Welcome back! Here’s the middle portion of my favorite albums of the year. #11-15 can be read here, where I explain in further detail how I’m treating these albums half critically, half personally. This is not my “comprehensive” list of the “best” albums of the year, (as my films list is attempting to be), but instead these are the 15 (spoiler alert: I cheated, it’s actually 16) albums that are the most “me”: the most “Chase Tremaine” albums of the year.
10. Carry the Fire by Dustin Kensrue
Dustin Kensrue’s appearance on this list, and this high, is the most obvious example of a personal bias I can muster. For anyone who keeps up with this blog, you’ve surely noticed how I’ve written extensively about Kensrue’s band Thrice. Thrice were the first rock band I ever liked, back in 2003, and since then they’ve released three of my all-time favorite albums. But I want to be clear that I did not love this album from the start with no reserve. In fact, I hated half of the songs after one listen. My brother and I streamed the album together and found one song to be so awful, we were actually laughing at it and mocking it while attempting to endure it. A few weeks later, that same song was my favorite on the album. I went from liking half of this album to loving all of it, and this album is in my top 10 because it is a beautiful story of redemption–of thinking I had my mind made up, only to have my opinion turned on its head.
As a solo artist, Kensrue has been all over the map in a mere three releases. His 2007 debut Please Come Home was an alternative folk album with simple, acoustic guitar-based arrangements. 2013’s The Water and the Blood was a Christian album designed for corporate worship, with lean compositions and genre-jumping arrangements that far surpassed the output of many worship music contemporaries. The album, however, surprised and disappointed fans who do not share Kensrue’s Christian beliefs, and it has since been rereleased and rebranded as an album by Kensrue’s side project The Modern Post. That makes 2015’s Carry the Fire the proper follow-up to Please Come Home, yet what was initially expected to be another collection of folk tunes turned out to be something different than we’d yet heard from Kensrue: a pop album.
Opening number “Ruby” is a retro-Motown love song, followed by “Back to Back,” which colors another wife-dedicated love song in Ryan Adams-style americana. Half of these songs are directly about Kensrue’s wife, making this collection a beautifully unified ode to monogamy. Even off-topic songs like “There’s Something Dark Inside of Me” and the title track (the album’s two most anthemic pieces) add to the overall theme of family, of loving others to the point of sacrifice and recognizing that parents will always pass down something to their children, be that wisdom, love, discipline, or the sins of the father.
Stylistically, Kensrue allows these pop songs to run the gambit of his strongest influences, from the Cure-inspired “In the Darkness” to the Springsteen sound-alike “Death or Glory.” “Gallows” sounds more like Thrice than anything else here, yet Kensrue’s use of the verse-chorus structure starts to feel stale and formulaic for the first time in his catalog. Meanwhile lyrical themes such as “darkness” and “fire” grate on the listener’s patience, coming off as repetitive and rudimentary instead of thematically rich. The album’s shining light, then, is the penultimate “What Beautiful Things” (the aforementioned track that transformed from laughing stock into my favorite song): it builds from a lone acoustic guitar into a layered and gorgeous ending, pairing Kensrue’s happiest-ever melodies with some of his most optimistic lyrics. This song shows how Kensrue has the tact to build a song into catharsis while resisting the urge to go too big, too rocking, or too “epic.” For this reason and many more, I am so happy I did not blow this album off after my initial poor reaction.
9. Connector by I the Mighty
If music genres were cities, then post-hardcore would be the neighborhood where Chase-the-Music-Fan grew up. That’s my home. Do you ever drive through neighborhoods that seem eerily empty, as if no one really lives there anymore and most of the homes have been foreclosed upon? Well, that’s how post-hardcore music feels these days. Most post-hardcore bands have broken up, while the few remaining bands have moved on stylistically and left the genre entirely. Sure, some bands like Silverstein and Senses Fail are keeping at it, arguably releasing music as good as ever before, but as far as the world at large can see, these bands are far past their primes. So if we continue in this analogy, I the Mighty would be the young investors who decide to show up and refurbish one of those houses. In other words, post-hardcore is alive and well with I the Mighty.
A recurring theme when I write about music is that hands-down, undeniably, 2013 was my favorite year in music of all time. The wealth of great albums released that year seems never-ending…literally: I still discover great 2013 albums on a regular basis. One of my favorite debuts from that year was I the Mighty’s Satori, an unstoppable romp of thirteen post-hardcore jams where, for the first time ever, a band figured out how to mix heavy music and pop effectively. The answer, according to Satori, was to have a great singer and great musicians that are never held back from showing off, ever. The album is filled with drum fills and vocal runs and guitar riffs that somehow never compete for space. Follow-up album Connector takes all those same great ingredients and makes far more varied and interesting mixes out of them. As great as Satori was (and still is), it nearly pales in comparison to Connector.
Throughout this sophomore work, I the Mighty show enough constraint and tastefulness to know when to allow a soft-and-pretty song to stay small and never peak (“Slow Dancing Forever”) or when to let the song patiently grow into an aggressive ending (“(No) Faith in Fate”). Everywhere you turn, the members of I the Mighty do what’s best for the song: too often a rare trait in heavy music. “The Lying Eyes of Miss Erray” might be the only place where vocalist Brent Walsh overdoes his melodies, but even this small misstep can’t keep the rest of the band from playing with exhilarating dynamic. Each member pushes his craft, which is especially true of drummer Blake Dahlinger, whose constant busyness on Satori is translated here into favoring creative rhythms over fast fills. All this comes to a culmination on album highlight “Andrew’s Song” (if I were forced to pick only one highlight), where R&B-tinged drums and completely unobtrusive guitar work allows Walsh to sing some of his simplest yet emotionally gut-wrenching melodies and lyrics to date. Overall, the album is impeccable evidence that you don’t need to go big to get a big payoff, and if this band keeps growing at this rate, post-hardcore might become more than refurbished: it will once again be relevant.
Note: I want to take a moment to return to my initial analogy for the sake of some honorable mentions. I was raised in Arlington, TX, so if Arlington is the hardcore city I was referring to, then Dallas/Fort Worth would be the “greater punk” scene that ranges from hardcore to emo to pop-punk (AKA all the music covered by my favorite website, absolutepunk.net). I the Mighty are the last band from this scene appearing on my list, which is unfortunate because this scene saw the release of so many great albums this year. So here’s a shoutout to artists that had noteworthy 2015 releases: The Sidekicks, Foxing, The World is a Beautiful Place and I am No Longer Afraid to Die, Nate Reuss, Sorority Noise, Turnover, Beach Slang, The Early November, Mayday Parade, mewithoutyou, Hop Along, and plenty more!
8. Pageant Material by Kacey Musgraves
I used to not pay attention to the lyrics in music. I have plenty of embarrassing stories where I misinterpreted the meanings of songs (by a large margin) because I’d paid attention so poorly. Kacey Musgraves helped change this. Her 2013 album (which was released 15 months before I started listening to it) might be one of the most important albums I’ve ever listened to because it essentially taught me how to listen to music for the lyrics. At this point in my life, the summer of 2014, I was only marginally a country fan. I had liked Keith Urban’s catalog, Taylor Swift’s Fearless and Speak Now albums, and Vince Gill’s magnum opus These Days, but that was about it. I purchased Musgraves’ Same Trailer, Different Park on a whim, and boy, am I thankful I did. Although there was very little throughout the album I considered musically spectacular, something about the mixing and presentation of the songs made me realize I should be focusing on the lyrics more than the melodies or guitars or whatever else that usually distracts me. I was soon thereafter amazed by the wit and wisdom busting from the seams of Musgraves’ rhythms and rhymes. It was stunning, and to a large extent this album helped me become a better lyricist in my own right.
Skip ahead a year and I was very excited for this sophomore album. Yet my excitement was comfortably contained; I’d managed to not hear a single track of this album, not even a song clip, prior to purchasing the CD. All 46 minutes of Pageant Material were a mystery to me, and I made sure I could listen to it front-to-back without interruptions. I held my personal premiere in the car ride to pick my friend up from the airport. As I finished the album, I was actually happy to discover that her baggage claim was running late, giving me the time to start Pageant back at track 1 and listen to it a second time through in a single sitting. I loved it even more the second time.
Musgraves is still a great singer with superbly clever one-liners. But in many ways, this album wasn’t the same joyous thrill ride of her debut. Instead, Pageant takes the subdued route, trading her trajectory toward pop stardom for Old West balladry. This album’s beauty creeps up on listeners in the most subtle of ways, each song favoring simple orchestrations performed by the same small group of musicians. The end results aren’t as memorable as the highlights from Same Trailer, but the artistic statement being made here is clear. If Musgraves was wanting to play the pop-game and take her songs to the masses, she wouldn’t have made Pageant Material. But it sure seems like she wants to write good country music for the rest of her life, and this was the perfect album to set her down that path. I say, keep it coming; she will always have my ear.
7. Small Town Dreams by Will Hoge & The Blade by Ashley Monroe (tie)
At some point while compiling this list, I had to start taking a bunch of country albums to the chopping block. Leaving Jason Isbell’s Something More than Free off my top 15 was almost painful, but out of all the country albums that came out this year, these two are the records I truly fell in love with. Between the two, I couldn’t even pick which I loved the most, as they both make me feel so many emotions each time I listen–nearly to the extent where I don’t even need to mention the incredible song craft going on here. Across the board, chord progressions and melodies combine to make the perfect backdrop for the ingredient that matters most: the lyrics. These two artists aren’t country’s pop singers; these are country’s storytellers, so look no further than Hoge’s “Little Bitty Dreams” or Monroe’s “The Blade” for a well-earned cry.
2015 was a great year for the neotraditional sect of country music, measured not just by the quality of output but also by the amount of public exposure received. This is greatly in thanks to Chris Stapleton, whose high profile performance and wins at the CMA’s caused his record Traveller to shoot to the top of the Billboard 200 for two weeks. Traveller was another record that sadly got pushed out of my top 15, but Stapleton is still present in spirit as a co-writer on both Small Town Dreams and The Blade.
Spot #7 on my list also marks a transition into five artists I’d never listened to prior to 2015. But what’s truer about these two artists than the three that are to follow is how much these two albums made me dig into older material by the artists. I fell in love with Hoge’s older work (particularly 2013’s Never Give In) and Ashley Monroe’s debut, and I’m also still going through Monroe’s work with the group Pistol Annies. If I could tack these older albums onto past year-end lists, I would. As for now, these are two of the most human albums I regularly listened to this past half-year, filled with stories where the autobiographical nature of the lyrics is always believed, even when it’s not true. There’s nary a weak song here, especially on Monroe’s spotlessly produced collection of crossover-ready yet still old-fashioned masterpieces. Hoge falls on the rougher, more rocking side of the country spectrum, but his record makes a better unified whole than The Blade as an album about growing up in, leaving, and returning to one’s hometown. Altogether, these albums receive a “tie” in my books because these are the two country albums I expect to continue listening to for a long time. Hoge and Monroe are good enough that they might have solidified spots behind Vince Gill as my all-time favorite country artists.
6. Choose Your Weapon by Hiatus Kaiyote
Hiatus Kaiyote is a weird band. They’ve been on my radar for a few years now. I loved the album artwork of the band’s 2012 debut Tawk Tomahawk, but I never listened to it even though I’d seen good reviews. Two years later, my band’s bassist (here’s another one of his bands–he’s seriously an incredible bass player) recommended the album to me, but I kept forgetting to listen to it. In March 2015, my brother snuck into a Kaiyote performance at SXSW in Austin, TX, but I wasn’t so sneaky and I got stuck waiting outside the venue. I never actually listened to the band until this past September when a co-worker started playing Choose Your Weapon over the speakers, immediately demanding my attention. I was amazed by the virtuoso instrumentation I was hearing, wrapped inside songs as enjoyable as they were experimental. I think my co-worker said it best when he raved, “This is the best album I’ve heard in years. How did four Australians learn to write jazz and R&B that’s so deeply influenced by underground 90’s American hip-hop?”
If I was judging albums on musicality alone, Hiatus Kaiyote would almost have zero competition as the #1 album of the year. If there’s a reason, then, that Choose Your Weapon sits at only #6, it’s probably because the first adjective I can think of to describe this album is “exhausting.” At a whopping 18 tracks (which, to be fair, contains multiple interludes), it’s difficult to imagine by the time closing number “Building a Ladder” comes around that this band could feasibly have any ingenuity left to offer. If you like comforting sounds, you’ll hate this album. If you love hearing something fresh and new, you’ll love this album. If you think everything in music has been done before and you’re never going to hear anything new again, you need this album. As exhausting as it may be, and sometimes better taken in small doses, this album is also filled with some of the most awe-inspiring songs I’ve ever heard, such as “Borderline with My Atoms,” “Atari,” “By Fire,” or (let’s be honest) nearly every song that isn’t an interlude. Highlight “Breathing Underwater” was even nominated for Best R&B Performance Grammy, which seems to signal that it’s impossible for the world to keep ignoring a band that is this good. I don’t want to pretend to know very much about Hiatus Kaiyote’s writing process, but I do know this: the band spent three or four years writing and perfecting each meticulous detail of these songs and the result is one of the most impressive albums of the year from the world’s most undeniably talented young band.
Part 3 can be read here.