Oh hey there. Let’s jump right in.
2015 was a fantastic year for music. Adele and Taylor Swift reminded us that people still buy music and that pop stars still exist. Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal and a host of other streaming services pushed the discussion of “music as a commodity” centerstage. Despite where opinions settle, I think we can all agree that our streaming discussions were well overdue (and on two fronts: people paying for their music again and artists getting fairly paid for streaming).
NOTE: Amazon Prime’s streaming service (Amazon Music) is the industry’s best kept secret. It’s by far the best streaming service. Comes with your Prime account, you can download thousands of records, listen to them offline. Why is no one talking about this?
Every year I have artists and their releases that I look forward to, but this year there were some out-of-left-field albums that no one saw coming. Leon Bridges and Sufjan Stevens’ masterpiece, for instance, rocked (and rolled) almost my entire musical year.
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Someone once told me that art should look different every time you see it. I think the same can be true for music, where you hear something different every time you play it. Stevens’ latest hits the proverbial mark. Borrowing from Gregorian chants, from 70’s folk, from his own catalogue — Carrie & Lowell is lyrically transparent, musically restrained, and almost perfect. Make no mistake, people: Sufjan Stevens made a masterpiece.
There are instances, such as in “The Only Thing“, where the track is just begging for a rhythm section (i.e., bass & drums), but we don’t get it, and it’s the right choice. “The Only Thing” is about despair, about barely holding on with just a glimmer of hope. Sure, you can sing about depression with a backing band, but it wouldn’t fit here. Stevens isn’t trying to be flashy, and he’s not making anthems, what Stevens is doing is splitting open his chest and singing therapy.
As someone who’s had a similar (not exact, but similar) upbringing as Stevens, I latched onto this record like a child to his mother, and it brought me comfort many times over. Can someone with a glossy childhood enjoy this album? Of course. But who actually had a glossy childhood?
Leon Bridges – Coming Home
The era of the vinyl resurgence has its new king. Or should I say, Cooke? Leon Bridges seemingly came out of nowhere and doo-woped himself into all of our hearts and earholes. The guy is definitely channeling Sam Cooke, but it feels original and fresh. The production is balanced with tones of airy blues and taut pop, with some guitar tones that recall the early Elvis records. I love it, and I can’t wait to see what Mr. Bridges does next.
Glen Hansard – Didn’t He Ramble
Glenny Boy, the pipes the pipes are singing.
Jim Adkins – Singles & Covers EP
I loved this singles project by Jim Adkins (of Jimmy Eat World). Three 45 singles comprising three covers and three originals. I got to see him, earlier this year, on tour and it was wonderful. Adkins has a voice that has only sharpened over the last two decades.
Lord Huron – Strange Trails
Lord Huron is a band that I think I don’t like, and yet I find myself listening to all the time. I wrote them off, originally, as a Fleet Foxes copycat, but after many (and many) listens, I just don’t care anymore. These cats are good, very, very good. Their first release, Lonesome Dreams, is a more complete album, I think, so start there if you’ve never heard them. Strange Trails, however, is a worthy successor, and a worthy album to make this list.
mewithoutYou – Pale Horses
I love that mewithoutYou still isn’t afraid to take chances. Songs like “Mexican War Streets”, “Red Cow” and “D-Minor” are some of the band’s best. Lyrically, Aaron is more dynamic than he’s been since Brother, Sister. The second half of this album definitely suffers from redundant song structures and predictable (and overused) vocal effects. And I’m not sure “Rainbow Signs” is as classic/epic as they intended. That said, Pale Horses is still a good album and better than their last effort, Ten Stories. But I’m not sure where they go from here. Like the apocalyptic imagery it often summons, Pale Horses may be a sign that, for mwY fans at least, the end is near.
toyGuitar – In This Mess
toyGuitar channels The Strokes, Arctic Monkeys and a little old-school street punk; it’s a beautiful thing. Since they released this album on Bandcamp, I believe they’ve signed to Fat Wreck Chords. I first heard this little San Francisco band at the start of the year and listened to their debut album, In This Mess, over and over again as I studied, worked an internship, and graduated college. Thanks toyGuitar, we did it.
As I have said the last few years, I don’t really watch that many movies anymore. Chalk it up to the rise of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and their respective original programming. But also, I’m just not excited by what is coming out of Hollywood these days. Super hero movies are a dime a dozen and sequels are high throughput and low quality. I’m excited by original writing/stories, and that’s where my head went this year (despite, you know, the two sequels I have in this list).
So here’s the list! Complete with IMDB trivia.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron
Directed by George Miller
Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy (as in, Storyboard artist for 1990 TMNT Movie!!!, anyone?)
Oscar Isaac, Alica Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson (Isaac and Gleeson are also in another little movie that happened to make my list)
Directed by Alex Garland
Written by Alex Garland
Love & Mercy
John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks
Directed by Bill Pohlad
Written by Oren Moverman (Screenplay writer for Dylan music flick, I’m Not There), Michael A. Lerner (Wrote a song on the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack!!!)
The End of the Tour
Jason Segal (who, for the record, acted the crap out of this film), Jesse Eisenberg (who, for the record, I can’t stand)
Directed by James Ponsoldt
Written by Donald Marguiles, David Lipsky
Jack Black, a bunch of nostalgia-filled CGI monsters, Dylan Minnette
Directed by Rob Letterman
Written by Darren Lemke, Scott Alexander (who, in the 90s, once wrote about monsters in a Tales From the Crypt episode)
Maika Monroe (soon to be daughter to former President Bill Pullman in Independence Day 2), Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi
Directed by David Robert Mitchell
Written by David Robert Mitchell
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Some guy named Harrison
Directed by J.J. Abrams (who apparently wrote Michael Bay’s best movie)
Written by Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams
As what will soon become obvious, none of these books were released in 2015. They are older, some of them classics. I wanted to jump into more contemporary authors and books this year, but I just couldn’t help myself after being exposed to the “Greats” and the “Classics” in my final two years of college. My goal, moving forward, will be to work in more contemporary books in between the classics. That said, I’m not that far behind: David Sedaris, Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, and Andy Weir are all still writing.
And full disclosure: David Sedaris and Andy Weir’s books I listened to through Audible. I highly recommend it.
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004) – David Sedaris
The funniest first chapter I have ever heard.
The Martian (2011) – Andy Weir
Log Entry: The book was better than the movie (but the movie was still pretty good)
Of Mice and Men/Cannery Row – John Steinbeck
Simultaneously made me home sick, and sick of my home.
A Farewell to Arms (1929) – Ernest Hemingway
Bradley Cooper was absolutely right about that ending.
The Joy Luck Club (1989) – Amy Tan
Short story/chapter “Rules of the Game” will change your life.
How to Read Literature Like a Professor (2003) – Thomas C. Foster
(Nerdy, I know)
Song of Solomon (1977) – Toni Morrison
The Dead Milkmen had to get their name from somewhere.
Music – PUP by PUP, To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar, Strangers to Ourselves by Modest Mouse
Film – Spectre, When We Were Young, The Martian
Books – Joyland by Stephen King, Television is the New Television by Michael Wolff, Saga (comic series) by Brian K. Vaughn
Header Photo by Uberto Cofini