Last year, we kept it concise to bring you the top five records of 2014. Not 50, not 25, not even 10. Top 5, just like High Fidelity. Well, it’s been a productive year here at SportsAlcohol.com, so our music-voting core of Marisa, Sara, Rob, and Jesse decided we’d earned an extra spot. Maybe we can work our way up to a Top 10 over the next bunch of years, and achieve full Rolling Stone bloat by the time we’re, appropriately enough, in our seventies. In the meantime, here are the six records from 2015 that we most agreed on, full of brilliant women and unexpectedly wonderful reunions. We’ll discuss all of this and more on our podcast later this week; in the meantime, enjoy our top six.
The Top Six Best Albums of 2015
6. Ivy Tripp by Waxahatchee
Like our number five choice, Waxahatchee is a band that’s really more of a singer-songwriter project, and that singer-songwriter is the talented Katie Crutchfield. How talented is she? Well, you know how a lot of hushed acoustic-based singer-songwriters tend to make a lot of songs that kinda sound like the same thing over and over? I’m not sure how she does it, but Waxahatchee’s most recent records – 2013’s Cerulean Salt and this year’s gem Ivy Tripp – overflow with songs that distinguish themselves within just a few listens. Ivy Tripp turns the volume up louder than her previous releases, which certainly helps songs like “Air” and “Under a Rock” stand out, but it’s more than that; the gentle acoustic lilt of “Summer of Love” (running a scant and beautiful two minutes) and the synth-y bounce of “La Loose” are at home here, too. What unites them is not necessarily their offhand lyricism (though there is that) but the range of vocal melodies Crutchfield brings to the kind of project that could get same-y in a hurry. There’s an old-fashioned craft to these songs; each one feels carefully considered and distinct. – Jesse
5. Beat the Champ by The Mountain Goats
I am not and have never been a wresting dude. I didn’t even know wresting dudes existed past adolescence until I got to college, where I was surrounded by friends who had long seen past the kayfabe facade and appreciated the spectacle for its athleticism, stagecraft and drama from an almost deconstructionist perspective. I could see what they saw in it, but it was obvious I’d never really get it because I didn’t grow up a wrestling dude.
The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle grew up a wrestling dude in the pre-WWE days but abandoned it before adulthood. It clearly never left him, because Beat the Champ is all about pro wrestling. The Mountain Goats made an album about pro wresting the same way John Darnielle is a singer-songwriter: it’s technically true but not an accurate description. The songs here contain Darnielle’s signature vivid characterization, mostly focusing on the hopes and fears of hardscrabble indie circuit wrestlers at different places in their careers. In one of the album’s undeniable highlights, “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero,” Darnielle shifts the focus to his younger self. Unlike the struggle presented by similar martial in his autobiographical record The Sunset Tree, this is a decidedly more upbeat take on his childhood. When you still believe wrestling is real, it brings order to the world because the the good guys win and the bad guys lose. It’s the perfect example for why the stories and emotions on Beat the Champ are universal, even if you aren’t a wrestling dude. – Rob
4. Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance by Belle & Sebastian
Bands that have been around as long as Belle & Sebastian have typically have two choices when it comes to a new record: either reinvent or lean heavily into their known sound. And while the first track (and their best, most personal song in years) “Nobody’s Empire” delivers the same baroquely beautiful pop we’ve come to expect from the band, it’s the album title that tips their hand. We may not technically be in peacetime but the lads and lasses from Glasgow still want you to dance. Never fear, superfans; they haven’t abandoned their literate, self-conscious sensibilities entirely. Stuart Murdoch has spoken often of his nostalgia for the music of the past and Girls plays like a throwback to an era that never existed outside of anyone’s head. Ample time is made for both funky synth breakdowns and polka sing-alongs while lyrics name check Sherlock Holmes and Sylvia Plath. There’s more than a little posturing here and if the slick beats never quite reach the giddy heights of “Your Cover’s Blown” it’s good to have Belle & Sebastian at the party nonetheless. – Sara
3. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit by Courtney Barnett
Both female vocalists and hyper-literate pop seemed to have a moment in 2015 (see everyone else’s #1 album of the year To Pimp a Butterfly as a good example of the latter.) On first glance you might not tag Courtney Barnett as the patron saint of either with her meandering lyrics and deadpan, often monotone performance style. But whether she’s ripping into the unhinged guitar line on lead single “Pedestrian at Best” or breezing through a shambling ode to the dreary suburbs on “Depreston” Barnett has a steady control of her material that belies the messy compositions her scribbled album artwork might suggest. Lyrically and structurally Sometimes I Sit is a continued study in contradiction; “I want to go out but I want to stay home,” she sings on “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party,” the jangly instrumentation pinned in place by Barnett’s voice one moment and set loose the next. The only thing she seems certain of is how little she knows, but when the craft is this assured you’re happy to humor her while she figures it out. – Sara
2. No Cities to Love by Sleater-Kinney
In a little over a year, Sleater-Kinney’s reunion album has become one of my most written-about and talked-about albums of all time. Why is this? It helps that they were one of my favorite bands at the peak of their powers when they broke up and I never got a chance to see them live. However, when other bands I hold in similar esteem have reunited, I haven’t gotten the thrill I got No Cities to Love. Maybe it’s because they’re still peaking.
There was a musical progression from their couple of records that this one logically follows. Straying from their punk roots as farther than any other of their albums (besides maybe The Woods), this a tight band with a much larger sound than a three piece would suggest. While the subject matter may have changed slightly now that the band members are in their forties and fifties, the same passion and righteous indignation is still there. Sometimes I feel a little too locked into nostalgia for my younger days; other times I wonder why other bands aren’t as good as Sleater-Kinney. – Rob
This is a dangerous record. Not because of its ideas or musicianship (though both are terrific), but because it encourages us, the indie rockers of the world, to think that bands reuniting is a cause for celebration instead of suspicion. Just remember: not all reunions will be this lean, mean, tight, and right. Seriously, I’m a little shocked that this isn’t our album of the year. – Jesse
1. The Magic Whip by Blur
Much has been made, in these very pages and all over the Internet pop-cultural landscape, about the many ways ’90s nostalgia is in full force. You may think that nostalgia, and the general ages of our intrepid contributors, may be the reason that our top two spots were taken by ’90s reunion acts – but that would sell Blur’s The Magic Whip short.
It’s true that The Magic Whip sounds totally, wholly, completely like a Blur record. The band didn’t need a sixteen-year hiatus (time elapsed since the full band recorded an album with guitarist Graham Coxon, no disrespect to 2003’s excellent Think Tank) to come up with a songs like “Lonesome Street” or “Go Out”. They’d fit right in on any of the previous Blur albums. Not only do they sound like ’90s, guitar-driven pop songs, the lyrics, with lines like “I get a set alone, dancing with myself” or “And if you have nobody else to rely on I’ll hold you in my arms and let you drift,” reflect the disillusionment and isolation of a much younger band. My favorite track on the album, “Ong Ong,” with its chanty, sing-songy chorus of “I want to be with you,” is basically another, shorter version of “Tender.”
Then again, it seems impossible that The Magic Whip could be made in any year other than 2015. Besides contemporary sounds, like the scribbly noise in the background of “Ice Cream Man,” almost every song is imbued with the sadness of living in the world today, an overpopulated world (“There Are Too Many Of Us”), where you can “log in your name and pray” (“New World Towers”), and know that the threat of using up all of our natural resources is even more looming (“Thought I Was a Spaceman”).
Blending ’90s rock with today’s musical influences while making a record that sounds like a Blur record while commenting on the issues of today sounds like it’d take methodical, careful planning. It did not. The Magic Whip is basically a fluke, the result of a spur-of-the-moment recording session the band did in Hong Kong after a scheduled festival appearance was canceled. So the best thing about the The Magic Whip is how it’s really a snapshot of one brief period of time. Everything went into it: the Eastern setting, the mood of killing time after a canceled tour date, the influences Blur’s members picked up during the intervening years, and the spontaneous spark of creativity that resulted when it all came together. There are a million ways that The Magic Whip could have fallen by the wayside, and pretty much only one way it could have been created; the fact that we got the latter feels like its own kind of magic. – Marisa