Friday, January 29, 2016

January Roundup: Remembering the Legends of Star Wars

In the earlier days of this blog, I would regularly document my listening habits with a “roundup” at the end of each month. A couple of years ago my consistency began to waver, and then Grooveshark got shut down. This streaming music site was what I used for all my playlists up to that point, and its loss unceremoniously nailed the roundup coffin shut. There have been times, however, that I have missed this practice. It certainly made things easier to come up with an end-of-year review with to them to look back on. It also provided the freedom to do some personal blogging on topics that might not readily link to with my musical interests

For example, at the end of December I, like many, had a reinvigorated interest in the Star Wars franchise. Certainly, I have a lot to say about the music of Star Wars, especially as it enters its current iteration. Before I dive in to this topic in the coming months, however, there is a whole world within the world of Star Wars that has no soundtrack and, sadly, dim prospects for the future.

It’s hard to imagine today, but in the early 90s it looked like Star Wars was over. There were no official plans for the prequels, and many earnest fans fantasized about what happened in the Star Wars universe after Return of the Jedi.  The answer came with the written word.

With George Lucas’ blessing, Timothy Zahn wrote an excellent series of books that are now knows as The Thrawn Trilogy, and they kicked off what would come to be known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe.  After Zahn’s books, many other authors explored his deep characters and thought-provoking concepts. Without a singular narrative to steer the ship, however, the universe’s canonicity eventually became problematic. After a decade and a half, some fans argued that it became too bloated and self-contradictory to cohere, and this, along with complex intellectual property issues, caused the Expanded Universe to be summarily dismissed when Disney acquired Lucasfilms. These stories are now considered “Star Wars Legends,” and are not recognized as part of the official continuity as it moves forward.

The move was hardly surprising.  I was not a completest fan of the Expanded Universe due to quality control problems I saw with the canon.  I did, however, harbor a secret hope that a few of the characters and plotlines would be at least acknowledged if not adapted into the new Star Wars timeline. The characters from the Expanded Universe enjoyed a depth that was unprecedented in the original Star Wars movies. Mara Jade, in particular, was the most complex and interesting woman that the Star Wars universe had ever seen up to that point. It would have been satisfying to see her play a role in the canon as it moves forward with a greater emphasis on strong female characters.

There is no music that can connect with her, however, or any situation in the Expanded Universe beyond that which lies in our imagination. Or, perhaps, what I might be listening to as I have nostalgically looked back on the quiet passing of this rich world of colorful characters. This month, this includes a lot of new music from my Christmas and birthday booty.

John Williams - Star Wars: The Attack of the Clones OST: Before the release of The Force Awakens soundtrack, this was the only Star Wars soundtrack missing from my collection, mainly because I have stubbornly refused to support The Attack of the Clones in any way. The soundtrack is way better than the movie.

Mbongwana Star – From Kinsasha: Very intriguing and contemporary African pop music from the congo.  Saw a live video from this band yesterday that really piqued my interest.

King Crimson – Live at the Orpheum: With the passing of Chris Squire last year, the mortality of his generation hit home for me. No more waiting for a new studio album from Fripp and his current lineup.

Kamasi Washington – The Epic: This massive 3-disc release sounds like the hopes and dreams of every jazz studies major I have ever met. I am still trying to decide if Washington’s playing lives up to his vision.

The Judas Table – Antimatter: A glowing, positive review got this dark rock album in the player, but the melodramatic vocals just don’t quite work for me.

Africa Express - Terry Riley’s In C Mali: Minimalism comes full circle, with an African ensemble performing the work of a Western composer.

Zweiton – Form: An outstanding instrumental disc from an excellent touchstyle guitarist. Lots of mathy structures and aggressive melodies make this an engaging listen.

Sei Ikeno and Akira Ifukube – Zatoichi: The Best Cuts 1967-1973: I have been on a Zatoichi jag since this summer. Anyone who thinks that Quentin Tarantino is wholly original needs to examine these movies.

Kurt Stenzel - Jodorowskys Dune OST: I have still yet to see this documentary about this “best movie that never was,” but this synth-based soundtrack certainly captures something about the world of Dune that I have not heard elsewhere.

Atomic Ape – Swarm: I saw these guys open for Secret Chiefs 3 last year, and I found them inspiring. Their studio album is also quite good.

Zombi – Shape Shift: I love the drive and the texture of this instrumental album, but it seems a bit short on melody.  Repeated listens have been revealing, though.

David Bowie – Blackstar: There are lots of factors to consider with Blackstar, so I will reserve final judgement on it for the time being. The video for Lazarus, however, is the most haunting thing I have seen in a while.

Hans Zimmer – Interstellar OST: I have had this album for over a year now, but finally saw the movie last month. The combination of the two are simply amazing.

Clarence Clarity – No Now: What if James Blake collaborated with Death Grips? Ponder that one.

Grimes – Art Angels: Perhaps this is premature, but I am not particularly impressed with her follow-up. It took me a long time to get into her debut, though, so maybe it will open up.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Subtle "Innuendo:" Freddie Mercury's Epitaph

It has always been so: college textbooks are frighteningly expensive. During my undergraduate, the annual investment of textbooks was the most fluid and generally stressful financial aspect of starting a semester. With several hundred dollars on the line, it did not seem like tacking on another $20 or so to indulge in some new music was such a big deal - at least not to the irresponsible twentysomething that I was. There were a couple of albums that I snuck into my collection under the umbrella of my textbook budget, one of which was Tin Machine II. Another was Queen’s Innuendo, an album that I have been thinking a lot about in the past few weeks.

In 1991, Queen held the same position for me that I described in my previous post about David Bowie. I grew up with them featured prominently on the radio, but the only album I had by them was the Flash Gordon Soundtrack, which was an odd entry in their catalog. I also owned a greatest hits CD and had every intention of eventually expanding their presence in my collection.

It took me almost two decades to realize this latter ambition, by the way.  As of this writing, the only Queen studio album missing from my collection is The Miracle, which I did have at one point.  That, however, is another story.

Queen had a progressive aspect that kept them on my radar, so when I read that Steve Howe had a guest appearance on Innuendo,  it became the first proper Queen album in my adult CD collection. Before its release, it seemed that Queen’s music had suffered from some inconsistency due the commercial expectations of their success. Certainly, Radio Ga Ga had its sights on the masses and did not compare to the cinematic scope of Bohemian Rhapsody, at least in my mind. The symphonic horizons of Innuendo suggested that Queen was making an earnest attempt to recapture the adventurous artistry that informed their best work. I enjoyed it a lot.

What I did not know when I bought Innuendo, however, was that Freddie Mercury was sick. He had been fighting a very private battle with AIDS for several years by that point, but publicly denied that his health was deteriorating. Mercury finally announced his condition late in 1991, and passed away virtually the next day. With this news, Innuendo suddenly and dramatically changed for me. Within the context of Mercury’s mortality, the album’s earnestness and good humor seemed more like urgency and poise.

Queen was an album band, so although their songs could be taken individually, the programming always seemed to enhance the album's overall narrative.  The placement of the melodramatic The Show Must Go On as the closing track on Innuendo was an undeniably clear statement. After the announcement came, I remember sitting in my dorm room getting choked up with several friends imagining the once vibrant Mercury sitting on a stool for support and belting out the vocals for this track in spite of his own fading strength.

Within the context of Mercury’s imminent demise, it suddenly became apparent that the impetus for this album was not merely an effort to recapture past glories. Even taking Mercury’s condition into account, the value of Innuendo did not lie in the fact that it was the last time he would record with Queen before he passed. Rather, it was because that album was about his impending death and a document on the manner in which he chose to approach it.  Mercury's death was the innuendo that ran throughout the album, too subtle to notice on the surface, but impossible to ignore once it came to light.

Bowie’s recent passing brought this situation to mind.  The brave and subtle way in which Innuendo brought Mercury’s struggles to light was so revealing about his character and his art has inspired me to seek the same in Bowie's recent posthumous release, Blackstar. Certainly, I don't expect it to sound the same as Innuendo.  There are few artists who are willing to put that kind of struggle up for public scrutiny, however, and I think it would be a shame to overlook such a personal epitaph.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Defined by a Footnote: David Bowie and Tin Machine

David Bowie's recent passing effected me, and like many, I feel the need to contribute to the many voices lamenting our loss.  I should admit at the outset, however, that although I have always been a fan of his work, I have never been a particularly devoted follower.  Even today, my collection of Bowie albums is embarrassingly small.  My introduction to Bowie was in the early 80’s when Let’s Dance was in regular radio rotation. Despite never actually owning the album myself, I can trace the majority of its tracks in my memory and faithfully air guitar along with Stevie Ray Vaughn’s inspired soloing.  I later got the ChangesBowie compilation that was released in 1989 and went to the accompanying Sound+Vision support tour in 1990. I admit, however, that I was far more interested in seeing King Crimson guitarist and frontman Adrian Belew play as Bowie's right-hand man. Belew did not disappoint, by the way - his backup vocals on Space Oddity still stand out as one of the live music highlights of my entire concert-going experience.

I paid attention when Bowie did anything, but clearly I was often distracted by the people in his orbit.  I did not "get" him as an artist in his own right well enough at that stage to begin prying open his catalog, and my interest in him might have all but stalled if it weren't for an article I misread.  I kept up with several music publications in the 80s, and in a brief editorial I saw that David Bowie was recording an album with a band at The Power Station.  When I saw this, I confused the New York studio that bore the name with the 80s supergroup led by Robert Palmer and backed by Duran Duran members. I was a fan of their eponymous album, and thought that David Bowie would be a really interesting lead for The Power Station if Robert Palmer planned to focus on his solo career. I tucked this piece of misinformation in the back of my mind and sat on it for months. 

This led me to the Bowie project that made the biggest impression on me, and oddly it was the one in which he tried to fade into the background: Tin Machine.  In the big scheme of Bowie’s career, Tin Machine might end up being a mere footnote, but it was the vehicle that brought me to a greater understanding of Bowie’s restless musicianship.

When Tin Machine showed on the new release rack of my local Sound Warehouse, I stubbornly perceived it as the Power Station’s follow-up album, despite the discrepancy in the name and an obviously different lineup. Listening to the Tin Machine album with the expectation of a glossy Power Station release was somewhat jarring. There was an aggressive intensity that the albums shared, but Tin Machine was significantly more ragged and noisy than I expected.  I did, however, find the tension between the obviously intellectual guitarist Reeves Gabriels and the gorilla groove tactics of the Sales brothers on bass and drums to be most compelling.

Still, it was Bowie that really piqued my interest in this project. At that point, he was the “guy that sung Blue Jean” as far as I was concerned. It was a puzzling phenomenon to see a high-polish pop-rock icon thrive in a relatively harsh musical environment. In retrospect, however, it was clear that his success had afforded him a certain status and, being the musician he was, would have nothing else to do with the artistic trappings of this title. Tin Machine, then, was an environment with one foot in the cerebral and the other in the primal and it effectively allowed Bowie to thumb his nose at the industry to which he owed his notoriety.

Tin Machine was, at times, abrasive, and did not sound like anything else that was out there in the public eye at the time. Its contrarian virtuosity was appealing, and it developed into a somewhat indulgent, private favorite at the end of my senior year. I had my eyes open for its follow up in 1991, and Tin Machine II served as the soundtrack to my second year at UNT. Tin Machine II was a more well-developed statement than its predecessor. In retrospect, the more polished feel of this album caused Tin Machine to lose a bit of the the manic grit that made them distinctive in the first place.  It is still quite good, and perhaps more varied in style than the debut album, but has not weathered quite as well.

I would continue to cross paths with Bowie’s material, playing his songs in cover bands, listening to adaptations of his more cerebral work, and just generally keeping tabs on his comings and goings. Delving into his massive catalog seemed daunting, however, and his mercurial nature made it difficult to get a bead on where to start. I got Low a few years later with the intent of examining his so-called “Berlin Trilogy,” but I never followed up. Sadly, that’s about it. It’s not that I disliked his material or had anything against him. I just kept putting it off – for decades.

And then he died.

So now I have the awkward feeling of being too late to David Bowie’s party, falling into the category of people who will disingenuously purchase Blackstar and Ziggy Stardust remasters post-mortem in an attempt to stay relevant. Perhaps that is the case, but I don't feel that my dragging feet reflect my impression of him as an artist or bandleader, but rather with my delusional idea that we would have him forever. Fortunately, he left a massive body of work behind, and an indelible mark on popular music.

Friday, January 1, 2016

2015 Honorable Mentions: The Cold Civil War

I’d love to be able to say that it was a great year, but in retrospect, there were some troubling developments. That’s not to say that is was a bad year for me personally, but it feels like society at large is taking a dark, nihilistic turn. For example, it seems like the American flag flies at half-mast so often that the general public doesn’t even consider why. Our society is riddled with instances of meaningless deaths, and this will not change by the installation of any law or policy. It will only change if we, as individuals, change.

For my part, I rarely post anything political, but looking back at 2015 gives me the sense that this philosophy might be misguided. It’s not that I am without political opinions, or that I think that the opinions of the individual are without meaning. I just don’t like to bare my breast to the knife of trollers. I find them troubling, and I doubt that my viewpoint will change minds fossilized by fear and ignorance.

And maybe it won’t, but we have unlimited channels to raise awareness. Leaving these resources untapped seems irresponsible, so I will take this opportunity to plead the case that more guns will not result in less deaths.  It just doesn’t make logical sense. Guns kill. That is their purpose.

That is not to say that I am against people owning guns. I am against the idea that so many people seem to genuinely think that they need them.  I don’t think, however, that it is the government’s place to confiscate guns, even though it seems to be the only solution to disarming this “Cold Civil War” that the populace seems to think is realistic. It doesn’t put any belief in the individual’s right to make morally correct choices and surround themselves with objects that are truly beneficial to mankind’s progress. Instead, attachment to guns becomes more deeply entrenched as people feel that their right to keep them is taken away.

So I think that in 2016, there should be a movement towards the voluntary surrender of firearms in honor of all the innocent people who have been shot and killed in 2015. The fact that this sounds an unreasonable or impossible request is an indicator of just how big the problem is.  At the very least people should consider that the purpose of a firearm is to kill, not to serve as status symbol. It is my fear that, as open carry policies start today in Texas, this latter standard will be the case. Individual businesses can opt out of this policy, however, and I will actively seek out these businesses in 2016 so that my daughters don’t have to feel like they are being raised in a military state. Despite what the fearful may think, we are not (at least not yet).

My apologies. Although I have considered writing a post on this subject for almost three years, this blog is about music and the topic has not coincided with my listening in any believable way. As the year ends, though, and we look back on the last few albums in 2015 that were in the running for the top twenty, it seems as appropriate as it ever will.

In general, these last five albums were ones that I really wanted to get into the “Best of 2015” category, but just did not have the staying power of the others.  Still great, and worth investigation if they grab your ear.

BeckMorning Phase: With half of the original Jellyfish lineup serving as backup musicians and some of Beck’s strongest work, excluding this Grammy winner was a tough call. It was just barely nudged out

Deafheaven – New Bermuda: There’s two ways this album could have gone: more of the same that Sunbather had to offer or something totally different. They took the latter route, and although it has all of the emotional impact of its predecessor, it did not distinguish itself as much as I would have liked.

iamthemorningBelighted: Gleb Kolyadin’s electrifying piano performances drew me to purchase Belighted early this year, and it is undoubtedly one of the more original and satisfying prog releases I have heared in a while. iamthemorning is, however, a duo and the album has some studio musicians filling out the arrangements, and I would like to have heard a more developed group dynamic on the whole.

Tal National - Zoy Zoy: A fantastic, current African pop album, a genre that unfortunately has to contend with the unreasonably long shadow of Fela in my collection. Despite being an adequate listen, Zoy Zoy was not distinctive enough to withstand months of vetting to make the year end list.

Tame Impala Currents: I advocated strongly for Tame Impala’s previous release, and I do like Currents. It has a perceptible turn away from adventurousness towards commercialism, however, that held me at a distance.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Dr. Spin's Top Ten Albums for 2015

As much as I was looking forward to Christmas this year, I have to confess that most of my anticipation was centered on getting to see The Force Awakens. Christmas comes every year, but there are only so many times in your life that you will see a Star Wars film for the first time.

 It did not disappoint. The Force Awakens will undoubtedly push the franchise along for the foreseeable future. To make a long story short and relatively spoiler-free, there was quite a bit of amazingly framed nostalgia alongside some great new characters. Most importantly, it felt like a Star Wars movie – the kind that I remember from my youth. Much more so than the prequels, which stretched my ability to suspend disbelief to its very limits.

Although I see some revisiting of the Star Wars soundtracks coming up soon, this annual post is a look back rather than a look forward. The first half of the top 20 was posted about a month ago. I had a pretty decent lock on the top 10 even at that point, but I have struggled really hard this year with the specific order of the top 5. Each of those albums have, at one time or another, decisively held that number one position. It might be easier to consider it a five-way tie for number one, but that is most certainly cheating. Undoubtedly, though, if any reader were to wonder what albums were my favorite for 2015, I would suggest them without hesitation.

10. AnekdotenUntil All the Ghosts Have Gone: Many years ago, I became a devoted fan of From Within, but sadly never delved any further into Anekdoten’s catalog. This year, just as I was considering taking the plunge, Until All the Ghosts Have Gone was announced and, thankfully, seemed to pick up right where From Within left off.

9. Sloan Double Cross: Navy Blues burned brightly for me a couple of decades ago, but ultimately fizzled out in the long term.  Double Cross, however, became the go-to Uber record for me this year, and has the unusual distinction of succeeding at being both a cohesive album and a collection of quality standalone tracks.

8. YesTime and a Word: The passing of Chris Squire caused me to consider both Yes’ back catalog and identity quite a bit this year. Time and a Word was lurking in the dark corners of my collection and emerged as a surprise favorite just as his illness was announced, but it also represents a whole lot of Yes that went through the player, not the least of which was reconnecting with 90125, one of my all-time favorite albums.

7. Low Ones and Sixes: This was a surprise that came out of nowhere, purchased only with the coercion of a single positive review and the incorrect assumption that they were a different band. It was an immediate sell, however, and has emerged as a very strong favorite in the past few months.

6. My Brightest DiamondThis is My Hand: If we were going by total number of times played, This is My Hand would probably be number one. This was a big, big hit with not just me, but the whole family.

5. Steve Reich Music for 18 Musicians:  Although it doesn’t work well when left on repeat, Music for 18 Musicians is an extremely satisfying listen that I keep returning to. As I have stated elsewhere, it works on multiple levels, and as such has served as the soundtrack to several long family drives in which I am the only one awake.

4. Anathema – Distant SatellitesThe rules state that an album's year of release is not a stipulation, but this fantastic album was at the top of a lot of 2015 lists, so it seemed redundant to make it the album of 2015.  Even so, it has been the album to beat all year, and it was still in consideration until the very last minute.

3. Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood, and the Rajastan ExpressJunun: This was a very late entry, but in terms of its concept, musicality, and cultural relevance, Junun has every right to be album of the year. In fact, the only thing that knocked it down from consideration was its relatively late release date.

2. Steven WilsonHand. Cannot. Erase.: Steven Wilson is a long-time favorite of mine, and early on, I really wanted to put this one in the top slot. I think that in some ways, Hand. Cannot. Erase. is more distinctive than its predecessor (which was #2 in 2013), but the overall originality of the "album of the year" winner gave them a slight edge.

1. Beauty PillDescribes Things as They Are: This album has everything – quirky songs, outstanding playing, and an overall novel approach to a unique style of art rock. It’s also accessible enough to appeal to my whole family, despite a few instances of slightly off-color language that the Little One has thankfully not quite caught onto yet.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Hyphenated Identities: Netflix's Iron Fist and UZU

Marvel’s collaboration with Netflix has been a game changer for superhero cinema. The mini-series format gave both Daredevil and Jessica Jones the kind of deep backstory and character development that fans appreciate, but that is difficult to develop in the limited screen time available in the movies. I, for one, am really looking to the next installments in this project, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and the eventual crossover into the Defenders. Of all the series, the one I am looking forward to the most is the one we have heard the least about – Iron Fist.

When he was conceived in the 70s, Iron Fist was a very deliberate attempt to tap into the martial arts movies that were prominent in pop culture. As Danny Rand, he was, predictably, a yellow-haired white guy who, after being orphaned as a child, discovered a mystic city and received martial arts training and powers. This did not seem too odd back when “everybody was kung fu fighting,” but by today’s standards of diversity and equity, Rand’s ethnic background has the scent of colonial appropriation. Of course, this did not matter to me, a nerdy white kid that loved comics and had a hankering for the martial arts. Iron Fist was a no-brainer, and one of my favorites.

These days, though, I see the necessity for diversity in the growing Marvel Cinematic Universe and, consequently, the need to sometimes reinvent characters.  Changing the gender or race of a given character shouldn’t matter, but when you are altering someone’s childhood memories, it should be handled with care. I usually support these changes, but in some cases they have felt forced.  To be convincing, these changes have to align with what is essential about the character and then maintain that essence across perceived boundaries of race.

I have seen some discussion about Iron Fist in this regard, with some fans speculating that he should be cast as Asian in his Netflix series. As a fan, I would be the first to say that the casting should stay true to the comic book.  I can, however, see the point in an Asian Iron Fist, especially since this particular ethnic group is sorely underrepresented in the current Marvel Cinematic Universe. Part of the reason why this reinvention seems to make sense at first glance, however, is due to essentialized stereotypes about Asian people.  Although it might result in more a diverse Defenders roster, it would not help to dispel such prejudices. It would actually reinforce them.

There is, however, way to sidestep this issue, or at least address it in a way that might actually serve to deepen the character rather than flatten him, and that is to play Danny Rand as an Asian-American. By this I mean that Iron Fist's alter ego grew up America, perhaps as a second or third generation son of immigrants, and identifies himself as American. Asian-Americans deal with distinct and complex stereotypes that arise in the rift between identifying as American and being perceived as Asian.

Canadian band Yamantaka//Sonic Titan use similar tensions as inspiration. They examine their own authenticity by referring to traditions that they identify with, but have been pushed aside by modernity. Their debut album piqued my interest in a couple of years ago, and although their second album UZU did not crack last year’s top 20, it has been interesting enough to warrant revisiting on several occasions.  I admit that I am not always convinced by Yamantaka//Sonic Titan from a purely musical standpoint, but I do find their carefully constructed identity compelling enough to keep me coming back.

While most might watch Yamantaka//Sonic Titan and see a noisy new-wave reinterpretation of KISS makeup, a seasoned prog fan might also recall Peter Gabriel's costuming in his early Genesis days, especially his "Britannia" character (seen right).  The latter is probably a fairer comparison, as Gabriel intended to make a cultural reference, but Gabriel's cultural background and ethnicity is incontrovertibly  British.  Yamantaka//Sonic Titan juxtapose noh-inspired makeup and First People chanting across cultural boundaries in ways that are less satirical.  Collisions like these in their artwork and imagery subtly deepen the listening experience and paint an engaging picture of culturally hyphenated identities.

It would be similarly engaging to follow an Asian-American Danny Rand that experiences tension between how he feels he is perceived and his own self-image. Perhaps he might feel the weight of his heritage and, feeling out of touch with it, reconnects with it through his transformation into Iron Fist. Conversely, he might feel encircled by an ethnicity that he rejects, but finds that fate draws him though an experience that allows him find his own unique way to “be” both Asian and American. There are probably other scenarios that, not being Asian-American myself, I cannot imagine, which is exactly why they warrant nuanced investigation.  Iron Fist could then be made uniquely relevant in a way that broadens horizons while embellishing (not reinventing) an already established childhood icon of many.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Dr. Spin's Top 20 for 2015: The First Half

Ah, November – the newsfeeds are jammed with daily thanks, moustaches, holiday recipes, and shopping deals. It also serves as the deadline for my annual top 20 list. In my pre parenthood days, the blog had monthly roundups and November would feature selections 11-20. In recent years, this has devolved into just the latter.  I start working on this list at the beginning of the month, but I usually have time to compile it during my annual Thanksgiving Day holiday to South Padre.

In contrast to having a small dinner with some friends, Thanksgiving at the beach is a quite different affair.  My in-laws generously rent a condo on the beach and fill it with their extended family and friends.  With the Little One functioning as a very precocious 4 year old, she's gotten swept up in the kid culture of the group.  This includes, of course, significant amounts of beach time.

Sand drives me nuts, so I am not a huge fan of sand castles and the like.  That's the Little One's domain.  I am, however, a big fan of the aesthetic of the beach.  I can stand for an interminable amount of time letting the waves hit my feet while I take in the vastness of the ocean.  I usually get my fix during Thanksgiving, but this year was different.  When I got beachside, I was greeted by a huge, rusty pipe running as far as the eye could see.

It didn't do much to soothe the environmental anxiety that I have been suffering with this year.  I hope that the Little Two gets to remember seeing beaches without such a post-apocalyptic aesthetic.

I say it every year, and every year I get criticism: my Top 20 is not constrained to albums with a 2015 release date. Although albums released this year do have some degree of favor, inclusion on the list has much more to do with how an album comes to mark the time for a given year.  There are other rules, which I have stuck to since the first year I did this.  They are posted here.

20. Balmorhea – Stranger: This one entered the picture in late 2014, but grabbed my attention when I revisited it earlier this year. Tortoise’s It’s all Around You was a favorite of mine in another life, and Stranger speaks the same dialect.

19. Mew +/-: I really wanted to put +/- at the top of the 2015 list. While I will say that the return of bassist Johan Wohlert brought back the band’s soul, the album is ‘merely excellent’ rather than ‘phenomenal’ like their earlier work.

18. BattlesLaDiDaDi: LaDiDaDi harkens back to the unapologetically dense days of EP B/C EP. It is a step forward for Battles as a trio, but still doesn’t reach the heights of the classic Mirrored.

17: Spock's Beard - The Oblivion Particle: Without any direct input from Neal Morse, this year's offering from Spock's Beard rakes anoter step towards solidifying the current lineup.  Ted Leonard fronts the band without taking over, allowing the group's unique personality to shine through.

16. Death Grips – The Powers that B: Although Death Grips have released several albums since The Money Store, their media antics have been more compelling than their music. The much-hyped The Powers that B actually delivers on the braggadocio that they have been delivering for the past few years.

15. East India Youth – Culture of Volume: Despite a dismal set opening for Mew at SXSW, I had a hunch that the studio might be a better vehicle for his vision. I was pleased to find that I was correct – I only wish that he was using a live drummer!

14. Other LivesRituals: While it may not cast the same spell as its predecessor, Rituals definitely weaves a similar magic. It is similarly orchestral in its scope, however, with generous use of bassoon and hints of minimalism.

13. The New Pornographers Brill Bruisers: It is incredibly tricky to make multiple albums of outstanding power pop music without becoming formulaic. The New Pornographers navigate this issue by giving each album its own subtle character without reinventing the band’s essence.

12. Original Soundtrack - 13 Assassins: Thanks to the Superhero Theme Project, I have had a lot of soundtracks in rotation for the past couple of years. 13 Assassins was a totally accidental find in the research for Wolverine's theme, but its distinctive character immediately grabbed and held my attention for months.

11. Circa: - HQ: Regular followers of my blog know that I have engaged in an ongoing exploration of Yes’ identity. Listening to HQ was part of the research for this examination, but it came to have a life of its own early this year.