Already…

So here we are, at the beginning of a brand new year. Sure, we’re wiped out from last year but we’re also excited by the possibilities that lie ahead. That rings true in every area, including music, and this year the gate has swung wide open. Usually January is quiet, musically, as most artists get their new masterworks out before Christmas, to capitalize on sales. But this year it’s different, as many excellent new releases have already come storming into the record-sphere.

Here are five reasons that 2015 is already an excellent year for music:

The Decemberists: What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World
Portland’s finest return after a four-year silence with an album that combines much of what the band is known for and delivers it with all the finesse of a veteran outfit. Gone are the prog-rock workouts of The Crane Wife and The Hazards Of Love but in its place are several well-written songs that run the gamut from thoughtful pop such as “Make You Better”, the super-cute “Philomena”, and “Cavalry Captain” to acoustic-based folk such as the Appalachian-inspired “Better Not Wake The Baby” and the heartbreaking “12/14/12”, inspired by the Sandy Hook tragedy, while the album-opening ‘The Singer Addresses His Audience” is a dynamic statement to anyone who feels that a band is “theirs” and should cater to their own tastes, rather than grow – “we had to change to belong to you”. The funny thing here is that, on this disc in particular, the Decemberists haven’t changed all that much. Perhaps they are referring to the past, where they evolved from a sea-shanty-loving indie pop band to a major-label prog-rock outfit, with concept albums and such, before settling on 2011’s country-tinged The King Is Dead. Here, they relax and deliver a set of songs that, while all superbly written and delivered, never stray very far from what the band does best. My only issue is that the disc seems to be top-loaded with catchy, energetic pop numbers, while the back half is much slower and more pensive. At any rate, these 14 songs reveal a band that is rightly reclaiming its place.

Sleater-Kinney: No Cities To Love
Speaking of rightly reclaiming their place, it’s been a full ten years since we last heard from Sleater-Kinney. It’s kind of hard to believe, since the three members have remained very active on their own – Carrie Brownstein forming Wild Flag with Mary Timony as well as creating and starring in Portlandia; Corin Tucker has been active with her own eponymous band; and Janet Weiss has drummed for just about every Northwest band of note. Despite their time away, or perhaps because of it, there was no fanfare made of the band’s recent reunion, as they wrote and recorded this album in secret and were very coy about dropping hints. Perhaps there was some trepidation, since they were gone for so long, but all that is wiped clean by the ten kickass songs on this disc. They pick up as if they had never left, just raging their way through all the fire of their best work. Corin Tucker handles most of the vocals on this set and her banshee wail has lost none of its vigor. The band claims this is a “restart” and not a “reunion”, which gives the impression that this is not a one-off. Given their individual schedules, who knows how this will pan out, but this will surely go down as one of the most welcome, and inspired comebacks of all time.

 

Belle & Sebastian: Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance
The comebacks keep on comin’ as indie-twee darlings Belle & Sebastian release their first album in five years. Much of this disc treads familiar ground – mellow tunes that make you want to simultaneously dance and doze off. But there is also an increased use of electronics that enhance their sound which comes to a head in the lead single, “Party Line”, which comes about as close to “runway music” as this band has ever gotten, while still being familiar enough to satisfy even the most proprietary fans (you know, the ones the Decemberists are singing about). Once again, a most welcome comeback.

Punch Brothers: The Phosphorescent Blues
Fresh off last years outstanding Nickel Creek reunion, mandolin wizard Chris Thile reconvenes his “other” band for this set of tunes that perfectly marries bluegrass with prog sensibilities, their most successful in that regard since their 2008 debut. Immaculately produced by T-Bone Burnett, this set kicks off with the dark, and quite strange, “Familiarity”, while songs like “Julep” and “I Blew It Off” are both energetic and totally askew. While most of the tracks on this disc are original they also tackle pieces by Debussy and Scriabin, further proving that these guys can pretty much do anything.

Dan Mangan + Blacksmith: Club Meds
Prior to hearing this album, I had never heard of Dan Mangan. Listening to this album, I feel that I should have. This is his first album billed with Blacksmith and it features eleven original songs that are based in folk and rock but with a good deal of jazz and even a bit of prog thrown in. Highlights include “Kitsch”, “Mouthpiece”, and the lofty “A Doll’s House / Pavlovia”. While he is a JUNO award winner in his native Canada, this is the album that should break him in the States. Needless to say, I will surely be exploring the rest of his work.

Add to this, excellent new offerings from The Dodos, Beardfish, and Guster, and you have a fantastic start to this exciting new year. There is still much to look forward to as well, including new music from Bob Dylan, Imagine Dragons, UFO, Gang Of Four, Noel Gallagher, Mark Knopfler, Modest Mouse, Death Cab For Cutie, Sufjan Stevens, Brian Wilson, Bjork, Black Sabbath, David Gilmour, Muse, Faith No More, The Smashing Pumpkins, and maybe even some more U2. Hmm, we got some listening to do this year!

Written by: Chris Anderson

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