by John M. Borack
As Frank Sinatra once crooned, “It was a very good year.” Lots of great releases in 2015, some by old favorites, some by new upstarts, and a few that flew in straight out of left field. And away we go…
This is nothing less than an amazing record. It’s fanciful (with ukulele!), it rocks when it needs to, it gets cute without ever being obnoxious about it, the melodies are crazy catchy, and Karla Kane’s fetching lead vocals are impossible to resist. And even though the Corner Laughers’ lyrics are somewhat inscrutable – with references to walking to Jerusalem, Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, Cincinnati in 1914 and other lyrical arcana – you’ll still find yourself singing along to them in short order. This is wonderful, thinking man’s (and woman’s) pop music, even if I’m never quite sure exactly what it is they’re thinking.
2. Ryan Hamilton – “Hell of a Day”
Hell of an album, too. Produced by the estimable Linus of Hollywood, Ryan Hamilton has crafted a good ‘ol fashioned power pop record that’s not only super-catchy, but also contains some wonderful lyrical smart-assery. So not only does he give us a rockin’ little thing called “Respond to My Email (You Bitch)” and one of the songs of the year in “Medicine,” but he also manages to cover REO Speedwagon without sounding the least bit ironic.
3. Michael Carpenter – “The Big Radio”
I’m sure Michael Carpenter didn’t consciously plot to make what’s rumored to be his final album his best one yet, but I’ll be damned if that’s what the veteran Aussie pop savant has gone and done by programming his Big Radio with 14 pristine pop gems that never fail to please. A marvelous achievement, to be sure. Don’t go, M. Carp!
4. The Stereo Twins – “Good News”
It may not be the most out-of-left-field career move ever, but brothers Brandt and Matt Huseman (late of the Greenberry Woods and the mighty Splitsville) have – surprisingly – gone spiritual in their latest incarnation as The Stereo Twins. Combining lyrical spirituality and great pop music is not always an easy thing to achieve, but the Husemans spread the good news with style, aplomb and grace (double entendre intended).
5. The On and Ons – “It’s the On and Ons Calling”
Rockin’ power pop in the vein of classicists such as The Beat, the Plimsouls and fellow Aussies DM3, the On and Ons also have one foot firmly planted in the garage, which means they turn up the guitars, harmonize quite nicely, and write songs that sound like they could have been radio hits in 1966 (“Before Our Eyes”), 1979 (“Two Things on My Mind”) or today.
6. Elvyn – “Valley of the Kilowatt Hour”
Elvyn releases albums about as quickly as Boston did, but the difference is that Elvyn’s albums are better. Their first since 2010 is a welcome return, with a few tunes that are as earwormy as anything I’ve heard lately (“Ellie” and “This is the End”). There’s also a little bit of twang and a whole lot of spirit and energy. And it’s better than Boston. Kansas, too.
7. Jeff Lynne’s ELO – “Alone in the Universe”
Here we have 10 sterling examples (12 on the deluxe version) of the latter day ELO sound, with each song sounding like a potential classic rock hit, production style be damned. (Haters gonna hate.) It’s a wonderfully consistent DIY effort that proves without a shadow of a doubt that Jeff Lynne’s still got it; at 67-years-old, the man has lost nary a step. Welcome back, Jeff.
8. Tommy Keene – “Laugh in the Dark”
Over the course of his 30+ year recording career, Tommy Keene has been conveniently slotted into the “power pop” category by fans of the genre and journalists (including this writer), but truth be told, his music has always run quite a bit deeper. Laugh in the Dark is anything but anachronistic or Beatle-worshipping as so much power pop tends to be; rather, it showcases Keene’s trademark muscular guitars (he’s one heck of a lead and rhythm player, and handles both here), thoughtful, introspective lyrics, distinctive voice, and melodies that don’t always floor you on first listen, but still manage to sneak their way into your subconscious after two or three.
9. The Grip Weeds – “How I Won the War”
17 swirling, slightly trippy sonic land mines that are simultaneously catchy as all get out and slightly dangerous, to boot. The ‘Weeds rock like mad (“Rise Up”), write pitch-perfect, rockin’ pop numbers (“Rainbow Quartz”) and imbue each and every tune with ace musicianship, urgent vocals and sparkling, inventive arrangements that never leave the melody behind. The guitars alternately ring and bite, Kurt Reil’s drums are across-the-board amazing (think Keith Moon) and the lead vocals of Kurt and his brother Rick help put everything across with flair and passion. Polished, damned-near-perfect garage pop for the masses.
10. Pugwash – “Play This Intimately (As If Among Friends)”
Irish pop monsters Pugwash hit it out of the park in grand style with a dozen hook-happy songs that are certain to charm any and all who lend an ear or two. The supremely talented quartet, led by singer/songwriter Thomas Walsh, assimilate and intermingle the best influences from the ‘60s through the ‘80s – think Beatles, Beach Boys, Electric Light Orchestra and XTC – and come up with a sound that is uniquely their own. Simply marvelous from top to bottom.
11. The Orange Humble Band – “Depressing Beauty”
You pretty much expect pop greatness when you have a release that includes involvement from Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer, Dwight Twilley, Jody Stephens and Mitch Easter, and that’s exactly what the Orange Humble Band provides on their gorgeous third record. Darryl Mather has penned another batch of wonderful tunes that shimmer softly, with strings, horns, 12-string guitar and Stringfellow’s gentle lead vocals all washing over the listener in a lovely tidal wave of aural bliss. And lest you think it doesn’t rock, check “No One Cares About Me,” where Jody Stephens drums as if his life depends on it. Oh, and Dwight Twilley’s vocals on the bridge of “Oughta Be Ashamed” are something to behold, and “Emma Amanda” plays like a long lost Big Star cut. Wow.
12. Reno Bo – “Lessons From a Shooting Star”
Once the dust settles and much of the music from 2015 becomes nothing more than a faint memory, Nashville’s Reno Bo will be remembered for the sublime, sweet slices of pop he’s proffered on Lessons From a Shooting Star; specifically, “Sweetheart Deal” is one of those life-affirming pop songs that comes along all too infrequently these days. But Reno’s much more than a one-tune pony, as multiple listens to this 10-song, 32-minute effort prove.
13. The Weeklings – “The Weeklings”
It’s not a terribly original idea: take a bunch of John Lennon/Paul McCartney originals (and one from George Harrison) that the Beatles never officially released back in the day, dress them up with vintage-sounding instrumentation and voila – instant coolness. Groups such as Apple Jam (from Seattle, WA), Sgt. Pepper’s Band (Spain), Revolver (UK) and the Beatnix (Australia) have all previously traveled this path, but the debut from The Weeklings ups the ante considerably: not only are there six Beatle-written sonic treats included, but there are also six like-minded originals that rival the covers. The Weeklings is a fab record that is certain to bring out your inner moptop.
14. The New Trocaderos – “Thrills & Chills”
The New Trocaderos are back with a blast of punk, pop, and in-your-face rock ‘n’ roll that recalls musical heroes such as the Stones, Dave Edmunds and Rockpile, the Real Kids, Eddie and the Hot Rods, and the Searchers. The band is fronted by Brad Marino and Geoff Palmer (from like-minded rockers The Connection), as well as Kurt Baker (see below), the tunes are all written or co-written by LA-based attorney (!) Michael Chaney, and a handful feature background and harmony vocal support from Kim Shattuck of the Muffs, Palmyra Delran, and Line Cecilie Dahlmann from garage-popsters The Dahlmanns. As you can no doubt guess by the influences listed above, Thrills & Chills is no frills, good time, party-hard rock and roll. Plus, you gotta love a band that sings, “You’re getting calls from a whole lot of men/and one of them’s older than Roger McGuinn.”
15. Kurt Baker – “Play it Cool”
Little Steven’s Underground Garage loves Kurt Baker, and so do I. I mean, really, what’s there not to like about the guy? He rocks like a crazy man, he writes cool tunes, and he seems like the kind of dude you’d want to have a beer or five with. On his latest effort, he brings more of the same to the table, and also switches things up a bit with nods to ‘60s pop (“Talk is Talk” sounds like the type of tune Gary Lewis and the Playboys would be doing if they time traveled to the 21st century) and barroom rock in the spirit of The Faces (“I Can’t Wait”). Turn it UP!
16. The Ravines – “Everything’s Fine”
There’s something refreshingly right about a record that rocks and pops with absolutely no pretense, and the Ravines’ Everything’s Fine is right as rain. It’s harmony-rich (kinda reminiscent of Chris Richards + the Subtractions in that respect) and at times sounds not unlike some kind of radio-ready mind-meld between Matthew Sweet and a more stimulating Gin Blossoms. Very nice. Kudos for copping the “My Generation” opening guitar riff on “It’s Only Love,” too.
17. Bryan Adams – “Get Up”
Bryan Adams’ first album of original material since 2008 is produced by Jeff Lynne and much like everything else the ELO leader touches production-wise, it has the classic Lynne sonic imprint all over it. (Which is to say it sounds a whole lot like an early ‘80s Electric Light Orchestra record; think “Hold On Tight” or “Rock ‘n’ Roll is King.”) While there has been endless discussion by pundits on whether Lynne’s production hand is a positive or negative, one thing is certain: Get Up is a very good record. After the initial shock of hearing Adams’ sandpapery vocals married to Lynne’s hyper-compressed instrumentation wears off, the first thing that’s apparent after a few listens is that the songs are catchy as all get out, with “You Belong to Me” and “Brand New Day” being the catchiest of the catchy. A welcome – albeit unlikely – return for Bryan Adams.
18. The Turnback – “Are We There Yet?”
Deftly straddling the line between pure pop and harder-edged rock on their second full-length effort, the Turnback offer up a 12-song disc that rocks with abandon while still displaying smooth harmonies, perky melodies and hooks piled upon hooks. The New York-based trio takes sort of a “Foo Fighters Meet the Beatles” approach here, with each of the 11 originals being crunchy, punchy and super memorable. Kudos to Todd Giglio, Kenny Sherman and powerhouse drummer Barry Nagel for providing a textbook example of how to put the power in power pop.
19. A Fragile Tomorrow – “Make Me Over”
The fifth album by A Fragile Tomorrow finds the talented young quartet expanding their musical palette and taking another huge leap forward in terms of songwriting, production and performance. Previously hailed as a power pop act, AFT throws off the often-limited confines of that genre by imbuing the self-produced Make Me Over with some psychedelic flourishes, a bit of glam-like crunch ‘n’ stomp, a few pretty, moody atmospheric numbers, and some Beach Boys-like vocal touches .The overall sound is at once expansive and densely packed, with the familial harmonies of Sean Kelly and brother/drummer Dom prominent throughout. The youngest Kelly brother, Brendan, adds some tasty guitar all over the place, while bassist Shaun Rhoades helps hold down the bottom end with thunderous aplomb. Fave lyric: “All my dignity’s gone/bullshit chord change/please make way for the hit parade.”
20. Cloud Eleven – “Record Collection”
It’s been far too long since we’ve heard new music from Rick Gallego (aka Cloud Eleven), and his latest certainly does not disappoint. It’s replete with the soft, pillowy, West Coast light-psych sounds that have informed his previous releases, and each of the 11 tunes is something of a feast for the ears. The beautifully sad “Too Soon Was Yesterday” plays like a long-lost ‘60s-era Burt Bacharach cut, while the Sgt. Pepper-ish title cut and “A Sadness in Sorry” are both top-shelf upbeat ditties. The disc-closing “Let Us All Find Peace” is a dramatic piano ballad awash in strings and a positive message. Hey, whaddya say we end with a hideous cliché: you’ll want to add Record Collection to yours.
21. Summer Fiction – “Himalaya”
Their website makes reference to “Big Star Meets the La’s,” Brian Wilson, Nilsson, and Burt Bacharach, and I can’t really argue. (I’d throw a smidgen of Left Banke in there as well to round things out.) Himalaya – the brainchild of one Bill Ricchini – is a slightly moody, often sweet little record that feels as if it should be listened to either early in the morning or late at night. While some may opine that it’s a bit heavy on instrumentals (three of the 10 tracks are sans lyrics), the fact that said instrumentals evoke Pet Sounds and are breathtakingly gorgeous sort of evens up the score. Choice cuts: “On and On” and “Perfume Paper.”
22. Dr. Cosmo’s Tape Lab – “Beyond the Silver Sea”
Some records smack you in the face and force you to sit up and take notice immediately; Beyond the Silver Sea is definitely one of those. Bright and chipper late ’60s-influenced Britpoppy sounds intermingle with “narration links” to provide a 24-track concept album about…well, I honestly can’t tell you exactly what it’s about because I skip over the links (12 of ‘em) to get to the spiffy tunes (12 of ‘em), which come across like the Monkees jamming with a more disciplined Guided By Voices after a few tabs of acid. The band’s from Glasgow, they record on 4-track, and they’re very cool.
23. Jimmy Haber – “Joy Acid Pact”
Michael Carpenter produced, engineered and served as a multi-instrumentalist on this 10-song winner, an all-too-rare example of a current pop record that not only manages to sidestep those pesky aural clichés, but one that does so with verve, imagination and vocal and instrumental sass. This is Haber’s second go-round with Carpenter at the controls (2013’s just-as-cool New Bondi Hippies being the first), and they play off each other’s strengths quite well. There are echoes of Matthew Sweet, Tom Petty, the Beatles, Byrds, and Oasis, but ultimately, Joy Acid Pact sounds like a Jimmy Haber record.
24. Nick Piunti – “Beyond the Static”
The follow up to 2013’s wonderful 13 in My Head is another stellar collection of short ‘n’ sweet power poppin’ ditties, impeccably produced and forcefully played by Piunti and some fellow Michigan pop dudes, including Andy Reed, Chris Richards, and Ryan Allen. The best thing here is the leadoff cut, the crazy catchy “It’s a Trap,” which is impossible not to adore. The rest is not quite up to that high standard – it’s hard to top near perfection, y’know – but it’s still pretty darned good, and the guitars sound quite splendid, too.
25. Zombies of the Stratosphere – “In Technicolor”
Judging by the band’s name you might think you’d be in store for some kind of grindcore fiesta or perhaps a second rate metal act, but instead In Technicolor is brimming with slightly psych-inflected, medium-fi, ‘60s-inspired pop goodies. “Songs built to last by nerdily obsessive craftsmen with big record collections” is what this New York duo promises, and these Zombies certainly deliver the goods on this 13-song album.