When I wrote the March State of the Music, the first few months of 2019 seemed to consist mostly of albums from 2018 that I missed, with most of 2019’s offerings still to come.
At this point, many of those albums have been released, and the discovery of the older stuff continues apace. I’d like to pretty much erase last year’s Albums of 2018 posts and start again, but oh well. It’s what I had at the time, and there are a few keepers in there.
Back in March there were three albums that had early releases: While She Sleeps — SO WHAT?, Queensrÿche — The Verdict, and Front Line Assembly — Wake Up the Coma. You can read those reviews here. It will become clearer as the year moves on how they will stack up against the rest of the offerings, but so far they are managing to hang in.
So: on to what has appeared this year since March, a look forward to the few remaining releases (barring any surprises), and a summary of the old stuff that you should check out if you haven’t already (in a separate post since this one got long). The albums are in no particular order as yet, but it is fairly obvious which ones I like more than others.
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.
Continuing on with the Gigs of the Year…now we are into the good stuff. I saw some great shows this year as well as some no-so-great. The best concert of the year also turned out to be the last one I saw — I had high hopes for this gig, and the guys did not disappoint.
Riverside (The Agora Ballroom, Cleveland)
This was the fourth of the four gigs in a row that I caught during the Love, Fear and the Time Machine tour in North America. It was a difficult show; Duda was sick and exhausted, battling some kind of throat infection. Cleveland came the day after blowing the roof off in Chicago and Mariusz was essentially running on fumes, doing his best to not just phone it in but clearly struggling, short on energy and fighting his way through the songs. However, towards the end he got a huge injection of energy when the crowd belted out Happy Birthday (and mangled his name; his expression was priceless). That really seemed to make him happy and boosted the last few songs.
Árstíðir (Church of St. Stephen’s-in-the-Field)
I can’t remember exactly how I came across this outfit, gentle folk rock/post-rock from Iceland; I tried a few tracks from youtube and they didn’t really grab me, far too sedate; but the idea of seeing a band like this in a church seemed like something worth checking out. And they really were very good, very musical, personable and intimate, a beautiful setting, it was a special evening.
Riverside (The Mod Club, Toronto)
Toronto audiences are a bit weird. Really hipster alty and metal types, not really into prog, and I was a bit nervous about the turnout for Riverside given the size of the venue. And the crowd was smaller than I had hoped for, a couple hundred people or so, but the show, being the first of four in a row I was to see, was a great introduction to the new material and new stage presence of Riverside. They were much heavier on stage than the new album would have suggested, lots of energy; and it was the first time to experience the beauty of “Found” with the lights.
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.