My Favorite Music in 2015

I used to do a “Best of” music post every year. It’s been a few years, mostly because I have fallen desperately out of the habit of paying attention to when music is released. I take recommendations, go back and listen to old records, and occasionally will see that something new is released and go check it out. But the last 2 years I’ve had quite a few friends ask me for a year-end list, and have sent some private lists around.

So this year I am saying “screw it” to the rules, and simply listing my top 10 favorite albums that I listened to in 2015 – regardless of if they came out this year or not. I know, I know – such chaos! But hopefully this will still give you some new artists to explore. A lot of these came out in 2014 because I’m always just slightly late to the game on these things. Enjoy!

Here are the albums that played on repeat for me in 2015, in no particular order:

The Soil and the Sun – Meridian (2014)

I can’t say enough good things about this album. The songs are incredibly complex and they move and change a lot, but they are still incredibly listenable and fun. After a period of time where it was trendy to have 7 or 8 members (but almost every time I felt like they could do the same stuff with half as many), this is a band that uses every member so well and the resulting sound is full and orchestral in the best way possible. My favorite track is “Lost Lovers.”

Mimicking Birds – Eons (2014)

This Portland-based band never disappoints. An incredible album.

Wolf Alice – My Love is Cool (2015)

I discovered this band for the first time this year, and became immediately obsessed. My soft spot for female-fronted rock bands aside, they are one of the most solid bands I came across. It’s a phenomenal album. “Giant Peach” is a masterpiece.

Joseph – Native Dreamer Kin (2014)

I saw this band at Pickathon before even knowing who they were, even though they are from Estacada, Oregon. I admit, their live show blew me away in a way that the album doesn’t quite accomplish, but it’s still a lovely album. See them live if you can! I walked in the door as they were playing “Not Mine,” which became my favorite track.

Active Child – You Are All I See (2011)

Active Child actually released an album in 2015 — called Mercy. It’s a phenomenal album as well, but when I discovered them this year I was drawn most strongly to this 2011 album. It reminds me of Bjork at times, but mostly the combination of beautiful harp, solid rhythms and the really unique sounds that they use make for an absolutely stunning album that makes me want to be a ballet dancer and use this album as my personal dance music.

Sylvan Esso – Spotify Session (2015)

Of course these folks have albums, but my particular obsession this year was this incredible Spotify session. For the most part you can’t even tell it’s live until people cheer and clap.

Liza Anne – Two (2015)

The few self-pitying lyrics on this album get to me, admittedly, but in a lot of ways it suits the innocent and somewhat naive tone of the album, which is altogether really lovely. “Take it Back” is my favorite track.

Frazey Ford – Indian Ocean (2014)

I’m a long-time fan of Frazey’s work, including her work with the Be Good Tanyas. But when I heard the song “Done” and listened to this album, I knew she had moved to a whole new plane musically. An incredible album.

Laura Marling – Short Movie (2015)

Everything Laura does is gold. That’s all I have to say about that.

Jesca Hoop – The House that Jack Built (2012)

This is the oldest record, I realize. I’ve been a fan of Jesca’s for years, but only this year did I realize that I wasn’t familiar with her whole catalog. This album is now my favorite of her works.

My Brightest Diamond – This is my Hand (2014)

I saw Shara Worden in 2014 when she sang for the Penelope tour, and it was absolutely breathtaking. I think she is one of the brilliant musical minds of our generation, and this album just makes me believe that even harder.

Patrick Watson – Love Songs for Robots (2015)

Another of my favorite musicians ever who consistently releases incredible albums. Unfortunately my band’s record release party was the same night that he played in Portland! I must catch him live in the next few years.

Glass Animals – Zaba (2014)

A bit different than the other entries here, but this band is so much fun. I saw them play in late 2014 and they were so solid, and so gracious.

Some single song obsessions from 2015:

Jenny O – “Automechanic”

San Fermin – “Emily”

Panama – “Destroyer”

Lavender Diamond – “I Don’t Recall”

S – “Vampires”


The dreaded gym

As of yesterday I officially am a gym member. In typical I-change-my-mind-every-10-seconds fashion, this is something I absolutely swore I would never do. But I feel great about it, and here’s why.

1. I get to swim. I was a swimmer in high school, long distance. And though I never really took it seriously enough to push myself to go very fast (I used to exasperate my coach), it was something I wasn’t bad at and it kept me active in my otherwise pretty chair-centric lifestyle. I have swam for the past 3 days and it feels amazing. And I haven’t craved a cupcake once.

2. Community is powerful. Despite the stereotypes about the types of people who go to the gym, I have been heartened and inspired by the different types of people I encounter there, whether it be the hard-cores, the people who really need to get healthy, and the elderly who are there keeping themselves healthy for longevity. It’s cool, and it helps me stay focused.

3. It’s an adventure. When it comes down to it, exercise has never been a regular part of my life! It’s sad to say. But I’ve hit 30 and it’s time to make it so. Frankly, it’s foreign enough to me that it’s hard to do on my own without some help. So along with some other inspirational tidbits, waking up first thing and going to the gym is helping me find my rhythm.

Inspiration is overrated

For a while I was taking songwriting lessons. Going into it, I was skeptical on how someone would be able to teach songwriting without imparting their own musical tastes and styles onto me, but it turns out that it was not only incredibly valuable, but it also affected other parts of my life profoundly.

The big message that I took away from songwriting lessons was: inspiration is overrated. Or rather, waiting for inspiration to hit is a terrible way to be productive, whether that’s with a creative project or at work. What I discovered about myself (and I believe it to be true for many others as well) is that all I need is to be given prompts or ideas for where to start, and I can thrive. 

Here’s an example: when I started songwriting lessons I was having trouble writing songs. I was sitting down with my guitar, playing a song or two that I knew, and then attempting to create something by just picking around on the fretboard and seeing what came to me. I would then get incredibly frustrated when nothing good came. But the reality is that I was essentially trying to pull something out of nowhere. What would generally be called “inspiration” was actually just expecting a lot from my creative self with no input. So my songwriting teacher started off with one of my favorite concepts: constraints are liberating. She gave me a huge list of things to try — write a song on an instrument you’re not very comfortable with, write a song that has only two sections, write a song in 5/4 time, analyze the structure of your favorite song and write a song that has that same structure.

What I found was that the more limits I gave myself, the more I was able to flex my creative muscles within the confines I had put into place for myself. And often, once I got going, I would end up breaking one or two of the rules I had set for myself, and the song ended up being even better.

Now, this concept has entered into many other parts of my life. At work, instead of waiting for ideas to solve a certain problem, I attack it from a different angle — by constraining the pieces of it that I am thinking about at any one time, and allowing my ideas to grow within those confines until the barriers are broken down. 

I know there are many artistic types who believe inspiration is key. How does inspiration operate for you in your life?

Choices we make, stories we create

I was at a wedding a few weeks ago and one of the toasts was about how we all make choices in our lives. He went through a list — we choose what to do with our time, and we choose who to spend our time with and who to let into our lives in a deeper way. It really touched me as he expanded on that list and then said something like, “You two have made an excellent choice.”

It’s odd to me what goes through our heads when we feel like we don’t have control over these choices, or that we are stuck when trying to make them. I personally have an anxious brain, and I have to catch myself feeling sorry for myself or struggling with the fact that I have to make a decision. But life really comes out of those proactive choices, and it’s true that there’s nothing we control more than the choices we make. This is not to say that we don’t sometimes make bad choices, but it’s important to realize the power that we have in our own lives just by realizing that we have the freedom to make our own choices.

One of the reasons this struck me was because I had been thinking about another concept recently — how we create the stories that we tell in our own heads about the people around us. When I get frustrated with another person, often that is because I have built a story in my head about how that person is flaky, or how that person is immature, etc. and whatever action has made me upset is just a reflection of that story that already lives in my mind about that person. But that again is my anxious brain compounding things on top of each other and prioritizing the negative aspects in order to protect myself. When I take a step back and realize that I can create a narrative about that person that is more positive and let go of that inclination to compound the negative aspects together, I feel much more able to have close relationships with people.

Is this just an anxious brain thing, or do others experience this as well? I’m curious.

Mental and physical energy

I’ve always said it is much more draining for me to work a full day at my (news-heavy, reading-heavy, emotional subject-heavy) job than it is for me to take a day-long hike or bike trip. Yes, I’m exhausted either way but there’s something profoundly draining about dealing with emotional issues and attempting to be alert, focused and productive for 8-10 hours straight.

Today I researched the horrific situation in Ferguson and wrote a petition about the militarization of the police forces across the country, thanks to the Defense Department providing civilian police with old military equipment. I finished the petition around 11:30am and not only did I want to cry real bad but I also wanted a nap. 

Perhaps the solution here is actually to think of mental work as draining and to think of physical work as energizing. So maybe a better physical regimen would help to prepare myself for my daily mental regimen.

Do other folks have good practices for keeping yourself energized mentally during times of intense concentration, stress, and emotional challenges (i.e. every day)? I’d love to hear any thoughts.

The impetus of a project

And so I embark on a new blog. My old blog was very personal and frankly provided very little of value to those outside of my friends and family who wanted to keep tabs on my travels and things. Now, maybe because of my incredibly ripe age of 30 (ha) or because of the increasingly intense responsibilities being bestowed on me by life (promotion at work, bought a house, have a cat incapable of empathy, etc) I feel the urge to write in a less filtered way. I believe I may have something to offer other people of a certain age who may be struggling with similar things as I am, even if that’s just because I have a knack for latching onto interesting people and inspiring stories.

That said, I am a project starter. You’ve all heard about my kind — we get intensely, viscerally excited about an idea, we stay awake thinking about it, and we plan it in our heads day and night. Then about 2 days after thinking of the idea, we launch into it head first, full speed ahead. This process has allowed me to learn bookbinding, get a Certificate in independent publishing, be the News Editor at an awesome San Francisco music blog, start knitting, take courses in film scoring, volunteer for local groups setting up databases, play in four bands at once, etc etc etc. And while that was all great fun (except for the databases thing), so many of those projects ended up with me abandoning the project because I have bitten off more than I can chew and I get stressed to the point of exhaustion.

My hope is that this blog is not one of those things. It has started the same way, admittedly, and I am inspired and excited about blogging mostly thanks to Seth Godin and his seemingly effortless posts that communicate insightful and helpful concepts. But I am optimistic, because one thing about my life has never changed, through all of these stunted projects — I am always interested in ways to better myself, help where help is needed, and balance my life in a way that makes sense and keeps me healthy. And because I am reading and thinking about those things frequently, I hope that I can at least aggregate some of those learnings here, for you.

If you have any topic in particular you’d like me to address, please contact me here.

Epilogue: If this is the only post on this blog in 2 weeks, then I deeply apologize for history repeating itself…