Best of 2015 – The music

2015_music

In terms of music consumption, my 2015 was quite bass-centric. I blogged about that fact here so I won’t trouble you with a recap. What I couldn’t forsee was that my music consumption in 2015 would widen into areas that I really hadn’t visited since the 1990s, mainly the areas of folk-rock and Americana. It will be interesting to see how 2016 unfolds.

What follows are (in order) my favorite 10 music acquisitions of 2015. This means is that of all of the music I acquired this past year, these are the cream of the crop. Note that the some of this music was released before 2015 (oftentimes way before). In this case, for whatever reason, I acquired a copy of the music in 2015.

10. A Few Small Repairs – Shawn Colvin
I was a huge fan of Shawn Colvin’s first two albums. Seriously! We’re talking “play those suckers until they wear out” fandom here. Then along came A Few Small Repairs in 1996 and…nothing. I borrowed a friends copy, listened, and was left stone cold. I didn’t like the whack-a-doodle cover (still don’t) and the music seemed flat and lifeless to me. Fast-forward to this year when I discovered the delightful “My Favorite Album” podcast and an episode of that podcast talking about (you guessed it) A Few Small Repairs. That podcast opened my eyes to the album and I finally purchased a used CD copy at Plaza Records in Carbondale, Illinois (one of Colvin’s hometowns).

Listening back with fresh ears it is clear that Colvin was moving in a different direction that her first two hyper-produced records. The focus is on a mood and a smoky ambiance. A special MVP nod on the album has to go to drummer Shawn Pelton who is borrowing heavily from the Ringo Starr playbook throughout the album. The drumming on “The Truth about Jimmy” is a prime example. There is barely anything going on except subtle brush work on the snare and a kick drum. That understated drumming allows the china cymbal crash at the end of the chorus to speak volumes. A Few Small Repairs is a nuanced record that is chock full of such small details that scream quietly for those that have ears to hear.

9. The Seeds of Love [Remaster] – Tears for Fears
Ever since this album came out in September 1989 I have been a huge fan. In fact, I have long maintained that The Seeds of Love was the last truly great record of the 1980s. Despite all of that I have never owned the album in any way, shape, or form until this past year. I finally decided that I loathed my Seeds of Love-less life and purchased the remaster of the album. Boy, am I glad that I did.

Too many remasters of classic involve little more than artificially pumping up the bass and adding a ton of compression so that the overall volume of the music is “louder.” Not so here. The volume boost is quite modest and while the bass is tighter without being boomy. Where the remaster really soars is in the clarity of the highs, giving added presence to the vocals by Roland Orzabal, Curt Smith, and Oleta Adams. One highlight (among dozens) is the newfound clarity on the song “Standing on the Corner of the Third World.” All of the effects at the beginning of the song sizzle and Pino Palladino’s fretless bass performance shines through with utmost clarity.

8. Before This World – James Taylor
A James Taylor album featuring brand new material is always a cause for celebration. Well, at least it is for me. Before This World was JT’s first album of new studio material since the 2002 album October Road and his first number one album on the Billboard charts. Songs like “You and I Again,” “Montana,” and “Before This World/Jolly Springtime” (a duet with Sting) are the album’s highlights. To my ears, the album’s only outright stumble is “Angels of Fenway.” The song will surely have its appeal to baseball fans (especially those living in Boston) but the novelty of the song wore off quickly and had me reaching for the skip button after only a couple of listens.

Several reviews of the album made hay of how the album was another safe example “James being James” and how Before This World breaks no new ground. I find this to be a lazy, inept criticism of JT at this stage of his career. He was breaking ground mightily in the 1970s and at point (he is 67 as of this writing) he has consolidated his strengths and is doing what comes natural to him. His voice is a national treasure, his fingerstyle playing has become part of the acoustic guitar lexicon, and his catalog of hit songs is voluminous. An artist reaching that level of settled maturity is a cause for nothing but celebration.

7. Sign Language [Remaster] – Montreux
There have been a small handful of live concerts that completely shifted my musical paradigm. Pat Metheny Group live on the Still Live (Talking) tour at Sandstone Amphitheater, John Scofield’s Blue Matter band at the Wichita Jazz Festival in 1987, Eric Johnson’s trio on the Ah Via Musicom tour at Roxy’s Downtown. Another seminal moment took place on Monday, October 24, 1988 when I saw the group Montreux live at the Century II convention center. The band consisted of Darol Anger on fiddle, Mike Marshall on guitar/mandolin, Barbara Higbie on piano, Tim Miller on percussion, and Michael Manring on bass. I had always been a fan of combining acoustic instruments with electric instruments but Montreux took things to a different level. They combined several musical sensibilities into an amalgam that I found (and still find) irresistible–new age ambiance, chamber jazz, newgrass, and new acoustic music.

I have long-hoped that this disc could be remastered. The original Windham Hill CD pressing (which I also own) is extremely quiet and a bit hazy. This new remaster sparkles with newfound life and energy and the volume boost is noticeable but not egregious. Songs like “Skywriting,” “Circular Birds,” and “To Be” leap out of my speakers now. It is wonderful to rediscover this music all over again.

6. Live at the Troubadour – Carole King and James Taylor
In the midst of the thunderous applause that follows the performance of “Fire and Rain” on this recording someone in the audience yells out, “This is so awesome!” What this 2007 recording represents is really something quite remarkable. The first couple of 1970s soft rock folk hits–Carole King and James Taylor–together once again with “the section” (Danny Kortchmar on guitar, Leland Sklar on bass, and Russ Kunkel on drums) playing and singing hit after irrepressible hit as if their lives depended upon it. This is far beyond a “nostalgia time for baby boomers” show. The songs are too good, the performances too heartfelt, and the love between the band members too palpable. No, Live at the Troubadour is a gentle reminder that pop music in the 1970s was far more than Naugahyde, bell bottoms, and disco.

5. Unusual Weather – Michael Manring
Even more than Montreux’s Sign Language album, bassist Michael Manring’s Windham Hill debut has needed a remaster. Manring was asked as late as April 2014 if there were any plans to reissue his Windham Hill recordings. He replied:

There are no plans for re-releases at the moment. Those master tapes are owned by Sony and in spite of many rounds of negotiations, they still seem reluctant to make them available. With corporations of that size, it’s difficult to understand their motivations and I’ve never received a definitive answer as to why they want to hold on to that stuff without making it available. Personally I don’t mind so much because that music is in the past for me and I’m always thinking more about the future, but it would be nice if they were available for folks who’d like to listen to them, and of course, I could certainly use the little bit of income they might generate!

Fast-forward to 2015 and a little reissue company called Adventure Music announced that they were preparing to release reissues/remasters of five classic Windham Hill albums, including Unusual Weather. As with the company’s remaster of Sign Language (see above) the major improvements here are a subtle bump in volume and oodles and oodles of clarity. The solo bass sections (the title track, “Longhair Mobile”) benefit the most from the improved sonics. Here’s hoping that 2016 will bring more reissues/remasters from Adventure Music, including Manring’s other Windham Hill recordings.

4. Go On… [Remaster] – Mr. Mister
Mr. Mister’s Go On… has long been a “desert island” disc for me. I loved it from the moment it was released back in September 1987. It was a disc that I used to use to preview stereo speakers “back in the day” and the music and lyrics still resonate with me today.

My original copy of Go On… sounds fine, but I was interested to hear what Rock Candy Records would do with their remaster of the album. The biggest improvements I hear are more prominence in Richard Page’s bass playing and a more pronounced kick drum from drummer Pat Mastelotto. The disc contains four bonus track with my highlight being a remix of the song “Healing Waters.” Go On… is one of the first pop albums that I remember featuring heavily a 5-string electric bass (with a low B string) and Page’s use of the instrument is front and center on this remix. It is really exciting to hear.

3. [Tie] Full Power and 2nd Phase – Tristan
Just as Snarky Puppy exploded onto my radar in 2014, so did Tristan do the same for me in 2015. The European band combines everything that I love about music into one neat package–a smooth R&B vocalists backed by a crack rhythm section and augmented with punchy, tasteful horns. Their sound is like Earth, Wind & Fire and Tower of Power had a love child who grew up listening to acid jazz and Anita Baker.

I really did try to pick a favorite of the two Tristan albums, but both albums are so strong and contain so many strong songs that I threw up my hands, decided to declare a tie, and list both. Highlights on Full Power include “Moontune,” “Step Into the Bright Light,” and “One in a Billion.” Favorites on 2nd Phase include “Hey Sister,” “Running Out of Time,” and “Chainreaction.”

2. Rise – Andrea Zonn
Another artist and album that came out of nowhere for me in 2015, I first became aware of Andrea Zonn as background vocalists and violinist for James Taylor. The song that caught my ear was the lead-off track (“Another Side of Home”) which is a lovely tune that features a thoughtful lyric about putting down roots, a gorgeous chord progression on the verses, and some icy dobro playing from Jerry Douglas. Zonn has deep connections throughout Nashville and the list of musicians lending a hand on Rise is long and impressive–Douglas, James Taylor, Vince Gill, Keb’ Mo’, Trace Adkins, Sam Bush, John Cowan, Jim Oblon, Bryan Sutton, Michael Landau, Mac McAnally, and Alison Brown.

The other highlight of the album is the inclusion of Steve Gadd on drums and Willie Weeks on bass as the core rhythm section on every song. Zonn said that she was friends with both Gadd and Weeks and planned the entire concept of the album around their playing together. As expected, the two studio vets nail everything thrown their way and give the album a deep foundation upon which to build. If you enjoy Alison Krauss later albums, Susan Ashton, or the last couple of albums from Amy Grant, you will love Rise.

1. [Tie] Southeastern and Something More than Free – Jason Isbell
If you would have told me at the beginning of 2015 that my two favorite albums for that year would be a pair of independently released recordings by an unabashed Americana artists, I would have called you a lying scumbag. But that is just what happened.

Guitarist/vocalist Jason Isbell has been wowing audiences since he first came to prominence in the early 2000s as a member of the Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers. Isbell split from the Truckers in 2007 to pursue a solo career. Isbell recorded and toured under the name Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit until 2013 when he released the album Southeastern under his own name. Something More than Free was released in July 2015 and debuted at number 1 on Billboard Magazine’s rock, folk, and country record charts.

Just as I did with Tristan, I tried to choose a favorite between Southeastern and Something More than Free. To me, they create a pair of bookends that tell Isbell’s compelling story. Isbell has been more than honest about his past struggles with substance abuse and his efforts to get clean. The immediate aftermath of a man trying to move toward sobriety is documented on Southeastern. Songs like “Cover Me Up,” “Different Days,” and “Live Oak” document the struggles of a man who is holding onto sobriety with a white knuckle grip while the demons of his past in the rear view mirror are a lot closer than the they appear. The songs on Something More than Free reflect the worldview of a man who has gained some hard-won success and is enjoying the freedom of seeing the world with a clear mind (“If It Takes a Lifetime,” “Flagship,” and the title track). The two albums redefine and complete one another.

As a lyricist, Isbell has few modern peers. He is acclaimed by fans, industry people, critics, and even legends. John Mayer spoke for many when he tweeted:

mayer_on_isbell

Do yourself a favor and check out these two masterpiece albums by a modern artist who is firing on all cylinders musically, lyrically, and in his private life. Vive la Jason Isbell.

Some runners-up:

Advertisements