My Favorite Albums of 2015: 3rd Quarter

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by John Ellis

I do not have an iTunes account. Which means, unfortunately and disgracefully, that I have yet to listen to what many are already crowning the album of the year[1]: Ryan Adams’ cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989. I guess, technically, I could open an iTunes account, but, at the moment, my wife isn’t here to show me how[2]. Regardless of the glaring oversight on this list, and, don’t worry, there are other omissions[3], and as I mentioned in my “Favorite Albums of 2015: 2nd Quarter,” it’s not possible for me to listen to and evaluate every new release; I did manage to interact with thirty-two albums during this year’s third quarter, though.

Most of those thirty-two albums are worthy of mention; in fact, this quarter has been harder than 2015’s first and second quarters for me to decide on my favorites. Overall, I’ve been impressed by the high level of music that’s been released over the last three months. There were, however, some notable flubs that I freely chose to listen to; although, I should note, had I know beforehand what I know now, I would not have chosen. On second thought, maybe “freely chosen” isn’t accurate.

I debated whether or not to name the worst two music crimes, but decided against it. For one, I mostly shy away from negative reviews[4]. For another, I’m only one degree of separation away from one of the artists, and I don’t want to run the risk of offending that one degree. And, the second album, well, I’m embarrassed that I even wasted my time on it and am torn about whether or not the potential embarrassment of outing myself is worth helping people steer clear of it. I landed on, it’s not; besides, I would be shocked if I know anyone who has actually listened to it.

With all that out of the way, and without any further ado (well, a little more further ado because I want to confess that a couple of the following albums were “technically” released towards the end of 2015’s second quarter) here are my favorite albums of 2015’s third quarter.

  1. So There – Ben Folds

It’s hard to deny the musical genius of Ben Folds. It’s also hard to deny that he’s self-aware of his musical genius and that that self-awareness often dazzles distractingly in his music. With that double-edged lead-in, allow me to kick off this list with Ben Folds’ So There.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve listened to So There multiple times under the assumption that the album would grow on me. It hasn’t. In fact, the opposite has happened. Listening to it has become tiresome; I leave the listening experience feeling like I just left Ben Folds’ self-organized musical show-and-tell. Which raises the question, “Why am I including So There on this list?” Well, out of respect for the musical genius of Ben Folds that is readily heard on the album, for one thing. For another, because I’m still operating under the assumption that over time, So There will grow on me and I will enjoy listening to it. I mean, the inclusion of the chamber pop songs performed with the Nashville Symphony and those songs’ refinement do elevate So There well above the average pop music album. So There is an album that I not only feel like I should like, but an album that I also want to like. Number fifteen for albums released over a three month period seems appropriate for So There.

  1. Depression Cherry – Beach House

Oh, Sub Pop and your constant need to be “inventive” with labeling and packaging, you cost Beach House several slots on this list. Without the irritating red fuzzy CD case, Depression Cherry would’ve been higher than number fifteen. No lie. I’m tired of red fuzz littering my shelf and other CD cases[5]. However, for readers unfamiliar with Beach House, do not let my pettiness stop you from listening to what may very well turn out to be the best dream pop album[6] of 2015. As a side note – Many people tell me that they love music and books but have trouble reading while listening. Those people should try Depression Cherry from Beach House while reading – and I mean that as a good thing.

  1. Sing Into My Mouth – Iron and Wine & Ben Bridwell

Sing Into My Mouth, a cover album from the indie roots-rock Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell and folk-musician Iron and Wine (Samuel Beam), is flawed, no doubt, but the album’s high points are so compelling as to make Sing Into My Mouth one of 2015’s third quarter’s finest. If the first track, a cover of Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place,” was the only track on Sing Into My Mouth, the album may very well have landed in this list’s top three.

  1. Poison Season – Destroyer

Poison Season, the tenth studio album from the Canadian indie rock band Destroyer, is an incredibly smooth album but without many smooth albums’ icky feeling that I imagine accompanies participation in a 1970’s era key party. I have very little doubt that that description contributes absolutely nothing to anyone’s desire to listen to Poison Season. How about this instead – I’m willing to bet that a year from now, when I look back over this list, I’ll either ask myself “why wasn’t Poison Season number one?” or “why in the world do I still own this piece of crap album?” Any better? No? Oh, well.

  1. The Fire Tonight – The Fire Tonight

If excellent musicality, passionate musicians, and supporting indie artists are, on any level, priorities of yours, check out (and then purchase) the latest album from the piano-rock band The Fire Tonight. My article in No Depression gives a little more detail as to why you should be listening to this trio.

  1. The Deslondes – The Deslondes

I wouldn’t necessarily suggest quoting this on a History test, but I’m fairly certain that everything of value in this country has at least some ties to New Orleans. You doubt me? Well, if jambalaya, jazz, and liberal open container laws don’t persuade you, the Cajun-country music of New Orleans’The Deslondes may very well do so. Take the best of Nashville, heap on generous portions of the souls of Americana troubadours, and mix spicy Cajun spirit throughout and I’m willing to bet that The Deslondes self-titled debut LP is what would emerge. 

  1. Phantasmagoric – Grace & Tony

Most people who are friends with me and my wife, whether in real life or on Facebook, know that Grace & Tony is one of our family’s favorite bands. What many people may not know is that the band is responsible for my burgeoning music journalism career.

After catching their Kennedy Center Millennium Stage show, our then eight year old daughter wrote a review. I shared that review with the band on Facebook; the band loved it and shared it with their management team; their publicist emailed me and asked if I would review November, Grace & Tony’s debut LP. While flattered, I confessed that I didn’t know anything about writing album reviews. The publicist responded, “That’s ok. Most reviewers don’t know anything about writing music reviews either.” Not quite two years later, I find myself with my own column in No Depression , the industry recognized leader in all things Americana and roots music.

All of that may lead some to conclude that my impartiality has been compromised, and they’d be correct. But, outside of those who lack the intensely human attribute of empathy, interacting with any art form with impartiality is fool’s gold. The opinion of people who “impartially” promote or dismiss art is an opinion with next to no value. On the flip side of that, and considering that I’m all kinds of partial, my opinion that Phantasmagoric is one of the best of 2015’s third quarter is highly valuable. If you’re curious as to some of the reasons supporting my lofty opinion about Phantasmagoric, you can find those reasons here.

  1. Abyss – Chelsea Wolfe

Abyss is a challenging album for the listener. And I’m not necessarily talking about the fact that many people find Chelsea Wolfe’s combination of gothic, metal, and electronica off-putting; I’m talking about how intimately unafraid Wolfe is to delve into trauma, her trauma, and interpret it with all the brutal honesty that her musical expression allows. This, at times, means that Abyss crosses into levels of limited accessibility that is, back to my opening description, challenging. But, it’s rewarding, too; Chelsea Wolfe’s level of honesty combined with her skills as a musician and artist make it so. (A quick word for those of you who find this style of music off-putting – give it a shot. I mean, really give it a shot. I think, I hope, that if you really listen, you’ll recognize the beauty of Abyss.)

  1. Currents – Tame Impala

With Currents, Tame Impala released one of 2015’s most anticipated albums. And the Australian band didn’t disappoint. More synthesizer heavy than their previous releases, Tame Impala has meticulously crafted a seamless musical ride with wonderful peaks and valleys that never jolts the listener too hard too fast.

  1. Every Open Eye – CHVRCHES

I’ve never been asked to defend my secret-love of 80’s synthpop; mainly because, as I clearly stated, it’s been a secret, until now. It’s true; Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Tears for Fears, and Depeche Mode are my hidden jams. My defense, however, is going to be to direct you to CHVRCHES emotionally hefty album that masks its gravitas behind sugary clean synthpop. With Every Open Eye, the Scottish band has evolved past their debut album, The Bones of What You Believe, and enters a more accessible yet no less nuanced musical landscape, offering an easier listening experience but without sacrificing the maturity of their lyrics. Don’t resist CHVRCHES catchy and interesting hooks’ attempts to pull the synthpop lover out of you.

  1. Music Complete – New Order

And speaking of 80’s synthpop[7], have you heard the new New Order album? If not, you should. Look, I don’t know how they did it, but, with Music Complete, New Order managed to sound gnarly vintage 80s but without sounding anachronistic.

  1. Something More Than Free – Jason Isbell

One of the highlights of my life is having strangers, thinking I was a member of the Drive-By Truckers, ask for my autograph. That hasn’t happened a lot, but it’s happened enough that I’m disappointed when it doesn’t. That little piece of personal trivia may be apropos to nothing, with the possible exception that stating it publicly helps validate my belief that Jason Isbell and I should be friends, or, at the least, pen-pals. Alas, that’s not likely to happen[8].

That strange bit of potential stalker-ish behavior confessed and out of the way, I want to point out that Jason Isbell belongs in the songwriter’s hall of fame. If I began rehashing the power of his past songs, this post would become hijacked by the encyclopedic listing of Isbell’s canon; Something More Than Free would be generously represented, too. Narrowing his focus, Isbell takes the opportunity with Something More Than Free to bring the listener into his home.

  1. Predatory Headlights – Tenement

Ranking Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade number one on my “Pop Presidents: Reagan” list caused a minor kerfuffle. I contend that 1. any lists ranking art should be taken with a grain of salt and a silo full of good humor; and, 2. my ranking of Zen Arcade as number one remains the correct call. All that to say, if you were aware that the genius and perennially underappreciated punk band from Appleton, Wisconsin had released a double album this year, and you had read my “Pop Presidents: Reagan” article, you should’ve been able to guess that Predatory Highlights ranks high in my professional and personal esteem.

Keeping the lineage of great Midwestern hardcore and punk alive, Tenement’s Predatory Highlights is a reminder that music can be hard hitting, thought provoking, and acutely interesting.

  1. b’lieve i’m goin down – Kurt Vile

If I were a musician, I’d be Kurt Vile, but without the skinny jeans; which, to be honest, is only true in the darkest recesses of my arrogantly colored soul. Translation – I wish that I could be Kurt Vile if I were a musician, but there is next to no chance that I would be. To be fair, Vile has proven in the past that very few musicians creating today come close to matching his understanding of how far the limits of rock reach. Wakin On a Pretty Daze, his previous release, landed at the top of many “yearend best of” lists for 2013. b’lieve i’m goin down, his latest album, continues to prove that Kurt Vile, while firmly grounded in rock and roll, is operating in the realm of his own genre and will, undoubtedly, lay claim to many top spots, too.

The problem, if it is indeed a problem, is that Kurt Vile has released an album that is distinctly not in step with current tastes. Vile’s uniquely melodic voice combined with the album’s resonating guitar riffs draw from the best of past generation’s singer song-writers and arena rock-gods. But, and this needs to be noted, without the urge towards the self-important bloat that characterized much of the music of the Baby Boomers. Of course, this means that many of the popular taste-makers and gate-keepers to wide-spread success will not deign to bestow on Kurt Vile the commercial esteem that his talents deserve. Fight the power, and buy b’lieve i’m goin down; as a bonus, you’ll add some great music to your music library. 

  1. Nashville Obsolete – Dave Rawlings Machine

I love watching sports debate shows on ESPN. Those shows are often as entertaining as they are informative. Except one of the drawbacks, if you watch more than one, is that many of the talking heads are on multiple shows. This, in and of itself, isn’t a problem. The problem is that many of them say the exact same thing from show to show. None of that has anything to do with Nashville Obsolete; but it does have everything, mostly, to do with me and writing about the brilliant new album from Dave Rawlings Machine. Nashville Obsolete is the album that I’m writing about for my No Depression column next week. I do not want to run the risk of writing something for this post that is so pithy, so insightful, so succinct that I feel compelled to plagiarize myself. If you’re wondering, though, why you should listen to my number one album for 2015’s third quarter, go back and reread all the glowing things that I said about numbers 14-2, and then ask yourself, “if John thinks all those wonderful things about the albums not number one, how awesome must Nashville Obsolete be?”

As always, please let me know, using the comment section, which albums that I’ve overlooked. I am always happy to be exposed to excellent music.

[1] I have heard some of the tracks, and I can’t see it knocking Lands & Peoples by Bill Mallonee off of my current top spot. I do love the tracks I’ve heard, though.

[2] My advanced age places me firmly in the Gen X camp. My wife exists in the generational nether region between Gen X and Millennials. The point, she’s much younger than I am and, hence, understands this new-fangled technology.

[3] Most notably – What Went Down from Foals; Star Wars from Wilco (which I realize I could/could’ve downloaded for free from the band’s website – see footnote 2); Yours, Dreamily by The Arcs, the side project of Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys; Dodge and Burn from The Dead Weather, a Jack White led “super group;” and Gates of Gold from Los Lobos. Feel free to buy me any of those albums for Christmas, or just because.

[4] With at least one major exception.

[5] In answer to the snide question, “Who still has CDs?” Well, I do.

[6] Even more so than most genres, dream pop is rather fluid. The music is atmospheric, droning, and weirdly and distinctly melodic. Bands from The Flaming Lips to My Morning Jacket to My Bloody Valentine have been tagged as dream pop or some variation of it.

[7] Joy Division fans, don’t hate me. How could I pass up that transition?

[8] Especially if he reads what I just wrote.


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