Love, Ribbons, and Poo: My Favorite Music of 2015

Paul Shirley
Feb 3, 2016 · 6 min read

It started in Canada.

I went to Toronto to visit a friend — a friend who took me to Windsor, where we drove across the border into the gloriously post-Apocalyptic cityscape that is Detroit to watch the Tigers’ home opener.

We drank Miller Lite, we ate bad pizza, and we watched the Tigers beat some other American League Central team that was not my Kansas City Royals. Then we went back to the house of my friend’s brother, where we were to stay that night.

The rest of the brother’s family was afflicted at the time with a stomach bug that had them traipsing downstairs to the bathroom throughout the night. But I didn’t need to worry, they said.

They were wrong about that.

I caught the bug — a run-of-the-mill stomach virus — and took it back to Toronto with us. I spent a large portion of the next few days in my friend’s basement bathroom, doing the virus’s bidding like some kind of diarrheic vassal. Then I flew back to Los Angeles, where I stopped pooping long enough to send a fateful email.

One year before this, I’d broken up with my longtime girlfriend — an experience that was even more traumatic than most breakups with people we love because of the circumstances. There was nothing wrong with her. However, we were cursed by Timing, in ways that I don’t need to clarify here because Timing is a universal hurdle and we’ve all stumbled through him in one romantic race or another.

I’d said, though, that we should try again in a year. And that’s what the email was about.

Eventually, she responded, saying she’d think about it. And eventually, the stomach virus killed enough bacteria in my gut that I became afflicted with what is known as SIBO — a bacterial overgrowth in my small intestine.

And so I spent the next few months wasting away, physically and emotionally, while my body tried to fight off the bacteria in my gut and my mind tried to pretend it wasn’t waiting for the girl to decide if she wanted to re-up for another tour of duty.

A word people like to use these days to make themselves sound smart is “context.”

“Well, I feel like I need to know the context here, before I can make a judgment either way.”

“But what’s the context for this ad? Like, is someone going to be watching it in bed? Or, like, at the dry-cleaner?”

“Context” has become one of those words that inspires me to make the jacking-off motion in my mind, which I mention in case you feel like making the jacking-off motion when I write that everything I wrote at the beginning of this piece was done so to provide — you guessed it — “context.”

In this case: context for the music that helped get me through 2015.

We always tie certain music to events in our lives, whether because of romance or because of trauma or because that one P.M. Dawn song was SO DAMNED GOOD and it wouldn’t really matter what we were doing when we heard it for the first time, because we would always remember it. (OK, this last one might only be true for me.)

These ties are usually strongest in our teenaged years, which is why 2015 was so strange for me. I felt like a teenager again, listening to albums over and over, using them to help process the emotional and physical highs and lows I was riding like a serotonin cowboy.

When I was feeling hopeful — like maybe I wasn’t going to waste away and like maybe the girl was going to come around — that was Courtney Barnett’s wry and worldly Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. Or the precocious George Ezra’s Wanted on Voyage, whose song “Barcelona” caused me to close my eyes and imagine taking the girl to that city.

When I was less hopeful — like maybe I was just going to keep losing weight forever, and like maybe I was going to die alone — it was albums like Anxiety’s Kiss by Coliseum, dark and crunchy enough to play in the background while dwarves hack tunnels through Middle Earth. Or HEALTH’s Death Magic, whose song “Stonefist” would make a pretty good soundtrack to a walk through that Detroit hellscape. Or an album by the doom-metal band Windhand, called, appropriately, Grief’s Infernal Flower.

Of course, it wasn’t all toilets and turmoil in 2015. I did a whole boatload of writing during the year — writing that was often soundtracked by Cloudkicker’s short but excellent post-rock album Woum. I also did a lot of baseball-watching in 2015 — baseball-watching that culminated in those Royals of mine winning their first World Series in 30 years. That had a soundtrack, too: Fetty Wap’s self-titled debut, which might be good and might be terrible, but which I’ll never know because I don’t remember being as happy as I was while watching the Royals win it all with my brother.

By all rights, my favorite album of 2015 should be Wolf Alice’s My Love Is Cool.

But there’s a problem there. The girl and I “found” Wolf Alice back when we started dating, which means that I have to take care when dosing songs like “Bros,” because I might start crying.

Another possibility for album of the year: Dead Sara’s Pleasure to Meet You.

I saw Dead Sara for the first time at the Glasshouse in Pomona, at the behest of a friend who’d been raving about them for months. He was right to do all that raving; Dead Sara put on the best live show I saw last year — a show that was capped off by a cover of “Killing in the Name Of” that sent chills down my spine.

But while it is true that I’ve listened to “Something Good” approximately 100 times this year, Pleasure to Meet You doesn’t epitomize my year like the album I’ve picked as my favorite — the album I put on when the girl finally agreed to meet, in a bagel shop in Santa Monica, after the writers’ workshop I run was done for the night.

That album is A Lesson Unlearnt by Until the Ribbon Breaks.

The best song on A Lesson Unlearnt is also my favorite song from 2015. But “A Taste of Silver” isn’t a great representation of the album, because the album is, well, it’s all over the place. There are ups and there are downs and there is beauty and there is fierceness and there is sadness and there is rapping by Run the Jewels — a lot like the year I had (minus the Run the Jewels part).

It was the perfect soundtrack to a very imperfect year — a year that saw me lose 20 pounds before a colonoscopy ruled out anything serious and I began to climb my way back to health. And a year that got me to the girl’s house in the late summer, where at 3 in the morning, she tapped me on the chest and said that she didn’t want to be my girlfriend again.

It was heartbreaking, and you might think, duh, it’s all coming together: I didn’t learn my lesson the first time; it was a lesson UNLEARNT.

But the title Until the Ribbon Breaks chose for their first album didn’t really apply to my 2015, because I learned more in that one bad year than I might have in two other good ones. All that learning involved feeling things deeply and listening to music intensely.

Just like when I was a teenager — just like someone whose lessons are still very much being learnt.

Paul Shirley is the author of Can I Keep My Jersey?

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Paul Shirley

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I finished 5th in the 1991 Kansas State Spelling Bee. Metallurgical.

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