A quick run through 25 of my favorite songs from the last year.
As long as I can remember, I've been collecting music--and for a good portion of that life spent listening, I've kept track of my favorite record of each year. I like to keep it as a personal yearbook--a scrapbook of my own ever-evolving aesthetic. Of course, with decades of this behavior under my belt, and now with a podcast platform, I like to tell myself that I'm good enough this collecting business to hold court about my choices.
As the decades of doing so have gone on and I've become a more well-heeled sound traveller, I ought to feel less embarrassed by the habit (let alone holding forth on it). Instead—as my listening has widened and diversified—any concept of equivalency has dissipated. I'm left, still, with the keenly felt impression that what I pick is not (entirely) a statement of quality but more about where I am; in listening (and in life).
As I look back at my beginnings in this annual tradition, although I still love (and listen to) each of the records I selected, not all of them hold up as the best of their year. Sometimes this is because things are always happening every year that I have no fucking clue about at the time. Other times, I'm just a different person now. My aesthetic has mutated and evolved. It's that very change though, that makes going back such a treat for me, like flipping through an old photo album.
For a few years now, I've been obsessing over a strain of confounding and complicated albums—records that bend the very concept of genre boundaries to the point of meaninglessness. They zig when you expect them to zag, defying any idea of easy categorization. In our rampant remake / redo / rehash culture, these are some of the few things that have a whiff of 'new' to them. They also flout our desire to sort, tag and file everything away neatly—an amateur librarian's nightmare.
This trend influenced the pick of my favorite record of 2015. It came down, neck-and-neck between Lonelady's Hinterland and Ricardo Dias Gomes' -11. It was not an easy call, as there is very little to compare them to each other, head-to-head. Hinterlnad is savvy and astute update of New Order and the greater Manchester dance-rock bloodline—one that is adding to that tradition, not just repeating it. -11 is an experimental Brazillian-pop record. Where's the equivalency in that? It was, ultimately, that confusing scent of new that drew me to pick Gomes' work. Each and every listen had me upending theories about the record—and sometimes pop iteslf.
Lonelady has created a masterful, high-water mark of a record—I cannot recommend it heartily enough—but it's one very connected to its own past. While Gomes clearly comes from a tradition, Brazilian pop music has had a highly experimental streak in it for well nigh 50 years now, -11 is from that lineage but not entirely of it.
His record upends your expectations at every turn. So often, in fact, his biggest trick seems to be helping set up those expectations at all. Take the most overtly universalist pop-sounding track on the album: it's an instrumental, laughably titled Some Ludicrous Self-Indulgence to Develop. The most memorable melody's heft is undercut earlier in the running order by a sickly sweet lullaby version. The longest song, dropped in the middle, is a droning piece of sound-art hovering somewhere between keening organ and guitar feedback, only briefly featuring pitched down vocals.
Some of this is a part of his inheritance. Making experimental gestures seem genteel or tossing them off with an all-too knowing smirk is very Brazilian, with precursors like Caetano Veloso (who Gomes has played with) or Tom Zé. Many of his turns are not something I (at least) have heard in that tradition. His penchant for sound sculpting—which runs at odds with his knowingly awkward studio presence. His use of close mic'd breathing as a musical element is a recurring theme, tying the record together. Gomes' forebears, like João Gilberto made careers out intimacy like that, but theirs was always warm and welcoming, on -11 it's a tad unsettling (in a good way). He is bringing new traditions into his cultural heritage but blending them so they seem like they were Brazilian to begin with.
He not only strips his songs down to their barest essentials, it sounds like parts of the song you are hearing have been surgically removed. This was another key factor in my adoration—I have a long standing love affair with what I call 'stark pop', and most of -11 is awfully stark. Again, while it remains a record of its place, it's minimalism also reminds me of even recent albums by avant pop stalwart Michael Morley.
So this is my pick for favorite record of 2015, in every sense of the word. Ricardo Dias Gomes' -11 is interesting, challenging, compelling…oh, and compulsively listenable. It can evoke Tropicalia and the New Zealand noise rock in the same song. It's thick in hummable melodies that just happened to be embedded in bizarre, isolated instrumentation and surrounded by breath: gasping, gulping and sighing. This is what made me stand up and take notice in 2015. This is what I hummed to myself in the shower. This is what I pushed on anyone who would hear me out.
As to the podcast? While I've done my best to arrange my hodge-podge of interests into a somewhat logical flow for this the mix—I like to keep the pop hooks spread throughout, so you never have to go down any one particular rabbit hole entirely. Even if none of this was on your radar, I hope you hear something you enjoy.
Sacred Paws: Shirley
Sleater-Kinney: A New Wave
Screaming Females: Triumph
Lightning Bolt: Mythmaster
Vision Fortune: Tied and Bound
Matias Aguayo: Gato Disco
Hot Chip: Why Make Sense?
Cummi Flu: B.
Wire: Burning Bridges
Vilod: Surmansky Blow
Jenny Hval: Heaven
Ricardo Dias Gomes: Junta-Espirito
Boduf Songs: Great Anthem of Our Youth
Senyawa: Hadirlah Suci
Ghold: All Eyes Broke
Battles: Dot Com
King Midas Sound featuring Fennesz: Lighthouse
Helen: Pass Me By
Kris Davis Infrasound: Jumping Over Your Shadow
Eric Chenaux: Poor Time
Mary Halvorson: Aisha