A Rose in the Rose Garden.

Best of 2015: Music

It was a bit of an odd year for music – and in general. Mind you, I feel like I say that every year. I ended up digging through a lot of old favourites, expanding collections, and showing up late to a lot of old parties. 2015 saw me chewing through classic Beastie Boys, Pogues, clipping., Cave In, Beck’s Odelay, and everything except the new Faith No More album.

Rather than run down an ordered top 10 right now, let me just mention a few specific musical highlights and surprises from the year.

John Grant – Grey Tickles, Black Pressure

I am a regular listener of Scott Aukerman’s Comedy Bang Bang podcast. Although he mostly has comedy guests and weird improvised character bits, Aukerman sometimes brings musicians on. I’m often surprised by how much I end up enjoying them. John Grant was generally a fun guest on the show – but I was hooked when he launched into the title song from his latest record.

I became slightly obsessed by the couple of lines leading into the chorus.

“There are children who have cancer, and so all bets are off, cause I can’t compete with that.”

It turns out that John Grant is a cool quirky songwriter that’s evidently up one of my alleys. His new album Grey Tickles, Black Pressure is quite good. A lot of the songs, like Snug Slacks and Voodoo Doll are very silly and fun, but it’s the acerbic self-deprecating black humour that’s the real draw here. There’s a darkly self-critical wit to  Global Warming, and the title track, but my favourites are the surprisingly powerful Black Blizzard and Geraldine.

Overall it’s solid indie-rock singer-songwriter stuff, which is not normally my kind of thing. While there are no major revelations here, it is a very enjoyable surprise from a unique voice.

Jeff Bridges – Sleeping Tapes

Now look, I don’t exactly go looking for novelty records recorded by successful actors. I certainly don’t often buy albums created as part of a Superbowl advertising campaign. If you were to tell me a year ago this would be on my list of favourite new music, I would have just laughed.

But apparently if an advertising exec asks Jeff Bridges to make a record, and Jeff Bridges asks composer Keefus Ciancia to work on it, and they give the proceeds to charity, and this is the record that comes out at the other end of all of it, well… Apparently I am very much on board.

I talked about this in my review, but this had a strangely intense effect on me for about a week after it was released. I became completely enthralled by its ridiculous conceit and earnest sense of wonder. It’s infectiously silly and joyful.

Colin Currie Group & Synergy Vocals – Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (Glasgow Royal Concert Hall)

Glasgow Concert Halls have been running short “minimal” music festivals for the past five years or so. This year I saw Philip Glass Ensemble perform his overwhelming 4 hour piece Music in 12 Parts. As much as I enjoyed that, nothing prepared me for this evening of Steve Reich’s music, attended by Steve Reich himself.

This was my second time seeing Music for 18 Musicians in Glasgow, and I had a slightly different experience of it this time. The original notes for 18 Musicians state that the piece is written for a minimum of 18 players, but that this isn’t recommended because of the amount of instrument-doubling required. I don’t recall the exact number of musicians involved in this performance, but every player seemed to move from piano, to percussion, to metallophone, and back again, throughout the hour-long performance, all without missing a beat.

The moment the maracas start keeping time at the start of Section VI was a particular heart-stopper. In the context of a piece reliant on repetition and continuity, the sudden tonal shift at this midpoint is almost tectonic, especially when you’re watching such a large ensemble navigate these transitions without a conductor.

For those who know me, it would be very hard to overstate how important Steve Reich’s music has been to me in the past few years. To be in the same room as the man was quite affecting, even though he wasn’t performing in the ensemble.

Mára – Surfacing

Mára is the new solo project of Faith Coloccia, a pianist, composer, and visual artist whose work I have long been an admirer of. In Mára she is building songs largely out of voice and piano. There’s a vulnerability and sweetness to this short release that’s incredibly powerful.

While I’ve loved her piano playing for years, it’s the breathy and ethereal quality to her voice that makes Surfacing such a joy for me. Last year’s Mamiffer record Statu Nascendi began to feature Coloccia’s singing, and Mára sees its full blossoming. It’s always exciting to hear an artist gain new confidence in a natural talent like this, and the result is sweet, sad, and beautiful music that’s both familiar and strange.

Other 2015 Highlights

  • Daniel Menche & Mamiffer – Crater
  • Prurient – Frozen Niagara Falls
  • Pyramids – A Northern Meadow
  • Sumac – The Deal
  • Torche – Restarter
  • Colin Stetson & Sarah Neufeld – Never Were The Way She Was
  • Siskiyou – Nervous
  • Oneirogen – Plentitude
  • Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress
  • Björk – Vulnicura
  • Sunn O))) – Kannon
  • Peter McConnell – Grim Fandango Remastered: Original Soundtrack

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