Looking Back at 2015 in Music

  • Favorite 2015 albums (in no order):

    • Ryan Adams – 1989. I’m not a Taylor Swift fan, at all, but this alternative country cover album of her entire 1989 smash hit record is a double-edged triumph: (1) showcasing the strength and versatility of Miss Swift’s songwriting, and (2) the musical finesse of Ryan Adams for adapting electronic pop music into thoughtful, heartfelt alternative rock. Highlights: “Welcome to New York,” “Style,” “Out of the Woods,” “All You Had to Do was Stay,” & “This Love.”
    • Miley Cyrus – Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz. Genuinely artistic experimental psychedelic album by pop’s most button & boundary-pushing young startlet. It also features some of her best and most mature music. Highlights: “The Floyd Song (Sunrise),” “Space Boots,” “BB Talk,” “I Get So Scared,” “Lighter,” & “The Twinkle Song.”
    • Delta Rae – After It All. This genre-bending swirl of country, Americana, and stadium anthems by a North Carolina sextet is an exhilarating work rich with complex instrumentation and soul-piercing melodies. Highlights: “Anthem,” “Outlaws,” “You’re the One For Me,” & “After It All.”
    • Michael Giacchino – Inside Out (Original Soundtrack). It’s almost laughable to think how this score took a couple listens to grow on me. This sweeping, ethereal soundtrack is what gives this tremendous movie its soul. Certainly one of the best wholly instrumental musical scores in recent years (and endlessly listenable), the highlight tracks “Bundle of Joy,” “Nomanisone Island / National Movers,” & “Tears of Joy” will reignite all the feels you probably had watching the film.
    • Madonna – Rebel Heart. The Queen of Pop’s longest album to date, and her most personal work in years. Highlights: “Unapologetic Bitch,” “Joan of Arc,” “Wash All Over Me,” “Rebel Heart,” & “Graffiti Heart.”
    • The Tallest Man on Earth – Dark Bird is Home. Very fortunate to have stumbled upon this one. Early this year, I was way into iTunes’s featured free songs, and one week “Timothy” from this album was featured. I had never heard of the artist The Tallest Man on Earth, but the song struck a cord and I couldn’t stop listening. Once Apple Music became a Thing, I started exploring more into the albums featuring individual songs I loved, and was stoked to find an entire album of rich, folky goodness. Highlights: “Darkness of the Dream,” “Sagres,” “Timothy,” & “Dark Bird is Home.”
  • Noteworthy albums new to me in 2015 (but not from this year – in no order):

    • Erasure – The Innocents  (1988). Erasure wasn’t even on my radar pre-Looking (which featured the excellent “A Little Respect” in an early episode), and thanks to Apple Music I finally dove deeper into this album to find a treasure trove of 80s pop glory. Pulsating keyboards and stellar, emotional chord progressions make this the kind of record you’ll revisit again… and again… and again. Highlights: “A Little Respect,” “Phantom Bride,” “Yahoo!,” “Imagination,” “Weight of the World,” & “When I Needed You Most (Melancholic Mix).”
    • Girls – Album (2009).  Another Looking influence (remember the Girls songs in Season 2?), Girls’s Album is the ultimate California indie rock piece – muffled production, catchy tunes, and unique instrumentation all contribute to a consistently entertaining, San Francisco surf-ready musical experience. Highlights: “Lust for Life,” “Hellhole Ratrace,” “Summertime,” & “Curls.”
    • Amy Grant – Heart in Motion (1991). This is the stuff that synthpop dreams are made of. Solid songwriting and terrific production leave little question why this Christian/pop crossover exploded onto the scene back in 1991.  Highlights: “Baby Baby,” “Every Heartbeat,” “Ask Me,” “Galileo,” & “I Will Remember You.”

Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz (2015)

“Yeah, I smoke pot. Yeah, I love peace. But I don’t give a f***, I ain’t no hippie.”

Miley Cyrus snarls out this introduction in the first, A Capella, lyrics to her latest musical experiment, Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz. Completely separate from her record label, Miley collaborated with The Flaming Lips for arguably her most ambitious record to date: a sprawling 23 song, over 90-minute psychedelic pop epic.

And what an epic journey it is. Contemporary artists, especially younger ones, coming to fruition in the era of iTunes, often build albums founded on a handful of strong singles or album tracks, without being one cohesive whole. Dead Petz is anything but, however; like a drug-induced opera (which this very well may have been), this album is one complete, layered work. The whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts.

From the angst-ridden declaration of the opening song “Dooo It!”, Miley takes us through heartbreaking lows, uneasy hesitation, frustrated emotions, tongue-in-cheek sensuality, tripped-out drug clouds, then finally to soft, subdued piano.

While her previous albums like Can’t Be Tamed and the excellent BANGERZ fit more cleanly within single genres, Dead Petz is uneven, arguably unpolished; yet reflects so many different experiences of Miley’s, that so many of us have surely gone through. This album is extraordinary in how richly it conveys complicated emotions in such an authentic, moving way.

We feel her devastation in “The Floyd Song (Sunrise).” She sings, “Death, take me with you. I don’t want to live without my flower” as a piercing guitar licks down the scale.

We empathize with her ambivalence as she nervously chatters through her “BB Talk” hip-hop confessional, seamlessly blending her youthful indecisiveness with intuitive convictions. (Not to mention how we laugh out loud at the tongue-in-cheek lyrics: “F*** me so you stop baby talking.”)

We stop and reflect in the slow, deliberate rock ballad “I get so scared thinking I’ll never get over you.” Like in BANGERZ (particularly the song “Drive”), Miley demonstrates a genuine desperation and uncertainty regarding her love life. Even in her early 20s, she fears she has loved, lost, and won’t be whole again.

The true knockout of the saga is the closing track, “The Twinkle Song.” Miley drifts through simple chords, recalling “I had a dream David Bowie taught us how to skate board but he was shaped like Gumby.” She bounces through fantasies, some comic and others tragic, landing on one “When you said you loved me. But what does it mean? What does it all mean?”

The portrayal of Miley Cyrus by the media, and admittedly at times by herself, is a kaleidoscope of chaos. She has as many faces as genres she conquers in this ambitious, artistic triumph. Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz begins with an assertion (“Yeah, I smoke pot”) and ends with a question. It subverts what we think we know about Miley, and maybe about ourselves, dismantling preconceived notions and opening up to introspection and wonder.