By Chris Gerard on April 7, 2015
With a quarter of 2015 in the books, it’s already looking like it will be an outstanding year for music. We’ve already been inundated with a string of excellent new releases from a wide variety of artists, and there are many more on the horizon. With three months gone, it’s a good time to survey some of the best music to hit retailers so far this year. Here are fifteen essential albums you shouldn’t miss.
Fans were delighted and surprised when, in response to an internet leak, Björk’s first album in four years dropped in January, two months prior to its scheduled release. Vulnicura is more accessible than her last album, the maddeningly obtuse Biophilia. Björk found inspiration for these songs in the disintegration of a long-term relationship, and the result is a triumphant catharsis. Björk’s idiosyncratic vocals weave around sparse electronic textures backed with dazzling sting arrangements. Vulnicura, as one would expect with any Björk album, takes repeated listens to really sink in, but it’s worth the effort. Sometimes it’s hard to coax a discernable melody out of a Björk song, but Vulnicura isn’t as formless as her last few albums. Particularly affecting are opener “Stonemilker,” the otherworldly collaboration with Antony Hegarty, “Atom Dance,” and the jittery finale “Quicksand.” The centerpiece of the album is the 10-minute “Black Lake” — slow-building, spellbinding and fraught with tension. Björk’s work in recent years has often seemed emotionally distant, but that’s not true of Vulnicura. It’s a glimmering, narcotic confection that only Björk could devise; Vulnicura is easily her most focused and potent collection since 2001’s epic Vespertine.
Folk-rocker Brandi Carlile hit retailers early last month with her fifth release, and it’s a stunning achievement. The Firewatcher’s Daughter features Carlile working with ace musicians and songwriters Tim & Phil Hanseroth. Together, with numerous other contributors, they’ve created an album loaded with great tunes and sterling musicianship. Carlile’s vocals are strong and brimming with passion, and the harmonies are exceptional. The Firewatcher’s Daughter sits comfortably astride multiple genres — Carlile and her collaborators seamlessly blend folk, country, and rock (particularly on the scorching “Mainstream Kid”). Among the high points are the powerhouse opener “Wherever Is Your Heart,” the touching ballad “Wilder (We’re Chained),” the haunted country gothic “The Stranger At My Door,” and an earnest cover of the Avett Brothers’ “Murder in the City.” The Firewatcher’s Daughter has clearly been a major undertaking for Carlile and her band; the attention to detail and creative chemistry is iron-tight. If there is any justice, her latest album will earn Carlile the accolades and commercial success that she richly deserves.
Australian band The Church is best known in the U.S. for their 1988 single “Under the Milky Way,” but they’ve been releasing terrific albums on a regular basis for well over three decades. The latest, Further/Deeper, is their first without guitarist Marty Wilson-Piper, a founding member and one of The Church’s main architects. Such a loss would be fatal for some bands, but The Church sounds rejuvenated. Steve Kilby’s rich and deeply resonant vocals are as strong as ever, and the songs are majestic and inspired. Further/Deeper has a generally somber vibe, and delivers a powerhouse of sound, with densely woven layers of chiming guitars and moody keyboards. Key tracks include the stately “Pride Before a Fall,” the darkly cinematic “Vanishing Man,” and the simmering 8-minute opus “Miami.” If you haven’t paid attention to what The Church has been up to in recent years, Further/Deeper is a great launching point to delve into their extensive back catalog. It’s a profoundly impressive work by a band that has far more to offer than just one classic single released twenty-seven years ago.
The electronica/hip-hop trio’s just-released double-album The Powers That B verges on sensory overload; it’s uneasy listening that demands respect and attention. The brilliant cacophony is divided into two distinct halves. The highly experimental Niggas on the Moon is built on percussion samples and bits of vocals by Björk. It’s a frantic, kinetic blend of hip-hop, electronica, and industrial that sounds like it’s beamed from some alternate musical reality, a wickedly haywire concoction that keeps the listener’s senses fully heightened and nerves frazzled. The second half, Jenny Death, continues with brash, genre-defying electronic hip-hop that pummels you with massive beats, dizzying sonic blasts, and manic wordplay. The Powers That B is bursting with dynamic energy and ideas – it’s so vivid that it seems impossible to contain within the confines of a mere stereo. It feels like you might be physically sucked into the churning madness at any second. The Powers That B is a wild musical ride, made for blasting as loud as you can so you can fully experience a wonderfully unhinged sonic universe.
Bob Dylan takes on classic pop and jazz tunes, mostly from the ’30s and ’40s, on the haunted Shadows in the Night, a brooding collection steeped in lost love, pain and regret. His voice is in fine form, with the brutal rasp heard on 2012’s Tempest and in recent live performances nowhere to be found. Shadows in the Night is an unflinchingly honest portrayal of human frailty — it’s an excavation into dark recesses of the human psyche that we instinctively protect. These words and melodies first emerged two generations ago. All of the songwriters are long gone, but their words and music, in the hands of a master, resonate now as strongly as they did when they were first performed. In one of his greatest recordings, 2001’s “Mississippi,” Dylan sings ruefully, “Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all.” That wisdom, experience and the inevitable torment come through loud and clear in every line of every song on Shadows in the Night. It’s a riveting listen, and continues Dylan’s string of fantastic late-era releases that began nearly twenty years ago with Time Out of Mind.
Formerly a member of indie-darlings Fleet Foxes, Josh Tillman released his second solo album under the name Father John Misty in February. I Love You, Honeybear is strongly melodic folk-rock with a gleaming, lustrous production. The songs are built on a foundation of acoustic guitar and piano, and then augmented with dynamic string and brass arrangements glazed with reverberant harmony vocals. The title-track opens the album with a stirring wall-of-sound that would make Phil Spector proud (or jealous). The sardonic ballad “Bored in the USA” is an example of Tillman’s lyrical dexterity. He distills many Americans’ reality with a few caustic lines delivered over a mocking laugh-track: “They gave me useless education, and a sub-prime loan on a craftsman home. Keep my prescriptions filled, and now I can’t get off but I can kind of deal.” Tillman is an incisive songwriter with a gift for melody and richly ornate arrangements; it’s a beguiling combination. I Love You, Honeybear is a feast for the senses that unfolds deeper and becomes more impressive with each listen.