Eddie Ashworth: My Top Albums of ’15

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

I have a feeling that there will be quite a few records that will land on the majority of these “best of” lists this year. I’ll leave the effusive and well-deserved praise of those fantastic albums to others, and have instead highlighted records that rocked my world but might be less universally appreciated. (I’ve included the former after my main list, without comment.)

So, here, in no particular order, are 15 remarkable records that might not get quite as much love as, say, the world-beating Courtney Barnett or Deerhunter albums, but I think might reward your efforts if you seek them out.

1. Grace Potter, Midnight: Fans of Potter’s prior rock-driven work were likely put off by this foray into ’90s inspired dance pop, but I was enthusiastically not among them. Collaborating with producer Eric Valentine (Smashmouth, Queens of the Stone Age, Third Eye Blind), Potter has made an impossibly catchy, lyrically knowing and spectacularly accomplished modern pop album with a great retro vibe that highlights her stunning voice and would make Purple Rain-era Prince proud.

2. Dengue Fever, The Deepest Lake: I’ve always loved this LA-based combo, which combines sinuous rock arrangements with Cambodian pop melodies and lyrics (often sung in Khmer), and this record highlights the strengths of the group at their blazing zenith. The songs sound like instant classics, the band is a groove machine, and vocalist Chhom Nimol truly comes into her as one of the great singers of this, or any other, era. There were several times when first listening to this terrific album when I closed my eyes and felt transported to a strange, dreamlike place, with an exotic radio station playing in the background.

3. Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Multi-Love: I don’t even know how to describe this one. Psychedelic Motown? EDM soul? Kraftwerk meets Prince? Whatever it is, the tracks on this record are immersive and mesmerizing; a transfixing blend of catchy, evocative songs and expertly realized electronic-based production by this Portland, Oregon (by way of New Zealand) three-piece. Reminded me a bit of Black Moth Super Rainbow. If you like them, you’ll love this!

4. Motel Beds, Mind Glitter: These Dayton-based rockers have been solid performers for years, but nothing prepared one for the glorious noise of this deliriously pop-happy record. Gleefully jumping genres from late ’60s studio pop, to trippy folk, to surf music, to rollicking garage rock, Mind Glitter finds the Beds at the peak of their formidable powers. One of an astonishing number of top shelf albums to emerge from our regional music scene this year, several of which are on the lists below.

5. Mbongwana Star, From Kinsasha: The most exciting and innovative band I have heard in ages. This Congolese outfit uses slightly distorted amplification to treat traditional instruments such as the likembe (very much like their forebears, Konono No 1, members of which appear on a track or two) to create an unclassifiable blend of soul, juju and rock that is hypnotically danceable and super-catchy. Imagine George Clinton, Jimi Hendrix and King Sunny Ade jamming in a nuclear reactor, and you get some idea of what this band feels like.

6. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Chasing Yesterday: The former Oasis mastermind comes roaring back from the rock hinterlands with this moving and mature album. Naturally, Gallagher’s touchstones—The Kinks, The Beatles, and all things British Invasion—are present. But here there is a Nick Drake-ish world-weariness that infuses the somewhat jazzy/psychedelic proceedings with depth not heard on his earlier albums. (I suspect it is no coincidence that the first song is entitled “Riverman.”) Gallagher’s best collection of songs since Be Here Now.

7. Ona, American Fiction: The West Virginia Americana scene comes into its own with this compelling collection of songs that is deeply rooted in the hills, hollows and hard times of our neighbors to the south. With unobtrusive production by Huntington guitar guru Bud Carroll, this record has what might be called sonic terroir—it sounds as if it emerged from the very soil of West Virginia, and no other place. Memorable songs, well played, and sung with a sense of hopeful resignation that life, against all odds, might just turn the corner.

8. Swervedriver, I Wasn’t Made To Lose You: Without a doubt the most unexpected comeback of the year. This British band had a brief run in the ’90s as part of the “shoegaze” movement from which bands like Curve and My Bloody Valentine emerged. Little was heard from them for many years, which makes this album such a triumphant delight. Swirling, jangly guitars and incandescent melodies infuse every track. Outstanding!

9. Eagles of Death Metal, Zipper Down: Eagles of Death Metal is practically a household name now, due to their unlucky presence in the midst of the recent Parisian terror attacks. Which is a shame, because what they should be known for is their inspired blend of stoner rock (thanks in part to member Josh Homme, of Queens of the the Stone Age) and ironic, satirical and self-effacing lyrics. Whether skewering the pretensions of Silverlake hipsters, fawning rock fans or myriad rock clichés, these guys prove that great rock ‘n’ roll and intelligent satire are not mutually exclusive.

10. Chelsea Wolfe, Abyss: On to more sinister fare. Hats off to Chelsea Wolfe for delivering up this slice of deep and dark folk metal. While her songs and Russian Circle-assisted musical settings might be too harrowing for many (imagine Sharon Van Etten having a really bad day, with a black metal soundtrack) it nonetheless rewards the open-minded listener with a truly uncompromising rock experience. The feel-bad record of the year, in a really great, cathartic way.

11. Blitzen Trapper: All Across This Land: The precise opposite of the above. Sometimes, you just have to make an unapologetic classic rock record, and the boys from Portland, Oregon, have done just that. This album would have been right at home sandwiched between Neil Young and The Allman Brothers at a dorm party in the early ’70s. While I’m sure many might dismiss this record as being derivative (let’s just say front man Eric Easley is not shy about his love of Springsteen and southern rock) and lacking in the cosmic gravitas of earlier records, it has all the sing-along choruses and happily riffing guitars any die hard rock fan could want. I loved it.

12. Wilco, Star Wars: Another record that may have left others nonplussed. I found this surprise release a breath of fresh air from one of our greatest rock ensembles, fronted by one of our most playful and consistent songwriters. The closest thing I’ve ever heard to punk rock as played by technically brilliant musos, it proves that these guys have years of edgy and unexpected work left in them. It might sound tossed-off, but for my money it trumped many other, more obviously fussed-over records released this year.

13. Riley Walker, Primrose Green: Recalling Astral Weeks-era Van Morrison, Tim Buckley, and Pentangle, this is an intoxicating throwback to a time when album tracks could meander through multiple verses and serpentine jams without concern for traditional song structure or time length. Really love the tunes and the way Walker’s voice pulls the listener in. A musical time-machine, without sounding arch or contrived.

14. Bubbles Brown, Mt. Gilead: It doesn’t get more basic than this debut album: two guys (one on raspy electric guitar and vocals, the other singing and keeping time on what sounds like old suitcases and trash can lids), playing a mutant blend of early delta blues and Tin Pan Alley pop. All recorded live to two-track analog tape. While it might not sound promising on paper, Chicago’s Bubbles Brown captivates with well-written, tuneful songs and Christopher Brown’s sweet but haunted vocals.

15. Girlpool, Before The World Was Big: Another minimalist triumph. Imagine The Shaggs fronted by Kimya Dawson, albeit with concise songs, in tune vocals, and tight playing. I found this disarmingly spare and simple record to be one of the more compelling releases this year, wide-eyed and romantic, yet wise beyond its years. The lyrics are honest and vulnerable, and the pop punk arrangements taught and melodic.

And here are all those great records I mentioned earlier that have all gotten well-deserved praise and are going to be on a zillion best of lists this year. They round out my top 30. Go get ‘em!

1) Courtney Barnett, Sometime I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
2) Deerhunter, Fading Frontier
3) Sleater-Kinney, No Cities To Love
4) Mark Ronson, Uptown Special
5) Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free
6) Kurt Vile, b’lieve I’m goin down…
7) Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly
8) Screaming Females, Rose Mountain
9) Natalie Prass, Natalie Prass
10) Tame Impala, Currents
11) Kamasi Washington, The Epic
12) Low, Ones And Sixes
13) Rhiannon Giddens, Tomorrow Is My Turn
14) Chris Stapleton, Traveler
15) Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear

Other records I really dug and you might, too:

1) Belle & Sebastian, Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance
2) The Decemberists: What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World
3) Björk, Vulnicura
4) Speedy Ortiz, Foil Deer
5) Lana del Rey, Honeymoon
6) Metric, Pagans In Vegas
7) Fingers, Little Waves
8) Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp
9) Darwin Deez, Double Down
10) Playing to Vapors, A Glitch In A Void
11) Shelby Lynne, I Can’t Imagine
12) Jeff Lynne’s ELO, Alone In The Universe
13) Seal, 7
14) Squeeze, Cradle To The Grave
15) The Worn Flints, Second Sun
16) Drive By Truckers, It’s Great To Be Alive! (Live)
17) Bassakou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba, Ba Power
18) Godspeed, You Black Emperor, Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress
19) Richard Thompson, Still
20) Graham Parker & The Rumor, Mystery Glue
21) Reckless Eric, AmERICa
22) Aquabear Legion, Volume 5
23) Darlingside, Birds Say
24) Joan Shelley, Over And Even
25) Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, Medicine
26) Friendly Faux, Abandon Ship!
27) Eric Church, Mr. Misunderstood
28) Metz, II
29) The Arcs, Yours, Dreamily
30) Destroyer, Poison Season

There are more, but I’d best cut it off at 60! (By the way, I had to disqualify records I worked on this year, or you might have seen some of them on this list as well…)

Finally, my favorite single track of the year:

Frank Turner, “Silent Key” from Positive Songs for Negative People

When I heard Turner was working on a new album with one of my favorite producer/musician/songwriters, Butch Walker, I was ecstatic—it seemed a marriage made in rock heaven! However, after the one-two punch of his nuanced England Keep My Bones and Tape Deck Heart albums (the latter one of my all-time favorites), I was disappointed in the electric guitar-heavy, bombastic Mumford and Sons-style approach Walker took with the production on the new release.

However, I was blown away by the record’s penultimate track, “Silent Key.” The subject is kind of improbable—the last words of astronaut Christina McAuliffe–uttered from the doomed space shuttle Challenger as it plummeted from the sky, as heard by a ham radio operator in England. But what a song! And what a performance! It is evidence of Turner’s gifts that this track stands as an incredibly moving testament to the human spirit, and as an exhortation to cherish every moment of life, until one’s very last breath. As Turner sings elsewhere on the album: “We can get better/Because we’re not dead yet!”

True words. And I hope 2016 is your best year yet!

Eddie Ashworth is an associate professor in the School of Media Arts & Studies at Ohio University, where he teaches courses in record production and music industry studies. He is also a veteran record producer, engineer and mixer who has worked with artists such as Sublime, Pennywise, Unwritten Law and Slightly Stoopid, as well as regional favorites Qiet, Duke Jr. & The Smokey Boots, Chris Keesey, The Cordial Sins, Jeff Ellis, Maza Blaska and Jordan Andrew Jefferson.