The six essential records (and 30 top tracks) of 2015

January 13, 2016 Originally published on SFGate

Every year at this time, my friend Andy sends out an excitable email asking his most music-crazed friends – sound engineers, clubsters, DJs, me, anyone for whom music is less a casual dalliance and more like lifeblood – to send around their personal lists of the year’s best music, so we can all discover something new and/or gently mock each others’ weird tastes in African banjo disco, kazoo jazz funk or lumberjack doom metal.

And every year, I dive into this venture with an all-consuming fervor, ignoring how I’m not exactly a music critic by training and instead opening wide to 30+ years of serious music obsessiveness; couple it to a bottle of Casa Nobles Reposado while blithely ignoring the all the “real” critic’s obvious picks (Kendrick, Adele, Tame Impala), and it’s all sorts of delightful indulgence.

For whatever reason, I had a bit of trouble this year, finding my “normal” top 10. Few records stood out as complete visions of wild inspiration. Also, I don’t do pop or Vegas nightclub hip-hop. And while Adele is your mom’s obvious favorite and Kendrick Lamar is an obvious No. 1, it’s also a very difficult listen all the way through – something that, to me, offsets its brilliance. You gotta enjoy a record, as well as appreciate its genius, no?

Here, then, are my Top 6 (and the 30 best tracks) of 2015. See what you think:

6. Express Rising – Fixed Rope
Twelve addictively forlorn instrumental tracks, lovingly downcast and elegantly lonely but somehow not at all depressing, each apparently improvised and recorded in a single take somewhere in remote Arkansas, using live instruments (as opposed to the dusty electronica of previous ER records) which is both astounding and pretty much the opposite of the hyper-produced, calculated, test-marketed pop chyme dominating the charts at any given moment. Rainy day thick sweater wintry afternoon wistful sighs extra-bourbon-in-the-chai mood music.

5. Dead Sara – Pleasure to Meet You
I have zero problem confessing a devout adoration of this badass, scruffy LA rock outfit, led by the supreme howler Emily Armstrong, a snarling hurricane of a singer who explodes Janis Joplin into a thousand shards of stadium-sized awesomeness. This is pure-form, spit-in-the-dirt, punk-infused rock n’ roll, mean-assed and catchy as f—k. Dare you to disagree that “Mona Lisa” is, bang-for-buck, the best rock track of the year (see video, below). Saw them live at SF’s creaky old DNA Lounge with a tiny crowd, and they were insane and explosive and perfect. Biggest shortcoming: A scant two major LP releases in more than 10 years. Come on, DS. Deserving of wild success.

4. Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats – The Night Creeper
My London-based tattoo artist, Jondix, turned me on to this awesomely kooky English psych-rock outfit (he played their last record, 2013’s Mind Control, at least twice, all the way through, during my last 12-hour ink session). Effortlessly answers the question: What would Sabbath Bloody Sabbath sound like if it snorted the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour? Marvelously grungy and moody, but with a sly humor. Pair with premium blanco tequila and roughly 137 oozing candles at midnight during a thumbnail moon.

Say Uncle

Say Uncle

3. Marilyn Manson – Pale Emperor
Oh, shut up. Say what you will about Manson, but this is raw and bluesy and nowhere near the (frequently awesome, let’s be honest) industrial synth dance metal of Manson’s weirder-than-thou yore. Foot stomping, fuzzy, whispery and buzz-saw dirty, Emperor perfectly upends the bored, tune-less malaise of 2012’s Born Villain and reminds you just what a superlative rock songwriter Brian Warner actually is. This is Manson revitalized.

2. Beach House – Depression Cherry/Thank Your Lucky Stars
Not one, but two full releases from the arch, lushly melancholy organ-drone duo, the latter a “surprise” release yet both equally excellent, fully formed and expertly tracked. Listen casually and you can’t tell the the two records – released a mere two months apart – apart. Listen more closely and… well, you still can’t really tell them apart. Who cares? Somehow both records hold up beautifully and instead of whining about one diluting the other (as some silly critics have done), we should be grateful for such generous, emotive output.

1. Felix Laband – Deaf Safari
It took 10 years to get a new release from this enigmatic South African producer. 2005’s Dark Days Exit (also a Top 10 favorite of mine from that year) was a rare gem of precise, melodic, upbeat techno infused with warm, chime-like melodies. Deaf Safari updates and elaborates on that sound, adding all kinds of masterful voice samples – children, political speeches, bizarre South African preachers – and stretches the track lengths to draw you all the way in. I’ve no idea Laband’s source inspiration, but the samples – not to mention the gruesome cover – certainly suggest a rather torturous political narrative. Does it matter? The music transcends.

The 30 best tracks of 2015 (no particular order)

  1. Kendrick Lamar – King Kunta
  2. Fire is a Phoenix – Change My Ways
  3. Lana Del Rey – The Blackest Day
  4. Romare – Work Song
  5. José González – Stories We Build, Stories We Tell
  6. Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls
  7. Caravan Palace – Lone Digger
  8. St. Germain – Mary L.
  9. Bob Moses – Tearing Me Up
  10. Caspian – Darkfield
  11. Jamie XX – Girl
  12. Baroness – Chlorine & Wine
  13. Chemical Brothers – Wide Open
  14. Tame Impala – The Moment
  15. Taigherwuds – The Lounge
  16. Melody Gardot – Same to You
  17. Alabama Shakes – This Feeling
  18. Sleater Kinney – Bury Our Friends
  19. Four Tet – Morning Side
  20. Foals – What Went Down
  21. Clutch – X-Ray Visions
  22. Bedouin – Flight of Birds
  23. Deafheaven – Gifts for the Earth
  24. Florence + the Machine – Long & Lost
  25. fp-oner – In the Mist of Sunrise
  26. Leisure – Got It Bad
  27. Marmozets – Move, Shake, Hide
  28. Master Margherita – Sei Otto
  29. Atlas Bound – Landed on Mars
  30. Seal Rocks – Departures

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Mark Morford

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