The Fourth Annual Jim Plachy Beer Awards

Here we are the fourth annual Jim Plachy Beer Awards. I did a small amount of traveling this year to try some beers and even started doing some beer trading for West Coast beers. In the past the beers leaned heavily towards what I can get in Chicago. So it’s nice to see some winners from across the country. This year I drank an endless parade of world class beers. I can’t believe some of the beers I had this year that didn’t win an award. I think I said “this is the best beer I’ve had this year” numerous times.

As in previous years a beer can only win one award. This keeps the beer of the year winners a secret until the end of the list. I don’t get to drink every single thing that comes out so consider “best” to mean my favorites. And I’ve once again tweaked the categories. I got rid of Best Spring Beer because that was always a meaningless award anyway. There’s not many Spring beers. I added a best Pale Ale award which I feel was long overdue. I had enough Barleywines this year to give an award to one. There’s a bunch of other new awards in there. I can’t wait for you to see them. Enough with this intro lets get to the awards!

Best Beer Thing That Isn’t A Beer: Untappd

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Once again my favorite beer thing that isn’t beer is Untappd. This website and app lets you check in to the beers you are drinking. The data you can mine from this is invaluable to me. The JPBAs exist only because I can go back and relive the beers I’ve drank on Untappd. The service took a beating this year as more and more people decided it wasn’t cool to check in to beers but fuck that I love it. The ratings may be meaningless and inaccurate but I love having a beer diary I can scroll through.

Best Place To Drink Beer: Links Taproom

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For the second year in a row my favorite place to have a beer is Links Taproom in Chicago. The decor is fantastic, food is great, and of course the beer lineup is super strong. Even if you just stop in on a Tuesday night there are at least 2 or 3 beers you’re going to want to drink. On the weekend or during special events forget it. The first day of Chicago Craft Beer week this year I could have chosen any of the beers on tap and been satisfied. Links definitely has some competition as of late but in 2015 they were still the best.

Best Summer Beer: 21st Amendment Hell or High Watermelon Wheat Ale

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After years of waiting 21st Amendment finally started distributing to Chicago and they brought with them one of my most wanted beers Hell or High Watermelon. This beer lived up to the hype for me. A tasty wheat beer mixed with natural watermelon flavor. It’s everything I wanted it to be. I think most people expected this to be sticky sweet and taste like a jolly rancher but instead its a lightly flavored beer meant to be drank outside from the can. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Best Fall/Harvest/Wet Hop/Fresh Hop Beer: Lagunitas Born Yesterday Pale Ale

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For the second year in a row Lagunitas takes this category with Born Yesterday. This beer is a punch in the face of juicy hops. Many harvest ales use fresh hops but let the malts take the lead on flavor. This beer just makes sense to me. If you’re going to use the freshest hops the beer should taste like them.

Best Winter/Holiday Beer: Prairie Artisan Ales Christmas Bomb Stout 

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Prairie’s Bomb stout is an incredible imperial stout flavored with just about every adjunct you can think of. Somehow it comes out perfectly balanced. You can taste every flavor with nothing overpowering anything else. Even the peppers are subdued. Christmas Bomb adds a touch of mint and it really ties everything together. I like it better than regular Bomb. Easily the best holiday beer I had this year.

Best Double/Imperial IPA: 5 Rabbit Lulo Galactico Telefantastico 

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5 Rabbit really stepped up their game in 2015 and this beer is a shining example. It tastes like 8% ABV orange juice which I’m very ok with. There are a lot of beers coming out lately that have a juicy quality that we can’t get here in Chicago. 5 Rabbit managed to make a beer in that style with their own unique spin.

Best IPA: Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin

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Grapefruit Sculpin is a world class IPA. Not only that but thanks to Ballast Point’s aggressive expansion I can buy it anytime I want. From malt to grapefruit every component of this beer is spectacular. A lot of IPAs have a grapefruit quality but this beer ups that to a whole other level. Just a solid beer through and through.

Best Stout (non-barrel aged): Alesmith Speedway Stout Vietnamese Coffee

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We now go from a beer that you can get anywhere to a beer that’s very hard to get your hands on. I was fortunate enough to have it twice this year, once at Dark Lord Day and once out in the wild. I’m not sure how the Vietnamese coffee does its job but this beer is like drinking a chocolate covered marshmallow. I had a lot of stouts this year but not many came close to how incredible this beer tasted.

Best Barleywine: Pipeworks Cherry Murderous: The Lookout

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What we have here is a very traditional tasting barleywine. I got lots of caramel and dark fruits. It was a beast to drink at 9.5% ABV and thick with chewy malts. But what kept me taking sips over the course of an hour and a half was the hit of cherry. The cherries calmed things down just enough to make it almost refreshing. A barleywine has to do a lot to impress me and this was hands down the best in 2015.

Best Brown Ale: Prairie Artisan Ales Okie

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This is a fantastic beer but it is aged in oak whiskey barrels which gives it an unfair advantage. Okie is an imperial brown ale which does not reveal its 12% ABV at all. You get slight oaky characteristics from the barrel but it’s mostly just a great brown ale.

Best Pilsner: Goose Island Blue Line

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I’m not a huge fan of Pilsners but I can appreciate the style. I had this beer on a hot Summer day while eating my weight in sausages. Blue Line Pilsner was the perfect compliment. It was only available in Chicago over the Summer but it is apparently being resurrected as the nationally available Four Star Pils. I recommend you check it out when it pops up.

Best Red Ale: 21st Amendment Toaster Pastry

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This beer was meant to taste like a pop-tart. It does not. However it is a fantastic India style red ale. I popped this open at a Labor Day weekend gathering and it was the perfect beer for a last day of Summer party. The red ale backbone and high ABV was a precursor to the impending cooler days while the fruity hop flavors reminded me of the Summer that was about to pass.

Best Wit: Greenbush Looner Eclipse

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Lets be honest most Wits taste the same. I drank this at the end of a beer trip around Michigan and not only was it one of the more memorable beers it was an above average Wit. The addition of cumin is inspired. I kept going back for that hint of smokiness. I’m not sure if they’ll ever get around to bottling this but if they do I would definitely bring it to my next barbecue.

Best Porter: Moody Tongue Caramelized Chocolate Churro

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Words cannot do this beer justice. The first time I had it was at a “dark beer tap takeover”. We were waiting for them to tap an older variant of Bourbon County Stout and I ordered this to start with. It was so incredibly good I went back the next day because this was still on. So was the regular Bourbon County and I went back for this. It tastes like the most chocolatey porter you’ve ever had with a subtle hint of cinnamon. Incredible.

Best Saison/Farmhouse Ale: Goose Island Sophia Tequila Saison

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There is no image for this one off brew from Goose Island. Poured at this year’s Goose Island Sunday Funday event Sophia is Sofie aged in tequila barrels with brett brux added. It was the last thing they poured and it was insanely refreshing. The fact that it never made it outside of this event is one of the biggest disappointments of 2015. This would have been a great compliment to Blue Line Pilsner.

Best Sour: Almanac Farmer’s Reserve Blueberry

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Over the Summer I hosted a barbecue that became a giant bottle share. Someone brought a couple of these Farmer’s Reserve sours and I was blown away. The fruit flavor shines brightly through the fantastically sour base beer. Less than two months later Almanac showed up on shelves here in Chicago. I bought a few and enjoyed every one. I had the blueberry variety at FoBAB and it was head and shoulders above all the other sours I had that night. And in the end it was my favorite sour of the year.

Best Wild Ale: New Glarus R&D Wild Bitter Double IPA 

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When this beer was announced a lot of people turned up their noses at the idea. New Glarus was going to make a wild double IPA? People were so skeptical that when I went to New Glarus almost a month after the release they still had bottles. I picked up my limit of 2 and went home wondering when I was going to pop one of these open. The answer came on a late night when I had some friends come over unplanned and wanted to open something special. Needless to say I wish I had bought more than 2 bottles. Its like a funky version of New Glarus’ Scream. Which honestly is probably exactly what it is. Funky IPAs are sort of becoming a thing and I bet we see more next year.

Best Session Ale: Ballast Point Even Keel

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At the previously mentioned barbecue I drank a lot of world class beers. But one of the biggest surprises of the day was Even Keel. I had become pretty bored with session ales in 2015 but decided we needed something we could drink in the morning. So at under 4% ABV Even Keel seemed like a good choice. Was I ever right. This beer bursts with tropical fruit aromas and goes down as easy as you would ever want a session ale to go down. Even the malts are interesting giving some lightly toasted notes to the beer. There simply is not a better session ale around.

Best Belgian Style Beer: Ale Asylum Bedlam! Belgian IPA

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Once again Bedlam crushes the Belgian IPA game and quite frankly all other Belgian style beers I had in 2015. Huge citra hop aromas on the nose and that deliciously funky Belgian yeast on the finish. Just an incredibly well made beer through and through. If there is one caveat to this beer it is that it must be drank fresh. Look for a best buy date AT LEAST 2 months out.

Best Barrel Aged Beer: Goose Island Bourbon County Vanilla Rye

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Yeah I know. I’m sorry but I had this beer a few times this year and it was incredible. It tasted like barrel aged pancake batter. I don’t know what happened in these bottles in the last six months but it was nothing short of magic. Those of us who had this fresh couldn’t believe what this beer had become. Fresh it was all vanilla up in your palate. With some age it became a marshmallowy, chocolate syrup bomb but in the best way imaginable. If you see this drink it!

Best Fruit Beer: New Glarus Wisconsin Belgian Red

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Will New Glarus ever not win this award? Not until someone makes something better than this. Fruit beers are typically a base beer with some fruit added. New Glarus knows how to make the fruit be the star of the beer. Belgian Red is semi-sweet with an oaky finish that gives it a slight wine like quality. Nothing else even comes close.

Best Pale Ale: Hill Farmstead Citra

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This was the first beer that was handed to me after I walked through the gates of this year’s Dark Lord Day. I had been wanting to try any Hill Farmstead beer but mostly Citra. And here I was holding a cup of it. The first thing I noticed was just how cloudy it was. Then the smell, like a double Zombie Dust. I couldn’t believe that there was still some tricks for the old dog that is the Citra hop. I drank some fantastic Pale Ales this year and it was a close fight but this is the one I wish I had a constant supply of.

Best Gose: Modern Times Fruitlands

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Modern Times’ Fruitlands sour cherry Gose is the Gose I’ve been waiting for. The additional tartness from the cherries cut a bit from the saltiness. Definitely the most refreshing Gose I had this year.

Best Cider: Angry Orchard The Muse

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Angry Orchard is set to debut a line of ciders made from actual cider apples next year but in the meantime they sell these 750ml bottles of cider made from bittersweet apples. This one is aged briefly on French Oak and did a great job to further dry out the finished product. This would be a great cider to pour during dessert as it would pair well with sweet things. Hopefully this is just a harbinger for more great cider from Angry Orchard in 2016.

Best New Cider: Woodchuck Gumption

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Woodchuck decided that it was time to start stepping up their game a bit so this year they introduced Gumption. A cider that’s made with half American eating apples and half bittersweet cider apples. It makes for a great semi-sweet easy to drink cider and probably the best thing they are making right now. Their line extensions have been full of artificial tasting flavors. This is just a great new core cider in their lineup. I recommend it over Amber.

Best New Beer: Pipeworks The Lizard King Pale Ale

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The first time I had this beer was in its beta form last year. I thought it was a great pale ale and couldn’t wait for it to hit cans. All year I heard rumblings that the subsequent batches were getting better and better. Then I was told it was basically Mosaic hopped Zombie Dust. I ordered it at a bar shortly after its general release and as the waitress walked towards me with it I could already smell it. Sure enough the malt body and drinkability are comparable to Zombie Dust but with that great tropical fruit salad Mosaic hop flavor. I go through 4 packs of this beer like crazy. As a bonus my daughter loves the artwork.

Best New Brewery: Marz Community Brewing

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Ok, so I had to fudge this one a little bit because they technically opened in the middle of 2014. Marz Community Brewing allows people to bring recipes into the brewery and the best ones get produced and released. There really hasn’t been a dud in the bunch that I’ve had. They release wacky things like Nasal Cavity a stout brewed with vanilla and wasabi but also more traditional beers like Citra Citra Citra a double IPA brewed with you guessed it, Citra hops. The artwork for each beer is unique but with an aesthetic that reminds you this is a Marz beer. I think this brewery is doing some very forward thinking things and I can’t wait to see what they have up their sleeves for next year.

Best Brewery: Ballast Point

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Ballast Point really upped their game this year. A couple of years ago when they entered the Chicago market it was hard to find their beers. But after a production increase in 2015 their beer was everywhere. I saw it in more places more frequently all year long. The fact that I could walk into a store and buy Grapefruit Sculpin whenever I wanted felt like a magic trick to me. And to end the year Ballast Point sold to Constellation for ONE BILLION DOLLARS. Hopefully this pushes the brewery into new heights and they can continue to make some of the best beers in the world.

Best Beer of the Year (2nd Runner-Up): Marz Community Brewing Jungle Boogie/Double Jungle Boogie Pale Wheat Ale

doublejungleboogie

I’m not sure what is going on with this beer. It has rooibos tea in it but can that really be what gives this beer its juicy taste and aroma? It tastes like a mango iced tea which when I was younger I used to drink like crazy. It has a dry tea like aftertaste but seriously tastes like a sweetened mango iced tea. The double version is just a good with a bit more punch from the additional ingredients. I’ll take either one as they are tied in my mind. I wouldn’t mind if this came in cans and I could have an endless supply in my fridge when the weather gets warmer.

Best Beer of the Year (1st Runner-Up): Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout

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This is a beer that people told me for years I would never get to drink. It was made once and then supposedly it was never going to be made again. This time last year the rumors started. There were whispers that a new batch had been made and was being bottled. That ended up being true but the bottles were given to employees as a holiday gift. All seemed lost again until people in Michigan started reporting that it was on tap in certain places. There was once again hope. Would it make it to Chicago? Sure enough it did. At one of the most hectic beer releases I ever went to I got to enjoy CBS. This beer lived up to years of hype. The taste is that of a malted milk ball. I was expecting straight up maple syrup overload and I got something very well balanced. A delicious beer that I hope we don’t have to wait years for to try again.

Best Beer of the Year: Goose Island Rare Bourbon County Stout/Goose Island Bourbon County Stout/Goose Island Bourbon County Coffee Stout

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Yes. Its a 3-way tie for best beer of the year in 2015. Lets start with the whale. Bourbon County Rare is back after a five year hiatus. While Bourbon County regular is about the interplay between the base stout and the bourbon flavors Rare is all about the barrel. Huge oaky flavors combine with the bourbon that was left deep in the wood to create flavors of chocolate and butterscotch. Every time I’ve had this beer it has been an event and no one ever wants to take that last sip. Bourbon County Rare is the double IPA of bourbon barrel aged stouts. Incredible.

Bourbon County Coffee hasn’t been this good in forever. After spending a few years playing with brighter fruitier coffees Goose Island has gone back to roastier flavors that work better with the roasted malts in the beer. I definitely would not sit on this beer because the aromas are worth the price of admission. There is no better coffee stout this year. Its like a barrel aged iced coffee. Incredible.

Finally there is this year’s regular Bourbon County Stout. It is the Return of the King of this trilogy. This year’s release takes me back to everything that made me fall in love with Bourbon County in the first place. Its a swirling cacophony of flavors that makes each sip taste different. One sip has a cinnamon taste, then chocolate, then coffee, then back to chocolate. This beer is an adventure that was worth waiting in line for, trading for, or however else you had to acquire it. You can try and be cynical and say there are better beers or that it isn’t as good as it used to be but you would be wrong, very wrong.

Top 10 Albums of 2015

This year seventeen albums fought to make my top 10. I think that’s the most I’ve ever considered. Between all the great albums that came out and all the concerts I went to go see music was a central focus of my life in 2015. The fight for slots ten and nine in my list was brutal with me making a last second change just before I sat down to write this. I probably could have held off until New Year’s Eve and still had trouble getting this list exactly right. However, I’ve been confident in the top 8 for weeks now so its time to call it. This list feels good.

Don’t forget there are Spotify links to each album after each entry and at the end of the whole thing a playlist I made of 10 songs from this year’s list. And of course I would love to know what your favorite albums were from this year.

10. Citizen – Everybody is Going to Heaven (Run for Cover Records)

citizen

I didn’t know anything about Citizen until the hype train for this album started to leave the station. I was under the impression they were either a pop-punk band or a hardcore band. It turns out they are fans of both genres trying their best to not sound like either of those genres. Their influences bleed in from time to time but honestly there weren’t too many records like this one in 2015. The album is downright jarring. There are tracks that build and build into a catchy heavy ending just for the next song to start abruptly and its a straight up ballad. Everybody is Going to Heaven is uniquely Citizen.

Spotify Link: Everybody is Going to Heaven

9. Title Fight – Hyperview (Anti-)

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Last year Epitaph released the fantastic album Keep You by Pianos Become the Teeth. The band changed almost their entire sound for that album. This year Epitaph does it again through subsidiary Anti-. Title Fight’s last album Floral Green had the band doing more of what they were good at, playing fast throaty punk rock. Except for a couple of curveball songs that found the band playing with atmospherics and actual singing. Little did we know that those songs were the precursor to Hyperview. This album is a brisk walk through an alternate universe version of Title Fight where someone played Floral Green 100x’s slower than recorded. Regardless of whatever baggage you attach to this band Hyperview is still a fantastic album. Separate it from what came before and you’re still left with one of the best indie rock records of 2015.

Spotify Link: Hyperview

8. Annabel – Having it All (Tiny Engines)

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Having it All sounds like it came out of an early 2000’s time capsule. Like the last band to make a true Emo record before Emo got associated with bands like My Chemical Romance. And it had to be protected until people could appreciate music like this. If you ever drove with the windows down while blasting Nothing Feels Good this album is for you.

Spotify Link: Having it All

7. Wilco – Star Wars (dBpm/Anti-) 

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No one was expecting Wilco to release one of their best albums this year. Mostly because no one even knew Wilco was making a new album. Star Wars was released the day of their headlining Pitchfork Festival set with no warning. This record finds the band wonderfully constrained. The band uses every trick in their bag on every song but they never waver or sound messy. All the songs are brisk and stay on track. By the time its over you want more and songs are stuck in your head. Wilco hasn’t been this fun in a long time.

Spotify Link: Star Wars

6. Defeater – Abandoned (Epitaph)

defeater

At this point I’m not sure Defeater will ever make another album as wildly ambitious as Endless Days, Sleepless Nights but on their latest album you get the impression that they are building towards something. Anyone who follows the band already knows their music is conceptual. Telling the same story over and over again from the perspective of different characters. But this time they throw back to lyrics and audio cues from past albums in a really obvious way. It makes being a long time listener exciting. On top of that this is definitely a big improvement on 2013’s Letters Home. Easily the best straight up hardcore record of the year.

Spotify Link: Abandoned

5. Self Defense Family – Heaven is Earth (Deathwish)

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Self Defense Family is one of the best indie-rock bands in the world. Why they don’t get the respect they deserve I have no idea. Everyone should be raving about Heaven is Earth. In eight songs Self Defense Family accomplishes something that most bands spend eight albums trying to perfect. The band puts out nearly a half dozen releases every year but they really brought their A-game to their second album. If you’re a fan of slightly left of center indie-rock this deserves at least one listen.

Spotify Link: Heaven is Earth

4. Take One Car- Everyone You Know is Here Right Now (Broken World Media)

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Take One Car make long songs. Almost all the songs on this album are over five minutes. But I can tell you from repeated listens that they never get boring. Take One Car are masters of tension. Every time the music gets softer its because you needed a break from the intensity. When it gets loud again its because the lyrics and vocals demand extra noise. The ebbs and flows are placed perfectly through each song. Like a roller coaster you’ll listen to this album again just for the thrills.

Spotify Link: Everyone You Know is Here Right Now

3. Drug Church – Hit Your Head (No Sleep Records)

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Drug Church sounds like a band at odds with its singer. The band sounds like a throwback to great heavy 90’s alternative rock. Their singer is singing the most ironic sarcastic lyrics I’ve ever heard. There’s something about listening to a band play honest music while their singer rolls his eyes that just works with these guys. This album will make you feel better about yourself as you listen to depiction after depiction of some of society’s worst people. The album ends with one last breathtaking curveball that I won’t spoil here.

Spotify Link: Hit Your Head

2. Deafheaven – New Bermuda (Anti-)

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We waited two years to find out what Deafheaven would do after their crossover success with Sunbather. New Bermuda strips away much of what made them likable to non-metal fans leaving just tiny breaks in their relentless assault. New Bermuda is heavier, scarier, and much less accessible than their previous album. Yet its also more focused and the songs feel more like songs and not pieces stitched together. The slower moments are more epic and create an atmosphere that makes me feel uneasy. By the end you’re left wondering what isn’t Deafheaven capable of.

Spotify Link: New Bermuda

1. The World is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid to Die – Harmlessness (Epitaph)

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In 2013 The World is a Beautiful Place were the poster children for the Emo Revival. Their debut album Whenever, if Ever is a landmark for bands trying to recapture the emotional indie-rock sound that marked third wave Emo. Instead of building on that Harmlessness completely rewrites the book not just for what Emo can be but what indie-rock is. The World is a Beautiful Place should be a much bigger band talked about in the same conversations as Arcade Fire, Ra Ra Riot, and Wavves. Instead they are stuck with their Emo tag playing to kids in tiny rooms. But maybe that’s the kind of band TWIABP needs to be.

Harmlessness takes us on a journey to teach us that not everything is going to be ok but there’s nothing worse than wallowing in it. While the music is busy changing genres the lyrics are on a whole different level. Harmlessness sounds like an audio guidebook on how to deal with your mental health. This album is downright inspiring and I could see it being a direct link to people getting help for their depression or anxiety. For me there really isn’t a better album this year. Musically this record is ambitious and more spontaneous than the meticulously planned Whenever, if Ever. The lyrics here are some of my favorite ever written. Every time I listen to it I can hardly believe over fifty minutes have passed. It never feels like a moment is wasted or any song is skippable. Harmlessness is an album not a collection of songs. Give it a listen and see if it does as much for you as it has for me.

Spotify Link: Harmlessness

Honorable Mentions, EPs, 7″s, etc.

MewithoutYou – Pale Horses
Refused – Freedom
Desaparecidos – Payola
Run Forever – Run Forever
Death Cab for Cutie – Kintsugi
Tyler, the Creator – Cherry Bomb
Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside
A$AP Rocky – At.Long.Last.A$AP
The World is a Beautiful Place…. – Death to New Years
Drug Church – Swell
Touche Amore/Self Defense Family – Self Love
Birds in Row – Personal War
Loss Leader – Flex Your Hair
Warm Thoughts – Intangible
Adventures – Supersonic Home

Finally here is the Top 10 of 2015 playlist. Enjoy!