Best Albums of 2015
Not a single Lost in the Cloud post in 2015. We could give excuses, but we don’t think anyone is suffering without our ramblings (Greg and I have an audience weekly in our respective congregations…). We won’t insult our readers with elaborate promises of innumerable posts to follow in 2016. All we can do is offer you our modest annual delight, albeit a wee bit late. This being 6 January, for your Epiphanic pleasure, we hope you find some winners amongst our favourites.
Greg & Elijah
Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of 2015
10. Brace the Wave Lou Barlow — Former and present Dinosaur Jr. bassist, a songwriter so dear to the hearts of both of your Losers in the Cloud, has returned for his first studio album since 2009’s Goodnight Unknown. Admittedly, there are a few tracks that don’t stand up as well as others, but in Aristotelian fashion, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Several tracks might even be considered some of Barlow’s finest.
9. Fading Frontier Deerhunter — Gently, Bradford Cox pulls us into Fading Frontier. Those accustomed to the sometimes jarring brokenness of Deerhunter’s previous albums will find familiar hints in softer packages. Whilst not the greatest Deerhunter effort to date, Fading Frontier is full of excellent material, showcasing Cox’s ever-improving songwriting.
8. Weirdo Shrine La Luz — Vague references to an erotic sci-fi-horror comic? No problem. Surf rock? Even better. La Luz’ second album, Weirdo Shrine, is full of instrumental, vocal and lyrical precision, wrapped tastefully in reverb and harmony. There’s a paradoxical playfulness and seriousness to singer Shana Cleveland’s lead, which, accompanied by equally paradoxical arrangements, makes Weirdo Shrine a supremely satisfying listen and causes me to long for those autumnal twilights along the Californian coast of my youth.
7. Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress Godspeed You! Black Emperor — Neither ones for a short band name, nor short album titles nor short songs, Godspeed You! Black Emperor demonstrate once again that they’re not for settling down. The soundscapes of Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress are especially suited to a drookit trek through a Hebridean peat bog, but other contexts, such as sitting in your front room, having a shower, walking your dog or driving to work, are also suitable. Sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes distressing, sometimes triumphant and always moving, GY!BE deliver the goods.
6. Vulnicura Björk — I wouldn’t say that as of late Björk has fallen out of favour in my listening patterns, but her last two records, Volta (2007) and Biophilia (2011), left me feeling less engaged than the previous three. This may well be due more in part of my own shortcomings than those of Björk. But Vulnicura has left me with something I cannot put down. As with most, though not all of my favourite records this year, this album is a grower. Upon every listen, I discover more to love. It is a complex sonic tapestry that demands attention. Unlike so many artists, Vulnicura proves that even as she approaches 51, Björk is brimming with creativity still. She also demonstrates her willingness to engage with fresh talent, collaborating with the Haxan Cloak and Arca, among others. Oh, and check this madness out:
5. I Love You, Honeybear Father John Misty — FJM returns with a new record, but as Greg observes astutely, so returns J. Tillman’s ‘self-obsessed cynicism’. Surely there’s only so much one can take of a disaffected man, hellbent on constructing a new world around himself. But there’s another side to I Love You, Honeybear that stands out to this listener. The apocalyptic Americana bard could content himself with repeating the same winning formula with which we fell in love from Fear Fun (Greg’s top pick of 2012 and one of my honourable mentions). But he ventures elsewhere on Honeybear, bringing a fuller, heavier and more convicted sound to the record, earning him a mid-table slot on my list.
4. Viet Cong Viet Cong — This debut release from the Canadian post-punkers is most definitely a grower. The onslaught of energy is apparent from the onset, but the finesse is the wee bit that reveals itself to you upon repeated listens. In what seems like a time when so many post-punk-labelled bands churn out album upon album of the same song, Viet Cong has done something extraordinary. The ground covered in Viet Cong far exceeds its seven-tracks over 37-minutes. The third track alone gives the listener six minutes and twenty seconds of breadth – a repetitive electronic introduction lulls the listener into head swaying territory, waiting for the floor to drop from beneath you with the oncoming deconstructed harmonies that build into relative despair before the return of a dance beat. It’s really something to hear for yourself: ‘March of Progress‘.
3. Depression Cherry Beach House — Whilst finishing my doctoral dissertation this past autumn I was spending a lot of time listening to Cocteau Twins (engagement with shoegaze and dream pop formed a significant part of the third chapter). I have always sensed a kinship between Cocteau Twins and Beach House. A lad and a lass. Dreamy, simple arrangements. Idiosyncratic female vocals accompanied by reverberating and chorus-laden guitars. And although I would argue that Depression Cherry isn’t as easily consumed as Beach House’s previous albums, Cocteau Twins reminded me to be patient with their dream pop heirs. When one makes the time to absorb Depression Cherry, they will find some of Beach House’s strongest material. For example, I think that the sixth track, ‘PPP‘, is their best to date. I would encourage you to give this record a go — it’s worth every penny and every second.
2. Currents Tame Impala — The Perth-based psychedelic rockers have been a favourite of us here at Lost in the Cloud since we first heard Innerspeaker in 2010. Their follow-up, Lonerism (2012), also impressed (though not as much for Greg as for me). But Currents is most assuredly ‘next level’. The persistence of the phased beat remains, as do Kevin Parker’s George Harrison-esque vocals. But the band is forging new boundaries. They are demonstrating what it means to evolve as musicians and doing so with expert precision and maturity. Tame Impala have not lost their psychedelic, trance-inducing edge — they’ve just sharpened it.
1. Carrie & Lowell Sufjan Stevens — It comes as no surprise to me that both Greg and I have chosen Carrie & Lowell for this top slot. It’s hard to believe that Illinois was released over a decade ago. Many of us Sufjan-obsessed lot wondered where he would go after that album. We saw him through his early songwriting, a mixture of delicate pop folk and low-fi noise (A Sun Came, 2000), through his electronic odyssey (Enjoy Your Rabbit, 2001), through his intensely personal meditations on life in the Midwest (Greetings from Michigan, 2003), joyous folk theodicy (Seven Swans, 2004) and outright indie pop. In danger of professing what may be blasphemy to many, I was never as sold on Illinois as a whole as I had been with his previous efforts. I feared that Sufjan wouldn’t find new territory as he had during the first five years of his career. He lay silent for a while (2006’s Avalanche is composed of songs from his 2004 Illinois sessions). We who heard ‘Majesty Snowbird’ performed live braced ourselves for something extraordinary. But we were made to wait. In 2007, Stevens showed his film The B.Q.E., which was accompanied by a live orchestra. Its soundtrack was released in 2009. By his own admission, Stevens had lost his faith in the form of ‘song’. Then we heard news of an album proper to be released in 2010, which was preceded, without warning, by the All Delighted People EP. We had heard the new sound and it was glorious. Two months later we entered into the Age of Adz. Both Greg and I knew from very early on that it was our shared favourite album of 2010. Then he fell silent again. We wondered where he could go from the satisfying chaos and vulnerability of Age of Adz. Finally, nearly five years later, we got our answer. Much has been, can and should be said and written of Carrie & Lowell. A masterpiece. A revelation. A portrait of serene torture. There’s a sense of despair and hopelessness that carries throughout Carrie & Lowell, but with it is a natural sense of hope and the affirmation of life. In his essay ‘The Experience of God and the Axiology of the Impossible’, American philosopher John Caputo posits:
Hope is only hope when one hopes against hope, only when the situation is hopeless. Hope has the full force of hope only when we have first been led to the point where it is impossible to hope – and then we hope against hope, even as faith is faith in the face of the incredible. Hope is only hope when all I can do is to try to keep hope alive even though there is no hope. There is no hope, I know that and I am convinced of that, but I still hope.
In this way, I must extend my gratitude: Thank you, Sufjan, for giving us hope.
- Escape from Evil Lower Dens
- Natalie Prass Natalie Prass
- Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit Courtney Barnett
- New Bermuda Deafheaven
- Return to the Moon EL VY
- The Agent Intellect Protomartyr
- Have You in My Wilderness Julia Holter
Greg’s Top 10 Albums of 2015
It was lovely to find a few more albums than last year that I knew would be on this list as soon as I heard them—and I’m gratified that my and Elijah’s lists converged more this year than some. I always find myself having to catch up with some of his more esoteric choices and I hope that I am able to help any of our dear readers catch a scent of some new sonic pleasures as well. Bon appétit (wow, a muddle of metaphors if there ever was one)!
10. Times Infinity Vol. One The Dears — I do love this Canadian indie band quite a bit, even though they don’t always live up to their potential. This album feels a bit slight (supposedly there is a Vol. Two forthcoming), but honestly it’s nice to see a band not fill out an album with padding of middling material or playing a song to death with endlessly-repeated choruses at the end of a song (ok, The Dears are sometimes guilty of this). They ask in their almost funky lead single, ‘I Used to Wait for the Heavens to Fall‘: ‘Whose side are you on?’ I am on your side, Dears.
9. Return to the Moon EL VY — Part of me wanted to love this album (more Matt Berninger from The National!), part of me wanted to ignore it (don’t be unfaithful to your bandmates with some poppy, multi-instrumentalist from Oregon!). I gave it a number of focused listens & I just can’t help but get taken in by it–his lyrics, his low melodic rumblings, they are just too brilliant to neglect & the arrangements have grown on me (I wasn’t a huge fan of the title cut at first, but it’s all really quite good), even the ‘haunted house’ feel of ‘Silent Ivy Hotel‘ (love the faux-Elvira/Beetlejuice video…such a great sense of humor!!).
8. Sprinter Torres — Her 2013 self-titled album would have come close to making my list that year if I’d heard it in time (that was such an AMAZING year of music!!), this album is a wholly other turn. When I heard it (on Amazon Prime Music no less), I immediately thought of the early PJ Harvey (it turns out she has a member of Harvey’s old band playing & producing!) and even the primal punk power of the young Sinead O’Connor. Supposedly, the album is about her rejection of Christian faith/upbringing (I need to listen more carefully to the lyrics to sort it all out), but she is IN CONTROL HERE—tight arrangements, in-your-face snarls & howls, layers of harmony on top of crunchy guitars…check out ‘Sprinter.’
7. Brother The Brilliance — This is a Christian group and we use a number of their songs in worship services at my church, so it may seem strange a bit odd here. But honestly, this band, more than any other Christian worship group ever, makes it eminently beautiful at every level—haunting melodies on cello & piano laid down beneath a voice filled with tenderness and longing (there’s a good deal of the spare instrumentation reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens here, so that’s probably part of my affection…though the Age of Adz-y synth bleep-bloops on ‘Love Remains’ is a bit much). Exhibit A: ‘Does Your Heart Break?‘ (note the Elliott Smith shout-out near the end of the song—which is only instrumental on the YouTube video link there, but they actually sing ‘everything means nothing to me’ on the album). The lyrics are poignant & filled with questions of God such as ‘Are you watching as your children die?’ (some of which I take theological issue with, but still think are legitimate forms of lamenting confusion). So many amazing songs here—their whole catalog is filled with this level of quality.
6. Depression Cherry Beach House — Just listen to it. The opening Phillip Glass by way of Mazzy Star track is only the beginning. There’s part of me that realizes that this is just a guy & girl in a studio with a drum machine & a bunch of keyboards & some guitars, but it comes out so transcendent, so ethereal…it’s musical alchemy. Don’t know what else to say. (I would allow you to skip the second song with its shoegazy sort of distorted acoustic guitar, but that would be the one exception).
5. Dear Wormwood The Oh Hellos — Discovered this band through a free download of their album Through the Deep, Dark Valley on NoiseTrade (which sadly usually has more misses than hits for me) a couple years back and felt like I’d been given a bag of gold. I ordered this album sight unseen (and I suppose more importantly, sound unheard) and here it is, right at the top. It’s an immediate masterpiece, not an album of songs per se, but an ALBUM’s album. You should listen to the whole thing to understand it. I found myself choking up on the title track—’I know who I am know and all that you made of me / I know who you are now, and I name you my enemy’—the triumph of pursuing the good over giving in to the evil that can worm its way into our lives.
4. Bashed Out This Is the Kit — Matt Berninger wasn’t the only one playing around outside of The National this year. The Dessner bros are producing & playing on this album. This album came out of nowhere for me. I saw somewhere that Elbow’s Guy Garvey had recommended this album, so I downloaded it. Then fell in love with this album. It is like being inside the head of someone who is so true and kind and lovely; such a captivating vocalist, with layers of sounds and lovely tunes surrounding it. This is an intuitive recommendation—my affection for this album may translate for you. No worries. I’m just so glad I found this band. A good entry point might be ‘Silver John,’ but it’s not really representative of the whole album.
3. Vulnicura Björk — While I followed Björk pretty faithfully through the Sugar Cubes and early solo years, her albums got a bit too out there for me (conventional sort that I am). But this, while wildly experimental at times, is undoubtedly a work of genius. It’s a cathartically painful account of a relational break-up, but it is a masterpiece of exploring the loss with perfectly apt musical accompaniment & vocalization. I feel so terrible for her, but as often happens, hard lives make great art. You have to make the time to listen to the whole album in one sitting—it’s profound, heartbreaking, and epic.
2. Currents Tame Impala — Another break-up album, but this time from the one who left (I think!) rather than the one who was left (a la Björk). I secretly think that the one-man band that is Kevin Parker challenged himself to take a bunch of non-cool musical materials (the most cheesy 80’s synth sounds conceivable—think Spandau Ballet, handclaps, falsettos) and make the most awesome album imaginable. Beggaring belief, he succeeded. A few little filler tracks aside, this is a record of the highest level of song-writing ability and musicianship possible.
1. Carrie & Lowell Sufjan Stevens — So much has been said and written about this album. I don’t think I can even describe what this album means to me. Loss, longing, despair, regret captured by God’s own bard.
- Brace the Wave Lou Barlow (I love Lou and was so delighted to see him live this year, but this album didn’t measure up to his previous solo work for me)
- I Love You, Honeybear Father John Misty (it’s quite a good album, I’m just so sick of his self-obsessed cynicism)
- The Waterfall My Morning Jacket (really good, I just didn’t listen to it enough to evaluate)
- Love Songs for Robots Patrick Watson (always worth listening to)
- Star Wars Wilco (I only started listening to this last week. It’s REALLY good. Too late to include, but may have made the cut)