This year bore music-lovers the richest crop of artistry in recent memory. Modest Mouse reasserted their status atop the indie-rock food chain with the long-awaited Strangers to Ourselves, an album as catchy as it is sobering. Kendrick Lamar dropped To Pimp A Butterfly with almost prophetic timing and inadvertently became the lyrical voice of a movement. Several underground stars broke free of their respective genres (Tame Impala’s Currents; Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit; Alabama Shakes’ Sound and Color) to become unexpected darlings. Hell, within the last month alone, mega-stars Adele and Foo Fighters have sent us 25 and the Saint Cecelia EP, proving that sometimes famous people are famous for a reason. Regardless, if you’ve been paying any kind of attention this year, you know how many musicians, new and old, have released immensely popular albums.
This article is about none of them.
For every great record that fights, sneaks, or is thrust into the popular consciousness, there are at least ten great records that go relatively unnoticed. Here are a few that defined my own 2015, in no particular order.
1. Toro y Moi – What For? (Released April 7th)
Chaz Bundick is, without a doubt, one of my favorite artists. Not only does he put out a new record roughly once per year under stage name Toro y Moi (in addition to last year’s Michael under the name Les Sins), he somehow manages to incorporate new sounds and influences on every single one of them. In the early 2010s, Toro y Moi’s dreamy blend of synth and R&B made him easy to slot into the budding “chillwave” genre; now, that description simply no longer suffices, nor has it been adequate for several years now. On What For?, Bundick manages to add psychedelic rock to his sonic signature, yet still retains the essential easiness at the heart of his music. Lead single “Empty Nesters” boasts a solid groove that breaks into full-out funk at some points, yet always retreats to a sweet mess of bouncy bass guitar and synth.
Yet, amongst an album full of solid tracks, my personal standout pick is “The Flight”. Anchored by a simple, solid drum beat and swirl of guitar licks, Bundick wistfully sings “’Don’t bother to wake me up,’ / You said, ‘Nothing’s worse than leaving a dream,”” a lyric which betrays the resigned sadness lurking just under the surface of an otherwise upbeat album. And the piano; oh god, the piano (1:44 in the above video). That riff alone was stuck in my head for weeks (it’s also slyly reincorporated later on in the outro to “Lilly”).
When I first heard this release, I immediately thought “This is going to be the perfect summer album.” Though What For? will forever remind me of the dull roar that was summer 2015, I recently relistened to the entire thing and found myself thinking “This is the perfect winter album.” I guess maybe it’s just plain good.
Recommended Tracks: “Empty Nesters” ; “The Flight” ; “Lilly” ; “Buffalo” ; “Half Dome”
2. La Luz – Weirdo Shrine (released August 7th)
Speaking of sadness lurking just under the surface, read just about any review of La Luz’s latest surf-rock masterpiece Weirdo Shrine (produced by Ty Seagall!) and you’ll find numerous mentions of the album’s dark edge. Indeed, the Seattle quartet’s first full-length release does sport some sinister undercurrents beneath its sun-and-fun veneer. The band was in an almost-fatal car accident while touring in 2013, so that could have something to do with it, although they’ve always been fond of B-horror-movie imagery. The album title itself is a reference to graphic novel Black Hole, in which ‘70s Seattle teenagers contract an STD that turns them into Futurama-worthy mutants. Super duper!
But the constant focus on La Luz’s darker side can make you forget that they make REALLY fun music. Just watch the music video for “Black Hole, Weirdo Shrine”, in which an MS Paint cowgirl goes on some sort of peyote-fueled adventure involving trains, lizards, and an evil twin, all backed by JAMMIN electric organ and tight guitar riffs.
I don’t know what’s going on here, but I’m down with it. Lead single “You Disappear” is an even higher-tempo piece of music with an amazing guitar solo, although the video is slightly less trippy. Just slightly.
Bottom line, Weirdo Shrine is one of the downright coolest releases of the year, and you should start paying attention to La Luz before they blow up. Because they’re going to. And in five years when your friends ask you “When did surf rock become cool again?” you can show them this album and watch their heads explode.
Recommended Tracks: “You Disappear” ; “Black Hole, Weirdo Shrine” ; “I Wanna Be Alone (With You)” ; “I’ll Be True”
3. Neon Indian – VEGA INTL. Night School (released October 16th)
Have you ever wanted to feel like a character in Blade Runner? Because listening to VEGA INTL. Night School will make you feel like a character in Blade Runner. I dare you to listen to “Slumlord” and tell me you don’t want to put on a leather jacket and wander the futuristic city streets of 2015. I hear by then we’ll have hover cars! And 3-D movies!
Much like the aforementioned Chaz Bundick of Toro y Moi, Neon Indian (Alan Palomo) gained his popularity during the emergence of chillwave circa 2011. But if Bundick is the Van Gogh of chillwave, Palomo is the Andy Warhol, his music bright and playful where Bundick’s is melodic and deliberate – you may remember the ultra-catchy single “Polish Girl” that was practically inescapable around 2012. We hadn’t seen much of him since, but it turns out that the wait was well worth it, as Palomo has retooled his sound into something much less chill in the best possible way.
The whole album feels like a slick ‘80s fever dream, displaying strong retrowave and vaporwave influences throughout, but luckily never veers off into creepy or gimmicky territory. Palomo masterfully walks the thin line between pop smash and genre experiment; for every distorted synthesizer and choppy sample, there’s a strong beat and catchy hook behind the studded leather steering wheel. Lead single “Annie” exemplifies this balancing act; where else have you heard a celesta incorporated into the chorus of an electropop song?
In a recent interview, Palomo described his fascination with filmmaking, saying that intends each song to set a mood, much like a movie scene. Seriously, if Neon Indian doesn’t end up on the soundtrack of the new Blade Runner movie, I’m going to be pissed.
Recommended Tracks: “Slumlord” ; “The Glitzy Hive” ; “Annie” ; “Dear Skorpio Magazine”
4. Hop Along – Painted Shut (released May 4th)
Some people in this world have a certain kind of voice. The type of voice that can convey pain, regret, and loss with seemingly no effort, even if the words being said have no obvious negative connotation. Frances Quinlan, the lead singer of Philadelphia folk rock band Hop Along, has one of these voices. And on the band’s latest album, boy does she prove it.
Painted Shut feels like a collection of short stories, read by a skilled storyteller. There’s no obvious connection between the individual songs, but a common tone takes shape over the course of the album, thanks to the band’s noisey-but-cohesive indie stylings and aggressively earnest vocals. Quinlan’s voice deftly shifts from melodic, vulnerable croon to harsh growl at the drop of a hat, giving every song a satisfying cathartic edge that can make you feel anger, nostalgia, and contentedness all at once. My personal favorite song is “Waitress”, on which Quinlan softly sings “Your friend looked over from the bar/ She must’ve known, who I was / The worst possible version of what I’d done.”
What happened, Frances? What could you have done to warrant such intense shame? Throughout the album, it’s moments such as these – where it’s not so much what’s said, but how it’s said – that set Hop Along apart from their peers and make Painted Shut one of the most subtly memorable albums of 2015. If you need a reminder that life is worth living despite all of its ugly, horrifying moments, then this album is for you.
Recommended Tracks: “Waitress” ; “Horseshoe Crabs” ; “Powerful Man” ; “Texas Funeral”
5. Wavves – V (released October 2nd)
Wavves’ Nathan Williams is kind of a slacker maestro, making fun, fuzzy surf punk that feels irreverent, but intelligently so. Who hasn’t felt the urge to indulge in a little self-destruction from time to time? The band’s stoned-and-boned gravitas does take on a slightly more somber tone with the knowledge that Williams has admitted to alcohol addiction on at least one occasion. Many of the band’s past works have felt like a substance-fueled romp through endless summer, but their aptly-title fifth album V is more like waking up the next day with a hangover and an empty bottle.
Luckily, the change in tone doesn’t detract from the band’s essence or quality; in fact, Wavves has never sounded slicker. On opening track “Heavy Metal Detox,” the band funnels their trademark psychedelic thrash into a tight, well-paced anthem. Lyrics like “I don’t really wanna act afraid / Not about you, about anything” betray a bit of hesitance in Williams’ otherwise irreverent attitude – who’s he trying to convince, you or himself? A later, jammier track called “Wait” would be easy to mistake for an simple expression of brattiness (“Cause I don’t wanna wait / I don’t wanna wait here”) until you hit the second half of the chorus (“Cause I don’t wanna wait / My whole life / Watch you drowning”).
Hey, sometimes it’s easier to get your own shit together when there’s someone else to be strong for. Shockingly deep stuff from the band that wrote “Teenage Super Party.”
In being forced to confront their own demons, Wavves may be maturing a bit, but that doesn’t make their music any less fun. In fact, its depth catapults V well beyond what it could have been as more of the same old “life sux, get high” stuff. Though don’t worry, there’s plenty of that as well.
Recommended Tracks: “Heavy Metal Detox” ; “Wait” ; “Redlead” ; “Tarantula”
Dion Hubble is a second-year Ph.D. student in
Molecular Engineering. He’s been doing this weird radio thing since 2011,
starting with KANM Student Radio at Texas A&M University. You can catch
his show, Bears Downloading, every Monday night from 8-10pm.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of his “10 Albums You May Have Missed in 2015″.