Thursday, January 7, 2016

SPAZ's YEAR END LIST: My Favorite Albums of 2015!

Hello. I'm SPAZ.

Like usual, I spent nearly all of my free time listening to music in 2015 - both new releases and reissues - and let me tell you this: 2015 was an exceptional year for music! Anyone who says that there is no more good music being made these days is lazy and uninformed. I kept my mind open and heard loads of great new releases from all the usual places: England, Australia, the U.S. and elsewhere. I must have given quality listening time to at least 200 albums between January and December of last year alone! There was a lot I didn’t care for but there was a significant amount of releases that I really liked.

I stressed out a little when I thought about putting together my Top 10 of 2015.  With so much great music to write about, how could I stick with just 10 titles?  So, I decided to up it to Top 15.  Then it quickly grew to Top 50! After a few more changes, I whittled it down to my Top 30 favorite ‘new’ albums of 2015.

I dare not call this a ‘Best of 2015’ because there are still so many albums I haven’t heard. I’ve read great things about albums by Pugwash, The Nines and other melodically-inclined bands but I didn’t have the funds to buy them (contrary to what people may think, even though I’ve worked in this business for three decades and I’ve been a ‘music journalist’ for over 20 of those years, I’m still not on any label’s mailing list!) So, with that being said, just remember that these are MY favorites and all I could ever hope for is to make you aware of how truly awesome these albums are.

This Top 30 list features full-length albums only (sad to have to leave off Andy Reed and Venice’s excellent EPs, both of which are great). The titles are all physical releases – I don’t count digital-only albums on this list. They are all ‘new’ recordings - no reissues or previously unreleased archival recordings are on this list.

These are the albums that received the most spins over the course of the year


1. CHINA CRISIS/Autumn In The Neighborhood:
Easily their best album since 1985’s Flaunt The Imperfection, AITN sees Gary Daly and Eddie Lundon crafting an album of sheer beauty and originality. No longer concerned with scoring hit singles, this is China Crisis’ most relaxed and fully realized album in decades.  Well, OK, so they haven’t been that prolific lately… The band approach each song with the wisdom of veteran musicians and fans but with a fresh attitude and commitment. If you’re expecting an update of their Synthpop/New Wave years, then you’ll be disappointed. However, if you enjoy their more sophisticated and earthy sound (think an acoustic-based Steely Dan), then this is a real treat.

1. THE CORNER LAUGHERS/Matilda Effect:
Like The Legal Matters’ 2014 debut album, this was a release that hit me on first listen and never let go.  Often times, an album that hits you right away doesn’t necessarily have staying power yet The Corner Laughers have created a full length that is colorful, warm and timeless. With great songwriting and Karla Kane on vocals, not many albums stood a chance this year because I would always compare them to this gem. The Corner Laughers are one of those bands that you listen to and can’t believe that they haven’t been snapped up and thrust into a larger spotlight.  Their songs deserve to be featured in movies, commercials and shopping mall elevators.  Every track has a hook that would seduce Peter Pan! Some call it Americana or Folk but I say “Balderdash!” to that.  This quartet have more melodies per minute than most Americana bands have in their entire career. This is more like Power Pop with ukuleles. Yes, its Uke Pop, baby.

2. DAWES/All Your Favorite Bands:
I’m not a big fan of what many consider Americana but I am a big fan of great songwriting. So, the songs come first for me. Dawes are considered one of the premiere Americana bands today – just a notch or two below Wilco – so I have to admit that I expected nothing when I threw this album on. Thank God I’ve got an open mind because this album turned me into a blubbering fool by the time the final song drifted off into the ether. Dawes steer their influences into exciting directions on AYFB – you can hear shades of Neil Young, Warren Zevon, Jackson Brown, The Byrds, The Band and other classic bands coloring their warm and wonderful songs. While I’ve enjoyed their previous albums, AYFB is their finest release to date.

3. COLIN HAY/ Next Year People:
Ever since the break-up of Men At Work in 1986, Colin Hay has kept a low profile, releasing a succession of impressive solo albums that mined a folkier territory than his hit band. Unlike most artists, Hay has managed the near-impossible feat of becoming a better songwriter and performer over the years. Now, three decades after his band released their final album, he has released the best full album of his career.  The voice is still as warm and expressive as it was back then, if not better. This is solid from beginning to end and should appeal to fans of Men At Work and his solo material.

4. GLAMWEAZEL/The Art Of The Meltdown:
It is really a shame that you’ve probably never heard of Glamweazel.  I myself had only heard OF them but didn’t hear a note of their music until 2015. Led by former One The Juggler members Jerry T. Jones and Colin Minchin, this British outfit mix Glam Rock, classic ‘60s rock (Kinks, Stones, etc), and late ‘80s/early ‘90s Indie Rock and come up trumps with every song on this album. Imagine Martin Newell jamming with a few members of T. Rex and then releasing it on Creation Records during their formative days (pre-Oasis). So man great tunes.  And they have like five or six other albums out before this gem!  Time for all of us to catch up with Glamweazel!

Yes, Gilbert O’Sullivan is still around making music. Over four decades later, it doesn’t seem like he’s ready to slow down any time soon.  This is not a comeback album from Gilbert because he’s never gone away – he’s been releasing albums every few years since the early ‘70s. He can still knock out some great melodies with amazing lyrics and make it seem so simple.  New artists today can still learn from him. Latin ala G! features Gilbert experimenting with a variety of Latin rhythms… but don’t fear: this is delicious Pop with just a pinch of spice.  Great stuff.

6. STEVE SKAITH/Latin Quarter: Bare Bones
Steve Skaith is the frontman, guitarist and composer for British political Pop band Latin Quarter (30+ years strong now!). On Latin Quarter: Bare Bones, he re-recorded a handful of LQ classics and stripped them down to acoustic guitar and piano.  The results are simply lovely. For anyone looking for a great protest record like they used to make in the ‘60s and ‘70s really needs to track this down. But you don’t have to understand politics to ‘feel’ this album.  It is warm and personal, gentle and emotional.  A real eye-opener in a world filled with vapid, over-produced pap.

7. IAN McNABB/Kruggerands
As the leader of Liverpudlian rockers The Icicle Works and a solo artist for 25 years, Ian McNabb knows a thing or two about writing songs and connecting with the listener. On Kruggerands, he dips into his vast catalog and re-records – with his current band Cold Shoulder - a batch of lesser known gems and proves that even shit-kicking Rock ‘n’ Roll can be intimate and warm.  McNabb can really swing like a classic rocker without sounding like a pretentious twat. Listening to these updated versions of solo and Icicle Works tracks is akin to sitting on a couch with an old friend who just happens to have a guitar, an amp turned up to 10, a ciggie dangling from his lips and a beer bottle clutched to his chest. Its like hearing your favorite obscure songs in a whole new light.  There is one new track – ‘Gravy’ – that appears here twice (acoustic and electric) but the rest of the album contains songs you will fall in love with again… or for the first time. Ian McNabb wears his influences on his sleeve yet never loses his own identity. Like his recordings with Crazy Horse 20 years ago, McNabb and Cold Shoulder really know how to create something fresh and exciting out of a tried and true formula. This is ROCK, man!

8. A-HA/Cast In Steel
Five years after their final tour, the Norwegian trio have reunited to celebrate their 30th Anniversary with a new album. If you’ve been following their career, you’ll already know that A-Ha are more than just “Take On Me.” Cast In Steel picks up where 2009’s Foot Of The Mountain left off – sparkling, thoughtful Pop with gorgeous melodies. It is equal parts Rock and Electronica that doesn’t rely too much on the past  - Cast In Steel is very much a modern A-ha record. And even after all of these years, Morten Harket’s voice is still a thing of wonder. A-ha were never the teenybopper Synthpop band that MTV made them out to be and you’d know that already if you heard more than “Take On Me.” Cast In Steel is proof that they are just as vital today as they were three decades ago.

9. ANY TROUBLE/Present Tense
Original Any Trouble members Clive Gregson, Chris Parks and Martin Hughes – and bassist Mark Griffiths - return with their second release since reforming in 2007. Less produced than their Life In Reverse album, Present Tense is delightfully laid back and chock full of great tunes. Nearly a double album at 18 tracks, this is an album made by four talented gents who are more interested in making music than playing the music business game. Less frenetic than their early albums, Present Tense sonically leans towards Clive’s folkier solo material but the melodic hooks are plentiful. Add in some Motown beats, a dash of classic British Pop and plenty of heart and you’ve got an album that reveals many different layers over repeated listenings.

10. POP 4/Summer
I have to scratch my head and wonder why such beautiful music remains unheard by the masses. Featuring former Liars Club member Scott McPherson and Corner Laughers/Agony Aunts troublemaker KC Bowman along with Andrea Perry and Kirk Adams, this musical project features some of the loveliest Pop melodies I’ve heard in a while. More than just four people who enjoy making music, these four understand what makes melodic music work – the power is in the melody and the performance, not just in the volume and tempo. Our Top 40 is filled with artists that think they create music as worthwhile as this. Alas, they are wrong and we, the Pop fans, are right.  Forget about saving the world – let’s save the Billboard charts and put Pop 4 in their rightful place at #1!  Only then will everything else fall into place...

Since I love all of these albums equally, I’ve decided to list them alphabetically.  I consider them all to be in a 20-way tie for #11. Yes, this may be cheating, but it is MY list and not yours and I can do whatever the heck I want.  So, any of the following artists can automatically assume that they were #11 on my list!

I have NO idea why you have never heard of Co-Pilgrim. The music they make is simply beautiful. Think of Dawes with Bee Gees chord changes and harmonies that harken back to the Beach Boys and CSN. They create an earthy yet haunting sound that is stripped down to only the necessary elements. The album really cuts through the crap and embraces heaven.

CUTTING CREW/Add To Favourites
Yes, the “(I Just) Died In Your Arms” guys!  Nearly three decades on, they’ve released an album that is worlds away from their polished late ‘80s sound.  This time, their main influences seem to be rootsy Folk and Van Morrison. The presentation may have changed but the songs are catchy as anything else they’ve released over the years

THE GO! TEAM/The Scene Between
I’ve loved each album by The Go! Team yet they remain one of the most difficult bands to describe. This fourth full-length platter is a wonder to behold (and be heard). The Hip Hop vibe is toned down a little, making room for heavenly melodies that recall the best of ‘60s Pop mixed with Saint Etienne, ‘70s Soul and bits and bobs from the dark recesses of leader Ian Parton’s brain. The Scene Between is not a return to form, since the band has never disappointed, but it is an extremely accessible record that may just be their best one yet.

HOT CHIP/Why Make Sense?
If you ever wondered what The Korgis would have sounded like had they popped some acid and embraced Electronica music, then you’re in luck. With delicious melodies, sweet vocals and crazy musical detours, Hot Chip is still as unique as ever. Is it Pop? Dance? Electronic? Rock? Experimental? The answer is: YES!

CHRIS ISAAK/First Comes The Night
Chris Isaak is about as cool as you can get - he combines Elvis’ animal magnetism, Roy Orbison’s emotional range and Ricky Nelson’s charm and brings it all right up to date. If you’ve heard any of his albums, you’ll know what to expect. However, he never once sounds like he’s phoning it in.  This is an artist that is as real as they come. There might not be a “Wicked Game” on this album, but that’s OK – he’s already done that.  First Comes The Night is Isaak doing exactly what he wants – being himself -and that is absolutely fine by me.

Joe continues to make great records some 40 years on. This time, he brings his Blues influences to the fore and rocks the joint. There’s usually nothing more honest and trustworthy than a Joe ‘King’ Carrasco album and that still rings true. However, this time he really shakes the floorboards with his band Los Side FX.  

JEFF LYNNE’S ELO/Alone In The Universe
In my mind, this album would have been a Top 10 entry if it had been released as a Jeff Lynne album – he’s pretty much the only musician on the album.  The fact that it is credited to Jeff Lynne’s ELO means that I had to knock a few points off.  I know, it only makes sense to me.  Otherwise, a fantastic album that essentially picks up where “Free As A Bird” left off.

MOD HIPPIE/Tomorrow Then
For obvious reasons – I co-wrote a track and my brother Mike Schnee is all over this album – I was going to leave this off of my list.  However, it is too damn good NOT to feature. Produced by Adam Marsland, this is Psych-Pop that is fueled by beer, a love of Punk and classic Rock and copious amounts of ganja. My old high school buddy Doug McGuire done good!

PUBLIC IMAGE LTD/ What The World Needs Now
John Lydon always has something interesting to say. When surrounded by some good melodies, inventive musicians and plenty of unpredictable musical twists and turns, he always comes up trumps. There are lyrical and musical references here ranging from the Sex Pistols to The Gap Band and it all makes for a highly entertaining and though provoking listen.

What happens when you mix instrumental Post-Rock with NASA and newsreel soundbytes?  You get one of the most original and engaging albums of the year. Musically influenced by Neu and other like-minded experimental bands, Public Service Broadcasting weave a new web on this album that tells the true story of America and Russia’s race to be the first in space (hence the title) using soundbytes for ‘vocals’ on top of their own music. Fascinating, engaging and remarkably emotional.

BRANDON SCHOTT/Crayons & Angels
A late entry on my list, this album by Schott is a wonderful blend of pure, unadulterated pop.  I hear echoes of Beach Boys, McCartney, Squeeze, Nick Lowe and even 10cc. There’s a sweetness that permeates the album, giving it more heart than crunch.  Some may call it Power Pop, but it’s really more than that.

During the first phase of their career, Simply Red had a habit of following up a big-selling album with a well-meaning but unlikeable release - Men And Women and Life are still hard for me to get through especially since Picture Book and Stars were fantastic. But since 1998’s Blue, the band has continued to release albums that are consistently strong.  After an eight year sabbatical, Mick Hucknall and the boys came back with this gem. He is still one of the UK’s finest vocalists and knows his way ‘round a catchy tune.  This is a great return – let’s hope they stick around for a few more good studio albums!

SQUEEZE/Cradle To The Grave
Although it often sounds more like a Glenn Tilbrook solo album featuring Chris Difford than a bona-fide Squeeze album, Cradle To The Grave continues in the same vein as 1995’s Ridiculous – catchy melodies that reveal themselves over time rather than on first listen (like Argy Bargy and East Side Story). There are some instant gems here for sure, but you’ll end up falling in love with it after a few quality spins.

Twin brothers Brandt and Matt Huseman used to be the main men in The Greenberry Woods and Splitsville. Now, they’re the spiritually-minded duo The Stereo Twins and they still know how to write some of the most heavenly melodies around. These guys should have been superstars. There’s still time.
Steve Forbert has never made a bad album.  I’m not normally one to follow Folk-oriented artists but Forbert is different - he knows how to write a good Pop tune and he can easily pull one out of his hat. Compromised is yet another solid effort that mixes all of his influences together and succeeds over and over again. I love this guy and tend to listen to him more and more these days. I think it is because of his honesty and passion, both of which are on display here.

Haunting modern Indie Rock that contains elements of classic ‘60s Girl Pop and even a hint of Roy Orbison. While the two sisters create music that was inspired by classic Punk bands like Buzzcocks, there is a touching sadness buried deep within the grooves. It is that juxtaposition of sounds that makes this a truly memorable release. Great songs, simple arrangements and a lot of emotional depth.

Now, this is a strange one. I haven’t read anything about this French band anywhere yet they sound like they should be beloved by anyone who cares about good quality music. Practically every song on this album is different from the last.  There are touches of Alt-Rock, Pure Pop, Electropop, Goth, Folk, World Music and loads of other styles.  And it all works!  The songs are catchy and engaging, even when they get a little dark.  If I were to make a random CD with tracks from other artists on this list, it might end up being as diverse as this self-titled release.  I NEED to hear more by this band.  Pronto!

UK SUBS/Yellow Leader
Leave it to Charlie Harper to out-punk the young punks. He’s been doing this for 40 years and shows no signs of letting up. I believe that UK Subs’ ever-changing line-up hurt them in the early days - the audience is fickle when new faces replace beloved band members = but this version of the band have been rocking for a decade or so and it shows – they love what they do and with Charlie at the helm, they’re doing it right! The best Punk album of the year - everyone else can just fuck off!

VANILLA/Vanilla 2.0
Another slice of Pop fun from a member of the late, lamented and laminated Liars Club. This time, Jayson Jarmon and his mates mix XTC and later-period Squeeze influences with a little Roots/Folk, classic ‘60s Pop and ‘70s Power Pop. I have to admit that this album didn’t hit me on first listen but by the third or fourth spin, I was hooked (this is why you should never cast judgment on an album until you’ve listened to it a few times). The songs are as tasty as the band’s name.

The easiest way to describe The Weeklings is ‘Beatles influenced’ but that is an understatement. Like a long lost musical relic from 1964, this album embraces their love of The Beatles’ music while adding a sense of fun that sounds joyful and feels refreshing.  The concept of the album is simple: take some of the Lennon & McCartney-penned tracks that the Beatles did NOT record, write some originals that sound like they could have been leftover Beatles tracks and record it all in mono.  If you are immediately thinking of The Rutles, Utopia’s Face The MusicThe Kaiser’s DIY Merseybeat-inspired albums and that Beatles cover band you saw playing on campus during your senior year in high school, then you are definitely on the right track. Great Lennon/McCartney covers AND some bona-fide originals, too! Class!

Peace, love and groovy tunes,
Stephen SPAZ Schnee

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