This isn’t your parents’ best of list.
To paraphrase Jimmy Fallon, “You know those awards they give out in high school yearbooks? Awards like Most Likely to Succeed, Class Clown, stuff like that?”
Well, Northeast Underground is handing out its own superlatives this year to deserving albums released in 2015. Enjoy the list below, and feel free to contribute some of your own album superlatives in the comment section.
Who didn’t see this one coming? After selling millions with her sophomore album 21, Adele again etched her name in the record books by smashing the record for the largest single sales week for an album in the U.S. since Nielsen Music began tracking the statistic in 1991. Of course, it didn’t hurt that 25’s lead single, “Hello,” was a record-breaker in its own right, chalking up individual sales and music video views at unprecedented rates. But the bona fide achievement of actual album sales in an age dominated by digital singles might well be the true marker of success for an artist who appeals not just to millenials, but to generations of music fans the world over. Yes, your girlfriend likes Adele, but probably so does your grandmother. Some voices are timeless.
Okay, who did see this one coming? Self-released for free via Wilco’s website just weeks after the band wrapped up its Solid Sound Festival at Mass MoCA in North Adams, this latest studio album was a surprise in more ways than one. For starters, in a year already overloaded by the impending debut of “The Force Awakens,” why name a record after a film franchise that is seemingly everywhere today? Was it a canny publicity move meant to snare a few more listeners who mistakenly downloaded the album while searching for the latest movie trailer? According to an interview with Rolling Stone, band leader Jeff Tweedy said, “The album has nothing to do with ‘Star Wars.’ It just makes me feel good. It makes me feel limitless and like there’s still possibilities and still surprise in the world, you know?” Like the sudden arrival of a new album from a veteran band perhaps? For listeners who dug the tossed-off brilliance of “Random Name Generator” and more, anything could happen.
If your only idea of punk rock is the Sex Pistols and safety pin piercings, get ready to smash your head on a different kind of origin story. Terry Ork was a former scenester with Andy Warhol’s Factory crew, who hired future punk fashion template Richard Hell to work in the mail order department of the Greenwich Village store Cinemabilia. Soon after Hell would form the band Television with pal Tom Verlaine, and Ork would be there to help finance the group’s first recordings. Thus, the world’s first punk label was born. Ork Records wouldn’t last long due to mismanagement and opposing attitudes, but in its five year run, the indie label would turn out some lasting documents of the late ‘70s underground New York City rock scene. This compilation is the whole kit and caboodle. From Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel” to latter day rumblings from Alex Chilton and Lester Bangs, it’s an education on wax. And the lessons learned are still on display in the music scene today. Go back to the start, drop the needle, and get the whole story.
The Foo Fighters might have gotten there first with their Sonic Highways album, but on his latest solo record singer/ songwriter Kellogg raises the bar for releases recorded all over the map. A four-part record, recorded in four different regions of the country with different co-producers and groups of musicians along for each part of the ride, South, West, North, East breaks everything down into sections. The South fittingly sounds influenced by Southern rock. The West features “cowboy songs” recorded in Colorado. While North and East feature stabs at pop and indie rock, they also make room for sparse acoustic laments like “Last Man Standing” and the piano-based eulogy “26 Seconds (Of Silence),” which is dedicated to the victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting. “I’m not saying these 20 songs have to live together, or anything,” Kellogg said during a phone interview in May. “That’s not what this particular moment is about. It’s not about just trying to make the perfect LP. It’s really more about, hey, we’re trying to do something cool, and let’s see what result we get, and then let’s share that with people that want to receive it.”
Taylor Swift’s 1989 took the music world by storm in 2014. And one year later, the record still ruled the charts with “Bad Blood” becoming the album’s third number one single and a music video sensation. However, lost in the shuffle of 1989’s pop dominance was the strength of the songs Swift wrote for the record. This fact was remedied in 2015, when indie singer/ songwriter Adams released his own version of 1989 with full support from Swift. By stripping many songs down and altering arrangements, the alt-country star re-imagined an already well-received record into a different beast altogether. Sure, he omits the rap in “Shake It Off,” but that’s because his focus is on the bigger picture. Influences like The Smiths and Bruce Springsteen lend Adams’ interpretation a broad canvas to paint even broader strokes on, but much like Swift’s original work the core focus remains on nostalgia. 1989 was Swift’s birth year after all (Adams’ was 1974), and both artists somehow managed to use the same set of songs to look backward while also breaking new ground. Not bad for a covers project.
Despite departing the band Oasis in 2009, Noel Gallagher is still dogged today by persistent wishes from fans that he and his brother, Liam, just patch things up already, and get the highly successful British group back together again. However, any possible reunion seems even further away now with the release of the elder Gallagher’s sophomore album under his High Flying Birds moniker. Though the record’s title resembles a tip of the cap to the record-breaking success of his past, the sound of the record is a firm step by Noel towards the future. Look no further than the facts that the album was self-produced by Gallagher and its lead single was the final song written for the release. “In the Heat of the Moment” is destined to be a live favorite with its classic chord progression and “nah nah nah” refrain. Elsewhere, Noel incorporates saxophone, female backing vocals and psychedelic flourishes into the mix, to steer his trademark style into newer waters. But for every fresh step forward, the iconic singer/ songwriter also sneaks a glance or two in the rearview mirror. Whether by including previously written tracks like “Lock All the Doors” and the B-side “Revolution Song,” or by recruiting fellow Mancunian and former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr to lay down a solo on “Ballad of the Mighty I,” Gallagher is using his past to fuel his future. The new horizon sculpted by Yesterday has never looked brighter.
Even before screenings of the documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” took place, director Brett Morgen teased Nirvana fans the world over by stating that a soundtrack to the film would soon follow, and that the release would feature home recordings that would make a listener feel, “like you’re kind of hanging out with Kurt Cobain on a hot summer day in Olympia, Washington as he fiddles about.” Call the end result a cash grab if you want, but Morgen wasn’t kidding. Available as a standard 13-track CD or a 31-track deluxe album, Home Recordings is Cobain entertaining himself writing songs, making tape experiments, and goofing off while tapes were rolling. Sound quality is low. And for every included gem like the eerie cover of the Beatles “And I Love Her,” there is also a sloppy demo like “Rehash,” which finds Cobain dragging a sludge-riff through the dirt and shouting “solo” and “chorus” to sketch where parts might fit if he ever revisited the recording. Unless you’re a die-hard Nirvana fan or an obsessive completist, the album, especially the deluxe version, is a difficult listen. The vaults must be picked clean by now. There’s no actual solo album to be had. Just scraps. Listen if you must, but you might want to take a shower afterwards.
This is the sound of the world’s most hardcore and perhaps largest supergroup run amok. And featuring members Reed Mullin (Corrosion of Conformity), Mick Murphy (My Ruin), Dave Grohl, Corey Taylor (Slipknot, Stone Sour), Lee Ving (Fear) and Jello Biafra amongst a laundry list of others, Greatest Hits isn’t just an album, it’s a head-banging assault on the senses. Opening track “Exploder,” bursts out of the gates with chugging guitar and scream-sung vocals from Mullin. From there, the rotating list of musicians changes song by song as styles like punk, metal, stoner rock and more are tried on and discarded sometimes within the same tune. Even comedic icon John Cleese gets his poem “Ode to Hannity” sent through the wringer with Biafra spitting out his signature vocals so fast that they’re almost a blur. Speed is a big part of this record. Not a single track lasts longer than three minutes, and several don’t even reach two. That’s all the more reason to turn up the volume, and play the album over again and again. Here’s hoping Vol. 1 wasn’t a just one-off either. This group could fill a box set just with what its members get up to in one weekend.
In a time when the radio is ruled by auto-tuned pop and dance hits, it takes a song with a distinct sound all of its own to make a mark. That such a song might also feature a chorus with the words “Son of a bitch / Give me a drink,” is testament to certain listeners craving something a little rawer on their radio dial. On this self-titled debut release, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats conjures something more than just a hit single with a dirty name (“S.O.B.”). In fact, the band, led by former Denver folk-pop hero Rateliff, shows itself to be a tight unit with varied tastes on display throughout the record’s running time. “I Need Never Get Old” features rousing horns. “Shake” is a slow-burner with eastern influences. And “Mellow Out” does just that, feeling like a lighter-than-air sing-along on the beach. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Rateliff and company released this album via Stax Records, the former headquarters of soul music. They’re new age purveyors of a classic sound that skips the brain and goes straight to the heart, a refreshing palate cleanser to get that Top 40 taste out of your mouth.
Band reunions are tricky. Records bands make after reuniting are even trickier. The struggle to recapture a signature sound after an extended hiatus has caused even the mightiest of groups to strain under the effort. However, after reuniting in 2009 for a series of festival gigs, Blur decided to take the slow and steady approach to recording a new album. And the band’s patience appears to have paid off. Consisting of material that was originally worked up in Hong Kong in 2013, The Magic Whip resembles less a return to form and more of a natural evolution for Blur. The seeds of the group’s once mighty Britpop sound are still evident, as are more explorative forays into genres like world music and electronica. With guitarist Graham Coxon back in the fold, singles like “Go Out” and “Ong Ong” feature catchy distorted licks, while songs like “Thought I Was a Spaceman” and “Pyongyang” allow the whole band to stretch out amidst slowly unfurling melodies. Lyrically, singer Damon Albarn spins stories and warnings out of global issues like overpopulation and consumer culture, but instead of feeling heavy-handed the best moments here are like conversations with an old friend. Humor, sincerity, and joy abound. There are signposts too for future adventures. The only decision for Blur now is which path to take.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
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