I spend nearly as much time listening now as I did in my teens, only now it is in a car at the commuting bookends of a workday and with headphones in consuming online media at night. The headphones were there as a teen, but online wasn’t, and the car was just an ambition.
In the second quarter of 2015, I counted more than 60 albums tried on for size via streams and downloads. I would guess that a half-dozen of them will stick in the collection and another half-dozen are possibilities. A couple are bound to be among my top selections for 2015.
There were several great discoveries this quarter: the Jenny Hval album (Apocalypse, girl) was the best among them, unrivalled for its lyrical power and aural sophistication; Leon Bridges (Coming Home) provided an authentic path into soul and gospel; the hometown White Poppy (Natural Phenomena) was the most thoughtful electronic release (although Brian Eno also put out a great electronic album in recent weeks, so it’s perhaps a draw); Andreya Triana (Giants) offered potential in her pop; Gang of Youths (The Positions) produced the first album with an aggressive taste of summer; Brown Birds (Axis Mundi) was a plaintive, posthumous find; Eskimeaux (O.K.) delivered a fragile, vulnerable recording; and Emilie Nicolas (Like I’m A Warrior) and Nadine Shah (Fast Food) came at their mostly successful recordings with real confidence. I’ll want to hear more from all of them.
There were two anticipated releases in the quarter worth the wait. Alabama Shakes took its sound to an entirely new level and range with Sound and Color, while The XX’s Jamie XX produced In Color, a restrained but sonically smart recording. With Sound and Color, we got a much fuller, more mature and versatile group; with In Color, we got a clearer sense of his role in a larger group and his leanings as a solo artist.
Some artists you just want to stay the same, so the albums from Of Monsters and Men (Beneath The Skin) and The Milk Carton Kids (Monterey) fit their forms snugly and gave us more of what made them so attractive in the first place — offbeat pop in the first instance, glorious harmony in the second. They didn’t digress but just added substance to their earlier recordings. Nothing wrong with that at all. Same with Kacey Musgrave’s insightful country album, Pageant Material, a lyrical feat; she should just keep creating those clever tracks that make you smirk.
Florence and The Machine advanced its sound at times in its third recording, adding instruments and deepening the arrangements while preserving space for modern rock’s best voice. There was more risk in How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, and while there wasn’t quite the roster of memorable material of the last album, the band accomplished an artistic step without jumping overboard. Same went for Sharon Van Etten’s all-too-brief EP, a nice extension of her last album with just a taste of new sound.
New sounds are not always successful. Witness Mumford & Sons and their foray into electric. Retrieve the banjo and acoustic guitar, please.
In some cases, it’s not so much about new sounds as all sounds. Miguel’s exceptional Wildheart is a profound blend of genres, almost a roll call of his exploration in recent years. It’s slow to appreciate because it operates with such cross-genre complexity, textured and tricky to unpack. It will wear well.
And while we’re on the subject of the well-worn, it’s important to put in a good word for the remastered, augmented 40th-anniversary release of The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, a five-star album in any collection. I first bought this album on an eight-track tape (I recall Wild Horses was actually split in order to accommodate the format), but the remastered version makes a few elements spring to new life, and the bonus tracks are mostly fun (Jagger’s incomprehensible lyrics on this version of Can’t You Hear Me Knocking are almost self-parody).
The most intriguing recording came from the merger of two groups of different generations. Franz Ferdinand has been a playful, angular band in its decade of creative rock, but its wistfulness has nothing on the eccentricities of Sparks, the 1970s band led by brothers Ron and Russell Mael. Somehow these two entities long sought an association, and FFS is the exceptional collaboration: witty, catchy, and the sum greater than its parts. The campiness of Sparks lends a light touch to Franz, and the full-blooded sound of Franz lends a contemporary sound to Sparks. They work well for each other: best Franz album in some time, best Sparks album in memory.