December 31, 2015 at 10:36 am EDT | by Chris Gerard
YEAR IN REVIEW 2015: music (An ‘Epic’ year for music)
best albums, gay news, Washington Blade

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.

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