Although professionally I tend to voice my opinions mostly on film, anyone who knows me knows I am a crazy music fanatic. I have well over 12,000 albums and have made a best of list since it was topped by Quiet Riot. First of all, I apologize for this list appearing the first week of 2015 but I’ve never understood how critics make their lists so quickly – they must do it after to listening to albums just once. I am an avid iTunes rater, but I never check off those stars until I’ve been through a whole album five times, and not in one fell swoop. I have to really digest an album, especially since I will be comparing it across many genres. This year with Nicki Minaj, Azealia Banks, The Smashing Pumpkins, AC/DC, and Owen all releasing albums in December, I had to escalate my usually one listen a week timeline.
2015 was an interesting year for music for me, there were a lot of good albums, but not that many that were truly phenomenal. Just off this list are the new Antlers album, Band of Skulls, Bear Hands, Chromeo, Lacuna Coil, Phantogram, The Pretty Reckless, Say Hi, Spoon, and We Are Scientists.
EP of the year, however, was unquestionably MEG MYERS – MAKE A SHADOW. Myers may be the best artist out there yet to release a full-length album. After a tour-de-force journey through noise rock, ballad and catching pop, including the hipster-bashing “Tennessee” that was 2012’s Daughter in the Choir, Myers delivered the raw yet dripping with sex Make a Shadow EP. Clocking in at a mere 20 minutes, the EP has not a wasted note as the songs drift from beauty to menace and back again, grinding you into submission. Signed to Atlantic Records, hopefully Myers will get to that first LP soon. If you have Amazon prime, you can stream her whole album here.
Top Albums of 2014
10) TV GIRL – FRENCH EXIT: After a number of EPs polishing their particular craft of sampling nostalgic pop of bygone eras and reprocessing it into new haunting and bright tunes of love and lust, TV Girl released an amazing debut LP. With lyrics like “Birds don’t Sing, they just fall from the sky” you know this band has their own particular way of looking at the world. Also, this is a band that really understands their own sound, and creates full album immersion experiences, which can be best described as that scene in the Virgin Suicides where they play albums over the phone each other. Finally, they offer you a no risk solution to checking them out, a name your price download of the full album.
9) LILY ALLEN – SHEEZUS: Somehow I missed out on Allen the first time around, when I discovered her she was already claiming she had no interest in making another album and would focus on acting. Fortunately that was not how it all played out and this year she released her strongest album yet. A sort of sarcastic pop album, Allen uses the language a young girl to make very mature statements. The lead single “Hard Out Here” was one of the catchiest of the year, and unlike Lorde, the album is actually fun to listen to (imagine that). Other stand outs include “URL Badman,” “Insincerely Yours” and “L8 CMMR.” We’ll never know where Amy Winehouse would have taken her career, but it’s nice to see one of the other original UK Retro Soul Chanteuses evolving to a new level.
8) BLACK PISTOL FIRE – HUSH OR HOWL: I went to see Wolfmother play at Emo’s this year, only to find them completely blown off the stage by the latest guitar/drum duo Black Pistol Fire. With more rough edges than a circular saw, BPF blaze through track after track of southern fried rock and MC5 garage punk. Although the arrangements are simple, the power is relentless and the songs are catchy as hell. And there is no posing here, this is rock simplicity for the sake of the songs, not for some intentional statement thing. Highlights include “Hipster Shakes,” “Baby Ruthless” and my personal favorite “Alabama Coldcock.”
7) BODY COUNT – MANSLAUGHTER: It’s rare when a reunion creates anything other than an enjoyable reminder of a band once loved, but Ice T and lead guitarist Ernie C return with literally their best album… ever. From the opener “Talk Shit, Get Shot” which was previewed at Fun Fun Fun in 2013, Body Count never lets up its particular brand of rap metal across a punishing album of relentless adrenaline. No one is safe as Ice T tells his druggie hanger-ons to “Get a Job,” makes fun of anyone who would “Wanna Be A Gangsta” and pokes at the “Pop Bubble” of current hip-hop stars “singing bout bottles and clubs” and pointing out “guys have gone from fight the power to what does Kim Kardashian have on today.”
6) JACK WHITE – LAZARETTO: I have to say I find Jack White a bit annoying, and his lame ass public feud with the Black Keys pretty much settled that in concrete. The White Stripes are one of the most overrated bands of all time, always delivering an album with two to three near iconic tracks and the rest filler. His side projects have been all over the map in terms of really phenomenal (the Raconteurs) to impenetrably dull (The Dead Weather). His first ‘solo’ album felt like a White Stripes album under a new banner. But the good songs always make him worth checking out, and he won himself my good will by producing the Wanda Jackson comeback, so I went into Lazaretto with mixed thoughts. That said, it is the most consistently interesting and well-crafted album he has ever made, with catchy romps like “That Black Bat Licorice,” instrumental perfection on “High Ball Stepper” and old folky nostalgia with “Want and Able.” White dances through all his influences and still manages to meld them into something that feels fresh and singular. I hope this is a sign of things to come for the Third Man camp.
5) OK GO – HUNGRY GHOSTS: Ok Go will always steal headlines with their spectacular videos but what often gets lost in the mix is that they write, record, and produce some of the catchiest guitar pop of the last ten years. I saw this band in a club in Bloomington IN touring their first album for a crowd of 14, so I always root for them. What was obvious then and is just as obvious today is that they just have fun making music, and making it together. Hungry Ghosts is another standout album for them, with New Order and Prince fighting to come to surface over the Matthew Sweet and Big Star power pop influences. In fact, if it wasn’t for the last three songs ending the album on a down (and actually being the least interesting songs on the album) this would be my album of the year. Highlights include “Turn Up The Radio,” “Upside Down & Inside Out” and “The Writing’s On the Wall.”
4) OPETH – PALE COMMUNION: Mikael Akerfeldt and company follow through on the trajectory of the last few albums and go full on prog with their latest, sure to annoy a legion of a angry Death Metal fans (who shouted ‘Let’s hear some fucking metal!’ at them during their last show in Austin). Pale Communion artfully mixes the melodic guitar work of Genesis and Wishbone Ash with the more indulgent vocal stylings and time signatures of Gentle Giant and Caravan, with a bit of the mood of Goblin and King Crimson, to make a perfect prog album for the time. It’s their most accessible album to date, with seldom a growl to be heard, only finely crafted anthems and soaring musicality. I challenge anyone to listen to this album and not like it, that’s how good it is. The epic “Moon Above, Sun Below,” clocking in at 10:52 holds up against any Giant Hogweed or Tarkus or Lark’s Tongue, and if you know those references, this album will quickly become a new favorite.
3) MOGWAI – RAVE TAPES: I had almost written Mogwai off. After redefining what it means to be really really loud, and crafting some of the most beautiful and haunting instrumental pieces of the aughts, Mogwai has steadily been passed by a cornucopia of copycats, This Will Destroy You, Explosions in the Sky, and most notably Sigur Ros. Their last few albums all sort of sounded the same. Then Rave Tapes arrives and changes everything. A literal reinvention of the band as an electro-minimalist pop outfit, with effortless skill and the kind of depths that open up new moments on each listen. It’s almost like the lost experimental Depeche Mode album, which is not to scare any current fans away. This is an album that can ony be Mogwai, it just seems like Mogwai are painting with different brushes and the change has brought out something more vital and exciting in years. The krautrock influences (and arguably early contemporaries Tortoise) show strongly and also help tie the album together as a whole. Their best since Rock Action, maybe with a few more listens, their best ever.
2) THE SMASHING PUMPKINS – MONUMENT TO AN ELEGY: Say what you want about Billy Corgan, to me, musically, the man can do no wrong. This latest incarnation of the Pumpkins, which has its roots in the highly underrated and brilliant Teargarden by Kaleidscope (unfinished) song cycle, delivers their most solid and consistent album since Siamese Dream (I love Mellon Collie, but you can’t tell me that it wouldn’t have been better as a one disk). Although they often get lumped in with grunge, Corgan’s own particular brand of soaring jangle rock has more in common with Jane’s Addiction or really Queen and Styx. ELEGY plays like a best of set with all the elements of great pumpkins tunes represented, “Cherub Rock” style guitar explosions, “1979” style balladry, and “Ava Adore” synth sounds. It is the most satisfying Smashing Pumpkins album in decades and proves once and for all that Corgan really doesn’t need anyone else to make great music, although apparently Tommy Lee of Motley Crue plays drums on it.
1) JENNY LEWIS – THE VOYAGER: Just barely edging out the pumpkins is ex-Rilo Kiley songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist Jenny Lewis who seems to have the golden touch. Existing in a new Americana wasteland of post-Fleetwood Mac/Cat Stevens/Toto, Lewis puts out album after album of sophisticated indie folk, and seems to be paving the way for a Laurel Canyon Revival with acts such as Lissie and Haim following in her wake. The Voyager is solid right off the bat with chipper “Head Underwater” channeling Christine McVie in an admission of separation of self in a way of rebirth. The album is ridiculously honest at times, calling herself out as ‘just another lady without a baby’ on “Just One Of The Guys,” remembering her first three-way on “Late Bloomer,” or glowing with joy signing about getting married, which quickly becomes ‘the feeling of hell in a hallway’ in “Love U Forever.” The solace and sadness of the album’s closing title track plays as a sort of a eulogy to a space satellite that pretty much defined my childhood. I too remember the full page pull outs in the newspaper and feeling very very small in a way I could not fully articulate at the time, but still with that drive to seek out Other Worlds. Throughout, Lewis covers very deep thoughts in catchy morsels and this album hasn’t left my five disk changer since I got it.
Bears Fonté is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin, a new festival in Texas’ capital focused on SciFi. Prior to that, Bears served as Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival from 2012-14, overseeing some 200 films selected to screen at eight venues over eight days. The 2013 Festival saw 28 world premiere features and 7 films picked up at the festival or the week after. His most recent short film, THE SECRET KEEPER, has been selected by over 35 US Film Festivals since September of 2012. His feature thriller iCRIME, which he wrote and directed, was released on DVD, VOD and streaming by Vicious Circle Films in 2011. Bears also self-produced two web-series which have been seen by a combined ten million viewers.
Prior to arriving in Austin, Bears wrote coverage for independent producers and coverage services in LA and placed in nearly every single screenwriting contest out there including Screenwriter’s Expo, Final Draft Big Break, Page International, Story Pros and Austin Film Festival.
Bears received his BA from Carleton College in British Studies and Theatre Studies and a MFA in Directing from Indiana University and has directed over forty plays, including the Austin Critics Table nominee Corpus Christi, and the Austin Shakespeare Festival’s Complete Works of Shakspeare Abridged. He studied writing with noted playwrights Jeff Hatcher and Denis Reardon, and directed the first-ever professional productions by Princess Grace Award-winning and Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Don Zolidis and up-and-coming playwright Itamar Moses. He is currently working on a new five minute short to submit to festivals in 2015.