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YEAR IN REVIEW 2015: music (An ‘Epic’ year for music)

Ear-bending wonders turn up in unexpected places



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Kamasi Washington’s ‘The Epic’ is one of the best albums of the year — nothing short of a modern jazz/funk masterpiece. (Image courtesy Brainfeeder)

It’s been another great year for new music in 2015. That may not be reflected in the Top 40, which is arguably in its sorriest state since the survey began in the mid ‘50s, but it’s true nonetheless. There are plenty of great artists making top-notch music, many of whom are operating under the radar of mass consciousness. Here are my picks for the 10 Best Albums of 2015

10. Public Service Broadcasting — ‘The Race For Space’

“The Race for Space” is a novel concept — British duo Public Service Broadcasting sets the U.S. and Soviet space race to a trippy, electronic-rock soundtrack, with all the vocal samples consisting of dialog recording during the actual historical events. The album covers the triumphs and disasters — the kinetic “Go!”, for instance, is the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, and the harrowing “Fire in the Cockpit” is a chilling account of the Apollo 1 disaster of 1967. One need not be enamored by the history of the space race to enjoy this album. “The Race for Space” is meticulously crafted, expansive and ultimately fascinating headphones music that offers new surprises on every listen.

9. Brandi Carlile — ‘The Firewatcher’s Daughter’

Together with collaborators Tim & Phil Hanseroth, Brandi Carlile has created an album of terrific songwriting and musicianship that touches on multiple genres — rock, country and folk are blended seamlessly. The magnificent opener “Wherever Is Your Heart,” the gorgeous ballad “Wilder (We’re Chained),” the haunting “The Stranger At My Door,” and a sublime cover of the Avett Brothers’ “Murder in the City” are all standouts. “The Firewatcher’s Daughter” hasn’t caught on with a large audience, which is a shame — it’s an album that richly deserves to be heard.

8. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds — ‘Chasing Yesterday’

“Chasing Yesterday” is easily the finest post-Oasis album by either of the ever-feuding Gallagher brothers. Noel Gallagher — always the premier songwriter in the group — has never been better, as he delivers one killer track after another. That old swagger is still there, as is his innate sense of melody and songcraft. High points include the opener “Riverman,” “In the Heat of the Moment,” and the epic finale “Ballad of the Mighty I.” Gallagher has never sounded better as a vocalist and his production work is spot-on. With “Chasing Yesterday,” Noel Gallagher has thrown down the gauntlet and proven that he is a major artistic force outside of his former supergroup. We’ll see if brother Liam is ever able to do the same.

7. Algiers — ‘Algiers’

The debut album by Atlanta, Ga.-based Algiers is a sonic marvel that blends rock, post-punk and soul with a palpable sense of darkness, dread and foreboding. The trio is led by vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Franklin James Fisher, who is an absolute powerhouse on tracks like “Blood,” “Irony. Utility. Pretext” and “Black Eunuch.” The album is hard to fit into one confining label. It’s psychedelic soul that runs headlong into Echo & the Bunnymen and Joy Division with a trip through gospel-country along the way. “Algiers” is as exciting and innovative a debut album as you’ll ever hear, and it’s going to be fascinating to see how this massively talented young trio develops on future projects.

6. Father John Misty — ‘I Love You, Honeybear’

“I Love You, Honeybear” is the second album released by former Fleet Foxes member Josh Tillman under the name Father John Misty. It’s a sublime collection of brilliantly conceived folk-rock with a lush and rich production. The tracks are built upon acoustic guitar and piano, then enhanced with gleaming string and brass arrangements burnished with richly arranged harmony vocals. Tillman creates a massive wall of sound in which he envelops his incisive pieces inspired by various aspects of his personal life. The sardonic “Bored in the USA” is an example of Tillman’s prowess as a lyricist. He captures the essence of many American lives with a few acerbic lines delivered over a derisive laugh-track: “They gave me useless education, and a subprime loan on a craftsman home. Keep my prescriptions filled, and now I can’t get off but I can kind of deal.” Tillman is an ace songwriter with a keen sense of melody and a resoundingly powerful voice; it’s a beguiling combination.

5. Laura Marling — ‘Short Movie’

British singer-songwriter Laura Marling was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize for her last album, 2013’s “Once I Was an Eagle,” but her latest release is even stronger. Marling has tended to stay within the realm of folk, but on “Short Movie” she expands her sound with fuller arrangements and a more alternative/rock vibe on some songs. She’s a songwriter of incredible wit and dexterity, as is evident by stellar tracks like the quirky “Gurdjieff’s Daughter,” “Warrior” and “Howl.” Marling’s voice is crisp and clear, a bit of a mix between Suzanne Vega and Joni Mitchell but with added richness. Worth checking out is the “Director’s Cut” of “Short Movie” which includes several excellent bonus tracks.

4. Kendrick Lamar — ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’

Kendrick Lamar’s third album “To Pimp a Butterfly” is an an invigorating and challenging listening experience packed with thrills and surprises. Lamar collaborates with some of the best creative minds in the business, including Flying Lotus, Pharrell Williams, Sounwave and Thundercat. The complex vocals are inventive, the grooves are razor-sharp and the songs are loaded with memorable hooks. “To Pimp a Butterfly” is heavily rhythmic throughout, with elements of funk, R&B, rock and jazz all percolating to create an intoxicating brew. Standouts include the energetic first single “i,” the ultra smooth and funky “How Much A Dollar Cost” and the album’s emotional centerpiece, the provocative “The Blacker the Berry” on which Lamar spits out the lyrics with a manic intensity over the  tight rhythm. There’s much for the listener to digest on “To Pimp a Butterfly” — exciting and innovative, it’s an example of hip-hop at its very best.

3. Sufjan Stevens — ‘Carrie & Lowell’

“Carrie & Lowell” is an intimate collection of heartbreaking pieces inspired by the recent death of Stevens’ mother Carrie. Stevens’ whispery vocals float nebulously over a spectral acoustic guitar and piano accompaniment. “Death with Dignity” sets a gently somber mood, waxing and waning between nostalgia and anguish. A deeply felt sense of loss permeates every song. “Should Have Known Better” and “Fourth of July,” with its grim repeated refrain “We’re all going to die,” are particularly powerful. The album feels raw, like a fresh personal wound, but with the protective distance of someone who can only express his emotions through a wall of detachment to protect himself from completely falling apart. “Carrie & Lowell” is spellbinding — a touching tribute, an aching reflection on abandonment and forgiveness and a haunting farewell.

2. Steven Wilson — ‘Hand. Cannot. Erase.’

Progressive rocker Steven Wilson, best known for his work in Porcupine Tree, released his breathtaking double album “Hand. Cannot. Erase” early in 2015 to raves. The album is a song cycle that explores human frailty, isolation and loneliness, and how we approach life in the face of these struggles. It was inspired by the story of a young woman who died in her apartment in a major city and was not discovered by friends or family for over three years. The music is immaculately performed by the virtuoso Wilson and his uber-talented collaborators and makes use of sudden shifts in dynamics for dramatic impact. Long, beautiful instrumental passages give way to sudden bursts of molten hard-rock played with machine-like precision. It’s an album of heart and beauty, but also of unspeakable sadness. Particularly notable is the heartrending “Routine,” one of the finest and most powerful pieces of music to emerge in 2015.

1.  Kamasi Washington — ‘The Epic’

Never has an album been more aptly named. Saxophonist extraordinaire Kamasi Washington wasn’t satisfied with the notion of easing into his recording career. His debut album is three discs and not a moment is wasted. Washington’s brand of kinetic jazz is a must for fans of the genre, but even if you’re not into jazz it’s hard not to be blown away by the razor-sharp musicianship on “The Epic.” Washington and his band — especially drummer Ronald Bruner, Jr. — are on fire throughout the set. The vast scope of the album, the audaciousness of the musicians and Washington’s electrifying talent make “The Epic” the single most vital must-hear album of 2015. It’s nothing short of a revelation — a modern masterpiece of jazz/funk.


Music & Concerts

Musical icons and newer stars to rock D.C. this spring

Brandi Carlile, Bad Bunny, Nicki Minaj, and more headed our way



Brandi Carlile plays the Anthem this month.

Bands and solo artists of all different genres are visiting D.C. this spring. Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight will team up to perform at the Wolf Trap in June, and girl in red will play at the Anthem in April. Some artists and bands aren’t paying a visit until the summer, like Janet Jackson and Usher, but there are still plenty of acts to see as the weather warms up. 


Brandi Carlile plays at the Anthem on March 21; Arlo Parks will perform at 9:30 Club on March 23; Girlschool will take the stage at Blackcat on March 28.


Nicki Minaj stops in D.C. at Capital One Arena as part of her North American tour on April 1; Bad Bunny plays at Capital One Arena on April 9 as part of his Most Wanted tour; girl in red performs at the Anthem on April 20 and 21; Brandy Clark plays at the Birchmere on April 25; Laufey comes to town to play at the Anthem on April 25 and 26. 


Belle and Sebastian play at the Anthem on May 2; Chastity Belt performs at Blackcat on May 4; Madeleine Peyroux stops at the Birchmere on May 5; The Decemberists play at the Anthem on May 10; the rock band Mannequin Pussy performs at the Atlantis on May 17 and 18; Hozier plays at Merriweather Post Pavilion on May 17 as part of the Unreal Unearth tour. 


Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight will sing soulful melodies at Wolf Trap on June 8; Joe Jackson performs at the Lincoln Theatre on June 10; the Pixies and Modest Mouse are teaming up to play at Merriweather Post Pavilion on June 14; Maggie Rogers plays at Merriweather Post Pavilion on June 16 as part of The Don’t Forget Me tour; Brittany Howard headlines the Out & About Festival at Wolf Trap on June 22; Sarah McLachlan plays at Merriweather Post Pavilion on June 27; Alanis Morissette performs at Merriweather Post Pavilion on June 29 and 30

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Music & Concerts

Grammys: Queer women and their sisters took down the house

Taylor Swift won Album of the Year



When the late, great Ruth Bader Ginsburg was asked when there will be enough women on the Supreme Court, her answer was simple: Nine. She stated: “I say when there are nine, people are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.” RBG did not attend the Grammy’s last night, but her spirit sure did. Women, at long last, dominated, ruled and killed the night.

Cher, in song a decade ago, declared that “this is a woman’s world,” but there was little evidence that was true, Grammy, and entertainment awards, speaking. In 2018, the Grammys were heavily criticized for lack of female representation across all categories and organizers’ response was for women to “step up.”

Be careful what you wish for boys.

The biggest star of the 2024 Grammys was the collective power of women. They made history, they claimed legacy and they danced and lip sang to each other’s work. Standing victorious was Miley Cyrus, Billie Eilish, SZA (the most nominated person of the year), Lainey Wilson, Karol G, boygenius, Kylie Minogue and Victoria Monét. Oh, yes, and powerhouse Taylor Swift, the superstar from whom Fox News cowers in fear, made history to become the first performer of any gender to win four Best Album of the Year trophies.

In the throng of these powerful women stand a number of both LGBTQ advocates and queer identifying artists. Cyrus has identified as pansexual, SZA has said lesbian rumors “ain’t wrong,” Phoebe Bridgers (winner of four trophies during the night, most of any artist) is lesbian, Monét is bi and Eilish likes women but doesn’t want to talk about it. Plus, ask any queer person about Swift or Minogue and you are likely to get a love-gush.

Women power was not just owned by the lady award winners. There were the ladies and then there were the Legends. The first Legend to appear was a surprise. Country singer Luke Combs has a cross-generational hit this year with a cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” When originally released, the song was embraced as a lesbian anthem. When performing “Fast Car,” surprise, there was Chapman herself, singing the duet with Combs. The rendition was stunning, sentimental and historic.

Chapman, like many of the night’s female dignitaries, has not been public with her sexuality. Author Alice Walker has spoken of the two of them being lovers, however.

The legend among legends of the night, however, was the one and only Joni Mitchell. Not gay herself, she embodies the concept of an LGBTQ icon, and was accompanied by the very out Brandi Carlile on stage. On her website, Mitchell’s statement to the LGBTQ community reads, “The trick is if you listen to that music and you see me, you’re not getting anything out of it. If you listen to that music and you see yourself, it will probably make you cry and you’ll learn something about yourself and now you’re getting something out of it.”

Mitchell performed her longtime classic “Both Sides Now.” The emotion, insight and delivery from the now 80-year old artist, survivor of an aneurism, was nothing short of profound. (To fully appreciate the nuance time can bring, check out the YouTube video of a Swift lookalike Mitchell singing the same song to Mama Cass and Mary Travers in 1969.) In this latest rendition, Mitchell clearly had an impact on Meryl Streep who was sitting in the audience. Talk about the arc of female talent and power.

That arc extended from a today’s lady, Cyrus, to legend Celine Dion as well. Cyrus declared Dion as one of her icons and inspirations early in the evening. Dion appeared, graceful and looking healthy, to present the final, and historic, award of the night at the end of the show.

Legends did not even need to be living to have had an effect on the night. Tributes to Tina Turner and Sinead O’Conner by Oprah, Fantasia Barrino-Taylor and Annie Lennox respectively, proved that not even death could stop these women. As Lennox has musically and famously put it, “Sisters are doing it for themselves.”

Even the content of performances by today’s legends-in-the-making spoke to feminine power. Eilish was honored for, and performed “What Was I Made For?,” a haunting and searching song that speaks to the soul of womanhood and redefinition in today’s fight for gender rights and expression, while Dua Lipa laid down the gauntlet for mind blowing performance with her rendition of “Houdini” at the top of the show, Cyrus asserted the power of her anthem “Flowers” and pretty much stole the show.

Cyrus had not performed the song on television before, and only three times publicly. She declared in her intro that she was thrilled over the business numbers the song garnered, but she refused to let them define her. As she sang the hit, she scolded the audience, “you guys act like you don’t know the words to this song.” Soon the woman power of the room was singing along with her, from Swift to Oprah.

They can buy themselves flowers from now on. They don’t need anyone else. Cyrus made that point with the mic drop to cap all mic drops, “And I just won my first Grammy!” she declared as she danced off stage.

Even the squirmiest moment of the night still did not diminish the light of women power, and in fact, underscored it. During his acceptance of the Dr. Dre Global Impact Award, Jay-Z had a bone to pick with the Grammy voters. He called out the irony that his wife Beyoncé had won more Grammys than any other human, but had never won the Best Album of the Year. Yeah, what’s with that?

But then, it brought additional context ultimately to the fact that the winner of the most Grammys individually … is a woman. And to the fact that the winner of the most Best Album of the Year awards … is a woman.

Hopefully this was the night that the Grammys “got it.” Women are the epicenter of The Creative Force.

Will the other entertainment awards get it soon as well? We can hope.

Most importantly, in a political world where women’s healthcare is under siege. Will the American voters get it?

A little known band named Little Mix put it this way in their 2019 song “A Woman’s World.”

“If you can’t see that it’s gotta change
Only want the body but not the brains
If you really think that’s the way it works
You ain’t lived in a woman’s world

Just look at how far that we’ve got
And don’t think that we’ll ever stop…”

From Grammy’s mouth to the world’s ear.

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Music & Concerts

Janet Jackson returning to D.C, Baltimore

‘Together Again Tour’ comes to Capital One Arena, CFG Bank Arena



Janet Jackson is coming back to D.C. this summer.

Pop icon Janet Jackson announced this week an extension of her 2023 “Together Again Tour.” A new leg of the tour will bring Jackson back to the area for two shows, one at D.C.’s Capital One Arena on Friday, July 12 and another at Baltimore’s CFG Bank Arena on Saturday, July 13.  

Tickets are on sale now via TicketMaster. LiveNation announced the 2023 leg of the tour consisted of 36 shows, each of which was sold out. The 2024 leg has 35 stops planned so far; R&B star Nelly will open for Jackson on the new leg. 

Jackson made the tour announcement Tuesday on social media: “Hey u guys! By popular demand, we’re bringing the Together Again Tour back to North America this summer with special guest Nelly! It’ll be so much fun!”

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