Here are Independent Ethos’ picks for the 10 best albums we heard in 2015. They are presented in no particular order because it is the only thing we would argue about with these records. Where available, all titles link to the item description page on Amazon. If you purchase via the link provided, you will be financially supporting this blog.

Deerhunter – Fading Frontier

Deerhunter fading

The guys in Deerhunter are not content to stagnate in their sound. Following the creepily noisy Monomania (Vinyl Matters: Deerhunter’s Monomania), the Athens, Georgia, based quartet, produced Fading Frontier, a diverse record featuring smooth, crystalline guitar lines that were missing from the last album. Bradford Cox’s voice sounds clearer without losing any of its sneer. The instrumentation includes a sparkling harpsichord (“Duplex Planet”) and things like castanets and droning synthesizers that add waves of atmospherics. There’s even some funky guitar work for “Snakeskin.” Deerhunter have never sounded more fun and cozy. (Hans Morgenstern)

Son Lux – Bones

Sun Lux - Bones

Son Lux is Ryan Lott, a classically trained musician that has mostly created alternative music that fuses genres. From classical music to digitized pop sounds, Bones is an exploration that pushes boundaries in different directions. In this full-length album, Lott is accompanied by guitarist Rafiq Bhatia and drummer Ian Chang, who help create an even bigger sound for Son Lux. But it is not only the sound that packs a punch, Lott wrote the lyrics for the album, which can dwell in dark moods. In “I Am the Others,” he asks “Am I the only one?/Where are the others?” Finally answering, “I am the only one.” The stand out of the album is “Change is Everything,” which has a sound that slowly builds up to a kind of controlled chaos. (Ana Morgenstern)

Chastity Belt – Time to Go Home


For those who miss the ’90s alternative rock of bands like Bettie Serveert or Th’ Faith Healers, Seattle’s Chastity Belt comfortably fill that void. Mixed for maximum reverb effect by Matthew Simms, the guitarist for legendary British post-punk band Wire, Time to Go Home, gets the slacker sound of ’90s down pat. It wouldn’t be what it is, however, without the swagger of lead singer/guitarist Julia Shapiro. The band’s second album is also just stuffed with great song craft. Take the syncopated layering of “Joke,” that piles on the instrumental tracks and is driven by Annie Truscott’s simple, high-toned bass line. The all-female quartet also display a keen feminist sense of humor we love. (HM)

Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

Sufjan Stevens Carrie and Lowell

During my first listen of Sufjan Stevens’ new album Carrie & Lowell, I was immediately transported to an intimate world inhabited by loss, grief, loneliness and unresolved childhood trauma. However, in the midst of what I would call one of the saddest albums this year, there is also lots of love, understanding and even redemption that give the album a positive spin. Carrie & Lowell is autobiographical and narrates Stevens’ early years, his relationship with his bipolar mother, Carrie, and his stepfather, Lowell. The sound is stripped down and folky and melodic with Stevens’ hushed voice — almost a whisper — a contrast to the enormity of the personal narrative woven throughout the album. Here’s another album that deserves repeated listening, as the songs compose a larger picture together. (AM)

Beach House – Depression Cherry


With Depression Cherry, the Baltimore duo of singer/keyboardist Victoria Legrand and guitarist Alex Scally take both a step forward in their song-craft while glancing behind. Gone are the live drums that made their former albums sound more organic. Instead, the duo brings back the electronic precision of the drum machine, a key element of their early sound. Despite something being lost in the lack of vital drums, Scally is in prime form offering entrancing guitar loops while Legrand shows she’s not afraid to go outside of her comfort zone of dreamy, hushed vocals with a bit of speak singing and layered, noisy voices. Read more in my full length review: Beach House grows into its own with Depression Cherry – a music review. (HM)

Viet Cong – Viet Cong

Viet Cong

Viet Cong returned with a more sharply developed sound that leaves behind the psychedelic fuzz of their introductory 2014 EP Cassette and embraces the Canadian quartet’s icy post-punk DNA. Bassist/vocalist Matt Flegel’s voice is more upfront and delivered with a confidence missing from the early effort. The music is more diverse, recalling precursors like Gang of Four and Wire but also featuring stellar moments of experimenting with drone craft, like the epic “March of Progress,” which opens on propulsive drum pulses against a shifting hum of organ that sounds like Boyd Rice but switches to a quirky, layered bright finale that recalls the noisy, more deadpan parts of Brian Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). (HM)

Wilco – Star Wars


I don’t think I ever liked a Wilco album as much as Star Wars. The Chicago alt-rock group sprung their ninth album on fans as a free download back in July. They must have known they had a good record to give it away for free. It’s their least indulgent record ever at a brisk 34-minute running time. The songs all have their own catchiness with mostly fuzzed out guitar work, but “Satellite” stands among probably the greatest songs of the year. Building on a repetitive chiming guitar line and gradually swelling propulsive drums and rhythm guitars to an ecstatic freakout of noise that threatens to come undone while still hanging on to the song’s essential grove to the very end. Downright entrancing work. (HM)

Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit


Hailing from Melbourne, Australia, Courtney Barnett has the ability to find the fun in banality, with lyrics that focus on the mundane. Her songs are easy to relate to and delivered in a speak/sing fashion that sometimes veers into melodic. Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit is Barnett’s debut full-length album in which her loose style is coupled with a grungy sound reminiscent of the ’90s indie scene. It is Barnett’s exceptional ability to deliver these effortless capsules of everyday life with remarkable wit and sense of humor that make listening to Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit a rewarding experience. (AM)

Cory McAbee – Small Star Seminar

Mcabee Small Star

The quirkiest yet still one of the most catchy records came from Cory McAbee, the frontman of the Billy Nayer Show, a group known for using high concepts as springboards to their albums. McAbee even directed a few stellar indie movies as part of the albums (The American Astronaut, a sci-fi musical western stands as one of his best works). He is at work on another film with the help of fans, and his solo debut Small Star Seminar is the jumping off point for it. It’s a strange concept album in that it speaks to self-perception and self-worth while filled with fear and insecurity delivered with both incredible sincerity and wry irony. The music recalls the deadpan quality of Laurie Anderson and the intricacy of The Talking Heads. You can stream the entire album on Bandcamp, but it’s not available on vinyl. (HM)

Keegan DeWitt – Queen of Earth (Original Score)


Keegan DeWitt did not only add a mysterious, unsettling element to Queen of Earth, the latest film by Alex Ross Perry (An interview with Queen of Earth director Alex Ross Perry), but he has also created an album that can stand alone (so it’s a shame it’s not available on any format besides streaming). The haunting instrumental score is equally dark and beautiful. Songs unravel slowly and put you on alert or a different state of mind directed inward. De Witt said he used a wrenchenspiel because “it sounded broken.” Indeed, the album is a mood piece that perfectly transmits the mental unraveling of the woman at the heart of the film. Wind instruments and high-pitched chimes create jarring sounds woven through tense, suspenseful moments interrupted by melodic bells that settle the mood back down. An aural journey that is disquieting but gorgeous. (AM)

Year’s best vinyl reissue:

Red House Painters 4AD catalog


Consistently fetching hefty prices on the secondary market, the vinyl versions of the first four Red House Painters album, released by 4AD Records in the early to mid-90s, were finally reissued by the UK-based label on vinyl this year. The dynamic, moody music, sometimes boxed into the slo-core sub-genre of alternative rock, begs for the attentive and deliberate plays. There’s no better format than vinyl for such music, especially considering some songs peter up from hushed whispers and distant mumblings, building to epic musical meanderings (I’m thinking “Evil”). Also cool, 4AD finally released for the first video for the band’s first single, from 1992, the brilliant downer about growing old, “24.”

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Finally, this weekend, we will share our best in film.

All images courtesy of the bands. Except Red House Painters reissue. That was edited from an image from

(Copyright 2016 by Ana and Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

beachhouse-depressioncherry-900If you want to hear a band that refuses to compromise its sound and instead chooses to evolve on its own terms, transcending their influences, you should check out Beach House. The duo of singer/keyboardist Victoria Legrand and guitarist Alex Scally have endured comparisons ranging from Nico-era Velvet Underground to Dream Pop. Sometimes they have been even more egregiously lumped in with the chill wave movement. But really, they’ve turned an affection for vintage organs, exercises in looping guitar lines and echo effects to encapsulate their personal experiences with a deep-seated connection to their instruments and the crafting of melodies. When I spoke to Legrand a few years ago (Beach House’s Victoria Legrand talks recording upcoming new album: ‘Bloom’), she revealed just how intimately she feels about Beach House’s music, bristling and the chill wave comparisons and explaining an almost spiritual connection to the creation of music when I asked her who the song title “Irene” refers to. She told me:

It’s not a specific person. It’s the name that describes the entity of that song, which is, in itself, a person. The song for me is a spirit, so it’s no different when I say, yeah, it is somebody. It’s this character, this song. It’s this kind of mystery of:  What is in that? What is in that room? Why am I compelled toward this? And that’s for me, one of those songs where it feels like sort of a question and answer within itself. It’s like, why am I drawn towards this, but I can’t help it?

With Depression Cherry, the Baltimore duo take both a step forward in their song-craft while glancing behind. Gone are the live drums that made their latest albums sound more organic. Instead, the duo brings back the electronic precision of the drum machine, a key element to their early sound. The strength of their last album, 2012’s Bloom, could be found in the raw moments where the members gelled and ran with a song. The tension between the musicians playing together and the song leading them on a journey felt palpable in these blissful moments of chemistry. These instances are few on Depression Cherry, due to a lack of a live drummer. However, the control of the songwriting and a sense of experimentation with the Beach House formula makes this album one of the duo’s most intriguing records in its history, standing up heartily to repeat listens.

It opens with a slow burn. “Levitation” is at first just skittering drum machine and twinkling keyboards. As the keyboards swell, Legrand sings in a higher pitch than usual, beachhouse-2015-promo-01-shawnbrackbill-1500x2248-300enjoying the end of her breath, as she says, “You and me…” The song slowly builds with spare notes of added keyboards, hushed harmonizing vocals and even an additional programmed rhythm. After some potent, yet unobtrusive synthesized stings, Scally breaks out a rumbling, soaring guitar line where Legrand sings, “There’s a place I want to take you…” and her voice layers up, tangling in a helix of vocals, as a shimmering drone emerges and overtakes all the instruments, which swell in layers of harmony before they fade off and meld into space as a sparkling drone swells and overtakes the song. It’s as if the band has slipped away into the darkness. It’s a charming opener that highlights how the duo can play with so many of layers of sound for a simple yet immersive mood.

The layers of unintelligible voices and harsh guitar work, topped off with massive organ chords that open “Sparks,” feels like a harsh follow-up to the majestic opener. “Sparks” was released on July 1, as the first single to hype the release of Depression Cherry. It certainly hinted at the experimental spirit of the new album, albeit a bit heavy handedly. It’s a dense track that feels a little over-whelming for its own good. The best bit arrives when Scally shifts to screeching laser like loops from his guitar at the song’s center. Beach House has an instinctual sense of dynamics that even keep their weaker tracks interesting and compelling.

On the other end, the highlight of the album has to be “PPP.” It was released as the album’s second teaser single last week via Spotify. Scally kicks the song off with a sort of bright, circular guitar line that will remind some of “Lazuli” (ironically, the second single off the previous album). Legrand plays around with some speak-singing at the start before going into her usual dreamy voice. “Did you see it coming? It happened so fast.” But this is really Scally’s track. He has an amazing moment at the center of the song, repeating a line he kicks off as he climbs down his fret board, repeating it in a kind of loop, but each time exploring its subtle possibilities with an extra note here or a different emphasis on the notes there. Each time the loop grows more thrilling and entrancing. It’s a brilliant moment as grand and as the epic finale of “Irene,” from Bloom. I dare say “PPP” makes the album, casting a pall across the tracks that follow it. Still, close listens grant payoffs.

“Days of Candy” closes the record, and it seems like a deceptive snooze at the start, sounding like some unformed, skimpy Cocteau Twins song. Legrand sings in an uncharacteristically higher octave as the song churns along on a slower beat, propelled by a monotone piano and some cheesy zaps of a synthesizer. But a turn in the song redeems it, reaching a surprisingly charming climax propelled by the sudden appearance Scally’s churning guitar as Legrand sings, “I know Beach House Band Photoit comes too soon, the universe is riding off with you … I want to know you there, the universe is riding off with you.” It’s a beautiful line that captures the fleeting moments that define one person to another by also proving definitive to a life joined in intimacy that is a universe unto itself. It’s the perfect closer to an album that lives up to its title, sounding a bit sad … in its own sweet way while celebrating the remarkable chemistry of Beach House. With Depression Cherry, Beach House shows an incredible maturity in its songwriting, dropping the more gimmicky elements of their early years, like the vintage-inspired sound, and shows a blossoming, a coming into its own where there’s an assured exploration of a sound that stands on its own merits.

Our vinyl is in the mail, so I cannot comment on its sound quality (the album sees official release this Friday, Aug. 28). I will offer this one tidbit:  The album was recorded last November at Studio in the Country in Louisiana. The press materials have not said what equipment was used, but the studio does have the capability of recording to analog tape. When I spoke to Legrand about recording Bloom, she noted the band had recorded to two-inch tape, and that was important to them. I can only imagine it still is, so we have some high hopes for re-experiencing this album as a vinyl record. It’s also worth noting, the album cover has a distinct fuzzy quality (see close-up in the gallery below), adding another tactile layer to the experience of listening to a record. Also, of the posting of this review, the limited “loser edition” clear vinyl was still available at the Sub Pop shop. Click here to order direct from them. If you want to support this blog with a little commission, click here to order it from Amazon, where it is currently on sale for the super crazy price of $8.99 (yes, cheaper than the mp3s and CD!).

Hans Morgenstern

We got a streaming link to the entire album back on Aug. 11 after pre-ordering the vinyl from Sub Pop. All images above provided by Sub Pop.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)