I spent 2015 finishing up a book called Bad Singer: The Surprising Science of Tone Deafness and How We Hear Music. So while I thought a lot about how we listen to music, I didn’t have as much free time to actually listen to it as I usually do. Sure, I always had songs playing, but too often only in the background. Maybe that’s why a lot of my favourite albums this year were slow burns: I didn’t realize how good they were for a long time. So, with that in mind, here’s my listical-free look at the music I loved in 2015.
Admittedly, Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit was not a slow burn. I loved it immediately. Ditto Waxahatchee’s Ivy Trip. But Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie & Lowell sure was. Everyone else raved about it from the beginning, but while I liked it, I wasn’t clear what the big deal was about. Over the year, though, as songs from this album popped up as I kept my iTunes playlist called Recent Additions on shuffle, they slowly worked their magic.
The same goes for Wilco’s Star Wars, which was a surprise free download. My initial reaction was: fun, but a bit of a throwaway, perhaps something the band had released while working on a more serious and substantive project. But the more I listened to it, the more I realized how wrong that arrogant attitude was. Sure, it’s not Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or Being There, but it’s a really good album.
Some other really good albums initially suffered not only from a lack of attention, but also from the way I compared them to the artists’ previous career highlights. That includes Jason Isbell’s Something More than Free (as good as it is, I’m still partial to Southeastern); Beat the Champ, an album about wrestlers by The Mountain Goats that’s another fine album by John Darnielle’s band, but obviously everything suffers in comparison to The Sunset Tree; and Calexico’s Edge of the Sun. Fortunately, I kept listening to these records.
Still, the slow burn didn’t always work. Certainly it didn’t with Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear. I know this album made many other best-of lists — and I was a fan of his previous release, Fear Fun — but the more I listened to it, the more I found it annoying. (Conversely, Tame Impala’s Currents started off annoying, but by the end year, I’d come to appreciate its charms.)
A few other albums I enjoyed this year: Beach House’s Depression Cherry; Bjork’s Vulnicura; Ought’s Sun Comes Down; and El Vy’s Return to the Moon. And while I didn’t love all of B’lieve I’m Goin Down…, Kurt Vile’s new album, “Pretty Pimpin’” is a fabulous song.
Finally, a shout out to something that shouldn’t work, but does: Public Service Broadcasting’s The Race to Space. It combines electronica and space-race era sound clips (a JFK speech, NASA communications, news broadcasts). Not nearly as weird as that description makes it sound, it’s quite compelling.
I hope to devote a lot more time to listening to music in 2016.