Best Of 2015
(strictly for fun and heated argument)
by Peter Jesperson
1. Bob Dylan - The Cutting Edge 1965 – 1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: Collector’s Edition
18 CDs, 379 tracks, figuratively and literally the heaviest release of 2015, this overwhelming, gargantuan time capsule provides an unprecedented experience – it’s as close as most of us will ever come to sitting in on a Bob Dylan recording session.
Covering his almost impossibly fertile period from January 1965 to February 1966 and the landmark records, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde - as the liner notes say, “This collection contains EVERY note played in the studio during those 14 months.” In this context, I never tire of multiple takes in a row. In great part because it feels like the musicians are going for it every time. You really can sense that Bob conjured these miraculous performances out of the players, the band falling under the spell of the daring new songs, the undeniably game-changing fusion of rock n’ roll and poetry.
Not every track is a full take. Some are just false starts. Some have different words, instrumentation or tempos. Others are alternative arrangements. For example, there are 22 takes of “Like A Rolling Stone” in all – five recorded the first day they attempt the song, with Bob on piano. The next day, Bob switches to guitar and they do 17 more takes - interestingly enough, not realizing until later that they’d nailed it on Take 4, which, with some overdubs, became the version we all know. It’s especially enlightening to hear the evolution of two songs in particular: the first track recorded for what became Highway 61 Revisited - “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” - initially produced by Tom Wilson in June of ‘65, but abandoned in favor of a take from July, produced by Bob Johnston. Secondly, “Tombstone Blues,” where the twelve verses are remarkably static but the chorus is not and we get to hear Bob work it out, take by take:
… first …
Mama’s in the factory
She’s carrying a fuse
Daddy’s in the alley
He ain’t got no shoes
… then …
Mama’s in the factory
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lighting a fuse
… and finally …
Mama’s in the factory
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s looking for food
I am in the kitchen with the tombstone blues
It’s also fascinating to hear snippets of between-song dialog; Dylan talking and laughing, or giving producer Tom Wilson a goofy, incorrect title for the track they’re about to record; or Wilson, before a take, suggesting, “Don’t play it, feel it!”
It’s an extraordinary privilege to hear these recordings, to be a fly on the wall as Bob Dylan reinvented the wheel. I've never been so overjoyed to be so overwhelmed.
2. Alex Turner - Submarine
Sometimes I include a record from a previous year in one of these Best Ofs when it hits me so hard that I play it like a new release. These songs hit me like a sledgehammer. Released in 2011, this is a 6-song EP / soundtrack for a British film I’ve yet to see. A solo project by Arctic Monkeys’ mainman, Alex Turner, displaying a softer acoustic side, playing everything himself except a couple bits of guitar and the strings.
The lyrics are, as always, top notch. “It’s Hard To Get Around The Wind” is classic folk-song territory. The first version of “Piledriver Waltz,” also recorded for the Arctic Monkeys’ next album Suck It And See, closes the set and may be the better of the two. The song features one of his best, single lines ever:
“You look like you’ve been for breakfast at the Heartbreak Hotel”
But, as great as all the other tracks on this disc are, “Stuck On The Puzzle” is the real marvel, easily my most played song of 2015. I hear a distinct resemblance to a couple of fellow, northern-Englanders in Alex’s voice - John Lennon and Gerry Marsden. His writing has never been better, check this out - in a dialog with a girl, he sings:
I’m not the kind of fool
Who’s gonna sit and sing to you,
About stars, girl.
But last night I looked up into
The dark half of the blue,
And they’d gone backwards.
Something in your magnetism
Must’ve pissed them off,
Forcing them to get an early night.
I have been searching from
The bottom to the top
For such a sight
As the one I caught when I saw your …
Fingers dimming the lights
Like you’re used to being told that you’re trouble
And I spent all night
Stuck on the puzzle
The phrasing is a work of art unto itself and has to be heard for the lyrics to be properly appreciated. The actual story is wonderfully puzzling. If you haven’t heard this song, it’s one you’ve gotta seek out.
Submarine has become a personal treasure. The essence of the music I love most is here. To me, this is a perfect record.
3. Dan Kelly - Leisure Panic
If you ask me, the release of a new Dan Kelly record should be a global holiday. The music he makes consistently overflows with ideas, his imagination seems bottomless. The songs are often complex and willfully eccentric (not to mention Australia-centric) but there’s always plenty of simple, catchy stuff going on too.
Dan’s an exceptional singer with a wicked falsetto and a versatile guitarist (Attention Producers - hire Dan for your next recording session – he’s a master of tone and he’ll save you money cos he can play like a dozen different guitar players!). Criminally unrecognized by the world’s musical cognoscenti (shame on you cognoscenti!) but is recently getting some well deserved attention and credit for his influence on Courtney Barnett, Dan pays the rent by playing with his uncle, the legendary Paul Kelly.
Dan covers some new ground on Leisure Panic (his 4th album) with the nearly 10-minute Krautrock-ish opener, “On The Run.” And again in "National Park," a Jimmy Page-style acoustic guitar song which sounds like nothing he's ever done before. Another unplugged number, “Baby Bonus,” is wonderfully reminiscent of Dan's debut release (2003), the Man O' Mercy EP. “Haters” is that falsetto in top form. Honestly, as with all of Dan’s records, every song becomes a favorite at one time or another.
4. Wire – self-titled
Sinister, demented, smart and funny art-rock - right up my
alley! I’ve loved this band since the first second I heard them in 1977. The
astonishing triple whammy of their first three albums - Pink Flag, Chairs Missing
and 154 - is one of the strongest
runs in rock history. They’ve been active off and on since then but seem to
have been working semi-consistently the last 6-8 years, touring and making
records that I love and find myself playing constantly. On this new album, the
songs “Blogging” and “In Manchester” were particular faves, the former containing
one of my favorite choruses of this or any year:
Tweet like a Pope
Site traffic heavy
I’m YouTubing hope
5. The Unthanks - Mount The Air / The Memory Box
This band stands alone. A real feat when you’re doing what is, at its root, traditional, British Isles-style folk music. But “Rules be damned,” they seem to say, “let’s write songs without concern for boundaries, record them modernly and, while we’re at it, cover songs by King Crimson, Antony & The Johnsons and (gasp!) Robert Wyatt!” Mount The Air is the Unthanks’ 8th album and it once again shows off the colossal vocal prowess of sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank. Everything they do is high class. Theirs is an extremely sophisticated kind of music that, refreshingly, never gets stuffy.
The Memory Box is an archival love letter from the band to their fans containing a CD of rare and unreleased tracks, a stunning DVD with a mix of live, in studio and animated clips, a 7-inch 45, some beautiful photographic prints and even some recipes!
6. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
The most exciting new artist I’ve heard in the last couple of years, Courtney Barnett started quietly with a pair of six-song EPs (released in 2011 and 2013, respectively). The material was unpolished, spontaneous and convincing - it felt honest. Her profile rose quickly when the EPs were combined on a 12-track disc and the song “Avant Gardner” caught the ear of a zillion people.
‘Sometimes I Sit …’ is her first proper album and she, her hard-working band (drummer Dave Mudie, bassist Bones Sloane) and co-producer / Drones & Dan Kelly band member, Dan Luscombe knocked it outta the park. It’s a tremendous collection of songs, more “written,” more fleshed out, than the wonderfully amateurish EPs. There’s a hooky song called “Dead Fox”; a song about house-hunting, of all things (!) entitled, “Depreston.” Throughout, Courtney’s freewheeling, deadpan delivery is seductive, her guitar playing, frequently unhinged.
Self awareness and modesty are among her greatest attributes, she seems genuinely incredulous of her new-found fame – “I’ve got no idea how I even got here!” she sings in arguably the album’s best track, “Pedestrian At Best.” Your proverbial balls-to-the-wall-rocker. An update on the gloriously raunchy Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” riff, Courtney careens through the stream of consciousness words breathlessly, as if in an attempt to describe the rocket ship ascent of her last 12-months in under four minutes (according to press reports, the lyric was largely improvised and the recording was the first take). I’d listened to the song dozens of times and seen her do it live once but it totally clicked when I witnessed her ferocious, 8th and final performance in 3 days at SXSW’s Radio Day Stage, shout-singing, “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you!” – I got shivers, goosebumps and the hair on the back of my neck stood up all at once – it was one of most incredible live experiences of my life. I was delighted to share the moment with my good friend from Seattle, Pete Hilgendorf, who had graciously offered me an open seat next to him in the front row. And, seconds after the set was over, I felt a tapping on my shoulder, turned around and saw two other music-nut pals, Jody Stephens and David Fricke, with the same look of wonder on their faces as mine must’ve had - it was clear I wasn’t alone in my reaction.
7. Iris DeMent - The Trackless Woods
Iris DeMent is a rarity – she sounds like no one else. She makes a hybrid music blending gospel and folk, displaying a singular technique, especially with her pitch-perfect voice and her piano playing (she’s also a more than adequate guitarist). There’s a seriousness and purity of purpose and intent to her music that goes beyond most. And one thing that has always struck me about Iris, whether it’s on record or in live performance, she seems to really think carefully about each word she sings. This new album is particularly unique, featuring the words of 20th century Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, which Iris set to music. Iris’s records have always been weighty, frequently sad affairs and this is no exception. But it’s profound, deep stuff that is ultimately uplifting and provides a listening experience unlike any other I’ve had.
8. Robert Forster - Songs To Play
Robert Forster is a classic study in contrasts. Dry delivery and playfulness. Erudite and childlike. An intellectual who writes pop songs (sort of). An artist who reveres Bob Dylan, the Velvet Underground and The Monkees. And, as former co-head of one of the finest bands in all of rock music (Brisbane, Australia’s The Go-Betweens) not to mention five previous excellent solo albums under his belt, the bar he has set for himself is quite high. Having scaled the difficult hurdle of making his first album since the unexpected passing of his G-B’s partner, Grant McLennan, Songs To Play succeeds magnificently because of Forster’s casual confidence and a solid batch of songs, many of which rank up there with his best.
9. Gaz Coombes – Matador
Gaz steps more comfortably into his solo shoes on his 2nd solo album, retaining some elements of his Supergrass-past while exploring more beat-ey, electronica type material. Inspired, well thought out and self-assured.
10.Vangoffey - Take Your Jacket Off & Get Into It
One of the best surprises of the year, this is an incredibly strong debut solo album by former Supergrass drummer, Danny Goffey. The opening track, “Race Of Life,” sounds like a cross between Ian Dury and the Alabama 3. From there, it’s a blast of pop-rock fun. It knocked us out the first time we played it, an instant realization that Danny must’ve had a lot more to do with the Supergrass records than I thought! Jennifer says this is her favorite album of 2015!
11. Tommy Keene - Laugh In The Dark
Tommy Keene’s consistency is one of his real strong suits. He continues to make great albums that stand up with his best work. His guitar playing is stupendous, as always, another master of tone. A National Treasure. I wish he played live more often!
12. Lord Huron - Strange Trails
This band has carved out a path and a sound distinctly their own. Often described as indie folk, this 2nd full-length album has some rockabilly in it and I swear I hear Buddy Holly in there too. Both of LH’s albums are terrific and are ones that Jennifer and I play endlessly. They’re substantial records that never cease to satisfy.
13. Glenn Mercer - Incidental Hum
The 2nd solo, instrumental album by the Feelies frontman. According to Mercer, “My idea was to try to create music that would evoke an atmosphere that would, in turn, suggest images of a more specific location.” Tracks 1-12 songs follow that template with titles like Salem, Kodiak and Twenty Nine Palms. He closes the album with 3 covers – Eno’s “Here Come The Warm Jets,” the Jimi Hendrix song “Third Stone From The Sun” and Judy Garland’s signature, “Over The Rainbow.” Whenever I put this album on it always sounds great, regardless of what sort of mood or frame of mind I’m in – a soothing, fascinating instrumental record for all occasions!
14. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie and Lowell
Beautiful, sparse, soft, delicate, writerly folk-pop.
15. Pops Staples - Don't Lose This
A real treat, Pop Staples’ last recordings with posthumous overdubs and production by Jeff Tweedy, overseen by daughter Mavis.
16. James McMurtry – Complicated Game
McMurty’s best album in several years.
17. Sam Outlaw - Angeleno
Classic voice - country, yes, but informed by many types of music. Simple, direct lyrics like, "I'm not jealous of him / I'm embarrassed for you" got my attention. Seeing he and his band live won me over completely.
18. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats
Hopped up soul music. Somewhat of a stylistic change from one of the best vocalists around.
19. Leonard Cohen - Can't Forget - A Souvenir Of The Grand Tour
An odd collection of recordings from soundchecks and shows, this is bit of a grab bag and probably for the completist, but a fine addition to the LC collection nonetheless.
David Bowie – “Blackstar” / “Lazarus”
Two extremely heavy and beautiful songs released digitally in November and December respectively with accompanying videos, a glimpse of the new album set for release January 8th. The title song runs 9:58. The film clip is a bizarre, frightening, intense work of dark art unto itself but one that has a sense of humor underneath it all. One of the most unsettling images is that of actors in the background shaking uncontrollably – which, according to director Johan Renck, was Bowie’s idea, inspired by old Popeye cartoons. “Lazarus” is no less disturbing, audio or video-wise. Bowie collaborated with a jazz band for this new album but these tracks are far from standard jazz. To say my appetite is whetted for the new album would be an understatement. (http://www.davidbowie.com/)
(Editor’s note: this was written before the tragic news of Bowie’s death on January 10th)
Alex Chilton – Ocean Club ‘77
In terms of record shopping, I’ve long been of the mind that, when I see anything that has Alex Chilton’s name on it, I buy first and ask questions later. Some of those purchases did not yield multiple plays and were quickly filed away. Ocean Club ’77 is not one of those. The sound isn’t exactly hi-fi but it’s pretty damn good. The trio, including bassist Chris Stamey and drummer Lloyd Fonoroff, plays a wide array of material from Ventures (a terrific, raw take on “Walk Don’t Run”!) and Beach Boys’ covers to Box Tops, Big Star and solo Alex songs. Notable for a performance of “Nighttime” that preceded the song’s release by a year. What I find especially thrilling is how animated Alex is - he sounds like he’s having a ball!
The Velvet Underground – Loaded – Reloaded The 45th Anniversary Edition
A 6-CD set; The original album, remastered in stereo and mono; a 21-song disc of demos, early versions and alternate mixes; the Live At Max’s Kansas City remastered; a previously unreleased live set; and 2-CDs of surround sound remixes. Reloaded, indeed!
Barbara Lynn – The Complete Atlantic Recordings
A fabulous 25-song collection from this Beaumont, TX singer / songwriter / left-handed guitarist. Best known for her 1962 hit “You’ll Lose A Good Thing,” this compilation covers her years with Atlantic Records from 1967 – 1972. Actually released in 2014, I came across it this year. Blues-ey soul music that I quickly became addicted to, with songs like “(Until Then) I’ll Suffer” and “You’re Gonna See A Lot More (Of My Leaving)” (“and a whole lot less of me coming back home”!) on constant repeat.
Supergrass – I Should Coco - 20th Anniversary Deluxe Reissue
Remastered, collecting all of the non-LP and other assorted B-sides + two outstanding live shows, this is an essential addition to the library.
A great and well deserved compilation of mid-70s recordings by Sneakers, whose lineup included indie rock pioneers Chris Stamey, Will Rigby and Mitch Easter.
Dion – Recorded Live At The Bitter End, August 1971
Dion in fine voice during his folky phase, doing covers of Dylan, Cohen and Lennon / McCartney as well as some of his past hits, from “The Wanderer” to “Abraham, Martin And John.”
Two revelations I had in 2015
1. “Getting” Taylor Swift
Last year, quite unexpectedly, I fell hard for Taylor Swift’s latest album, 1989. Once it sunk its hooks in me, I played it constantly and it has become one of my very favorite albums of the last few years. I’ve since gone back and gotten her first 4 albums and love those too, to varying degrees, each one is better than the one before it. The consistent quality of the songs is what is most impressive to me. Taylor said something to a journalist in the November issue of GQ that really knocked me out - “I know how to write a song. I’m not confident about a lot of other aspects of my life, but I know how to write a song.” Them’s some humble words from a global superstar. And the way she conducts herself as a compassionate human being and a powerful player in the music business makes her all the more appealing to me.
Then, there’s the live component. Jennifer, Autry and I got our tickets 6 months in advance for one of the five shows at the Staples Center in August. There was much anticipation. Day Of, we were positively giddy. But I wondered if an arena show by Taylor Swift would hold my attention for a couple of hours. Would it be too gimmicky, too much show and not enough music? Would it be aimed at the young girls and miss me entirely? None of the above! It worked both artistically and as entertainment, it was wondrous, a bonafide SPECTACLE. One of those times where your face gets sore from grinning ear to ear, the three of us all equally floored by what we saw.
I’m still trying to figure out when I last truly loved the biggest pop / rock star of the day ... I’ll have to get back to you on that. It’s been a long time.
2. A discovery that surprised me – arguably, my favorite new artist on the planet is Daniel Romano (Who, by the way, is on the label I work with - New West Records)
It’s funny to remember this so specifically but my moment of clarity was on a Thursday afternoon at the New West day party at SXSW 2015, on the outdoor stage at Threadgill’s. A stripped down lineup - Daniel (acoustic guitar), Kay Berkel (guitar / harmony vocals) and Aaron Goldstein (pedal steel) - were performing and I was diggin’ it. A couple of songs into the set, they kicked into a new one, a song I hadn’t heard before - one I found out later was called “Valerie Leon.” Like a scene in a movie where the clouds part and warm rays of sun shine down on a single person, I suddenly felt like I was all by myself. I might have actually been tingling. And then, in rapid-fire delivery, Daniel sang:
“I really shouldn’t oughta
But I think I kinda gotta
Since the second that I saw ya
I’ve been weakenin’ in the knees
There’s a reason for my misery
But my baby’s off and busy
And you probably shouldn’t oughta
Come-a-walkin’ by the wata
Just to talk and get ta know ya
For the sake ta make ya fa-la-la-la-love me”
I was stunned, trying to keep up with the words - and then he delivered the punchline:
“But it’s been stayin’ dark … past dawn”
I think I gasped out loud … that one line did it … it just killed me.
It was that exact moment that I “got” Daniel Romano. I’d seen him live before, we’d even put out a record for him in 2013 so I was already a fan - but I just hadn’t totally clicked with him yet. Now, I was over the moon. Now, I was a believer. When the band came through southern California in October, I road-tripped to catch three live shows and they killed it every night.
Daniel Romano is a frighteningly gifted artist that can do it all – he can sing like nobody’s business in a variety of voices, he plays several instruments ridiculously well (guitar, bass, drums, piano, organ), he’s stylistically uncategorizable (my favorite kind), he can be serious and humorous in equal measure … but it’s his writing that astounds me most. He’s clearly studied the masters, and it shows, though his originality always takes center stage. His exceptional talent is a thing to behold. Man, do I feel lucky to work with the guy. Five albums out already and a new one coming in May. This man’s music belongs in your record collection!
Two of the best things I got to do this year
Slim Dunlap - The Old New Me / Times Like This (vinyl project)
In all of my 40 + years of working in music, being part of the outstanding team that put together the Songs For Slim project in 2013 to benefit friend and severe stroke victim Bob “Slim” Dunlap is one of the most humbling and gratifying experiences I’ve ever had.
As an encore, for Record Store Day 2015, we prepared his 2 solo albums (which had only been released on CD and digitally in 1993 and 1996) for a double vinyl release in a gatefold sleeve. World class engineer Jim Wilson did the remastering. Gifted designer Chuck Hermes laid out the package. Vocalist extraordinaire / artist Curt Almsted made the insanely detailed collage for the inside. Longtime Slim band drummer Brien Lilja wrote the spot-on, loving liner notes. Seeing his albums released on vinyl at last meant so much to Bob, I get teary-eyed just thinking about it.
The Replacements at The Palladium – April 15th & 16th
We were concerned when we heard the Replacements were playing the Palladium – one of LA’s most notoriously horrible sounding rooms. But the band came out with their guns blazing, the sound was perfect - clear and loud, but not too loud - and they delivered two nights of just what we’d hoped for. These were the 3rd and 4th reunion shows I’d seen and they were in the same ballpark, in terms of strength of performance, as the first two. The highlight was on the 2nd night, an intense performance of “The Ledge” where the band and especially Paul were 150% committed.
Live Shows (in LA except where noted)
- Jackshit – The Baked Potato 1/7
- Ian Hunter – The El Rey 1/10
- Steve Earle – Clive Davis Theater at the Grammy Museum 2/17
- Broncho – The Wiltern (opening for Billy Idol) 2/18
- The Mastersons – McCabe’s 2/19
- Lowcut Connie – Hotel Café 2/4
- Ben Vaughn – The Dresden Room 3/9
- Courtney Barnett – The Dilettante Gallery 3/13
- Desi & Cody – Palm Door on 6th
- Ronnie Fauss, Anthony D’Amato, Lilly Hiatt, White Violet, Jason James – Normaltown Records Showcase - The Velveeta Room
- Ronnie Fauss, Jason James, Anthony D’Amato, The Deslondes, Nikki Lane, Buxton, Daniel Romano, Lilly Hiatt, Giant Sand, Luther Dickinson – New West Day Party – Threadgills
- Luluc – St. David’s Bethel Hall
- Elle King – Yahoo’s Brazos Hall
- Dana Falconberry – Red Eyed Fly
- Snoop Dog – Keynote Speech
- Trapper Schoepp & The Shades – First Avenue Day Party – Holy Mountain
- Daniel Romano, Sam Outlaw – Flatstock Exhibit Hall
- Courtney Barnett – Radio Day Stage – Convention Center