At the beginning of the year, I wrote that 2015 was going to be a great year for music, and I was not wrong. 2015 was blessed with so many great releases, including a couple of delightful surprises by artists that returned from self-imposed exile with their musical powers undimmed. More than any year in recent memory, 2015 felt like a reward for patience, as long-anticipated albums were finally released and proved well worth the wait.
Below is a list of my favorite songs from 2015. However, rather than try to rank them, I’m simply listing them in alphabetical order by artist.
Iran’s Mehdi Saleh — who records cinematic dark ambience under the “Alphaxone” moniker — has been busy, having released at least four albums in the last two years. “Long Eternity” comes from his second album of 2015, Absence of Motion, which is marginally brighter-sounding than previous Alphaxone releases. Of course, that’s all relative: “Long Eternity” is still a dense, foreboding song full of looming synths and eerie atmospherics.
Absence of Motion’s cover art depicts a rain-enshrouded wasteland. Off in the distance are a scattering of bright lights: they could be signs of life and civilization in the wasteland — or they could be fires of destruction. “Long Eternity” is a fitting and evocative soundtrack for such desolation and mystery, and highly recommended for fans of Deaf Center and Desiderii Marginis.
Looks like the resurgence of artists who have been absent for a decade or more isn’t just limited to shoegaze. Case in point: Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel, best known as Blackalicious, have returned with Imani Vol. 1, their first album in a decade. And “Ashes to Ashes” finds the duo in fine form. Chief Xcel’s production is solid, full of ‘70s funk and ‘80s-sounding electronic flourishes. Meanwhile, Gift of Gab — he of “Alphabet Aerobics” fame — proves he’s still an MC to be reckoned with. When he proclaims “I’m so lyrically advanced, I deliver it from within/Leaving you lads back in millenniums dumb,” best take him at his word, son, and get out of the way, “‘cause the Blackalicious Crew got rhymes galore.”
With all of its pan flutes, ethnic percussion, and other world music flourishes, it’s tempting to write off CFCF’s The Colours of Life as some wishy-washy New Age-y pablum. (Actually, Mike Silver says the album was inspired by Phil Collins’ “Hand in Hand” as much as the Windham Hill label.) Yes, it’s all pretty cheesy-sounding but Silver so faithfully inhabits the musical clichés that, in the process, he essentially redeems them. It also helps that The Colours of Life is sequenced as one long track, making it easy to get lost in Silver’s silky smooth arrangements and pristine production. The oriental melodies and woozy saxophone on “Imagination” are the icing on the cake.
I like a good, descriptive song title, and “The Galaxy Collapsed into a Point” is perfect for Clouth’s dark ambience. As the song proceeds, it grows in density until you’re on the event horizon itself, and barely holding on lest you get sucked into the singularity and whatever lies beyond it. Thing is, this all happens so subtly that it isn’t until the final moments, when the song drops out from under you, that you realize it may very well be too late to escape the gravitational pull that Clouth has generated. And those final moments? Dreadful and ominous, yes, but they also sound glorious, as if the singularity is a portal to an exciting new reality.
The best post-punk is the kind that makes ennui and despair sound elegant and refined, which is what Cold Showers does on “Solemn June.” With spectral guitars and washes of synthesizer as gray and dreary as any December sky, the Los Angeles-based band craft an intoxicating tune. In a detached baritone (the perfect voice for this sort of music), Jonathan Weinberg sings of yearning and disillusionment — “But what if I want more/More than the shape of your head/More than this mortal touch/And more than you can hold in your hands?” — with an effortless world-weariness that’s just too cool for school. Break out the black fingernail polish, everyone…
Ah, speaking of ennui and despair… The Declining Winter carry on Hood’s legacy of pastoral post-rock that evokes grey, rainy days, dreary countrysides, and ivy growing on the side of ancient buildings. Richard Adams’ breathy voice is perfectly paired with the group’s shifting, mercurial sound (shuffling drums, minimal guitars, vibes, strings). As was the case with Hood, there’s something almost preternatural about the way Adams’ music gets under my skin, like a bracing autumn chill. Every time I listen to it, I’m transported to that melancholy countryside… and it’s always a welcome return.