Sunday, June 28, 2015

6 Months, 5 Albums - the best of 2015 (so far)

We're six months into the year, and I can already see that it's going to be really hard to come up with a year-end Top 10.  I'm comfortable with designating these five as my favorites at the halfway point, but it's entirely possible that one could drop out of the Top 10 entirely by the end of December.  That's not a commentary on these records, but a statement about the overall strength of the year.

So in alphabetical order, let's take a peek:

Alabama Shakes - Sound & Color.  In rock music, the best surprises are the unexpected ones - things like Bob Dylan coming up with "Time Out of Mind" after two decades in the wilderness, and Neil Young releasing "Freedom" after a series of desultory albums in the 1980s.  I'm not sure "Sound & Color" quite falls into that category, but it is a pleasant surprise nonetheless - at least for me.  I was not a huge fan of "Boys & Girls, the debut album, even though like just about everyone else on the planet I thought "Hold On" was an instant classic single.  I wasn't even sure I would buy the new album, until a co-worker insisted that I give it a listen and burned a copy for me.  Well, after just two listens I knew I liked it enough to pick up my own copy, and after two months of continuous listens I remain somewhere between surprised and astonished at the record's depth and diversity.

The best thing about it is that much of the record is downright weird - I don't know how else to describe such songs as "Future People," "The Greatest," or even the long blues jam "Gemini."  They barely even sound like each other, which in some instances could be a drawback but here just adds to the power of the album.  Brittany Howard is a vocal chameleon, and unlike the debut it never sounds like she's just trying too hard.  The stretch on the album from "Future People" through "Shoegaze," 5 tracks later - is going to be hard to top this year.

Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly.  I wrote about "How Much a Dollar Cost" here, but right now the track that keeps going through my mind is "King Kunta."  This is not an album for the faint of heart (or for anyone who has difficulty with harsh language), but it's pretty clearly the best rap album since Kanye's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy."

James McMurtry - Complicated Game.  Son of Pulitzer Prize winning Larry, McMurtry has a wonderful way with words, and the album is hard to classify - is it Country?  Folk?  Something in between or something completely different?  Lots of great songs, but the one that has stuck with the most is "Cutter:"

I cut myself sharp and deep
It's the only thing that let's me sleep
Takes the pain from off my face
and puts it in one tiny space

Where I can keep it down out of sight
Way off to the side
It won't come at me on a cold dark night
The red ridges I can't hide
They're on the outside

Sleater-Kinney - No Cities to Love.  The only thing I would add to what I wrote here is how much "Fade," the album's final track, sounds like something that Roxy Music would have recorded circa 1973-4.  Spooky.

Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell.  Heartbreakingly beautiful and haunting.  Still trying to wrap my mind around it.

So there you have it.  There are plenty of honorable mentions and subjects for further research over in that list on the right, but for now I'm comfortable with these five being at the top of it.  Here's hoping that the second half of the year brings as many delights as the first.

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