Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Best of 2015: The Best New Albums I Heard (and Some Great Old Ones)

When it comes to hearing, obtaining and maintaining collections of music, I am both old school and new school.

I still have, on numerous shelves in my condo, over 2,000 physical CDs, and though far less so than in years past--due to both new technology and perceptions of modern musical quality--I continue to buy hard copies of most albums I acutely want to "own."

There are some inconsistencies to this--primarily regarding official concert "bootlegs" released by Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam, for which I will pay simply to download--but generally I only feel like I own, or even "have," an album if I can hold it in my hands. 

But I use Spotify voluminously, and even pay $10 for the Premium ad-less version, so in giving me access to pretty much every album ever recorded, with the same ease of access as provided by iTunes or the AmazonMusic app--which provides me free "Auto-Rip" MP3s of any physical CD I buy through Amazon.com--the notion of albums I own or have has been forever transmogrified, especially as I do the bulk of my listening via digital files, even if I have the physical CD. (I'll either have imported the CD into iTunes--and perhaps then onto my iPhone--or have Amazon MP3s or simply listen to Spotify, even for albums I physically own.)

I used to believe that there was something slightly unscrupulous about using Spotify, as the concept of hearing full albums you didn't pay for--and even free Spotify users can do so--has been taboo for the majority of my 47 years.

Except of course for records you borrowed from the library and recorded onto a Maxell cassette, albums a friend copied for you whether onto cassette or later CD, Napster downloads and various other means of getting free music.

But Spotify seemed to be sanctioned piracy, and it felt kind of wrong--and in many cases, likely still is--that artists weren't being equitably compensated for their creations, at least versus the album royalties of old. Certainly, there have been numerous--and recent--reports about how millions of listens on Spotify have earned the recording artists mere pocket change. And Taylor Swift and Adele have opted to keep their gazillion-selling latest albums off Spotify, and The Beatles' entire catalog was unavailable on steaming platforms until just last week.

See article here
Yet, I recently read that record labels now make more money from streaming services such as Spotify than they do from purchased downloads or physical album sales.

And with the Beatles providing further validation that streaming is a fully legitimate form of musical distribution, it feels even less necessary to buy CDs, even if I intrinsically like having something tactile, with cover art and liner notes and printed lyrics.

So I undoubtedly still will, but sparingly, especially as the $120 I pay Spotify yearly equates to 12  CDs in physical form. 

All of which is a long-winded way of getting to the point that, of albums newly released, I bought a total of two CDs in a rock vein in 2015. One was Blur's first album in 12 years and the other was Adele's mammoth-selling 25, which I'm guessing she doesn't regret keeping off Spotify, and which proves that physical CDs still can sell.

(Just to mention it, perhaps for my own future knowledge, besides the reissues mentioned below and two previously released Beatles reissues, the only old CD I bought in 2015 was King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King, which is not on Spotify.)

Anyway, here's what I liked best of what I heard anew in 2015, including mostly rock artists but--given the relative sparsity of those--also a few Broadway cast albums that provided great listening pleasure. And yes, I'm aware that Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly is almost universally praised as the Best Album of 2015 elsewhere, but with all due respect, I never got into it as I'm not a big rap fan. Though I may continue to explore it from time to time.

On Spotify.

The Best New Albums I Heard in 2015

1. Blur - The Magic Whip (Spotify link)

2. Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Chasing Yesterday (Spotify link)

With my top 2 picks, some may appreciate the inherent allusion to the Blur vs. Oasis "Battle of BritPop" 20 years ago.

3. Hamilton - Original Broadway Cast Recording (Spotify link)

4. Adele - 25 (Not on Spotify)

5. Ash - Kerblammo (Spotify link)

6. Paul Weller - Saturns Pattern (Spotify link)

7. Keith Richards - Crosseyed Heart (Spotify link)

8. Florence + the Machine - How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful (Spotify link)

9. Wilco - Star Wars (Spotify link)

10. Darlene Love - Introducing Darlene Love (Spotify link)

11. The Waterboys - Modern Blues (Spotify link)

Honorable Mention

- Finding Neverland - Original Broadway Cast Recording (Spotify link)
- Jeff Lynne's ELO - Alone in the Universe (Spotify link)
- Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free (Spotify link)
- Titus Andronicus - The Most Lamentable Tragedy (Spotify link)
- The Visit - Original Broadway Cast Recording (Not on Spotify)

Special Mention

Bruce Springsteen - The Ties That Bind: The River Collection (Spotify link)
As I wrote about here, the entire box set commemorating 1980's The River album is terrific. But had simply the 11 previously unreleased outtakes been put out as a new Springsteen album, it would rank #1 on the list above.

Bruce Springsteen - Archival Concerts - Philadelphia 1975, Nassau 1980,
East Rutherford 1984, Los Angeles 1988, Columbus 2005, Rome 2013

Each concert above was individually released in 2015--plus Cleveland 1978, released late 2014--and most represent the best music I acquired during the year. All are great; my top recommendations would be 1) Cleveland 2) Nassau 3) Rome 4) Los Angeles. Downloads or physical CDs can be bought through: live.brucespringsteen.net

Pearl Jam - Nov. 4, 2015 Santiago, Chile - official concert bootleg
Unlike previous tours, Pearl Jam hasn't released recordings of every show on their recent South American trek, but this Santiago show is a great listen with a rabid crowd. A Buenos Aires show is also available. Shop here for downloads or physical CDs.

Best Reissues:

Led Zeppelin - Physical Graffiti (Spotify link)  
Led Zeppelin - Presence (Spotify link)
Led Zeppelin - In Through the Out Door (Spotify link)

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