Top 10 Albums
10. Algiers, Algiers (Matador Records)
This Atlanta band starts with the dark gospel heart that’s always been the engine powering rock & roll and adds noisy, choked guitar and keys over layers and layers of raw percussion. The sparseness of these arrangements makes the intensity of the songs almost unbearable, but intoxicating at the same time. Algiers is a magical record with some obvious influences played so ferociously and recombined in such a unique way that it makes you forget anything that came before it within a few minutes.
9. Nervosas, Nervosas (Dirtnap Records)
Columbus’ Nervosas took a big step onto the national stage after years as the favorite band of the hometown cognoscenti with this debut on Dirtnap records. Featuring their most personal and intense writing, this eponymous record is a three-dimensional look at a breakup with big hooks and a frenzied intensity. Bassist-singer Jeff Kleinman, guitarist-singer Mickey Marie, and drummer Nick Schuld have never been recorded better: every sound on this hits like a fist concealing a roll of quarters; and the atmospheres are landscapes painted in ink-wash. It’s a breathtaking quantum leap from a band I was already crazy about.
8. Holly Herndon, Platform (4AD)
Herndon takes on decay and finds an opportunity for rebirth in it. Simultaneous destruction and recreation are the fires that illuminate this intense music, with rhythms that fracture and resolve in ways that are satisfying, but never easy. There’s an almost uncomfortable intimacy in tracks like “Lonely at the Top” (featuring Claire Tolan on vocals) that conjures Laurel Nakadate’s visual art as much as any music antecedent. “New Ways to Love” and “Interference” burst with light and promise, breaking through fog and burning off cataracts. Platform has the whole world in it, viewed through a very personal, deliberately cracked glass.
7. Jenny Hval, Apocalypse, Girl (Sacred Bones Records)
Hval’s albums get more personal and simultaneously more worldly with each release. In many ways, Apocalypse, Girl feels like her New York record, a comparison made explicit with the Laurie Anderson–recalling opening track and its speeding-past elements that feel more like a combine than a collage. Throughout the record, Hval’s characters grapple with overcoming themselves and trying to keep a record of the changes, with arrangements in gorgeously, torturously slow tempos.
6. Guantanamo Baywatch, Darling… It’s Too Late (Suicide Squeeze Records)
Raunchy shimmies like “Sea of Love,” hillbilly stomps like “Boy Like Me,” and overheated slow dances (with plenty of groping) like “Do What You Want” bob to the surface of this record that glistens with darkness like an oil slick. Enough melancholy pervades Darling… It’s Too Late on tracks like “Too Late” and “Beat Has Changed” to give it a center of gravity without ever bogging it down. This merging of gleefully lustful lyrics with riotous surf-punk sonics was my favorite Saturday night record of 2015.
5. JD Allen, Graffiti (Savant Records)
Tenor saxophonist Allen reconvened his classic trio with Rudy Royston and Gregg August to continue his streak of some of the best straightforward jazz records anyone’s making today. Allen refines his gorgeous tone and digs deeper into the classic Sonny Rollins mode than anyone I can think of working right now, but this trio is never beholden to any single template. They have enough reverence for the history of the genre to not be afraid to joust and challenge it. It’s a record full of pulse-pounding rhythms shooting incandescent melodies right into the sky.
4. Sarah Kirkland Snider, Unremembered (New Amsterdam Records)
This is a lush, mysterious record full of rich harmonies about where myth and storytelling meet with reality and peering into the gaps that meeting creates. Snider further cements her reputation as one of today’s greatest composers for voices (with vocals by Shara Worden, DM Stith, and Padma Newsome) with this song cycle that works with distance, light, and shadow. In a year full of terrific chamber music by up-and-coming composers, Unremembered stands out among its peers. Listeners will still be unpacking its mysteries well into the foreseeable future.
3. Anthony De Mare, Liaisons: Re-imagining Sondheim from the Piano (ECM)
Sondheim’s pyrotechnic lyrical virtuosity often causes the harmonic and melodic content of his music to go unnoticed. De Mare takes steps to redress that with this dazzling, almost overstuffed panorama of newly commissioned solo piano readings by some great composers. Gabriel Kahane’s “Being Alive” deliberately obfuscates its gorgeous melody, making the reader work for that catharsis; and Frederic Rzewski’s “I’m Still Here” balances its innate melancholy and defiance in a way that feels like cracking the piece’s chest open and massaging its heart. Nico Muhly’s “Color and Light” plays with slippage and brightness in a way that evokes the Seurat paintings being conjured, while Steve Reich’s “Finishing the Hat” from the same show conjures the grandeur of finishing something while grounding it in the grinding stasis of working and only seeing the final product in brief glimpses and flashes. For a Sondheim fan, this is almost like eating too many of your favorite chocolates and being surprised by nuances you didn’t expect.
2. Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free (Southeastern Records)
While not as immediate nor as grand as its predecessor, Southeastern, Something More Than Free did something I connected with strongly even when I couldn’t quite articulate it. It’s the best example I heard all year—and one of the best I have ever heard—of an album used as an instrument of empathy. In these 11 songs, Isbell grapples with history and gratitude and tries to find a way to live in the world without shame or rancor, and he does it with fine lyrical detail and low-key hooks that burrow their way into the listener’s head and explode over time.
1. Mary Halvorson, Meltframe (Firehouse 12 Records)
Although a unique album in Halvorson’s oeuvre in a couple of regards (it’s her first record using all outside composers and her first solo guitar record), Meltframe doesn’t feel like a departure. From the crunching, raunchy churn of the opening “Cascades” (Oliver Nelson), this record shot light into my veins. The slow-burn anger of her takes on Annette Peacock’s “Blood” and Carla Bley’s “Ida Lupino” stand among the best versions of those pieces I’ve ever heard. This is the most exciting guitar music anyone’s making now, personified for me by the chewy melancholy center of the record: Ornette Coleman’s “Sadness” full of string bends and tumbling lines bumped right up against Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” played like a mist of atomized blood.