Another year, another move further away from caring about pop. Whether that's pop's fault or mine, I'm not sure. But there was still plenty of great new music released in 2015, and here, according to my idiosyncratic tastes, are the best albums, or at least my favorites.
1. Wire: Wire (Pink Flag)
This is said to be the first time that Bruce Gilbert's replacement, guitarist Matthew Simms, was heavily involved in the creation of a Wire album, and the result is...the closest Wire has ever come to sounding like a Colin Newman album. I exaggerate for effect, but only slightly: most everything thrums along smoothly and motorik-ly, he takes all the lead vocals (though Graham Lewis supposedly wrote many of the lyrics), and there are none of the post-punkier outbursts of the group's previous two reunion albums, though near the end of Wire, the one-two punch of "Split Your Ends" and "Octopus" come close. And I'm fine with that, because Newman's 1980s solo albums were brilliant (especially 1980's great A to Z) and Wire sounds like a continuation of them as much as of Wire's own work. That said, though, this is not a break from the Wire style, just another twist in the band's always unpredictable evolution.
2. FKA twigs: M3LL155X (Young Turks)
Following the breakthrough of LP1, Tahliah Barnett released her third EP, which shows her continuing to balance pop and avant impulses as well as arty and vernacular lyrics. Though not dubstep (I mean the original British style, not the abominable American bastardization of it), it shares that style's asymmetrical rhythmic tendencies; sonically, sometimes it's almost as deliberately weird and abrasive as, say, Autechre, yet the vocals suggest Kate Bush crossed with an R&B diva. If there's stranger pop being made nowadays, I haven't heard it.
3. Swervedriver: I Wasn't Born to Lose You (Cobraside)
Their first new album in 17 years. I'd enjoyed some of Adam Franklin's work in the interim, but never as much as Swervedriver's 1991 LP Raise -- not even close. So my hopes weren't high for this, yet it can stand beside Raise (and I felt that before I learned that in the midst of the sessions for I Wasn't Born to Lose You, they did a concert performance of Raise). The tuneful melodies with close harmony vocals, the layers of ringing guitars, the feeling of not a single sonic space left unfilled, the slightly greater drive/aggression than most of their shoegaze peers -- it's prime Swervedriver, everything that was great about them resurrected in a new century. Extra credit for how the single "Deep Wound" transmutes the opening riff of the Beatles' "And Your Bird Can Sing" into something darker and heavier.
4. Mbongwana Star: From Kinshasa (World Circuit)
This Congolese band, augmented by Irish producer Liam Farrell AKA Doctor L, mixes psych-punky soukous with electronics to make a sound like no other African band I've heard, which is not to say nobody else is mixing African music and electronics -- it's a tribute to the imagination and musical daring of this group, which includes two members of defunct band Staff Benda Bilili. It sounds like something from a William Gibson novel, and the cover photo of Kinsasha street fixture Congo Astronaut -- a kid with an astronaut suit made from junk, a one-man magical realism art project -- is the perfect visual metaphor for this genre-bending music.
5. Sleater-Kinney: No Cities to Love (SubPop)
This brilliant trio reunited not only with themselves but also with producer John Goodmanson, who also helmed most of their releases on Kill Rock Stars. I would have preferred a reunion with Dave Fridmann, who gave them the best sound of their career on The Woods, but this is still an excellent album. Their old lean sound is back (though less tinny than it used to be), as is their earlier conciseness, but with more focus and precision.
6. Tommy Keene: Laugh in the Dark (Second Motion)
Keene, to me, is perfect pop, yet it's been years since pop radio would touch material such as his. In a way, the fragmentation of music fandom is good; rather than being ignored as irrelevant, he's got a thriving career and is beloved by, if not millions, then at least thousands. After a cover-album tangent two years ago, he's back with another album of perfect power-pop songs full of irresistible hooks, chiming guitars, and catchy tunes. There are some subtle references here and there ("Dear Heloise" has to be a tip of the hat to the Hollies, right?), yet every track sounds like Tommy Keene through and through -- he's been basically doing the same thing since his 1982 debut, but for over three decades his personal formula has worked every time out, so why mess with it?
7. Whote: Moons (VII Sounds)
This project's second album is, unlike 2010's Align, entirely performed by Thomas Watkiss (note that though the copyright date says 2014, it actually appeared in January 2015). He mixes bass, guitar, field recordings, and electronic processing into a seamless set of noise-drone tracks perfectly complemented by the as-usual deeply considered and high-quality packaging -- you really need to get the limited edition vinyl with its fine-art photography and stark silkscreened logo poster to fully appreciate the scope and mood of this album (I just checked Bandcamp and it's still available). Watkiss found the shadowed middle ground between black metal and non-beat electronica and continues to create masterpieces that followers of either camp should dig.
8. Simulacrum: John Zorn's Inferno (Tzadik)
If brutal rock instrumentals are your thing, here's your new favorite album. Simulacrum -- organist John Medeski, guitarist Matt Hollenberg, and drummer Kenny Grohowski -- is a power trio with jazz and metal chops. On their third Tzadik album they perform a suite written by label owner John Zorn inspired by, he says, Swedish philosopher/playwright August Strindberg. It sounds starkly different from Medeski's other trio, Medeski, Martin & Wood; rather more like Hollenberg's quartet Cleric, though minus the screamed/growled vocals; Grohowski, who calls himself "the ultimate drum machine," powers the group with power and precision.
9. Björk: Vulnicura (One Little Indian)
This will be nobody's idea of a fun listen. On the first six tracks, Björk chronicles the break-up of her long relationship with artist Matthew Barney; though string orchestra and (often layered) vocals dominate (sometimes with electronic beats added), making it sound absolutely gorgeous, a look at the lyrics (or careful listening, for those who can hear through her Icelandic accent) reveals a world of bleakness and pain. Each of the first six tracks is dated according to where it fits around the final break, chronologically taking us from "show me emotional respect/I have emotional needs/I wish to synchronize our feelings" to "once it was simple/one feeling at a time" to "every single fuck/we had together/is in a wondrous time lapse/with us here at this moment...as I wake you up" to "our love was my womb/but our bond has broken/my shield is gone/my protection taken/I am one wound" to "I raise a monument of love/there is a swarm of sound/around our heads/and we can hear it/and we can get healed by it" to "if I regret us/I'm denying my soul to grow/don't remove my pain/it is my chance to heal." The three final tracks, undated, take a more distanced, holistic view of the situation. The melodies are more like recitative than like tunes; the strings contribute few if any hooks either and are even microtonal on "Family"; it's as if she wants us to suffer something like what she suffered. The extreme levels of catharsis operating here may mean this album is doomed to be misunderstood and disliked, yet in a way it is a deeper, more moving achievement than anything else she's ever done.
10. Circuit des Yeux: In Plain Speech (Thrill Jockey)
How to describe this? Sometimes leader Haley Fohr deploys a battery of synthesizers in minimalism/kosmische musik patterns; some tracks, using a relatively normal rock band instrumentation, sound like they come from a rediscovered '70s loner-folk LP. She tends to sing in a gutty chest voice at odds with the first-mentioned style, but which fits naturally into the second; always the lyrics are constructed more to convey mood than meaning -- the album title is presumably ironic. Occasionally instrumentation as varied as flute, mbira (electronically enhanced so that it sounds more like a whole gamelan), xylophone, bass clarinet, viola, and even bicycle is added by a number of other folks, so there's a wide range of timbres. And yet, as all over the place as this album is from track to track, somehow it coheres around a mindset, revealing the hidden kinship between those two archetypal music-geek styles. This is one of the most individualistic projects I heard this year.
11. The Harrow: Silhouettes (Aufnahme + Wiedergabe)
The first full-length by this NY-based gothy coldwave/dreampop quartet is a perfect slice of shadowy '80s synth-pop: Vanessa Irena's icy, reverb-laden vocals, Greg Fasolino's shimmering, ringing guitar chords, Frank Deserto's trebly bass lines, minimally ticking drum-machine beats, and Barrett Hiatt's enveloping synthesizer washes (Deserto and Irena are on synths as well). Like a slightly warmer and more tuneful Lycia, The Harrow brings you down in a paradoxically uplifting way.
12. Blind Idiot God: Before Ever After (Indivisible)
Yup, another jazz-metal trio makes my list. This one's been around a lot longer -- since 1982, though Before Ever After is just its fourth album. Leader Andy Hawkins (guitar), original bassistGabe Katz, and 2001 replacement drummer Tim Wyskida (Khanate) laid down these recordings at 2008-2010 sessions only now finding their way out on Hawkins's own label. Even at their jazziest, this is heavy rock. Co-producer Bill Laswell made five "mix translations" sprinkled through the purer band efforts. Get the triple-gatefold double vinyl edition for the sake of the spectacular artwork.
13. Daniel Bachman: River (Three Lobed)
Bachman's albums have all been excellent, but his latest one is especially profound, intimate, and coherent. One of the best young American Primitive Guitar practitioners, he has perhaps progressed beyond that label -- he prefers the phrase Psychedelic Appalachia, and the lengthy opening track here, "Won't You Cross Over to That Other Shore," practically a suite, suggests Sandy Bull as much as it does John Fahey, though the following track is a cover of Jack Rose's blues "Levee." Sometimes Bachman has displayed more overt virtuosity and complexity; both are present here, but neither is the point, it seems: rather, this album flows like its title, always itself no matter what it runs through. There is a graceful sophistication here that speaks of a mature artist playing for his own satisfaction, which rewards his audience as well. (No CD release, just 1000-copy limited edition vinyl -- at the very reasonable price of $12 including shipping -- and download. threelobed.bandcamp.com/album/river)
14. Steve Dalachinsky/Eighty Pound Pug: Leave the Door Open (Dog and Panda)
Downtown NYC jazz poet Steve Dalachinsky surprised us with this collaboration with guitarist/bassist Alex Lozupone's jazz-metal power trio (there's that phrase again: is it a trend?) Eighty Pound Pug, with tenor saxophonist Ayumi Ishito and drummer Paul Feitzinger. Dalachinsky's self-deprecating Brooklyn humor and existentialist beat musings, more usually accompanied by free jazz, prove highly compatible with this doomier sound keyed on Lozupone's electronically combined bass and guitar. Really, what better to accompany a 9/11 poem that starts, "I thought it was the end of the world/And then the end of the world happened again"?
15. Alan Sondheim/Azure Carter/Luke Damrosch: Threnody: Shorter Discourses of the Buddha (Public Eyesore)
This is the most assured singing I've heard from Carter, who also writes the lyrics; the ritualistic, chant-like nature of the melodic delivery of the equally ritualistic and chant-like structure of the lyrics is more keenly focused. Sondheim as usual delivers frenetic spirals of instrumental improvisation on a staggeringly wide range of instruments (19 are listed in the credits), including many from non-Western cultures, providing a broader array of timbres than you'll hear on almost any album -- and about three-fourths of the tracks are instrumentals, with co-producer Damrosch also contributing to the impressive instrumentarium, along with software-aided modifications of some sounds. There's really nobody else making music quite like this, and Sondheim's been at it since the '60s; if you haven't caught up with his work yet, this is as good a place to start as any, perhaps even the best, as there's a little more space in his creations than on many of his other recordings, perhaps making it easier for newbies to find their way into his unique soundworld.
16. Grooms: Comb the Feelings through Your Hair (Western Vinyl)
On the band's fourth album, there's a new bassist, Jay Heiselmann (semi-new: around for the previous tour as original bassist Emily Ambruso transitioned out) and drummer, Steve Levine (also an actor, with a role on Better Call Saul). But they're not why this album is radically different from earlier Grooms releases, though Levine has more chops than his predecessors. The big change is that leader/singer/guitarist Travis Johnson has added keyboards to his instrumental arsenal, drastically changing the textures and de-emphasizing the band's former trademark of alternately tuned guitars. Imagine a sound triangulating Flaming Lips' spacey Christmas on Mars, Blank Dogs, and Bear in Heaven: still jangly and wistful, so hardly a rupture with Grooms' past, but lusher and occasionally a tad motorik. Still great!
17. Joe Satriani: Shockwave Supernova (Sony Legacy)
Yeah, I know, there goes whatever indie cred I might have had. Whatever. Satriani is more than your usual knucklehead guitar virtuoso intent on displaying his chops; he writes good instrumental tunes and develops them tastefully. And, yeah, he can play, but he doesn't hit you over the head with it on every track, like, say, Yngwie Malmsteen does; often, Satriani is more focused on creating interesting timbres than on playing lots of notes really fast. I played this as much this year as anything on my list, so how could I leave it off?
18. Insect Ark: Portal/Well (Autumnsongs)
Composer/multi-instrumentalist Dana Schechter (Gift Horse, Bee and Flower; occasional associated with Locrian, American Music Club, and Michael Gira's Angels of Light) started Insect Ark as a one-woman project, and that's what's heard on this, the project's debut full-length album (a drummer has since been added). This analog/electronic hybrid of heavy, sinister darkwave instrumentals is highly evocative but also quite artful. As the Gira connection and her own bands show, Schechter comes out of a noise-rock background, and though all the drum tracks are electronically generated, they are from samples and often sound quite natural and real as they thump along under fatly ominous bass lines; fans of artier black metal (say, Blut aus Nord) may enjoy this more than the average electronica fan will.
19. Cheatahs: Mythologies (Wichita)
My favorite 2015 release of the ongoing shoegaze revival, newer band division (though lord knows that there's been such an outpouring of shoegaze releases lately that I have missed too many). Perhaps not coincidentally, it reminds me at times of the aforementioned Swervedriver, but there's quite a variety of structures and textures on Mythologies -- Cheatahs are not mere imitators, though there's no question of their genre; one would never, after hearing this highly varied album all the way through, peg them as first-wave 'gazers, as there are production touches that are definitely 21st century in sound. Cheatahs also fill their songs with great hooks, even if often they are hooky as much for rhythmic deployment of striking timbres as for memorable, hummable tunes.
20. Coclea: Coclea (Shhpuma/Clean Feed)
Anything that reminds me of Popol Vuh, I usually like. Not that this album would be confused with anything by that Krautrock band, but Guilherme Gonҫalves's twangy, ambient electric-guitar instrumentals made me imagine Popol Vuh guitar tracks minus the rest of the instrumental tracks. There are gauzy vocals on half the six pieces, but most of the time they don't actually sound like vocals. This spacey music may seem on the surface to be background music, but under its skin crawl creepy psychedelic touches, and Gonҫalves also wrote some excellent motifs, notably the melody of the last track, "Love."
Best Pop Song:
"Flesh without Blood" by Grimes, on Art Angels (4AD)
The spell cast by this catchy, propulsive song is so strong that for a while it made me overrate Art Angels, which, while occasionally entertaining, on repeated listens seemed to be going through the motions at times. But all elements click on the everything-including-the-kitchen-sink production of this track, which was an obvious single.
Joanna Newsom: Divers (Drag City)
Remember how Ryan Adams recorded his own take on Taylor Swift's 1989 and made the case for her songs by stripping them of the slick production abjured by much of the indie-rock world? Well, somebody needs to do something similar with Divers. Keep its lush arrangements (hmmm...has Steve Albini ever before worked on an album that includes harp, mellotron, harpsichord, orchestra, and musical saw choir?), but get a classical soprano with a full-bodied tone -- say, Dawn Upshaw -- to sing in place of Newsom. I've enjoyed Newsom's singing in the past, but here her squeaky sound is sonically incongruous, and not just because of the arrangements -- mostly by Newsom with, at various points, Dave Longstreth (Dirty Projectors), Nico Muhly, and others. The poetry of Newsom's lyrics is so elevated here (reading the lyric sheet, I often was reminded of, no kidding, T.S. Eliot) that it needs to be presented with more gravitas than her vocal cords can muster.
The Grooms review originally appeared in the print edition of The Big Takeover.
Conflict of interest disclosures: Bill Laswell and Alan Sondheim have released albums on ESP-Disk', where I work; Steve Dalachinsky has written for this website. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. Earlier this year, his soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days was heard at the film's debut screening at Anthology Film Archives, and more recently at the Lausanne Underground Film & Music Festival. The CD of the soundtrack was released by MechaBenzaiten Records (distributed by Forced Exposure) on August 7.