2015: The year I got a crash course in faucets, diamonds, and spinal fluid
Back — way back — when I was running a music blog, year-end list season started sometime around the first of December and was basically done within a fortnight and a bit. Any earlier and you were clearly and quantifiably jumping the gun, and any later you would almost surely be lost in the inevitable traffic drops once the holiday season began. That second Monday of the month? That was the sweet spot. We’ll put aside the fact that, in all honestly, no one gave a damn what you thought the best albums of the year were besides other music writers and they just wanted to be able to informedly declare how wrong you were. But when you’re not in the pageview game, you have the luxury of a little more time to collect your thoughts. But not too much, mind. Posting something in February is just dumb, and I think it appropriate to get it out before the first 2016 releases hit the street this Friday. But first, the mandatory year in review, because it’s been an interesting one.
On the down side, this coming February will mark the first anniversary of that memorable morning I woke up and couldn’t feel my legs. I could still use them, mind, I just couldn’t really feel much. A quick Google of “ascending paralysis” and consult with a doctor in the family and it was off to the ER. And what we learned in the next eight hours was pretty much what we learned over the next 11 months, and that’s not a lot. Multiple MRIs, blood tests, nerve conduction tests, and spinal taps (which I do NOT recommend unless they’re of the “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight” variety) all showed nothing wrong — reassuring, except that with only the most incremental of improvements day to day, my lower torso still felt at best like a pincushion. Thankfully, those incremental improvements continued (with attendant ups and downs and plateaus) and I’m back to a place where I can generally go about my life normally, with the help of some physiotherapy and constantly reminding myself that however bad I feel today, I felt worse a month ago.
So what was wrong? Who knows? Certainly not the doctors. Guillain-Barré Syndrome is the closest candidate at least by symptom if not physiological markers, though mine was much milder than most cases — no ventilators, thanks. Neurology’s best guess beyond ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ is that I picked up some kind of virus that looked a lot like my nerves and my immune system got confused and attacked my nervous system instead of the infection. An honest mistake, I suppose, but a pretty damned expensive one — a year on, I’m better but still not better. So, if you saw me out or at shows standing around looking uncomfortable, or more likely not seen me at all, that’s a big reason why.
This one major life change aside, though, 2015 was a pretty good year. It started off in Hong Kong and wound through Tokyo before coming home and though I wouldn’t do much more traveling this year — a couple jaunts to New York and a road trip to Pittsburgh — it was a great way to kick off the year. And though things did go downhill from there, I hope the bright spots will remain in my memory long after I eventually get my health fully back. Like my surprise 40th birthday party, organized completely without my knowledge by my wonderful girlfriend. Like finally renovating my kitchen and bathrooms after years of just talking about it. Like getting engaged to my aforementioned wonderful girlfriend over the holidays. The two thousand and fifteenth year of the Common Era and fortieth year of the Frank era has been eventful, to be sure.
And though I consume far less music than I did back in the day and at a more leisurely pace, I think I’m actually enjoying it more than I did in the twilight days of chromewaves. Yeah, I saw fewer shows in 12 months than I once did in four days of SXSW, but on balance I certainly enjoyed them all more. I mean, I got to see two of my favourite-ever bands — Ride and Luna — back in action and sounding as good as ever; Manic Street Preachers doing The Holy Bible; Belle & Sebastian and Wilco being as good as I’ve ever seen them, and I’ve seen them a lot. And oh yeah, a pilgrimage to NYC to finally see Blur proved worth every penny (remind me to tell you about the time I didn’t bother going to see them when they came to my university town because I don’t even know why — oh, I just did).
As for albums, well one of the reasons this list is late in coming is that I had hoped that Chromatics would sneak-release Dear Tommy — promised since Valentine’s Day — before the clock ran out on 2015 and I fully expected it to be my record of the year. Didn’t happen, obviously, but I still fully expect it to be the best thing I hear this year. Or next year. Or whenever it finally arrives.
With that caveat, here’s my ten favourite long-players of the year that actually exist, and I think they stay true to my (defunct) brand. Did I hear everything that came out and is this by any means an informed or definitive list? Sweet fancy Moses, no. But it’s some records I enjoyed.
Belle & Sebastian / Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance (Matador)
Somewhere along the line, Belle & Sebastian stopped being the musical embodiment of your college years (or what you wished your college years were like), and became a band you could age gracefully with. Girls is another collection of sophisticated yet winsome pop that doesn’t break new ground, but spends more time in the danceable territory that they’ve only passed through in the past.
Blur / The Magic Whip (Parlophone)
Given that the fruits of most reunions that progress from stage to studio range from forgettable to awful, that Blur have turned sessions that they were even reluctant to admit existed into a collection that stands amongst their very best is remarkable. They don’t try to pretend they still have the reckless energy and cheek of twenty-somethings, but do prove that four middle-aged men with a long, complicated history and incredible musical chemistry can still be as immediate, experimental, and wonderful as they were 20 years ago.
Destroyer / Poison Season (Merge)
It’s funny that only now that they sound absolutely nothing alike do I begin to buy into the David Bowie comparisons that Dan Bejar has garnered since the early days of Destroyer. It’s the sounding unlike anyone else — save themselves — that the two now have in common, along with a thrilling ability to defy expectations at every turn. Poison Season sounds so singularly Destroyer that it takes a few listens before you realize the sumptuous string arrangements that blanket the proceedings are something entirely new.
Evening Hymns / Quiet Energies (Outside)
Having spent his first two albums getting introspective in the wilderness, it would have been reasonable to expect Jonas Bonnetta to continue looking inward while channeling the outdoors. Instead, Quiet Energies finds him loading up the car and trading dirt and grass for asphalt. More electrified and driven than his past efforts, it travels through similar scenery, but at speed and with the top down.
Richard Hawley / Hollow Meadows (Parlophone)
Though never one for reinventing his throwback sound, on Hollow Meadows Hawley turned away from the understated monochrome of Truelove’s Gutter and Standing At The Sky’s Edge’s swirling psychedelia and back to the sepia tones and richly orchestrated romances of his most beloved collections. And no one, anywhere, complained.
Hop Along / Painted Shut (Saddle Creek)
If I were someone who came of age listening to ’90s college rock and assumed that kids today were coming of age listening to stuff that sounded like ’90s college rock, I would figure Hop Along to be huge. Chock-full of ernest and ragged earworms powered by Frances Quinlan’s shredded vocals, Painted Shut makes me want to jump around like I’m 20 again, even though it’s probably a good idea if I don’t.
Lanterns On The Lake / Beings (Bella Union)
Little in the gently sweeping orchestral folk of their debut pointed in the direction that Lanterns On The Lake have taken since. Until The Colours Run introduced some welcome post-rock-approved power and dynamics, but Beings gets far heavier both lyrically and musically, concerned with dark places and the brutality that hides in their shadows. Still gorgeous in its way, but unsettling and unshakeable.
Public Service Broadcasting / The Race For Space (Test Card Recordings)
Building songs around samples of old public information films and newsreels should never have worked, and even though it did once, it certainly shouldn’t have worked again. But in building a concept album around the titular competition between the US and USSR, Wrigglesworth and Wilgoose have not only kept their M.O. fresh and engaging, but imbued it with unexpected depth of emotion and excitement.
Wilco / Star Wars (dBpm)
Just when it seemed like Wilco had settled into being a reliably solid if somewhat safe outfit, they turn around and surprise you. Literally. Sneak-released for free this Summer, Star Wars finds them at their snarliest and most experimental, but also most uninhibited and carefree in over a decade. Call them ‘dad rock’ if you will, but be sure to add the caveat that the dad in question is a serious weirdo.
Wolf Alice / My Love Is Cool (Dirty Hit)
Despite the advance buzz, Wolf Alice’s lead-up EPs never completely won me over which is why I was so taken aback by how good their debut full-length was. Miles more hooky, diverse, and assured than I ever would have expected, it’s a gift for anyone with an affinity for fierce yet fun Brit-rock. Which is to say, me.