The Best Music of 2015

Here are the  best records I heard from the past twelve months.

Toiling_Midgets_A_Smaller_LifeDoes ranking a record with tracks as old as 35 years make me decrepit? Guilty, but let me explain while A Smaller Life merits the top spot on my list. Neither reissue nor straight new release, this record makes the invisible history of San Francisco rock visible. Toiling Midgets had roots in the first wave of San Francisco punk, made one of the area’s defining albums in Sea of Unrest, then fell apart due to heroin addiction on the part of just about everyone in the band. That didn’t end their story; in 1990 they began working with Mark Eitzel as lead singer, even recording an album of thunderous, cavernous songs for Matador. That ended when Eitzel took their drummer, but Tom Mallon stepped in and original singer Ricky Williams came back. Unfortunately, Williams died after a show, but the band pressed on without a singer, playing occasional Bay Area shows and recording (though not releasing) thick waves of textured guitar parts. Every once in a while, word of a possible album would come out, but no album.

Glioblastoma killed Mallon at the beginning of 2014. With his death, I assumed the recordings would not see the light of day. A Smaller Life proves me wrong, and I am so happy to be wrong. It covers the entire span of the Midgets work, from 1980 demos through Sea of Unrest, Deadbeats, the Eitzel work, the short-lived Ricky Williams reunion, and all of those 90s and 00s recordings. This plays like a postpunk Fairport Chronicles, giving novices a great sense of what the band is about with enough new material to make old fans excited to listen repeatedly. I am grateful to Jordan Mamone and the surviving band members for making this release possible. 

Eleventh Dream Day – Works for Tomorrow (Thrill Jockey)

Eleventh_Dream_Day_Works_For_TomorrowEleventh Dream Day gets stronger with age, and adding Jim Elkington as second guitarist was a very good idea. Works for Tomorrow has a strong 1970 Muscle Shoals vibe, some of Janet Bean’s best singing, and a take on classic rock that reminds me of Steve Wynn’s late-90s records. By the way, if Steve Wynn and EDD would like to collaborate on a record akin to the one Wynn make with Come in 1996, please let me know where to send my money.


Necks_VertigoForty-four minutes of glorious Necks drone. Play this back to back with Mint Mile’s “Modern Day” and you’ll have a good idea of what I’d do with a radio show these days.


alabama-shakes-sound-and-colorI am buying what Alabama Shakes is selling. Too much Americana lacks noise or soul, but Sound & Color has plenty of both. An Alabama Shakes/Eleventh Dream Day stadium tour would be about the only event save a White Sox-Yankees playoff game to get me into Yankee Stadium.


Mint_Mile_In_SeasonWith Bottomless Pit finished, Tim Midyett uses a revolving cast of musicians (including Andy Cohen…and Michael Dahlquist made his way into the proceedings, going by the liner notes) to make a more meandering, more acoustic set of songs that brings early-70s Van Morrison to mind. (Think “Almost Independence Day” rather than “Jackie Wilson Said” for an approximation of the sound.) “Modern Day” makes me wish I still had my radio show so I could play it on a hot summer night and get calls asking what it was.

The Chills - Silver BulletsThe Chills are back! Well, Martin Phillips is back, with the rotation of supporting Chills slightly different than on 2004’s Stand By EP, but any personnel changes don’t appreciably change the organ-and-jangle Kiwipop with worried lyrics. Still works for me, and I hope Phillips is healthy enough to record a followup before eleven more years elapse.


TV_Colours_Purple_SkiesUS issue of noisy Australian punk-pop musician Brian Kill’s cacophony thanks to Jon Solomon. Most comparisons to Hüsker Dü leave me longing for Hüsker Dü rather than enjoying the record in question, but not here (though the drums are more Roland than Grant Hart).



Richard-Thompson-StillIt’s Richard Thompson, without much production fuss. If you like guitars, why wouldn’t you dive into this?



Victor_Krummenacher_Hard_To_See_TroubleKrummenacher is still better known as the singer in the Monks of Doom and bass player in Camper Van Beethoven than for his solo work. That’s unfortunate, as the records he’s made under his own name are the best recordings anyone from either band had made over the past quarter century. If Toiling Midgets are the secret history of Bay Area rock, Krummenacher’s solo work is the distillation of West Coast Americana stripped of artifice.

Tomas Fujiwara & the Hookup – After All Is Said (482 Music)

Mary Halvorson – Meltframe (Firehouse 12 Records)

People – 3xAWoman (Telegraph Harp)


Tomas Fujiwara (drums) and Mary Halvorson (guitar) are the two most exciting improv musicians I hear in New York City, and they often work with the other most exciting improv musicians around (Ingrid Laubrock, Tim Berne, Tom Rainey, Michael Formanek come to mind). These three records show off different aspects of Halvorson’s work, from one element in a jazz combo (After All Is Said) to solo guitar (Meltframe) to delightfully dense pop (3XAWoman). Like Toiling Midgets and Richard Thompson, Halvorson provides fans of guitar some wonderful music to enjoy.

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