2015 was the weirdest year of my life, no contest. I stepped away from my life of 25 years and job of 10 to move 3,000 miles across the country. I never expected to find myself in Pacific Beach, California, and whether it be interesting or predictable, my list for the year is just as surprisingly odd to me. If you had shown me this list at this time last year, I’d have been shocked by how many bands I either didn’t know or actively didn’t care about. Thanks to some extremely promising new bands and 2015’s trend of bands getting way better in between their debut and sophomore LPs Brand New-style, this was a particularly difficult list to compile.
Looking back on last year’s post, few to none of my predictions came true. The Brand New record did not come. Nor did a Propagandhi, a Converge, or The Bronx V. I struck out pretty hard. But hey, it was still a great year regardless. I’m more confident in my picks this year than ever thanks to a jarring, redefining relocation and a considerably long cross-country road trip. I did a lot of listening this year, and now it’s time to sort it out.
Born like this / into this
All hail NEEDS. I love this band so much. I actually found them thanks to Noisey.com because I’m the kind of music listener that is turned on by articles titled things like “Meet NEEDS, the Hardcore Band That Eats Garbage.” The first time I heard NEEDS was like the first time I heard The Bronx. Every cell in my body simultaneously went “Yup.” This is uncut hardcore. It’s driving, bass-heavy, and built for the basement. It’s desperate, but not overly serious. NEEDS has no agenda and certainly no overblown ideas about hardcore. Frontman Sean Orr made this clear to Noisey when he referred to “the futility of hardcore music to make any sort of lasting or real change,” a feeling that is evident in the opening lines of “We Forgot the Records to Our Record Release Show” – “What am I doing? / No, seriously, what am I doing? / I’m 36 years old / 37 in a couple of months / In a hardcore band / thought it’s probably more like punk / What am I missing?” To NEEDS, it’s all about the music. As Orr puts it, “It’s therapy, a way to deal.” THAT’s hardcore. Watch them hilariously play for a spin class below.
12. The Money Pit
We work just to pay the rent / drinks on the beach and your money’s spent / and I could drag it out for another year, yeah / I could say what I think they wanna hear / but fuck that shit
This is my 2015 guitar record. My windows-down, pop-rock go-to when I need to unwind. The front half of Gatsby’s American Dream (vocalist Nic Newsham and guitarist Bobby Darling) have reunited and supplied us with one of the year’s best rock records. It’s straightforward, catchy, smart, punchy, drinkable, clever, a little beachy…everything you could want from a summertime rock record. For more depth and detail, check out my full review here, but for now, dance along.
11. Desaparecidos – Payola
Now that you’re too big to fail / you’ll never have to go to jail / When you own it, you can rob the bank / A bloated Dillinger, a spray-tanned Jesse James
Man, a new Desaparecidos record. Whod’a thunkit. It’s been 15 years since the seminal Read Music/Speak Spanish, and the world is in such disarray that Conor Oberst deemed it time to return. For the uninitiated, Conor Oberst is Bright Eyes – well, half of Bright Eyes along with Mike Mogis, who also co-produced this record – but I digress. Desaparecidos is Oberst’s punk band. It’s loud, fast, raw, unbridled, and most importantly, smart. Like, Propagandhi-smart. Oberst uses his unrivaled (yes) lyrical abilites to take on a wide array of sociopolitical issues. “MariKKKopa” calls out the civil rights abuses of Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, and includes a clip of Arpaio saying, I swear to Satan, the following: “…well, you know, they call you KKK. They did me. I think it’s an honor, right?” “The Left is Right” deals with the Occupy Wall Street movement: “It begins when we chain ourselves to the ATMs / Make a mess when we pitch our tents on the statehouse steps / Now we’re taking it back for the greater good / Goddamn Robin Hoods.” “Radicalized” addresses the obvious direct relationship between military aggression in the Middle East and religious radicalization: “My whole family tree has got nothing to eat / The machine guns guard the checkpoint from starving refugees / So when I stop to pray for the fifth time today / I still see my sister Alma with a hole in her skull / as the tanks pulled away.” Oberst is at the top of his craft here. It may be an unpopular opinion, but I believe Payola to be a better record than Read Music/Speak Spanish, which now by comparison just sounds like heavy Bright Eyes. Some have complained about how many of these songs have been around a while. I sympathize. 6 of these songs had been released previously on 7”s. Maybe this is why it’s not higher on my list, or why I don’t spin it as often as I should, but there are 8 other songs on here. I don’t think 14 great songs is something we should turn our noses up at.
10. Culture Abuse – Spray Paint the Dog
If love’s not the answer / I’ll kick my way in
I’d been searching for Culture Abuse for years. I was looking for something raw, something loud. Something with attitude. I was looking for a band to remind me what punk was. To remind me what it was to revel in the underbelly, the aggressively shitty, the artistically gross mindset that punk music embodies. I found Culture Abuse and felt like moving around at a show again, not just standing, despondent, with my arms crossed. At only two songs, the psychedelic garage punk that Culture Abuse delivers on the Spray Paint the Dog 7” had me up and dancing more than any other release this year. They’re finishing up their debut LP as we speak (most likely in mixing), and I’d bet a stupid amount of money that I’ll be writing about them again on my 2016 list.
9. All Get Out – Movement EP
I didn’t break it / it just fell
I must admit that All Get Out’s debut LP The Season has never done much for me. I enjoyed 4 or so songs, but to me, the group was just a poor man’s Manchester Orchestra (Manchester’s frontman Andy Hull produced this EP, as well as All Get Out’s forthcoming second LP). I would argue this to my friends, who would in turn try to defend the record’s quality, but my ego always shrugged it off. Boy, was I proven quite the fool when this EP came around. The announcement of the Movement EP came coupled with the announcement of a repress of The Season, which is probably why I initially blew the entire thing off. It wasn’t until a dear friend sent me the link to the stream of “Balance” on my walk home from work. What I heard shamed me. In the years between The Season and the Movement EP, All Get Out had quietly matured into one of the greatest current alternative rock bands. These 5 songs – yes, only 5, and still this high on my list – are masterfully fleshed out. You can hear the amount of time and care that was put into them. The music is as angular as the release’s artwork, dynamic and desperate, yet melodically catchy. Nate Hussey’s lyrics and impassioned delivery on this record have annihilated any negative “more of the same” thoughts I previously idiotically held about his songwriting. Now their second LP is one of my most anticipated of 2016. Hear the song that got to me below.
8. Ceremony – The L-Shaped Man
Can you measure the loss?
On The L-Shaped Man, hardcore stalwarts Ceremony eschew any semblance of their trademark aggression in favor of a stripped-clean post-punk approach often attributed to Joy Division. Sure, every Ceremony record is different, and they’ve been moving away from their hardcore history more and more with each release, but this one was jarring. It initially didn’t sit well with me. I found it somehow even more abrasive than hardcore, despite how reserved it is. The melodies are bold, but tonally bare. The notes are stark and evoke a hollowness perfectly suited for the poetry of loss. The L-Shaped Man will undoubtedly stand out as Ceremony’s most unique record not merely due to its musical approach, but because of frontman/lyricist Ross Farrar’s focus on his recent breakup. The songs move through the stages of grief that follow a life-altering separation. “Exit Fears” shows Farrar trying to cope: “You told your friends you were fine / You thought you were fine too / You told your family twice / how you had climbed up / But nothing in this world is fine / Nothing ever feels right / You have to tell yourself you tried.” On “Bleeder,” Farrar struggles to adapt to a solitary life: “Are you calling old friends again? / Have you forgotten how to live? / You stood screaming in your room / There was no one there / No one heard.” “The Bridge” chronicles the desperate rebound attempts: “Going out and finding other things / It didn’t hurt / It didn’t feel like anything.” The record closes with the entrancing “The Understanding,” which brings a sort of closure as it somberly rings out “Baby, say that it’s over.” The L-Shaped Man is an artistically immersive piece of work available with a companion book of poetry by Farrar that I highly recommend. He is also responsible for the single-stroke line drawing featured on the cover. Let him make you swoon below in the video for “Your Life in France.”
7. Foxing – Dealer
Future love, don’t fall apart
Foxing arose during the misnamed “emo revival” of a few years back. Their debut LP The Albatross became a scene favorite amidst the odd surge of early aughts-inspired indie rock, and thus I all but ignored it. It wasn’t until I caught an impressive opening set of theirs that I decided to pick it up. All in all, I enjoyed a few of the songs, but the record as a whole never gained much traction with me. I was therefore relatively indifferent to their impending second LP. That was, until saw I them open for mewithoutYou this past summer. The small amount of then-unheard material they played was something to be beheld, and I preordered Dealer the second it was announced. My favorite thing about Dealer is how initially lackluster I found it. It was slower, softer, and in my mind, less effectively desperate. I remember only caring for 3 or 4 songs until I sat up late one night on a cold back porch and listened to it through headphones. Each song started to unravel itself, like every layer and movement was prostrating before me. Dealer finds a slower Foxing, less bombastic, denser and more nuanced. If The Albatross was an IPA, Dealer is a Cabernet. On opener “Weave,” vocalist Conor Murphy aims to finally put The Albatross to rest: “Drained out a tunnel in an albatross / now I’m haunted by the bird / her hounds left tracks on my breath / until I had no more air left / Selling out an old soul for sales / I am caught up in the guilt / Making a living off of drowning / leaves me one step in the wrong / Have I been stuck here for so long?” Foxing listeners will recognize the allusion to the fan-favorite song “Inuit,” which centers around the line “I’m not waving / I’m drowning,” and how the final line could speak to how long the band has been relentlessly playing those same songs (which is much to their credit). “Night Channels” features a gorgeously reserved rolling piano melody over which Murphy intimately croons “We danced naked outside of your bathroom / until our bare feet sweat tracks in the tile / as you came, you moaned about loving them / such convenience in regret after the fact.” The song bursts midway through in a delicate wave of intersecting instrumentation, all the while maintaining the same melancholic piano melody. The sparse, marching “Indica” is a harrowing portrait of bassist Josh Coll’s time deployed in Afghanistan with lines like “And it breaks my mother’s heart / to know I came back broken / with the thought of my arms spilt open / And if so, would I bring their parents peace? / And if so, could I give back the sounds of their children’s screams? / Let go of what I’ve seen…” “Eiffel” is so good you just have to hear it. Sonically, Dealer may be the closest thing to bon iver, bon iver I’ve heard yet. It’s staggering how much Foxing has matured and improved with just one record, and it makes me almost nervous for how high my expectations will be come their next release.
6. Jeff Rosenstock – We Cool?
I got so tired of discussing my future / I’ve started avoiding the people I love
It’s been 9 years since I found Jeff Rosenstock. Back then he was Bomb the Music Industry!, making amazing punk records with a mic and a computer and putting them up for free download. After 7+ records, Jeff put BTMI! to rest in style, but he still makes amazing punk records and puts them up for free. We Cool? is the second “Jeff Rosenstock” record, but the first widely distributed one thanks to a partnership with California label Side One Dummy. We Cool? is a fountain of aging punk gold with high energy songs like “Get Old Forever” (“Only one thing remains for sure / that we all get old together / and we all get old forever”) and “You, in Weird Cities” (“I’m always getting high when no is around / ‘cuz nothing makes me feel anything’s worthwhile”). We Cool? is Rosenstock’s most diverse record to date, including the likes of the twangy “Beers Again Alone” and the grungy, Weezery “Hall of Fame.” Watch the wonderful video for the crowd favorite “Nausea” below and see how full of tacos Jeff is.
5. The Sidekicks – Runners in the Nerved World
I feel like how the Bulls felt in 1993
This record came out of nowhere for me. I’d always known of The Sidekicks due to their history with Red Scare Industries and even have a few of their early releases, but I never paid them too much attention. They went from punk to something in between punk and indie that didn’t excite me at the time. Early this year, I saw that they signed to Epitaph Records (a big leap), and announced Runners in the Nerved World. It was the title that intrigued me. I didn’t know what a “runner in the nerved world” could be, but I was damn sure that I was one. There were 2 songs available to stream at the time, and their titles intrigued me, too: “Jesus Christ Supermalls” and “Summer Brings You Closer to Satan.” How could those phrases not entice you? I was surprised to find the hazy pop-rock that dominates the record, and I immediately fell under its drone-like spell. This is actually one of my most-spun records of the year. I don’t think I’ll ever need another haze-pop record again (poor Turnover). Every song on Runners is drastically different, yet built from the same stoner-pop toolbox. It’s a tab of acid on a snowy beach, so make sure and get closer to Satan.
4. Drug Church – Hit Your Head
What it’s like to be broke, unpolished, unwashed & gross / What it’s like to be stuck, have nothing, get nothing but crushed
I’ve been a devout disciple of Drug Church since their 2012 self-titled 7”, one of my all-time favorite records. That I think Hit Your Head is their best collection of music since should hopefully tell you something. It’s abrasive, guitar-driven, grungy hardcore at its finest. Frontman and lyricist Patrick Kindlon (Self Defense Family, Loss Leader) is as entertainingly sardonic as ever, focusing on what he recently described to Substream Magazine as “the trashier side of growing up.” “Drunk Tank” perfectly encapsulates the inevitable hollow disappointment that comes with a night out with the chorus “It’s the night before / Thanksgiving and you expected more” before driving home the shittiness with “Drunk tank at 3am / you find yourself making friends / make the call home to mom/ fuck, she’s not surprised at all.” The album ends with the spoken word song “What” in which Kindlon narrates the mundanities of a trite, meaningless day and the resulting emptiness. The song, and thus the record, ends with the following: “For a time, you debate sleeping in your car – it’s now too late to call anyone. So you go home. It takes a long time for you to open the door, and when you do…” That desolate, expectant moment is Drug Church. The pang of empty, causeless frustration that only compounds with age. Let Drug Church exorcise that demon for you. Then hang out with it and hit your head.
3. The World is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid to Die – Harmlessness
Life will always be weird
Most of what I said above about Foxing could be applied to The World is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid to Die. Having risen up through the “emo revival,” their last LP Whenever, If Ever did little for me. There were parts of songs I liked, but the full pictures never became clear to me. What I saw instead was intolerably messy, perhaps a symptom of finding their ~9 members a bit superfluous. I was curious as to how the band may have evolved when they released the video for “January 10th, 2014” in anticipation of Harmlessness, so I checked it out. I was floored. I couldn’t even believe it was the same band. The song chronicles the story of “Diana, the Hunter of Bus Drivers,” a female vigilante that killed two shuttle bus drivers in 2013 in Juarez, Mexico. The bus drivers of the city had been raping and murdering hundreds of women for decades with impunity, so Diana adorned a blonde wig, hailed the 718, and the shot its driver in cold blood. She repeated the act on the same route 24 hours later. Clearly, Harmlessness isn’t just the same old “emo” music. It’s wide, sprawling instrumentation that can turn on a dime. It’s unexpected, dynamic, yet not overly piecemeal it its arrangement. TWIABP has learned to utilize their wide and sometimes at-ends arsenal of sounds to crescendo emotion in immensely redemptive ways. Harmlessness was also a light in the dark when I needed it. I was struggling with displacement issues when it was released, and its overwhelmingly positive message did wonders for my mental health.
2. The Smith Street Band – Throw Me in the River
Am I satisfied / or did I just come to terms with the hunger / that’s plagued me all my life / and made me live harder when i was younger
These days, what with my age and miserliness, it takes a lot for me to delve into the back catalog of a band. I have phone bills and student loan payments, so I can’t afford to trust your debut record’s probably-poor production and execution, okay? The Smith Street Band broke me with Throw Me in the River. It was my first exposure to the Australian posi-punks, and I immediately ordered every record they have. Within two months, they’d become one of my top bands – not an easy feat. Opener “Something I Can Hold in My Hands” is perhaps my song of the year, having become the soundtrack to my move across the country. “Surrey Dive” puts me right back at a party with my best friends on a wintry Pennsylvania night – “I’m just trying to pay an insurmountable debt / just trying to forget about my inevitable death / Chris threw up in the diner, and I was sick in the snow.” “Calgary Girls” is one of the most enthralling, heavy-hitting relationship songs I’ve ever had the privilege of hearing – “And I will tell you that my life didn’t crack up to what our life would have been / and I will stand up to say something / and fall straight back in my seat / and you will check your watch / and say it’s probably time for you to leave / and you will offer me a ride / only ‘cuz it’s so fucking cold outside / You were always far too kind.” The emotion fueling Throw Me in the River is simultaneously jubilant and sorrowful. It’s a feeling of home when you couldn’t be farther from it. Vocalist/guitarist Wil Wagner has since become one of my favorite songwriters, and I earnestly believe he could be one of yours too.
1. mewithoutYou – Pale Horses
Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?
mewithoutYou has been instrumental to my livelihood for a decade now. I saw mewithoutYou on the day I was released from a psychiatric facility following a suicide attempt. I wept through nearly the entire show. mwY has remained a source of healing in my life, and Aaron Weiss (vocalist/lyricist) has always been able to cause tremors in me, to scare me with how harrowing and affective the written word can be. Pale Horses is no exception, and could very well be their best record yet. 12 years of Catholic schooling has always lent itself usefully to my understanding of Weiss’ oft-Biblical lyrical fare, though the religious aspect has never been what enticed me. It was his use of religion (not just one) to convey his meaning, his use of widely known parables and stories to construct masterful metaphors. On Pale Horses, things are a little less obvious. Addressing his recent marriage and the passing of his father, Weiss has written a more personal and complicated record. Philadelphia producer Will Yip brought his fuzzy expertise to perfectly complement mewithoutYou’s trademark sprawling reverb, with “Red Cow” being the prime example of how well Yip was able to tap into the band’s sound and amplified it. Closer “Rainbow Signs” ends the record on a devastating note as Weiss interlaces apocalyptic imagery from the Book of Revelations with intimate thoughts of his father. The album ends with Weiss describing an inside joke he and his father shared, but he never reveals the punchline, instead concluding crushingly: “The other night I dreamt I was finally out of college / In my own pair of sandals, I had turned into my father / Whistling my tune about the Rio Grande / like an anchorite in June, I took hold of my own hand / and started on the Abrahamic joke we knew / about apostrophes and pronouns and you-remember-who / but let’s keep that silly punchline between me and you, Little Haroon, and the man in the moon.” The moment rings out tenderly, and is without a doubt my favorite of the year. I implore you to watch the impressive double video for “Red Cow” and the gorgeous “Dorothy” below.