17 Best Albums Of 2015

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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.

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Cocteau Twins – Heaven or Las Vegas

Cocteau Twins made some of the most unique music of all time. I could hear a two second clip from any song in their catalog and know instantly who it is. This is the only dream pop band that sounds like it came from actual dreams.  People tend to love everything they’ve done, or nothing at all. I’ve been addicted for years.

At the center of that iconic sound is Elizabeth Fraser’s ethereal, incomprehensible vocals. Her voice is so expressive and inscrutable, it conveys worlds of emotion and narrative without the crutch of recognizable vocals. Concrete words float to the surface now and then, throwing the mood into sharp relief. Most of the time, we’re floating along a string of syllables, interlocking melody and tone without language. It’s a real life special effect.

Here’s the title track from their greatest album, Heaven or Las Vegas.

One thing that stands out with this track is the fact that I can actually make out a portion of the lyrics, including the title phrase. It’s a rare moment of total clarity that crystalizes the punchier sound they were going for on their final release for the legendary 4ad label. Heaven or Las Vegas mutated the band’s somnambulent drift with crisper, more overtly electronic production that, to me, teased out the inherent chest-pounding catchiness of their best songs. It’s not exactly club music, but the technicolor dynamic is far better suited for high volume enjoyment with friends.

The band, including guitarist and producer Robin Guthrie and bassist Simon Raymonde, always created a consciousness-defying, holistic sound. Listening to their albums is like hearing a single living instrument more than a group of actual humans working together. With this album, they cranked up the saturation and surrendered to the groove.

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Who have I got to thank for this great musical love? Probably Gregg Araki, director of weird and weirdly tender masterpieces like Mysterious Skin and Nowhere. His aesthetic runs all over the place, sometimes feeling like nihilistic Looney Tunes, but every single one of his films are tied together with perfect dream pop and shoegaze soundtracks. For the last 25 years, Araki has introduced millions of people to the joys of Slowdive, Ride, Jesus and Mary Chain, and of course Cocteau Twins. While I can’t pinpoint exactly where I first heard this Scottish trio, it’s a safe bet that one of my teenage VHS rentals contained a song or two.

This is how I celebrate black Friday: staying in, writing, and listening to old favorites. Seeing some friends later. I’ve done buy nothing day for years now, so it’s usually like this. If you’re out and about in the shopping madness reading this, plug your headphones in and enjoy the oasis. If not, you’re probably already relaxing in your own way. For me, there’s few artists better suited for a peaceful day.

The Boo Radleys – Wish I Was Skinny

I forgot how much I loved this song.

Despite the title, the lyrics are actually about all sorts of insecurities that we find ourselves plagued with. The song happily dances upon the surface of existential loathing, a buoyant celebration of being weird and alone and, on rare occasion, freaking out and having some unbridled fun.

I’d never seen the video before today, so I’m thankful I thought to look it up. The band members star as put-upon losers who let loose a bit of anarchy in the driving, instrumental second half of the tune. It’s basically what I saw in my head every time the song played, a cathartic release of tension and inhibitions. After all these years, it’s still a burst of joy.

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The Boo Radleys may be remembered in Britpop history for their 1995 breakthrough Wake Up!, but I’ve always had a much softer spot for the previous album, Giant Steps. Wish I Was Skinny is a bit of a red herring, since the rest of the album is a turbulent, dizzying race through a dense series of wild sound worlds.

It’s an incredibly ambitious psychedelic pop album, veering from washed out shoegaze to broken jazz explosions, infused with an uncanny pop sensibility that makes even the noisiest parts endearing. It was ballsy to name an album after the John Coltrane masterpiece, but if anyone in the world of 90s British rock deserved to use it, it was this band.

If you become nauseous at the mere mention of Oasis, don’t worry. These guys have more in common with Mercury Rev or My Bloody Valentine than those lamentable torch-bearers for British pop overseas.

Beach House Is Back And Better Than I Remembered

A lot of bands ape their influences, and a few even do it successfully. Far more rare are the artists who completely breathe in the essence of what made their heroes tick, exhaling something uniquely infused with the original spirit but unfolding its own logic.

Beach House has been a solid band for years, trading in dusky dreampop that bloomed into technicolor and leaned to the pop side of that sound as the albums went on. Their new album, Depression Cherry, sounds like a confident leap into the rarefied territory of legends like Cocteau Twins and Slowdive.

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Flying Saucer Attack – Instrumentals 2015

So suddenly Flying Saucer Attack appears again, nearly 15 years after last contact, with a set of unnamed instrumentals. It’s gorgeous, droning guitar music that makes no apologies for its obliqueness and doesn’t try to reach out to the uninitiated.

This slab of ashen dream is ready and waiting for anyone interested.

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“I Crave Being Destroyed”

Combing my list of unfinished drafts, I sometimes unearth little gems. This one began as a nod to a certain New Orleans ambient noise band, but quickly veered into a miniature Grand Statement about what I get out of music.

This self portrait is a handy visual metaphor for the words you’re about to read.

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I was discussing Belong‘s debut album, October Language. I was living in San Francisco and had picked up the album on CD at Aquarius Records. The following is what I wrote almost exactly 4 years ago. I’m sharing because it still applies to my life.

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My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless Has Been Reissued On Vinyl

This is no joke. I was wandering through Vertigo Music in downtown Grand Rapids, MI, yesterday and my eyes fell upon something I never expected to see without the internet exploding well ahead of time: a fresh LP copy of the timeless shoegaze masterpiece, Loveless. I hugged it lightly against my chest as I finished browsing (and picking up a copy of Cocteau TwinsHeaven Or Las Vegas) before asking the wise and friendly owner if he knew the details.

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As my cursory Discogs browsing had indicated, it’s a likely bootleg. Do not let this fact discourage you. The sound is impeccable, and after a single listen the moment I got home, I have to say that it sounds warmer, and a bit more substantial, than the tinny original CD edition we’ve all been stuck with for over two decades. It may be sourced from the few-years-old analog/digital remaster that Kevin Shields has still neglected to release or it may be from the original vinyl issue, for all I know. The point is, if you love this album already, you’re going to adore the sound quality of this release.

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The packaging claims that it’s a Creation Records release, “made in Nippon,” which, along with the lack of an Obi strip, tips me off to the bootleg nature of this release. With a money back guarantee if I wasn’t satisfied, this was hardly a passing concern. I’m so thankful that I took the leap and now own a perfectly decent copy of one of my favorite albums of all time on vinyl.

Now, for a bit of additional information: this is not a straight reissue of Loveless in its original form. There is a second disc, and while the original 11 tracks are in place, a small wealth of bonus material fills out disc two.

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As shown on the back side of the full size insert, there is a minor annoyance: the original album tracks are spread over three sides, instead of a single disc. Perhaps this was to allow for a deeper mastering, or simply to ensure that they could fill out a full four sides of music. Regardless, this became a non-issue once I heard how fantastic it sounds. As an owner of the original Tremolo EP on CD, it’s fantastic to have the three original songs (Swallow, Honey Power, and Moon Song) represented here along with Sugar (from a split single with Pacific) and Instrumental no. 2, a tune I only recently discovered with the 2012 2CD EPs 1988-1991 release. These five wonderful tunes round out the reissue in a non-essential yet entirely welcome manner.

I’ll finish this post with a couple links to help my fellow MBV fans make a purchase of their own. The fact that I hadn’t heard one peep about this says that it might come as a surprise. There are a handful of copies on Discogs, and one seller on Amazon seems to have this edition for $79. Please note that there are occasionally copies of a 2003 Plain reissue floating around, but my experience with this company isn’t encouraging. Shields himself has stated that it’s “ripped from the original CD” and the label doesn’t have a great track record with regards to pressing quality.

With all that out of the way: I can’t emphasize enough how much of a gorgeous, mind-bending landmark this album is, how much of a monolithic presence it’s played in my life and the development of my musical taste. Loveless is so much more than “the best shoegaze album.” It’s a sound that bends rock music so far that, instead of breaking, it pushes into entirely new dimensions. Once you’ve let it into your life, your sense of audio aesthetics will be forever changed. I couldn’t wait to share the news with everyone.

(Here’s the full album, in case you’re wondering what the fuss is about. Play at high volume.)

By the way: if you live anywhere nearby, please visit Vertigo Music and talk to the owner, Herm. Tell him I sent you. It’s easily the best record store I’ve ever visited in the midwest. There were 2 copies left yesterday, at only $27. Hurry if you’re interested!