It's been quite a year for music. While there were plenty of standout albums nationally, it was even more difficult to pick out favorite local releases for 2015. Sifting through the year's best live performances was no easy task, either. Here are some of the live performances and albums that made the last year great:
Hop Along, May 22 at Flycatcher
Touring in support of the excellent Painted Shut (Saddle Creek), Hop Along brought an unbridled energy to the small crowd. Live performances that elevate and invigorate a band's songs are certainly nothing rare, but it was stunning to see just how much Hop Along could transcend the album. Passionate and fiery, frontwoman Frances Quinlan is equally adept at belting out loud, raw rock songs and quiet, vulnerable folk tunes. She seems ready to burst at the seams, her emotive and powerful voice conveying the human struggle at the core of her vignette-driven songs. Hop Along's next Arizona shows are Feb. 16 at the Marquee in Tempe and Feb. 17 at the Orpheum in Flagstaff, both in support of Dr. Dog. Catch 'em if you can.
Megafauna, Sept. 14 at Flycatcher
There's nothing quite like looking out into the crowd to see almost everyone in attendance getting their brain exploded by unrelenting shredding. For me this year, Megafauna might have only attracted a modest crowd (it seemed like 40 or so to me, but I'm notoriously terrible at gauging crowd size), but everyone there was completely engaged, though the band performed in town just one year prior. Jaws hit the floor as guitarist/singer Dani Neff displayed her breakneck technical prowess on guitar, juggling near constant prog-influenced tempo change-ups with her haunting and hypnotizing vocals. She's the kind of guitarist that dudes in the audience felt compelled to say something unintentionally patronizing to—a backhanded compliment likely ending in "for a girl." To them I say, shut the hell up, Neff plays better than you ever will. All of that aside, Megafauna was mostly in good company with L.A.'s Moon Honey and Tucson's Gamma Like Very Ultra (check out their 2015 release—it's rad) and Macho B.
Katie Haverly, Aviary album release, Dec. 12 at Flycatcher
Album release shows are best when they're events, when the performers have a few surprises hidden up their sleeves, when they can push the night from normal to extraordinary. With an array of special guest musicians, Haverly planned more of an exclamation mark than an introduction of her new album. Haverly's expressive singing, the multi-instrumental work of Ben Nisbet and the infectious enthusiasm that guided all performers made for a special show. Among the new songs, the piano ballad "A Ghost Like Me" was especially stunning. Closing with an unexpected Pearl Jam cover, Haverly and her band put together an exceptional night of music.
Lando Chill, Nov. 7 at Night of the Living Fest III
In the flurry of great local and national music, cheap drinks and carnival games that was this year's Night of the Living Fest, things start to get blurry for me—a fever dream of two-story amputated arms trying to high five over the heads of a couple hundred people. Cakes da Killa got the main stage crowd moving and they certainly didn't stop during Diane Coffee's set, which I can describe most succinctly as "white James Brown." Wandering between concerts to the local stage, a vision of live-band-backed hip hop appeared in front of me. I couldn't help but stay glued. I turned to my friend, who was in from out of town, and said, "This guy is from here"—half proud, half in disbelief. I guess what I'm saying is keep your eyes out for Lando Chill in 2016, Tucson. This dude's going to be a big deal.
Father John Misty, I Love You Honeybear (Sub Pop)
Josh Tillman's second record under his theatrical, neo-lounge alter ego sets a new bar for the usage of twisted, warped honesty in love songs. From the opening title track, when Tillman sings "I brought my mother's depression / You've got your father's scorn and a wayward aunt's schizophrenia," it's clear his perspective is more about demystifying and understanding love and marriage than searching for any ideal. Sonically, the album is pure Hollywood, accents of strings and horns deployed to wring as much drama as possible. Like the timeless music of Harry Nilsson, this record expertly mines the highs and lows of life for a unique set of beautifully damaged songs.
Son Little, Son Little (Anti-Records)
There's nothing quite like a breakout artist just smashing their debut release, and no such artist accomplished that as much as Son Little did this year. He's worked with The Roots, and legends like Mavis Staples have given him high praise, even enlisting him to produce an EP for her. There are moments on his new album where you can't help but think of blues rock revival acts like The Black Keys and others where the electro vocal distortion feels, oddly enough, kind of like Immogen Heap, only to strip it all away for sweet, dreamy tunes like "Lay Down." It's definitely soul and it's definitely R&B, but it melds enough modern reference to not directly allude to any artist that came before him—and his voice is every bit as good as Staples says it his. Little's self-titled album is the kind of record that makes you desperately want to see it performed live, and I'm sure he wouldn't disappoint.
Carlos Arzate & The Kind Souls, Got Me Wrong
I listened to this full-length debut record more than any other local release in 2015. Arzate's own description of "Sonoran Soul" fits the music perfectly, a borderlands blend of folk, rock, soul, gospel and blues, all woven around big, powerful vocals. Got Me Wrong features 11 songs, from blues stomps to ballads, from quiet folk to heart-swelling gospel, from a quick and quiet waltz to an eight-minute epic that builds and crashes like a monsoon storm. The versatile record spans emotions from the simmering anger of "The Ballad of Louis Taylor" to the tender compassion Arzate brings to "Coyotes of Sasabe," written by the late Cyril Barrett.
The Butterscotch Cathedral,
The Butterscotch Cathedral (Trouble in Mind Records)
If you're looking for those driving the Tucson music scene, a good person to start with is Matt Rendon. He's got a few bands in town (Freezing Hands, Harsh Mistress, The Resonars), and he records several more at his Midtown Island Studios.. It's on The Butterscotch Cathedral that Rendon's opulent Brit-psych vision and years of studying become a reality. It's lush and trippy, sunny and sunburnt, with a couple killer guitar solos to keep your blood pumping. Two of the songs are indulgent 18-minute soundscapes, and there are only three in total. Typically I don't dig musicians left too much to their own devices—they can get a little, well, masturbatory, but Rendon keeps his vision locked, showing that he really is a master of the genre.