2015: A Year in Review

Aaron Sharpsteen / December 31, 2015
Aylan Kurdi, a 3 year old Syrian who drowned trying to escape violence in the region, in the defining image of 2015.

Perhaps some may think it is in poor taste to put this shocking image atop what is going to end up being mostly a list of my favorite (and not-so-favorite) albums of this year. However, this image and its subtext captures the essence of 2015, in which we were constantly reminded that even the most innocent among us could not escape the hate and savagery that we are willing to inflict upon each other on unimaginable scales. The New Year is always a time for hope, but let us not allow it to be blind. While each individual may have stories of 2015 which are full of optimism, progress, and success, it seems as though we have taken several steps back in 2015 in regards to empathy and decency. May we keep what we saw in 2015 in our minds through the new year with an eye towards improvement.

Through this tumultuous year, the music industry kept pumping out products for a changing demographic of listeners to consume. Below is a list of my top 10 albums of the year, plus an added list of the top 3 albums of this year that I consider to be overrated.

Deafheaven 10. DeafheavenNew Bermuda
I was nervous heading into my first listening session for this album. 2013’s watershed Sunbather will always cast a long shadow on this band, as it was a culture-changing moment when some of the vestiges of one of the most purposefully underground genres (black metal) became suddenly acceptable for mainstream consumption. I was pleasantly surprised, then , to hear genuine “Slayer-chug” (dun-dun-dun, dun-dun-dun, dun-dun-dun) patterns along with other more “metal” tropes included in these compositions along with their trademark shoe-gaze/metal-gaze breakdowns. After an album like Sunbather, staying in place would have been moving backwards. With New Bermuda, Deafheaven found a way to move forward.

0005828062_10 9. HorrendousAnareta
I don’t listen to death metal. At least that is what I tell myself most of the time. Yet every year there seems to be at least one death metal album that breaks into my listening rotation and demands attention. This year it is the offering from Horrendous, which has gotten several deserving accolades. In the muck and mire of the current landscape, which seems to be dominated by black-metalish offerings (see: a lot of other top metal lists as well as this one), Horrendous’ razor sharp riffs and technicality slice through to manifest the raw aggression and anger that metal has been known for in the past.


cover (1) 8. Kurt VileB’lieve I’m Goin Down
This album also needs an award for the most misleading cover art of the year as well, as it depicts Vile lovingly holding his guitar, while on the record this is one of the most guitar-light offerings that he has ever produced. Lyrics from “Lost My Head” could apply to the entire affair: “Fell on some keys, and this song walked outta me.” Another instance of an artist who had released what many considered to be his strongest material previously (2013’s Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze), Vile here seems even more committed to laid back and indulgent experimentation, having proved many of his points with previous efforts. Luckily for us all, even Kurt Vile at his most comfortable can still weave floaty yet deep modern psych that will fog up even the most analytical brain.

STA162_Packshot_High-Res 7. BlacklistersAdult
A new find for me this year, Blacklisters made me nostalgic for aggressive, no frills noise-rock once again. The proceedings are familiar enough: a scowling, manic frontman who sounds a bit drunk and angry, guitars so fuzzy and distorted that attempts to clearly figure out what chords or notes are being played is a waste of time, and brooding, forward mixed drums with plenty of open hi-hats and simplistic linear beats to keep the mess churning along. If you haven’t listened to this yet, make your first New Year’s resolution a simple one: grab 12 cheap beers, and maybe a friend or two, and blast this thing.


THE_AMAZING-picture_you-1500x1500 6. The AmazingPicture You
If you would have told me last year that Dungen and The Amazing would both release albums in 2015 and The Amazing would end up on this list, I wouldn’t have believed you. Yet here were are, and here it is, my declaration that while Allas Sak is a fine album, Picture You is a more consistently enjoyable listening experience, blending the soaring guitar heights that guitarist Chistoffer Gunrup can achieve with a looser, foggier aesthetic. Indeed, the title track is the perfect soundtrack for a drive through misty mountains or fog-blanketed forests, both real and in one’s own mind.


Fjm-iloveyouhoneybear 5. Father John MistyI Love You, Honeybear
That sound you hear is all my metal friends hurriedly clicking out of this article upon reading this selection. No matter. FJM may be an easy target for those who wish to criticize the excesses of crafting an artistic alter ego, or for charges of misogyny, or for lament that the only thing we really have left is ironic posturing, but when listeners really sit down and listen to this, what they will find is their most cynical, guarded friend processing the fact that yes, he is indeed is in love, and yes, that does feel strange. I have a feeling that in our increasingly alienated and mediated existences, this experience will not be lost on many.

original 4. Mgła  – Exercises in Futility
And back to black metal with Mgła , offering one of the purest expressions of the genre in quite a while. Mainly the work of one man, Mikołaj Żentara, and drummer Darkside, the band has had the attention of the black metal community for some time, but this year’s offering seemed to capture the thin line between hopelessness, anger, sadness, and fury in ways that connected with any fan of the genre. The album might boast the two singular best metal moments of the year, both involving insane ride cymbal rolls accenting head-banging, fist pumping guitar riffs in songs II and V. A special treat awaits those who take the time to research the lyrics, with such nihilistic truth bombs as : “A reward for the perseverant: unceasing howling of the heart.” No shit.

3813bcd3d4accb7634eea23a2a7ab190.1000x1000x13. Kendrick Lamar To Pimp a Butterfly
Another shoe-in for the top of lists like these, was there any listening more essential to the experience of 2015 than Lamar’s February truth carpet bomb into our psyches? From the chant-ability of “Alright” (which has since become a staple at BLM protests) to the scathing criticism of “The Blacker the Berry,” and the tear-inducing, mind-blowing “interview” with Tupac at the end of the album, To Pimp a Butterfly captures the heights of what artistry is capable of in a time which is in desperate need of experimentation mixed with honest self-analysis.


FcEFrgz 2. Bell WitchFour Phantoms
Metal is mostly winter music for me. The days get dark and cold, and trudging to the bus stop becomes slightly more bearable with dark, cold music blasting into my ears. And while this album did get me through some dark days (or perhaps helped darken them further), I knew this album would be high on my year end list one day in the midst of a blazing hot summer in Portland, riding a sweaty, crowded bus home after a long day of work. I this album on, looked out at the blazing sun, and imagined myself and everyone in the city slowly and eventually melting. This is absolutely required listening for any metal fan as well as anyone who might be curious about funeral doom. You might as well dive into the deep end.

a3106292728_101. Der Weg Einer FreiheitStellar
I try my best to live a life free of many rules, but one rule that I do stick to is: The album that gets the number one spot on my year end list is the album that I listened to the most throughout the year. All discussions of necessity (Kendrick Lamar) or emotional weight (Bell Witch) aside, I listened to this album the most in 2015, pretty much for 2 or 3 months straight. It’s not as experimental or innovative as much of the other black metal that was released this year (including worthy offerings from Leviathan, Vattnet Viskar, Panopticon, Obsequiae, etc), nor is it that widely known or reviewed, but for some reason I couldn’t stop listening. Maybe it is the explosion in the middle of the lead-off track that takes the music from a gloomy doom march straight into second-wave melodic black-metal heaven (or hell…), or perhaps it is the unhinged technical prowess of the third track, “Einkehr,” that really sealed the deal, but Stellar was blasting in my ears, in my car, and in my apartment all year long.

This year I’ve decided to add a little something to the end of this exercise, in which I will pick out the albums which I think are consistently over-rated. I’m not trying to shit on anybody, as all of these albums are generally fine…but that’s the point, they are “just” fine, but many other people seem to want to heap mountains of praise upon them.

a0893873869_10 3. DiversHello Hello
For those who don’t live in Portland, it can be a cliquey little town, with the friendly connections between musicians and music journalists making for an interesting map indeed. In this environment it is somewhat easy for bands to be anointed this or that, and recently, Divers have been anointed “Best New Band” I’ll admit I’ve never seen them live, so I can’t speak to this, but what I can absolutely speak to is the fact that while they maybe could be Portland’s next big thing or the best live band to see, their album is nowhere near the best Portland release I’ve heard in the past year or couple years (that distinction goes to Aan for their debut in 2014, if you’re curious), no matter what The Oregonian says. I’ve never been a fan of the straight-forward American-rock’n’roll Springsteen-vocals approach, and not even almost every publication hard-repping this band was going to get me to change my mind.

carly-rae-jepsen-ec2b7moc2b7tion-2015-deluxe-1500x1500 2. Carly Rae JepsenEmotion
I know what you are thinking. “Aaron, look at your own top 10 list. Do you really expect us to believe you listened to this album enough to write a fair review?” Yes, yes I did, as several people and outlets that I respect really talked it up. I’m not a poptimist, or a rockist, and in fact I think both sides are a bit silly, but I’m not going to pretend that I don’t think most of the reason that this album is featured in a lot of year end lists is not out of a sense of quality but out of a vague sense of popist obligation, that to reject this album is to reject emotion or joy or whatever. Are we really going to look back from 2020 and say “Yeah, an album that included a chorus that was ‘I really really really really really really like you’ was the best we could do that year.”? I certainly hope not.

Tribulation-The-Children-of-the-Night 1. TribulationChildren of the Night
Speaking of obligation, the persistence of Tribulation’s inclusion at the top of many people’s year-end lists is truly mind-boggling.My personal notes were something along the lines of “Death metal band tries on In Flames and Fields of the Nephilim covers.” I remember specifically a review that used the phrase: “the greatest hits of Swedish metal riff-writing approach.” I completely agree, and there are several words to describe this approach. How about “derivative” for starters? I will never get why we are supposed to be enthralled or respectful when bands that play aggressive metal (see Tribulation’s The Horror) decide to “expand their sound” usually by softening up or getting proggy (see: Mastodon, Baroness, Tribulation, Metallica, Tribulation, etc). In a year filled with amazing metal releases, this album deserves to be ranked in the middle of the pack (it is enjoyable) yet for some reason the metal cognoscenti have gathered in their secret place to declare this album the cream of the crop. And to this I heartily say: No fucking way.

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