I could say this about almost any year: I heard a lot of great music in 2015 — and I surely missed even more. As I wrestled with the decision about what to include in this list, I kept thinking, Well, that album might have made my list if I’d listened to it a few more times. And of course, this list reflects my tastes, which lean toward the stuff that generally gets called indie-rock. My biggest regrets this time are not listening to more jazz, experimental music, world music and new classical music. The records I enjoyed the most in 2015 included quite a few by female singer-songwriters and bands from Australia and New Zealand. These were my favorites.
1. Joan Shelley: Over and Even
Joan Shelley is a singer-songwriter from Kentucky making old-fashioned folk songs. Her voice is utterly gorgeous and heart-piercing, with a quality that reminds me of Sandy Denny and Linda Thompson. Her key collaborator on this second album is Nathan Salsburg, who plays intricate patterns of notes on his acoustic guitar. (The record also features subtle harmony vocals by another Kentuckyan, Will Oldham, on a few tracks, along with contributions on several instruments by that ubiquitous Chicago musician James Elkington.) This is a quiet, intimate album, with one great song after another. I never get tired of hearing it. (No Quarter) joanshelley.net
2. Twerps: Range Anxiety
This band from Melbourne, Australia, plays the sort of guitar-based rock songs I remember bands in the 1980s playing back when I thought those bands sounded like 1960s bands. Back when we talked about jangly guitars. It’s bright, spirited pop music, with smartly constructed riffs and a delightful mix of male and female vocals delivering catchy melodies. (Merge) mergerecords.com/twerps
3. Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Of all the albums on my list, this is the one most likely to finish high on critics’ polls like Pazz & Jop. The world hardly needs me to point out that Courtney Barnett is a dynamite performer with some wonderfully witty and catchy tunes. But I will join in with that chorus of praise. In addition to all of her other talents, Barnett’s a terrific guitarist and many of the tracks really rock on her second album. (Or is it her debut, as many say? Depends on whether you count that excellent combo of her EPs that came out earlier). And the words of Barnett’s songs are remarkable — funny and insightful observations of life. (Mom+Pop) courtneybarnett.com.au
4. Joshua Abrams: Magnetoception
Like the previous albums Chicago musician Joshua Abrams recorded with his Natural Information Society group, this one — a sprawling two-record set on vinyl — might be categorized as jazz. But it feels more like Abrams’ music is in a category all its own, a hypnotic sort of experimental improvisation that draws on elements of African and Eastern music and art rock. Abrams frequently plays the guimbri, a three-stringed North African bass lute, on these tracks, collaborating with a bunch of top-notch musicians (Hamid Drake, Emmett Kelly, Jeff Parker, Lisa Alvarado and Ben Boye) as they explore every nook and cranny of their chords with probing intelligence. It all feels very organic. The instrumental tracks may seem minimalist and repetitive at first, but repeat listens reveal complex and highly compelling music. (Eremite) eremite.com/album/mte-63-64
5. Eleventh Dream Day: Works for Tomorrow
This Chicago group has been making music since the 1980s, with many fine records over the years. This ranks among its best. The core lineup recently added guitarist James Elkington, making this the first Eleventh Dream Day record since 1994 with two guitarists. That strengthens the ferocity of these performances. This is the sound of a veteran band that really knows how to play together, finding a new way to build on its time-tested formula. (Thrill Jockey) thrilljockey.com/artists/eleventh-dream-day
6. Godspeed You! Black Emperor: Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress
This Montreal collective — rock band or orchestra? — has made two albums now since reuniting in 2010 after a long hiatus. In the tradition of its best music, this is an epic symphony of guitars, violins and drums: foreboding, dark and powerful. (Constellation) cstrecords.com/cst111/
7. Laura Marling: Short Movie
Another confident record of memorable folk songs by one of today’s most talented singer-songwriter-guitarists. (Ribbon Music) lauramarling.com
8. Sleater-Kinney: No Cities to Love
After years apart, Sleater-Kinney came back together, sounding as brilliant and fierce as ever. A strong reunion album. (Sub Pop) sleater-kinney.com
9. Royal Headache: High
This garage band from Sydney, Australia, quickly slams out its punchy tunes, and you can almost see the sneer in those vocals. Like the best punk, it’s energetic and noisy but also damn catchy. (What’s Your Rupture?) royalheadache.com.au
10. Algiers: Algiers
Franklin James Fisher’s commanding gospel-influenced vocals emerge from a churning, dark mix of experimental rock, demanding to be heard amid the din. (Matador) algierstheband.com
In more or less descending order…
Wilco, Star Wars
The Necks, Vertigo
Ultimate Painting, Green Lanes
Salad Boys, Metalmania
Mikal Cronin, MCIII
Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color
Deaf Wish, Pain
Patty Griffin, Servant of Love
Ryley Walker, Primrose Green
Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
Viet Cong, Viet Cong
Jim O’Rourke, Simple Songs
Yo La Tengo, Stuff Like That There
Calexico, Edge of the Sun
William Basinski, Cascade and The Deluge
Radioactivity, Silent Kill
Negative Scanner, Negative Scanner
The Cairo Gang, Goes Missing
Thee Oh Sees, Mutilator Defeated at Last
Richard Thompson, Still
Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free
Universal Togetherness Band, Universal Togetherness Band
Wreckless Eric, AmERICa
Drinks, Hermits on Holiday
Belle and Sebastian, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld, Never Were the Way She Was
Dick Diver, Melbourne, Florida
Titus Andronicus, The Most Lamentable Tragedy
Mekons & Robbie Fulks, Jura
Protomartyr, The Agent Intellect
Speedy Ortiz, Foil Deer
Low, Ones and Sixes
The Tallest Man on Earth, Dark Bird Is Home
Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp
Bitchin Bajas and Natural Information Society, Autoimaginary
Maria Hackman, We Slept at Last
The Singleman Affair, The End of the Affair
The Chills, Silver Bullets
The Mekons took questions from the audience near the end of their set Monday evening at Chicago’s Poetry Foundation — which was billed as “A Quiet Night In with the Mekons: readings, writings and songs.” Someone asked what it was like being one of the last punk bands from the original 1977 era still standing. “We’ve had a long career, but it’s mostly because we haven’t thought of it as a career,” Jon Langford replied. Tom Greenhalgh observed that the music business tends to destroy bands and people. Rico Bell noted that the Mekons have stayed together for so long because they’re friends. And Lu Edmonds said, “The album that means the most to everyone in the band is the next one.”
The longevity and continued vitality of the Mekons are remarkable. This band just keeps going on and on, and I hope it never stops. Mekons tours don’t happen all that often, because the musicians are so spread out — some living in Chicago, others elsewhere in the U.S., some of them still residing in Great Britain, where the band got started. The group reconvened last week, practicing in Miller Beach, Ind., heading out on a short tour and making plans to record a new album — for the first time, making a record of new songs at a live performance. As Sally Timms explained Monday, “We’re doing to record a new record in the amount of time it takes to listen to it.”
Whenever Langford announces the band’s name and its place of origin in concert, he says, “We’re the Mekons from Leeds.” But since Langford and Timms live in Chicago, this city feels like the Mekons’ second home. And so it seemed fitting that the Mekons are playing four gigs in Chicago on this tour. I saw three of those shows: Friday, July 10, at the Square Roots Fest, a street festival in Lincoln Square; Saturday, July 11, at the Hideout; and Monday, July 13, at the aforementioned Poetry Foundation event. The Mekons are also playing another show at the Hideout on Wednesday.
All of the Mekons’ regular members were there except for bassist Sarah Corina. Dave Trumfio, who produced the Mekons’ 1994 record Retreat From Memphis, filled in on bass, with Langford introducing him as “Baron Von Trumfio.”
Mekons fans came from far and wide for these shows. On Saturday, I encountered people from St. Louis, Seattle, Austin, California and Kentucky at the Hideout. And I’ve talked with Chicago fans who are trekking to see the Mekons on Tuesday in Mineral Point, Wis., or at other shows east of Chicago. This is a band that inspires devotion from its fans — and the Mekons proved themselves worthy of such enthusiasm at their shows in Chicago over the past four days.
Even though they’re preparing to make a new record, they didn’t fill their concerts with those songs-in-progress. Instead, these were more like greatest-hits shows. On Friday, the Mekons threw down the gauntlet with their opening song, starting the show with that rampaging anthem, “Memphis, Egypt.” On Saturday, they saved that song for the end of the regular set. Both nights ended with their early punk classic, that urgent question “Where Were You?” Friday’s set included an especially lovely medley that blended the waltzes “Shanty” and “Wild and Blue.” Both nights were filled with rollicking rock, country hoedowns and plenty of choruses sung and shouted by the band’s four (or sometimes, even five) vocalists, prompting joyful singalongs and dancing in the crowd.
Greenhalgh, who’s really an essential part of this collective that lacks a single frontman, missed some Mekons concerts a few years ago. But he was back this time, and in great form, especially when he took the lead vocals on “(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian.” And it was a true pleasure to hear the Mekons delivering a charging version of another great song from the So Good It Hurts album, “Fantastic Voyage,” on both Friday and Saturday. (Saturday’s show also featured a kicking opening set by the Ungnomes, a local teen punk band led by Jon Langford’s son, Jimmy.)
Monday’s show was decidedly different, with unplugged performances of several songs as well as recitations of poetry, fiction and Mekons lyrics. The band’s lyrics, which were collected in the 2002 book Hello Cruel World, have always been highly literate. Often composed as a group effort — a process Timms discusses in a recent Poetry Magazine article — Mekons lyrics avoid feeling pretentious or stiff or overwrought, but they manage to sneak some rather sophisticated ideas and allusions worthy of academic footnotes into those rock ’n’ roll songs. And so, when the various members of the Mekons stood up on Monday to recite lyrics as if they were poems, it came off as rather impressive. And the stripped-down versions of Mekons songs were beautiful.
At all three of these shows, the Mekons were loose without being sloppy or shambolic. They flubbed a few lyrics here and there, but those moments just gave the Mekons another reason to laugh at themselves and carry on, making life-affirming music the way they’ve been doing since 1977.
The Mekons performing Friday, July 10, at the Square Roots Fest in Lincoln Square.
The Mekons performing Saturday, July 11, at the Hideout, with opening act the Ungnomes.
The Poetry Foundation
The Mekons performing Monday, July 13, at the Poetry Foundation.
Musicians thank their audiences all the time, but Jeff Tweedy did it even more than usual over the weekend at Solid Sound.
Time and again, he kept thanking his fans for allowing Solid Sound to happen. “It’s too nice of you guys to be here, to make this happen,” he said at one point. Of course, the same thing could be said of all festivals and concerts: They wouldn’t happen if nobody showed up. But it’s unusual to hear a rock star acknowledge that debt to his audience as explicitly as Tweedy did. He sounded humbled and maybe overwhelmed by the whole thing.
Tweedy’s band Wilco organizes the Solid Sound Festival every other year at Mass MoCA, aka the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, which has taken over the sprawling grounds of a 19th-century factory complex in North Adams, a town in the state’s northwest corner. That setting is one of the event’s key attractions: The surrounding landscape is bucolic, and the museum’s cleverly repurposed industrial spaces are filled with oversized, ambitious, eccentric and playful art.
Even though Wilco’s headquarters are in Chicago, North Adams is a second home of sorts for the band and its extended musical family. Solid Sound — which returned to the museum June 26-28 for its fourth edition — isn’t totally and completely about Wilco. It does feature other musicians of various genres, as well as standup comedy, films and assorted artsy happenings. But it all revolves around Wilco, and it’s designed with Wilco’s fans in mind. Would you really go to Solid Sound if you didn’t like Wilco?
This year’s festival felt even more Wilco-dominated than the previous fest, in 2013, because a couple of major musical acts, Taj Mahal and King Sunny Ade, canceled their appearances. And yet there were many sterling musical moments that had little or nothing to do with Wilco.
Luluc, a duo from Australia by way of Brooklyn, entranced with its luminous songs; singer Zoë Randell’s voice was chillingly lovely as it melded with Steve Hassett’s expressive guitar lines. After their regular set, they showed up in the museum for an unamplified “pop-up” performance, casting a spell over a small group of people sitting on the gallery floor.
Richard Thompson played his set in electric-guitar mode, focusing on songs from his new album, Still, which was recorded by Tweedy at the Wilco Loft. Perhaps he would have played more of his classics if he’d had more than an hour; he did return to the stage with his trio for a short encore: a rocking cover of the Otis Blackwell song “Daddy Rolling Stone.”
NRBQ, an old band that sounds rejuvenated with its new lineup, played the most party-inducing set of the weekend. The group’s longtime keyboardist, Terry Adams, was clearly having a blast, and Scott Ligon ripped through an extended guitar solo that was staggeringly great.
Other highlights of the weekend included Jeff Davis’ traditional folk songs; a slightly more modern take on that genre by Sam Amidon and Bill Frisell; the energetic indie rock of Speedy Ortiz and Parquet Courts, perhaps the only band all weekend that prompted anything that resembled moshing; the eloquent guitar instrumentals of William Tyler; and the placid breeziness of Real Estate — which was too mellow for many audience members, but still rather nice. (For the record, I missed the sets by the Felice Brothers, Mac DeMarco, Charles Lloyd and Cibo Matto because of schedule conflicts, and caught only a bit of Shabazz Palaces.)
The brilliant John Hodgman curated the comedy portion of Solid Sound, including hilarious improvisation by the group Superego. When Jessica Williams of The Daily Show and Phoebe Robinson took the stage, the two African-American comedians said they had a bet over how many black audience members there would be. (Robinson predicted five; Williams, seven). They asked any black people in the crowd to say “Woo!” and counted six. (Yes, it should be noted here that Solid Sound attracts an overwhelmingly white audience, though it is diverse in other ways, covering a wide age range but skewing toward middle-aged folks and families with kids.)
The weekend was filled with Wilco side projects. The band’s virtuoso guitarist, Nels Cline, showed off his art-school side with a solo set of evocative noises and textures, while the big screen behind him in the Hunter Center displayed a picture being painted and rapidly transformed by artist Norton Wisdom on the other side of the stage. Meanwhile, dancers choreographed by Sarah Elgart writhed inside colored fabric like fetuses desperate to escape the womb. This multimedia experience, called “Stained Radiance,” may sound a bit pretentious on paper, but it was an impressive and affecting spectacle.
Wilco’s remarkable drummer, Glenn Kotche, performed contemporary chamber music with former Kronos Quartet cellist Jeffrey Zeigler. It culminated with “The Immortal Flux,” a percussion piece composed by Kotche using recordings that evoke the history of the Mass MoCA building. Fifty volunteer percussionists played drums specially created for the occasion. Unfortunately, the muffled acoustics in the back of the big gallery space failed to convey all of the music’s nuances.
The Autumn Defense, the soft-rock band led by Wilco members John Stirratt and Pat Sansone, teamed up with the Australian band The Windy Hills for another unusual set. They played music composed and recorded for Spirit of Akasha, a film that celebrates an earlier surf movie with a cult following, Morning of the Earth. But this wasn’t typical surf rock. The Windy Hills’ songs, which dominated the set, were more like Crosby, Stills & Nash. Even when the Autumn Defense guys joined in for an instrumental jam, it had a hippy groove reminiscent of CSN’s “Long Time Gone.”
There was an also a museum exhibit showing an interactive Wilco timeline, with fans’ memories on Post-It notes. Elsewhere in the museum, a replica of Wilco’s stage setup gave fans a chance to see what it looks like standing by those guitars, keyboards and drums.
But of course, the main attractions were Wilco itself and Jeff Tweedy. Friday night’s headline concert was an all-acoustic show by Wilco — the first time the band has ever done a show that was unplugged from beginning to end. Some of the songs (including a couple from Tweedy’s days with Uncle Tupelo) were acoustic in the first place, but others sounded radically different in this format, with Cline’s lap steel guitar or trilling acoustic strings replacing electric riffs, as xylophone and melodica filled in for synthesizers and other layers from the full rock arrangements. This show came on the same day as the Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriage, and after Wilco played “Hesitating Beauty,” Tweedy commented: “I was thinking it’s so much nicer singing that song now that everyone can get married.”
SET LIST: Misunderstood / War on War / I’m Always in Love / Company in My Back / Hummingbird / Bull Black Nova / Handshake Drugs / Hesitating Beauty / She’s a Jar / One Wing / Kamera / New Madrid / Forget the Flowers / It’s Just That Simple / Airline to Heaven / Dawned on Me / I Got You (At the End of the Century) / Passenger Side / Outta Mind (Outta Sight) / Whole Love / Jesus, Etc. / Walken / The Thanks I Get / Theologians / A Shot in the Arm / ENCORE: True Love Will Find You in the End (Daniel Johnston cover) / We’ve Been Had / Casino Queen / Hoodoo Voodoo / I’m a Wheel
Saturday ended with a more typical Wilco concert, which began an hour early because of a rainstorm predicted for later in the night. As it turned out, the rain started falling before Wilco played the first notes of “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” and it kept falling throughout the show — but it never got bad enough to cut off the music. After all of the quiet strumming and banjo plucking on Friday night, Wilco came out ready to rock on Saturday night. The set was heavy on music from the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot era, including some of Wilco’s best obscurities, and it was as solidly entertaining as any Wilco show I’ve ever seen, the rain notwithstanding.
SET LIST: I’m the Man Who Loves You / Kamera / Candyfloss / I Am Trying to Break Your Heart / Art of Almost / At Least That’s What You Said / Either Way / Pot Kettle Black / Panthers / Sunken Treasure / Secret of the Sea / Heavy Metal Drummer / Born Alone / Laminated Cat (aka Not for the Season) / Ashes of American Flags / Hotel Arizona / Box Full of Letters / Impossible Germany / A Magazine Called Sunset / Via Chicago / ENCORE: Let’s Not Get Carried Away / Dark Neon / The Late Greats / Kingpin / Monday / Outtasite (Outta Mind)
On Sunday afternoon, the festival finished up with a set by Tweedy, the band behind 2014’s Sukierae album, which includes Jeff as well as his son Spencer on drums, plus Jim Elkington on guitar, Darin Gray on bass, Liam Cunningham on keyboards, and Sima Cummingham on harmony vocals. The songs from this record aren’t radically different from the style of Jeff Tweedy’s music with Wilco, but there’s a different dynamic among these players. The band stretched out a few moments with fierce krautrock-style repetition. When someone in the crowd called out, “You’re doing a good job, Jeff,” Tweedy thanked him for the vote of confidence. He said he must have the sort of face that prompts people to feel the need to offer words of encouragement. The sky was gray and a light drizzle fell as the band played. “This is the perfect weather for these songs, I think,” Tweedy remarked.
After an hour by Tweedy the band, Jeff Tweedy played a solo acoustic set. “I’m trying to think of the happiest songs I can play, to get you guys going,” he said. Before he played the Golden Smog song “Pecan Pie,” he said, “I don’t think this song has any death in it. I never know until I start singing. There’s just so much death.” Like usual, Tweedy was self-deprecating with his stage banter. Later, when Tweedy made a slight misstep in “Summerteeth,” he commented: “I know the words and the chords. I just wanted to display a little infallibility so the weekend isn’t too perfect.”
Various musicians who’d played during the festival came out and played with Tweedy. When Cibo Matto joined with him, the opening chords on Tweedy’s acoustic guitar sounded like “All Along the Watchtower,” but it turned out to be a cover of Madonna’s “Into the Groove.” When Tweedy played “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” he dedicated it to his wife, Sue, adding: “I always dedicate this song to her, and if I ever don’t dedicate it to her, I want you to know on the record, it is dedicated to her.”
Tweedy the band returned to the stage for the final segment of the concert, which included a faithful cover of John Lennon’s “God.” “You probably thought that was going to be the last song, didn’t you?” Tweedy said afterward. “It would have made sense … John Lennon mic drop.” But he had a few more songs to go. A big crowd of musicians joined him for “Give Back the Key to My Heart” and “California Stars,” with a grinning Bill Frisell taking a guitar solo on the latter song.
SET LIST — BAND: Hazel / Fake Fur Coat / Diamond Light Pt. 1 / Flowering / World Away / New Moon / Summer Noon / Honey Combed / Desert Bell / High As Hello / Wait For Love / Love Like a Wire (Diane Izzo cover) / Low Key / Nobody Dies Anymore / SOLO: Remember the Mountain Bed / Please Tell My Brother / Summerteeth / Pecan Pie / The Ruling Class / Chinese Apple (with Glenn Kotche and Ryley Walker) / Too Far Apart / Into the Groove (Madonna cover, with Cibo Matto and Nels Cline) / Grandpa Was a Carpenter (John Prine cover, with the Felice Brothers) / Harvest Moon (Neil Young cover, with Luluc) / Be Not So Fearful (Bill Fay cover, with John Stirratt and Pat Sansone) / I’m the Man Who Loves You / BAND: You Are Not Alone / Only the Lord Knows (Mavis Staples cover) / God (John Lennon cover, with Bill Frisell) / Losing End (Neil Young cover) / Give Back the Key to My Heart (Doug Sahm cover) / California Stars
Over the course of the three nights, Wilco and Tweedy repeated only a couple of songs, showing once again how rich their repertoire is. Wilco’s a rare example of a band with the depth, talent and creativity to justify and sustain an event like Solid Sound.