler Montage.

3. Chris Cornell - Higher Truth: Chris Cornell's new album pre-order emerged right as I was starting to get the itch for new music in October of last year. Soundgarden had put out a new album and tour the previous year, and Cornell had announced he was doing another solo project this year. His previous solo albums have seen mild success, with the melodic alt-rock of Euphoria Morning and Carry On, contrasted with the Timbaland-produced Scream, an album that fused Cornell's voice with hip-hop beats and made Cornell fans everywhere seriously question one of the greatest voices in rock. Higher Truth takes a more stripped-down approach and lays it all on the songwriting. And it absolutely does not disappoint. It balances an acoustic folk aesthetic with heartfelt rock-out moments (lead single Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart displays this perfectly). The songs on this album let Cornell's voice shine, as the pain, sorrow, or hope of the forlorn lyrics cuts into your soul. Definitely one of my favorites. Arguable best moment: "Murderer of Blue Skies" which starts as a quietly intense folk+electronica rhythm and suddenly bursts forth with an electric guitar and crashing drum beat, one of the album's best cathartic moments. 

4. Zella Day - Kicker: I actually forgot about this album until I went to make this list. Spotify brought back its "Discover Weekly" feature (I guess it used to be called something else, my sister was telling me - she was over the moon when it came back). One of my playlists featured the song "Ace of Hearts." I was immediately floored as Zella Day's forlorn voice cut into my soul over the slick slow 6/8 beat. I went to check the rest of the album out and Mustang Kids immediately had me dancing, having fun with the same theme that Halsey's "New Americana" tried to use later in the year (and not nearly as well). The album features a lot of emotion, but it's channeled through some beautiful lyrical imagery and fantastic layered beats and soundscapes.

The next one is not one I actually heard in 2015, but I was strapped for another selection that really captured my heart. On review of albums that came out last year in anticipation of this playlist, I came across this and was pretty much immediately sold:

5. The Corrs - White Light: I know what you're thinking. The most beloved Irish family band of the late '90s and early 2000s has returned? Okay, maybe you're not thinking that, because if you're like most of the population of the United States, the last (and possibly only) time you ever heard The Corrs was 2000's "Breathless," and that's only if you saw The Corrs Live in Dublin DVD, or heard it in that Debra Messing movie "The Wedding Date." Well, they made 2 albums after that, the last one in 2004, and then lead vocalist Andrea Corr struck out on her own for a bit. Apparently in recent years, drummer Caroline got the band back together, and they went into the studio under the radar. The result is an album that seems to pick up right where they left off in 2004. The first single, "Bring On The Night," features the same dance-pop vibe  that kept "Breathless" in your head for days, with a resilient hope that makes you want to sing along and then go fight a dragon. The rest of the album continues the Corrs' tradition of balancing pop sensibilities with traditional Irish songwriting and instrumentation - the tin whistle, bodhran, and violin blend so well with guitar, keyboards, and drums. They didn't necessarily break much new ground, but after 11 years, this is exactly what Corrs fans want. 

Honorable Mentions:
Kamasi Washington - The Epic. If you like the instruments and stylings you heard in TPAB above, check this out. Washington provides the saxophone flavor on the album. My closest musicophilic compadre Eric suggested it to me, and similar to TPAB, I was instantly hooked.
Brian Wilson - No Pier Pressure. I've been expecting this album since this video came out. And it does not disappoint. Wilson hearkens back to Pet Sounds with the same Beach Boy-style harmonies and sonic textures that we've loved for years.
Def Leppard - Def Leppard. Another comeback album, DL releases an album of new material that manages to cull together all the best parts of their music over the years. "Wings of an Angel" is one of my new belt-out-in-the-car anthems.
Toto - Toto XIV. This was a great album, but, while Joseph Williams may be a technically better singer, and the years have been good to him and his voice, I miss Bobby Kimball's over-the-top vocals, the desperate wails and angry growls of his mighty choruses.  On the whole, a good album...I just wasn't satisfied on a visceral level.

No comments:

Post a Comment