Why 10? Looking back on the voluminous number of Vermont recordings released in 2015, in an effort to divine which were "the best," that's the nagging question: Why 10? Sure, 10 is a round number. But it's otherwise arbitrary. It's also frustratingly limiting, especially when you consider the, ahem, record output in the local scene over the last several years. But it's not merely an issue of quantity that makes settling on a top 10 problematic. The quality of local music, across the board, is at an all-time high, too. To wit...
You could make any number of legitimate 2015 top-10 lists choosing solely from the local rock scene. Indie darlings Villanelles made a triumphant return with a surprise EP, whetting our appetite for next year's full-length. Argonaut&wasp set a sunny new protocol for electro-rock on their debut. Phil Yates & the Affiliates' aim was true on their sophomore record.
The Pilgrims shredded with punky nostalgia. Heavy Plains harked back to the heyday of grunge. Blahvocado explored classic indie jangle. Sleeping In nodded off with narcoleptic shoegaze. Teenage sensations the Snaz ran away with our hearts. Mystery Points said hello and then goodbye.
The Tsunamibots unleashed a double dose of human-crushing robotic surf. Gang of Thieves got horny. Tar Iguana got jammy. Vultures of Cult got gloomy. Doom Service got doomy. Apartment 3 got drunk. And Vedora signed off with a gorgeously bittersweet farewell.
Turning back the clock, proto-punk heroes Death offered something new on their first album of original material in 40 years. Eef kept the dream of the '90s alive with their first record in two decades. Drowningman's Javin Leonard released a post-rock master thesis but, in a sign of the times, did so via YouTube.
You could similarly make a convincing best-of list composed solely of local folk, country and Americana. Old Sky delivered a cloudy EP of rootsy twang. Eastern Mountain Time showcased alt-country angst. The Leatherbound Books debut was tender and hopeful. Hungrytown ventured west. Tod Pronto left Nashville for the country. The Woedoggies offered an unapologetic treatise on offbeat honky-tonk. Banjo Dan and the Mid-Nite Plowboys dug into the vault for a comprehensive career retrospective.
From the trad scene, Pete's Posse served up a multigenerational gem. Dale and Darcy went waltzing. And Jeremiah McLane unveiled a dreamy work.
As always, singer-songwriters were well represented in 2015. Eric George distilled whiskey-soaked blues cut with classic country. Shannon Hawley turned poetic and whimsical. Abbie Morin found solace in the shadows. Rick Weinstein took us to the woodshed. Kristina Stykos went off the grid for her masterstroke. Pariah Beat's Billy Sharff carried us home. Ryan Fauber and Django Koenig said goodbye.
After a few lean years, 2015 was a boon to jazz fans. Vocalist Audrey Bernstein seduced on a winning full-length. Hot Box Honey came out swinging with worldly flair. Gypsy-jazz vet Will Patton contemplated time and found that it's still very much on his side. The Sneakers Jazz Band reissued a timeless local classic. Guagua guitarist Raphael Groten journeyed home along Will Ackerman's imaginary road.
Experimental music enjoyed a similar renaissance in 2015, thanks to new local imprint Como Tapes and mysterious releases from Amelia Devoid and Harvey Bigman. Across the lake, Our Holy Orgasmic Cosmic Rays completed the next phase of ... whatever it is they're planning. Brattleboro's Azfarat made noise, and lots of it. Max Pearl continued to confound. And scene stalwarts Lawrence Welks & Our Bear to Cross sent us one final postcard from the edge.
Puzzlingly, after a benchmark 2014, 2015 was a quiet year for releases in Vermont hip-hop. Producers such as Es-K and Loupo kept the beats flowing, though. And with the Lynguistic Civilians' new record slated to drop in January following production delays, look for hip-hop to rebound in 2016.
Though the local electronic dance music scene boasts a wealth of talented DJs and producers, proper album releases are rare. That didn't stop house duo Harder They Come from getting freaky on their debut EP.
Old friends are faring well in new places. From Brooklyn, Alpenglow closed the Vermont chapter of their story. In San Francisco, Guthrie Galileo continued his stargazing. King of Nowhere ruled in Northampton. Hana Zara explored the North from the Midwest. Caitlin Canty got reckless in Nashville. Rapper Colby Stiltz came down to Earth in Florida. Aleck Woogmaster mellowed out in Portland, Ore.
Vermont's big names had big years. And the Kids split time between Burlington and Northampton, causing the cities to turn to each other to see who gets custody. Anaïs Mitchell treated fans to a loving retrospective. Trey Anastasio reinvented the wheels. With front man Ryan Miller in Vermont, Guster discovered the secret to perpetual motion. And the clock struck midnight on the Nocturnals as Grace Potter went solo.
If you made a best-of-2015 list with any combination of 10 albums from the preceding paragraphs, you'd get no argument from this critic. You'd also probably agonize over the records you're leaving out, much as I have in making my own. Still, having too many good options to choose from is a wonderful problem to have. So it is that I present the 10 albums that stood out to my ears over the past 12 months. Call them the "best," if you want. But I prefer to think of them simply as brilliant examples of another exceptional year in Vermont music.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Imperfect 10"