The Agit Reader

Staff Picks of 2015: Stephen Slaybaugh

January 15th, 2016  |  by Stephen Slaybaugh

Each year, when looking back at the 12 months of music that have passed, it is always tempting to make a definitive qualitative statement. But whether or not 2015 was on the whole a good year for music is completely irrelavant. If the takeaway is one incredible record or a handful of good but not great albums, I’ll take the former every time. Anyway, I enjoyed discovering music I missed the first time around and finding welcomed surprises where I didn’t expect them. As such, below are those instances that literally rocked my world in 2015.

Top 10 of 2015

10. New Order, Music Complete (Mute Records)
Admittedly, I didn’t have high hopes for the first New Order record without Peter Hook, the bassist responsible for one of the band’s signature components, especially after seeing a decidedly mediocre performance by the new lineup a couple years ago. Hence, it was an extremely welcomed surprise that Music Complete is one of the band’s finest of the past couple of decades. I suspect that this is due to the absence of the compromises resulting from Hook and frontman Bernard Sumner butting heads. Indeed, the electronic sounds that Sumner has always favored are more prominent, and in many ways the album is reminiscent of Technique, New Order’s last truly great album. So with Hook now putting on a live show of New Order’s back catalog that surpasses New Order’s recent performances, perhaps the split was good for all parties.

9. ChameleonsVox at The Wick, Brooklyn, October 8
While I’d no doubt listened to the band’s records before, it took this performance of The Chameleons’ 1983 magnum opus, Script of the Bridge, in its entirety by frontman Mark Burgess’ ChameleonsVox reconfiguration to give me cause for some long overdue reappreciation. While I’m not a big fan of The Wick, I’ve been in much worse, and once up front the club’s lack of amenities mattered little. Burgess and his crew, which this night included a last-minute guitar fill-in, played this criminally overlooked record with all the nuanced brooding and fiery passion of the original recording—and then some.

8. Bush Tetras at Le Poisson Rouge, New York, May 1
It’s been years since the Bush Tetras reunited and started playing out sporadically, but I’d never once made it out to see them in the flesh. That’s too bad as this 35th anniversary show proved that I’ve been missing out. While Cynthia Sley’s vocalizing of the female perspective is wholly unique and captivating, the band’s gravitational force emanates from Pat Place’s guitar playing. Perhaps overlooked when it comes to guitarists from the post-punk period, Place soon had me watching her every move as even the smallest gesture seemed to emit an accent or sidenote. Her playing was at once terse, funky, and mean, with each note singularly as important as the whole.

7. Sisters of Mercy, First and Last and Always and Floodland (Rhino Records)
With vinyl fetishism running rampant now that even the creeps who shop at Urban Outfitters are getting in on the record resurgence, it seems like anything you could think of has been reissued on wax, with little thought given to form or necessity. Not so with these two Sisters of Mercy boxsets. With each handsome box containing the album as well as the 12-inch singles from each respective period, these are much-needed represses of a good majority of the scant material the Sisters released before record label disputes forced them into exile. Not just for looking at, the thick grooves of the singles sound especially good turned up to a respectable volume, while the full-lengths are worthy reminders of these Goth legends’ singularity and genius.

6. Dave Gahan & Soulsavers, Angels & Ghosts (Columbia Records)
Released toward the end of the year and barely promoted by Columbia, this full-length by Depeche Mode front Dave Gahan went unnoticed by all but his most ardent fans. That’s a shame because as further evidenced by his performance at The Town Hall (i.e. the best venue in New York), Gahan’s talents transcend the melancholy electro-pop with which he is synonymous. On this dimly lit record of blues dirges and soul noir, the Soulsavers prove to be as suitable backing as Martin Gore’s bank of synths. On cuts like “You Owe Me” and “One Thing,” Gahan reveals a depth that extends far beyond angst-driven pantomiming.

5. Punk 45: Burn Rubber City, Burn! and Extermination Nights in the Sixth City (Soul Jazz Records)
It seems like with each passing year more of the world learns what those of us born in the state have always known: Ohio’s punk heritage runs deep. Following on its excellent Punk 45: Kill the Hippies! Kill Yourself! The American Nation Destroys Its Young comp, which contained a healthy dose of Ohio artists and an even larger proportion of Midwest acts, these two comps further examine the rich lineage of Northeast Ohio, with Burn Rubber City, Burn! focusing on Akron, naturally, and Extermination Nights in the Sixth City examining Cleveland’s important contributions. Both are excellent primers and more than justify their existence in the world. Thing is, they are only two of the tips of the iceberg.

4. Shopping, Consumer Complaints and Why Choose (FatCat Records)
This year the world at large was introduced to British trio Shopping with not just one but two records: the reissue of the band’s self-released debut, Consumer Complaints, and the band’s follow-up, Why Choose. Though both are only about a half-hour in length, each record is stocked with a sparse take on the kind of funk-laden post-punk done so well in decades past by bands like Delta 5, Au Pairs, and The Slits, who Shopping most closely recall. Smart and brash, the London band is just as captivating live, exhibiting the kind of uninhibited joie de vivre indicative of an attitude of fun over fashion.

3. Duran Duran at Capitol Theater, Port Chester, August 1
With the benefit of historical perspective and some persuasion from Rob Sheffield, I’ve come to realize that there was more to Duran Duran than their pretty boy image. Indeed, they distilled a vast combination of pop and more avant garde influences into records deserving of universal admiration. Nevertheless, with the band several decades past its prime, I certainly didn’t expect to be as blown away as I was. Though they largely stuck to the big hits, they didn’t miss a step when mixing in more recent material. Save for an extraordinarily long amount of time offstage before the encore, the band didn’t disappoint, and in fact exceeded any expectations I may have had.

2. Royal Headache, High (What’s Your Rupture?)
Though in terms of overall spunk I’d give the edge to Royal Headache’s self-titled debut from a couple years ago, the band’s follow-up is otherwise that record’s equal in nearly every other aspect. The Aussie four-piece matches soulful reveries to garage tattersall in a manner that hits on all visceral levels from the primal to the emotional. But that’s only half of it. There are tracks like “Wouldn’t You Know” that come off like they were torn from Dion’s songbook and given a modern updating with serrated edges. In other words, this is one for the ages.

1. Close Lobsters, Firestation Towers 1986–1989 (Fire Records)
Named after the track the band contributed to NME’s landmark C-86 compilation, this set includes the two studio albums and singles collection the Close Lobsters released during their all too brief initial run from 1986 to 1989. The 39 songs on those three records reveal just how perfectly the Scottish band encapsulated the jittery energy and buoyant pop that came to epitomize the so-called C-86 aesthetic. But though the band gained recognition on both sides of the pond before calling it quits, they’ve largely been forgotten in the intervening years, a fact this set will hopefully help correct. Indeed, listening to cuts like “Just Too Bloody Stupid,” “In Spite of These Times,” and “Lets Make Some Plans,” I feel like I’ve been missing out all these years. Tracks such as these are the perfect combination of guitar jangle, wry wit, and frenetic zip, and reveal the Close Lobsters to have been on par with the best of their peers. With the band having reconvened and promising more music in the near future, it’s a good time to appreciate its stunning past.

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