Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Top 15 of 2015

As always, carefully thought over and selected thinking of what makes or doesn't make an end-to-end perfect album.  Starting off with:

15.Owl City - "Mobile Orchestra"

Adam Young stepped out of his wheelhouse an album ago with the confident, pleasantly varied "The Midsummer Station."  On "Mobile Orchestra," he tries to take that approach further, and ends up with a disjointed collection that can't ever really decide what it wants to be.  Is it the skyscraping U2-echo-bounce of "Verge" - or is it the by-the-numbers worship songs (although "You are not alone" is if nothing else the better of these 2.)  Or is it Owl City gone country, with a song featuring Jake Owen and some of the most phoned in lyrics this side of a Luke Bryan album.  Either way, Young is capable of doing far better, and it just isn't showing here.

14.Madonna - "Rebel Heart"

The real shame about "Rebel Heart" is that it has moments of pure, unadulterated Madge as we've all come to know and love.  "Ghost Town" and "Joan of Arc" are Madonna pulling off her classic trick very well - borrowing current sounds and staying with the trends, while not sounding too much like she is just blindly following them.  Then come the flat out train wrecks like "Bitch I'm Madonna" - which is such a shame, considering that it comes from a performer who has shown herself able to do so much better.  "Body shop" sounds like something that was left on the cutting room floor during the Erotica sessions.  This album, much like MDNA before it, mostly makes the listener wish Madonna would re-team with Stuart Price & Patrick Leonard, and get back to her roots.  This approach worked quite well for another later down this list.

13.Imagine Dragons - "Smoke and Mirrors"

Imagine Dragons forge ahead boldly with album number 2.  What holds this one back is Dan Reynolds' voice - or when he forgets how to harness it to the best effect.  On tracks like the synth-drenched stomper of an opening track "Shots" - there he nails the effect.  It is upbeat, strong, and rings out against the instruments surrounding it.  Or on the ballad "It comes back to you" - where he borrows from the Ryan Tedder school of carefully placed falsetto.  Where it fails, it fails hard - he tries to bring a raw, scratchy delivery to "I bet my life" and it sounds like he's straining to get the sound out.  Similar mis-steps keep this album from being as good as it could be, but it shows a band only getting better even so.

12.Janet Jackson - "Unbreakable"

Janet Jackson realized, thankfully not too late, that yes, it is possible to make compelling, fun R&B without resorting to the awkwardly hyper-explicit lyrics that featured so prominently on her last few albums.  Not that there's anything wrong with explicit lyrics, but when they sound wedged in simply for bald raunch and/or shock value, they can ruin even the best music.  Dialing that back, along with reuniting with Jam & Lewis for production has yielded an album that, while it runs a bit long, will remind long time fans who had all but given up on her why they loved her music in the first place.  Debut single "No Sleep" is just the kind of slow-burning jam that has been missing from just about every album since maybe The Velvet Rope or perhaps even her 1993 "janet."  Welcome back, Miss Jackson.

11.Maddie & Tae - "Start Here"

Their cheeky role-reversal single "Girl in a country song" got their name out there, and here they show promise on their full length debut.  While they clearly have some growing pains to work through (some songs sound too by-the-numbers country to be as likable as they could be) they do show promise.  Early-on track "Shut up and fish" continues on with the the theme of "Girl in a country song" quite amusingly.  "Sierra" spins an amusingly coy riff on "karma's a bitch" - even while slyly avoiding finishing that phrase.  An uneven effort, but full of promise just the same.

10.Carly Rae Jepsen - "Emotion"

Even while she seemed to be everywhere with the smash success of "Call me maybe," she seemed to drop off the face of the earth just as quickly once that song's popularity faded.  She wisely uses this diminished focus to step out of the overly coy, coquettish stylings found on previous effort "Kiss."  At times it seems like she is channeling Robyn - albeit a Robyn that is far less of an ice queen than has been heard on her last few albums.  This approach works for the most part, occasionally stumbling (The overly simplistic "Boy Problems" appears like a transparent attempt to reel in the same fans who liked "Call me maybe" and suffers for it.)  Still, she has good taste in producers & co-writers, and together they make a slick pop album that, while not daring, is still a pleasant listen.

9.Fall Out Boy - "American Beauty / American Psycho"

Fall Out Boy have been on a hot streak since returning from their hiatus to "Save Rock and Roll."  While this album works as a whole, it suffers some from "borrower's curse."  Not that they don't give credit, but this has always been a band that hasn't needed to coast on that easy trick to get songs done.  The title track lifts a Motley Crue riff, "Uma Thurman", while a pleasant romp, owes its existence to a lift of the Munsters theme song.  On top of all this, they use a different mix of "Immortals" than what was originally found in the movie - to a lesser effect.  A solid effort, if a bit rushed and uneven at times.

8.Rob Thomas - "The Great Unknown"

For the man who was almost equally loved and loathed for late 90's overplayed chestnut "Smooth" - Thomas manages to not let the reputation that song gave him drag things down, turning in a slightly uneven, but mostly solid 3rd solo album.  Stepping outside his wheelhouse and using other producers besides Matt Serletic give this disc the variety that it might otherwise have lacked, and keep it sounding just fresh enough to be worth the listen.

7.Zomboy - "The Outbreak"

While the man otherwise known as Joshua Mellody hasn't been around as long as some of his more obvious inspirations (Skrillex, anyone?) he manages to stand head and shoulders above them by keeping the production tight, and the sounds focused.  Where other artists tend to craft tracks that start sounding well composed, but then tend to meander off into noodling nowhereseville, Mellody remembers one of the most simple rules in any genre of music - that having a defined beginning, middle, and end can do wonders for your sound.  A promising debut and good enough to whet the appetite for more.

6.Kacey Musgraves - "Pageant Material"

On major label album #2, Musgraves doubles down on her now classic formula - country that is not ashamed to be country, yet still manages to push at what country can be.  From the sly wink and a nod ode to weed on opening track "High Time" to the amusing lark of the title track, she hits all the right notes here.  If slow-burning sultry country is more your thing, check album highlights "Late to the party" and "Fine" for that.  Just be sure you mind your "Biscuits" while you do, eh?

5.Jason Isbell - "Something More Than Free"

Isbell's second album since kicking alcohol brims with stories aplenty.  With the music taking on a much more subdued timbre than previous efforts, here it is the stories that make the work shine.  From the all too relevant "Children of children" (Isbell was soon to be a father himself as this album was released) to the world weary title track, all the bases are covered here.  Album highlight is the sparse "Speed trap town."  For more lively offerings, "24 Frames" and "Palmetto Rose" fit the bill nicely.

4.Adam Lambert - "The Original High"

Adam Lambert manages to bounce back from his departure from RCA (based on creative differences, according to Billboard) and that, plus his disconnection from 19 Recordings (the last shred of control from the American Idol days) has resulted in one of his best albums ever.  His 3rd full length avoids some of the over the top "river of screams" balladry that made the back half of album #2 a bit of a chore.  Here there is nothing but elegant, shined up pop, from start to finish.  Ballads, full on stompers like lead single "Ghost Town"... each is done with the flare most have come to expect from Lambert, but with a well learned sense of restraint that he didn't have before.

3.Walk The Moon - "Talking Is Hard"

The style of pop-drenched indie "rock" has been done before - what sets Walk The Moon apart is the panache with which they do it.  Every track a finely polished wash of instrumentation, with just enough quirk to make it not quite the same as every other that came before, but not so far down the quirk scale that the catchy, earworm hooks recede into the mix.  Pair that with Nick Petricca's expressive, heartfelt vocals, and you have a band that, while only on album number 2, are painting the way towards a long future together.

2.Barenaked Ladies - "Silverball"

Ed Robertson has described this as the first album since Steven Page's departure that felt easy to make.  No laborious recording, no struggle to get the sound right, it just "worked."  And it shows - this collection is a solid effort from front to back, from the uplifting stomp of "Get Back Up" to the Kevin Hearn-assisted balladry of "Passcode", the 'ladies hit all the bases here.  This album also shines brighter in that there is not a single track that feels like a veiled stab at their former bandmate (something that can't be said about their previous 2 efforts.)  And as if to wrap it all up so neatly, the title track answers a question no one ever asked, but you'll find yourself hard pressed to deny the answer is a resounding yes - the question being who can manage to spin a sappy, earnest love song built on pinball metaphors?  Why, the Barenaked Ladies, of course.

1.Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - "Chasing Yesterday"

When Noel Gallagher first cut himself off from Oasis in 2009, there was no clear sign of who would reign supreme, if both of the brothers tried to keep on. At the moment of publishing this, Beady Eye has collapsed, but the High Flying Birds still exist.  Noel Gallagher may not have been the primary voice of Oasis in their heyday, but he offers additional proof towards showing why he was the engine behind all the success with his second album carrying all the weight by himself.  Yes, he has help (as with the Johnny Marr assisted closing track "Ballad of the Mighty I"....but the long gap between this and his self-titled debut album show a progression that belies their age.  It would be easy for Noel to crank out a disc full of tired Oasis retreads.  Instead, he and his collaborators fire off an effervescent blast of everything that is the best of what Noel is, and then some.  Not a stinker in the bunch - and thus why this rests atop my top 15 of 2015.

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