There's really no two ways about it; 2015 has been a spectacular year for music so far. Multiple albums released in the first quarter of the year would have slotted in my top ten of 2014, and we're still barely over 100 days into this thing! Incase I didn't shout quite loudly enough the other day, I kiiinda dig the new Kendrick Lamar, but To Pimp a Butterfly isn't the only must-listen LP we've been treated to so far. If the following 6 records aren't already in your itunes, allow me to nudge you in the right direction:
Carrie and Lowell---Sufjan Stevens
Despite releasing his debut LP a whopping 15 years ago, we're only just now meeting the real Sufjan Stevens. Over the course of his first 6 studio albums, the eclectic singer/songwriter released records consisting of stripped-down folk, grandstanding electronica, elaborate orchestral pop, and faith-based hymns, not to mention over four-and-a-half hours of Christmas music (and yes, you read that right). What he hasn't done, however, is put his own personal experiences and emotions on wax... until now. Carrie and Lowell, named after Stevens' recently-deceased mother and still-supportive step-father, is by far the most autobiographical work of his career so far, the troubadour even describing his 11-track wonder as "... Artless, which is a good thing. This is not my art project; this is my life." Sonically, the disc most closely resembles Seven Swans' stripped-down, hushed loveliness, but the lyrics are what set it apart, the album teeming with tales of Sufjan's youth, and the visits he made to Oregon under the care of his less-than-competent mother. Though their relationship is presented as thorny and complicated, Stevens mostly saves the blame for himself, self-loathing and unconditional forgiveness constantly clashing in one of the most emotional musical offerings in recent memory.
I Love You, Honeybear---Father John Misty
When Josh Tillman decided to quit his gig as drummer for the Fleet Foxes in early 2012, it looked at least something like career suicide; a little over three years later, nothing could be further from the truth. While the indie darlings haven't released an album since 2011, Tillman, who now records as Father John Misty, has given us two. There was plenty to admire about 2012's Fear Fun, but that deliberately varied disc played like a musician still in search of his true voice, a claim that couldn't possibly be leveled against a single second of I Love You, Honeybear. Consisting just about entirely of ballads whose beauty thinly veils their piss-and-vinegar, the LP is resplendently textured and magnanimously comely, sprinkling tales of debauchery and detachment with enough gorgeous gloss to make the bitter pills go down smoothly if the listener so desires. Numbers like the gorgeous Bored in the U.S.A. walk an impossibly thin line between jaded sarcasm and desperate longing, while The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment commits to the former, and Strange Encounter the latter. Even the disc's most rosy cut, Chateau Lobby 4 (in C for Two Virgins), a tale of two lovers uniting in their bitterness (among other things) is a monument to mixed emotions. Though I Love You, Honeybear's sincerity is constantly in question, its level of accomplishment never is.
Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper---Panda Bear
Noah Lennox has set the bar awfully high for himself, releasing one classic after another with Animal Collective, and contributing knock-out solo work under the moniker Panda Bear all the while. Grim Reaper is perhaps lesser than the man's previous pair of efforts (widely-lauded Person Pitch, and wholly-underrated Tomboy), but its intricate, knotty sound-world is just as easy to get lost in. Tropic of Cancer and Lonely Wanderer waft beautifully into and out of existence, while the centerpiece back-to-back of lead single Boys Latin and delightfully grimy Come to Your Senses are headphone fodder of the very highest caliber. On-ear headsets were practically designed to showcase this material, the density of Lennox's work with producer Sonic Boom proving downright enveloping to all who allow it the time and space to fully unfurl. Groovier and dingier than we're used to from the Brian Wilson super-fan, Grim Reaper is simply another chapter in the career of one of the most interesting artists of this millennium.
11 years and 4 LP's into their storied career, Arcade Fire has established an identity as this generation's defining arena act, an eight-piece with out-sized sound, and even more enormous emotion and importance. Will Butler wants nothing to do with all that. The debut record of AF frontman Win Butler's little brother, Policy is a rip-roaring 27 minutes that's jam-packed with energy, excitement, humor, and, above all, nifty songwriting. Only one track dares to go on past the 4 minute mark, each caffeinated, delicious morsel ripping through its existence in the name of pure pleasure-center bliss. While Policy is mostly comprised of lo-fi, excitable anthems (Take My Side, Witness), it also finds space for McCartney-esque balladry (Finish What I Started, Sing to Me), and 80's tributes that would find themselves wholly at home on any LCD Soundsystem album (Anna, Something's Coming). A modest offering that stresses fun over literally all else, Policy is a promise of yet more enticing music from the Arcade Fire camp.
Natalie Prass---Natalie Prass
It's kind of funny to see Natalie Prass' debut LP listed as a wintertime triumph when everything about the disc screams of Spring. The Richmond, Virginia-based singer-songwriter's soulful country renditions feel immediately well-worn, like a trusty pair of shoes. There's precious-little boundary-breaking on display here, but in its place one finds relentless loveliness, each note wafting out of speakers like a breeze gently ruffling the leaves of a tree. Enwrapped in contented horns and pleading strings, Prass' voice drips with emotion and sincerity, forgoing bombastic high notes in favor of a crackle and hush so intimate, she might as well be sitting next to you. This isn't to say the 28-year-old up-and-comer doesn't show some range: opener My Baby Don't Understand Me is a grandstanding number that sees the vocalist through emotional peaks and valleys, while Your Fool and its companion track Reprise opt for a tone that's almost conversational. Prass' lineage will be obvious to anyone with a taste for the genre, though the songsmith doesn't seem to mind; why else pen and croon Christy, a cut that, for my money, is a direct reference to Dolly Pardon's Jolene. Floating in a sun-soaked middle ground between recent offerings from Rhye and First Aid Kit, Natalie Prass is a confident, lustrious introduction to a voice that will hopefully stick around for a while.
Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit---Courtney Barnett
When it comes to Courtney Barnett, inhibition is the thing. How else could you explain the swirling blender of Sometimes I Sit, an album that, in some previously unthinkable way, seems to split the difference between Nirvana and Sheryl Crow? At every turn, Barnett has her cake and eats it too, sing/speaking stream-of-consciousness narratives involving perceived suicide attempts, lazy days spent indoors, home shopping, sexy swim instructors, and seals who have lost the will to go on. The breadth and randomness of her tales would be off-putting if she was any less talented, or any more concerned with conveying a message: the house-hunters of radiant album standout Depreston consider the life of the deceased former tenant only to subsequently muse on what it would cost to knock the place down, while the Barnett of Kim's Caravan spends as much time relaying the details of her convenience mart snacks as she does that aforementioned beached mammal. Of course, none of this would matter if this manic storyteller weren't so spellbinding on guitar, as at home in up-tempo ditties (Elevator Operator, Nobody Really Care if You Don't Go to the Party), as she is with muscly power-chord monsters (Pedestrian at Best, Small Poppies) and steady delights (An Illustration of Loneliness, Boxing Day Blues). Who needs to land on a distinct style or sound when you've got as many tricks up your sleeve as Courtney Barnett?