Full disclosure: I am not a formal rock critic (i.e. no one sends me free CDs to review). But I am a passionate, knowledgeable and lifelong music fan who thinks good music is worth talking — and writing — about. So this being the end of the year and all, 8-Wood hereby enters listicle mode and recaps what I liked best from the new releases I heard in 2015.
A couple of these albums have a decided “classic rock” feel, a sonic throwback to the singer-songwriter era of the late ‘60s and ‘70s. I’ve admittedly got a major soft spot for that genre, but I also think 2015 was in many ways a year that called out for more plaintive, quiet and reflective music.
These are in no particular order.
Kurt Vile — B’lieve I’m Goin Down…
A onetime member of fellow Philadelphia critical darlings The War On Drugs, Vile went indie folk in 2015, with hazy, stoned songs that feature underrated guitar and banjo picking, piano, atmospheric textures and spoken-sung slacker lyrics like “Just a certified badass out for a night on the town / Ain’t it oh-exciting the way one can fake their way through life.” This was a late discovery for me in the year, but I can’t stop listening.
Courtney Barnett — Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Barnett is an incredible lyricist who mines the everyday banal for gold, and her guitar playing and songwriting betray all kinds of positive influences, including a Neil Young/Crazy Horse guitar aesthetic and the lyrical sensibilities of the Pixies in their prime. Lines like “Gimme all your money / and I’ll make some origami, honey” ought to be enshrined in some kind of rock-lyrics hall of fame.
Protomartyr — Agent Intellect
I was a huge fan of 2014’s Under Color of Official Right and its jagged aggression, offbeat lyrics and abstraction. Agent Intellect continues in that vein but ramps up the songwriting chops and instrumentation. Vocalist Joe Casey recites bar-napkin lyrics about a riot breaking after the Pope visits the Pontiac Silverdome (“Pontiac 87”) and his mother’s struggles with Alzheimer’s disease (“Why Does It Shake”) like a modern-day Mark E. Smith.
Meg Baird — Don’t Weigh Down the Light
Another excellent musician hailing from Philly (though she’s apparently moved to San Francisco), Baird has a voice like early Joni Mitchell and an album full of gentle, contemplative, English folk-inspired songs.
Mark Ronson — Uptown Special
Sure, the smash hit single is basically a retread of Prince and Morris Day and the Time’s 80s Minneapolis funk. But “Uptown Funk” is also great fun. Plus, there are great pop songs throughout this album of collaborations, from Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker’s guitar-funk ode to psychedelic drugs (“Daffodils”) to the yacht-rock of “Heavy and Rolling.” And I’m telling you, hearing a 4-year-old sing the refrain, “Uptown Funk you up” (as mine has been relentlessly), will make you hopeful for the future.
Low — Ones and Sixes
Low are in fine form in 2015, with another album of sonic dynamism, mixing quiet and noise, building slowly from one to the other, with the band’s signature sense of forboding fully intact. A frosty production, replete with electronic percussion and chilly guitar textures, makes this a perfect winter album from Duluth’s finest.
Tame Impala — Currents
The aforementioned Kevin Parker was seemingly everywhere in 2015, and his studio perfectionism permeates Currents, the third studio album by Australian band Tame Impala. This time, Parker, who played virtually everything on the album, turns to synthesizers and buries the guitar deeper in the mix, opting for elements of disco, new wave and prog rock. The album is no less rich sonically for the changes.
So there you have it. What do you think? Disagree with any of these? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.