Top 50 Favorite Music Releases of 2015
Sort of dropped the ball this year. I usually do write-ups for at least the top twenty, but I only had time for the top ten. I blame the gym.
This was one of the most quality-rich years of music in recent memory. It was not only a monumental year for hip-hop and a wide range of electronic subgenres, but indie rock felt like it was more prevalent than recently as well. Much of this is thanks to shoegaze/dream pop becoming popular again, as well as post-rock and noise rock.
As I said, I’m short on time, so I’ll keep it concise and continue on to the list:
- Lower Dens – Escape From Evil
- Hot Chip – Why Make Sense?
- Beach House – Thank Your Lucky Stars
- Echo Lake – Era
- Hop Along – Painted Shut
- JLin – Dark Energy
- Earthly – Days
- Wildhoney – Sleep Through It
- Radical Dads – Universal Coolers
- Eskimeaux – O.K.
- Eartheater – RIP Chrysalis
- Milo – So the Flies Don’t Come
- Car Seat Headrest – Teens Of Style
- Susanne Sundfør – Ten Love Songs
- White Poppy – Natural Phenomena
- Mac Demarco – Another One
- Dr. Yen Lo – Days With Dr. Yen Lo
- Shima33 – Museum
- Valet – Nature
- Shopping – Consumer Complaints
- Pyramid Vritra – DĀNU
- Mount Eerie – Sauna
- Colleen – Captain Of None
- Jamie xx – In Color
- Baio – The Names
- Clarence Clarity – No Now
- Ought – Sun Coming Down
- Holly Herndon – Platform
- Arca – Mutant
- Destroyer – Poison Season
- Nite Fields – Depersonalisation
- Elysia Crampton – American Drift
- Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
- Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love
- Empress Of – Me
- 2814 – 新しい日の誕生 (“The Birth of a New Day”)
- Molly Nilsson – Zenith
- Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
- Viet Cong – Viet Cong
- Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
- Lil Ugly Mane – Third Side of Tape
By redefining this as a list of favorite music, this can include EPs as well as mixtapes. Third Side of Tape is a mix of Lil Ugly Mane’s back catalog, fused together with some kind of psychedelic anvil. Beyond a testament to genre-bending, there is something magical about bringing to life a collection of songs that never quite made it, and turning them into something maddeningly beautiful. Third Side of Tape are all those b-sides coming together to form an army to say, “fuck you, we are awesome music, and you will listen to us.” And you’ll wonder why they were left in the basement. And you also won’t. And you will.
- Social Studies – Wake
San Francisco-based Social Studies seem to be having a tough time finding an audience outside of their community. It’s hard to find much of a peep about them written anywhere. That’s surprising because of what they offer: concise yet epic rock songs inspired slightly by the likes of Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, and Built to Spill and a vocalist that could easily pass as a Victoria Legrand (Beach House) sound-alike. While their take on suburban angst is nothing new, it’s not a lesser entry into fold by any means.
No song feels like a filler track on this album. Opening track “Territories” tumbles in like a rolling stone with mountains on the horizon. “Drifty” is a safer rock song but doesn’t let down on the passion. “On the Docks” invokes The Black Keys’ booming, blues-rock that just doesn’t seem to let up. Miles Away’s shifting vocal harmonies help carry it across desperate emotional reach. The rest of the album is consistently fulfilling, with ample twists and turns in its songwriting to hold my attention. On the downside, the production could have been better – which is sad, because these great songs deserve fully realized life.
Perhaps it’s also market saturation that holds Wake back from commercial/critical success. Especially in a scene as busy and vibrant as San Francisco, it must be difficult to stand out without some sort of ‘catch.’ As a rock quintet, Social Studies haven’t trekked any new territory. Had this album come out in 1995, it could have been hailed as monumental. Had this album come out in 2095, it’d be hailed as retro perfection. Unfortunately, it found its release in 2015, which is perhaps the best year of music in recent memory. Competition is fierce. But for some reason, Wake spoke to me above many other releases. Perhaps I’m a sucker for this particular recipe of indie rock. It is familiar with its roots from the ‘90s to the ‘00s but doesn’t settle to imitate. The band’s songs deserve to be heard, even if they seem aesthetically trite for the times.
- Deafheaven – New Bermuda
Without a doubt, I’m Deafheaven’s target audience: a guy who grew up with metal but slowly distanced himself away from it due to losing my adolescent angst and finding other more relatable genres. Coincidentally, those genres include (among many others) post-rock and shoegaze, two of Deafheaven’s influences. Getting into Deafheaven’s Sunbather was really like coming full circle musically.
While their primary persona is black metal (my metal subgenre-of-choice as a youth) the band is known for dabbling outside of the genre’s norms. This has been a polarizing effect. Metal purists feel that the band isn’t true to the genre. But most people who aren’t intimately familiar with metal will listen to this and discard it as just being “metal.” I’m reminded of a quote from DoseOne of the short-lived experimental hip-hop act cLOUDDEAD who requested people “just call it hip-hop” instead of some other musical neologism like avant-hop.
The calming end of “Come Back” could go toe-to-toe with some of post-rock’s melodic greats like Do Make Say Think. Some complaints about the album I think are fair. Some of the inner track transitions are weak, such as the opening ambient sequence which feels rushed and awkward. But at the end of the day, Deafheaven stand out because they are one of the few bands attempting these risks. The territory they are exploring is going to have bumps along the road. So I don’t fault them as much as others for these weaknesses.
Each of the five songs on this album feels like its own journey. “Brought to the Water” and “Luna” come equipped with some grimey, heavy hitting riffs that loom with monstrous appeal. The sleepy opening of “Baby Blue” reminds me a lot of French band Amesoeurs who ventured into similar blackgaze genre blending territory. But most of the album is spent in the dreamy, booming haze that the band has become known for. Yes, there is screaming, melodramatic angst. There may not be enough moments of thundering, hard-hitting guitar riffs to satisfy the most power-hungry metal fans. But it’s enough to satisfy someone who enjoys a range of genres and occasionally dabbles in dissonance. A worthy follow-up to Sunbather, New Bermuda doesn’t stray far from the band’s relatively newfound formula, but it does slowly perfect it.
- death’s dynamic shroud.wmv – I’ll Try Living Like This
While still a joke to most of the Internet, vaporwave has serious fans – and serious artists. The strangely yet aptly named death’s dynamic shroud.wmv is one of the outliers in the genre that rises above the typical affair. And by typical affair, I mean some sloppily arranged, repetitive samples of weird new age dance songs and ‘90s mall/lounge music. Not that there’s anything wrong with such a concoction — I’ve listened to my fair share the past couple years. It’s just that most of the artists pursuing that sound tend to blur together. It doesn’t help that they all have the similar names, which is some combination of Japanese characters and words that sound like they were pulled from the titles of SkyMall catalogs.
By and large, I’ll Try Living Like This doesn’t stray far from the now standard vaporwave formula. Where it succeeds over other albums is: A) quality of production with elegant, clear layering, B) more coherent, varied tempos and song arrangements, and C) a perfectionist commitment to sticking within the aesthetic despite venturing into a wide range of moods – from nostalgic to bizarre to terrifying to blissful.
- Vince Staples – Summertime ‘06
The amount of quality rap this year has been nearly incalculable. Nonetheless, toward the top of the heap has to be Summertime ‘06. Despite its title, this isn’t the party rap album you’ve been waiting for. There are many comparisons I could make, but I think Vince Staples deserves the respect not to simply be compared to others and simply be examined on his own merits.
The album is a critical success and common favorite of headstong fans of hip-hop. No shortage of content, this is one of the most epic debut albums I have ever heard from any artist: a relentless double-LP that maintains pure consistency throughout its nearly one hour run time. Simultaneously dodging current fads yet not sounding outdated, Summertime ‘06 is an album engineered with hardy musical guts that will stand the test of time. And while the apparent maturity of the album’s production quality may have been largely tempered by long experienced producer No I.D., it’s clear that Vince is at the helm. Clams Casino also occasionally lends his hand with some excellent production that doesn’t feel out of place: minimal, grimey, and chilling.
Lyrically, Vince Staples explores fear from both angles of its grasp. Streets-of-consciousness reflections on the struggles of his youth that, when examined, makes the album’s confidence make sense. Some people are forced to grow up fast. In some environments, there is no choice. Regardless of the cards we’re dealt, we were all still children at some point. We all fight to be accepted in the world we want to live in. But what if that world doesn’t want us, or that world is full of depravity? Is it worth fighting for just the same? Is it really a choice? We rarely contemplate such questions in the moment, especially in our youth. As adults, we have the chance to reflect upon them. Summertime ‘06 is one of the most in-depth, emotional, self-conflicted examinations of such a past.
- Yo La Tengo – Stuff Like That There
Every year, there’s that one album that I just don’t understand the lack of acclaim surrounding it. I think this year regarding Yo La Tengo’s Stuff Like That There, I understand why there is a lack of acclaim, but I love it just the same.
A spiritual successor to their 1990 album Fakebook, Yo La Tengo’s Stuff Like That There is a combination of covers of other artists, covers of their previous work, and a few originals. It celebrates the band’s 30th anniversary. The result is a collection of sleepy, warm, rhythmic, tunes. I suppose this means I can’t rant for 3 paragraphs about its interesting mix of timbres and intensely layered production. These are simple songs and simple instrumentation. So, no. An album like this doesn’t give the critics much to gawk and rave about. What is powerful is how much Yo La Tengo manages to get out of this simplicity, and in a sense, that has always been their secret.
Their cover of Darlene McCrea’s “My Heart’s Not In It” sways softly. While it lacks the punch of the original, it maintains a hint of its soulful pull. “All Your Secrets” covers their song of the same title, stripping down the original’s wistful embrace to something even more careful and more delicate — all secrets sleep in winter clothes, after all. “Friday I’m In Love” transforms The Cure’s original song into a playful tune that–in the face of adversity–shrugs equal parts triumphant and indifferent. “Automatic Doom” covers The Special Pillows, which is a band from Yo La Tengo’s hometown of Hoboken, NJ. Listening to the original, it’s easy to see why YLT choose to cover this song — it’s wonderfully melodic and pensive and hopeful, much like YLT’s catalog as a whole.
It’s easy to understate the amount of restraint there is on a song like “Deeper Into Movies,” which originally was a fuzzy, dissonant indie rock jam from 1997. While Yo La Tengo hasn’t had the critical success that they had since the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, it’s inaccurate to say they haven’t matured as songwriters. They have fallen into a beautiful rhythm that makes them who they are, but they have also explored the space they occupy deeper than any other artist in the genre. Few other artists can carefully build on such slow, steady, repetitive movements and transform them into something monumental. Masters of their craft, Yo La Tengo still have it. Pun dreadfully intended.
- Neon Indian – VEGA INTL. Night School
Although Alan Palomo of Neon Indian rejects the genre name “chillwave” as simply a convenient tag for music critics, it’s irrefutable that the likes of his project as well as Washed Out have–over much of the course of the first half of this decade–inspired countless other producers to create electronic music within a similar style: a dreamy haze either inspired by or sampling 70s/80s slow, synth-laden jams.
Just when I thought I’d get bored of such a thing, Neon Indian comes out with VEGA INTL. Night School. Stylistically, it does not stray far from his body of work, although it highly incorporates attributes of his side project VEGA (hence the album’s name, which conjoins his two projects together). While still in the realm of dreamy, the album distances itself from some of the more dissonant psychedelic passages in his catalog. Capitalizing on more catchy previous tunes like “Polish Girl” which garnered him the majority of his (slightly) more mainstream acclaim, VEGA continues down a path of incorporating more melody, more vocals, and more structured songs.
What makes VEGA rise over similar work in this space (including Neon Indian’s own previous albums) is that it doesn’t use nostalgia as a crutch. Yes, these songs channel a dream synth-funk vibe which invoke bygone eras, but more importantly, they are well-written, well-produced, and well-performed. Aside from a slightly bad trips (no pun intended) like the intro and the instrumental “Bozo,” the album is consistently catchy and meticulously layered. The album’s high listenability makes it possible to serve as studying/working music and its slightly nerdy sex appeal makes for the best kind of careless bedroom dance music.
- Grimes – Art Angels
While Visions was not Grimes’s debut album, it was what put her on the map for most of her current fanbase. In this sense, a follow-up made it akin to a sophomoric struggle. There was not necessarily a lot of forced hype or marketing, but there was much community anticipation. After having mixed feelings regarding the singles that preceded the album (specifically “Go” and “Realiti”), I wasn’t sure what to expect for this album. So, I held back expectations until I heard the full release.
Gone are the IDM-inspired hypnotics of “Oblivion” and “Genesis.” Instead, Art Angels is an anthemic, experimental pop punk parade. Fourteen songs each with their own unique aesthetic and flair, yet tied together with a consistent attitude. Coming to grips with her newfound indie stardom and a status as an Internet icon, the album is full of transitory reflection. The album never takes itself too seriously, showing a certain self-awareness for its youthful rebelliousness. Yet, this transition is important and necessary. More than a step along a path, it is its own milestone equal in worth to whatever came before or comes after it.
The album’s only weak point is perhaps in its first beginning. “California” fails to reach any kind of fruition, and while “SCREAM” is an interesting cut on its own, it doesn’t seem to fit well within the rest of the narrative. The album more fully kicks off with “Flesh without Blood,” the album’s first daring single, pushing Grimes further into pop than ever before. The light, backing guitars on this song could be safe within anything from ‘90s alternative rock, pop, and punk. “Kill V. Maim” takes this even further with boisterous, riotous cheer. The album’s obvious climax, it succeeds in every way possible. She invests so much energy into her persona and character to create something worthy of both smiling and dancing.
While guitar is a frequently recurring instrument on this album, it never seems to cause distance from her electronica roots. The production delicately compresses and normalizes layers together to create a clean, brightly-packaged sound. Any other artist given this palette would likely create a boring, prepackaged heep of repetition. Yet Grimes somehow transforms it into something uniquely her. In the face of obvious influences, trite conflicts, and safe timbres, the album manages to challenge and push boundaries. Perhaps, then, it is a matter of confidence. She doesn’t care if she sounds silly or vain or emotional. She embraces them with heart all the same. And given a set of earthtone paints, she somehow creates a vibrant, loud neon rainbow.
It all comes full circle back to “Realiti,” which was not originally intended to appear on the album. Supposedly lost and remastered, the album ends up on Art Angels following fan appeal. It does stand out from the rest of the album, but not sorely. It seems like a necessary part of the story. That story is one you can cobble and piece together based on her confessional style lyricism on this album. It’s not one of the deepest reflections of the year, but it is one of the most honest and open-hearted.
I’m not sure where Claire Boucher will take her music from her. While I’m not what you would call her #1 fan, I’ve appreciated her aesthetic for some time. And while it has taken on new form here, it has still maintained her original appeal. So, like before, I won’t be on the hypetrain, desperately awaiting her next release. I’ll simply be curious and patient. It paid off before, and I’m sure it will again.
- Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness
In 2013, I commented that Julia Holter’s album Loud City Song “is not dreamy – it is a dream.” Following that train of thought, Have You In My Wilderness is somewhere in-between waking and dream state. It never swells into the large, hazy void that a song like “Maxim’s I” achieved. Its textures are corporeal, vivid, and lucid. Strings and synthesizers and harpsichords are arranged blissfully yet methodically.
The first single released from this album, “Sea Calls Me Home,” immediately sold me that Loud City Song might not have been Holter’s magnum opus–that she had the capability to soar over it. Her songwriting has matured and become far more interesting even from her first two releases, Ekstasis and Maria, whose sparkling textures were a crutch for repetitive, unvaried song structures. And while this was still somewhat of a problem on her previous release, she has fully expelled this issue in her most recent work. Have You In My Wilderness is a collection of wonderful songs worthy of their baroque pop roots. The moods also vary widely. She effortlessly transitions from the jangly, merry “Everytime Boots” to the majestic, aloof “Betsy On The Roof.” And while the emotions run deep on this album, they never seem melodramatic.
Holter’s Wilderness is a strange ocean of beauty, the tides alternating between dream and wake. Each wave brings to the surface timbres worth exploring and words worth pondering. The waters are simultaneously cold and warm, familiar and alien. It is easy to get lost, and the thought of drowning is an allure.
- Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
What else is there to say about this album that hasn’t already been said? Despite how much incredible music came out this year, this is still the unquestionable AOTY.
In 1964, Bob Dylan rejected being the “voice of the generation.” He went on to continue to release incredible music, but it became increasingly personal and introspective rather than political and external. Perhaps it just didn’t feel right to him, or perhaps that pressure was too much.
Faced with a similar challenge, Kendrick Lamar seems undaunted and poised to move in the opposite direction. Good Kid, m.A.A.d city was an intensely personal, inward album. But the struggle it depicts is inseparable from its sociopolitical context. To Pimp A Butterfly retains personal meditations while moving further into external social conflicts.
The sample that kicks the album off sets a tone that reverberates all the way to its end. Influences range from bop era jazz, soul, R&B, and blues. Simply put, nearly every black-pioneered musical genre (which, in the end, isn’t that almost all of them?) since the ‘50s can be heard in some shape or form on this album.
The insatiable “King Kunta” begs to be replayed. Fueling the beat is a stark juxtapositions of slavery and royalty, establishing a sense of empowerment over title and status. The epic “u” – the thematic and literal flip side of “i” – is an emotionally paralyzing rollercoaster split into two halves: anger and depression. But descending into its darkest moment, somehow, it smoothly transitions into “Alright” which attempts to inspire solidarity in the face of hopelessness. Yet, it still bittersweet in remaining cognizant of the problems being faced.
In the album’s second half, “How Much A Dollar Cost” is a somber parable of greed and compassion that almost anyone can identify with. “The Blacker The Berry” furthers the conversation started in “King Kunta” with even more furor. “i” is one of the strangest moments on the album. Originally the album’s first singles, it now serves as one of its closing songs. When I initially heard this single before the album’s release, I didn’t “get it” and just thought it was a feel-good single. But now given the full context of the album–as well as the spoken word interlude that ends the song–it’s clear that is a moment of necessary ego and empowerment meant for the entire black community. Finally reaching a point where he can write a more positive song, it is a light not at the end of a dark tunnel, but miraculously in the middle of it. The darkness continues on.
“Mortal Man” contains the full poem that repetitively surfaces in bits throughout the album. Progressing piece-by-piece through the albums duration, it comes full circle here. The poem drives the entire flow of the narrative of the album. Following this, there is the “conversation” with 2Pac as well as a story that further reveals the narrative’s primary message. After Kendrick asks for his thoughts on the story, Pac fails to respond as before. He is, of course, in the past. We’re left to find the answers on our own. As much work and progress has been made in our society, there is still much more to go. Kendrick Lamar is fully cognizant of this, and despite the weight of the past and the future, he is living in the now. There is good in this world, and there is hope. But we are far from being able to be complacent.
To Pimp A Butterfly is a concise, cohesive, coherent musical narrative contemplating some of the important social issues in the 21st century. It’s not an album of Kendrick’s answers – more importantly, it’s an album of questions we all need to ask ourselves. It is musically satisfying, thematically dense, politically sharp, and emotionally vulnerable. Calling it “Album of the Year” seems cheap. It’s in a rare tier beyond anything in this list and perhaps the decade.