2015: Singer/Songwriter

Wed Feb 03 2016

It’s a genre, let’s face it.

The big consensus one for 2015 was Courtney Barnett's Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. She's like a solo Hold Steady with her clever, sarcastic wordplay and rambling but catchy tunes that are edgy if you're a yuppie and poppy if you're a hipster. The album grabbed me quickly, but within a few weeks I was sick of it, thanks in part to radio, since she's one of the few artists that can be overplayed on both 88.9 and 91.7. But also, her existential quandaries like wanting to go out but wanting to stay home, not to mention the title of the album, started to seem very contrived after a little reflection, or maybe more like the pop lyric equivalent of small talk. I don't dislike the album by any means, and I still really enjoy "Small Poppies" and "Kim’s Caravan" when I hear 'em. Most of the songs stopped being interesting after a few spins, that's all. Nothing against the legions who are like OH MY GOD THAT'S TOTALLY ME, but honestly, who just sits?

Along somewhat similar lines: the latest from Ezra Furman, a guy I've always heard rumblings about but never checked out before (that I can recall). Well, that was dumb of me. Perpetual Motion People is almost like the Destroyer album I was hoping for in lieu of his boring-ass (NO BUT IT'S IRONICALLY BORING Y'KNOW LIKE FATHER JOHN MISTY) Poison Season, except PMP is way more boisterous and hoi-polloi than anything Destroyer has done. A lot of times I can't stomach indie dudes writing a bunch of sha-da-do-dow’s and shang-a-dang-dang’s into their songs, but Furman does it (in nearly every song) with such abandon on this album that the veil of contrivance falls away to reveal earnest ambition. I think. Either way, it's such a fun listen even with all the angst, and it contains the second-best song released in 2015 called "Wobbly".

The best song of the year called "Wobbly" was by Kelley Stoltz. He actually released two albums in the space of a week this past fall: The Scuzzy Inputs Of Willie Weird, which is mildly entertaining at times, and In Triangle Time, which is a good album overall but not so good that I'd be mentioning it here if it weren't for the awesome "Wobbly" song.

As I’ve mentioned plenty of elsewheres, though, my admiration for Sufjan Stevens got a major rejuvenation this year, and while the album doesn’t come close to the impact of his live show, Carrie & Lowell is still a damn good album. It’s almost the Bizarro-world Benji, a poetic and spiritual reversal of the cold, hard emotionalism of last year’s at least equally powerful Sun Kil Moon album; the tender side of obsessing about death. Maybe I’m schizophrenic but I relate deeply to both approaches, and although Carrie didn’t move me as much in terms of music as several of Stevens’ other albums, it’s potent nevertheless. From “Fourth Of July” in particular and really from then until the end of the record, Stevens yanks his ruminations into sharp focus and lets their specificity evoke very universal themes in the memories of his listeners. I’m extrapolating, but surely this is true of more folks than just myself.

Perhaps because of my difficulties in finding a vinyl copy of this album, I nearly forgot about Chelsea Wolfe’s superb Abyss. My first exposure to her was 2011’s disturbing, black metal-tinged Ἀποκάλυψις, which remains my favorite, although over time I wouldn’t be surprised if Abyss overtakes it. The new one marries the electronic textures of 2013’s Pain Is Beauty with the grinding heaviness of Ἀποκάλυψις, not quite as raw but exceedingly tormented nonetheless. Tracks like “Iron Moon” and “Maw” bring in the faux-delicacy of her 2012 album Unknown Rooms as well, making this album very much a culmination of all the various styles she’s explored so far. Wolfe doesn’t generally give you a lot to cling to in terms of lyrics; she blurs them and buries them and ultimately leaves you cold, which is part of the appeal. She’s not here to entice or empathize. She’s here to make you feel as alone as she does, to reassure you that no one understands.

I could go on and list a handful of s/s albums from 2015 that I hated or thought were pretty good, but this is ostensibly a best-of project and I've already mentioned as many things I didn't love as things I did love. Oh hey, there was that Scott Weiland album! But yeah, there was really only one memorable song on there. Sorry, Scott, I’ll always love you anyway. Chelsea and Sufjan win this genre, with Ezra not far behind. And yes, I did listen to the Jim O'Rourke album repeatedly and I couldn't make it sound awesome to me like I wanted to.

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