Monday, December 28, 2015

Top 10 of 2015

Apologies for my hiatus -- I needed to turn into an elf for Santa for a couple of weeks. That and my physical exhaustion after teaching for most of a semester (my annual facial tick is gradually dying) made writing about music a low priority. However, depending on how much I write over the break, I'm hoping to go back to a daily schedule.

Speaking of which, this year I wrote almost 200 posts, which meant I had a lot of incredible music to choose from. You'll see a number of critics' mainstays on here. If I had listened to Jason Isbell's and Chris Stapleton's albums, they'd probably be on here, too. But I'm suspicious of hype and like giving limelight to folks who wouldn't otherwise get it. That being said, the majority of this list was a no-brainer, and it was really just a fight for 9 and 10. In the end, I chose all of these albums based on their scope, intensity, and the amount of growth these artists had shown from their previous releases (if reviewed here.) Thanks to everyone whose music I posted in the past year, but these were the 10 who truly captured my heart and my brain.

10. Norma MacDonald -- Burn the Tapes

Burn the Tapes was a sleeper for me. There were a couple of songs, like "Blue As a Jay," that fit me to a t this year. When I went back to listen to the album for a refresher, I realized that MacDonald's effortless pop melodies and delicate folk layerings had seeped into my bones in the six months I've been listening to it.

9. The Pollies -- Not Here

If you haven't listened to it  yet, this is one hell of an album. Not Here saw the Pollies transform from a rock band that wrote serious songs to serious artists who write rock songs. I hope the Pollies continue to push themselves, but if this is where they peak, they'd have a lot to be satisfied with. Seriously, this is a gorgeous set.

8. Gregory McKillop -- Little Demon on the Backseat

I have a hard time resisting intelligent lyrics delivered in a straightforward way. McKillop is blunt to the point of viciousness in Little Demon, which slips and slides between folk and acoustic punk. While a lot of this album is McKillop spilling his guts, his determination to be better, and his faith that he can be better, are important reminders for all of us.

7. frog -- Kind of Blah

Hands-down my favorite albums about New York City. Kind of Blah should be listened to the whole way through. frog, a Queens-based bedroom pop duo, builds a beautiful sense of place through these disaffected, but somehow cheerful, tunes.

6. John Moreland -- High on Tulsa Heat

I could not be more thrilled that this is John Moreland's year. High on Tulsa Heat does the man ample justice as a gifted songwriter and musician. At first I had trouble digging in to the album because there aren't many songs that will grab you and stay stuck in your head. I've found that approaching them as art songs instead of folk songs helps -- every so often a flash of Moreland's poetry will pop into my mind, and I suddenly realize that maybe that's what the song is about. It's an album that will stick to your bones.

5. Alabama Shakes -- Sounds & Color

I have yet to go to a holiday party where someone didn't play at least one song from this album. We all knew the Shakes were a good band, but we didn't know they could redefine cool. But that's what happened with Sounds & Color. The album has cemented them as more than entertainers, but as tastemakers as well.

4. Animal City -- Bump Head Go Home

Santa got me my very first turntable this year. I decided to christen it with Animal City's Bump Head Go Home. I love this album to pieces, and it'll probably be the first one I literally wear out.  Amid the frenetic, punk-inspired lyrics about drug use and the anxiety of youth, the songs have both a deeper intelligence and sweetness than first meets the eye.

3. American Aquarium -- Wolves

No year-end list is complete without some love for American Aquarium. There are few bands who deserve mainstream love more, but with Wolves, they just might get it. Go see them live. Stream the hell out of them on Spotify. Buy their albums. Buy their t-shirts. BJ Barham is searingly honest and earnest. If country music still valued these qualities, the band would've been well on its way to gold record status years ago. Wolves is a triumph in its own right -- acknowledging that where you are is right where you need to be, and that everything you work for is worth it in the end.

2. Sam Gleaves -- Ain't We Brothers?

Gleaves' debut album is gorgeous. His reverent approach to the music he so clearly loves makes all of his original songs sound like instant classics. Deeply rooted in tradition and with a sober approach to the social struggles of today -- indeed, the bread and butter of this genre -- Ain't We Brothers has already established Gleaves as an important voice in folk music.

1. Joey Kneiser -- The Wildness

I already said this would be the album of the year for me. It distills all the things I care about into ten rock'n'roll songs. See if it doesn't make you feel the same way.


Friday, December 11, 2015

Mandy Rowden -- These Bad Habits

Since I've mentioned it a few times in previous posts, I'd like the record to show that nobody has stepped forward to claim that they, too, have written a country song about U-Hauling. Ergo, mine is the first, only, and best and maybe one day I'll let other humans listen to it. In the meantime, you should listen to Mandy Rowden, who's produced one of my favorite albums this year.

I find that female artists tend to be a bit passive for my taste -- in terms of their writing and delivery. I was immediately impressed by "Breaks," the lead-off track from These Bad Habits. Rowden drawls the song out with jaded, heavy-lidded weariness and simmering frustration that could easily come from an American Aquarium record. To be sure, most of the songs on Rowden's debut are classic country in the sense that they're about people at rock bottom. But Rowden also excels at upbeat music. "Enough For Us All" (which I'm fairly certain is about the marriage equality movement) is uplifting, and "Am I Ever" sears with beauty and nostalgia as Rowden recalls a failed relationship. These Bad Habits is Rowden's first full-length album, and it's a strong debut. As Rowden continues to tighten her songwriting, she'll certainly be a force to be reckoned with.

Mandy Rowden -- Official, iTunes, CDBaby

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Birdcloud -- Tetnis

In my quest to prove that I had indeed written the world's first country song about U-Hauling, my spirit animal @NashvilleRage (who hates the town as much as I do, but they live there and I was only there for a few days) pointed me to Birdcloud, an ambiguously (probably) queer country gem waiting for my sweaty little hands to uncover them.

Fair warning, though. Birdcloud, in spite of their whimsical indie branding and name, are deliciously and deliriously NSFW. Tetnis is the duet's fourth exploration into the unglamorous world of people who self-medicate with sex, drugs, and booze -- sometimes all at once.

The duet have a tried-and-true formula for each of their songs: straightforward country chord progressions with profane, strangely complex lyrics delivered with the precision of an excellent -- albeit drunken -- Dolly Parton impression. I literally cannot reprint enough of the lyrics on here to tell you what I mean, so you'll just have to listen. My person favorite is "Vodkasodaburg," which recounts a sloppy bar-and-bed crawl through my most hated of neighborhoods: Williamsburg. Verily, Birdcloud sings all the things Im too chickenshit to say outloud. (Well, most of the things anyway.) But if you brought your headphones to work, here are some shining examples via YouTube:

Don't say I didn't warn you. When you've stopped blushing, pick up their albums on iTunes.

Birdcloud -- Official, Facebook, iTunes, Spotify

Monday, December 7, 2015

Two Nice Girls -- 2 Nice Girls

I wanted to take this brief opportunity to unearth some minutiae of queer and indie rock history. A few months ago, I proudly declared on Facebook that I had written the world's first country song about U-Hauling. One of my older queer mentors sent me this, and twenty seconds in I fell hard and fast. It was love.

(This lyric video is extremely NSFW)

In the queer community we often lament that our elders' experiences are often discounted, that we don't know enough of our history, that our community values youth too much. I can attest to this now. I'm so glad my elders have guided me to this point, because a fiddler in construction gear does powerful things to me.

Two Nice Girls was an experiment of the highest order. They were a democratically run, openly queer folk band. In Austin. In the late '80s. And once they got signed they released a lewd, novelty country song about being an ex-gay.

It should surprise no one that the project was destined for commercial failure, but that didn't stop Two Nice Girls from having a good run. "I Spent My Last $10" is not, surprisingly, representative of the rest of the album. Overall, 2 Nice Girls shows that the band was as challenging artistically as they were politically abrasive. These songs are beautiful and experimental, challenging the boundaries of folk music in ways that would sound familiar to the kids in Nashville today. Sometimes it's worth listening to your elders.

Two Nice Girls -- Spotify, Amazon

Friday, December 4, 2015

Jeff German and the Blankety Blanks -- 12 Packs, 8 Packs, and Black and White TV

You may remember Jeff German's first album from a few years ago. It was a barnstormer of a Midwest rock album. 12 Packs, in contrast, is a more sober affair. German, best known for the Cur Dogs and as a backing musician for other Columbus acts like Lydia Loveless, is a straightforward lyricist. The songs get their punch from the way German and the Blankety Blanks sell the them: no frills and with 100% commitment.

The Blankety Blanks show they can dig in to to the bleak prairie loneliness of "Hang On" (which features another Lydia Loveless sideman and regular Adobe & Teardrops customer, Todd May) just as well as the for-friends-only jam "Woodshed." These may not be complex songs, but they sure do capture a wide range of emotions.

Jeff German and the Blankety Blanks -- Official, Facebook, ReverbNation, Bandcamp, CDBaby, purchase the new album on Amazon

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Anna Wallis and Raymond Anderson

Adobe & Teardrops favorite Cotton has recently launched his own label, One Horse Records. The first two releases, ahead of his forthcoming album, were recorded in his living room. The first, Anna Wallis' Pop Abuse, is a quirky little single that combines all my favorite things: 60s girl-band melodies containing hidden punk rock barbs, cushioning somber lyrics of abuse and abandonment. You know, the kinds of things that make you think.

Raymond Anderson's gentle two-song release almost seems intended to contrast Wallis. Anderson reminds me of New Orleans legend Paul Sanchez -- a sweet, gentle voice that was born to dwell in jazz lounges of an earlier decade, but is more than happy to hang in the gutter with some unexpectedly vicious rock'n'roll lyrics. Two Dreams displays Anderson's strengths -- the songs are gentle, but the lyrics themselves reveal a chaotic imagination that's at home with the songs' gentle gaits.

Anna Wallis -- Bandcamp
Raymond Anderson -- Bandcamp