Local Current Blog

My Top 89: The music and moments that defined my 2015

Photo by Jay Gabler/MPR

Time has a funny way of providing us with perspectives we didn’t even know we needed, like a telephoto lens slowly zooming outward until the entire picture comes into view. Water droplets may look like tears when their big fat beads are streaking across our entire view, but if we take a step back we can see that they’re only raindrops, and that the storm that’s dousing the window pane is just as fleeting as the sunny day that came before it, and all the crappy and beautiful and blasé days that came before that.

All of which is to say that I had one hell of a year, with more ups and downs than I’d care to retrace at the moment, but the specifics of this particular see-saw ride aren’t really important now. After some year-end reflection, what I’ve come to realize is that every low point and every apex was somehow set to music, and that the best and worst moments I’ll remember the most are inseparable from the songs that soundtracked them. Writing didn’t always come easy this year but music still did, and for that I am so, so grateful.

I generally dislike making year-end lists, but when I started looking back at all of my favorite moments of the year, I couldn’t stop at just 10. Or 20. Or 50. So in the spirit of the Current’s Top 89, I counted up nearly 90 musical things that made my 2015 so beautiful, cathartic, and just plain real.

1. Watching in awe as Lizzo sang “Beautiful Ones” as part of a tribute to Purple Rain at the Fitz. Not only did she memorize Beyonce’s incredible interpretation of the tune note-for-note, but Lizzo’s performance took on an added sense of drama and danger as her dress slowly came unzipped in the back and started to slip down her chest. She ended the song rolling around on the ground, confetti strewn all around her and her big voice booming, and I leapt to my feet with tears in my eyes to give her a standing ovation.

2. Taking my first solo trip in ages to Palm Springs to catch Babes in Toyland, who played their first gig in over a decade up in the mountains of the California desert at an awesome little bar called Pappy and Harriet’s.

3. Jon Bream, who entertained me with stories over dinner at Pappy and Harriet’s that night and sat down later in the year to talk about his long career in music journalism before parting ways with his massive 25,000-piece record collection. I’ll never forget the giddy look on his face when he unlocked the door to that record vault to show me what was inside. The contents of his collection remained a secret until the very end — even his closest colleagues at the Strib hadn’t set foot in that vault — and it felt like magic, getting to go in there.

4. Listening to a couple of my favorite albums, Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think… and Alabama Shakes’ Sound and Color, while driving through the winding hills and Seussian treescapes of Joshua Tree National Park at sunset. Perfect.

5. Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” That song took on such a personal and profound meaning for me this year that I don’t know when I’ll be able to muster the strength to listen to it again, but that’s ok.

6. Sims, for speaking so candidly during an interview that it inspired me to launch a whole new series of mental health and wellness-focused interviews and call it The O.K. Show.

7. Communing with Charlie Van Stee about depression and creativity for the first-ever episode of my new podcast, and smiling as he and my dad bonded over a shared love of guitars, dogs, and music nerdery.

8. Talking to Adam Levy about suicide and hanging onto hope.

9. Watching Manchita throw tampons soaked in fake blood at a stunned and shrieking First Avenue crowd during GRRRL PRTY’s victorious headlining set. It was one of the purest and and most rock ’n’ roll acts of feminism I’d ever witnessed, and it came in the midst of a year full of conversations and musings about the F-word.

10. Speaking of Manchita, sitting down with the rapper known offstage as Claire Monesterio for The O.K. Show and listening with my heart in my throat as she carefully and quietly unpacked her most personal and painful memories, including the truth about her relationship with Micheal Larsen, a.k.a. Eyedea. Claire is so smart, strong, brave, and funny, and she has been through so much, and I was secretly hoping some of her poise and power would rub off on me while I was sitting next to her on my couch. A true badass.

11. Being approached by Corey Bracken to host a two-day festival of new bands at the Cedar Cultural Center, and realizing that Corey booked the bands based on a blog post I had written earlier in the year. I always shy away at the idea that my opinion should carry too much weight over anyone else’s, but it ended up being such a sweet idea and a damn-cool pair of events.

12. Clicking on Perfume Monster’s SoundCloud page and listening to their debut EP over, and over, and over again.

13. Standing in the dark at the Cedar Cultural Center, feeling my heart somehow sink and inflate at the same time while Jose Gonzalez devastated us with a cover of Kylie Minogue’s “Hand on Your Heart.” Just a few songs later, he lifted us back up with the line “Let the light lead you out,” which became my mantra for the latter part of winter. It was a beautiful reminder of music’s ability to cut to the quick and, ultimately, to help lead us out of the darkness.

14. D’Angelo and Questlove and three hours of hypnotic, sexy, time-bending funk and R&B music at First Avenue.

15. Swimsuit Area, whose heart-shaped sunglasses and pounding baselines and punk rock JOY blasted me out of a funk I’d been in for months.

16. Meeting Irv Williams who, at 96, still has more joy and passion for music than most musicians I’ve interviewed, and who has been a part of the Twin Cities music community for longer than most of us have been alive.

17. Watching Alabama Shakes play a victory lap concert at Paisley Park after holding it down in front of thousands at Hall’s Island, and seeing Brittany Howard hold her own and smile ear to ear when Prince strode out to rip a single, perfect guitar solo during the breakdown of “Gimme All Your Love.”

18. Speaking of Prince, so much P time in 2015! My other favorite purple moment has to be watching Madonna watch Prince — that image of her perched on the stage at her feet with her mouth open in awe has been forever emblazoned in my memory.

19. Attending the wildly successful Eaux Claires Festival, which ended up being as much a celebration of the region and the interwoven web of Eau Claires and Minneapolis artists as it was an eclectic showcase of touring artists.

20. Oh, and that Bon Iver headlining set at Eaux Claires — wow! That’s what I kept saying over and over again while I watched: Wow. Wow, the Staves and their hair-raising harmonies. Wow, the booming reimaginations of those sparse For Emma, Forever Ago tracks. Wow, that an artist could rub up against the mainstream and stay so focused, so reverent, so true to his own vision. I loved that Justin Vernon refused to take center stage, led the set from behind a stack of keyboards, wore an Eaux Claires Fest baseball cap. The whole thing was so blissfully Wisconsin.

21. And then there was JT Bates, one of my favorite random experiences at the festival and one of the most gifted, sensitive, and emotive drummers in Minneapolis. I took a load off on a hay bale and watched JT fill an arty little geodome structure with cryptic, ambient beats from his laptop and artful splashes and improvisations on his kit. If ever there was a musician’s musician, JT would be it, and the outpouring of support for his debut solo album, Open Relationships, is evidence of that.

22. Drake’s dance moves (and the resulting onslaught of GIFs and memes) in the Hotline Bling video.

23. Allan Kingdom! Allan Kingdom. In what world would any of us imagined that we’d see a clip from the BRIT Awards that panned from Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian to a shot of St. Paul’s own sashaying and sliding across the stage, singing the hook of Kanye’s “All Day” with flamethrowers all around.

24. Stevie Wonder’s incredible, uplifting, and truly epic Target Center show.

25. Watching Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis shimmy down a flight of stairs at the Janet Jackson show and help Mayor Hodges declare it Janet Jackson Day in Minneapolis. (“Minneapolis!”)

26. Bouncing up and down at Grumpy’s NE to Ike Reilly singing “Born on Fire” and “Commie Drives a Nova” to a sweaty, packed bar.

27. Meeting Joan Jett and Kenny Laguna on a snowy night in Mankato.

28. Getting to know Mary Beth Mueller and trying to soak up some of her fearlessness.

29. Interviewing two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney and making it through my allotted 15 minutes without barfing or crying.

30. Strange Relations, and singing drummers everywhere.

31. Dan Israel’s honesty.

32. The uncontested swagger of Lexii Alijai.

33. The power of a spreadsheet, and the many ways the internet and social media were utilized to create safe spaces for women, LGBTQ performers, artists of color, and activists this year. There’s a whole lot of momentum brewing just beneath the surface, and these much-needed resources are creating some shifts in the inclusivity and accessibility of the scene.

34. Hearing the joy of a live Dem Atlas performance come across in a recorded track.

35. Bad Bad Hats winning everything.

36. Also! Bad Bad Hats covering Sheryl Crow.

37. Also! Bad Bad Hats’ song “Midway” and Kerry’s voice and that wobbly space between pop prowess and emotional vulnerability. “I cried like a baby, I tore you apart.”

38. Playing piano, alone in the house with all the doors locked and the shades drawn. Having a creative outlet that can be mine and only mine, as selfish as that sounds. Nothing else recharges my batteries quite like that.

39. Mary Lucia. Mary Lucia! So much love for Looch.

40. Watching The Way, Way Back and getting all verklempt when Trampled by Turtles’ “Alone” started up during the film’s climax.

41. Raising a fist and a beer to Billy Idol as he cried for more, more, more.

42. Watching Hippo Campus’s crazy rise, from playing the Current’s birthday party in January (thanks for the heart-melting shout-out, Jake), to receiving a torrent of accolades at SXSW, to playing Conan (!), to touring with My Morning Jacket and Walk the Moon and playing Red Rocks and selling out the Mainroom.

43. The line, “Back straight, chest out, just like a soldier,” and how it captures that turning point from adolescence to adulthood when we question everything our authority figures taught us and try to make a go of it on our own.

44. Horns! So many horns. Watching bands like Hustle Rose, Sonny Knight and the Lakers, PaviElle, PHO, New Sound Underground, Nooky Jones, Danami and the Blue, #MPLS, and so many others take the city by storm, reclaiming the stages that used to be dominated by funk and soul trailblazers in the Twin Cities back in the 1970s.

45. Sneaking as many of those horns as I could into the studio after hours to record a series of sessions with my friend and cohort Evan Clark, who came up to me one day this year and said, “Would you like to collaborate on a show about jazz?”

46. The Adam Meckler Orchestra, led by an insanely ambitious and visionary young trumpeter and composer. My jaw literally dropped watching this 18-piece group perform and weave together every genre you can imagine.

47. This Emmy Award-winning documentary about PaviElle and her journey:

48. Gushing over Chris Thomson, who put out an under-appreciated little EP this year and came into the studio with accordion player Patrick Harison and their band to record a sweet session.

49. Gramma’s Boyfriend and reveling in Haley Bonar’s joy and freedom.

50. Feeling Myself.

51. Marion Hill and that insanely catchy saxophone beat.

52. Prince’s side-eye at the Grammy’s and its many applications to modern life.

53. Getting to host an hour of Rock ’n’ Roll Radio dedicated to screaming females, and playing 7-plus minutes of Yoko Ono shrieking.

54. Ryan Adams’ take on the Taylor Swift album and all the ensuing thinkpieces.

55. That final Zoo Animal show at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall in December, and watching through welled-up eyes as Holly played “Muddy Water” for the first time in years and probably the last time ever.

56. Watching Claire de Lune come into her own with tiny deaths and put out more great music, and sitting down to talk to her about all the things.

57. Talking to Alicia Bognanno of Bully about the Zoo School and screaming and writing from the gut in the breakroom of my old workplace, the Electric Fetus.

58. Standing stock still and feeling my chest ache as Courtney Barnett sang “Depreston,” a song about house hunting and death and the cruel and unflinching cycle of life, while I reflected on a year filled with much of the same.

59. That Low show at First Avenue! Realizing that live music helps my anxiety settle down, and that Low’s music resonates with something inside me that I can’t quite put words to, but is so important.

60. Mimi Parker singing, “I know when something’s wrong, and something’s wrong.”

61. That otherworldly crackle that dominates Low’s Ones and Sixes and the masterful touch of BJ Burton, who should get some kind of MVP award for his work on that record and Lizzo’s Big GRRRL Small World.

62. The mystique and grace of Dizzy Fae, an intriguing young artist from St. Paul.

63. Late-night drives around the lakes listening to music.

64. Having friends over for the sole purpose of playing records, and not even getting around to the playing records part for a couple of hours because we’re too busy talking about music and life.

65. Living at my parents’ house for a few weeks this summer and reconnecting with them over music; sitting in the backyard taking turns DJing over my dad’s little bluetooth speaker; and bringing that speaker into the basement on his birthday to blare the Beatles’ “Happy Birthday” and dance around with him and my mom and laugh like little kids.

66. Realizing that everything in life comes back around.

67. Finding my old pair of Doc Martens in my teenage bedroom and lacing them up for the Babes in Toyland show at Rock the Garden.

68. Seeing Star Wars three times (and counting) and crying every single time that Leia’s Theme plays.

69. Babysitting my best friend’s kid and spending hours helping him play his little toy guitar, banging on tables, banging on drums, banging sticks together, banging.

70. Inheriting an incredible vinyl collection and flipping through it in awe like William Miller in Almost Famous.

71. Interviewing Tom Hazelmyer with Ryan Cameron at It Records and learning more about those early days of AmRep.

72. Mayda’s han.

73. Jeremy Ylvisaker’s 15 minutes of guitar bliss at the Eyedea tribute.

74. Jayanthi Kyle. Everything about her. Her larger-than-life personality, her protest anthem, and her band Gospel Machine, which is finally getting the attention she deserves.

75. BRUISE VIOLET.

76. Lizzo’s Colbert performance. No words.

77. Artists who create albums in the studio that are so complex and gorgeous that they can never be re-created live, and that’s ok. Matt Latterell. Bones and Beeker. Recording geniuses.

78. Jessica Hopper’s tweet.

79. Talking to Sean Lennon over the phone while he was in Paris, and standing next to him side stage at Rock the Garden and watching him watch Seun Kuti and Babes in Toyland in awe.

80. Watching my friend Kyle — wearing the best cat-draped-in-an-American-flag shirt ever — get pulled up on stage to dance with Belle and Sebastian at Rock the Garden.

81. Stuart Murdoch’s waifish dance moves and giddiness.

82. The return of Birthday Suits and the triumph of Matthew Kazama’s insanely popular new ramen shop.

83. Interviewing Molly Dean. “I can record myself, I can set up my own rig; I’m very confident with talking to people about what I want. I’m a smart girl. I’m not going to misrepresent myself just because you need to be comfortable.”

84. Watching Lifter Puller! Never thought I’d see the day.

85. Talking to Curtiss A, Sharon Samuels, Hugo Klaers, and Kurt Nelson about the short-lived but highly influential Longhorn Bar.

86. Getting a sound bath at the Integratron.

87. Talking to Venus de Mars about the challenges she’s overcome and the strength it took to pave a road in the Twin Cities for trans musicians.

88. Conrad.

89. Being able to write therapeutic, soul-bearing sh*t like this as part of my job and somehow get away with it.

  • Doghouse Reilly

    Where did you find that Bud Powell LP?

    • Andrea Swensson

      It’s Bud Powell playing Monk, and I got it at Mill City Sound in Hopkins. Great record.

      • Doghouse Reilly

        That makes a lot more aense. Thanks.