2015 is done & dusted, and with it come all the usual polls and best-of-lists. When it comes to music, I decided to make my own this year. The idea came when I leafed through a British music magazine in Oslo that listed the "100 Best Records of the 90's" and didn't include a handful of records wich I am utterly convinced should have been in the Top 50 at least. Also, last spring a Finnish friend and fellow music lover had asked me for some of my personal recommendations, which I failed to deliver up until now. After reorganizing & archiving my CD & vinyl collection over Christmas I felt this was the perfect time to do it.
Since my outlook on the vast universe that is the music industry will be just as myopic as any music journalist's best guess, I decided to make things a little easier for myself and just pick my favourite albums out of the records that I own myself (around 450 in total). This automatically narrows the scope of my ranking to a certain type of music, because my collection mostly consists of what people would call indiepop/rock/folk music. Also, I decided to spare you recommendations of well-known & widely acknowledged all-time-classics even if I own and love them (such as Billy Joel's "52nd street" or the Dire Straits' eponymous debut) or stuff from bands that received lots of radio airplay in recent year (such as Alt-J or The Strokes) - both you can find (or, more likely, have already found) somewhere else.
In short, I tried to pick albums by artists that are lesser known to the large public, but in my humble opinion deserve all the more attention and in many cases have an interesting and often fairly deep back catalogue. So without further delay, here are - in no particular order - 16 albums that you should listen to in 2016; albums that take a special place in my record collection, and maybe deserve one in yours as well!
The Shins - "Chutes too narrow" (2003)
"Those guys are famous already", you're probably thinking now. Well maybe they are, at least since Zach Braff and Natalie Portman introduced them to a wider audience in "Garden State". Still, this list wouldn't be complete without the Shins, whose early albums I especially dig. I love James Mercer's high-pitched voice, unusual phrasing, the articulate but often cryptic lyrics and the crazy energy of the band's early lineup. Their new lineup doesn't carry the same magic for me, even though Mercer is still (and has always been) the brains of the band. Sandwiched between two other great albums ("The Shins" & "Wincing the Night away") "Chutes too narrow" is probably my favourite Shins record, filled with fantastic guitar pop from start to finish, even including some lovely country-rock twang in "Gone for Good". The only disappointing thing about this album is that it's over way too soon.
Morphine - "Cure for Pain" (1992)
I still remember being introduced to this band's trademark minimalistic sound (containing only bass, baritone saxophone & drums - the band once called it Low Rock) through the earphones of an American friend's Sony Discman on the campus lawn at a summer school in Hungary. None other than P.J. Harvey once called Morphine "The sexiest band alive" (coming from her, that means something!) and indeed the low frequencies of Dana Colley's baritone sax & Mark Sandman's 2-string slide bass go directly to your abdomen and everything below. Unfortunately, besides a love for beat poetry, Sandman also had a love for cigarettes and eventually suffered a fatal onstage heart attack during a rock festival in Palestrina, Italy in 2003, but he left us with a legacy of 5 studio albums that are a testament to his quirky charisma & creativity.
If I would have to name my favourite album in recent years, it would be this. Jonathan Wilson, born in North Carolina as the son of a baptist priest, moved to L.A. in his twenties and soon made himself a name as a guitar builder, studio hotshot, Laurel Canyon folk revivalist, and vintage producer with his own studio in Echo Park. As a solo artist he's somewhat of a late bloomer, following up his inspired 2010 debut "Gentle Spirit" with the even more ambitious and sometimes truly epic "Fanfare", which is filled with everything you loved about the 70's. Featuring guest appearances from the likes of Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, and The Heartbreakers' Mike Campbell, this album covers a wide range of styles and every song (often exceeding the 6 minute mark) is a treasure chest in itself. Much like the cover suggests, this album takes you up into the clouds for an amost divine experience.
Gomez - "How we operate" (2006)
Showing early promise in winning Britain's prestigious Mercury Music Award in 1998 for their debut "Bring it on" this 5-piece band has come up with a string of good releases (7 full-length albums and a couple of EP's, live recordings and rarities) that earned them a loyal following mostly in the UK and the US. Full of talented musicians and 3 different singers (Ian Ball, Ben Ottewell and Tom Grey) this band from Southport, UK sounds more American than British combines catchy with quirky, and has made it through almost 2 decades with virtually no drama, and surprisingly little recognition. Check out their video for "See the world", this album's charming single.
Helmet - "Meantime" (1992)
Probably one of the most influential noise rock albums of the 90's, Helmet impressed me - at the time a 16-year old wannabe metalhead who looked more like 14 - because they delivered heavy music without looking the type - and neither did I. With their short haircuts and unremarkable streetwear they came across like ordinary college kids (band leader Page Hamilton had actually studied jazz guitar) but their sound was that of a bulldozer mowing down everything in its path. After firing 2nd guitarist Mengede, Hamilton's band somewhat self-destructed, but the dropped tunings and staccato riffs influenced many metal bands in the new millennium, and on "Meantime" they're at the top of their game.
Kyuss - "Welcome to Sky Valley" (1994)
The same can be said about the mighty Kyuss from Palm Springs, California, who spawned a string of epigones and defined the whole Stoner Rock genre. Josh Homme, who would later found the Queens of the Stone Age, was honing his skills as the young guitar prodigy here, driving his heavily distorted guitar through a bass amp, and leaving the singing duties to the bluesy howling of John Garcia. They built a cult following through "generator parties" (where they would drag their equipment into the surrounding deserts of Joshua Tree National Park to play under the stars) and that vibe perfectly comes across on "Sky Valley". As the liner notes say: "Listen without distraction"
Wilco - "Sky Blue Sky" (2007)
Another American band that was influential in defining a genre, in this case Alternative Country. Lead singer Jeff Tweedy can look back on a long and illustrious career with its ups & downs, has recently recorded an album with his son (meanwhile an accomplished drummer), and has a back catalogue full of interesting, diverse and sometimes challenging music. However, "Sky Blue Sky", my first Wilco album, is a perfect place to start, simply because it's so accessible - the songs are all superb here and the addition of another quality musician in guitarist Nels Cline (who shines on several solos here) lifts the already tasteful material to another level.
Kula Shaker - "Strangefolk" (2007)
The biggest britpop band you may have never heard of, Kula Shaker burst onto the scene in 1996 with their platinum debut "K" (the UK's fastest-selling debut after Oasis' "Definitely Maybe") which featured rock anthems sung in Sanskrit ("Govinda" & "Tattva") and earned them TV appearances and celebrity status in the UK. However, a difficult relationship with the Yellow Press took the fun out of it and caused Crispian Mills to disband the band just 3 years later. Out of the blue, they resurrected (or reincarnated) in 2006 with "Strangefolk", a great album that went largely unnoticed in a changed musical landscape. 20 years after "K", their 5th album (consequently titled "K 2.0") is due in February 2016 and I can't wait to see them live for the first time in Munich on February 23.
John Butler Trio - "Sunrise over Sea"(2004)
John Butler is half-American but grew up in Australia and honed his skills as a street musician before founding John Butler Trio. An accomplished fingerpicker and lapsteel guitarist, he is also an outspoken activist on environmental causes and aboriginal rights, which shines through in songs such as "Company Sin" on this brillant album. Like Australian rock band Powderfinger (another favourite of mine), he is regularly playing to sellout crowds down under, but has largely remained under the radar in Europe. I still haven't given his latest album "Flesh & Blood" enough spins, but I think it's safe to say that "Sunrise over Sea" remains his best effort.
Firewater - "The Golden Hour" (2008)
Recorded over a 2-year period of travelling through the Far East, and featuring field recordings of Sufi drummers and other exotic instrumentation, "The Golden Hour" was also the soundtrack to my own adventure (travelling through Algeria in 2009) and is therefore the Firewater album I have the strongest personal ties to, although I like all of their output. Like every other Firewater album, it has a unique flavour and atmosphere, but is at the same time instantly recognizable as the work of Tod A. (of former Cop Shoot Cop fame), mostly through his often sarcastic, but always very personal and honest lyrics. The perfect soundtrack for a Far East roadtrip!Calexico - "The Black Light" (1998)
My longtime appreciation of Calexico has earned me the nickname Alexico among some of my friends. And indeed there's no other band that takes up as much space in my record collection, that I have seen live that many (14!) times, or that has even made me travel to their place of origin & inspiration (Tucson, Arizona). A band whose lyrical topics revolve around borders and who at the same time break them down with their collaborative approach (both within the band, and with other artists), combining styles, instruments and influences from all over the world. When asked for my favourite Calexico album, my answer used to be "Feast of Wire" (which i love for its eclecticism), but when I spent time in Tucson in 2011 I found a new appreciation for their 1998 album "The Black Light", which I now love for the exact opposite reason: its cohesiveness and almost concept-album-type feel.
Giant Sand - "Tucson. A Country Rock Opera" (2012)
Speaking of concept albums and the city of Tucson, let's not forget Howe Gelb's Giant Sand (which were the training ground for Joey Burns and John Convertino before going on to form Calexico). Something of a cool cat and father to the alternative music scene in Tucson, Howe's musical output is vast, diverse and from varying quality, but this 2012 effort is truly a gem of an album, and worth getting almost for its beautifully artistic booklet alone, weren't the musical content as brillant as it is. Howe recruited young new talent from Tucson (therefore calling his outfit "Giant Giant Sand") and the resulting 19 tracks all carry this spirit of relaxed collaboration.
Seam - "Are you driving me crazy" (1995)
Accidently acquired from a former friend who had only bought it for its cool-looking cover which depicts a breaking wave, this album is maybe the best-hidden secret in my record collection. I have never met anyone who knows this album (or band, for that matter) and I doubt I ever will - unless you listen to it, or I happen to stumble into the Asian-American indie music scene. Seam consisted of a changing lineup that revolved around Korean-American Soo-Young Park, who did most of the songwriting and singing, although calling it whispering would maybe be more appropriate. The main attraction of Seam is the music, which is guitar-driven and oscillates between quiet, melodic contemplation and sudden outbursts of anger. The majority of their small fanbase seems to prefer their previous album "The problem is me", but i like this album with its higher share of slower, meandering songs even more.
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers - Hypnotic Eye (2014)
Fantastic comeback album from Tom Petty and his longtime companions, who show that they neither lost their touch nor their passion. Petty still delivers his trademark nasal Southern drawl, while guitarist Mike Campbell adds some tasteful lead guitar solos. The band show their entire range from rock to blues and even a hint of jazz, and the album has received strong reviews and been called one of his best. An incredible 35 years after "Damn the torpedoes" troubadour Petty proves that he's still a force to be reckoned with.
Last but certainly not least, this recommendation is also an obituary. Born in December 1938 in Oklahoma City, Cale died in July 2013 in San Diego, and has often been associated with the creation of the "Tulsa Sound" (a mixture of rockabilly, blues and jazz) and described as making "laid-back" music, because of his sparse arrangements, short songs, and slightly behind-the-beat playing. Well-respected by other musicians for his brillant musical output as well as his humble demeanor, Cale preferred to keep a low profile and let other people make hits with his music (Eric Clapton covered"Cocaine", Santana "Sensitive Kind", to name just a few). Though Cale himself wasn't too happy with the sound of his debut "Naturally", it certainly contains some of his most memorable songs and I especially love it for its trashy racoon cover as well :)