Monday, December 28, 2015

Best of 2015: My favorite music from this year

Another year, another collection of music. This has become a favorite tradition for me, both because I love sharing music I dig with other people and because it reminds me to keep better track of new music that comes out in a given year. Lots of folks like to bemoan the decline of modern music but the thing is, if you actually pay attention, there's so much incredible work that gets released all the time. And it's more accessible than ever. People are still coming up with creative new ideas and grooves, reshaping and honoring old themes, fusing styles, breaking ground, having fun, and making us dance/think/nod our heads.

The only reason to give up on modern music would be if you're just lazy. Don't be lazy. There's a whole world of awesome shit out there for the listening!

The following is my by-no-means-complete-or-comprehensive mix of some of my favorite music that was released in 2015. It was a great year for music. As always, please consider purchasing any tracks/albums that you find yourself enjoying. We need to support those who work hard to bring us this goodness, and we need to do it with our ears and our dolla dolla bills, y'all.

EM'S BEST OF 2015 MIX - "Big Wheel Keep On Turnin'"

  1. "Never Ending Circles," CHVRCHES, Every Open Eye
  2. "Waking Hour," Jennifer Hall, self-titled EP
  3. "XO, Skeleton," Hailey Wojcik, Book of Beasts EP
  4. "Surface Envy," Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
  5. "Ripe," Screaming Females, Rose Mountain
  6. "Pedestrian at Best," Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I just Sit
  7. "Someday Soon," Lindi Ortega, Faded Gloryville
  8. "Planet for Sale," THEESatisfaction, EarthEE
  9. "Figure 8," FKA twigs, M3LL155X
  10. "Circles Out of Salt," Snow Ghosts, A Wrecking
  11. "Far," The Soft Moon, Deeper
  12. "The Day Is My Enemy," The Prodigy, The Day Is My Enemy
  13. "Quicksand," Bjork, Vulnicura
  14. "Saint Claude," Christine and the Queens, Christine and the Queens
  15. "Flesh without Blood," Grimes, Art Angels
  16. "Lose Control," Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique, Love Is Free EP
  17. "Queens Speech 4," Lady Leshurr, Queens Speech 4 - Single
  18. "You Tell Em," Zebra Katz & Leila, Nu Renegade EP
  19. "Call It Off," Shamir, Ratchet
A little about each track...

Never Ending Circles by CHVRCHES: So far this Scottish electro-pop outfit is two-for-two when it comes to incredible intro tracks for their albums. From the first note of the song, Chvrches dispels any fears that might have existed that they couldn't continue and build on the momentum of their debut, The Bones of What You Believe. The impressive thing about Every Open Eye is that it both manages to stay true to the exuberant vision of the first record without sounding like a retread. There are new ideas aplenty here, and a lot of catch-as-hell music to boot, all with Lauren Mayberry's understated but confident lead vocals to bolster it.

Waking Hour by Jennifer Hall: I was an idiot and went home early from a show in Madison that featured a friends' band, followed by Hailey Wojcik (also featured on this mix), and then Jennifer Hall, missing Hall's set at the end (I WAS TIRED, SUE ME). Thankfully, said friend gave me a copy of this singer/songwriter's fantastic EP and I was hooked right away. Lush, beautiful, interesting, and creative - Hall has a powerful voice that she uses expertly to compliment the genre-bending, melodic music that makes each track a goldmine. I hope she releases a full-length ASAP.

XO, Skeleton by Hailey Wokcik: Like I said, I got to see Hailey live (and meet her briefly, very nice), performing as a one-woman show with a scaled down backing track, letting her voice and guitar/bass work take center stage. And pulled it off with aplomb. I love how familiar and yet new her music sounds, like the indie women of my teenage years (i.e. the mid-to-late '90s). A little rough around the edges in all the best ways.

Surface Envy by Sleater-Kinney: Speaking of the bands that inspired young Em, Sleater-Kinney has been such a rewarding band to follow through the years. Each record charters their evolution and solidifies their status as rock royalty, far as I'm concerned, with zero compromises and a never-faltering commitment to melt faces with ovaries-to-the-wall rock n' roll. There's no one else who sounds like them, either, no matter how much (usually male) reviewers like to compare every all-lady rock outfit to them.

Ripe by Screaming Females: I'm late to the party with this band, having only stumbled onto them with this most recent release, but I'm glad to be here. Shredding guitars, and lead singer Marissa Paternoster's ridiculously unique, warbly alto, give this outfit a special, bone-shaking quality that I love.

Pedestrian at Best by Courtney Barnett: The Australian singer-songwriter seems to be taking the music world by storm at this point, and I'm glad to see her coming in for so many accolades, landing this record on a number of prominent best-of lists for the year. She has a style reminiscent of Dylan, with sprinklings of early Liz Phair, a little bit of country, with the twist of wry Aussie wit. I could see her almost spoken word style of lyric delivery not being everyone's jam, but hot damn those lyrics. Dense, clever storytelling make this record soar.

Someday Soon by Lindi Ortega: Humorously enough, Lindi is part of a group of musicians that I was turned onto through the soundtrack of Canadian sci-fi show "Lost Girl." Since then, I've been waiting for her new record with some anticipation, since I think this Canuck does Nashville country better than most of the Americans now toiling in the industry there. She was apparently signed by a major label back when, charmed by her goth looks and old-school Americana style, but then dropped after they decided to go a different route (see: Lady Gaga). This is a lovely track, something of a throwback to the greats like Patsy Cline.

Planet for Sale by THEESatisfaction: How can you not love a collective of queer black women making their own, unique, kicked back beats and songs that largely focus on social and political issues without getting particularly ham-fisted, instead insinuating itself into your earholes with nods to classic soul and R&B? You can't not, that's how.

Figure 8 by FKA twigs: I'm a recent convert to the musical genius of this dancer-turned-musician. Her music videos are mesmerizing. The music is not particularly easy to categorize, either, which I adore. Soaring soprano gymnastics layered over intricate, artsy electro-hip-hop? That might be as close as I can come to describing it. Good shit. Excited to see where she goes from here.

Circles Out of Salt by Snow Ghosts: Moody as fuck, beautiful but gritty electronic/industrial with awesome lady vocals. Right up my alley. The whole record is a fascinating story-journey, with tons of atmospheric soundscapes, and did I mention moody? Feel this stuff in your gut.

Far by The Soft Moon: I am a sucker for industrial rock, specifically the stuff that came out in the late '80s and early '90s, before EBM started to more fully take over the genre. The Soft Moon has mastered the sound while offering some new ideas of his own - just good, dark, industrial-infused music for working out your angry ennui.

The Day Is My Enemy by The Prodigy: Here's another electronic outfit that I've been following since that time after our 8th grade dance when the DJ decided to play stuff he liked as we were all waiting for our parents to pick us up and take us home. I mustered up the courage to approach the kid and ask him what it was that he was playing, and he flashed me The Prodigy's "Music for the Jilted Generation." I went to the mall music store and bought my copy the next day, and the rest is history. The group's output as been mixed ever since, with some soaring highs and weirdly phoned-in lows, so I was thrilled when this first track dropped off their most recent effort and it was just. so. BOLD. And they're still fun to see live, after all these years - got to see them perform in Prague this past November.

Quicksand by Bjork: Speaking of my earliest electronic influences, Bjork continues to innovate the hell out of music in general, never ceasing to be a tiny Icelandic powerhouse of creativity. And she doesn't get nearly enough credit for it, far as I'm concerned, especially considering how many people seem to enjoy glossing over and/or ignoring entirely the fact that she does the lion's share of production on her records. This is a great track on a great album.

Saint Claude by Christine and the Queens: The last track added to my mix, I was only just turned onto this French musician by this great article about how women in music and the arts are kicking ass and taking names but still being ignored, underfunded, and underrepresented in seats of power. I went and took a listen and instantly fell in deep like (which could easily grow into love, given time) with this project--both for the lovely music and the dance-heavy music videos.

Flesh without Blood by Grimes: I love Grimes. She's a one-woman powerhouse of production, creativity, engineering, delightfully weird vocal embellishments, beautiful soundscapes, and is just generally super listenable while being a totally uncompromising badass.

Lose Control by Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique: I love Robyn. Like, really really a lot. So I'll basically listen to anything she's involved with, including this collaboration with French outfit LBM. Good thing it ends up being a delightful, electro-disco romp.

Queen's Speech 4 by Lady Leshurr: I don't usually include singles on this mix, but this one by British trap artist Lady Leshurr caught my eye as a triumph of freestyle flow, wit, and simple but killer beats. Plus the DIY vid is delightful.

You Tell Em by Zebra Katz & Leila: ZK initially caught my attention with his incredible, creepy, confident tribute to how queer men and drag queens playfully cut each other down to size with "Imma Read," and it's super fantastic to see him continuing to innovate and be artsy as fuck, giving no fucks, with his new EP and collaboration with Leila. Watch the videos, too. Funded in large part by a grant from the Austrian government and filmed in Austria, it's some unsettling, visually interesting work.

Call It Off by Shamir: I love this record. I love this track. I love this kid. And I love that he comes into a world where being a young queer person of color is something he can openly celebrate and inject into his art. The guy has a unique as hell voice, too, and with such catchy, fun production work, it makes for quite the package deal. Stoked to see where he goes from here, too.


Not included on the mix, because I'm not a complete narcissist, but I feel worth mentioning are the projects that I had the great good fortune to be involved with this year:

Meghan Rose - "In Your Bones"
I wrote and recorded all the drum tracks for this record, released earlier this year. Meghan is basically my platonic musical life partner (and one half of Damsel Trash with me). This was a serious labor of love for her, involving years of writing and preparation and pouring her heart and soul into each song and lyric. We spent a week up in the hinterlands of Ontario, Canada recording this with Grammy and Juno winning producer Darryl Neudorf (who also produced, for instance, people like Neko Case). It was, simply put, an incredible experience, and the end product is something I couldn't be more proud of. Support kick ass, unsigned musicians and buy it here.
The Lost Albatross