Favorite Albums of 2015

I think this year was a pretty decent year for music, despite the fact that the majority of my favorite artists did not release new albums. That simply meant I looked outside my sweet spot for new music and for someone my age that’s a good thing. No point in letting yourself get stale. A lot of people my age say there’s no good music out there anymore, but I couldn’t disagree more. You just have to look, or rather listen. I suppose I could play the same artists over and over and be happy, but for me the hunt is as fun as the catch. There’s a new documentary film out this year about the history of Tower Records called All Things Must Pass. And while I have not seen it yet, the trailer reminded me of how important Tower Records was to me in my youth. I literally considered hanging out at Tower Records a night out, flipping through the rows of LPs, talking with pierced and tatted employees about the latest records, copping a squat by the magazine rack looking through copies of NME and Rolling Stone. When I worked at a record store in college I expanded my musical tastes exponentially because I was able to be exposed to so much new music.

These days, SiriusXM has become my Tower Records. I can listen to my favorites from the 80s on First Wave, the 90s on Lithium, or rock on Classic Vinyl. But more often than not I tune into The Spectrum, and in addition to my favorites I hear new music by bands I’ve never heard of…and some of them stick. And some of them become my new favorites, like The National, Phoenix, Mumford and Sons and Arcade Fire. Even better, by subscribing to a streaming music service like Google Play I can listen to entire albums by new bands to go beyond the hit tracks and see if there’s more there. Or I can read about an artist on the web and give them a listen without making a commitment. Some of them turn out to be duds, but more than a few end up on my year-end favorites list. Which brings me back to my favorite albums of 2015, which consists of a nice mix of established artists and newer artists.

First, a few honorable mentions. I really liked the new Blur record The Magic Whip, especially on the heels of Damon Albarn’s amazing solo album from last year, Everyday Robots.  25 by Adele is exactly what we expected, and although for me it’s nowhere near as good as 19 and 21, it’s still Adele and it’s still wonderful. Sound & Color by Alabama Shakes is bluesy goodness. Squeeze delivered a nice little reminder of why Difford and Tilbrook will always be among the best songwriters in rock and roll history with their first new album in decades — Cradle to the Grave. And speaking of history, one of the biggest surprises of the year for me was Pete Townshend’s reinterpretation of Quadrophenia with the Royal Philharmonic — seriously, give this a listen. Kintsugi by Death Cab For Cutie is a solid (though not great) album by one of my favorite bands. Finally, while it won’t be released until Dec. 18, early indications are that I’m really going to like Cage the Elephant’s Tell Me I’m Pretty (which was produced by Dan Auerbach). And now, here are my 10 favorite albums of 2015:

10. Beneath the Skin by Of Monsters and Men —  This follow-up to the Icelandic band’s first album, 2012’s My Head is an Animal, is really great. It’s quite a bit more mellow than their debut, which was one of my favorite albums of 2012. While it’s probably a disappointment sales-wise following the huge success of My Head is an Animal (which sold more than two million copies), it nevertheless delivers the same lovely and moving sound of Nanna Hilmarsdóttir’s voice.

9. Return to the Moon by El Vy — What a happy surprise  it was when I heard Return to the Moon on the radio the first time and couldn’t believe The National had a new album out that I didn’t know about. Well, turns out it was indeed The National’s Matt Berninger on lead vocals but it was a side project not a new album by one of my favorite bands. I don’t know what it is these days, but musical collaboration seems to be on the rise. I have to admit I wasn’t familiar with Brent Knopf before hearing this album, but I’m sure glad he and Matt decided to do an album together.

8. California Nights by Best Coast — Lead singer Bethany Cosentino cited Gwen Stefani, Sugar Ray and the Go Go’s as influences for California Nights and the result is pure California pop goodness. I don’t hear much No Doubt in the album, but there’s most definitely a Go Go’s vibe and frankly a Beach Boys vibe. This is Best Coast’s third studio album and the second to make my year-end list. They are the perfect example of a band I never would have found without doing some work — and I’m so glad I did.

7. A Head Full of Dreams by Coldplay — I’m an unapologetic fan of all things Coldplay but even I have to admit last year’s Ghost Stories album was a disappointment. And I was as surprised as everyone else when Coldplay announced a new album this fall, and I was skeptical, but after just a few listens I really like it. It’s upbeat with a bit of a dance edge and has 11 really solid songs on it, especially the disco-infused title track. Welcome back Chris and friends.

6. All Your Favorite Bands by Dawes — This band from Los Angeles tend to get put in the “folk rock” category but I think they are in a category of their own I like to call “California Cool.” I probably did not coin that genre, but it fits. Think 1970s California soft rock — Jackson Browne and the Eagles. This is perfect music for cruising up the coast in a convertible, which is exactly what I was doing when I discovered Dawes a few years ago. I hope your brother’s El Camino runs forever.

5. Love Stuff by Elle King — Quite the debut album from 26-year-old Tanner Elle Schneider, aka Elle King. With a huge voice and a bad-ass attitude to go along with it, King is the anti-Taylor Swift and wants you to know it. She may not be America’s Sweetheart, but she’ll be around for a long time if she keeps writing songs like Ex’s and Oh’s. I can envision dad Rob Schneider sitting up in the balcony yelling “you can do it.”

4. Yours, Dreamily by The Arcs — Released on Sept. 4 (my son’s birthday), this album featuring the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach did not disappoint. Yes, it sounds like the Keys, but if you’ve read my favorite albums lists over the past decade you already know how much I love the Black Keys. This solo project has a nice blues/soul feel that is a little less raw than the Keys, and while “Outta My Mind” could have easily been a hit for the Keys, my favorite tracks are deeper on the album, especially Put a Flower in Your Pocket. Recorded at the Sound Factory in LA, this album got a lot of plays on my stereo this fall.

3. Positive Songs for Negative People by Frank Turner — In 2013 I kept hearing this song on XM called Recovery by Frank Turner and it really grew on me. I had never heard of Turner but I listened to the whole album and really liked it. This year Turner released his sixth album and I really love it. Turner’s music is acoustic post-punk folk with a hard edge and great lyrics. I’m sure fans of his early work think he is too mellow these days, but there’s nothing wrong with being more accessible.

2. Wilder Mind by Mumford & Sons — Babel was my favorite album of 2012 and it is sure to land high on the list of my favorite records of the decade, so imagine how excited I was when the band announced it would release its third album in 2015 but that it would be more modern and would not include the banjo. What! The Mumfords without a banjo? Sacrilege! Guess what? Wilder Minds is tremendous and I think Believe is probably my favorite Mumford & Sons song ever. So they evolved. What’s wrong with that? I absolutely love Wilder Mind and listen to it all the time, and almost six months later I still turn the volume up when Believe or The Wolf comes on the radio.

1. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World by The Decemberists — 2015 began with this gift from the Decemberists and the album never stopped delivering. Frankly, it wasn’t even close this year — this album is head and shoulders above the rest for me. I was fortunate as well to see them live early this year and they were spectacular.  Make You Better was easily my favorite song of the year, and the lesser known and hauntingly beautiful Lake Song stands out as well. The Decemberists have firmly planted themselves near the top of my list of favorite bands and I look forward to many years of new music from Colin and the band.

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Len’s Favorite Books of 2013

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It’s really difficult to compile a list of the top books in a given year because like a lot of people I tend to read books based on their position on my “to read” list rather than by chronology. Some books sit on my list for a while before I pick them up to read, while others come out and immediately get elevated to the top spot. It’s not at all scientific – it’s quite random and based on mood. One thing that I did do this year without straying is read fiction and listen to non-fiction. I’m not sure why I did it – but for some strange reason I decided to listen to audio versions of non-fiction this year and read (eBook or paper) novels. So, here are the five best novels and five best works of non-fiction I read/heard this year:

Fiction

  • Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (2012). I’d go as far as to say Beautiful Ruins was one of the best novels I’ve read in many years. I’m a sucker for novels that span generations and this tale takes the reader back and forth between the 1950s and present day and of course brings everything together at the end. A wonderfully crafted book that is funny, romantic,  adventurous and loosely tied to real events.  Like a lot of readers this was my first Jess Walter novel and I can’t wait to delve deeper into his  canon.

  • Pickett’s Charge by Charles McNair (2013).  More than two decades in the making, the second novel from Charles McNair was worth the wait. Pickett’s Charge is a crazy, odd, funny and downright surreal romp through the Alabama countryside with one of the most interesting characters you’ll ever want to meet. I’m proud to call Charles a friend and absolutely loved this crazy novel.

  • Back to Blood  by Tom Wolfe (2012). Back to Blood is not on par with Bonfire of the Vanities or A Man in Full, but it is a great read with wonderful characters and a sarcastic wit. I love Tom Wolfe and Back to Blood simply confirmed this for me. Wolfe fans old and new will love it

  • The Lowland  by Jhumpa Lahiri (2013). I love Jhumpa Lahiri and have read all of her books, and I have to say I think The Lowland is her best yet. One of the things I like best about reading fiction is that you get to see life through the perspective of diverse people. Lahiri brings her readers into the world of Indian-Americans and that is a unique experience for a white dude like me. On top of that she is such a beautiful and fluid writer that she is a pleasure to read.

  • Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore  by Robin Sloan (2012). Mr. Penumbra was a very enjoyable novel with a great plot and modern writing full of fun tech and geek references. I figured I’d like a novel that took place in a bookstore, especially one with a special secret that gives it a sort of DaVinci Code appeal. I also loved how Sloan brings in Google to play off the ancient intrigue of the secret society looking for clues to immortality.

Non-Fiction

  • Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail  by Cheryl Strayed (2012). Like so many stories I read I began listening to Wild on audio with few pretensions. I have read my share of “lost and found” stories, and I generally like them which was one reason I purchased Wild in the first place. What I loved so much about Wild was Strayed’s honesty. She bares her soul in this book and you can’t help but respect the hell out of her for it. I love that as a woman alone in the wilderness she shared her innermost thoughts about what she saw and most importantly who she met.
  • Who I Am by Pete Townshend (2012). Excellent autobiography! Townshend was honest, open and interesting. Highly recommended for any fan of The Who and rock & roll in general.
  • Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach (2013). Roach takes listeners on a strange and sometimes gross journey down the alimentary canal, discussing the human digestive system from top to…er…bottom. Classic interviews with scientists and researchers who study things like the influence of the sense of smell on eating habits, understanding how stomach acid works from stories about animals and even one human who had a hole in their bodies so researchers could watch how acid dissolves food, and one about doctors who have seemingly cured recurring c-diff infections by transplanting another persons shit into the patient’s colon.
  • How To Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric (2012). They say when the student is ready the teacher appears, and such was the case this summer with this great little instruction book. I was inspired by Krznaric as well as those he discusses in the book and I’m fairly certain this book helped me feel comfortable about my decision to leave my job in San Diego and move to Phoenix without a job. It also made my decision to go to work for a nonprofit much easier. If you are at all uncertain about the path of your career, read this little book and do the exercises to find out what motivates you and how to find work that aligns.
  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2006). I picked up this monster after having seen the film Lincoln last year — the film was based on a portion of the book. DKG leaves no stone unturned in this wonderful tale of how Lincoln convinced congress to support him with the emancipation proclamation. It’s really a story of political genius as much as the story of Lincoln’s life and presidency. At more than 32 hours it is not for the faint of heart though. But once I committed I had to see it through to the conclusion, just as Lincoln did when he decided to make a mark on the world with his presidency. Amazing detail that tells the story of perhaps the most crucial period of our democracy.

As always, for reviews of every book I read and to see what’s on my “to read” list feel free to friend me on Goodreads.