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How do you define a year in music? Easy: You don’t. You could say that 2015 was the year of the comeback for D.C.-area artists, with bands like Beauty Pill, Soccer Team, and The Max Levine Ensemble releasing new music for the first time in years. You could also say that 2015 was the year newer artists had something to prove, with GoldLink, Reesa Renee, Big Hush, and others putting out excellent follow-ups to their much-hyped debuts. But again, these narratives are too convenient—music scenes don’t work like that. Musicians in the D.C. area (and elsewhere, as Oddisee is now Brooklyn-based, though his heart is still in the District) make their art whenever they can, in some cases balancing demanding day jobs with a passion for music. And that’s what’s most exciting about some of 2015’s best local music—ingenuity, passion, creativity, determination, and brilliant musicianship oozes from each one of these releases. I guess that’s something like a definition.
Akua Allrich Soul Singer Self-released
Despite the title, Akua Allrich’s Soul Singer is not an R&B effort. Though it draws from that genre, the album’s title is more reflective of her feel, whether she’s stretching out her gospel wings over swinging jazz stylings, scatting, or even careening around the scales with a bit of a gravelly edge. On Soul Singer, Allrich passionately stretches and pulls notes without ever losing control of the tunes on this lively collection. —Steve Kiviat
Beauty Pill Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are Butterscotch Records
This time last year, Chad Clark was cautiously optimistic about his band’s upcoming album. Sure, he loved how the record turned out, but he knew it was sonically dense and a really tough listen. Beauty Pill’s previous work is more straightforward; Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are is full of textured electronica and serious themes. Among other topics, the album seems driven by the concept of time—the need for more of it and the serenity of watching it drift away.
The album’s opening statement—“I want more life, fucker,” a line from Blade Runner—speaks to frontman Chad Clark’s well-documented health struggles and his proclamation to move forward. Time was the enemy on “Dog with Rabbit in Mouth, Unharmed”: Clark’s dog, Lucy, was dying of cancer, and he was slowly coming to grips with her demise. It’s a gorgeous and indulgent album, and the quintet thoughtfully conveys each idea using bright collages and airy vocals.
Released in April, Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are has earned widespread acclaim from the likes of Pitchfork, NPR, and Rolling Stone, which is high praise considering Clark’s uneasiness before the LP’s release. “I feel very encouraged,” he says. “I’m a middle-aged black man, and I just made a record that seems to be well received in the indie-rock world, and I’m an artist with a capital A. My situation is weird, but it’s as positive as it could be at this moment.” That said, Clark doesn’t want to produce Beauty Pill’s next album, for which he’s already started writing. Clark’s hoping for a striped-down sound that’s easier to digest. “I would like to work with someone else who understands the band’s vision,” he says. “To work within what’s essentially a narrow confine, and still make something that’s totally free and from the heart, that’s what I’d like to do with the next record.” —Marcus J. Moore
Big Hush Who’s Smoking Your Spirit? DZ Tapes
What’s most impressive about Big Hush’s Who’s Smoking Your Spirit? is the band’s fierce drive to reinvent itself. On last year’s Wholes, the local quartet explored a twangy, reverb-heavy sound, as if it had just completed a Ph.D. dissertation in shoegaze. With a shoegaze revival in full swing, it’d be easy for the band to keep milking that sound, but instead it forged ahead, exploring new sonic soundscapes that are far noisier—and poppier—than anything it’s done before. —Matt Cohen
Bless Bless Tape Self-released
The quirky appeal of garage-rock trio Bless is on full display throughout its debut EP. The guitar riffs and affected lead vocals of vocalist/guitarist Luke Reddick never take themselves too seriously in the EP’s six songs, and yet perhaps oddly, it makes them all the more effective. What’s even more surprising though, is that such an accomplished short album could come out of a group that was just formed this year. —Jerome Langston
Br’er Masking Blight Records
Frontman Ben Schurr has described the title track on the industrial-pop band’s newest album as a “danceable nightmare.” In a lot of respects, this mentality extends to the entire album: It’s significantly more accessible than the rest of Br’er’s oeuvre, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less complex. Schurr and Erik Sleight’s crushing synths collide with Ben Usie’s dance-beat drumming to create a soundtrack fit for the most hellish discotheque. —Keith Mathias
Coup Sauvage & The Snips Psalms From Ward 9 Haus of Sauvage
Coup Sauvage & The Snips occupy an aggressively unique space on the musical map, but for its Psalms From Ward 9 EP, the sextet focused on perhaps the most universal element of its sound: get butts moving. J.D. Samson of MEN offers up a remix that makes the already punchy “Don’t Touch My Hair” runway ready, and the songs only get catchier. Psalms might capture The Snips’ love for a good rhythm, but it doesn’t de-emphasize its social commentary, pulling no punches when it comes to expressing disdain for racism and rudeness. —Valerie Paschall
GoldLink And After That, We Didn’t Talk Soulection
A few days after announcing the title of his debut album, And After That, We Didn’t Talk, during a sold-out show at the 9:30 Club, GoldLink was hesitant to explain it. “A heartbreak,” he said. “It’s just about a heartbreak.” Heartbreak plays a leading role in the album’s narrative, but And After That, We Didn’t Talk is a dive into the 22-year-old’s identity: It’s GoldLink’s coming-of-age story.
What do you remember most about high school? Your embarrassing-in-hindsight sartorial choices? The prom? Graduation? For GoldLink, it was a relationship that began when he was 16 and left a dent on his psyche so deep that it inspired the soul-searching of And After That, We Didn’t Talk. On opener “After You Left,” GoldLink’s mind races from the breakup to the emptiness of success in life’s grand scheme (“I made $100,000 this year/ That still don’t mean shit,” he concedes). Guided by a prominent Missy Elliott sample, the bouncy “Spectrum” is reflective. “I learned a lot in such a short amount of time,” he announces at the song’s onset before detailing the accelerated course in life lessons he received during his formative years. The project ends with “See I Miss,” where the subtle hum of Merg’s production underscores GoldLink’s remorse about the relationship’s failure and its lasting effect on other areas of his life.
And After That, We Didn’t Talk begins with the impact of a car collision and fades out quietly, an accurate depiction of the post-breakup stages of grief. Where his lauded debut, The God Complex, was a genre-warping display of what GoldLink can do, its successor is an exploration of who he is and why. Last year, GoldLink unmasked himself. Now, he’s letting us all inside of his head. —Julian Kimble
Hemlines All Your Homes DZ Tapes
In 2015, Hemlines glowed from its pedestal as one of the best bands in years to hoist the flag of feminist punk in D.C. Its blistering five-song EP, All Your Homes, announces the band and vocalist/guitarist Katie Park as an artery pulsing with rage and power. There’s real dexterity here; Hemlines shifts from easy to rough, from sunnier no-wave guitar work from Park and fellow guitarist Ian Villeda, to roaring distortion and big chords, all backed by Dana Liebelson’s bass high in the mix and the rock-steady drums of scene veteran Julie Yoder.
Yoder has anchored the band in myriad ways. Last year, most of Hemlines was cast about in D.C.’s punk scene, all having come from different worlds, musical or otherwise. Yoder helped shepherd them through. This summer, on a formative East Coast tour, Yoder grieved the loss of her father, who died this year; the band departed for the tour a day after his birthday, and she struggled through tricky personal moments that had nothing to do with the band. But she says she feels fortunate to have her bandmates, who all balance demanding day jobs with the pure pleasure of making music together.
“It feels like despite vast differences in backgrounds and geographic locations, we were all raised in similar ways or something” she says. To Yoder, her bandmates feel like the punk-rock children she would have raised if she’d been a teen mom. For a collection of relative strangers, there’s perhaps no more stark sign of cohesion.
So what’s next? A full-length record, perhaps. More touring. Its sound may shift, but that’s OK, Park says. “We don’t want to feel too limited by what we’ve already done or what we should sound like, so I’d say our musical focus right now is playing what feels good to us.” —Ron Knox
Homosuperior The Mall Madness Demo Self-released
No other local release this year simultaneously scuzzed and ripped as hard Homosuperior’s excellent, cheeky Mall Madness Demo. Through a wall of fuzzed-out distortion, vocalist Josh Vogelsong speedily wails and moans about youth, queer identity, and, uh, getting high on this polished demo. As its title suggests, there’s nostalgia for the bygone era of mall culture in these songs, but Homosuperior’s sound is anything but irrelevant. —Matt Cohen
Louis Weeks haha Self-released
In the hands of a less skilled musician and songwriter, the expansive sonic ideas of haha, the stellar follow-up to Weeks’ acclaimed 2014 debut, shift/away, would have choked on its own ambition. But in haha, Weeks—along with guitarist Noah Berman, drummer Matt Honor, and Ethan Helm on woodwinds—excels with its lush, cinematic soundscapes, thoughtfully reflective lyrics, and numerous surprising “turns” throughout its 11 compositions. —Jerome Langston
Makeshift Shelters Something So Personal Broken World Media
D.C.’s music community had its collective heart broken in June when blossoming emo-punks Makeshift Shelters announced the band had dissolved. Early this year, the Northern Virginia four-piece gave onlookers ample reason to believe its dazzling debut full-length, Something So Personal, would usher in years of smart, big-hearted power-pop framing vocalist Ella Boissonnault’s pitch-perfect vocals. Makeshift Shelters gave the city one of the year’s great records, a blast of joyous and jilted rock that bathed the scene in a lasting light even if the band departed just as quickly as it arrived. —Ron Knox
The Max Levine Ensemble Backlash, Baby Lame-O Records/Rumbletowne Records
The three members of the Max Levine Ensemble are in their early 30s, which is old enough to know how messy life can get regardless of how many other people want them to get their shit together. The energetic Backlash, Baby, the band’s first album in nearly a decade, hits hard in part because vocalist/guitarist David Combs captures those woes with a mix of chaos and aplomb; bashing out music that sounds disheveled, but the notes bend to the band’s will. It stirs up infectious, clean, power-pop vocal harmonies too, but it makes falling apart sound magical. —Leor Galil
More Humans Hot Cloud Self-released
With Hot Cloud, it’s clear that More Humans spent much of the late ’90s and early aughts burning the nuances of alternative and indie rock into its consciousness. There’s a familiarity to Hot Cloud that doesn’t point directly back to one source; the melodies echo everything from Jawbox to Pinback to My Morning Jacket. Rather, the songs evoke the feeling of uncertainty and tension that remain latent in the actions and thoughts of young adults. —Valerie Paschall
The Obsessives Heck No, Nancy Near Mint Records
Early on The Obsessives’ debut album, frontman Nick Bairatchnyi glumly sings “Zooming out on Google Earth / I become even less significant.” It’s a simple lyric, but on the record it ripples, and every muted guitar lick magnifies a teenage existentialism particular to the Snapchat generation. Age won’t restrict anyone from digging into this thoughtful, taut fourth-wave emo album—Bairatchnyi and drummer Jackson Mansfield didn’t let their perspectives close them off from considering life on this globe far beyond their circle. —Leor Galil
Oddisee The Good Fight Mello Music Group
On The Good Fight, Oddisee eschews rap superstardom for frank honesty. The result is one of the year’s most revealing listens; more of an album-as-acceptance-of-situation than a bombastic, pop-aimed song collection. A decade into a successful independent career, The Good Fight, as Oddisee told Billboard, celebrates “living fully as a musician without succumbing to the traps of hedonism, avarice, and materialism.” That’s certainly something from left field in the modern rap environment, and Oddisee’s mastery both behind the boards and the microphone continues to dazzle. —Marcus K. Dowling
The Oooh Child Ensemble Rebirth Afrocentric Asian Music
After years of playing keys for other musicians, pianist/keyboardist Andrew Flores (aka Drew Kid) stepped out on his own on Rebirth, an impressive six-song album dedicated to his deceased mother and aunt. It’s technically jazz, but parts of the album lean toward hip-hop and soul. “I really wasn’t sure how folks were going to react,” Flores says. “All the different styles might be confusing to some, though I made sure—at least in my own ear—that there was some kind of cohesiveness.”
Rebirth is a family-oriented release: Frequent collaborators yU and Drew Dave appear on the album’s final cut, and the title track (featuring a standout poem from OutKast contributor Big Rube) speaks to the struggles of everyday folks. There’s a strong sense of community here, punctuated by phone audio of Flores’ mother throughout the album. “Rebirth is one way to view death, but it also refers to how I had to live after my folks died,” Flores says. “I had to wake the fuck up, still go to school, and face whatever else was coming my way.”
Flores says he’s working on a solo album—not like Rebirth, which he recorded as leader of The Oooh Child Ensemble. “Despite the content, I’m actually really excited about this music,” he says of the forthcoming work. “This album is a lot more soul than Rebirth. My heart got broken pretty bad this year so yeah, I’ve been dealing with that. At least now I have all these songs.” —Marcus J. Moore
Polyon Blue Funny/Not Funny Records
The most common association between music and science fiction is John Williams’ score for Star Wars: regal, precise, and welcoming. It’s a perfect fit for the films, which are a space opera tinged with nostalgia. Polyon makes music that genuinely sounds like what it would be like to be in space; with its Blue EP, that sound morphs with guitar pop that’s moody, distorted, atmospheric, and above all, loud. Another science fiction film famously noted, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Thanks to Polyon, we can’t hear because it rocks so hard. —Alan Zilberman
Red Death Permanent Exile Grave Mistake Records
Punk rock is often mired in identity dogma. What’s that old refrain? Hardcore is hardcore is hardcore? Not in D.C.: Sounds from other nooks of the extreme music world have infiltrated the thriving D.C. hardcore scene and cracked the hegemony of straight-ahead, rocket-fast punk. Now, D.C. hardcore is thrash, sort of, and it’s death metal, sort of; it’s whatever the new wave scene says it is. Exhibit A: Red Death’s bombastic Permanent Exile, with pin-prick solos and chugging riffs over blastbeats—until the bottom drops out, the drums rumble and the record gets hair-swinging heavy. —Ron Knox
Reesa Renee Lovers Rock Self-released
Lovers Rock, Reesa Renee says, was her reintroduction. It’s been three years since the “Amateur Night at the Apollo” winner’s notable debut, Reelease, and the vocalist spent the downtime perfecting her craft. “A few of the songs [on Lovers Rock] were created [in the] summer of 2013 when my brother and I went on a one-month creative binge,” Renee says. “We pretty much immersed ourselves in the studio and created nonstop.”
The immersion paid off. Whereas Reelease found Renee all over the map—getting jazzy here, old-school rapping there, and buoyantly trilling elsewhere—Lovers Rock focused largely on upbeat, Pharrell Williams–inspired pop R&B. Collaborating with four producers—Reggie Volume, Wess, AB, and P. Kay, whom she calls “great muses”—Renee adroitly uses melisma and repetition to make her sunny vocal hooks rise over perky and funky rhythms.
On “Reminder,” she beautifully stretches out the end of syllables before adding some quick-tempoed rapped verses. With “Hello Mama,” the repetition of the word “ride” morphs into a catchy, high-flying hook. Renee gets the most mileage out of nearly every word she sings and raps; a rare fête that proves patience is quite the virtue. —Steve Kiviat
Soccer Team Real Lessons In Cynicism Dischord Records
It’s right there in the album’s title, but Soccer Team, vocalist/guitarist Ryan Nelson insists, is not a cynical band. “It comes more from a place of humor or general interest in the kinds of stories, situations, or characters addressed in the songs,” he says. “We’re really not jaded or embittered people.” And that’s how best to interpret the songs on Soccer Team’s excellent sophomore album; cheeky observations and qualms rather than cynical musings from a jaded bunch.
The story of Real Lessons in Cynicism goes something like this: Not long after Soccer Team’s 2006 debut, “Volunteered” Civility and Professionalism, Nelson moved to Michigan for school, but the band didn’t end. In the five years he was away, he and bassist/vocalist Melissa Quinley continued to share and swap ideas for the band. When Nelson moved back to the D.C. area in 2012, he and Melissa quickly started working on the songs that make up Real Lessons. Enlisting the help of drummer Dennis Kane and multi-instrumentalist Jason Hutto, Soccer Team started putting together the songs on Real Lessons, which exudes a kind of airy, nonchalant coolness.
On songs like “Best Employed New Beau” and “Too Many Lens Flares,” Nelson and Quinley riff on cultural qualms like the exhausting vapidness of journalistic integrity and the sorry state of the cinema (while not-so-subtly taking digs at J.J. Abrams’ signature filming technique) over a cascade of shimmering guitar parts and driving bass riffs. The songs might come off as Soccer Team’s “Old Man Yells At Cloud” album, but it’s a ruse: They come from a place of detached amusement at certain situations rather than strong messages. “At no point do I feel like giving up on humanity,” Nelson says. “Then again, if Trump becomes president, well… I reserve the right to eat my words.” —Matt Cohen
Trio OOO Days To Be Told New Atlantis Records
Trio OOO bassist Luke Stewart is among those who prefers the broad moniker “creative music” for what he and his compatriots do—and with Days To Be Told, it isn’t hard to see why. Stewart, drummer Sam Lohman, and alto saxophonist Aaron Martin aren’t merely creating their own melodic-harmonic-rhythmic combinations, they’re creating the parameters, the contexts, and the basis for those combinations—and making them accessible without condescension. —Michael J. West
Wale The Album About Nothing Maybach Music Group/Atlantic Records
Waiting for Wale’s The Album About Nothing felt very much like waiting for a six-year vision to be realized. While his previous efforts—The Mixtape About Nothing and More About Nothing— stand out as some of his best work, The Album About Nothing cements and builds upon the foundation already laid, revealing Wale as a man tormented by depression, insecurities, failed relationships, and a reality that falls short of his own aspirations. With Jerry Seinfeld narrating the journey—a criminally understated achievement for any rapper—Wale returns to his most beloved form, more honest than he’s ever been. —Briana Younger