Here’s my annual (mostly) geezer list of my top ten albums for 2015. It is a list that has no recognition of sales and/or chart position, instead relying on my own narrow musical tastes and undying affection for the music and artists of my youth. So sue me!
1 Bertolf – First & Then
I discovered Dutch artist Bertolf in 2011 when a friend sent me a link to his stunning pop track, For Life. Loving great Pop AND being 50% Dutch myself, I was smitten. I wrote at length about this new album in a previous blog entry (https://garyfrenay.wordpress.com/2015/12/23/bertolf-dutch-treat/), so I’ll just say here that this is the most consistently accomplished album of the year for me. Nary a skip track, and one beautifully-written and performed track after another. Highly recommended!
2 Brian Wilson – No Pier Pressure
Knowing no bigger Brian Wilson fan than myself, it almost goes without saying that this would be my most eagerly-awaited album of the year. I have seen Brian and his band live 6 times over the years, and have been anticipating this, his first release of all-new original material since 2008’s That Lucky Old Sun, for nearly three years. The album picks up where Brian left off on side two of the 2012 Beach Boys reunion CD, That’s Why God Made The Radio, with similar production but WAY better songs. When I first heard that he was using some young “hip” singers on the album (Nate Ruess, Zooey Deschanel, Kacey Musgraves & Sebu Simonian), I feared the worst kind of record company boardroom-intervention at work; i.e.: “Brian, what you need are some young stars to sing your songs so we can sell you to a new demographic.” Yikes! But in actual practice, it all works as smooth as silk. And when you think about Brian, in his heyday with Beach Boys, that’s what he was doing then; writing all the songs, but then using whichever voice he thought worked best (Al, Mike, Carl or Dennis) to sing the lead. This is such a beautiful record. I wish that anyone with even a passing interest in Brian Wilson would give it chance. A real gem!
3 Todd Rundgren – Global
My love affair with Todd began 44 years ago this month with the release of his landmark album, Something/Anything? To say that I’ve followed every twist and turn of his constantly-changing career would be disingenuous on my part. I’ll admit that he lost me in the nineties when I heard him rapping on one album. Horrors! But with his stunning 2004 release, Liars, I fell back in love with Todd; and fell hard! I’ve seen him live three times since (in the last 8 years) and have eagerly looked forward to each of his past three releases; Arena (2008), State (2013) and now Global, released in April of this year. Although Todd’s current style could accurately be defined as EDM (Electronic Dance Music), it is so much more than that. The sense of joy, passion and humor that Todd brings to the project transcends all definition. There are many highlights, but one listen to Soothe, should hook anyone who has a heart.
4 Jeff Lynne’s ELO – Alone In The Universe
Another legacy artist who had been missing in action for over a decade is ELO’s Jeff Lynne. He semi-returned in 2012 with, not one, but, two “new” releases; a covers album of songs from the 50’s, Long Wave, and a note-for-note reworking of all his great ELO hits, Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra. For someone whose last new original work was the ELO album, Zoom (2001), these were NOT what I’d been waiting for. Thankfully, Lynne was just getting warmed up! Alone In The Universe is a welcome entry into Lynne’s ELO canon, with song after song of exquisitely-crafted Pop. The lyrics are nothing to write home about (where they ever?), but the music, his velvety voice and that singular production style of his, washes over you like a warm rain. Lynne breaks no new ground here, but with the hallowed musical landscape he created in the 70’s, I wouldn’t want him to. Welcome back Jeff!
5 Maura Kennedy – Villanelle
I was lucky enough to share the stage with Maura and her multitalented husband/partner Pete at the 2014 Bright Lights show which was a reunion of early-80s CNY bands. Maura and Pete led a band through a set that covered several local artists who could not be there; Dress Code, The Pop Tarts, The Tearjerkers, and My Sin. In the wake of the gig, I introduced Maura, via email, to My Sin’s songwriter, B.D. Love, who has lived in California for the past three decades. They hit it off right away, and – surprisingly – began to write songs together. Villanelle, is the result of that inspired collaboration: Love’s lyrics, set to music by Kennedy. The album features some of the best songwriting out of CNY that I’ve ever heard, marrying Love’s poetry with Kennedy’s innate sense of chords and melody, to create an unforgettable song cycle that has to be heard to be believed.
6 Squeeze – Cradle To The Grave
The return of Chris Difford & Glenn Tilbrook is one of the most underreported music stories of the year. Their first album of new material in 18 years was inspired by the Danny Baker memoir, Going To Sea In A Sieve. Tilbrook read the book and reached out to the author about turning it into a musical, only to find out it was already being turned into a TV series. He then reconnected with Difford and set about writing and recording this album, loosely based on the series. Cradle To The Grave has since become Squeeze’s highest-charting album (in England) ever! And deservedly so. One great song after another; lively, literate and oh so melodic. If you ever cared about this band, this is the album you’ve been waiting for them to make!
7 Keith Richards – Crosseyed Heart
I’m not sure why, at this late date, I care about Keith Richard as a solo artist WAY more than Mick Jagger. As Jagger was always the frontman and lead singer of the Stones, logic would dictate that he would naturally draw more attention to his solo projects. But Richards just seems so much more authentic to me. And with this, his first solo album in 23 years, he has proved that. Richards spent years, on and off, recording this under the watchful eye of producer/partner Steve Jordan. Every song is a winner, with smart production choices all the way through. The biggest surprise here, given his rebel image, is that Richards has such a soft heart and such a serious gift for melody.
8 James Taylor – Before This World
Like Squeeze, this was Taylor’s highest charting album of his career and, surprisingly, his first #1. After a decade of live, cover and Christmas albums, I thought maybe we had seen the last of James Taylor, the songwriter. But Taylor delivers one fine song after another here, including the enchanting Angels Of Fenway, a tribute to the Red Sox team that finally won the World Series (in 2004) and to the long-suffering fans who loved them. Even this die-hard NY Yankees fan got teary-eyed listening to it, Thank you James!
9 Ron Sexsmith – Carousel One
Another fine album of superlative, thoughtful pop music from the best songwriter that few have ever heard of, outside of his native Canada. Elvis Costello once referred to Sexsmith as the “songwriters’ songwriter,” and I would certainly second that. This, his 14th long player, doesn’t break any new ground, but why would you when you have songs this good and a voice this warm. Like James Taylor, the less surprises, the better.
10 Zombies – Still Got That Hunger
The return of Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone has been one of the sweeter stories in music of the 21st century. Starting in 2000, with their album, Out Of The Shadows (released under their own names), they have revived the Zombies name from the dead, touring regularly, and releasing three new CDs under the Zombies’ moniker. Their latest, Still Got That Hunger, is their strongest yet, with all the hallmarks of their classic sound intact.