Can you believe it’s been five years of this? In 2014, Heavy Lights topped the list with their song “Mad Minds.” 2013 saw Silent Old Mtns. reach No. 1 with “That Telescope Find.” In 2012, the honors went to Domino Falls and their song “Her Eyes.” And the inaugural top spot went to Miss Shevaughn & Yuma Wray with “A Fool & Her Heart.” This year? Well, you’re going to have to read on to see who took 2015’s highest honor in all the land. But before we get to that, we ought to take a moment to thank you for making this one hell of a year in music when it comes to the fine metropolis that is Frederick, Maryland.
We hosted our first Frederick Music Showcase at the Weinberg Center. We opened up the doors to the 200 East Art Haus. We hosted the Frederick Fall Festival. We began a companion radio show on 89.7 WSHC in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, “The Local Playlist.” And, of course, we released a compilation of all Frederick bands in conjunction with Flying Dog Brewery. And all of it — every single piece — was accomplished because the Frederick area has an abundance of fabulously kind people who love them some great local music. So, as we’ve said many times in the past 12 months, thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!
OK. Enough of that. Let’s check out the fifth annual recap of the year in music. This list comes from the records reviewed this year, even if some were actually released the year prior (with a column that runs twice a month, timeliness isn’t our strong suit, obviously). Either way, you know the drill. Let’s go.
10 BEST LOCAL SONGS
1. Seaknuckle — Little Blood
It kicked off the year’s funnest album, and, save for a particular curse word, it might also be the band’s most accessible moment. Listen as singer Jon Phelps’ light voice announces the beginning of not only an infectious record, but an undeniably versatile lead track. If the subliminal echo of the “ahh-ahh-ahhs” doesn’t carve out a tiny corner of your head, the chilly urgency in Phelps’ performance will promise your soul a ride it never even knew it needed.
How so? Just check out Colin Shultzaberger’s cut-time evolution in verse one and watch as your own feet tap harder and faster. Combined with the consistency of bassist Matt Dabson and the tastefully present lead guitar of Joe Jalette, it’s a song that’s as much an explosion as it is a statement of arrival. With “Get Over It,” the album this song launches, Seaknuckle proved themselves as one of the best rock bands Frederick has to offer. “Little Blood” establishes that victorious tone with confidence and excitement.
2. Christian Lopez Band — Will I See You Again
This song appeared on the two Christian Lopez releases we wrote about this year — “Pilot” and “Onward.” And rightfully so. It’s the Martinsburg, West Virginia, native’s catchiest, most pop-friendly track to date, Chelsea McBee’s playful banjo work giving it a unique blend of reggae Americana. Add in a piercingly unforgettable harmonica riff and it’s no wonder the video for this gets played on CMT. The kid already had more than enough talent to rule the world; this song just solidified the scary breadth of his pop sensibility. If Lopez’s future is bright, this single is good enough to launch him into blinding territory.
3. Old Indian — Just A Bum
Sounding like it would have fit perfectly on the soundtrack to “Pulp Fiction,” Old Indian’s “Just A Bum” is that perfect combination of retrofitted surf rock and modern-day production values. Cory Springirth provides a guitar part that explodes out of the blocks and gets off to the races with aplomb while drummer Evan Owens’ stick fury only adds to the intensity. “I’m just a bum, but I’m feeling all right today,” Springirth declares in the song’s hook, and damn it if you don’t feel the same.
4. New God — Summer Girl
Kenny and Curt Tompkins fancy their blend of sounds “wizard pop.” You can call it whatever you want, but I’ll call it “pretty darn good.” On this, a single off their 2014 set “Firework” (I wrote about it in March), the duo turns up the temperature on the same beach that Brian Wilson used to frequent. Make no mistake, though: While the Beach Boy influence is there, the brothers Tompkins have a formula all their own. And not only is it undeniably catchy, it’s also consistently exciting. It’s classic summer pop music at its most modernized.
5. Kai Orion — No Conversation
Drawers. A typewriter. A knock on wood. A busy signal. A dial tone. A no-service signal. Phones ringing. A printer printing. A stapler. Pots and pans being struck. Wine glasses. And, of course, wine glasses being blown. Those are the instruments Kai Orion plays in this amazingly moody track off his 2015 LP “Pots & Pans,” which, for what it’s worth, was one of only two records that warranted a four-star review in 2015. Dude sounds so much like Peter Gabriel, you have to check the liner notes to make sure Tony Levin isn’t playing bass. It’s inventive. It’s fascinating. It’s mandatory listening. And this song especially is among the year’s best.
6. Big Hoax — Over And Over
Yes, I know that “Open.” feels like it was released decades ago, but hey, we didn’t get to it until this year, and for my money, “Over And Over” is one of the best tracks I heard in 2015. The video these guys made for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Contest reinvigorates the song in fabulous fashion, and it illustrates precisely how well leader Luke Alexander can craft a pop song. Combine that with a voice like Dave Matthews and surrounding musicians as versatile as they are imperative, and what you have is a blend of newgrass that’s ready for stages far larger than the ones Frederick can offer.
7. Retro/Ricole Barnes Featuring PassPort Sport — Out Here Causing Trouble
Because any song that samples a classic professional wrestling promo is a song that deserves to be on any year-end best-of list. Over a grimy, darkly antagonistic beat comes head-spinning rhymes that are only helped by the hook’s incessant repetition. It’s the sound of hip-hop heads having fun, changing flows on a dime, administering wars of wit upon the music behind them. “Mr. Sunrise” has to be one of the area’s strongest hip-hop releases in a long time. This song was the highlight of highlights.
8. Josh Morningstar — As Long As You Ain’t Coming Back
This funny kiss-off waltz is part Butch Walker, part Ryan Adams, and all attitude. Morningstar makes no bones about his life’s trials and tribulations (a nasty heroin addiction he kicked years ago), but this, one of the lighter fares featured on his solid “Songs For Fools With Broken Hearts,” is proof that the light at the end of the tunnel can come in countless shades. He’s a one-man band not to be messed with, and if the Nashville twang of his guitar doesn’t get you at first, the line that ends it is bound to make you grin, evil or not.
9. Jeff Cosgrove, Frank Kimbrough, Martin Wind — Stacks Of Stars
When drummer Jeff Cosgrove forms a trio, you really ought to listen. “Stacks Of Stars,” off this year’s “Conversations With Owls,” eventually boils into the closest thing to a groove Cosgrove has probably ever produced, and boy is it good. Eased in with some ominous (if not imaginative) bass-playing-and-plucking from Martin Wind, the track is a whirlwind of expertise in improvisation, Frank Kimbrough’s piano forcing inevitable structure after dancing in syncopation with Cosgrove’s snare-less pitter-patter. Words can’t truly describe how entrancing it all is. I should know better than to try.
10. Red Sammy — I Got Creepy When Lou Reed Died
There’s just something infectious about this song that I can’t shake. It’s simple on most every level — the guitars, drums and chorus could be learned in no more than an hour by anyone with a capable ear. But “Creeps & Cheaters” is the best Red Sammy album to date, and “I Got Creepy When Lou Reed Died” is the most accessible Adam Trice’s brainchild has ever been. Resist it all you want, but when he reiterates how “fried” he was, it’s the first time in all his catalog that he warrants sympathy (even that signature Tom Waits-ian growl of his is just a tiny bit sad here). If this is the sound of getting creepy, nobody in their right mind should ever want to be normal.
10 BEST NATIONAL ALBUMS
1. Becca Stevens Band — Perfect Animal
Who else caught her opening set at the Rock and Roll Hotel in D.C. back in March? Nobody? Oh … well … OK, then. Anyway, Becca Stevens sang my favorite song from 2014, Ambrose Akinmusire’s “Our Basement (Ed),” and this year, she put out a solo record in April that immediately went to No. 1 in my head and then promptly withstood the test of the eight months that followed. “Perfect Animal” isn’t just an expertly crafted pop album — it’s a wildly fascinating listen in on how an artist can stay interesting while paying attention to evolution.
Need proof? Check out “Imperfect Animals,” which is so angular, you worry if your ears will get cut if you listen to it enough times. Or “Tillery,” which uses a killer percussive structure to concoct a hum that will never leave your consciousness. How about “I Asked,” a track that is both elegant and poignant, Stevens’ staccato ukulele brightening the tone mercilessly. Still not sold? Check out the covers — her take on Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin About You” somehow makes the original feel less heartbreaking than the rendition here and Usher’s “You Make Me Wanna” is delightful fun.
All told, it’s the smartest, most compelling record of 2015, both musically and lyrically. The constant changes in time signature are brilliant, the lyrical poetry is Paul Simon-esque, and the actual performances aren’t afraid to blow your mind (listen to a particular drum fill on “Reminder” to hear what that means). Becca Stevens has always been a force in her tiny corner of the folk/jazz world, but “Perfect Animal” is a bona fide coming out party. David Crosby is a fan (so much so that he even retweeted something I wrote about her earlier this year; yes, that’s … ahem … HUMBLE BRAG No. 1). So, what are you waiting for?
2. Nigel Hall — Ladies And Gentlemen Nigel Hall
Nigel Hall’s “Ladies & Gentlemen … Nigel Hall” comes Ivan Neville tested and Questlove approved and for good reason. There’s a silly smooth soul in the D.C. singer’s voice, but there’s just as much face-melting funk in his fingers. “Don’t Change For Me” might just be the grooviest track of 2015 that you probably didn’t hear, a slinky-yet-powerful drum beat forcing The Ugly Face onto any listener with two ears and a pulse. The 1972 Isley Brother forgotten classic “Lay Away,” featuring Quest on drums, is updated with a fuller sound but just as much soul. And single “Gimme A Sign” takes R&B music back to a time when it wasn’t just a genre, it was a lifestyle, its guitar recalling that of Steve Cropper and his work on pretty much every Stax Records single between 1962 and 1965. What makes Nigel Hall great is his attention to both the rhythm and the blues; what makes “Ladies & Gentlemen“ essential is its commitment to a classic soul music ethos that rarely sounds this exciting in the modern day. It’s authentic. It’s undeniable. It’s … Nigel Hall.
3. Lianne La Havas — Blood
If “Is Your Love Big Enough?” merely introduced Lianne La Havas to the world, then “Blood” is an announcement of arrival. The production is more sleek, the grooves are more slinky, and that voice is more strong than even she thought it could probably be. Songs like “Green And Gold” and “Tokyo” pull form her newfound friendship with Prince, their super-heavy bass lines and undeniable atmosphere taking centerstage. “What You Don’t Do” is anthemic in nature, a singalong that’s heavy on piano and contemporary doo-wop to the core. What makes La Havas so irresistible, however, is her chameleon-like ability to thrive in multiple settings. “Good Goodbye” is as coffee-shop-ready as anything on her first album while “Wonderful” is spooky yet heartbreaking. It all adds up to a discovery of self, a tangible step toward a maturity that Lianne La Havas needed in order to evolve into something more lasting, something more interesting. Needless to say, evolve, she did.
4. Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp A Butterfly
Because what’s a year-end list in 2015 without this album? I mean, really? It’s been an awfully long time since a hip-hop record has been this universally acclaimed and rightfully so. “Alright,” fully equipped with a soulful sax and production help from Pharrell, is so aggressive that when the rapper switches flows periodically, you can sense a hunger that, frankly, is becoming harder and harder to find in contemporary hip-hop. Actually, that unparalleled appetite is established quick with opener “Wesley’s Theory,” which, with the help of George Clinton and Thundercat, sets an antagonistic tone that leaves you just knowing that this is going to be a modern-day classic. By the time you get to “Mortal Man,” 16 tracks later, it’s thrilling to find out that you weren’t wrong.
5. Jill Scott — Woman
It might take a bit to warm up to, but once Jill Scott’s “Woman” creeps up on you, it simply just never leaves. Clearly in a transitional phase personally, the record didn’t necessarily neglect the values that helped gain her a loyal and abundant following — “You Don’t Know” questions true hurt while “Fool’s Gold” illustrates how regretful the singer is for trusting in a former lover — but it also sheds some light on a couple new issues as well, expanding her introspection even further within the very art she creates. Just think: when have you ever heard Jilly from Philly sing something like “I been doing my chores” to open an album, like she does here on “Prepared,” perhaps the set’s most revealing track. And for those who don’t like this new(ish) work-in-progress Jill Scott, there’s always “Closure,” which kicks up the funk, turns on the confidence and assures all listeners (in a hilarious manner, albeit) that there’s still people in this world she may never fully forgive. Right or wrong, it amounts to one of the best songs in Scott’s career, and more than 15 years in, that’s saying something.
6. Chvrches — Every Open Eye
OK. So, it’s no “Bones Of What You Believe.” But, hey: What is? Even “pretty good” (as opposed to great) Chvrches is better than most anything from most anyone else. Single “Leave A Trace” takes a few spins to warm up to, but once the fire gets burning, it only grows in intensity (“You think I’ll apologize for things I left behind, but you got it wrong/And I’m as sane as I ever was” is one of the best Lauren Mayberry passages ever put on a record). And while the knock on the set is its brightness — especially in contrast to the dark clouds that hovered over “Bones” like a deliciously vindictive smog of guilt — a track like “Never Ending Circles” still cuts fairly deep, even if it doesn’t quite shred the vein like these guys used to. The great moments are often better than most people’s perfection. And when you’re dealing with that caliber of talent, “pretty good” will do.
7. Third Eye Blind — Dopamine
When I spoke with Third Eye Blind leader Stephan Jenkins earlier this year (that’s … ahem … HUMBLE BRAG No. 2), he told me that this would be the band’s final official full-length release. If that’s the case, this is a pretty good way to go out. With six years between this and their previous LP, 2009’s “Ursa Major,” “Dopamine” is everything we’ve come to expect from a Third Eye Blind record: Enough punch to keep listeners engaged and more sugar than a field in South Asia. “Rites Of Passage” reunites Jenkins with his white-boy hip-hop roots above a slinky Brad Hargreaves groove while “Shipboard Cook” simmers in the same way “Narcolepsy” did almost two decades ago. Add in a healthy heaping of David Bowie references and you have a radio-pop-glam record that bridges the gap between 2015 and 1997 better than anything else that tried this year.
8. Joss Stone — Water For Your Soul
It’s the Joss Stone reggae record that you never even knew the world needed. She’ll probably never get as inspired as 2007’s “Introducing Joss Stone,” but she’ll also probably never get as disappointing as she did with 2011’s “LP1.” The former was a celebration of soul; the latter, a turn toward Melissa Etheridge Rock. This one? Well, as the Damian Marley collaborations “”Love Me” and “Wake Up” prove, Joss Stone has the ability to get all Rastafari with consequential success. Combine that with her signature blend of neo-soul best heard here on the funky, hip-hop infused “Star,” and of Stone’s seven LPs, “Water For Your Soul” easily lands near the top.
9. Butch Walker — Afraid Of Ghosts
Walker wrote and recorded this in only four days after his father passed away. Produced by (and, for that matter, sounding a whole lot like) Ryan Adams, this stripped down set is moody, sad, nostalgic and as revealing as this guy has ever been. “Chrissie Hynde” is sweet and dour, a ballad about self-doubt and guilt that recalls the softer side of the singer’s 2004 beloved “Letters.”
Meanwhile, “Bed On Fire,” as hook-y as the record gets, is a single you swear you’ve heard before, especially when the chorus pops up, melodrama and all.
His preceding EP, “Peachtree Battle,” was cut short by the death of his dad, he told me in 2014 (that’s … ahem … HUMBLE BRAG No. 3), but these songs, he said, “feel more substantial.” He’s right. “Afraid Of Ghosts” is a hell of a listen, even when it’s sometimes bogged down by the weight of the uniquely heavy subject matter.
10. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats — Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats
Nathaniel Rateliff’s first record with The Night Sweats was also his first record on Stax, the legendary Memphis imprint that gave us everybody from Otis Redding to Isaac Hayes. The guy wears that stamp of approval well on this fiery 11-song set that keeps the prestige of yesteryear alive. A song like “Wasting Time” is a shot of traditional southern soul, complete with a requisite twang that only furthers the effect of the groove’s lazy swing. Meanwhile, “S.O.B.” brings the traditional gospel arm of Stax up to date, fully equipped with handclaps and humming backing vocals.
When it finally boils over into the type of blues-rock that Bo Diddley perfected and Rateliff demands “Son of a bitch, get me a drink,” you’re almost scared to see what happens if he never ends up quenching his thirst. It’s the sound of a guy who has knocked around the music scene for years and is sick of waiting for a break. With “Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats,” he has to wait no more.
10 BEST SONGS
1. Jill Scott — Closure
It’s that pounding bass guitar that rises like lava from a volcano. It’s that white-hot horn section that gives the production sweaty soul. It’s that fuzzed out vocal effect that accentuates the honesty the singer portrays. It’s that hilarious spoken-work outro that officially slams the door on any possible reconciliation. “Closure” isn’t just the best song on Jill Scott’s 2015 release “Woman”; it’s one of the best songs of her career. Sassy to the core, this single allowed the singer an ability to kick off her shoes and craft some of the most cutting lyrics she’s ever offered up (and that’s saying something for the artist who once wrote a song called “Hate On Me”). It’s funky. It’s soulful. It’s one of the rare kiss-off tracks that feels as honest as it does empowering. May her cup (of sugar) runneth over from here on out.
2. Motion City Soundtrack — I Can Feel You
You’re going to scoff at a Motion City Soundtrack song being the second-best track of the year … but to hell with you. This is my list, damn it. Anyway, the Minneapolis-based pop-punkers released an album in 2015, and I’ll bet you didn’t even know. “Panic Stations” was your good, old run-of-the-mill Motion City Soundtrack record … until this song popped up and the whole thing immediately went to “Holy Mother Of Wow.” Fueled by a boppy drum groove that explodes into a chorus with a surprisingly complex time signature, this thing is as cathartic and as self-effacing as singer Justin Pierre has ever been. The bridge was made to be performed in an arena on a nightly basis and those crescendoing layered vocals only add to the mystique. “I never know who I am/I only know what I’m not/ It doesn’t make any sense/ It doesn’t further the plot,” Pierre sings like the still-angst-ridden, suddenly-reflective 39-year-old that he’s become. Yet now finally, with a line like that, he ought to be ready to begin work on what has the potential to be an awfully curious second act.
3. Kendrick Lamar — King Kunta
Oh, don’t you mess with Kendrick Lamar. “King Kunta,” unquestionably one of the most explosive songs off the rapper’s masterpiece, “To Pimp A Butterfly,” is so filled with funk and fury that it shouldn’t matter what your personal tastes are — this thing is irresistible. I mean, dude calls out everybody(which, in hindsight, shouldn’t be all that surprising, considering how the song opens with a flat “I got a bone to pick;” yes you do, sir, yes, you do). It was Lamar’s year, especially if you just can’t get on the Drake or Future bandwagons (full disclosure: I can’t), and this single was perhaps the most lasting highlight on an album packed to the brim with pinnacles. “I was gonna kill a couple rappers but they did it to themselves/ Everybody’s suicidal they don’t even need my help,” he asserts, mere seconds before he calls upon the ghost of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” It makes sense — this guy should be convicted for stealing the game out from under everyone else.
4. Alessia Cara — Here
Not bad for a YouTube star, right? Actually, it’s almost unfortunate that Alessia Cara has that background — a song like “Here” is so raw and fresh and angry and good that if you try to dismiss her as a flash in the pan or someone who “just got lucky,” give this track three spins and proceed to never question the singer again. Cara celebrated her 19th birthday in July, but so many of these words are staggeringly world-wary that it wouldn’t surprise you if something like this came from someone double her age. The hip-hop feel, from the music to the cadence, adds a layer to Cara’s blend of soul that we haven’t really heard since Amy Winehouse. Huge words, sure, but if anyone appears to have the edge that made the dearly-missed star great — and not just good — it’s Alessia Cara. What’s next?
5. Nigel Hall — Lay Away
Hey, if nothing else, listen for the velvety groove that Questlove offers up with his stick work; there’s no way you’re sitting still to that. This Isley Brother forgotten gem is slowed down ever so slightly in order to make room for Hall’s ridiculously powerful pipes and my God, does it work. Sprawled out to six minutes, everyone and everything has a chance to shine, from the incandescent horn section to the organ that grants this performance funk on top of funk on top of funk. “That’s a keeper. We’re keeping all of that. That’s it,” Hall says into the microphone as the explosion simmers back down to a mere boil and suddenly, you realize you’re not the only one who understands every bit of the magic you just heard.
6. Lianne La Havas — Tokyo
It’s just so hazy. Perhaps the winner of Moodiest Song Of The Year, Lianne La Havas’ “Tokyo” is a portrait of bright lights, a bustling city and bare-boned loneliness. Propped up by a subliminally slap-y bass line that wouldn’t be out of place on a record from her friend Prince, this is a song that embodies the best, most soulful parts of pop music in a year like 1987. Plus, don’t forge this: The turnaround between the pre-chorus and chorus is a tiny shot of brilliance, the way it builds only to fall back into the type of foggy darkness that the hook so expertly portrays. Turn out all the lights, press play on this, lay down for a night’s sleep and 20 bucks says your dreams turn out to look like scenes from “Lost In Translation.” Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
7. Chvrches — Leave A Trace
It might take a minute to come around to, but once you do, and the flood gates to appreciation are busted open, it’s like a new underworld appears and the amount of things to focus on are infinite. Among them? How about the way the second half of the chorus opens up and the beat takes on more intricate textures. Or, if that doesn’t work, check out the dive into that sampled vocal clip of which the entire groove is based. If those aren’t enough, dissect singer Lauren Mayberry’s words of both defiance and defeat. Because as that voice rises once she starts into the hook’s “And you had best believe/ That you cannot build what I don’t need,” it’s game over — not only for her spurned ex-associate, but also your resistance toward embracing this uniquely passionate and undeniably catchy work of art.
8. Becca Stevens — Thinking About You
Even Frank Ocean has to love this, right? Sure, “Thinking About You” is the second cover on a list of only 10 songs for the year, but this — even more so than Nigel Hall’s “Lay Away” — reimagines the original version in a way that’s both worthy and revelatory. How so? Well, check out Stevens’ delicacy, her feathery rich voice alternating between light and heavy on a dime (the way she enunciates “I remember” during the track’s bridge is so stone-cold in both tone and presentation, you almost wouldn’t be surprised to find out Frank Ocean was the one to cover her). Plus … well, girl’s got a falsetto to die for. Hey — anytime you throw an accordion into a rendition of a single that was written by a member of Odd Future, you win top 10 honors, no matter what. It’s one of the millions of unwritten pop music rules. Trust me.
9. OMI — Cheerleader
The first time I heard this, I said, “Wait. No. This is a total Paul Simon rip-off. And no one rips off Paul Simon. Especially someone so clearly destined to be a one-hit wonder.” But then it grew on me. And then it grew on me some more. And then it grew on me some more. With unmistakable Caribbean flair, this is a song written for the summer and made to be heard in the summer. Honestly — try pulling it out now and see if it has the same effect. Either way, there’s something to be said for a seasonal hit, and this did, without question, check off all the boxes it needed to in order to be a seasonal hit. Danceable? Check. Tropical? Check. Declaration of love? Check. Infectious beyond words? Double check. It’s the definition of a guilty pleasure, and even if we never hear from OMI again, you can’t take the summer of 2015 away from him. Godspeed, young man.
10. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats — S.O.B.
Stax Records lives! Stax Records lives! More than anything, this song embodies the legendary label’s formula, which is a formula that hasn’t been celebrated enough in recent years. Sweaty Southern soul. More than just a hint of gospel. Enough emotion to fill a semester’s worth of drama classes. Even when the hook kicks in and the band backs Rateliff up with authenticity and power, there’s a retrofied R&B sense to it that accentuates the blues more than it does the rhythm, and that’s a rare trick in 2015. Those hums are contagious and those handclaps are as palpably communal as all great music should be. Get this guy a drink already, will you?