#8: Girlpool – “Before the World Was Big”

A cool part of music that I’ve overlooked is how it’s often about group collaboration, and the bonds that develop from working together to create something. When you hear a band’s song, it’s the result of people who (presumably) like each other working together to make music that they believe in. This would be very obvious if I’d ever been in a band, but as a listener I often don’t think about the actual work that goes into these songs, and instead just assume that they like… happen out of nowhere.

Girlpool’s debut album, Before the World Was Big, is what made me start thinking about this. The teen duo of Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker make incredibly simple music, with just guitar, bass, and interlocking vocals. Out of this simplicity comes great power, and there is a sense of deep friendship and connection between the two that is conveyed in the way they write and perform their songs. Before the World Was Big is the sound of two friends making music together in the most direct and honest way they know how.

The sound of Before the World was Big is simple, but its songs are full of nuance and ambiguity. It obviously is from the perspective of two young people, yet it never feels naive. The songs have a darkness running through them as the pair confront the real world and deal with already feeling kind of old while also not really being adults. I could see people saying the pair are “wise beyond their years,” but I actually think part of the album’s power is that they do sound their age — with all the anxieties and feelings that entails — and aren’t afraid to be achingly sincere about it.

Earlier this year, I compared Girlpool to The Shaggs, but they’re also likened to Marine Girls or (often derisively) Kimya Dawson and the Juno soundtrack. But while Girlpool are hardly the first band to come up with the “simple = good” idea, they are the first to be Harmony and Cleo, and it’s their unique point of view and connection with each other that makes this a great album.

#9: Tamaryn – “Cranekiss”

Tamaryn’s first two albums often had moments of genius (“Love Fade,” “Heavenly Bodies”), but sometimes could feel one-note. Her third album, Cranekiss, is a big step forward because it feels like a much more complete album and vision from the singer, who collaborated with Weekend’s Shaun Durkan to make a more pop-influenced record.

Which isn’t to say Cranekiss is pop, exactly. It takes Tamaryn’s established shoegaze sound and adds a layer of sheen and brightness to it, resulting in songs that are more danceable than her previous efforts and recall some of the more upbeat moments of Cocteau Twins. The layers of sound and additional percussion give Cranekiss a wintry, romantic feeling, which is reminiscent of other bands but still feels like its own.

What I’ve always liked about Tamaryn — and especially on this album — is that it’s shoegaze-style music that is built around the singer, who in other similar bands often takes a backseat to the noise. While Cranekiss has many musical upgrades, they’re all done in service to her vocals, which shine even more with the slightly new direction. Tamaryn’s wide range and natural tone lends itself to dramatic songs, and Cranekiss makes good use of that talent with its lush sound.

#10: No Joy – “More Faithful”

I continue to think No Joy are the best current band at taking the familiar sound of shoegaze and turning it into something that feels fresh and new. More Faithful feels more stripped down than its predecessors, dropping some of the band’s massive guitar riffs and putting more emphasis on songcraft.

While some fans may miss the ear-splitting guitar maelstroms from some of their previous albums (*raises hand*), More Faithful impressively pushes the band in a new direction without fundamentally changing who they are. Jasamine White-Gluz’s vocals are more central to the songs now (though still not very decipherable), and Laura Lloyd’s guitar playing is more subtle while still having the noisy shoegaze sound that is key to the band’s chemistry.

While I’ve loved all their music, I think No Joy have often been perceived as a derivative band that is just cloning previous shoegaze artists. More Faithful shuts down a lot of those arguments and proves that the band can make original, exciting music within the shoegaze framework.

#11: Sleater-Kinney – “No Cities to Love”

Given the impossible task of topping the band’s previous work, No Cities to Love is a satisfying return to form for Sleater-Kinney that dodges the pitfalls of many reunion albums. The trio of Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss quickly settle into their old chemistry and unsurprisingly deliver one of the better rock albums of the year, with the band’s typical political commentary and Tucker’s roaring vocals being an especially welcome return.

Rather than comparing this album to The Woods, which really felt like a band going out in a blaze of glory, I like to think of No Cities to Love as starting something new for the band. And on this album, I get the sense that they’re still working out some of the kinks and getting back into the Sleater-Kinney “zone” that resulted in such consistently compelling music years ago. If all this is true, No Cities to Love is a good start, and I look forward to seeing what the band can do next.

You can read my initial post about the album here.

#12: Soccer Team – “Real Lessons in Cynicism”

The last band I’ll ever discover through rdio’s excellent new music feature (again, RIP), Soccer Team is fronted by a pair of Dischord veterans in Ryan Nelson and Melissa Quinley. Real Lessons in Cynicism has short, subtle rock songs, with split man-woman vocals that are reminiscent of the band’s labelmates The Evens.

Real Lessons in Cynicism is clearly meticulously crafted, as evidenced by the demos and discussion of them the band posted on its bandcamp page, but also never feels like it’s trying too hard. This gives the album a quiet sincerity that separated it from a lot of other rock music that I feel is very desperately attempting to be stylish or “cool.” It also has a lot of my favorite lyrics (and definitely my favorite song titles) of 2015 — many of the songs feel like listening in on interesting conversations with smart friends like “Too Many Lens Flares,” which offers a biting critique of the state of film.

The song on this album that really hit me was “Mental Anguish Is Your Friend.” Fronted by Quinley, it crams a scarily accurate depiction of, well, mental anguish, into its short running time — in particular, it nails how it becomes part of who you are over time.

#13: Palehound – “Dry Food”

Given the millions of solo songwriters out there, it’s a pretty tall task to feel distinct these days, but Ellen Kempner (aka Palehound) is able to pull it off on her debut full length, Dry Food. While it fits into the same indie rock/folk style as many other artists, Kempner’s versatility as a guitarist and songwriter makes it feel like something unique, as she nimbly goes from up-tempo lo-fi rock songs with distorted guitar blasts to heartfelt folk with gentle strumming.

While Kempner’s guitar playing is flashy, her vocals and lyrics are more understated, with introspective observations sung in a near deadpan tone. Yet Kempner is still capable of expressing a lot of emotion with her voice, like on the quiet title track where she sings “I’m over it,” a simple lyric that feels like it means a lot when she sings it. Overall, Dry Food is one of my favorite debuts of the year, and it showcases a young artist who is forging her own path.

#14: Marriages – “Salome”

Emma Ruth Rundle released one of my favorite albums of last year with her debut solo effort, Some Heavy Ocean. That album showed her quiet intensity as a singer and lyricist, as well as her ability to incorporate ambient and post-rock elements into her more folk-style songwriting. This year, she returned to fronting Marriages, where she rocks a bit harder fronting a full band that backs her up with swirling guitar influenced by bands like The Cure.

While Marriages’ first release, Kitsune, mostly buried Rundle’s vocals beneath the heavy guitar, Salome borrows from her solo album and is more centered around her vocals and now-decipherable lyrics. Rundle’s biggest gift continues to be her commitment to the songs and the passion she conveys with her voice, which fits the dramatic sound that Marriages go for. Salome is pretty gloomy throughout, with many biblical references and talks of “spitting on your mother’s grave,” but Rundle’s performance keeps it engaging and ultimately rewarding.