Heartbreaking Bravery

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Tag: Gabrielle Smith

2016: A Year’s Worth of Memories

Heartbreaking Bravery recently went offline but all facets of the site are back to being fully operational. Apologies for any inconveniences. All posts that were slated to run during that brief hiatus will appear with this note.

Once again, I’d like to start off with thanking the 2016 crop of contributors for A Year’s Worth of Memories: James Greer, Lindsey-Paige McCloy, Amanda Dissinger, Loren DiBlasi, Katie Preston, Erica Sutherland, Nicola Leel, Jesse Amesmith, Phil McAndrew, Lindsay Hazen, John Rossiter, Sonia Weber, Lily Mastrodimos, Eric Slick, Jerard Fagerberg, Megan Manowitz, Amar Lal, Phyllis Ophelia, Elise Okusami, Isaac Eiger, Alisa Rodriguez, Ryan Wizniak, Nora Scott, Natalie Kirch, and Jessica Leach. There aren’t words powerful enough to adequately convey my gratitude for your efforts, time, care, and consideration. Apologies to anyone that may have contributed something that got lost in the shuffle (if this is you, please send me a note and we can try to work something out for next year).

As you may have noticed, every single entry into this year’s edition of A Year’s Worth of Memories (this one included) either ran or is running with the disclaimer up top. At the start of the year, Heartbreaking Bravery was effectively forced into a hiatus to work out technical complications that occurred due to what essentially amounted to a correspondence glitch. All sorts of things went haywire and reconnecting all the wires was a surprisingly difficult task. A number of things got lost in the shuffle.

For a brief time, I thought about ending the site permanently but reading back through the material that was still left on the table — as well as some of the material that was posted in the past — dissuaded me from calling it quits. These pieces needed to be published and it felt important, maybe even necessary, to continue this site.

While the timing may have rendered the 2016 installment of A Year’s Worth of Memories a little less timely than I would have liked, the pieces themselves largely transcended the time capsule-style trappings typically attributed to these types of works. Many touched on lessons that seemed timeless. All of them made me question what I’d eventually choose to write about it and how I’d present it whenever I did choose. The piece I wrote last year  was outrageously long and I didn’t want to go through something that exhausting again.

Eventually, I decided the best route would be to combine some of the common traits laid out by the 2016 series: splitting the piece into four pieces, focusing on personal triumphs while making room for gnawing anxieties, visual interludes, and paying tribute to the people and events that are worth celebrating. All that and more can be read below.

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SMALL FESTS & SHOWS

2016 was the year of small festivals; I’d always preferred them to the spectacle-laden retreats that seem to dominate the news cycles every year. Many of these small-scale events I’d been trying to see for years and 2016 just wound up being kind enough to allow me access to events like FRZN Fest, Wicker Park Fest, and Eaux Claires, among others. Unsurprisingly, each held its own share of memorable frustrations and scintillating highlights. In no particular moment, here are some of the standout moments.

Chicago was atypically warm for last year’s annual Music Frozen Dancing, which saw Muuy Biien, Meat Wave, The Spits, and the Black Lips playing outdoors to a packed crowd outside of the Empty Bottle. While all of the bands were good and the Black Lips, as they always do, managed to invoke the high school memories of discovering and participating in that genre of music, nothing could’ve topped Meat Wave unveiling “Glass Teeth” from what would eventually become their next record.

Ragged and sick, the band tore into the new material with the kind of excitement reserved for new material. It was a standout moment of a day that refused to end (my friend Josh and I wound up taking three different forms of public transit after the trains stopped running) after an off-the-books Heavy Times show wrapped in the early hours of the morning. It was a surreal moment and allowed for an extended view of Chicago at night. Exhausted, content, and desperate to get back to our sleeping quarters, it was a difficult night to forget.

Months later, I’d return for the unreasonably stacked Wicker Park Fest, excited to see a long list of friends and more than a few bands that had been on my bucket list. The weather had different plans. Not only did getting turned around on the way to the fest’s first day wind up forcing me to walk a few extra miles before being saved by a generous taxi driver who offered me a free ride after the first rain of the weekend started descending, more than half of the bands I’d intended to see got cancelled because of storms on both days.

Nearly as soon as I got through the gates, I was already rushing to take shelter with a bunch of other festivalgoers who had effectively sequestered themselves in Reckless Records, which would eventually lose power and offer up a faint glow with candles set up in various parts of the store People browsed records, reading materials, and gathered by the wind to watch the storm lift tents out of the ground and send them ricocheting down Paulina St. There was an odd magic to it all.

There were bright musical spots in the midst of all of that chaos, though, including an unbelievably explosive Jeff Rosenstock set that saw the songwriter leaping over the barricade gap, guitar still attached, to crowdsurf at the end of an abbreviated set. The whirlwind nature of Rosenstock’s performance, which came after the storm delays and restrictions were lifted, felt like an appropriate maelstrom of energy; a whirlwind performance driven by some unknowable force.

Five or six songs in length, it’d wind up being the highlight of the festival. Somewhere nearby, one of the trains on the blue line wound up getting blown off the rails by the intense winds and caused festival organizers to proceed with extra caution on the second day, which was hit with an even worse run of weather.

I spent much of that day with Sasha Geffen — the fist young music journalist I can remember truly admiring — who was with me when I was forming the initial idea for A Year’s Worth of Memories and was a vital part of its finalization. We took in great, sunny sets from Bad Bad Hats and Diet Cig before the storm reappeared and spent a lot of time in a powerless Emporium Arcade. During that run — which forced cancellations of both Pile and PUP — I was also fortunate enough to meet A Year’s Worth of Memories contributor David Anthony.

The last memorable moment of that festival caught me paralyzed in between two stages, with Ought ripping into “More Than Any Other Day” on one side and Alvvay‘s launching into “Archie, Marry Me” on the other. I took in both, unable to choose between two of the best songs of the past ten years before rushing over to Ought, who had their industrial sensibilities enhanced by their backdrop, trains running along the blue line in the background while being cloaked in a calm, post-storm glow. It was a perfect way to cap a very chaotic festival.

Three more small festivals had their fair share of spectacular moments as well: Bon Iver debuting an entire record at Eaux Claires, sending chills down my spine for the entirety of “715 – CR∑∑KS” while crickets audibly chirped on the forest perimeter, their sound elevated by the reverential silence of a crowd of thousands. Tickle Torture playing shortly after that set and delivering a slew of the festival’s best moments, including a finale that saw bandleader Elliot Kozel (formerly of Sleeping in the Aviary) getting completely naked while screaming “MY LOVE!” at the top of his lungs. That day starting at the gates, listening to the sounds of an expanded Tenement lineup blowing away a festival crowd and spending that day in the presence of some of my favorite people, including A Year’s Worth of Memories contributors Nina Corcoran (who I wrote about for my piece last year) and Sam Clark (who has played in more than one band with me).

Turkey Fest’s final day had a stellar lineup boasting four great acts: Wood Chickens, Trampoline Team, The Hussy, and Nobunny, with the latter two delivering incredible sets full of ridiculous high-energy antics. FRZN Fest had more than a few moments that wound up being burned into my memory. None more frustrating than an infuriatingly chatty crowd refusing to give Julien Baker anything beyond a modicum of courtesy. None more exciting than a characteristically perfect Charly Bliss set that had me continuously grinning while singing along to songs that comprised the best EP of this current decade and will litter one of 2017’s best records.

As much as I love both Julien Baker and Charly Bliss, though, there was something about Torres‘ set that felt almost holy. Playing after a good Eternal Summers set and the best Palehound set I’ve seen to date, Torres dove headfirst into a set that alternately gave me chills, lifted my spirits, calmed me, and — almost inexplicably — at one point had me on the verge of tears. To top it all off, Torres’ goosebump-inducing one-song encore wound up being tantamount to a religious experience that included a lovely moment between bandleader Mackenzie Scott and my friend Justin. I was fortunate enough to capture that moment in full and revisit it frequently.

For individual shows, there were a number of great outings that were peppered with heartening moments lingering around the peripheries of the main event. Walking into the High Noon Saloon to be greeted with an onslaught of hugs from my friends in Yowler, Eskimeaux, and Frankie Cosmos, only to be whisked away for a coffee reprieve in a nearby shop by Gabby, Greta, and A Year’s Worth of Memories contributor Athylia Paremski, before circling back to a powerhouse show. Charly Bliss and PUP combining for what was, bar none, the most intense show I’ve ever experienced (at one point I was nearly choked out by a girl clutching the neckline of my shirt to keep herself upright in the swirling sea of chaos behind me).

As meaningful as both of those shows were, though, it would have been impossible for anyone to top an event that occurred early on in December: the official reunion of Good Grief, a band that meant an extraordinary amount to me that was nearly gone forever, taking place in Guu’s, the tavern that’s acted as a refuge for me during my various stints in my home town. People from the shows that dominated my fondest Stevens Point memories from that run all flooded in from various parts of the upper Midwest to see this take place and everyone lost their voices screaming along. Making things even sweeter: an opening set from Heavy Looks, led in part by my friend Rosalind Greiert, watching her hit a stride as both a writer and performer, and feeling an irrepressible rush of a million good feelings as I watched her come into her own in real time.

To see something like that happening (both the Heavy Looks set and the Good Grief set), surrounded by friends so close they’re considered family, engaging in something meaningful is an exhilarating feeling and a lot of people who were present are likely still feeling some of those feelings reverberations. Good Grief weren’t exactly a household name before their dissolution but they were — and remain — one of the best bands I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. Get caught up by watching the videos from that reunion set right here:

PLAYING MUSIC

In 2016, I had the good fortune of playing the most shows in any given year that I probably ever have in my life. In addition to finishing writing a (forthcoming) solo record, I was able to play in three different bands with people I respect, admire, and care for deeply.

The band I played with the least was the band that I’d played with the most in 2015, A Blue Harbor. Geographic complications have essentially forced us into a hiatus by the middle of the year but we were still able to play a few shows in support of the full-length we’d recorded in Minneapolis in 2015, including a local show for a pop-up art gallery for an arts collective that made me feel a surge of hope for our small town. As unlikely as it seems at this point, something tells me the things this band has to offer have been far from exhausted (and our guitarist/vocalist, Matty, has been releasing a continuous string of excellent material on her own).

I accepted an invitation to join a new band called Doorstopper and have taken up residency behind  the kit. Jarad Olson, the bassist for both Good Grief and Heavy Looks as well as an incredible songwriter in his own right, had teamed up with our friend Melissa Haack to allow her poetry a musical platform in an odd experiment that’s been paying the type of dividends that I’m legitimately not sure any of us had expected. It’s become a band whose mantra has remained — and with good reason — “let’s get weird.” It’s a band that has been given the tag “premenstrual post-punk” and it’s the type of band that takes a suggestion for a “doom-wop” song seriously. And it’s a band that hasn’t stopped getting better and more interesting with each successive practice.

While Doorstopper has been occupying itself in the shadows, building something interesting, I also found myself being re-integrated into a resurgent Holly & the Nice Lions, who played all over the state of Wisconsin in 2016, with a host of fascinating bands. Some of those bands (Bad Wig, Midnight Reruns) were made up of the people we’ve been close friends with for years. Some of those bands (Young Jesus, POPE, Mo Troper) constitute the best emerging bands America has to offer.

One of those bands (Bully) has earned international acclaim. One of those bands (The Muffs) continues to be rightfully revered as not only icons but living legends. Through all of those shows, the weird parties surrounding them, and everything else that the minutiae of being in band carries, we’ve grown closer as a unit and I’m proud to consider both of the other members as family. Whether we were being towed to a house show after blowing a tire or playing hard enough to generate our own blood, we’ve found ways to continuously elevate each other, keep each other in check, and look out for each other. Show after show, song after song, the band kept getting better and we — impossibly — kept enjoying each other’s company more. It’s hard to imagine a better situation.

MY PARTNER

For all of the memorable things I was able to do in both film and music throughout 2016, by the year’s end none of it felt as meaningful as it would have if I didn’t get to share it with my partner, Simone. Throughout the last quarter of the year, we went from being good friends to being inseparable, willfully colliding at nearly every turn. I learned to rediscover the depths of my love for discovering new music by viewing it through her eyes. I rediscovered the importance of engaging in active good. I made up my mind to constantly strive to better myself in productive ways.

A series of shared trips to the various corners of the state of Wisconsin led to some genuinely unforgettable moments, whether it was carving out new, unbeaten paths in gorgeous parks on beautiful days or getting swept up in the (typically far too humid) intensity of shows in basements, dive bars, or anywhere else we might find people playing instruments (or picking up instruments of our own to play each other Bishop Allen songs). I’ll steal her glasses, she’ll steal my camera. We’ll laugh, we’ll listen, we’ll watch, and we’ll keep moving forward.

The survival of Heartbreaking Bravery can, in many ways, be directly attributed to her involvement in my life. All of the frustrating, terrifying events that have happened over the course of the year’s last stretch seemed easier to weather with her at my side and she’s constantly given me at least one major reason to celebrate the future. I’m thankful, grateful, and unbelievably lucky.

A STEP FORWARD

By the end of 2016, Heartbreaking Bravery had gained additional purpose. In the face of one of the most anti-arts (and anti-press) administrations in America’s history, the need to fight back by any means necessary increased. Even before the election, the fact that the current president’s campaign had carried him so far was troublesome. With a milestone rapidly approaching for the site, that happening at the forefront of the nation’s political landscape (and, more directly, America’s landscape), and an unending desire to be productive and actively contribute to good causes, I chose to resolve all of my feelings into one massive project: A Step Forward.

At first, I only expected a handful of people to be interested in contributing to the project. More than half of the artists I reached out to responded immediately and gifted the compilation, designed to serve as Heartbreaking Bravery’s 1000th post, incredible material. In a matter of weeks, I had more than 50 songs kicking around in my inbox. A few months later, my finger was lingering above the publish button, set to release 100 songs from 100 artists that had, in some way or another, been involved with this site’s history. By that point, I’d enlisted the help of Jes Skolnik to locate worthy causes and had struck up a correspondence with the Chicag0-based Rape Victim Advocates. All of the money made from the pay-your-own pricetag of A Step Forward would be going towards that organization.

Looking through all of the songs, whether they were demos, early mixes, new songs, remixes, or old favorites, and all of the artists who had chosen to give me a part of their lives because they believed in the things I was doing and the causes I was supporting was an overwhelming feeling. A lot of people that have had near-death experiences have described the sensation of seeing their life flash before their eyes and, in that moment with my finger hovering over the button to release this compilation, it was hard not to take stock of everything that had happened in my life over the course of this site’s existence. It was a jarring feeling but one that filled me with hope and with love for the people who have supported this place, stuck by my side, and lent their voice to any of the various projects to have run on Heartbreaking Bravery.

I was on the verge of tears when I woke up to the flood of responses the compilation had elicited and how much it had generated for people who put the funds to good use. I’d stayed up for nearly 50 straight hours getting the preparations for the project in place. Cody Dyb, one of my closest friends, was kind enough to let me use his internet to upload the materials (the internet at my house is obscenely slow) and I’d collapsed into a deep sleep shortly after returning home. Phil McAndrew, one of my favorite artists working today (and a regular contributor to this series), contributed an original piece to the project that has become one of my most-treasured renderings.

In the weeks leading up to A Step Forward‘s released, I’d done an ink sketch of what would become Heartbreaking Bravery’s logo. Petite League’s Lorenzo Cook — another Syracuse-based artist whose band contributed an incredible song to the compilation — meticulously tightened and superimposed the logo onto the image for the album art and the banner that can be seen at the top of this segment. I’m unbelievably grateful for both of their contributions and am lucky to count them both as friends. I also have to give special mention, once more, to Fred Thomas.

For more than a few years, I’ve considered Thomas to be one of the best lyricists in music (2017’s Changer finds him attaining stratospheric highs). When I reached out to him about the project and he suggested a song tackling the weird inter-scene dynamics that occur around someone being outed as a sexual predator, I wasn’t just flattered, I was flattened. That the ensuing work would be one of his strangest — partially inspired by S U R V I V E’s outstanding Stranger Things score work and a nice (if unintentional) nod to that particular act’s name — felt appropriate. “What Happens When the Costumes Come Off” is a song that perfectly embodied the tumultuous events that led to the formation of A Step Forward in my mind and has resonated with me ever since my first, oddly disorienting listen. There’s fear present in that song, there’s an incessant questioning, there’s a feeling of damage, but — most importantly — there is a feeling of resilience.

It’s that final feeling, resilience, that I’ve chosen to carry into 2017. With what America’s currently facing, resilience will be necessary. I’ve already been inspired by my friends’ resilience and generosity and I’ve vowed to carry on that spirit as best as possible. I’ve vowed to both make more room for and to elevate the voices of the groups who have been unfairly othered due to location, socioeconomic standing, or — infuriatingly — appearance, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Historically, the people that have followed this site have shared a similar mindset and I’m constantly humbled by their company. We’re all in this fight together and it’s important to listen to the fears, concerns, and desires of the people that have been denied a platform for the worst reasons all too frequently.

The shows and festivals made 2016, in turns, fascinating, frustrating, and genuinely exciting. The people I was fortunate enough to be playing some of those shows provided 2016 a level of comfort. My partner not only served as a constant source of inspiration but continuously reminded me of the good in the world and all of the reasons that hope should never be abandoned. A Step Forward taught me that I’ll never be alone in my belief that empathy, camaraderie, and compassion will always find a way to thrive and that now, more than ever, it’s important to carry on the work, the ideology, and the spirit of Heartbreaking Bravery. I will do my best to personally embody whatever legacy it may have at every single turn and I will always be honored by the company it’s allowed me to share. 2017 may seem bleak from the outset but I have every reason to find heart in the fight to ensure it’s better than what we expect.

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Of course, this series wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t thank everyone who’s contributed through the years. As I said earlier, all of your contributions — and the fact that you care at all — mean more than I could ever convey with just words. So thank you, again, to both all of those names listed at the top of this post and all of the following names for their past contributions: Loren DiBlasiSabyn Mayfield, Tica Douglas, Fred ThomasIsabel ReidySami Martasian, Ben GriggBella Mazzetti, David Anthony, Jamie Coletta, Chris SutterCole Kinsler, Gabriela June Tully Claymore, Stephen TringaliToby Reif, Elaiza Santos, Amelia Pitcherella, Katie Bennett, Miranda Fisher, Christine Varriale, Sam Clark, Julia Leiby, Kelly Johnson, Jessi Frick, Nicholas Cummins, Athylia Paremski,  David GlickmanSasha Geffen, Jeanette Wall, Eva Grace Hendricks, Caroline Rayner, Joseph Barchi, Edgar GonzalezShari Heck, Michael Caridi, Dave Benton, Cynthia Ann Schemmer, Tess Duncan, Michelle Zauner, Jeff Bolt, Katie Capri, Quinn Moreland, Oliver Kalb, Ali Donohue, Ray McAndrew, Christopher Good, David Sackllah, Rick Maguire, Stephen Pierce, Johanna Warren, and Patrick Garcia.

As always, I love you all.

Splitting at the Break: The Live Photography of 2016’s First Half, Pt. III

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Throughout 2016’s opening two months, I was able to take in two surprisingly contained winter festivals in the upper Midwest: Madison, WI’s FRZN Fest and Chicago, IL’s Music Frozen Dancing. The former ran three days (I was in attendance for the bookends) at the High Noon Saloon while the latter took place outside of the Empty Bottle. Both boasted impressive lineups that reflected well on their venues and, to a larger extent, their cities. Those two fests were the year’s openers and they sent me scrambling for more shows to shoot and I was able to capitalize on several of those opportunities. Whether they were in a basement or at a historic club venue, if cameras were allowed, I’d have mine rolling. Several of the best photographs I managed to capture in that run of months can be found below. Enjoy.

Told Slant – Tsunami (Music Video)

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Editor’s Note: There’s been a month-long gap in coverage, thanks to near-incessant travel and other extenuating circumstances. The following run of posts that contain this note will be posts that should have appeared sometime within the past several weeks. Use these posts as an opportunity to catch up to the present release cycle or to simply discover some new music. Either way, enjoy.

Over the course of 2015, I gave the better part of my energy to living/surviving in Brooklyn and made a lot of memories and friends, all of which became deeply important to me. Several of those memories involved (and a few of those friends were) members of The Epoch, including Told Slant‘s Felix Walworth. I already wrote about one specific instance involving Felix and the new Told Slant record towards the bottom of this list but the recently released video for “Tsunami” may resonate on a level that’s even more acute.

Filmed and directed exclusively by members of The Epoch (namely Walworth, Gabrielle Smith, and Jack Greenleaf), “Tsunami” operates on dual levels: partly as an endearing tour documentary and partly as an intimate character study of the people on the other side of the camera. Like everything that comes from The Epoch camp, it feels tremendously open and honest whether it’s taking on a more introspective self-exploratory tone or one that outwardly celebrates the people and things that make life worth living.

Throughout “Tsunami”, cameos are made by Smith, Greenleaf, Oliver Kalb, Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker of Girlpool, Maryn Jones of All Dogs/Saintseneca/Yowler, all of Frankie Cosmos, and more. It’s the communal aspect that provides the song’s refrain of “isn’t this silly and aren’t you beautiful?” with an even greater amount of heart. Poetic, revealing, and inspiring in equal measure, “Tsunami” immediately carves out a place among the collective’s most lived-in works. It’s a place that encourage you to get lost and offers you a blanket, some tea, and a place to sleep. Turn the offer down and miss out on a whole host of great memories; accept the offer and be welcomed into a new home.

Watch “Tsunami” below and pre-order Going By from Double Double Whammy here.

Eskimeaux – Year of the Rabbit (EP Review)

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For the night’s second full stream, the attention gets turned to Eskimeaux‘s Year of the Rabbit EP, which has the unenviable task of following up O.K. last year’s Album of the Year. Before covering why Year of the Rabbit pulls this off with ease, a few more full streams appeared over the past few days that deserve mention: S-21’s absolutely vicious Demo, Closed Mouths’ rollicking 3 Songs, and a very tantalizing three song sampler from All People, appropriately titled First 3 Songs. While all of those releases were quite short, they all proved very adept at capturing attention.

Another release that not only captured attention but actively enthralled came courtesy of Eskimeaux, a band that’s been making all sorts of power moves lately. While the project’s early output had been consistent, thanks to project mastermind Gabrielle Smith’s unique artistic vision, it wasn’t until Eskimeaux became a full band that the songs started approaching the transcendent. In short order now, Eskimeaux’s issued one of the best records of the decade and an EP that’s all but guaranteed to be on this site’s list (and many others) come December.

Year of the Rabbit opens with one of Smith’s most effective production tracks, layering her voice into a sweet chorus that entices and soothes in equal measure. Slowly, the rest of the band kicks in, crescendos to a stop and strikes up a mid-tempo jaunt that serves as the bed for a characteristically nostalgic, human narrative. Less than a minute into Year of the Rabbit and Eskimeaux’s already concocted the foundation for an impressive composition with relatable angles.

After the airy rush of the title track, the EP devotes most of its time to songs that have been released in some capacity or another throughout the past year, including early 2016 highlights “WTF” (which was an easy inclusion for the 50 Best Songs of 2016’s First Quarter list), “Power“, “Drunk“, and “Sleeping Bear” (the latter of which was previously titled “Sleepy Bear”). While all of those songs carry an air of familiarity, they’re elevated by both the context of Year of the Rabbit and the natural flow of its sequencing.

“Bulldog”, the EP’s penultimate song, feels completely new and scans as the record’s most personal moment as well as its most riveting. It finds Smith operating solo, revisiting the roots of the project, and fearlessly embracing the band’s most definitive trait — vulnerability — on a staggering level. The song also offers up the EP’s most breathtaking moment in its hard isolation of the phrase “is it hard losing?”, which takes on a significant magnitude as the song reaches its conclusion.

More than ever, it feels like Smith is addressing herself rather than her audience as she tears into difficult questions about her own constitution. Each one of the EP’s seven songs is a gripping run through the songwriter’s psyche, the band’s ambition, and the dynamic that allows both of those elements to take on a symbiotic relationship. For that reason and — as is increasingly the case with Eskimeaux — so many other deeply ingrained reasons that reveal themselves over time and a certain level of investment, Year of the Rabbit stands out as one of 2016’s strongest releases. Get on board now and save yourselves the regret of showing up late to the party.

Listen to Year of the Rabbit below and pre-order a copy from Double Double Whammy here.

2015: A Year’s Worth of Memories

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Before I dive into what made 2015 such an incredible year for me on a personal level, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge all of the contributor’s to this edition of A Year’s Worth of Memories: Loren DiBlasi, Lindsey-Paige McCloy, Sabyn Mayfield, Nicola Leel, Lindsay Hazen, Tica Douglas, Fred Thomas, Phil McAndrew, Isabel Reidy, Jessica Leach, Sami Martasian, Ben Grigg, Amanda Dissinger, Bella Mazzetti, David Anthony, Jamie Coletta, Chris Sutter, John Rossiter, Cole Kinsler, Megan Manowitz, Gabriela June Tully Claymore, Stephen Tringali, Alisa Rodriguez, Toby Reif, Elaiza Santos, Amelia Pitcherella, Katie Bennett, Miranda Fisher, Christine Varriale, Sam Clark, Julia Leiby, Kelly Johnson, Jessi Frick, Nicholas Cummins, Lily Mastrodimos, Jerard Fagerberg, Athylia Paremski, Eric Slick, David Glickman, and Ryan Wizniak. All of your interest, support, and contributions mean the world to me (more on that below).

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The 12 months that comprised last year were among the most rewarding, the most challenging, and the most outright surreal I’ve experienced in my 26 years of existence. Narrowing it down to one defining moment proved to be a laughable impossibility for me so I’ve taken a cue from several of this edition’s contributors and decided to focus on a series of moments rather than one overarching event.

Before getting to those, though, it’s worth mentioning several of the smallest moments that have managed to stick in my memory. That list goes as follows: drinking tea on the roof of DBTS with Greg Rutkin as we watched the sun rise on my first morning in Brooklyn, looking up a few months later only to suddenly realize that Rutkin, Krill‘s Aaron Ratoff, and myself were all having a half-absent living room jam session, eating bagels on the sidewalk at the crack of dawn with Saintseneca after spending the previous night getting ridiculous at Rocka Rolla, feeling a surge of pride watching Patio play their first show, and getting recognized by Rob Sheffield and Simon Vozick-Levinson (two writers who I’ve admired for years).

Additionally: being pulled further and further into the world of Ronnie Stone, spending an afternoon kicking around with Bad Wig (a WI band made up of people I’ve considered family for years), watching Tenement continue their steady ascension on their own terms, all of the shows I saw that don’t get mentioned in the space below, walking through one of Martin Scorsese’s sets for VINYL with Glueboy‘s Coby Chafets (who was an absolute joy to have as both an NYC guide and as a roommate), being absolutely destroyed by an overwhelming sense of familliarity at a morning screening of The End of the Tour which I was fortune enough to take in with Chandler Levack (one of my favorite directors), and becoming a member of Film Independent.

Further still: getting hugged by Eskimeaux‘s Gabrielle Smith before I could even get out a formal introduction, having Girlpool‘s Harmony Tividad tell me she knew how to spell my last name right after we first met, spending a perfect evening getting to know Callan Dwan (who I’ve been messaging every Sunday since we first met) and Casey Weissbuch following one of their shows playing alongside Mitski, receiving a drunken group phone call from my closest hometown friends on the Fourth of July, and finding the fortune to be a recipient of the continuous support of both Exploding In Sound‘s Dan Goldin and Father/Daughter‘s Jessi Frick.

As well as: feeling completely at ease working doors for both Baby’s All Right and Elvis Guesthouse (a task made even more enjoyable by the welcoming presence of Alex Lilienfeld), spending my first week in Brooklyn waking up to the sounds of Felix Walworth meticulously tracking the forthcoming Told Slant record, and traveling to the twin cities with one of the bands I play bass in — A Blue Harbor — to track Troubled Hearts (and holding the cassette for the first time, suddenly realizing I’d just completed something that had been on my bucket list for over a decade).

And finally: Watching members of Lost Boy ? and Titus Andronicus close out a show at Shea Stadium with a set of on-the-fly Neil Young covers, taking in Exploding in Sound’s Extended Weekend celebration (and being floored by Stove‘s performance of “Wet Food” and — as always — Pile‘s “Special Snowflakes“), feeling a deep sense of camaraderie and an inkling of pride during AdHoc’s Carwash showcase, seeing Used Kids come inches away from reuniting at The Acheron (their only full-length remains quintessential summer listening) during a show that also saw Jeff Bolt manning the kit for Benny the Jet Rodriguez, and spending half a year living in a city where a handful of people actually seemed to care about the work I’d been doing with this very site.

I could go on and on (and on) about the overwhelming bevvy of small moments that I continue to look back on with great fondness or wax ecstatic about the steps taken in 2015 to ensure a more inclusive climate in the music industry (while still recognizing there’s a long way to go) but, after a while, that would become tedious for just about anyone (myself included). Rest assured, there are several more paragraph’s worth of those moments and the scope of the portrait they illustrate would be overwhelming. As is likely evidenced above, it was tremendously difficult for me to pare down what moment stood out most in my chaotic run through 2015 and left me with no less than a dozen absurdly strong candidates.

While a dozen may seem overly self-indulgent, it’s my belief that these 12 moments form the most complete representation of my year. Most of them are connected to my time spent living in Brooklyn (a city that I came to love and hope to return to as a resident), which helped me not only shape my identity but — possibly for the first time — feel a strong sense of validity in my work. 2015 may have been made up of 12 months but the 5+ I spent living in Brooklyn produced 12 of my favorite moments. All of them are covered below.

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Montana & the Marvelles Play In Secret

The first time I remember realizing that I was exactly where I wanted to be was, unsurprisingly, at DBTS. I’d been sleeping on couches for a few days there by that point and getting the swing of the city while navigating my way through a handful of Northside showcases. During that first run, the place was buzzing with both anxiety and excitement over a secret wedding celebration that they were going to be throwing for a close friend. Champagne had been bought in bulk, balloons had been floated to the ceiling, a disco ball had been set in motion, a taco line had been prepared, and a root beer float setup was at the ready by the time the event was set into motion.

Everyone had been told to dress to the tens and looked the part. At that point, I still felt like an interloper was getting increasingly comfortable with my new surroundings. Nearly everyone I’d been introduced to had been extremely welcoming and the first group of people that had made a kind gesture were Montana & the Marvelles, who were wrapping up a rehearsal when I first stepped foot inside of DBTS. The wedding celebration was their first public appearance and they tore into it with a ferocious sense of determination, delivering a handful of great covers in the process.

Watching them that night and looking around at everyone who came out to celebrate reminded me of why I made the decision to move; no other place is as facilitating of those kinds of events (or moments). By the time the band hit their finale — an explosive, joyous cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” — I was overcome with gratitude and decided, for once, to stop filming and dance. It was also the first of many nights I had that led to everyone taking in the summer night’s breezes on the DBTS rooftop, where I put the finishing touches on my introduction packet for the band. As a whole, it remains one of the times where I felt like I’d actually found a place where I belonged.

Charly Bliss I

Charly Bliss Makes A Formal Introduction at Northside

One of the bands I was most excited to meet at the outset of my move was Charly Bliss, who had topped my EP’s list in 2014. No person had been trying to persuade me to make the move more than their guitarist/vocalist Eva Hendricks, who had been unbelievably supportive of what I’d been doing prior to my discovery of Charly Bliss (that this note had no bearing on the band becoming one of my absolute favorites made the prospect of meeting even sweeter).

I’d been walking around Brooklyn with a few people from DBTS before the Father/Daughter Northside showcase was scheduled to start and had fielded several excited messages from Hendricks before we ran into each other on a street outside of Shea Stadium. Everyone was happy to see everyone else and Hendricks nearly pulled me to the ground with a hug that neither of us broke until after a full minute had passed. After a long round of catching up, the showcase kicked off in earnest and featured a handful of great performances from bands worth their salt.

Charly Bliss closed the night out and opened their set with the still-unreleased “Percolator“, with Jessi Frick firing off streamers at the climactic point of the introduction, providing a moment that felt transcendental. Surrounded by people I loved, seeing a band I’d granted an endless amount of praise (who were then in the process of becoming one of my favorite live acts at a terrifying pace), and being in the presence of both for the first time was an invigorating jolt that moved me more than just about anything else I experienced in 2015. 

Jason Isbell Pulls the Sun Down at Prospect Park

Jason Isbell‘s an artist that I don’t frequently write about on this space — his stature guarantees him press from so many other outlets already — but genuinely love (and have since my first listen of Drive-By Truckers’ classic Decoration Day). For several summers myself and my friend (and frequent bandmate) Jake Wetuski would take out our guitars and cover Isbell songs with each other, trading leads or playing together. When I found out that Isbell would be playing Prospect Park for the free Celebrate Brooklyn series, I jumped at the chance.

A solo train ride over had me thinking about all of the ways my life had changed that summer, about how I spent most of the flight from O’Hare to LaGuardia listening to Southeastern, about how I was already pining for the company of certain people but finally becoming content with my place in the world. The sounds of Dawn Landes‘ set guided me through Prospect Park to the stage, where I immediately found a place with a good view of the stage that didn’t obstruct or impede anyone else’s view.

Less than forty minutes later, Isbell was setting up on stage and announcing that his wife and bandmate, Amanda Shires, wouldn’t be joining them because she was expecting the arrival of their newborn in the following week. Gleaming with pride and amping up the “aw, shucks” Southern charm, Isbell took advantage of an absolutely perfect spring night and delivered a deeply heartfelt set of material that I’d been waiting years to see in a live setting. It only took about half of a set before I had to fight back tears, as an adoring crowd exploded with applause in the middle of a mesmerizing performance of “Cover Me Up” in response to a key line about sobering up, showering the songwriter with a tremendous display of affection, support, and actual love.

After the sun set and the crowd had exploded in frantic applause after Isbell’s landmark set, he returned to the stage. By that point, the sun had set and no one was making a push for the exit. The band returned, one at a time, slowly locking into “Danko/Manuel“, a song he penned for the Drive-By Truckers as a tribute to the influential members of The Band.

As the song opened with “let the night air cool you off”, it felt as if everything outside of that moment had ceased mattering; this was Isbell’s triumphant 2015 run hitting an apex and seeing a talent like that find the audience and respect he’d so richly deserved for close to 15 years was beyond heartening. Few things gave me as much hope for the future as that specific moment, one that offered up definitive proof that hard work, dedication, and sheer artistry can be rewarded in the way they deserve.

With Isbell’s vocals floating off into the distance, beyond the sea of people seated on blankets in the grass behind the main area, I found something resembling faith and knew that in both New York and Wisconsin, I’d surrounded myself with the right people, people I believed in, and that no matter the slew of hardships I may have to face, that they’d ultimately guide me to the right place. I stayed in that park, staring at that stage, for as long as I was allowed, before removing myself from the spot where I knew I’d wind up okay.

“Doomsday” Lives Up To Its Name at Pier 84

Another free, outdoor show I had the good fortune of attending saw Weyes Blood, Speedy Ortiz, and Waxahatchee joining forces for a mid-day show on a pier in Manhattan overlooking the Hudson River. After a quick stroll through Times Square, I headed for the pier and met up with a handful of my closest friends who were listening to strains of Weyes Blood as they enjoyed a makeshift picnic. Before long, Weyes Blood’s set had ended, more friends had made their presence known, and everyone was milling around the front of the stage, taking in both the sunlight and the river’s breeze.

Before Speedy Ortiz’s set started, the weather very quickly became downcast and quietly threatening. Underneath that stormy backdrop, Speedy Ortiz kicked off one of their most impassioned sets to date. I’ve had a range of experiences with Speedy Ortiz over the past few years but none of them quite matched the way that their performance of “Doomsday” affected me on that pier. “Doomsday” has always hit me hard (it’s an easy song-of-the-decade candidate for me) but when Sadie Dupuis and Darl Ferm started into it that day and rain started coming down (and then picking up as the song progressed), it felt otherworldly.

Something in that performance seemed to ignite something in Speedy Ortiz, who seemed to be channeling a series of pent-up frustrations into a staggering set that culminated with a weather-damaged instrumental freakout as the sky was split open by cracks of lightning that appeared over the Hudson River. By then the crowd had dwindled to a select few brave souls who managed to withstand the torrential downpour.

Waxahatchee’s set was, unfortunately, cancelled due to the weather but I lucked into a fitting epilogue via a bowling-quest-turned-diner-adventure with A Year’s Worth of Memories contributor Gabriela June Tully Claymore, her fellow Stereogum writer James Rettig, and a few friends. Desperately trying to get dry using a bathroom hand-dryer, I found myself unable to suppress a shit-eating grin, knowing full well I was wrapping up a day worth talking about for years to come.  

Johanna Warren V

Johanna Warren Serenades the Skyline

I saw Johanna Warren three times in 2015, each one differing radically from the other. The first was an hour from my hometown, where I drove to profile her for Consequence of Second. The second time was a basement show that presented a whole host of memorable moments from my introduction to harpist Mikaela Rose Davis (and the spine-tingling Elliott Smith cover she used to soundcheck) to the fabric of a mothering station getting licked by the flame of a few too many candles and interrupting a performance art piece that saw a woman strip naked, consume her own blood from an IV bag, and spit it back out onto a row of carefully arranged flowers in mason jars.

As wild as that basement show was, Warren’s last-minute performance on a rootop overlooking the skylines of both Brooklyn and Manhattan was the one that stood out most. After the show’s original location notified Warren that they’d discovered they had a bed bug infestation the day before her set was scheduled, a group of people worked extremely hard to locate a new venue. Fortunately, Damon Stang had open space on the top of his apartment complex.

Only a dozen or so people showed up, all apparently friends of Warren’s, contributing even greater intimacy to an already intimate evening. An assortment of wine, liquor, and bakery items were all up for grabs and everyone quietly talked among themselves as night swiftly descended, providing Warren with a suitably quiet backdrop. Lit by only the lights of the city and operating without a microphone, Warren delivered a haunting set to a captivated audience that reveled in the majestic sweep of the backdrop, the performance, the night itself, and the experience as a whole. Unexpected and surprisingly moving, it saw Warren fully realizing the effect of music as a healing agent and close a few wounds in the process.     

PWR BTTM Hands Out Ugly Cherries

One of the first bands I ran into after moving to Brooklyn was PWR BTTM, who would very quickly become close friends. They’re people that I’m continuously grateful to have in my life and it’s been an honor to get to know the band’s members. I was very quickly drawn to them for not just their music but their outspoken stance on their values (and their willingness to make them so abundantly clear in any applicable scenario). For all of those reasons and many more, I was tremendously excited to be at their release show for Ugly Cherries, one of my favorite records of 2015.

Charly BlissEva Hendricks had baked a gigantic batch of cupcakes adorned with cherries for the occasion, guitarist/vocalist (and occasional drummer) Benjamin Hopkins had hidden the evening’s outfit away at a thrift store for weeks before claiming it prior to the show, and the opening lineup of Kississippi, Fern Mayo, and Charly Bliss was suitably stacked. The parents of a few of the bands were in attendance and Silent Barn was unbelievably packed.

Three strong sets into the evening and a visibly nervous Hopkins was setting up on stage as drummer (and occasional guitarist/vocalist) Liv Bruce adjusted the kit. I’d seen PWR BTTM a handful of times leading up to that show but none of those sets were adequate preparation for the outpouring of energy from both the band and the audience of their set that night, which felt as much like a celebration as it did a victory lap. Amid screams of “I love you” and “you’re amazing”, PWR BTTM’s songs took on the magnitude of anthems and were, appropriately, granted the requisite scream-a-longs by a dedicated and devoted audience.

For all the moments of blistering energy, disarming sincerity, and delightfully irreverent snark, one of the moments that’s stayed with me was the unveiling of a new song that saw Hopkins pick up a bass and deliver a tender ballad about feeling completely dismantled by different forms of slight abuse, causing Charly Bliss’ Hendricks to break down in tears on the side of the stage, overwhelmed by feelings of protection, love, and empathy. That it came towards the end of a riotous set only heightened its impact, leaving a sold-out room unified in small devastation.

Before long, though, spirits were at the ceiling again and PWR BTTM’s dresses were more than halfway off, and hundreds of people were nearing a state of delirium. Encore chants were inevitable and when the call was swift and immediate, those pleas were rewarded with a frantic rendition of “Carbs” before Hopkins and Bruce exited the stage, visibly exhausted, and subjected themselves to a seemingly endless swarm of overjoyed embraces from a community that rallied behind them and got to take part in a moment that carried significant meaning for far more people than either Hopkins, Bruce, or Fern Mayo’s Nicholas Cummins (who joined the band for several songs) could have ever anticipated.

Mike Krol

Mike Krol Does the Upper Midwest Proud at Baby’s All Right

Before the first Heartbreaking Bravery showcase, the last two shows I’d booked had both featured two bands who had a tremendous impact on my life and musical development: Good Grief and Sleeping in the Aviary. Both bands, sadly, have long ceased operations, though their various members still play together in a handful of projects.

In 2015, Sleeping in the Aviary managed to have somewhat of a resurgence, with both the release of an astonishing outtakes collection ad 80% of the band’s final lineup once again combining forces as Mike Krol‘s backing band. Krol had relocated from the upper Midwest to California on his way to delivering 2015’s blistering Turkey, one of the year’s most exhilarating records (and his extremely unexpected but entirely welcome debut for Merge).

Krol’s stop at Baby’s All Right came shortly after I’d started picking up shifts at the door, pushing my anticipation for the show to even greater heights (it was a show that’d been circled on my calendar in the immediate moments following its announcement). Being connected to yet another venue that would be playing host to a few familiar faces, a few of which I’d grown up playing shows with, felt like an oddly appropriate next step.

The night’s opening bands delivered solid sets but what Mike Krol & co. delivered on that stage that night was unforgettable. Fully attired in the record’s signature fringe’d-up police attire, the band meticulously covered the perimeter of the stage with razor wire and carefully placed a series of lights in the open spaces among the coils. A few minutes later and the band was off, immediately at full-throttle. Out of sheer curiosity, I glanced over my shoulder at the size of the audience and was met with the vision of a sold-out audience all incredibly excited to throw themselves into celebrating an artist that, up until 2015, was only known in select circles for two sharp bandcamp releases.

Krol and his band covered close to his entire discography on that stage, whipping the sizable audience into an absolute frenzy. A surging sea of implacable bodies spiraling aimlessly into each other contributed to the anything-goes attitude that informed the band’s set (a welcome reminder of Sleeping in the Aviary’s heyday). Towards the end, the person running house lights could no longer resist sitting still and slyly tried to supplement the band’s light setup, prompting a startled “what the fuck was that?!” from Krol himself, followed shortly by a “do that again!“, which was delivered with a reckless excitability.

From that moment onward, the band’s seemingly full-blast attack was buoyed even further by a series of frantic lighting triggers from the person manning the boards for their house. As the lights danced all over the iconic backdrop and the overhead lights fell into patterns that complemented the band’s self-triggered perimeter strobes, the entire place descended into something approaching mania. Everything came to a head in their explosive finale and left an entire room of people staring dumbfounded at a stage, equally unsure of what they’d just witnessed and grateful that they were able to take in something so unapologetic in its blistering intensity.

Making the night even sweeter was an unexpected greeting from Krol, who I still hadn’t officially met at the time, after noticing my National Beekeepers Society shirt. We talked Wisconsin music, met up with the rest of the band and a few mutual friends, and Krol let slip that their was going to be a secret Daughter show to close out the venue’s night slot. I wound up making my way into the Daughter show and was blown away by their new material (they announced Not To Disappear at that show and froze my blood with a startling rendition of “Doing The Right Thing“) but couldn’t shake the feeling of overwhelming giddiness from having witnessed some friends from my old home absolutely take apart my new one.  

A Night Out With Nina Corcoran and Paul Thomas Anderson

When I first met Nina Corcoran, we were both looking for each other and completely unaware we were standing less than 10 feet apart. It was at Pitchfork 2014 and we were both lined up to get a good view of St. Vincent (who, as expected, turned in a mesmerizing set). I remembered being a little nervous around her as I still had no idea who she was beyond someone who wrote at Allston Pudding that A Year’s Worth of Memories contributor Christine Varriale thought I’d get along with nicely.

It may have taken about a year but Christine’s assumption seemed almost eerily prophetic. For the first edition of A Year’s Worth of Memories, Nina took me by surprise and included me as a focal point in her piece. After that piece renewed a dialogue between the two of us, it started gradually expanding. After establishing a mutual love for all things Meat Wave, we started talking on close to a weekly basis. Before long, I was living in Brooklyn and we were making plans to meet up on her trips to the city.

We’d met up for meals and all too brief hangout sessions whenever we could but the only time we managed to be in the same place for more than an hour was when we attended the premiere of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Junun at the New York Film Festival. I’d been debating on whether or not to make the effort to go due to an attempt to fight back the irritating plague that is the common cold. I told Nina what was happening and she was empathetic, displaying a casual grace in her understanding.

I missed her, though, and had never had the opportunity to attend a premiere, much less one with an accompanying Q&A from a massively influential director (or one that was responsible for a few of my favorite films). After grabbing a packet of kleenex and a warm sweatshirt, I made the trek out to meet Nina in Manhattan. She immediately greeted me with a warm embrace, making me feel both welcome and comfortable rather than the cold-addled burden I half-expected I’d wind up being.

With the start time of the film still a ways off, we decided to grab some soup from a nearby stand that supplemented our containers with an apple, bread, and pieces of chocolate. I refrained from adding ice cream onto that haul for fear of negatively affecting my health but Nina couldn’t resist its pull and led me to a cute shop that was in the area. After learning I still hadn’t been to Central Park, we walked through its gates and found it to be mostly abandoned, settling down at a table near the grass to quietly eat dinner and discuss the merits of Me and Earl and The Dying Girl, among others.

After we’d finished our meals, we took a nighttime stroll through the park, coming to a stop at a baseball diamond. We stood there together, silent for a moment, before turning around and immediately realizing our size (and our place) as we stared up at the lit-up skyscrapers that comprise the Manhattan skyline. In those fleeting seconds, I forgot everything that wasn’t the fact that I was happy to be sharing this view with a person who’s meant more to me than she’ll likely ever know or realize. I don’t remember what broke the silence but I’m grateful for the small eternity where, cold and all, life felt perfect.

It was difficult to leave that spot but we had a film to catch and while Junun was every bit the film I’d hoped it would be, it paled in comparison to realizing I was wrapped up in something exceedingly lovely and utterly intangible with a person I’ve come to genuinely care for, a person who’s continuously succeeded at an impressively high level, a person who’s constantly given me something to aspire to, a person that’s shown me a lot of my goals aren’t as far away as I occasionally think, and a person who never fails to make my life feel a little more worthwhile.

We’d meet up a few weeks later for a surprisingly painful goodbye brunch before I made my way back to Wisconsin (a state where we’ve both resided) and nearly refused to let go of each other out of the sheer fear of being separated by a seemingly incalculable distance. During that last embrace, I closed my eyes and, for a split second, saw the lights of those buildings that towered over us that night in Manhattan.   

Dilly Dally

Dilly Dally Steals CMJ (With An Unexpected Assist)

My time spent living in Brooklyn was book-ended by the Northside Festival and CMJ, with each providing a whole slew of moments I’ll recall fondly years down the line. Whether it was meeting the people I’d waited so long to meet at the former or celebrating with the people I’d come to know at the latter, each was at least partially defined by an unavoidable sense of community.

CMJ may have had its first two great moments come by way of some of my closest friends (a pizza run with Bad Wig and a Chinatown trip with Perfect Pussy) but my priority for the festival was to do something I’d been desperately hoping to do for the past few years: take in a Dilly Dally set. I didn’t have to wait long, as the first night I went out to CMJ was closed out by the band, I just had to come to terms with my near-crippling fear that their set might be a disappointment. As is often the case, that thought was absolutely demolished mere seconds into listening in on their soundcheck.

While a surprisingly large amount of people had filtered out of Santos Party House’s unbelievably stacked NME showcase by the time Dilly Dally took the stage, they still managed to fill the venue’s basement with legions of people caught between nervous excitement and the early signs of sleep deprivation/fatigue. It only took Dilly Dally a few notes to ignite the room with a thunderous sound that sounded like it was threatening to overtake the sound system’s capacities on more than one occasion.

Everyone in that band put absolutely everything on the line for that performance, diving deep and coming up with a punch ferocious enough to knock even the harshest cynic for a very disorienting six. Guitarist/vocalist Katie Monks unleashed a series of guttural yowls while guitarist Liz Ball tore into one scintillating lead line after another while the rhythm section provided an overwhelming show of force that generated enough power to shake my frame.

As was expected, many of the night’s highlights came courtesy of the live versions of the songs that made up Sore, their brooding full-length debut. Another small handful came from their brilliant early 7″ releases but the moment that I felt myself practically leave my body was when they tore into an absolutely vicious, if miniature, take on Drake’s “Know Yourself” that featured one of the filthiest bass tones I’ve ever heard. Jaw agape, I was standing motionless, hopelessly filming the spectacle while keeping my eyes off of the camera and frozen to the stage, at once separated from and completely tuned into the reality of the situation.

Easily the absolute heaviest thing I heard last year, the band wound up reprising it a few days later during another impressively explosive set at Baby’s All Right for BrooklynVegan’s CMJ showcase, which I sprinted a full mile to make sure I caught. Both of their sets demonstrated the impressive scope of the band’s singular power as live performers and laid just about everyone else who played CMJ to complete waste. No band delivered more impressively on absurd expectations than Dilly Dally, who dominated this site’s December coverage and will likely remain a critical part of conversation well into the future.

Meredith Graves Tears Up at the Honor Press Showcase

Where do I even begin with the unbelievable debt of gratitude I owe to Meredith Graves? One of the reasons I started this site was because I wanted a forum to interview Meredith, who responded in kind to an unsolicited Facebook message and graciously agreed to a Skype session. I had no idea when that was being set up that she would go on to become one of my closest friends, confidants, and most trusted advisers, or that she would eventually start flipping the script to tirelessly attempt to promote and endorse the work I’d been doing on my own.

The summer that followed that initial conversation was mostly spent on the phone with Meredith having hour-long talks about life’s various intricacies, the merits of art, social politics, our deepest fears, our desires, oddball literature, classic film, and anything else that randomly entered our minds. We traded demos, proposed collaborations, and — for some time — became key parts of each other’s daily routine. We’ve relied on each other to keep ourselves tethered to reality and sought out each other’s presence in times of celebration.

We’ve ignored each other, exchanged very sincere declarations of love, and have constantly fought on one another’s behalf. We’ve pitched various outlets pieces focusing on each other’s achievements, attempted to compliment each other to death, and experienced several surreal moments together (from almost breaking a hammock that was too small for either of us on our own to watching Pleasure Leftists play inside of a halfpipe in the attic of a bike shop). We’ve despaired together, we’ve drank together, we’ve schemed together, we’ve surprised each other, we’ve brought each other to the point of tears, and we’ve remained a steadfast part of each other’s lives.

Meredith was responsible for giving me one of my first gigs in Brooklyn, working Perfect Pussy‘s mail order with Ray McAndrew, and has gone out of her way time and time again to fight for my best interests. She’s given me extraordinary introductions to everyone under the sun and flat out earned the title of this site’s patron saint. She pleaded with me to come live in the city where she resided for the three years we’ve been improbably close friends and I finally took her up on the request (for an incredibly large number of reasons, though her presence definitely played a very heavy factor).

For the past several years Meredith’s been attempting to balance twice as much as any normal human could handle but finding reasons to fight. I beamed along with her as she told me that she had a business email and that Honor Press, her newly formed label, had been given the green light from all involved parties. I grinned as she nearly worked herself up to the point of passing out over signing So Stressed, and I immediately made plans to attend the half-secret Honor Press showcase at CMJ as soon as she told me it was going to happen.

On all of the occasions I was able to spend celebrating Meredith’s accomplishments, this one felt different from the outset. Somehow, it seemed more meaningful than any other random show or festival appearance. At some point last year, I don’t know when and I don’t know how, the band Cloud Castle Lake came up in one of our conversations. Meredith had just discovered a very passionate love for the band’s music and I’d recently been blown away by the composition of one of their music videos. Fast forward to September and they’re all standing outside of the Silent Barn, waiting to play a showcase she’d put together, having made the trip over from Ireland for the occasion.

Aye Nako were to open the night and Perfect Pussy were set to close, leaving Cloud Castle Lake in a prime middle slot position. Talking to Meredith outside, it was easy to spot some small trembling; nervous tics betraying both excitement, anxiety, and anticipation. Sleep deprived but positively glowing, she seemed like she wasn’t sure if she wanted the show to start or simply take in the moment prior to the kick-off; the deep breath before the headlong dive towards impact.

She didn’t have to wait long, despite the show starting a little later than scheduled (an occurrence that just about everyone was expecting).

Aye Nako played first and played well, setting an intriguing tone for the evening and for Cloud Castle Lake. What happened next caught just about everyone off guard as the band launched into a set that went from being oddly moving to feeling sacred. Everyone was locked into the tapestries the band was meticulously weaving, swaying absent-mindedly as the band swiftly navigated intricate movements of deeply impressive compositions. I stood by Meredith’s side as she sighed and surrendered completely to the band’s overpowering spell.

About halfway through their set, a moment of clarity hit and the reality of the situation seemed to collapse in on Meredith, who slid her back down the wall, as her eyes brimmed with tears. Surrounded by people she loved, in a place that treated her well, watching her favorite bands play a show she booked, it was as if all of the things that normally weigh heavy on her mind were dissolved in one fell swoop. My heart nearly gave out as I watched her go through the motions of realizing her role in facilitating something that swung on a pendulum from powerful to transcendental.

We locked eyes for a moment and she put my immediate concern at rest with a half-smile, clearly overwhelmed by what was playing out in the room. Shortly after, she regained her composition and joined the rest of the audience in their half-sways as Cloud Castle Lake issued out one quiet, involved prayer after another. The rest of Perfect Pussy were hesitant to take the stage once Daniel McAuley’s last falsetto had receded into the ether, fully aware that Cloud Castle Lake had just transported an entire room of people to a place that many of them were likely discovering for the first time.

To this day, I’m not entirely sure where that performance took Meredith but I’m grateful that she got to take the kind of journey she so richly deserved.

Krill’s Story Comes Full Circle at DBTS

No band has been mentioned in this edition of A Year’s Worth of Memories more times than Krill. Their impact on their respective communities was undeniable and they clearly struck a very deep cord with a lot of the people that comprised those groups. Idolized, celebrated, acclaimed, and fearlessly loved, their decision to call it quits in 2015 prompted a colossal deal of sadness from anyone that’d ever subscribed to the cult of Krill.

Making the blow even worse was the fact that it came in the midst of a creative spree that saw the band experimenting more readily and crafting some of their finest material. The band had strung together a monumental 2015 run, bolstered by the success of their jaw-dropping A Distant Fist Unclenching and hordes of critics’ praise from nationally recognized (and highly influential) publications.

They’d played what was one of the first great sets I saw in 2015, celebrated the 4th of July by playing a show at Silent Barn with Swirlies, and delivered a towering set as a headliner during the second night of Exploding In Sound’s Extended Weekend. While all of those sets were admittedly as inspiring as everyone had made Krill shows out to be, it was their second-to-last ever show, a secret benefit for the Silent Barn’s reconstruction at DBTS, that stood out as the most meaningful.

Not only was the band playing a place I’d briefly called home but it was also where they played their very first show, giving the proceedings an oddly emotional bent. Unsurprisingly, after word got out, the show sold out faster than most DBTS shows and saw the room overflowing with people who wanted to be present for Krill’s last hurrah in a more intimate DIY setting.

Cende and LVL UP played the roles of openers as effectively as possible, delivering solid sets that wouldn’t detract from a moment that was rightfully Krill’s. By the time Krill were adjusting their mix, the main room was overflowing with people and there was a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd lined up the stairwell. Their ensuing set was so perfectly definitive of Krill that it nearly managed to be completely indescribable.

In turns, it was tightly controlled and threatened to completely unravel. Shambolic and poised, it existed in this strange dichotomy that Krill had so expertly exploited for years but rarely with as much purpose as they did during that set. When something nears its end, we, as humans, do our best to make the most of the remaining pieces of its life. Krill knew that by the time the following week rolled around, they’d have given up that aspect of their life and it was abundantly clear that they were hell-bent on making their remaining time count.

Aaron Ratoff’s guitar kept falling out of tune, Ian Becker hit his drums with a greater velocity than usual, and Jonah Furman embraced every aspect of his being en route to a tour de force performance that absolutely demolished the room where they started their career. By the time the inevitable chant of “Krill, Krill, Krill Forever” went up, DBTS resident (and Cende guitarist) Dave Medina had found a way to literally crowdsurf on the audience, enhancing the night’s descent into frenzied insanity. Everyone, as always seemed to be the case with Krill, was in this together; a thriving community that celebrated its best aspects as readily as it acknowledged its weaknesses.

As Krill sprinted towards the finish line, the out-of-control audience came dangerously close to toppling their equipment, and Dave manage to successfully find a way to balance on top of a tattered styrofoam surfboard as he was hoisted up by the crowd, it was incredibly evident that although everyone knew that the run had to end, no one wanted to come back down. Encore chants were given and obliged until it simply became a point of exhaustion, leaving everyone involved with a sense that they’d taken part in something worth talking about years down the line.

Krill is dead; long live Krill; Krill forever.   

Putting Together A Year’s Worth of Memories

To anyone who actually bothered to read through the entirety of the content above (which essentially amounts to a grossly over-indulgent novella), you have my very sincere gratitude and a ton of respect. This is the second year I’ve curated A Year’s Worth of Memories and the response for this round has been even more enthusiastic than when I first tried out the series at the outset of 2015.

I’d once again like to thank the people who were mentioned in this piece’s prologue (especially the returning contributors: Loren DiBlasi, David Glickman, Athylia Paremski, David Glickman, Jessi Frick, Stephen Tringali, Cole Kinsler, Gabriela June Tully Claymore, David Anthony, Phil McAndrew, Sam Clark, Miranda Fisher, and Christine Varriale).

Additionally, I’d like to once again thank last year’s contributors: Sasha Geffen, Jeanette Wall, Eva Grace Hendricks, Caroline Rayner, Joseph Barchi, Edgar Gonzalez, Jesse Amesmith, Shari Heck, Michael Caridi, Dave Benton, Cynthia Ann Schemmer, Tess Duncan, Michelle Zauner, Jeff Bolt, Katie Capri, Quinn Moreland, Oliver Kalb, Ali Donohue, Ray McAndrew, Christopher Good, David Sackllah, Rick Maguire, Stephen Pierce, Johanna Warren, and Patrick Garcia.

Putting together the first two installments of this series has been reassuring in unfathomable ways. Seeing the outpouring of support from people not only willing to listen but express interest in participating from all over the world has meant the world to me; without those reminders this place would likely cease existing. For that, I’m unbelievably grateful. It’s easy to forget how many people you have on your side when you can’t see them in front of you so when so many come together to fight for something that was once just a fraction of an idea, especially when they’re people you’ve admired and celebrated, is a surreal thing to experience.

Heartbreaking Bravery has always been a support structure and to extend that out to other people and give them a chance to express their thanks for others, reflect on themselves, or simply join in a healthy conversation is an incredibly important aspect of what keeps this place functioning. Being able to facilitate something of that nature, especially when the names attached continuously unveil work worth celebrating, has been a profoundly moving experience. It’s been a deeply rewarding experience and it’s helped provide this place with meaning.

To all of the people who became a small part of this site’s history either this year or last year (and to anyone who contributes in any way in the coming years), I will once again simply state: I love you all.

-Steven Spoerl

15 of ’15: The Best Albums of 2015

Eskimeaux

2015, close to unanimously, was concerned to be one of the highest points for new music in recent memory. To that end, putting together this list was even more of a nightmarish task than narrowing the 2015 songs down to their 15 slots. There was even a brief moment where expanding this list to 50 slots seemed like a viable action. Ultimately, after literally hundreds of substitutions in the various positions (and countless exclusions and extractions), the formula remained intact. While it was painful to leave an extremely large handful of extraordinary records lingering just outside the perimeter, the 15 records below have earned their spots. Every single one of these has remained in near-constant rotation since the time of their release and will likely resonant well into 2016 and beyond. Dive on in below and reflect on the overwhelming strength of the past 12 months.

15. Meat Wave – Delusion Moon

One of a select few bands to play an instrumental part in the formative stages of this site’s focus (and one of the acts to play the first Heartbreaking Bravery showcase), Meat Wave came through in a big way in 2015. The trio released one of the year’s best oddities, signed to SideOneDummy, and unleashed a behemoth of an album in Delusion Moon. Billed as their first proper full-length (their vicious self-titled, limited-run cassette straddled the line between EP and full-length), Delusion Moon saw the band exploring their darker tendencies to great success. More fully exploring influences like Mission of Burma and Drive Like Jehu, the band acted as a nice counterpoint to the usual brand of ’90s revival and got some kicks in along the way.

14. PWR BTTM – Ugly Cherries

No band’s live show was documented more exhaustively here over 2015 than PWR BTTM, who perfected a simplistic approach with enormous- and enormously successful- ideas. The duo (who is occasionally a trio) set their sights on exploring gender and personal identity and followed through with a startlingly brazen tenacity. Close to every song on Ugly Cherries, their extraordinary full-length debut, play out like the kind of anthems that 2015 desperately needed. For a record that’s quick to be gleefully tongue-in-cheek, Ugly Cherries also offers up some devastating personal moments, lending the band an emotional depth that makes their outsize spirit even more powerful.

13. Midnight Reruns – Force of Nurture

Force of Nurture, Midnight Reruns‘ astonishing sophomore effort, has one of the best A-sides I’ve ever heard. Not to discredit an extremely strong B-side, either, but the run the band puts together from “There’s An Animal Upstairs” to “Sky Blue Water” is just about flawless. All six of those songs were considered for this year’s list of the best songs of 2015 along with the record’s sprawling closer, “Great Southern Rail”, which boasts one of the year’s more jaw-dropping choruses. Bolstered by the involvement of one of the band’s earliest and most vocal supporters- The Replacements’ Tommy Stinson, who produced the record- Midnight Reruns turned in their finest collection of songs to date.

12. Hop Along – Painted Shut

A statement that bears repeating: one of the most heartening aspects of 2015 was watching the deserved ascension of Hop Along, who have been cranking out exquisite material on an exceptionally high platform for several years. Driven by the distinctive, arresting voice of guitarist/vocalist Frances Quinlan and their own unique sensibilities, Hop Along crafted the strongest record of their discography. With new partner Saddle Creek firmly in their corner, the band came to vibrant life and stayed on form, delivering a set of knockout tracks that included “Waitress”, one of this year’s finest. A welcome breath of fresh air, Painted Shut marked the beginning of an exciting new era for one of today’s best bands.

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11. Royal Headache – High

Even as all the news of High being Royal Headache’s finest record (thankfully) receded, the power of their finest offering to date didn’t diminish. Following a brilliant debut, the band may have actually surpassed that record’s promise with their sophomore effort. Highlighted by songs like the towering, defiant title track and the surging “Another World“, High is a genre masterclass of the highest order. Buoyed by an infectious energy that’s constantly verging on manic, there’s never a moment during the record that doesn’t feel like it’s nearing a state of euphoria. When High is firing on all cylinders, as is the case for the vast majority of the record, the band’s as close to being virtually untouchable as is possibly imaginable.

10. Young Jesus – Grow/Decompose

Home, Young Jesus‘ breakout record and a candidate for album of the decade, set extraordinarily high expectations for whatever the band chose as its following release. Crafting a worthy follow-up seemed even more unlikely after the band moved out of Chicago and over to Los Angeles, reassembling their lineup in the process. By that token, Grow/Decompose isn’t just a deeply impressive record, it’s a miraculous one. Guitarist/vocalist John Rossiter sharpens his singular songwriting voice and leads his new outfit with a fiery determination. An immensely satisfying collection of songs, Grow/Decompose feels like a genuine album; structured and paced to near perfection, Grow/Decompose is a reinvigorating- and reinvigorated- frenzy.

9. Dogs On Acid – Dogs On Acid

Dogs On Acid, a band formed out of the ashes of much beloved acts Snowing and Algernon Cadwallader, expanded on one of the best 7″ releases of 2014 with one of the strongest full-length debuts in recent memory. Laced with knockout hooks at just about every turn, Dogs On Acid is a staggering show of power from a band that finds surprising ways to exceed its predecessors. Maximizing their pop sensibilities to astonishing effect, Dogs On Acid inject their first major effort with an insistent, propulsive energy that catapults each of its 10 tracks to unthinkable heights, keeping their punk roots in place along the way. Every song on Dogs On Acid is a genuine highlight, yet the whole affair still manages to come across as so much more than a collection of singles. Bold and brash, this is the kind of record that may never fall out of regular rotation.

8. Tenement – Predatory Headlights

For close to 10 years, I’ve provided near-incessant documentation of Tenement, chronicling their forward motion with increasing intensity as the years progressed. When Heartbreaking Bravery was initially designed, it was constructed with the intention of highlighting bands that weren’t being granted the press that they deserved. In 2015, the world at large finally started catching on to a band that’s meant more to the development of my personal interests in music than any other (I didn’t include their Bruised Music compilation in the oddities list because I contributed a lengthy piece to the record’s insert that expands on that fact). Predatory Headlights, the trio’s latest opus, was a definitive collection of the band’s current era, unafraid of demolishing genre barriers and bold experimentation. Over its intimidating 28 tracks, the album steadily emerges as a genuine- and singular- masterpiece.

7. Julien Baker – Sprained Ankle

For Julien Baker‘s breathtaking breakout record, the young songwriter (previously best known as one of the driving forces behind Forrister) dived fearlessly into a despairing examination of her own psyche. A preoccupation with mortality that was heavily informed by the laws of religion dominates nearly every song on this surprisingly brave collection. From the description of the car wreck in the opener’s first verse all the way through to the passage in “Go On”- Sprained Ankle‘s mesmerizing closing track and one of 2015’s finest songs– about consuming bleach, there’s barely a moment of reprieve. Built almost exclusively around Baker’s voice and acoustic guitar, Sprained Ankle feels progressively more personal as it goes along, each song functioning as a plea, a warning, and a sustained moment of clarity. Tragic and beautiful, Baker’s conjured up a collection of deeply personal songs that feel genuinely sacred.

6. All Dogs – Kicking Every Day

Ever since their earliest releases, All Dogs have been steadily crafting great material and building momentum. Kicking Every Day, the band’s startlingly defiant full-length debut, continues that pattern with an astounding amount of grace. Even with their lineup at full strength following the addition of guitarist Nick Harris (which is paying massive dividends), guitarist/vocalist Maryn Jones’ songs feel more naked than ever, imbuing Kicking Every Day with a voyeuristic look at its principal songwriter’s inner turmoil and unflinching resolve. After the anticipation levels for this record came close to hitting a fever pitch with the release of “That Kind of Girl” (which ranked highly on the songs of the year list), the prospect of a record as extravagantly strong as Kicking Every Day didn’t seem so distant. The record ultimately surpassed those expectations thanks to both the instant acclaim it so richly deserved and its ability to strike all the right chords.

5. Sweet John Bloom – Weird Prayer

Losing Four Eyes, a band that put out one of the best 7″ records of this decade, was a tough pill to swallow. Fortunately, that band found a natural successor in Sweet John Bloom. Continuing to revel in the same brand of endearingly scrappy basement pop and pulling members from a few other outstanding bands, Sweet John Bloom managed to make a mark. Weird Prayer, their first fully fledged full-length, reveals impressive new depths to the band. Employing a rotating cast of songwriters, the record gives ample space to flesh out each one’s distinct personality. From lovely slow-burning tracks like “Bury Ruby” to incendiary highlights like “Tell Me”, Weird Prayer is an enviable showcase that, bizarrely, seems like a victory lap for its various members. There’s a memorable moment or three on each of these 15 tracks, most of which find intriguing dichotomies to exploit over the course of their brief running times. Littered with surprising moments at close to every corner, it’s one of 2015’s most exhilarating releases.

4. Dilly Dally – Sore

Back in 2014, Dilly Dally unleashed a pair of 7″ records that nearly walked away with the top spot in this site’s rankings. In 2015 they followed up their flawless early run with a brilliant standalone single and a bruising full-length teeming with vicious grunge-informed, punk-leaning basement pop numbers. Grimly determined and scuzzy as hell, Sore lands with the force of an atomic bomb. There was a reason that no band earned as many feature pieces on this site over the course of 2014 than Dilly Dally and, even stripped of the brilliant singles that earned those spots, Sore would have registered as a knockout. While the record’s many searing highlights (“Desire“, “Purple Rage“, “The Touch“, etc.) gave the record its fangs, its elegiac closer provided it with both an unexpected emotional depth and a staggering moment of finality (both of which went a long way in securing its ranking as one of 2015’s finest tracks). While Dilly Dally just about stole CMJ and released a small army of outstanding music videos, Sore was their definitive 2015 moment. It’s the kind of record that inspires kids to go out and start bands of their own, making it one of the most powerful releases in recent memory.

3. Mike Krol – Turkey

The sudden resurgence of the (unfortunately) still-deceased Sleeping in the Aviary was an extremely unexpected and welcome development. While they did release an extraordinary demos and rarities collection, the band’s best moment came when the majority of its lineup wound up backing Mike Krol for his latest venture. No record in 2015 felt even close to as unhinged as Turkey, Krol’s first effort for Merge and most deranged outing to date. With a runtime that doesn’t even scratch 19 minutes, Krol and the band he’s assembled run through nine songs at a pace so frantic it’s practically delirious. Every single moment of Turkey is informed by a surging level of energy that it seems like the record might derail itself at any given moment, toppling over because of its own excessive velocity. Miraculously, it manages to sustain that momentum through nine songs of rabid basement pop that draws inspiration from a variety of genres from the past handful of decades, zeroing in on things like ’50s pop and classic soul. Everything on Turkey also benefits from being shot through with Krol’s deadpan comedic sensibility, tongue planted firmly in cheek. By the time the record’s penultimate track hits- the absolutely massive “Less Than Together“- the record’s momentum is white hot. “Piano Shit” winds things down at the very end and allows the listener to review the demolished left in Turkey‘s wake as it coasts to the finish.

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2. Nicole Dollanganger – Natural Born Losers

One of the happier coincidences this site got to experience in 2015 was the realization that the glowing review of Nicole Dollanganger‘s breathtaking Natural Born Losers was its 666th post. An appropriate fact, given the record’s deep obsession with angels, devils, and the spiritual realm. In its opening lines (“I shot an angel with my father’s rifle”), Natural Born Losers flaunts its aim with a threatening gracefulness, ready to turn on a dime at any moment. Dollanganger’s narratives throughout the course of the record are startling exercises in hyper-violence and dueling desires. Whether it’s a BDSM-informed romp as lensed through an experience with an abusive police officer or an extremely disarming sample taken from the animated 1993 cult classic The Halloween Tree, Dollanganger’s either making fresh incisions or pulling gaping wounds even further apart. However, for being so deeply unsettling in its prose, the music that accompanies all of Dollanganger’s nightmarish imagery is as elegant and haunting as her vocals. A lot of Natural Born Losers hinges on exploring some of the weightiest dichotomies in existence and the degree of success to which it achieves in striking fascinating middle grounds in those battles is revelatory. Even more impressive is the fashion in which Dollanganger binds this collection of songs together, especially considering how effectively the record’s haunting line defines (or redefines) everything that’s happened since its steely-eyed opening moment. Put simply: Natural Born Losers is a modern masterpiece.

1. Eskimeaux – O.K.

Eskimeaux‘s O.K. managed to impress on first listen but it wasn’t until seeing the band live that all of its pieces fell more fully into place. That show inspired a return visit to this collection which, in turn, brought about a subsequent revisit (and then that pattern fell into a routine that still hasn’t ceased). On each successive listen, more of O.K. sprang to life. Gabrielle Smith’s project has been making material that’s been more than worthwhile for a large handful of years now but O.K., the project’s most fully-realized outing, saw Smith step across a threshold and into something sublime. A meticulously crafted record, every last one of its countless gears clicks in ways that surprise and delight in equal measure, rewarding heavy investment with a casual ease and providing O.K. with one of its cleverest tricks. In maintaining their casual sensibilities, the record becomes an enjoyable cursory listen but that casualness is surprisingly deceptive.

O.K.‘s a very complex record when it’s dissected into its formative pieces, whether they’re the gorgeous vocal layers that comprise one of the record’s most gorgeous moments on “A Hug Too Long” or Felix Walworth’s explosively idiosyncratic snare work on “Folly“, each finding a way to stand out as an impressive moment in both the small schemes of the songs and the grand sweep of the album. From a lyrical standpoint, Smith packs this record full with bittersweet realizations, internal frustrations, and slivers of a defiant sense of hope that’s steadfast in its refusal to bow to a harsher reality. Even the record’s darkest moment- the brooding “Pocket Full of Posies”, which nearly unseated “A Hug Too Long” in the songs list- subtly acknowledges the inherent innocence of things that are frequently viewed as evil. Even then, O.K.‘s worldview is far from simply being optimistic, it’s far too weary to assume that the best mode of operation is to look for the best in everything; its earned its sophisticated wariness.

What makes O.K. truly stand out, though, is its overwhelming amount of empathy for everything that’s fortunate enough to have worked its way into the record. Easily one of the most readily apparent humanist statements that music yielded this year (which is especially easy to see when the record’s put under a microscope), O.K. draws its strength from its sense of value. It’s a view that resonates throughout the record’s 11 brilliantly crafted songs, providing them with a deeper sense of purpose than most bands can manage. Additionally, all of the inspired decisions that comprise O.K. are augmented by some of the most extraordinary production work of the past several years, stealthily enhancing the cumulative effect of the songs. An awe-inspiring breakthrough for one of today’s most promising acts, O.K. is the kind of record that’s worth preserving for future generations. Find someone deserving to share this with and give in to its inescapable beauty.

15 of ’15: The Best Songs of 2015

All Dogs III

Few lists have been as difficult to put together as this one, which saw upwards of 100 songs competing for a slot as one of the final 15. An extraordinary year for music by any margin, the continuously expanding models of release and outwardly stretching networks of musicians providing an astonishing amount of material that was more than worthwhile. As has been noted in the previous lists, the choices here are completely based on personal subjectivity and exclude the more major releases (like the monumental tracks from Jason Isbell, Courtney Barnett, and Death Grips) as they’ve received countless accolades already and the spotlight deserves to be spread to equally deserving artists that still don’t have access to those levels of exposure. None of these artists appeared on last year’s list but every single act who gets an inclusion this time around feels more than capable of making a return visit at some point in the near future. Somber closing tracks, heartfelt lead-off singles, and a few striking non-singles comprise the contents found below. So, without further ado, here’s 15 of ’15: The Best Songs of 2015.

15. Car Seat Headrest – Something Soon

Originally released in 2011, “Something Soon” was a deeply promising minimalist number from Car Seat Headrest mastermind Will Toledo. In the following years, Toledo expanded his outfit and managed to find a way to successfully reinvent both the Car Seat Headrest project and a few of the old songs in the process, including- of course- “Something Soon”. Oddly, upon its second release, the song felt even more of the moment than it did in its initial run, all while demonstrating a timeless panache that was elevated by things like the three-part vocal harmony that kicks off the explosive second chorus. Revamped and re-energized, “Something Soon” became an endlessly rewarding new career highlight for a band that, a dozen releases into its career, still feels like it’s only just getting started.

14. PWR BTTM – 1994

No one could have possibly predicted the absolutely monstrous run PWR BTTM would put together in 2015 back in January. Even the people that adored the band in their early stages would have been hard pressed to think that they’d have the kind of pull to be the sole focus of features from nationally renowned publications.  That said, the timing couldn’t have been any better and in pairing their split with Jawbreaker Reunion and their towering debut full-length Ugly Cherries, their run couldn’t have been any stronger. One of the band’s most exhilarating moments came in the form of Ugly Cherries highlight “1994” which embodied nearly everything that makes the band necessary: identity exploration, earnest approach, searing guitar work, memorable melodies, and more than a few unbelievably fierce riffs.

13. Ought – Beautiful Blue Sky

Just a year after barely missing this list, Ought came charging back with a new career highlight via the hypnotic “Beautiful Blue Sky“. Scaling back their excessive nervous energy into something that feels more refined, the band latched onto an approach that made them sound like they were in complete control. By substituting an abacus for their lab coats, they also tapped more fully into the inherent power of both their music and their identity. While there’s still a rambling feel to “Beautiful Blue Sky”, it’s one that’s played with casual confidence rather than manic neurosis. Easily one of Tim Darcy’s most fascinating lyric sets to date, the song explores heavy themes with tongue-in-cheek nonchalance, keeping the band’s irreverent spirit in tact. Another masterclass of interlocking grooves, “Beautiful Blue Sky” also has a shot at becoming a modern classic.

12. Mikal Cronin – Made My Mind Up

The first song to be reviewed on Heartbreaking Bravery in 2015 also wound up, as predicted, being one of the year’s finest. While not all of MCIII hit the extravagant heights of MCII, it wasn’t without its moments. The seeming flawlessness of “Made My Mind Up” shouldn’t come as such a surprise after MCII handily established Mikal Cronin as one of this generation’s finest pop songwriters yet it still lands with such breathtaking gracefulness that it’s hard not to be taken aback. A gorgeous piano figure finds a way to seamlessly intertwine itself with Cronin’s characteristically fuzzed-out brand of basement pop, elevating several sections of the song to levels that approach transcendence. When the stop/start dynamics of the chorus come into play, the song just starts moving effortlessly through a motion of grace notes, cementing Cronin’s position as a peerless talent.

11. Girlpool – Crowded Stranger

Girlpool can pull off a lot of varied looks but there’s something about the music they make that takes on a darker sheen that’s impossible to shake. “Plants and Worms” was the song that convinced me the band was great and “Crowded Stranger” only furthers that theory by tapping into a similar approach, one that feels infinitely more foreboding than the duo’s usual material. There’s a certain weightiness and bold uncertainty that accompanies their dips into murkier sensibilities and the effect, almost paradoxically, tends to feel more vibrant. Ostensibly a song about loss, “Crowded Stranger” is a bleak look at internal examination, circumstantial consequence, and bruised perception. One of the band’s most tortured songs to date, it winds up being an exemplary showcase of the band’s formidable grasp on their own pathos. All of those elements factored in to why “Crowded Stranger” were two of the most unforgettable minutes this year.

10. Dilly Dally – Burned by the Cold

Burned by the Cold“, the elegiac closing track to Dilly Dally‘s incendiary full-length debut, Sore, was the moment that cemented that release’s status as a great. After 10 tracks of searing basement punk, the floor suddenly fell out from underneath the band and allowed Katie Monks to take even more complete control of the wheel as everything plummeted down in a free fall. Stripping away a few of the band’s most distinctive elements- Liz Ball’s breathtaking lead guitar work, a bruising rhythm section- and zeroing in on Monks’ unforgettable voice as it echoes through a devastating piano track, Dilly Dally found a genuinely unexpected way to flourish. As the ambient noise that swirls around “Burned by the Cold” intensifies, Monks pushes forward with a sudden vulnerability that makes Sore‘s mesmerizing final moment even more astonishing. Unprecedented by anything in their still young discography, it’s relative bravery proves the band has an untapped depth and, likely, plenty more welcome surprises to come.

9. Eskimeaux – A Hug Too Long

Nearly every song on Eskimeaux‘s masterwork O.K. was considered at one point for a spot on this list as each had a roughly equal claim. “A Hug Too Long” got the nod in the end for being, arguably, the most definitive track on the album. From the quick riff that opens the song to the lilting vocal figure that shortly follows, “A Hug Too Long” is a masterclass in composition and contains nearly everything that makes Eskimeaux such a rewarding project. Flawless melodies, production, and layered harmonies inform the track’s most vibrant moments, which once again show Gabrielle Smith’s masterful command over crafting songs that are as hopeful as they are bittersweet. Charming, endearing, and deceptively light- the song’s actually fairly crushing upon close inspection- “A Hug Too Long” finds a way to make nearly every one of the song’s structural aspects remarkable, lending it an additional emotional weight in the process. A sublime piece of songwriting, it firmly positions Gabrielle Smith as one of our finest emerging songwriters.

8. Hop Along – Waitress

One of the most heartening things to watch progress over the course of 2015 was the ascension of Hop Along, who have deserved far-reaching national acclaim for years but didn’t quite have the resources. Saddle Creek changed that when they signed the band for the release of Painted Shut, a critical knockout and a jaw-dropping show of force. While that record was peppered with several standout moments, it was “Waitress” that stood out most, a signature example of guitarist/vocalist and principal songwriter Frances Quinlan’s mastery of craft. Possessing one of the most arresting voices in music, Quinlan wields it like a weapon and strikes mercilessly as the rest of Hop Along viciously attacks their best track this side of “Tibetan Pop Stars” A series of bruised and beautiful moments culminate in a fiery outro that exemplifies the band’s inherent strengths. Quinlan lets loose several impassioned howls as the propulsive rhythm section goes to work with surgical precision and the guitar work nears an unprecedented level of excellence. Packaged together, it’s the kind of knockout punch that prohibits recovery.

7. Worriers – They/Them/Theirs

2015 saw the discussion surrounding gender identity take massive strides forward and open lines of dialog on a national scale that’d previously been a lot more diminished. It’s not unreasonable to think that the multimedia forms at large played in part in facilitating that transition and one of the most thoughtful and impassioned pleas came from Worriers‘ latest career highlight, “They/Them/Theirs“. Even in stripping away the lyric set, “They/Them/Theirs” is one of the band’s most powerful compositions to date but it’s the pointed narrative of “They/Them/Theirs” that makes it unforgettable, especially in its empathetic opening couplet (“You’ve got a word for one/so there’s a word for all”) and urgent chorus (“You are fighting between a rock and why bother?/we are floating between two ends that don’t matter”). At every step, the narrative’s fueled by a deep-seated frustration over the lack of understanding and driven by sheer determination to set things straight as the music conjures up something that’s both immediately accessible and genuinely thoughtful, enhancing the song’s humanist worldview.

6. Julien Baker – Go On

Like Eskimeaux’s O.K., Julien Baker‘s devastating Sprained Ankle provided a small army of tracks that were in contention for a spot on this list, which ultimately came to a showdown between the record’s unbelievably gorgeous title track and its unforgettable closer. The latter option won out and, in a strange turn of events, aligned it with Dilly Dally’s “Burned by the Cold” as a somber, piano-driven closer that’s unlikely to be released as a single. Following a record of intensely personal disclosures, “Go On”- like the vast majority of Sprained Ankle– felt palpably wounded in way that was frighteningly relatable as it confronted the inevitability of mortality. It’s also the song where Baker sounds the most severely pained and then, suddenly, one of the most chilling moments of 2015 arrives. Nothing in recorded music over the past 12 months hit me harder than the accidental broadcast interference that bleeds through the end of “Go On”, where a static-damaged sermon gets piped into a record that was heavily informed by religion. It’s in those final, largely improvised moments where Sprained Ankle feels genuinely holy.

5. Mike Krol – Less Than Together

Turkey, Mike Krol‘s unbelievably explosive third record, was one of 2015’s most exciting releases for a long string of reasons that included (but were not limited to) redemption for Sleeping in the Aviary and the rapidly growing interest surrounding DIY punk. Confrontational, irreverent, and deliriously fun, Turkey came off like several grenades all detonating simultaneously. Intriguingly, the record’s fiercest track is also its longest, the near-rabid “Less Than Together”, which serves as the record’s penultimate moment. No song got me out of bed in 2015 more times than “Less Than Together”, as its excessively frantic blend of basement punk and basement pop essentially managed to create its own singular energy source. Every element that makes Turkey such an enthralling record is present on “Less Than Together”, as it careens ahead and refuses to be apologetic to anything unfortunate enough to stand in its path. Everything clicks for Krol and the band he’s surrounded himself with as they play off of each other to enormous effect and produce something extraordinary, never pausing to look back at the destruction in their wake.

4. Fred Thomas – Every Song Sung To A Dog

One of the most heartfelt songs of 2015 was also one of the most painfully tragic. While Fred Thomas managed to stack the brilliant All Are Saved to the rafters with emotional moments of clarity in the midst of its intentional chaos, “Every Song Sung To A Dog” managed to leave the sharpest sting. As Thomas makes his way through “Every Song Sung To A Dog“, it becomes clear that the dog in question is Kuma, who served as the main source of inspiration for the songwriter’s last collection (which, accordingly, was also named after- and dedicated to- Kuma). Here, though, Kuma’s passed on and Thomas grapples with the complex emotions that accompany the loss of a loved one and produces something devastating. As the narrative probes at the questions over what separates us from our pets and our own mortality, it also functions at a remarkably high level as a character study of Thomas himself as he tears open his wounds and explores them without hesitation. Memories litter close to all of the dusty corners of “Every Song Sung To A Dog”, transforming it away from hypothetical territory into something that comes across as bravely, uncomfortably real.

3. Mutual Benefit – Not for Nothing

The past 12 months have had their fair share of exceedingly lovely songs, from the tender Cat’s Eyes number that plays over The Duke of Burgundy‘s credit reel to Mothers‘ spellbinding “Too Small for Eyes” to everything Eluvium released but none of them felt as perfectly weightless as Mutual Benefit‘s masterful “Not for Nothing“. Following the breakout success of Love’s Crushing Diamond, Jordan Lee’s project somehow grew even more gently refined, landing on something remarkably beautiful in the process. Nearly every movement of “Not for Nothing”, a song that was recorded for Weathervane Music’s deeply important Shaking Through series, can be viewed as a grace note. From Lee’s soft vocal delivery to the string section to the intuitive drumming and effective, simplistic piano figure, “Not for Nothing” finds a way to cumulative whole that comes off as miraculous. Expanded outward from the first time Lee overheard the phrase “Not for Nothing” used in a phone conversation, the song becomes an antithetical statement to the excess apathy that many of us confront in bulk on a daily basis. In finding and appreciating the world’s splendor as personal doubts seep into the song’s narrative, Mutual Benefit keep their heads pointed towards the sky and walk away with the most beautiful song of 2015.

2. All Dogs – That Kind of Girl

Ever since All Dogs initially unveiled “That Kind of Girl” back on tour in 2014, it’s been a personal favorite. On a standalone basis, it transformed Kicking Every Day into one of the more anticipated DIY-driven records of 2015 and provided a forceful career push for a band that genuinely deserved to have their name circulating around national press outlets on a steady basis. Fortunately (and unsurprisingly), the rest of Kicking Every Day lived up to the promise of “That Kind of Girl” but nothing on the record threatened its position as the band’s finest work (although “Leading Me Back To You“, which was deemed ineligible for this list due to being both a song from some of the members’ previous bands and a partial cover, came close). As the band demonstrated on their first two releases, their strength lies in the way they treat their own vulnerability, bravely kicking out against its currents instead of letting the water wash them away. Far and away the band’s most vicious song in an increasingly impressive discography, “That Kind of Girl” saw guitarist/vocalist Maryn Jones lash out in a way that saw each successive blow leave a deeper impact as Jones’ bandmates unleash a cavalcade of their own frustrations through some of the most impassioned playing of 2015 before claiming a victory and walking away with their flag planted in the dirt.

1. Stove – Wet Food

No song throughout 2015 made me feel more than Stove‘s hopeful, world-weary, defeatist, yearning masterpiece “Wet Food“. I can vividly recall being completely frozen while filming the band providing me with my introductory listen at Palisades (the video of that can be seen below), with chills shooting down my spine multiple times over. All the concern over Ovlov‘s dissolution immediately dissipated and hope for Washer‘s future (who operate at Stove’s rhythm section) suddenly went into overdrive. It joined a rare, elite company of performances and songs that had a similar effect on me (the only other band to hit that mark in 2015 was Dilly Dally’s unexpectedly vicious cover of Drake’s “Know Yourself”, which prompted a near-out-of-body experience). From the moment the guitar sweeps upward into action, “Wet Food” is untouchable. Adorned with subtle, effective bell work, punctuated by a blown-out chorus, it manages to take on the feel of a song whose stakes feel meaningful; this is the rare all-or-nothing song that swings towards the stars and connects with the kind of emphasis that manages to keep it in line. “Wet Food” also joins a class of recent songs where the songwriter addresses themselves by name (see also: Eskimeaux’s “A Hug Too Long”, above), presenting their most internal moments on a very public forum, enhancing the song’s honesty as a result. Bruised, battered, disoriented, and- above all- resilient, “Wet Food” felt like a microcosm of the prevailing personal stories that emerged throughout 2015, securing its rightful position at the top of this list.

2015: The Best of Watch This

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When Watch This was conceived it was done with the intent to not only critically examine the balance of filmmaking and live performance but celebrate the art of the live video, a format which seems to have fallen to the wayside despite being more fruitful than it’s been since it was introduced. There’s real power behind the clips that manage to seamlessly merge the best qualities of everything that goes into the best live performance videos and they can yield genuinely unforgettable moments (when everything kicks back in on “Waitress”, the held falsetto in “A Proper Polish Welcome”, and a whole host of other chill-inducing moments are scattered throughout this compilation). Those moments are the beating heart behind this series construction and they’re what sustains the project as it presses forward.

Well over 300 live clips were covered on this site in 2015 and this is a collection of 25 that genuinely stood out for one reason or another, whether it was the sheer joy in a performance (Diet Cig), the performer’s ability to freeze blood (Julien Baker, Dilly Dally, SOAK), the trio of artists who appeared on Watch This the most throughout this year (Courtney Barnett, Girlpool, and Torres), an electrifying presentation and performance (July Talk), or a clip that’s a fully functional masterclass in every category that elevates a clip from astonishing to transcendental (Glen Hansard). All of those and more have been plugged into this packet, which culminates in a tour de force reminder of the overwhelming power of what can be achieved on a live platform from the resurgent Sleater-Kinney as one final exclamation point for a truly extraordinary year. So, as always, sit up, focus, adjust the volume, and Watch This.

Watch the 2015 edition of the best-of compilation for Heartbreaking Bravery’s definitive recurring series, Watch This, below. The track list is available under the embed.

1. Hop Along – Waitress (World Cafe)
2. July Talk – Paper Girl (Audiotree)
3. Ronny – Why Do You Have Kids (Gems On VHS)
4. Julien Baker – Sprained Ankle (BreakThruRadio)
5. Mikal Cronin – Say (WFUV)
6. Molly Parden – Weather (GemsOnVHS)
7. Eskimeaux – Folly (This Has Got To Stop)
8. Waxahatchee – Under A Rock (Pitchfork)
9. METZ – Spit You Out (3voor12)
10. Ought – Beautiful Blue Sky (KEXP)
11. Saintseneca – How Many Blankets Are In the World? (ANTI-)
12. Diet Cig – Harvard (In the Attic)
13. SOAK – B a Nobody Blud (La Blogotheque)
14. Dilly Dally – Burned by the Cold (Strombo Sessions)
15. Alex G + Girlpool – Brite Boy (SPIN)
16. Footings (Jenn Harrington)
17. Mike Krol – Suburban Wasteland + Neighborhood Watch (KEXP)
18. Beach Slang – Get Lost (Cozy Couch Sessions)
19. Public Service Broadcasting – Go! (WNYC)
20. Christopher Paul Stelling – Dear Beast (ANTI-)
21. Courtney Barnett – Depreston (La Blogotheque)
22. Algiers – Blood (WFUV)
23. Torres – A Proper Polish Welcome (NPR)
24. Glen Hansard – McCormack’s Wall (ANTI-)
25. Sleater-Kinney (NPR)

 

2015: A Visual Retrospective, Vol. 7

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Throughout the course of 2015 I’ve been fortunate enough to attend upwards of 100 shows, festivals big and small, and spend approximately half a year living in a city that hosted a mind-boggling amount of quality shows on a nightly basis. To that end, it’s probably unsurprising that I wound up taking over 10,000 photos this year alone. Over the course of the next few days, this site will be running seven volumes of the shots that stood out as personal favorites, whether that was due to their composition, sentimental attachment, or an intangible emotional or intellectual response. It’s been an honor to be able to take even the smallest part in the ongoing sagas of the artists in the photographs below and an additional thanks is due to the venues that allowed me to shoot (as well as the people who encouraged me to keep shooting).

The preceding galleries can be accessed via these links:

2015: A Visual Retrospective, Vol. 1
2015: A Visual Retrospective, Vol. 2
2015: A Visual Retrospective, Vol. 3
2015: A Visual Retrospective, Vol. 4
2015: A Visual Retrospective, Vol. 5
2015: A Visual Retrospective, Vol. 6

Enjoy the gallery.

 

2015: A Visual Retrospective, Vol. 3

Idle Bloom

Throughout the course of 2015 I’ve been fortunate enough to attend upwards of 100 shows, festivals big and small, and spend approximately half a year living in a city that hosted a mind-boggling amount of quality shows on a nightly basis. To that end, it’s probably unsurprising that I wound up taking over 10,000 photos this year alone. Over the course of the next few days, this site will be running seven volumes of the shots that stood out as personal favorites, whether that was due to their composition, sentimental attachment, or an intangible emotional or intellectual response. It’s been an honor to be able to take even the smallest part in the ongoing sagas of the artists in the photographs below and an additional thanks is due to the venues that allowed me to shoot (as well as the people who encouraged me to keep shooting).

Enjoy the gallery.