It's the end of the year as we know it, and we've been so enraptured by local releases alone — new albums from acts we know and love (Brave Baby, She Returns from War, Dumb Doctors, and Matt Monday, to name a few) as well as debuts from newbies that blew us away, like the High Divers, FALINE, Little Stranger, Dei Mozzi, Billie Fountain, and Secret Guest. But the Holy City scene has done a lot more than make albums in 2015.
Dubbed by some as the next Austin, Charleston hosted the city's first music conference, New Music Confab, at the end of the summer. Manny Houston, a.k.a. Alan Fame, made it his mission to merge indie and hip-hop on one bill, bringing the latter to the forefront of the scene. A local favorite, King Dusko, closed, but places like Woolfe Street Playhouse opened its doors to local shows. Fans opened up their homes, too, which is one of the reasons why Pop-Up Charleston blew up this year and brought live music to many a crowded living room. Jump, Little Children reunited, and Band of Horses' Ben Bridwell collaborated with everyone from Brave Baby and Iron and Wine to David Higgins and SUSTO. Ye Olde Music Shop's Michael Davis launched the first ever Lowcountry Music Hall of Fame, while Ohm Radio hit the airwaves as the city's only community-run-and-supported, commercial-free radio station. Downtown finally has a new record haven, thanks to Aaron Levy's the Vinyl Countdown. And don't forget how Hi Harmony brought every genre celebrated in Charleston to the Music Hall stage, reminding us that music can be the key to connecting with one another and establishing a sense of community.
Somehow, we found the time to step back and check out the music that's being made everywhere else, too. We asked our writers to tell us about the three albums they felt were particularly baller this year. Here's what everyone said:
Kelly Rae Smith
Asaf Avidan, Gold Shadow
- Asaf Avidan, 'Gold Shadow'
On most Sundays, I listen to NPR's First Listen. During one show, I discovered Israeli folk-rock artist, Asaf Avidan, and his soulful, melodic Gold Shadow. Avidan's voice takes you by surprise at first, like nothing you've heard before — think Billie Holiday meets Macy Gray, but, you know, a dude. That voice instantly has you hooked as it wails and gorgeously sails through genres, turning his obviously old-school influence into something that's absolutely modern and all his own. In "Ode to My Thalamus" alone, the singer shuffles from Tom Waits-like, trumpet-backed storytelling to a swelling, harmony-rich chorus that explains to a lover, "It's taking us apart, this Helicase of love/ We're nothing but post-modern art, what were we thinking of/ This is how it has to be." Elsewhere, you'll also find disco pop mingling with Motown, funk grooves, blues, electronic beats, and folk. Everywhere you look — whether it's in the symphonic backdrops, operatic, echoing vocals, or crying organ tones — Gold Shadow is a clean but majestic work worthy of repeat rotation and the most unforgettable album I've encountered this year.
I loved Guster in 2003 but honestly haven't listened to them a whole lot since that year's Keep it Together. When I heard the band would be coming to the Charleston Music Hall, I decided to take a trip down memory lane and found myself unable to venture past this year's Evermotion. In some ways, this is still Guster — the storytelling, the hooks — but Evermotion, produced by Richard Swift (The Shins, Damien Jurado, Foxygen), takes their sound to a different level. Layered with everything from brass and xylophone to synth and vocal harmonies, the result is a sound that wavers between 1960s psych and new wave-pop and brings Guster up-to-date in ways that are playful and moody all at once. What a wonderful surprise.
Of Monteral, Aureate Gloom
My love for Aureate Gloom is probably directly influenced by the totally bonkers performance the band put on this year at the Pour House. Wild, jungle-like scenes were projected onto the band and, well, everywhere else, too, transforming the venue into an exotic, other worldly place — and we didn't even have to drop acid to go there. This new release from the Athens-based band is a hooky, oddball, psychedelic indie-pop masterpiece — Of Montreal through and through. Their 16th album to date, Aureate is exciting in that it proves that the band, around since the '90s, can still create the perfect atmosphere, both in the studio and on stage, that can take you out of your shitty, mundane existence and into a colorful, cuckoo world where you can have some fun again.
Lindsay Anne Bower
Miami Horror, All Possible Futures
- Miami Horror, 'All Possible Futures'
Have you ever found yourself driving around Miami in a white Sebring convertible, top down, frantically flipping through a sea of terrible reggaeton and backyard barbecue hip-hop radio stations? Never again, my friend. Play this instead, because this whole album is what your brain should think of when it hears the word "Miami." In the dark depths of awful January, arguably the worst month of the year, listen to "Another Rise, Another Fall," and you'll be on a yacht in Biscayne Bay in no time ... unless you don't want to be there, in which case, more room for me and my friends.
Tame Impala, Currents
My favorite Tame Impala songs on their previous albums were always the "sexy" ones — and I hate that word — but there's really no other way to describe them. Currents is an album full of super sexy, soulful, psychedelic awesomeness, so much so that I feel like this is an album for people to have sex to that don't have sex to albums. So turn on "'Cause I'm a Man," and get to sexin'.
Gwenno, Y Dydd Olaf
No, that's not an autocorrect fail. It's an album sung entirely in Welsh based on a 1976 sci-fi novel. Gwenno Saunders, who is obviously Welsh, was, at one time, a member of the Pipettes, a pretty-sweet-in-their-own-right, retro-inspired pop girl group, but now she makes beautiful, electropop on her own. She's sort of like our generation's version of Enya, except much more hip and much younger. Also, she used to tour with Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance when she was a little girl, and that fact alone deserves mad respect.
Natalie Prass, Natalie Prass
When Natalie Prass' self-titled debut studio album dropped in January, it unknowingly forecast the year's most noticeable trend — new female voices with something to say. Leaving an unresponsive Nashville behind, she ventured to the burgeoning music city of Richmond, Va. and to singer-songwriter Matthew E. White's Spacebomb Records studio to create a spellbinding album of country soul that found a home on indie-rock stations. The success of single "Bird of Prey" proved that the gas money spent heading east was well spent.
Elle King, Love Stuff
- Elle King, 'Love Stuff'
Elle King is still at the point in her career where writers mention that her father is Deuce Bigalow, a.k.a. Rob Schneider, but the young chanteuse has quickly made a name for herself in the music world. Before her debut album Love Stuff dropped in February, King was best known for providing the theme song for VH1's Mob Wives series. Now with the smash hit "Ex's and Oh's" marking her as only the second female artist to hold the No.1 spot on Billboard's Alternative Songs chart since 1996, her attitude and a voice that calls to mind the rockabilly femme fatales of decades past have made her a talent that will be a major force in rock for years to come.
Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett's debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit would have gained some small attention from music critics just on the name alone. Not long after pressing play, the listener discovers that Barnett has more insight regarding where that title came from. The album works as a showcase for the young singer's rambling, humorous lyrics that bring to mind a latter-day Loudon Wainwright III, if he'd been less coffeehouse and more grunge.
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
- Kendrick Lamar, 'To Pimp a Butterfly'
In a year when race was never far from our national headlines, Kendrick Lamar delivered the most complicated, complex, convoluted, and, most importantly, accurate artistic statement about contemporary race relations than we've heard in a long time. With production every bit as stunning and ambitious as Lamar's multitudinous raps, Lamar makes the case for the album being the most powerful and influential metric of an emcee's prowess. While you can quibble with the length and song selection of Butterfly's 16 tracks, there's no denying the weighty heft and large shadow Lamar cast over 2015.
Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Courtney Barnett is kind of what I always wanted for the "Bob Dylan of my generation," only I didn't realize it until I came across this record. Her Australian accent and penchant for grungy '90s guitar rock are a great starting point, but it's the mixture of deadpan humor, free association, and profound observations of the smallest details that truly has me head over heels. And the fact that she can wrap these tunes up into endlessly re-playable rock nuggets is nothing short of extraordinary.
Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, Surf
In many ways the sunny mirror-image of Lamar's Butterfly, this Chicago collective spearheaded by Donnie Trumpet and Chance the Rapper brought in an avalanche of guest artists (Busta Rhymes, J. Cole, Erykah Badu, Big Sean, and Janelle Monae, among others) and sewed all of their contributions together in an incredibly organic, free-flowing album that moves smoothly from down-tempo jazz fusion, upbeat gospel, Motown-style funk-pop, and neo-soul grooves all in the service of creating a distinctive aesthetic that hopefully harkens yet another turn in the story of Chicago hip-hop.
Ghostface Killah & Adrian Younge, 12 Reasons to Die II
- Ghostface Killah & Adrian Younge, '12 Reasons to Die II'
The violent story of a resurrected mobster told over gritty '70s soul — this is the type of album Quentin Tarantino would make. Fortunately, he did not, and we have Ghostface Killah to tell the story of Tony Starks, a mob enforcer knocked off by his former employer, pressed into a dozen vinyl records, and resurrected as a force of vengeance. For this installment, Ghostface is joined by Raekwon, who plays a strong supporting role, but the biggest player is Younge, a multi-instrumentalist producer capturing the sound and feel of a blaxploitation shoot-em-up.
Deafheaven, New Bermuda
New Bermuda feels a bit like a response to all those who said Deafheaven was too accessible on their 2013 breakthrough album, Sunbather. Too melodic for the black metal purists, yet too abrasive for shoegaze fans, Deafheaven responded in the best way possible — with riffs — galloping, crunching riffs. Maintaining their brighter moments that are, let's face it, pretty as hell, the California-based band goes harder than last time, leaning heavier on black metal shrieks that sound like phone books being ripped apart during a thunder storm. It's the type of album where you don't know any of the track names because each listen goes from start to finish.
Venetian Snares, Thank You for Your Consideration
Aaron Funk, the man behind Venetian Snares, makes twitchy electronic music, usually in awkward time signatures like 7/8, so it's impossible for the average human to dance to. Funk found himself in a bit of a financial crisis in August, writing online, "If you've ever enjoyed my music, I badly need your help asap." Fortunately, Funk is also a genius. Fans came to Funk's aid, and this breakcore album was his token of appreciation.
Faith No More, Sol Invictus
Given the well-documented tension that existed between the members of this band for their entire tenure, it's a miracle that this album even exists. But the fact that it's excellent is almost too much to take. The band's restless, roiling sense of creativity is as strong as ever, and their unmistakable sound — snarling guitar, a rhythm section that can both tap dance, mosh with equal skill, and icy, ominous keyboards — is fully intact. And singer Mike Patton is quite simply a virtuoso. No one can croon and screech and twist and stretch their voice like he can. It's like they never left.
Atlas Road Crew, Halfway to Hopkins
- Atlas Road Crew, 'Halfway to Hopkins'
It's not the late '70s anymore, but if you tell that to this young Charleston quintet, I'll kill you. There hasn't been a better straight-ahead rock 'n' roll album this good in years, maybe even decades — the closest comparison I can think of is the Black Crowes' '92 smoker, The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion. Two guitars blazing away, hooks for days, barrelhouse piano, and soulful rhythms abound on this year's Halfway to Hopkins, and if the opener, "Voices," doesn't make you want to roll your windows down and crank it to the heavens, we're very different people, you and I.
The Mavericks, Mono
The Mavericks have yet to make a bad record, and the further they push into their no-boundaries combination of rock, Latin music, and country, the better they get. Their last album, In Time, employed a heavily layered, kitchen-sink style of production, and it turns out that underneath all that, things were not well — long-time bassist Robert Reynolds was suffering from a debilitating drug addiction that eventually got him kicked out of the band. But that move, however difficult, reinvigorated them, and Mono is a stripped-down, buoyant album that leaps from the speakers, drenched in joyous melodies and highlighted by Raul Malo, one of the greatest singers of our time.
Soren Bryce, Soren Bryce
I've had the six-track debut EP from ethereal folk singer-songwriter Soren Bryce on repeat since it was released in August. Produced by David Kahn (Ingrid Michaelson, Lana Del Rey), Soren Bryce paradoxically combines melancholy and haunting soundscapes with upbeat celebrations, which pulls the listener in and won't let go until the last song ends. This EP isn't something you let play quietly in the background. It's the kind of thing you turn up while you drink your coffee or drive home from work, a six-part anthem of contemplation.
Little Stranger, Buddha the Beast
- Little Stranger, 'Buddha the Beast'
Gorillaz fans will go ape for Buddha the Beast, the album from Charleston's Little Stranger that's a mashup of electronic beats, surf-ready sounds, and hip-hop. The greatest thing about this album is that each song is an experience all its own. Kevin and John "Leaf Eater" Shields are an interchangeable, indispensable pair in limbo between rapper and singer-songwriter. It's an album that's surrealist funk at its finest.
Watson Lark, So Close
Watson Lark's So Close is rap that doesn't glorify drugs, tackles ego, and inspires hope. An independently released album, So Close is a raw vehicle that explores the rapper's past, recent epiphanies, and aspirations for the future. After climbing his way out of a drug-filled life of homelessness and crime, Watson treats his music as a second chance at a happy life — a life he passionately strives to share with his audience. As with his previous releases, So Close truly stands out for its positive content.
Stolen Jars, Kept
- Stolen Jars, 'Kept'
Indie-pop duo Stolen Jars take experimental music to new, hooky levels with Kept, which embodies the rise and fall of emotions in its catchy guitar riffs and swelling layers. While the opener "Waves" cycles and builds, the meditative lyrics of "Glow" keep things mellow and contemplative. The vocals of the duo, Cody Fitzgerald and Molly Grund, blend and tear apart at different intervals to create a calming tension. "Wreaths Rakes" is another standout track, with angelic harmonies and an inescapable positivity that arrives and expands with a scrumptious stack of strums. The disc balances acoustics and electronics expertly to create tiers of concentrated sadness, childish delight, and dark profundity in a complicated blend that sounds effortless.
EL VY, Return to the Moon
Matt Berninger took a break from the National in 2014 to pour his creative energy into a project with Brent Knopf of Portland's Menomena. This result is EL VY's Return to the Moon, an ingenious 11-track disc with an indie-rock edge and enticingly sensual overlay. "Silent Ivy Hotel" has a vintage groove with organ blasts and classic guitar, while "No Time to Crank the Sun" is a pretty piano ballad. But the upbeat tambourine-pop title track is what got EL VY radio play this year, thanks to its post-modernist poetry. "Scratched a ticket with a leg of a cricket and I got triple Jesus" is just the opening line.
Saintseneca, Such Things
Ohio indie-folk rockers Saintseneca released their third LP to date this year with Such Things. The record's "///" is the perfect six-second noise interlude to the dreamy "Sleeper Hold," one of several songs full of harmonies that pull the emotion right out of you. Such Things is transparent, truth-bearing, and psychologically explorative. The psychedelia in "The Awefull Yawn" makes it a trippy listen, and lines like, "Every pill that Elvis ever ate wouldn't shake the ache" make it extra special. The irregular rhythms in "House Divided" are eargasmic, while "How Many Blankets are in the World?" flickers between depressing and hopeful, with a lot of gray area for introspection to flow. I have Pop-Up Charleston's Peter Spearman to thank for recommending this one.