James Hill: My Top Albums of ’15

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This is the first in a series of year-end articles by WOUB contributors. Check out all of this year’s lists at this link.

Wearing my music-acquisitions hat (it’s fuzzy and green and has a tassel on top) for Athens County Public Libraries gives me the joyous opportunity to listen to a lot of tunes, but the variety of music available digitally makes it an almost overwhelming job.

Fortunately, there are a lot of great sources for winnowing out the chafe. I depend on NPR, print reviews, social media and local music venues to find the best out there.

Like every other year, my beginning list of “the best” was huge, but I had an easier time narrowing it down this year. Who immediately popped into my head when I think back over the past few months? (Glen Hansard.) Looking at my various playlists, which songs did I listen to the most? (Airborne Toxic Event.) And, reviewing the catalog of everything I bought in 2015, which are the albums I most want others to know about?

I usually don’t rank my year-end list, but this year I didn’t have a problem naming favorites. In order, here’s what I came up with:

10. Veruca Salt, Ghost Notes: You get the sense that this band is holding back from a full-frontal attack. They have a lot of power in their playing, but it never overwhelms. Part punk, part girl-band, part pop, with an undertone of noise and avant garde. It’s all good. “Love You Less” is a standout track.

9. Ròisin Murphy, Hairless Toys: This Irish performer describes her music as art pop. I can agree with that. She reminds me in the best way of Me’Shell Ndegéocello. “Exploitation” is my favorite track here.

8. Built to Spill, Untethered Moon: You can depend on the folks at Stuart’s Opera House to bring exciting live music to the annual Nelsonville Music Festival. That’s where I first encountered these guys. They have all the right chord changes and vocally remind me of The Stone Roses and sometimes Michael Stipe. “All Our Songs” is a good track to try out.

7. Miami Horror, All Possible Futures: Total pop throwback–all your favorite ’80s synthesizer sounds in one place! Take “Out of Sight” for a spin and you’ll be doing The Safety Dance in no time.

6. Bombadil, Hold On: I first saw Bombadil when they opened for David Wax Museum at a backstage show at Stuart’s Opera House a few years ago. Their clever, nerdy pop delighted me. Hold On came out in March and continues the quarky love songs and hipster tunes. “Amy’s Friend” is their “hit” featured in the movie Trainwreck.

5. James McMurtry, Complicated Game: I’ve followed McMurtry since his first album, Too Long in the Wasteland, in 1989. It was an impulse buy at Kmart based on a Rolling Stone review and John Mellencamp’s backing. Every album since has been full of smart musical short stories and killer guitar licks. His newest album is more acoustic than others, but still rocks at times. Start with the love song, “These Things I’ve Come to Know.”

4. Buffy Saint-Marie, Power in the Blood: She’s a legend, what else do you need to know? As expected, it has politics, love songs, traditional sounds, modern sounds and emotion. It’s hard to choose just one standout track (the title song is a favorite), but if you’re not familiar with Buffy Saint-Marie (what a sad thought!), “The Uranium War” is representative of her career.

3. Airborne Toxic Event, Dope Machine: There’s a theme throughout this list of retro-pop sounds. If you’re familiar with older ATE music, that’s probably not the first thing you think of, but Dope Machine is a departure for them. It’s moody after-dark music. I’ve listened to the track “Time to Be a Man” a bunch this year. I’m gonna go listen to it again right now.

2. Dawes, All Your Favorite Bands: I can’t get enough of these guys. Every awesome album is a mix of ballads and rockers. The title track here is an all-time favorite. What a great thing to say to someone: “May all your favorite bands stay together.” Let’s hope.

1. Glen Hansard, Didn’t He Ramble: My absolute favorite album this year. So many great songs. “Winning Streak” sounds derivative of any number of other songs while at the same time coming across as sincere. And the fiddles at the end of “McCormack’s Wall” always have me doing a jig. Hansard has been everywhere this past year and I’m hoping he makes it to southeastern Ohio soon.

As an aside, Hansard also released an EP of Jason Molina songs this year, It was Triumph Once Proposed. It’s also well worth checking out. It’s five of Molina’s most powerful songs sung with utter worship by Hansard.

The second 10, or other albums worth mentioning and/or being aware of from 2015:

Milk Carton Kids, Monterey—way laid back alt country
Los Lobos, Gates of Gold—everything you expect
Joywave, How Do You Feel Now—alternative dance music
Tallest Man on Earth, Dark Bird’s Home—not plowing new ground, but Kristian Matsson is still unique
Dar Williams, Emerald—a matured sound from a favorite singer songwriter
Bottle Rockets, South Broadway Athletic Club—reminds me of John Hiatt
Toro y Moi, What For?—entertaining indie rock that fits any mood
Big Data, 2.0—some cross pollination here with Joywave and others
Adele, 25—I know, she’s everywhere right now, but with good reason
Don Henley, Cass County—a country album from an country-rock pioneer

James Hill is a librarian and the Access Coordinator for Athens County Public Libraries. His job allows him to discover new artists and and explore new platforms for enjoying music. James is also an occasional host on WOUB’s Radio Free Athens.