Rock music isn’t dead. It’s just diversified. While so many complain about pop music (which also turned out a slew of good to fantastic records this year) being the only sellable music there is, take a moment to consider the wider impact that the Internet has actually had. Yes, record sales are basically nil, but the Internet has also given exposure to bands that would have never had it otherwise. Bands like Kurt Vile and Deerhunter woud have surely been relegated to cult status at best had they not been able to use the platform of the Internet to become the stadium filling juggernauts they have become. If we had the web in the ‘80s, can you imagine what the impact would have been on Hardcore Punk or bands like Sonic Youth? Rock is a very loose descriptor to bands that primarily make use of guitars. But aside from that, there isn’t much commonalites between any of the bands on this list. I decided to run the gamut from folksy type stuff all the way to extreme metal. So much easier to just classify things as rock music, I don’t have the time to do a Best Metal of 2015, Best Punk of 2015, best neo noir wave of 2015. No no. Also should note that this playlist is composed of bands that had new music available of Spotify, keeping with the theme of this column. That leaves out all music on labels like S-S Records and Drag City. So let me just name these other records right quick: The Silence’s Hark the Silence, Joanna Newsom’s ‘Divers,’ and Purling Hiss’s ‘Weirdon.’ Reviews of the records below...
1. The Membranes, Dark Matter/Dark Energy track: In the Graveyard
Out of all the noise and dub rhythm aping post-punk bands of the 1980s that came out of the United Kingdom, The Membranes were arguably the harshest. Consider where most of those bands are now: Gang of Four re-united to make a terrible record, PiL re-united to make terrible records, Mark Stewart of the Pop Group makes funk music, and the Fall is not what it used to be. The Membranes on the other hand released this viscerally explosive collection of new tunes, their first album since 1989; not sounding aged in the least bit. The violence of Dark Matter/Dark Energy is more physical than anything else going on in rock music. The Membranes were born out of Thatcher and the Cold War, and they are re-born out of the War on Terror. In The Graveyard finds the band building a funky collision of dub rhythm to an epic cacophonic crescendo. We need explosive and politically charged punk rock now more than ever.
2. Kurt Vile, b’lieve I’m goin down… track: I’m an Outlaw
Kurt Vile has far outgrown his grungy folk Neil Young comparisons. Though Young will always be a touchstone for the Philadelphia-based artist, Kurt Vile’s interest in free jazz and improvisational music becomes more evident than ever on this record, despite the fact that it’s also his most accessible and beautiful set of songs. He has an ability to stretch hooks out into unknown realms, where it sounds pleasantly familiar while still taking the listener into new sonic arenas. He is one of our most important musicians.
3. Torres, Sprinter, track: New Skin
Second times a charm for Torres, as the Brooklyn by way of Nashville artist propels her alarmingly beautiful lyrics in dense layers of feedback and white noise. She is easily one of the best writers in music right now, paying clear homage to scene forebears like PJ Harvey. But she still comes off as darker somehow, unafraid to let demons escape from her voice.
4. Bad Guys, Bad Guynaecology, track: World Murderer
Have you ever wondered what the lush desert rock of the first Queens of the Stone Age record would sound like replacing Josh Homme’s dreamy lullaby singing voice with a death metal fart growl? Well here you go. And while that may read as a bad review for some, it’s not. Bad Guys make some of the easiest to love traditional rock music around, despite it really not being traditional at all. The band pays homage to all the great stoner rock of yore: from Clutch and Kyuss all the way back to Hawkwind. But the darkness that envelopes their sound makes for something quite contemporary.
5. Deerhunter, Fading Frontier, track: Snakeskin
Bradford Cox was kind enough to map his influences on Fading Frontier for an article with Vulture this year. He has truly one of the most endearing network of tastes in the contemporary music world, a unique mix of high and low cultural references: R.E.M. to Pharoah Sanders, Laurie Spiegel to Japanese ceramics. But with Cox, you get the sense that his influences only form small pastiches of what must be a massive mind. Despite his great love of music and art, he hardly ever references them. Deerhunter is something all on its own, and Fading Frontier finds Deerhunter less gloomy but still quite strange, with melodies so rich they buzz in your head for eons.
6. Lightning Bolt, The Metal East, track: The Metal East
Providence noise rock band Lightning Bolt has been doing its thing since 1994. In that time, their music has never waned in its brutality. It has gotten tighter however, and the drums and bass-using duo made use of the state of the art recording gear of their new label at Thrill Jockey on 2015 release The Metal East. The prog rock influences of the band have never been more apparent, using complex time signatures referencing Ruins and King Crimson to dizzy and captivate the listener. And they are still very, very fucking loud.
7. Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Multi-Love, track: Multi-Love
Multi-Love, Ruban Nielsen’s confessional record detailing a failed stab at poly-amorous love, was the most heartbreaking personal piece of music released in 2015. From its opening keyboard line and falsetto cooing, you know this won’t end well. You feel Nielsen’s highs and lows in love and life, and few male songwriters in this era are as comfortable baring their ugly flaws.
8. Wolf Eyes, I am a Problem: Mind in Pieces, track: Asbestos Youth
Around 2008 and 2009, I was into noise in a big way. Life was an endless quest for harsh noise and the extreme music that seemed to go with it: black metal, industrial, hardcore punk, etc.. Wolf Eyes was definitely my favorite, as they seemed to be relatably hard partying punk rock guys and their music veered towards guitar based rock music at times. They also looked really cool. But on I am a Problem, the Detroit legends have finally become the psychedelic caveman rock band they always were. Aligning themselves with Jack White’s Third Man records, we are entering a whole new phase to the Wolf Bros’ already storied career.
9. Protomartyr, The Agent Intellect, track: Dope Cloud
Another Detroit band keeping the city’s monumental rock history alive, Protomartyr took its post-punk leaning sound to its next logical extension on the band’s second record, the Agent Intellect. Though the sound is arguably more accessible (for the better) on the album, its content is harsher. The first track finds the band’s gifted frontman and songwriter Joe Casey literally talking to the devil, and fear of mortality is stamped all over the record. Casey lost both of his parents during the making of this record, and the album tries to find a way to live with that knowledge without thinking about having to prepare for that big inevitable.
10. Algiers, Black Eunuch, track: Black Eunuch
In a recent interview with the Wire, Jack Latham who records electronic music under the name Jam City (whose excellent record Dream a Garden was released this year, but that is for a different list) talks about the connection between goth post-punk music of the 1980s (from Bauhaus to the Cure) and the protest driven funk and soul music of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s (from Sly Stone to Curtis Mayfield). It’s all about the grooves, he says. He’s got a point, and Atlanta-based band Algiers directly explores that connection. Lead singer Franklin James Fisher is in the lineage of soul singers, and much of the rhythms can be traced towards Fela Kuti and afro-beat. But there is an industrial swarm underneath the funk. The resulting aggression makes for the most appropriate protest record of the year on Black Eunuch. Of all the experimental rock bands out there, Algiers feels very topical, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them get some mainstream attention.
11. Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love, track: No Cities to Love
Corin, Carrie, and Janet came back this year, indeed. And No Cities to Love, the trio’s first record in 10 years, is on-par with anything in the band’s catalog. More in line with the 2005 release The Woods, the record references big time stadium rock n’ roll and catchy as fuck melodies, with all the politics and radical thinking we’ve come to love and know from them. St. Vincent said it is her favorite Sleater record of all time. Always listen to Annie.
12. Hey Colossus, Radio Static High, track: Radio Static High
I have nothing against a band like say, Tame Impala, but I do object to the over-use of the term “psychedelic.” Psychedelic needs to confuse the senses and rattle the brain cells. Hence, I love the London-based band Hey Colossus. Piledriver riffis and piles of noise drown out what remain otherwise pretty formal song structures. Hey Colossus cites surprising influences like Cypress Hill and Fleetwood Mac, but they deliver the best transcendental metal you are likely to hear in 2015.
13. Leviathan, Scar Sighted, track: Breathless
Yes, this is going to be one of those Woody Allen/Roman Polanski/R. Kelly situations. You can’t really write about musician and tattoo artist Jef Whitehead sans the violent crime that he was convicted of. I did agonize about whether or not I should include this on the list, but the fact is, there isn’t a whole lot of metal that I get excited over these days. Scar Sighted caught my attention early in 2015 and held it throughout the year. You listen to this thing and it’s absolutely mind-boggling that you are listening to the work of one guy. There are a fuckload of one man black metal bands out there, but almost none hit the orchestral heights that Scar Sighted floats at for the majority of its duration. This is a musical maturation for Whitehead, with the music hitting the dense and complex arrangements known for second wave black metal bands like Emperor. It’s not a lo-fi record, by any stretch of the imagination.
14. Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp, track: Breathless
Katie Crutchfield is becoming one of indie rock’s most revered songwriters, and Ivy Tripp is another massive leap forward for the Alabama-born artist. Ivy Tripp is an album grander in scope than its predecessor, partly due to Crutchfield bringing in a phenomenal crew of collaborative musicians. Despite the expansiveness of sound, Crutchfield still harnesses an intimacy rarely felt in contemporary music. She invites you to her world, and it’s beautiful.
15. Petite Noir, La Vie Est Belle/Life, track: Best
Some performers just have it. Lou Reed had it. Patti Smith had it. Jimi Hendrix had it. Bowie had it. Bjork has it. Kanye has it. Petite Noir has it, in spades. That indefinable thing that elevates a performer beyond the scope of a talented musician and into the scope of being a symbol for all that is righteous in popular art. I saw Petite Noir perform at Afropunk Festival over the summer. Dressed stylishly in a black t-shirt and Chelsea boots, dancing and flailing around the stage, belting his uniquely soulful baritone voice. In five songs he won me over. This record was released to not much fan fare, possibly even getting less press than his EP from earlier in the year. That’s a shame because there is truly nothing that sounds like this. Petite Noir will unite fans of the Smiths and Fela Kuti and serve as the new favorite artist to people who love both. A singular artistic vision.
Text and playlist by Adam Lehrer