It’s that time again! The annual entry where I look back at the previous year, marvel that I’m still buying new music at all, reaffirm my disinterest in digital, and boast how I’m one of twelve people nationwide still buying CDs. I don’t buy a lot of them, though. I rarely connect with the Top 40 acts that get all the social media attention. My favorite bands tend to be old and denied promotional push from their labels, assuming they still have a contract. I’m open to hearing new bands, but my styles of choice are narrowing over the years and I’m a lot less enamored nowadays of bratty whippersnappers who overestimate their own wisdom. Fortunately my finicky criteria don’t eliminate all musical acts.
The following list, then, comprises every CD I acquired in 2015 that was also released in 2015. On with the countdown, from least favorite to worthiest:
7. Ryan Adams, 1989. Usually when an artist records a cover album, they’re choosing songs from different artists, not literally covering one entire album. I’ve never been a Ryan Adams fan, but the contrarian notion of converting the work of Taylor Swift into coffee-house Muzak seemed worth a spin, especially with a Black Friday discount that worked with my holiday shopping budget. Ms. Swift’s lyrical foundation remains intact, but I should’ve otherwise expected the results, gentle and jangly and drained of a lot of lifeblood, resembling Springsteen in his moody “Brilliant Disguise” era. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but it’s hardly a surefire formula. Best example: his take on the ubiquitous earworm “Shake It Up” is a virtual mashup with “I’m On Fire”, contains 0% shaking, and could be a great satire of lite-pop network-TV covers if it weren’t so earnest about itself. I might like this in another ten years when I’m older and slower and into sensitive-guy acoustic guitar tunes, but I’m not there yet.
(Sample track: “Bad Blood” feels the most melodic and contains probably the most dynamic range, if only because the structure kind of demands a certain level of variation. Really missing Max Martin and his Pro Tools, though.)
6. Owl City, Mobile Orchestra. Once upon a time there was a rising young electronica star named Adam Young who made a name for himself on the Christian pop scene by not sounding trapped in a twenty-year-old pop chart. His worst sin was sounding an awful lot like the Postal Service, which might’ve offended me more if the latter had amounted to more than a super-pretty one-hit wonder. Young’s one-man Owl City act rose quickly, then rocketed into new levels of fame when he recorded a duet with the Carly Rae Jepsen that mainstream audiences loved and bought way more copies of than his oblique expressions of faith. His latest set is technically still miles ahead of a typical K-LOVE heavy-rotation list, but what used to sound like 21st-century synth-craft filtered through a skewed, introverted lens now chucks the inventive quirks, fragmented imagery, and occasional daffy puns that made Owl City Owl City, in favor of a more mild-mannered, crowd-pleasing sound that renders him almost anonymous among his new peers. Owl City used to be one of the bands that my son and I had in common. Now he and I are just mutually disappointed.
(Sample track: “Unbelievable” is a collaboration with the Hansen brothers, and it’s just a long list of random pop-culture stuff, like a poppier, emptier “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. Where Billy Joel’s point was “History’s always been a complete wreck”, Young’s is “I used to have awesome toys!” He’s just spouting famous proper nouns for no apparent reason like an extended Big Bang Theory punchline, awaiting the Pavlovian cheers from listeners for whom nostalgia is an easy drug.)
5. Everclear, Black is the New Black. Art Alexakis and company have been recording steadily since they exited the charts years ago. For this release they worked through PledgeMusic, whose storefront simulates crowdfunding but is more like a boutique through which brand new or formerly big-time musicians can sell albums directly to fans, sometimes in deluxe packages with value-added perks such as band clothing or autographs (see above). As for the music, Alexakis works two separate through-lines of “old and angry” and “old but cool” while the four guys who replaced his first two bandmates try to cheer him up by going more all-out metalhead RAWK than ever. Several intros sound lifted from their back catalog — “The Man Who Broke His Own Heart” begins like “Everything to Everyone” downshifted to one-third speed, while “Complacent” is “Father of Mine” with fewer notes and stories of fractured childhood replaced by a damaged adult swearing he’s sticking to his meds. The energetic yet depressed “This is Your Death Song” is a throwback to the looser feel of the first two albums, but it’s awkward humoring an artist older than me singing lyrics like “Right now, everything sucks!!!” with three exclamation points, per the lyrics booklet.
(Sample track: the closer “Safe“, in which the facade cracks, manliness gives way to confession, and our hero laments the emotional barriers that keep him from connecting with the woman who loves him. That’s the sort of naked honesty that’s kept Everclear in my playlist all these years.)
4. They Might Be Giants, Glean. The two Johns and company collect another around of multi-genre music to pogo to. They’ve remained so prolific in their nearly three decades together that it’s getting harder to keep their albums in chronological order in my head, and to remember which albums had which decent songs. In fact, until I sorted my last year’s worth of music purchases and gifts, I’d forgotten they even had a new album in 2015. Making matters worse, I was totally unaware they released a new kids’ album during the holidays and no one told me, so now I’m annoyed that we could’ve had two of their albums on the same list if only I’d known sooner. For the sake of my own memory in the future, I’m noting here that “Erase” and “Answer” are the best overall catchy songs, while points for sharpest, weirdest lyrics go to “Madam, I Challenge You to a Duel”, and the castigating satire of “All the Lazy Boyfriends” is another welcome addition to Flansy’s mini-collection of Songs Advising Guys to Shape the Heck Up.
(Sample track: “Answer“, sung from the viewpoint of a guy who really hopes the disappointed object of his desire is willing to settle for him if the better candidates don’t work out.)
3. Mary Lou Lord, Backstreet Angels. I’ve written more than enough about the Kickstarter project that took nearly four years to reach fruition, and I’m no longer interested in renting it head space again. Here’s what I wrote when I finally received my backer rewards:
…it’s mostly kinda pretty if I skip the one song with the F-bomb on it. Sixteen tracks of pleasant jangle-pop that are a mixture of covers and collaborations, with song/writing credits including the likes of the Replacements’ Paul Westerberg, Beat Happening, the Green Pajamas, Nick Saloman from the Bevis Frond (with whom she was hoping to tour for this album at one point), and an ostensible up-‘n’-comer named Matt Minigell, with whom she was really, really excited to co-write and duet.
The first single, “My Buddy Valentine”, is up on YouTube and available on MP3 through Amazon, but I’m partial to her cover of Peter Bruntnell’s “By the Time My Head Gets to Phoenix”.
(Sample track: “By the Time My Head Gets to Phoenix” was posted online a month or so after that entry, so now I can link to it.)
2. Five Year Mission, Spock’s Brain. One of the niftiest local bands in Indianapolis history had made a career goal of writing one song for every episode of the original Star Trek. As they did with their 2012 EP The Trouble with Tribbles, a spate of songs about The One with the Chirpy Furballs In It, the quintet again expanded their parameters with a full-length album of variations on a single, singularly terrible episode. The band moves beyond simple recaps and dives deeply into its rich, complicated awfulness with flourishes of Frank Zappa, Weird Al, Kraftwerk, ’90s pop-punk, and a dash of metal. Among the standouts: “Hey, Kara!” may be the catchiest space-love-song the Oneders never recorded; the non-episode-specific “My Directive is Prime” is a great Captain Kirk anthem to put the “man” in “manifest destiny”; and I owe them triple bonus points for the tender crooning of “Brain and brain / What is brain?” during the balladic “Eymorg” that got the biggest laugh from my wife when I played it in the car.
1. Chvrches, Every Open Eye. On our trip to Colorado Springs last November, I spent the week driving around and listening to a local alt-rock station, whose daily lineup resembled none of the terrestrial stations we have here in Indy. Two singles stood out to me and remained stuck in my head, one of them being the British trio’s eminently energizing “Leave a Trace”. I also recalled that a certain comic book creator or two wouldn’t shut up about them online, so I made a point of tracking down an old-school music store and buying the CD. The swirling, driven, electro-pop ambiance was the audio equivalent of beautifully luminescent jellyfish drifting peacefully across an ocean floor covered with sparkling chandelier shards. Maybe that’s nonsense outside my own head, but translating my impression into a bizarre visual metaphor is the best possible way I could come up with to say I really liked this even though they haven’t been around for thirty years.
(Sample track: the conflicted yet ultimately uplifting “Bury It” about moving past grudges even if the other party won’t, set to an urgent beat that firmly matches singer Lauren Mayberry’s bright confidence.)
Honorable mention goes to two albums I bought in 2015 that were disqualified from inclusion due to their 2014 release dates, but otherwise could’ve ranked right around the top of my chart: Bloc Party’s Four and Taylor Swift’s 1989.
…so, 2015, then. See you next year!