SEM’s Top 20 Albums of 2015 So Far…

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“We are not the same persons this year as last,” wrote W. Somerset Maugham.

Well, to be fair, our record collections aren’t, either.

With six months of 2015 already under our musical belts, our staff checks in with our favorite releases of the year.

…so far.

And even though a lot can happen in the next six months – for example, SEM favorites like Matthew Edwards and the Unfortunates, Deftones, Robb Benson, Bye Bye Blackbirds, Steve Wynn, Elephant Stone, Kylesa, The Telescopes, and Jimmer Podrasky are all currently preparing new releases – a lot has already happened, so we thought we’d check in and give you the breakdown.

– Alex Green, Editor-in-Chief, Stereo Embers Magazine

Dave Cantrell, Senior Music Editor

1. Granite Shore, Once More From the Top (Occultation Recordings)

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An almost nonchalantly accomplished masterpiece, there was really very little question once I heard this that there was going to be much competition for album of the year, never mind the first six months. Displaying a kind of energized languor combined with an element of audio cinéma vérité as it artfully traces the arc of a once-and-(possibly) still-glorious rock band, auteur Nick Halliwell took full advantage of his cast of legendary friends that have graced his label for years now – Phil Wilson (June Brides), Martin Bramah (Fall, Blue Orchids, Factory Star), Steve Perrin and Mike Finney (Distractions), Arash Torabi (pretty much all of the above), and more – to flesh out a debut album that patiently waited for everyone else to go first before throwing its profound shadow over 2015. A revelation.

2. The Pop Group, Citizen Zombie (Freaks R Us)

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There are comebacks, and then there are roaring comebacks. Count this reunion album by Bristol’s finest as among the latter. Why this particular band – all original members present – was able to return with such ferocity (though of the highly accessible type) while others of their generation haven’t quite managed to grab the golden ring – to be kind – is up to anyone’s guess but we put it down to a stubborn faith. Whatever the reason, though, what was perhaps most remarkable was the absence of a single moment of disappointment. Sure it took close on 35 years, but the phrase ‘worth the wait’ has seldom been more salient.

3. SLUG, RIPE (Memphis Industries)

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Dazzling debuts have been dazzling into our ears at something approaching an unprecedented level this year – a handful of runners up on this list for me were also first efforts – and here’s another one, Sunderland band SLUG emerging from the, ahem, Field (Music, whose Brewis brothers both produced and played on) fully formed in a way that would suggest that sometimes evolution skips all those pesky in-between steps and just pushes forward into near-ideal. Rounding up, assimilating, reshaping and then distilling a dizzying hodgepodge of apparent influence into their own heady, percolated stew, you’ll hear notes and nuances of everyone from B-52’s, Gruppo Sportivo, Crowded House (via Kool & the Gang and no we weren’t kidding), soupçons of Steely Dan and of course the Brewis lads themselves. Put it all together – craftily, mind – and you get an album that refuses to leave your head even when the next resident, er, record, has arrived to take its place.

4. TORRES, Sprinter (Partisan Records)

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While all the world is salivating, and rightly so, over the masterful sophomore album by Courtney Barnett, we’ve got news for everybody: another second album by another righteously powerful female singer/songwriter may just eclipse it. The work of corn-fed Kansan Mackenzie Scott, Sprinter was recorded in PJ Harvey’s original backyard (Bridport, Dorset, in the UK) using Robert Ellis and Ian Olliver from the Dry sessions and so the influence of Ms Polly Jean cannot be overlooked but the fact that TORRES has taken those smart incendiary cues and not only run with them but reconstituted them along the way puts paid to even the slightest idea that this was a work of aesthetic mimicry. Whereas the impetus of that 1992 record might be cited, the songs here are Scott’s and Scott’s alone. Brooding but no-bullshit, vulnerable but fiercely so, this is the album that (deservedly) has catapulted the just-turned 23 artist from the respected fringes to the raging center of the spotlight.

5. Duke Garwood, Heavy Love (Heavenly Recordings / PIAS)

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An ephemerally, umm, heavy record that’s loaded with enough restless epiphanies to keep the ghost of James Joyce smiling knowingly behind his little round glasses, Heavy Love was one of those records that figures out how to take the experiences of the artist making it and turn them into intimate yet universal travelogues of the heart. Enlisting fellow travelers Mark Lanegan, Josh Homme, and Taureg desert-blues masters Tinariwen, Garwood was able to trace limn lines of his peripatetic adventurer’s life and weave them into a narrative that’s so immersively compelling it’s quite easy to lose track of where you are while listening to it. Gems abound this year, and the scuffed luster on this one may be deepest of all.

Paul Gleason, Managing Editor

1. The Black Ryder, The Door Behind the Door (The Anti-Machine Machine)

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Once in a while, a record comes along that’s so intricate in its production, so moving in its performance, and so immediate in its emotion that you know – upon your first listen – that you’ll return to it again and again. You know right away that the record is so indelible that it will be there for you when you want to put on headphones late at night in a dark room and analyze its subtleties. But, mainly, you know that it will be there for you when you want to experience the sheer cathartic passion that only the best music can give. The Black Ryder’s The Door Behind the Door is this album.

2. Sonic Jesus, Neither Virtue Nor Anger (Fuzz Club Records)

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The 16 songs on this double album perfectly capture passion in all its permutations, reveling in their ecstasy. Sonic Jesus know that the task that they’ve set for themselves as artists is to compose and perform music that renders these moments. And, impossible and miraculous as it may seem, they’ve succeeded brilliantly on Neither Virtue Nor Anger.

3. Tess Parks & Anton Newcombe, I Declare Nothing (A Recordings)

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Throughout his career, Anton Newcombe (the leader of The Brian Jonestown Massacre) has repeatedly and inarguably exemplified the thrilling results that occur when one, to misuse the words of Mike Love, “fucks with the formula” and remains true to one’s vision. As a lead vocalist and lyricist, Tess Parks proves herself a smoldering singer with a penchant for digging deep inside herself to write deeply introspective words. What happens when the two join forces? The gritty, self-revelatory, and heart-wrenching I Declare Nothing.

4. Sun Kil Moon, Universal Themes (Caldo Verde)

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Mark Kozelek’s words universalize his existential experience to the point where his songs are his life or his life are his songs – take your pick. Artist and art are one, and you cry, laugh, and remember along with him. Death is the universal theme that pervades the record – death that, without paradox for Kozelek, makes everything in life shine brightly and, as he says in the song “Little Rascals,” “beautiful.”

5. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)

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At its best, Sufjan Steven’s music breathes empathy. And Carrie & Lowell could be his best and most intimate album yet. His voice is so intimate that it whispers confessions and hard-earned truths directly in your ear. These confessions concern Stevens’ mother Carrie, who passed away in 2012 (she suffered from a bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and stomach cancer). Lowell – Stevens’ stepfather – reamains a shining force and guiding light in Sufjan’s life, just like Carrie & Lowell will remain in yours.

Alex Green, Editor-In-Chief

1. Dodge McKay, Yesterday, Today And Tomorrow (Self-Released)

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Dodge McKay’s new album Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow is a stunning song cycle that addresses love, loss, memory and desire with a tuneful, poetic finesse and a crushing emotional precision. Although they seem like steady, impenetrable ideals, the past, the present and, ultimately the future, are, in many ways just metaphors, as vulnerable as the temporal body is to time and McKay’s songs survey this terrain with an aching exactitude. The Irish-born singer/songwriter, who made two brilliant albums in the early ’90s with his band Ghost Of An American Airman, is the kind of singer who knows how to embody a song. His voice is a rich and wondrous thing and in a single phrase he has the ability to hit you square in the heart. The mournful “All My Days” is an unflinching look at loss; “I Remember You,” is a reflective look back and “Soldiers” is a moving narrative about the cost of war that sounds like the elder cousin of New Order’s “Love Vigilantes.” Elsewhere, there’s the spry “Belfast Boy,” the rolling beauty of “Island Man,” and the devastatingly lovely “Used To Be…” which is one of the most gorgeous, heartbreaking songs ever written. Good to have him back.

2. Kail Baxley, A Light That Never Dies (Forty Below)

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Kail Baxley sounds like Van Morrison if he had grown up in South Carolina and was weaned on Larry Brown’s Big Bad Love. In many ways A Light That Never Dies is Baxley’s Astral Weeks, but shot thick with the swampy fever of the South and embroidered with the soulful lamentations that can only come from the heartsick, the lovelorn, the lonely and the lost. Baxley’s voice is a stirring thing–it’s something you’ve known but never heard, something you’ve needed but never been able to find–and it gently stretches its wingsapan through numbers like the utterly rousing title track or the heaving mercy of “Tell The Falling Sun” with a rare and soulful grace. Produced by Eric Corne and Baxley himself, A Light That Never Dies is an instant classic–it finds that rare groove that pivots from Sam Cooke to Amy Winehouse and back again. There are touches of the blues, hints of ska and calypso and miles and miles of soul. There’s the finger-snapping blues of “Mr. Downtown,” while “Morning Light” sounds like summer in reverse, memory going backwards, and time freezing into a still life.

3. Jeremy Bass, New York In Spring (Self-Released)

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On his new album, New York In Spring, New York City slinks around Jeremy Bass’s classically trained guitar lines and those same guitar lines return the favor and slink right back.There’s a lot of slinking going on around here and for good reason: Bass’s new album is a slow dance with a city circled in lights; a sensual tango with a season in full bloom.Taking its inspiration from the classic Bossa Nova albums of the ’50s and ’60s, Bass’s new effort is a long and generous gaze down both the elegant streets of New York City and the bittersweet avenues of the past and trying to figure out what both of them mean. New York In Spring is one of the most uplifting, graceful and charming albums in recent memory. An elegant confluence of Cole Porter and Sondre Lerche, Bass’s clever worldplay and musical finesse are wondrous things.  It’s a guided tour of the city as much as it is a guided tour of the heart.

4. Golden Curtain, Hell Is Other People (Self-Released)

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So, how great is this New Zealand band, you might be wondering? Beyond great. Not only have their first two albums been my albums of the year (2013, 2014), their new one is set to score a hat trick. And it’s not even out yet! Set to be released in the next few days, Hell Is Other People might very well be their best work yet. A big crunchy blast of scruffy pop with some of the catchiest choruses you’re likely to ever run into, this is absolutely unforgettable stuff. From the rousing title track to the prowling wonder of “Laughing Wolf,” every number is a straight up winner.

5. Kimm Rogers, Where the Pavement Grows (Self-Released)

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A haunting meditation on fleeting beauty and our temporary, shaky place in the world, Kimm Rogers’ Where The Pavement Grows is a stunning sonic study of what happens in the extraordinary moments of our ordinary lives. A riveting ten-song collection, produced by Julian Coryell (Leonard Cohen, Aimee Mann), Where The Pavement Grows is a textured collection that brings to mind Daniel Lanois’ work on Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball. It’s gentle and sensual and allows Rogers’ voice to float between the layers and glide freely in and out of the compositions.And what a voice Rogers has—a sterling blend of everyone from Marianne Faithful to Carla Olson, she’s one of the few singers around who possesses sheer confidence and a world-weary vulnerability. In fact, it’s this combination that gives her work such quiet authority and wisdom. To borrow Saul Bellow’s phrase, Rogers is an open-wound of a woman and nowhere is this more evident than on the sweeping title track when she declares, “Sometimes it’s hard just to feel profound…”

Scott Hanavan, Contributing Writer

1. A Place to Bury Strangers, Transfixiation (Dead Oceans)

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While remaining addicted to noise, lead guitarist and vocalist Oliver Ackermann has taken his bandmates – bassist Dion Lunadon and drummer Robi Gonzalez (who makes his first appearance on a APTBS record) – on a journey to a new sonic place, one filled with dark lyrical themes and complex song structures. He’s led them to a place called Transfixiation, which balances their attack more than ever before, with the rhythm section coming to the fore on many songs and holding its own with the guitar scorchers. But Ackermann’s guitar and effects pedals still lead the way, making APTBS one of the most creative bands on the planet. He’s a one-man Sonic Youth in his ability to will never-before-thought-of ideas and textures out of his guitars and pedals. And Transfixiation is APTBS’ finest album to date.

2. The Soft Moon, Deeper (Captured Tracks)

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Luis Vasquez, who records and performs as The Soft Moon, is well aware of the despair that plagues his life. But he’s engaged in a courageous and rare quest to overcome his despair and become himself through the act of making music. Deeper feels like a realization of authenticity – a point at which Vasquez always knew he would arrive if he stayed true to himself and followed his vision. It’s The Soft Moon’s most accessible album, and it’s loaded with the most musical hooks and the most confident vocals of Vasquez’ career. But Deeper is really so accessible because Vasquez puts his authentic self on display for all to see. Unafraid, he harnesses the inner chaos that swirls inside him and makes sophisticated musical structures, creates indelible vocal melodies, and writes some of the most painfully honest lyrics that you’ll ever hear.

3. Viet Cong, Viet Cong (Jagjaguwar/Flemish Eye)

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On their debut album, Viet Cong have tapped into the 1970s like no other band. Viet Cong is the logical progression of Roxy Music, Brian Eno, Berlin-era David Bowie, and Krautrock. But it’s more than that. It’s an LP that’s the result of a band answering the following question: “What would happen if the experimental pop of the 1970s somehow infiltrated the sound of power pop and indie rock bands?” Most likely, an unheard of music, replete with energy, hooks, electronics, and prog textures.

4. Moon Duo, Shadow of the Sun (Sacred Bones Records)

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This half-Colorado half-Portland-by-way-of-San Francisco couple’s album Shadow of the Sun shows the band in prime shape and ready to rule the world via rocking punkedelic fiat. With new drummer John Jeffrey on board, Ripley Johnson and Sanae Yamada show their love for Krautrock rhythms, simple-but-effective guitar, and dreamy, psychedelic soundscapes. Set your controls for the Shadow of the Sun.

5. Föllakzoid, III (Sacred Bones Records)

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Föllakzoid’s III consists of four songs, all of which immerse you in a trance-like state that invites you to break on through to the other side. The guitar sound may come from Loop, Can, and Spacemen 3. The rhythms may come from Kraftwerk. But Föllakzoid, under the guidance of producer Uwe Schmidt, have created a set of songs that transcend these influences in four powerful and detailed tracks.

  • Barrison Hughes

    Great. A bunch of hipster bullshit no one’s heard and most likely won’t bother to hear. I visit this place every now and then to give you guys a mercy view because no one else will, but if all you can offer is a list of a neckbeard’s masturbatory accoutrements, then even I’m going to have to stop.

    Sorry to hear that a new Elephant Stone album is forthcoming. Gleason will be doing nothing but dry humping it into oblivion for months after its release. If I want half-assed psychedelic bullshit, I’ll stick with Jefferson’s Airstarship Starship.