Barrettbites Top Ten Records of 2015

 

  1. Alvvays – eponymous

alvvayscover

Chalked full of stories about the complexities of relationships, Alvvays have constructed an album that is able to seem both introspective and dynamic. Using nonchalance and humour simultaneously, they set the scenes of emotional distress to an indie soundtrack and let the barbs fly. Go back and take another listen to “Marry Me, Archie” if you need proof of the power struggle within a relationship.

  1. Metric – Pagans In Vegas

metric pagans

Metric has never hidden their overwhelming desire to headline a fan-filled stadium show, and Pagans In Vegas has become the vehicle that drives them there. More than mere hyperbole, they seem to have found the perfect mix of Cure-like synth, 90’s indie guitar, and electro/dance rhythm. The tunes are catchy enough to get the casual fan singing along and the loyal fan seeking deeper meaning from the lyrics and, dare I say, inspiration.

  1. Best Coast – California Nights

bestcoast1

Gone is the warm washing fuzz of reverb on everything that had the words lo-fi and surf rock attached to their records, and in is a more ‘nineties-esqe’ alt-rock tone that could be slipped into a mix between the Lemonheads and Garbage. Thematically, this is also the case as Bethany Cosentino has switched gears and presented herself in a more realistic position as lyrics deal with insomnia, heartbreak and happiness in pill. The triumph of this record is that it doesn’t live in a world of manufactured dreams come true, eternal sun, and beaches. The emotions behind it are universal and hence you can relate to it. California Nights is proof positive that beauty can be found in the balanced mix of power-pop and introspection, and that’s a sunny thought all by itself.

  1. Ezra Furman – Perpetual Motion People

efurmanpmp

Like early Bowie, Furman seems to relish changes in identity, except rather than do it from album to album Perpetual Motion People is a record that does it from song to song, and sometimes, within a single song. “Haunted Head” deals with one’s own self inflicted torment. “Can I Sleep In Your Brain” seeks respite from torment with a wish to become co-dependent. In turn, “Lousy Connection” hides themes of emotional distance behind old sounds of Doo-Wop and killer saxophone leads. To a certain extent, Furman makes being screwed up sound fun in his unique version of a poetic stream of consciousness.

  1. City & Colour – If I Should Go Before You

city&colourif i should

Dallas Green may have started City and Colour as a means to introduce his ‘rootsy’ brand of song craft, but those days are now more of an ‘origin story’ than the reality of where he is. Much like Wilco, who turned from alt-country to sonic experimenters, Green took his acoustic-based leanings and is now creating expansive tunes that, at times, owe more to blues, soul and even psychedelia than the modern ‘folk rock’ he was labeled with on earlier City and Colour records.

  1. Leon Bridges – Coming Home

leon bridges

His peer group may include contemporaries like Nick Waterhouse and Raphael Saadiq, but Bridges’ ups the game of capturing old-school R&B by pulling in music that could’ve been created by the Blues Brothers Band. He’s got the brass sounding like the legendary Memphis Horns, a deep groove reminiscent of Duck Dunn and the minimalist guitar leads that you might swear were coming off Steve Cropper. Then you mix in a style that slides in a suave 60’s Bacharach martini dance party and you get a glimpse of the power possessed in Coming Home.

  1. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Nightsweats – eponymous

nrns

It takes a special kind of musician to evoke a slew of soul greats and retain an energy and sound that is still their own. Springsteen did this by mixing Dylan, a preacher style intensity towards rock ‘n’ roll, a few soul influences, and concocted a sound all his own. Nathaniel Rateliff has taken the ’69 comeback version of Elvis, added southern rock themes and walked into a STAX studio to create a record that is instantly relatable. Of course, you would never have caught “the King” singing “son of a bitch / give me a drink” as Rateliff does on “S.O.B”. It just wouldn’t have been very, um… regal.

  1. Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color

sound&color

If Alabama Shakes debut Boys & Girls was a first shot across the bow against musical mediocrity, then Sound & Color is a full on declaration of war. Not content to merely ride the wave of being the best rock ‘n’ soul or Southern rock band to currently grace the planet, they expand and grow. It’s the kind of growth and experimentation one got from Radiohead when they leapt from The Bends to OK Computer; or in other words – WOW!

  1. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

cb1

Sarcastic and playful in the most observational of ways, Courtney Barnett makes stinging shots sound like a musical sit-com. Characters inhabit a ‘Seinfeld-esqe’ place where nothing seems larger than life and decisions don’t necessarily lead to conclusions. However, the journey is one hell of an adventure. Barnett makes music that is fun, thought provoking, and really damn catchy. It’s a really weird moment to hear your children singing “all I want to be is an elevator operator, can you help me please.”

  1. Terra Lightfoot – Every Time My Mind Runs Wild

terralightfoot

Every so often something comes along that just smacks you in the head with something so freaking unexpected you look for a house number on the cave you’ve been sleeping in. Perhaps it’s a debut album, an opening act you had never heard of before, or, as is the case for me, you just quite plainly arrived late to the party. Whatever the case, Terra Lightfoot has just lit the light bulb above my cranium and I’m hitting my forehead with that big “a-ha” moment.

What seems most remarkable is just how many influences pop out all at once. A foot in the Chicago blues, another in Memphis soul, and then she puts a third one in Nashville. The result is a combustible and full out gritty rock ‘n’ roll album.

Blast From The Christmas Past… or Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Charlie Brown Christmas

Music_album_record_a_charlie_brown_christmas

With the holiday season in mind, what better time to look back at one of the greatest Christmas records; Guaraldi created something so magical that one cannot imagine the animated special without the music. The best moments of a Charlie Brown Christmas is where the animation and the music link arm in arm to create a perfect mood.

“Merry Christmas Charlie Brown” yell the Peanuts their heads all look to the sky and the holes that are their cartoon mouths move to the sound of “Hark, The Hearld Angels Sing.” It is one of my favorite Christmas special moments – but why should you own the soundtrack – and why on vinyl?

First, the music not only holds up without the cartoon, but it actually stands out as something special alone. Guaraldi’s greatest triumph as an artist was always his ability to convey emotion through music. In just over 40 minutes he captures the varied feelings brought out during the season. There is a sense of not only joy and wonder, but also empathy, sadness, and even humour. It is music that can be enjoyed with a set of headphones or put in the back ground as you enjoy a glass of Riesling with a few friends. It is an awesome sit down record that seems as familiar as reminiscing with an old friend during the holiday season.

So, the real question… why vinyl?

Glad you asked.

With only a decent turntable, the sonics hold up against the CD. In fact, it sounds a bit better. Having played them against one another, certain piano runs just have a warmer and more dynamic feel. It sounds like someone is in the room playing rather than a couple of speakers.

Next, while a CD is a pretty good gift, a limited edition coloured vinyl album is a really cool and collectable gift. Hecky darn, it’s an amazing and sentimental Christmas gift. Really it is the kind of thing that someone remembers exactly who gave it to them over the years, and will be pulled out with a big smile on their face.

Most record stores are carrying a green translucent vinyl edition that both looks and sounds great. However, if you are looking for something a little more… collectible, Newbury Comics has two variant editions. The first was released last year and is a red and white split vinyl that was limited to 1500 copies and sells for close to $40 USD. The second was put out for this year’s holiday season on pink ribbon candy coloured wax and limited to 1000 copies. Even better, it’s priced at a much more palatable $21.99 USD.

cbc1Vince-Guaraldi-Trio-A-Charlie-Brown-Christmas-Exclusive-LP-Vinyl-2154540-1_1024x1024

Trust me, if I didn’t have it already, I would be ecstatic to find it under the tree.

 

Some Lips For Christmas… or Imagene Peise (The Flaming Lips) – Atlas Eets Christmas

 

ROUND 1

Back in 2007, the Flaming Lips were still at their peak as they were touring 2006’s At War With The Mystics. So, with a massive backstory written on the CD jacket they put out a Christmas record in very limited quantity under the pseudonym Imagene Peise. The only clue to it being the Lips was a sticker on the plastic wrap that read “Merry Christmas from the Flaming Lips.”

Fast forward a few years and the Lips are doing another limited run of their Christmas record, this time on red translucent vinyl. What is extremely fascinating about Atlas Eets Christmas is just how well the Lips stay in character. Yes they sound like the Flaming Lips, but with the crackles and pops they have added to the record, at times it really does come off as some little known jazz artist that walked straight out of a mid-eastern desert.

So what you get is this instrumental record that is driven by piano and accompanied by synthesizer and sitar. Instead of the usual holiday sentiment poured into your consciousness like a well known Chardonnay you find yourself drinking Port for the first time ever. It’s cigar smoke drenched and kissed with oak in a darkened bar where you sit alone by the window and contemplate the true meaning of that one bright star hovering in the sky.

Or, let’s just say that this isn’t an easily accessible holiday record designed to make you remember roasting chestnuts and singing Rudolph with the family. Nope, it mixes joy with quiet reflections and darker hues of greens and reds that don’t so much shine with a warm glow as threaten to burn. The character of “Imagene” is rumoured to have committed suicide in 1978, and that underlying feel is carried throughout the record.

Personally, I found myself rather mesmerized by Atlas Eets Christmas in much the same way I find some of the darker records in my collection. It isn’t an easy listen, and not one I would pull out while toasting the health of my in-laws as we sit down to our turkey. But, it is a worthy record to pull off the shelf in mid-December after you’ve spent a few hours shopping in an over-crowed mall, that has ‘syruped’ your ears with greetings from Celine and Bolton in some attempt to make you want to buy more stuff from more places. This might be a kind of apocalyptic Christmas record, but sometimes that’s what we need in order to really appreciate what we have.

Memories both old & new or The B-52’s – Live! 8.24.1979

B52s_Live79_LP_Jacket_v2.indd

It seems to me that the B-52’s have never really gotten the respect that they are entitled. More than just a kitsch band of singles, they were, and remain a beacon in a fog of mediocrity. This world where tired old themes are constantly rehashed for rock ‘n’ roll consumption; the B-52’s could tell insane stories while making even the most ‘two left feet’ amongst us dance and have a great time. There music was simultaneously accessible and other-worldly, mixing a 60’s surf vibe with what would later be called new wave. It was the perfect soundtrack for not only dancing, but strapping on some roller skates and praying the next wipe-out wouldn’t be slowed by your face being dragged along the cement.

So imagine my surprise to see a perfect little live document arrive in my hands this Black Friday / Record Store Day… a way over due example of the band in their prime. It’s a small piece of gold coloured vinyl now spinning on my turntable of an era that is timeless, and so very long ago. Before the flash and colour of “Love Shack” this is the B-52’s out supporting their debut album with the incredible Ricky Wilson still rocking the guitar in a frenetic fashion as Fred Schneider, Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson pull off their insane version of the call and answer.

Listening to it I find myself wondering why this record is only seeing the light of day in 2015. Full of energy, Live! 8.24.1979 literally had my seven year old dancing and rolling on the floor trying to sing all the vocal parts at once. It’s an impossibility, but he sure tried. What you have is great songs followed by hilarious, if not awkward introductions. Fred Schneider deadpans: “this next song is a dance tune” as if this is a revelation.

Between my sons twirling and my memories of roller rinks, Live! 8.24.1979 is the kind of blast from the past that puts a giant smile on your face that lingers long after the needle turns away from the wax.

It Is What It Is! or Silversun Pickups – Better Nature

sspbn

For better or worse, every band / artist and their music is a giant work in progress (except maybe AC DC – but that’s another story altogether). With age and aspiration they evolve and some fans grow with a band and some go in other directions. Better Nature is not its predecessors. Gone is “early 90’s alternative” atmosphere that fans loved on earlier releases Carnavas and Swoon and in its place is the synth/guitar mix being used by many of today’s popular ‘indie-rock’ artists. The result is something more slick and expansive, ‘shoegaze with synth support’ if you will, rather than the passion driven two minute wonders found in their mid 2000’s releases (ie. Carnavas’ “Lazy Eye”).

That isn’t to say Better Nature isn’t a really good record – because, well, it is… but…

Silversun Pickups are at their best when the pedal is down and caution is thrown to the wind, and Better Nature is all about structure… which leads us into a little bit of a contradiction.  It seems producer Jacknife Lee is trying to turn Silversun Pickups into Adore era Smashing Pumpkins, and believe me, that isn’t a compliment. It’s great for artists to experiment with sounds, but only when the songs really call for it. In this case, production and layering has taken the place of rocking out.

Lead single “Nightlights” is a good case in point. It starts with a great riff as a song that one can blast loud, but then, it changes course and does all these slow down and layered guitar things that bog down the last minute. Rather than keeping urgency with the heavy guitar, it becomes an act of ‘listen to these cool sounds over here!’ In other words, it becomes a little too indulgent to carry the momentum of song through to its conclusion.

There is a lot to like here as the songs on Better Nature all have pretty cool grooves at their core; however they tend to get lost underneath their own sonic waves. Perhaps their evolution is still in between two places, or maybe, as a fan, they’ve just gone in a direction where I can’t follow, but Silversun Pickups have created a good record that might have been great.

Ezra Furman – Perpetual Motion People or The Ballad Of The Distracted Squirrel

efurmanpmp

The wheels roll on as I jerk my car to my left to avoid a squirrel bouncing across the road without it giving a thought to its near death experience. I’m not sure if it was too busy to notice me or it simply didn’t give a shit, but it just kept hopping along without so much as a casual look in my direction.

Ezra Furman reminds me of that damned squirrel, and I’m happy about it. Shock, surprise, and from out of seemingly nowhere (ok, it’s his third record… so nowhere is somewhere) he arrives with a record that is cohesive and yet genre hops. The influences are recognizable but like smoke you can see them but never hold it.

His vocal phrasing is like a cross between Gordon Gano (Violent Femmes) and David Bowie while musically there is a whimsical quality that seems to cross early rock ‘n’ roll with the soundtrack for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Add to this the kind of playful lyrics that would make Jonathon Richman, David Lowery (Cracker & Camper Van Beethoven) or Paul Westerberg swoon, and you get an idea of how difficult it is to place Furman within a defining genre box.

He has a maddening ability to be so direct you don’t know whether to laugh, cry or throw your arms up in rage as his observational storytelling is seemingly both turned inward towards his anger/humour, and outward at people who can’t seem to mind their own frickin’ business.

Take “Body Was Made”, it is both empowering for those who can grasp his refrain and angry at people who judge based on body image. It begins with an understated Modern Lovers vibe and then rips into a solo sax reminiscent of the Spiders From Mars as Furman sings “My body was made this particular way / There’s really nothing any old patrician can say / You social police can just get out of my face / My body was made.”

Like early Bowie, Furman seems to relish changes in identity, except rather than do it from album to album Perpetual Motion People is a record that does it from song to song, and sometimes, within a single song. “Haunted Head” deals with one’s own self inflicted torment. “Can I Sleep In Your Brain” seeks respite from torment with a wish to become co-dependent. In turn, “Lousy Connection” hides themes of emotional distance behind old sounds of Doo-Wop and killer saxophone leads. To a certain extent, Furman makes being screwed up sound fun in his unique version of a poetic stream of consciousness.

What you have here, is an artist who is so into his music that you’re not sure if there is any attention being placed in the here and now. And really… who cares? If he keeps putting out music as fulfilling as Perpetual Motion People, you’ll prefer geek dancing over analysis of muse.

The Sheepdogs – Future Nostalgia or Everything Old Is New Again…

shedogsfn

As the album title suggests, The Sheepdogs are a band lost in time. With absolutely no pretense to suggest anything else, they are what they are, and you can accept it or move along. The choice is yours.

So here is Future Nostalgia, an album that sounds like it was recorded at Muscle Shoals during the studios glory days. Opening track “I’m Gonna Be Myself” is instant proof as you get the Skynyrd riffs and Boz Scaggs vocal styles that were so recognized from the legendary southern studio.

Of course, if you are going to play with the sounds of the classic rock era, you might as well be as expansive as possible. “Downtown” throws in some Eagles harmonies and references them again on “Bad Lieutenant.” The swampy Bernie Leadon like guitar lead is reminiscent of the 1972 classic “Witchy Woman.” From there you get another Eagles guitarist, Joe Walsh, being reflected in The Sheepdogs “Take A Trip.” If you add the easy listening, Michael McDonald era Doobie Brothers sound, coming off “Jim Gordon”, and add in riffs that could come from rock stalwarts like Spirit, Free, Rick Derringer, James Gang and even Canada’s own Lighthouse, you have a pretty insane package.

The thing about the Sheepdogs is they’re not so much influenced by “classic rock” as actually sounding as if they stepped off a time machine from the era direct. If most any other band on the planet tried this, I’d be tossing out tired accusations of being poseurs. However, the songs are just too damn catchy for me to get a hate on for them. Yes you could slip them into a 70’s rock mix and someone could confuse it as a deep cut from an unknown, yet awesome, band from back in the day; but rock ‘n’ roll is nothing if not one giant recycling project.

So, how does that saying go? “Everything old is new again!” It’s kinda hard to argue with that when Future Nostalgia is spinning.