It’s truly been a landmark year for music. As soon as the calendar flipped to 2015, we were greeted with a deluge of incredible albums. January alone saw the release of strong efforts by Mark Ronson (“Uptown Funk” has permeated our social consciousness more than any other track this year), Belle & Sebastian, Sleater-Kinney, Viet Cong, Panda Bear and the Decemberists. From there, the field only becomes more crowded. Putting together a “Best Of” list at the year’s end will undoubtedly be excruciating (as if my 2014 list didn’t already feature enough agonizing decisions). And furthermore, it might not be a stretch to say that, barely half a year in, 2015 in music has already surpassed what was an extremely strong 2014 in music.
The WIUX Blog Squad (trademark pending) has done a truly admirable job keeping pace with all the records being flung at them. It’d behoove you to go back through our archives and check out some of the truly great work our writers have done this year. (A particular favorite of mine was our review of Sufjan Steven’s Carrie & Lowell, which is on my “shortlist” for Album of the Year).
That being said, and with a field this insanely crowded, some records slip through the cracks. A whole bevy of terrific releases have gone unreviewed by the blog. This is due in part to the effects of summer: school gets out, there are less consistent contributors to the blog, but the albums just keep coming. It’s inevitable.
That’s where this column comes in: my goal is to try and recap some of the amazing albums that WIUX might have missed since the beginning of May, when our stable of writers diminished substantially. These aren’t full-scale album reviews; rather, they’re brief snapshots of albums that, had they been released during the academic year, would certainly be given full reviews. They probably would’ve gotten high marks, too: many of these records have already butted their way into the “Album of the Year” (henceforth AoY) discussion (at least for me), making that discussion even more difficult.
The general idea is to keep this column going every couple of weeks, maybe every month. If you’ve got an album that you’d like us to review, recommend them to me via Twitter (@SammyVMan).
So let’s dive in.
The Waterfall – My Morning Jacket (released 5/04 via ATO Records)
Venerable freak/folk/jam/whatever rockers My Morning Jacket have returned with their first album since 2011’s strong Circuital, and it’s a doozy. After what looks increasingly like a safe, fan-service album in Circuital, it seems as if Jim James & co. have found their experimental streak again. There’s a lot happening on this record, from the burbling electronics on anthemic opener “Believe” to the quiet, lilting “Get the Point” to the massive, thundering arrangements on tracks like “Spring (Among the Living)” and “Tropics (Erase Traces)”. This is a record that deserves full stereo system treatment: your laptop speakers or cheap headphones simply won’t capture this album the way it’s meant to be heard. With The Waterfall, MMJ have crafted a huge, bombastic rock album that forgoes traditional rock cliches, liberally applying their patented brand of weird. It’s an AoY contender for me. 6/7 FOR ME.
Key tracks: “Believe”, “Spring (Among the Living)”, “Tropics (Erase Traces)”, “Only Memories Remain”
Wilder Mind – Mumford & Sons (released 5/04 via Island Records)
Mumford & Sons crafted an intriguing narrative in the run-up to their third studio album. After temporarily shutting it down in 2013 (the “I Fucking Hate the Banjo” period), the quartet returned to the studio with a new look and – more importantly – a “new” sound. By “going electric”, the band left their divisive brand of folk stomp behind them in favor of more plugged in, full band arrangements. It wasn’t a stretch: their best songs shook the stadium rafters like the power chord-fueled anthems of arena rockers before them. But in crafting a new sound, the band lost their identity. Say what you will about albums like Sigh No More or Babel; those albums had a particular sonic quality, style, a sense of place that was pure Mumford. On Wilder Mind, the band has lost all that: they’ve crafted what is essentially a late-period Kings of Leon record, or any number of alternative-ish rock bands. Underneath it’s surface, there is nothing “wild” about this record. It sounds like everyone; it sounds like no one. That is Wilder Mind’s biggest pitfall. GOTTA GO WITH A 3/7 HERE.
Key tracks: “Believe”, “The Wolf”, whichever song Aaron Dessner of the National is on I guess
Dark Bird Is Home – The Tallest Man On Earth (released 5/12 via Dead Oceans)
A traditionally acoustic-based artist makes the creative decision to employ more electric and full band instrumentation in an attempt to freshen up their sound. If you’ve been following the music press this year, you might assume that narrative belongs to the aforementioned Mumford album. But, quietly, Iceland’s Kristian Matsson (aka The Tallest Man On Earth) has done largely the same thing. The difference? Matsson is a better musician, singer, lyricist/storyteller… everything, really. His previous three albums have been masterful explorations of quiet, intimate folk music, largely focusing on the singer, his nifty, nimble guitar playing, and his truly brilliant storytelling. Dark Bird Is Home continues that trend, but with Matsson subtly shepherding those understated “plugged in” elements that can be so tricky to incorporate for a folk artist. But when those drums and guitars and keys come crashing in on “Sagres”? Oh, boy. “It’s just all this fucking doubt,” he gasps, and that line seals the deal on the album. Fans pining for his old sound need not worry: “Singers”, the brilliant “Little Nowhere Towns”, and “Beginners” have that in spades. All in all, it’s another astounding release from one of Iceland’s greatest exports. UGH IS IT A 5/7 OR A 6/7. HUH. I GUESS 5? NAH FAM, GOTTA GO 6/7. AoY CANDIDATE.
Key Tracks: “Darkness of the Dream”, “Slow Dance”, “Little Nowhere Towns”, “Sagres”
Multi-Love – Unknown Mortal Orchestra (released 5/26 via Jagjaguwar)
Man oh man, this album is all kinds of nuts. Sonically, there’s so much going here. Phased guitar mixes with blaring synth bursts, deft bass playing, and slightly off-kilter drumming to create a kind of funk/rock/R&B pastiche that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Prince album. Production-wise, frontman Ruban Nielson has crafted an extraordinary sonic landscape. It’s the album equivalent of hanging a bunch of drug rugs up over the windows of your college house: it’s a little muted, a little musky, and super vibe-y. Nielson WANTS you to hear the production; it’s as central to the record’s sound as the musicians or the polyamorous themes that permeate it (an extremely dense lyrical topic that Nielson, the group’s singer and songwriter, navigates with aplomb). The title track is hauntingly funky, while “Like Acid Rain” and “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” are old-school rave-ups with a decidedly new-school slant. This album is musically fun, thematically heavy, and ridiculously listenable. HEY GANG GOTTA GO WITH A 6/7 AGAIN. AoY CANDIDATE. HOLY SHIT.
Key tracks: “Multi-Love”, “Like Acid Rain”, “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”, “Necessary Evil”
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful – Florence + The Machine (released 6/08 via Island Records)
This album is exactly what it’s title advertises: it’s big, it’s blue, and it’s certainly beautiful. On their third studio album (and first since 2011’s Ceremonials), Florence Welch and co. deliver in a way that’s as huge as the voice that first carried the group to stardom in 2008. Welch’s massive, effortless vocals arc across these songs of love and loss, heartbreak and triumph: she has never sounded better. The arrangements are breathtaking: check the swelling strings on “Various Storms & Saints”, laid against Welch’s gut wrenching vocals and a simple guitar accompaniment. Or the cracking riff of single “What Kind Of Man”. Or the bombastic beat of “Delilah”. Or the massive hook that forms the heart of “Third Eye” (“I’m the same, I’m the same, I’m trying to change”). Check any song, really. This album is that good. Florence + The Machine have taken the joy and innocence of their debut (2008’s Lungs) and combined it with the dense, heavy darkness of Ceremonials to create their biggest, best, most accessible album to date. FUCK PROBABLY GOTTA GO 6/7 ON THIS ONE TOO.
Key tracks: “Ship To Wreck”, “Various Storms & Saints”, “Delilah”, “Third Eye”
Surf –Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment (released independently, 5/28)
Let’s get one thing straight: Chance the Rapper does not want you to view Surf as a Chance the Rapper album. It’s not credited to him; about half the album’s songs don’t even feature him. This is, first and foremost, an album by the Social Experiment, a jazz-influenced collective of musicians that Chance happens to be a part of. Nico Segal (aka Donnie Trumpet) plays ringleader here, and his horn is the common thread tying the album together (check his lines on mood piece “Something Came To Me”, or the brass gymnastics at the beginning of “Just Wait”). The album itself is a joyful celebration of musical collaboration, a vibrant parade of jazz, hip-hop, R&B, even gospel. Donnie Trumpet and Chance lead the cavalcade of guest musicians through the record. The crackling “Slip Slide” features invigorating turns from Busta Rhymes, B.o.B., B.J. the Chicago Kid, and Janelle Monáe hollering in the background. Elsewhere, Big Sean and J. Cole pop up, taking a verse and then dipping out. This is an album that is devoid of ego; it’s a celebration, an exultation, a paean to musical inclusiveness and community. It’s the kind of record that can make trap artists like King Louie and Quavo from Migos feel at home in a jazz setting. Hell, Erykah Badu makes a 30 second appearance out of nowhere that feels perfectly placed. The whole record is an exercise in ego subversion. And we haven’t even gotten to Chance’s tracks. Album opener “Miracles” is sweeping. “Windows” is gut wrenching. “Rememory” (the Badu track) is hauntingly beautiful. And the album’s big hit, “Sunday Candy”, is pure gospel, with Chance sounding absolutely giddy throughout. That the track features Jamila Wood’s smooth vocals on the hook is simply bonus. Surf was meant for summer, and we’re all grateful for the waves. FUCK MAN GOTTA GO 6/7 HERE TOO JESUS LORD.
Key tracks: “Slip Slide”, “Just Wait”, “Rememory”, “Sunday Candy”
I Don’t Want To Let You Down (EP) – Sharon Van Etten (released 6/09 via Jagjaguwar)
2014’s critically-acclaimed Are We There established Van Etten as a powerful force in music, her quavering, emotive voice propelling her gutwrenching songs of heartbreak and torturous love. This new EP serves as an addendum to that album’s exhausting examination of poisoned love. The title track is particularly painful, framed by smooth tremolo guitar and Van Etten’s voice pleading, pleading “I don’t want to let you down”. These songs come from the same emotional turmoil that Van Etten detailed with intimate detail on Are We There, and that context makes the pleasant piano arrangement of “I Always Fall Apart” that much more devastating. “You know I always fall apart,” she sings. “It’s not my fault, it’s just my flaw/It’s who I am.” The EP ends with a live take of “Tell Me”, a song Van Etten says she has yet to adequately capture in the studio. This EP, taken with Are We There, paints an even more vivid picture than that meticulously detailed album did on its own. But perhaps the strongest characteristic of I Don’t Want To Let You Down” is just how well it stands up by itself. PROBABLY GONNA GO WITH A 5/7 HERE. V GOOD BUT NOT A FULL ALBUM.
Key tracks: “I Don’t Want To Let You Down”, “I Always Fall Apart”, “Tell Me”
All of these records have been released in a little over a month. The pace at which quality albums have been coming out is patently absurd, and surely cannot be sustainable for the second half of the year. And yet, with albums by Kanye, Drake, Frank Ocean, Tame Impala, Beach House, Coldplay, and countless others on the horizon, 2015 might go down as the best year in music of the entire decade. We can only hope that, as the year marches on, we don’t get too overwhelmed.