Top 15 Records of 2015 / by David Bernabo

While I have been continually questioning my own reasons for making records, that (very minor, but interesting) dilemna has not dampened my thirst for records from others. 2015 was a year that housed some of my most anticipated albums - note: I counted D'angelo as 2014 - with new works from Joanna Newsom, Jim O'Rourke, Bjork. In some ways, I'm disappointed. My favorite records are from artists that have been with me for a long while. The musicians that are new to me are in many cases established artists, often in jazz or classical circles. I'm wondering about the new, awesome rock bands. Where are they? Please let me know what I should check out!!!!

1. John Potter - Amores Pasodos (ECM)
The thought of voice and lute pieces written by Sting, John Paul Jones, and Tony Banks did not seem like a winner. (Well, I would have checked out the Tony Banks pieces.) But then I heard a John Paul Jones piece, and it was beautiful. I was familiar with Potter's voice from the Hilliard Ensemble, but had not heard him in a solo (or in some cases, a duo) context. So, I bought the record, already predisposed to buying nearly any ECM record. As it turns out, this is a wonderfully balanced work - lots of darkness, slowness, things in corners. The lute harmonies are beautiful. As I age, I find myself leaning in toward albums of art song.

Not from the record, but interesting. John Potter singing David of the white rock.

2. Joanna Newsom - Divers (Drag City)
Speaking of art song . . . Have One on Me was my favorite record of 2010 and has been a constant listen since then. Divers upholds the high expectations for performance, writing, and lyricism. In food, people talk about "mouthfeel" when describing the physical sensations of food. It isn't the actual taste, but it another feature of the food. Newsom records certainly contain the music, the audible part, but there are other effects outside of the music. Senses of place, surroundings, immersion. The Milk-Eyed Mender felt a bit chaotic and located in many spaces. Ys was both claustrophobic with non-stop lyrics and ensemble transitions, but expansive in what one could expect from pop music. Certainly, the album inhabited its own world. HOOM felt like being in a large drawing room, recapping a variety of relationships. Divers feels a little removed from a certain place. I tend to get distracted with things outside the record's control. The instrument list is longer. I do think about the studio process of making this record. (Newsom plays the majority of the instruments and I love records like that.) I also wonder if certain lines are about Andy Samberg, well, really only one line stands out. "And it hurt me bad, when I heard the news that you’d got that call, and could not refuse." But, all that aside, this is an outstanding record!

3. Michael Feuerstack - The Forgettable Truth (Forward Music)
I was a Snailhouse fan since the days of free downloading on Audiogalaxy. Michael Feuerstack was Snailhouse and is now making similar records as a solo artist. I say similar, because Feuerstack's songwriting and vocal approach (even when sung by others on 2014's Singer Songer record) is the throughline that connects his history of releases. Within each release, there is change. There was that introduction of humor with 2008's Sentimental Gentleman, there was the paired down, homemade feel with 2013's Tambourine Death Bed. The Forgettable Truth is a bit thicker - nice, dry rhythm section, great vocal harmonies, lots of guitars and pedal steel, tasteful keyboards. At the root of Feuerstack's music, for me at least, is a history in slowcore, or maybe I mean sadcore. Whichever, I was listening to Snailhouse when I was listening to Low, TW Walsh's Blue Laws, Pedro the Lion, Julie Doiron, Spokane. That plodding pace is still present on "Cemetary Trees" and "Clickity Clack," but it is mixed with what I'm starting to identify as classic songwriting. It's personal, a bit universal, and a bit odd. Good fall/winter/spring music. Summer, too, I suppose.

4. Mount Eerie - Sauna (P.W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd.)
I always go in spurts with Microphones and Mount Eerie. I stay away for a few years and then I play catchup. I stayed away from 2012's Clear Moon and Ocean Roar, caught up, but never got fully into those records like I had with No Flashlight, The Glow Pt. 2, and Mount Eerie. Sauna starts with a long organ drone + fire crackle. It certainly helps to reset the listener and prepare them for another great Mount Eerie nature walk. A lot of the now familiar traits are here: organ drones, distorted bass, tape hiss, nature imagery, a sense of peril, intricate and unexpected drumming. The return of harmonized vocals is super cool, too.

5. Tigran Hamasyan / Yerevan State Chamber Choir - Luys i Luso (ECM) 
This autumn is heavily influencing my top 10. While working on the Food Systems film, I have taken a number of long car rides in the country. Music pairings consisted of digging through my 20th Century Classical CDs along with a number of new-to-me choral pieces. The association with place and experience has provided more weight to a few of these records. Walking about Krestchmann's farm, photographing a bright fall sun piercing an incredibly long line of trees, and then getting into the car to this record definitely imprinted the music with something extra. Hamasyan's new record dives into Armenian sacred music from the 5th to 19th century. The tools are a piano, that folds in jazz and some atonality, and the inspiring Yerevan State Chamber Choir. This music furthers the living tradition of personalizing sacred music.

6. Jim O'Rourke - Simple Songs (Drag City)
2001's Insignificance record was huge for me. After that long wait, I assumed that any new Jim O'Rourke song record would instantly be my #1 fav. Like the new D'angelo record, my anticipation was so high and the incredibly minor things that irk me about these records has kept them from hitting the, admittedly needless and pointless, #1 designation. That said, Simple Songs is so cool. The harmonic variety and thought is inspiring. (Actually, in truth, I decided to record my new solo record, The Inn, after hearing this new O'Rourke record.) I love the guitar harmonies. Love the sequencing. Love the powerful vocal sections. Love the band, although I do miss the vibe of the Gray/Kotche/(Barnes) rhythm section. My two wishes: 1) I wish I could hear the vocals a bit better. 2) I wish there was a little more mid in the mix.

7. Erkki-Sven Tüür / Brett Dean - Gesualdo (ECM)
We're back to those drives through farmland. Gesualdo's vocal music is incredible and was wonderfully captured by the Hilliard Ensemble, among others, a few years ago on another ECM release. This release contains two new arrangements of Gesualdo pieces along with longer responses by composers Erkki-Sven Tüür and Brett Dean. Like all ECM records, this is immaculately engineered and the compositions are thoughtful and rewarding. I'm decently awful as describing classical composition, so maybe just take a listen.

8. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie and Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)
I *like* Sufjan Stevens, but I never enjoyed listening to an entire album. The Michigan and Illinoise records were awesome, but bloated and tiring. The Age of Adz never seemed appealing. Honestly, when The BQE and the Planetarium song cycle and all were happening, I was working 60 hours a week and couldn't be bothered with those projects. But I picked up the new record when I was at Sound Cat, and I had that feeling of "I really want to buy a record, but nothing is looking good today." Imagine my surprise when I listened to this five times in a row on a trip from Pittsburgh to Shamokin. Then listened to it another 20 times. It's a great looping record. The things that stand out on this record are the increased use of falsetto vocals, a nice keyboard or el. piano pulse that works so well on a few songs, and more variation in lyrical cadence. Stevens' music has always veered toward the melancholy, but this record pairs that melancholy with a personal narrative that warrants the downer vibe. Pretty much a perfect record for a certain mood. 

9. Susan Howe and David Grubbs - WOODSLIPPERCOUNTERCLATTER (Blue Chopsticks)
This is the fourth collaboration between Howe and Grubbs. It is not drastically different from the previous three releases, but the one long track provides a more continuous, less edited listen. The piece starts with a conversation, mixed very lowly, in an art gallery. The conversation fragments are presumably about works of art. Much of Howe's work looks at a source (the poem "Articulation of Sound Forms in Time" references diaries from a New England minister, 2003's The Midnight crawls through family archives, Souls of Labadie Tract extracts history from the Labadists, a Utopian Quietest sect that moved from the Netherlands to Cecil County, Maryland in 1684.) So, these sources provide a context and the initial conversation in the gallery grounds the spoken and performed material that follows. "Crowded litte monuments of paint."

10. Nils Økland Band - Kjølvatn (ECM)
Yes, more ECM! Nils Økland was kind enough to license a piece of music to the first Food Systems film, but that is neither here nor there. At the beginning of the year, I was scouring websites for hardanger fiddles. Luckily for my pocket book, none of the few American distributers wrote back. I was in love with the sound of the instrument. More precisely, I was in love with the sound from Økland's records. There's an element of control over the drone that exists within his recordings that I don't find in much contemporary drone music. What does the drone mean without space around it? Kjølvatn is less drone and more Norwegian folk + a bunch of other inputs. 

Runners-Up:
11. Chris Potter Underground Orchestra - Imaginary Cities (ECM)
12. Bjork - Vulnicura (One Little Indian)
13. Jessica Pratt - On Your Own Love Again (Drag City)
14. Wilco - Star Wars (dBpm)
15. Nathan Hall - Earth Sea Sky

 

I don't consider any of this as formal review, just a bit of thought. Happy Holidays! Happy New Year!