7. Laura Marling, “Short Movie”

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Twelve months ago, I speculated if Laura Marling’s fifth album would be her fourth in a row to make my year-end top ten; upon first hearing it last March, I knew the answer right away. Short Movie is not quite her best album, but it might be her most immediate to date. As distinct as each of her other records but also just as identifiable, it’s full of transitions—from the UK to America, from acoustic to electric guitars, from swooning over lost love to gleaning perspective after all the wounds have healed (cue the delectably acidic “Strange”). Her increasingly seamless shifts between hooky pop (“False Hope”, “Gurdjieff’s Daughter”) and spooky folk (“Warrior”, “Howl”) hint that she has a truly great album in her yet to come; so does the multilayered, masterfully building, summation-of-life title track, where she repeatedly concludes, “It’s a short fucking movie, man.” Indeed.

Favorite tracks: “False Hope”, “Strange”, “Don’t Let Me Bring You Down”, “Short Movie”

“Short Movie”:

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8. Robert Forster, “Songs To Play”

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If his last album (2008’s The Evangelist) saw Robert Forster (the Aussie singer-songwriter, not the American actor) processing the sudden death of his Go-Betweens partner Grant McLennan from two years before, this return to the fold finds him more at peace with his status as a fifty-something cult artist. When he sings, “I Love Myself and I Always Have”, he’s neither arrogant nor boastful, just refreshingly direct and disarming, qualities inherent in each of these ten beautifully crafted but unfussy miniatures. And, at this late stage in his career, he still finds inspiration in seeking out new sounds for his musical palette, such as the spry bossa nova of “Love Is Where It Is” or the Latin accents adding verve to “Songwriters On The Run” and “A Poet Walks”—the latter a charming character sketch-cum-memoir that no one else could have written.

Favorite tracks: “Learn To Burn”, “Let Me Imagine You”, “A Poet Walks”, “I Love Myself and I Always Have”

“A Poet Walks”:

9. Sufjan Stevens, “Carrie and Lowell”

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After The Age of Adz, I lost all hope that Stevens would ever return to the hushed folk he perfected on his best album, 2004’s Seven Swans. Although this record is more like that anything else he’s done, it’s also entirely its own thing by nature of its concept. Crafted in response to his mother’s death, Carrie and Lowell is exactly the about-face you’d expect from the grieving and inconsolable emotional pain that’s a response to the loss of a loved one. The music is purposely stark: lone acoustic guitar and piano (and, this being Stevens, also banjo), occasionally recorded on an iPhone. Of course it’s depressing, bleak and cathartic, but also gorgeous, redemptive and at times, even catchy. It’s a bit of a coup to have as one of your biggest hooks the lyric, “We’re all gonna die”; Stevens reminds us he’s a big enough talent to get away with it.

Favorite tracks: “Should Have Known Better”, “Fourth of July”, “The Only Thing”, “John My Beloved”

“Fourth of July”:

10. Courtney Barnett, “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit”

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No doubt this Aussie’s first impression is that of a throwback to a beloved era when the likes of Liz Phair, PJ Harvey and even Sheryl Crow got alt-rock airplay, but her singular, wizened perspective (think Fiona Apple-as-slacker but with a more pronounced sense of humor) and underdog persona (think Amy Rigby, but a decade younger) set her apart from the crowd. Her more exuberant-than-proficient vocals work because her lyrics are sharp and the music’s snappy. I was immediately won over by the New Pornographers-like stomp of “Elevator Operator” and breakneck pace of “Pedestrian at Best”, but the enchanting, laid-back vibe of “Depreston” and guttural blues of “Small Poppies” suggest a real range I suspect she’ll continue to develop and strengthen.

Favorite tracks: “Elevator Operator”, “Depreston”, “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party”, “Debbie Downer”

“Depreston”:

Best Albums of 2015: Honorable Mentions

I’m limiting myself to a top ten list for best albums this year. Tomorrow, the countdown begins, one per day for the next ten days. As a prelude, here are a few other albums I really liked that didn’t make the cut, in alphabetical order by artist:

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Sarah Cracknell, “Red Kite”

Bypassing the dance-pop of both her last solo album (1997’s Lipslide) and Words and Music by Saint Etienne, Cracknell returns with pastoral folk rock—not a likely fit for the queen of effortless cool, but it mostly works, especially when she leans towards that spectrum’s poppier side (“Nothing Left To Talk About”, “Hearts Are For Breaking”).

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Destroyer, “Poison Season”

Dan Bejar was never going to top Kaputt, and although this opts for a noticeably different, more organic, orchestral feel, it generally plays like a logical progression from its predecessor. Still, who would have expected to spot such influences as Bruce Springsteen (“Dream Lover”), Tin Pan Alley (the second half of “Bangkok”) or, um, the old theme to The People’s Court (“Midnight Meets The Rain”)?

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Jose Gonzalez, “Vestiges and Claws”

This Swedish folksinger’s first effort in eight years initially sounds a little monochromatic; however, as with the last Kings of Convenience record (now six years ago!), it’s an intentional part of the overall, intricate design. The irresistibly rhythmic “Let It Carry You” remains the highlight; however, with each spin, additional bits and pieces have begun leaving imprints.

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Emm Gryner, “21st Century Ballads”

Exactly what the title claims, and admittedly a challenging listen from someone who always balanced out her more introspective moments with gloriously catchy, radio-friendly anthems. Fortunately, opener “The Race” is as good as anything she’s ever done, and much of the rest is interesting enough that she remains a mostly unknown artist still worth seeking out.

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Joanna Newsom, “Divers”

The title track (whose Paul Thomas Anderson-directed video I’ve posted above) may be the loveliest thing she’s done thus far, and while the rest is more approachable than some of her earlier, impenetrable stuff (think Ys), I’m still trying to decipher much of it. As with Gonzalez, I’m willing to work to find those hidden pearls—especially after witnessing how delightful she was in Anderson’s last feature.

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Sleater-Kinney, “No Cities To Love”

Finally, vindication that their last record, 2005’s overrated sludgefest The Woods was not entirely the direction they meant to take. Although this reunion album doesn’t hold a candle to anything spanning Dig Me Out to One Beat, the world of indie rock was a little lacking without Corin and Carrie’s overlapping words and guitars (and Janet’s fierce drumming), so call it a welcome, unexpected return.

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Twin Shadow, “Eclipse”

Half of this LP plays like a singles collection, and I can’t fathom why the top 40 has turned a deaf ear to euphoric, 80s-inspired gems such as “When The Lights Turn Out”, “Old Love/New Love” and “I’m Ready”, especially in a year when something inferior like Walk The Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” gets played to death. Granted, Eclipse’s other half is moodier and far less consistent, but in the iTunes era, half a great album is nothing to scoff at.

Halfway Through 2015: Albums

 

My ten favorite albums of 2015, so far, in alphabetical order. A few weeks ago, I suggested that some of these could easily place on my best-of-decade list; in any case, the last six months have been flush with excellent new releases, most of them expected, a few not–who knew Sufjan Stevens would come back from the ridiculous The Age of Adz with the return-to-his-folk-roots I’ve waited a decade for? Or that Saint Etienne’s vocalist would put out another solo album (18 years after the last one)? Or that, after an eight-year break, Róisín Murphy would record her best work yet–a shimmering, gorgeous yet strange song cycle whose themes I’m still in the process of deciphering? As you can see above in the video for “Evil Eyes”, she’s as delightfully bonkers as ever.

Belle and Sebastian, Girls In Peacetime Just Want To Dance
Calexico, Edge of the Sun
Father John Misty, I Love You Honeybear
Florence + The Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Hot Chip, Why Make Sense?
Laura Marling, Short Movie
Róisín Murphy, Hairless Toys
Sarah Cracknell, Red Kite
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities To Love
Sufjan Stevens, Carrie and Lowell