A couple of years ago I gathered up my pile of ticket stubs, most of which I had saved from the beginning of my gig-going career, and began to organize them. The physical stubs are in an ever-expanding catalogue, and dates, bands, and venues are recorded in a document. It’s a long and interesting history, although there is a large gap in the middle, but all that is probably a topic for another post. What is relevant here is the second gap: The Year of No Gigs, the enforced global pause.
I have two shows listed under 2020: The Musical Box in January, and then the Katatonia live stream that happened in May. I decided to list it because I paid for a ticket to watch it, and it was better than many gigs I’ve seen in person, not just by Katatonia themselves, but other bands as well…once you got past the eerie silence at the end of each song.
Everything else has been cancelled, or postponed. There were some shreds of hope in the early days of the lockdown, that maybe by June there would be a return to normalcy or something close to it, but as the weeks went by it became depressingly clear that no such thing was going to happen. Tours were cancelled, postponed gigs were jettisoned, and even the gigs shifted from March to August are looking unlikely. It is probably safe to say that concerts, at least in any meaningful sense, are going to be the last things to return.
2015 has been a wonderful year for new music, one of the best years in recent memory. Almost all the new releases I checked out were worthwhile, even the ones that eventually didn’t make the cut. What’s more, most of the albums I found that had come out in previous years were also exceptional. It is quite the opposite of last year when I had real trouble coming up with ten albums to talk about; this year the difficulty is deciding what to leave out. That is why I have gone with a Top 15 of 2015. Too much is just too good.
Some clear themes have emerged: this year’s music of preference seems to be either hard and heavy post-metal, post-punk, or sludge/doom metal; or beautifully sweeping songs, lush and melodic…there are few exceptions. But pretty much all of it features lots of great powerful riffage, and real honouring of the song. Instrumental music makes up a significant portion of the albums I chose. Established artists surprised by the shift in their direction, and new artists absolutely stomped into prominence.
This was also the year that the 1980s dominated: the influences from that decade are all over the damned place. Two bands active in the 80s that I hadn’t paid any attention to for years (or ever) blasted out of the past with monster releases. At least three other bands heavily reference 80s sounds (although technically one will not release their album until next year; at this point a single is available). Several decent live albums were released but only one snuck into the list. Live albums are generally not regarded as legitimate candidates for year-end lists, and the one that made it into mine was actually released in 2014, but fuck it, this is my list and I’ll include what I want.
So: onto the list, starting at Number 15 and working upward.
Ghost are a band with a clever, well-formulated gimmick, and they are not unskilled, and Meliora is an album of nice poppy metal, nothing too straining, pleasant to listen to, but I do not understand why everyone seems to think this is a great album. No, it is not “great”, it is well done but not exceptional by any means, and there could be other contenders for the bottom spot that didn’t quite make it. This is the kind of album I play when I do not want to pay too much attention to what I am listening to: it has to have some merits in terms of good song structure and decent melodies, but not too demanding of one’s attention. Meliora fits.
The Fierce and the Dead: Magnet
I do admire Matt Stevens; he is a dedicated guitarist and untiring in his self-promotion, which one must be in this day of DIY musicianship. However I tend to prefer his band project, The Fierce and the Dead, over his solo efforts. Magnet is a brief EP that came out this year showcasing their eclectic style, hard-rocking somewhat freeform math/post-rock.
Steven Wilson: Hand Cannot Erase
I write this as I am listening to Insurgentes, Wilson’s first solo album. The differences between these two albums, the first, and his fourth, could not be more stark. Insurgentes is superb; but I find that listening to H.C.E is an exercise in sheer determination to get through it; it must be done though because it is, you know, Steven Wilson and he is god (or something). Naturally, the album is superbly executed with exceptional performances by the musicians, beautiful melodies, and is at times almost poppy (a welcome shift away from the jazz influences of the last two albums) — and while it is clearly meant to grab at the heartstrings I find it so obviously manipulative that it just leaves me cold. But you can read my (rather generous) review here.
We’re halfway through the year so I thought I would do a quick run-down of the music that has caught my attention up to this point. There are not a lot of albums on the list; for a variety of reasons I have not been knocking myself out seeking new music. But finding it is never a problem – there is far more great music out there than anyone could ever listen to, and many of my friends have reasonably decent taste. 🙂
It might be a short list, and not everything on there is going to make it across the finish line, but the quality of the releases has been outstanding. Let me put it this way: if this year’s no-hopers had appeared in 2014, my year-end tally would have looked quite different. Last year it was tough to come up with ten albums without padding the list; this year it is going to be hard to leave things off. If the quality of the upcoming releases is as high as what has already appeared, I may simply make a Top 15.
This is a year that demonstrates beyond all doubt that the best, most engaging, most sheerly awesome sounds are being made by people no-one has ever heard of, or who have been forgotten—folks who have nothing to lose and in the overall scheme of things (especially in the current musical economic reality) little to gain; when the icons seem to have become mired in hype and self-referential twaddle, and when genres have become meaningless (not that they ever were really meaningful, mind you).
So without further ado, here are the best (so far) of the maybe 16 albums I considered, in roughly reverse order. Needless to say this is subject to change at any time, and is pretty much bound to change as the new crop of upcoming releases hits.