2015. Shit was hard. Music made it easier. Here are some observations.
So a lot of you, dear readers, know about the Taylor Swift thing. So let’s just go ahead and talk about it right now because it did happen. Released in 2014, 1989 became the album I needed in 2015. I don’t entirely understand it. I also don’t apologize for it. Appreciation for contemporary mainstream pop is still relatively new to me. I struggle with it and rarely find any singles I can stomach, much less a full album, but in the last few years (it started with Katy Perry. I won’t explain here.) I’ve sort of grown to understand its value and sometimes I can connect with it.
So 2015 was a shit storm of pain, sadness, and depression over here. Taylor Swift, she was there for me through all of it. It might be safe to say that 1989 was my primary coping skill of 2015. I’ve listened to this stupid record so many fucking times. I honestly don’t know how many times I shook it off. I hashtag’d #cantstopwontstop on countless social media posts. I learned to own it. I even briefly considered trying to score a cheap ticket to her concert at the local football stadium but I was really high at the time and that seemed like maybe not the smartest undertaking.
So yeah, it took some time but I learned how to stop worrying and love T Swizzle.
What else? Oh right, Frank Ocean told everybody he would drop his new album in July. Then he didn’t. My wife thinks he is not pleased with his recent taste of fame and is going to pull a D’Angelo and disappear entirely for a very long time. I’m still holding onto hope that he will deliver but regardless, for yet another year, Frank Ocean has not released his follow-up to Channel Orange.
Enough about albums that weren’t released in 2015; a bunch of music was released and, due to some pathological need to consume as much of it as possible, I listened to a lot of it. Then in the early winter, I kind of freaked out and thought I wasn’t going to write this blog. I’m sorry. I was a mess. But now it’s January and the readers (okay, maybe 10 of you) have been demanding it. So here we go. This will be quick and dirty. Cuz I can’t really deal. This year it’s 15 albums.
15. Thee Oh Sees – The Mutilator Defeated at Last
California garage rocker John Dwyer’s new album rocks really hard. As with any Thee Oh Sees record, Play it loud. If you’ve ever followed my advice about Ty Segall and you were pleased with the results, here’s another fantastic SF garage psych revival band with an extensive catalog to dig into.
14. Deerhunter – Fading Frontier
Deerhunter is my favorite band in the world that I largely don’t talk about anymore. Here’s why. Imagine you discovered Radiohead before any of your friends, let’s say circa The Bends, and you share it with them and none of them like it. The band keeps releasing more albums, mindblowing stuff, fuckin’ OK Computer, and still your friends don’t give a shit and eventually, Kid A, and now you want them to die because what the fuck. Yeah, that’s kinda how Deerhunter is for me. So I’m not going to talk about them so that we can still be friends, but they always make the list. It’s also possible I’m overstating all of this.
Bradford Cox nearly died after getting hit by a fucking car this year. As if the guy doesn’t have it bad enough having been blessed with goddamn Marfan Syndrome. Then he recorded pretty much the mellowest of all Deerhunter albums. The first few tracks are solid. The middle kinda sucks. And then Snakeskin starts and for the final three songs, the record just kills.
13. Vince Staples – Summertime ’06
My friend Daniel said that Summertime ‘ 06 was better than Illmatic. He doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about but I understand why he said it. It flows much like the timeless Nas album in the way the artist creates a sonic environment that really captures his world and then just spits pure hip hop over it. One of my favorite producers in hip hop today, Clams Casino, is all over this record too. It’s definitely worthy of a listen.
12. Dan Deacon – Glass Siffer
If you ever go to a Dan Deacon concert, he’ll likely split the crowd in half and choose you, no really he’s pointing at you, to engage in a dance battle with another person he has chosen from the opposing side of the audience and you have to dance in the style of “Avatar if it had actually been a good movie.” No seriously, that happened at the last Dan Deacon concert I attended.
Anyways, Dan creates insanely silly but surprisingly danceable electronic music that is great fun.
11. Kurt Vile – B’lieve I’m goin’ Down
Not as great as his epic Wakin’ On a Pretty Daze from a few years ago, this one is still really fucking solid. Really great stoner jams from a guy who can barely make the effort to even sing the words but still drops these words of wonder alongside the most deadpan observations.
10. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit
First time I ever heard this band, I was driving to work listening to KEXP. She was doing a live set and holy shit, she had my attention almost immediately. Seriously, Courtney rocks so fucking hard. You might say it’s pedestrian at best, really…
09. Bjork – Vulnicura
Lots of really depressing releases this year. Bjork released her newest album that basically chronicles her devastating divorce from artist Matthew Barney. It’s heartbreaking…and musically, it’s a little dull. From a sonic perspective, a very important perspective when discussing Bjork, she already covered this ground years ago with Homogenic. That said, it’s the new Bjork album so it’s fucking gorgeous. And Black Lake, oh man, it’s an incredible 10 minute odyssey through what is essentially Bjork’s entire reality crumbling in front of her. Listen to it.
08. Grimes – Art Angels
This shit is unlike anything on her previous album, Visions. Grimes went pop. Like pop pop. Well, kinda. Like last summer she released a song that she wrote for Rihanna that Rihanna politely declined. That’s what happens when a squeaky weirdo art school kid tries to write a song for freakin’ Rihanna. A few months after that, she reportedly scrapped all the material she’d recorded for the new album and started from scratch. Well, the resulting material must have been more to her liking because here it is and it’s pretty great. The first two-thirds of the record is particularly fantastic. I do tend to lose interest after that though and rarely make it all the way through the album.
07. Kamasi Washington – The Epic
Kamasi Washington hangs out with Brainfeeder collective guys like Thundercat and his holiness, the great Steven Ellison, a.k.a. Flying Lotus. He played sax on much of Kendrick Lamar’s latest album. He also released a 3 hour long bombastic jazz album. Apparently, jazz *can* be good again.
06. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
Narcissistic probably misogynist douche writes gorgeous collection of songs dripping in a style of sarcasm that intrigues me but also makes me uncomfortable…and also leaves me laughing and at times genuinely moved. FJM’s Josh Tillman wins extra bonus points for taking the piss out of Ryan Adams’ 1989 cover album. Because the world really needed Ryan Adams to mansplain Taylor Swift for us. Anyways, the day after Adams’ appropriation was released, Tillman released to the internet two hastily recorded T Swift covers of his own…in the style of Lou Reed. And well, it really fucking sounds like The Velvet Underground performing Taylor Swift songs.
05. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie and Lowell
Surprising to no one, Sufjan released another batch of songs about death. Like really, on one song, the chorus is “We’re all gonna die/We’re all gonna die/We’re all gonna die/We’re all gonna die/We’re all gonna die.” Fuck. If you like Sufjan, then you’ll probably find this to be not necessarily your favorite Sufjan album but it’s easily his most focused. Thematically, Sufjan is on point with every one of his records but his execution is often sprawling and one can lose interest along the way. But this album is tight…and beautiful…and really depressing. My four favorite tracks all end with these slightly extended and terribly heartbreaking atmospheric soundscape that were absolutely breathtaking to hear performed live.
04. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love
Sleater-Kinney got back together after 10+ years apart. Big surprise, lots of bands get back together. But S-K got back together and then recorded what might be their best and best produced record yet. Again, turn it up loud.
03. Four Tet – Morning/Evening
In the grand scheme of Four Tet records, this will probably be considered a minor album. But I kept coming back to it over and over. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard from him while also the culmination of his explorations to date. This LP consists of only two tracks, Morning and Evening, each spanning the near-20 minute mark. It all begins and ends with a grounding simple house beat. In the space between, there’s some extended sampling of this gorgeous female Hindi vocalist. From there we travel into some extended spacey ambient territory last visited by Brian Eno and now made new again by Four Tet. And then slowly we begin to return to this astral plane in the form of a modest four on the floor house beat. What a ride. This is the #1 record of the year I’d recommend for anyone considering a soundtrack to their own psychedelic adventure.
02. Jamie xx – In Colour
I’ve never really been a huge fan of The xx but goddamn, Jamie xx’s first solo record plays like the greatest mixtape that I will never be able to make for you. It’s a perfect dance record. Even with that cheesy “You’re in ecstacy” lyric at the apex of Loud Places, it’s still that fucking good. With tracks like Gosh, (There’s Gonna Be) Good Times, and The Rest is Noise, I’ll forgive this misstep again and again.
01. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
All hail King Kendrick. I’ve been talking about this record all year so I’m gonna let the wife take over for this one. Our favorite record of 2015.
This album is near perfect. To Pimp a Butterfly takes a few listens to really grok. I will admit, KDot makes some questionable artistic choices at times. Namely, his overwrought weepy vocals on u and his decision to end the album with a meandering manufactured conversation with Tupac. The vocals on u end up feeling a little heavy handed and the convo with Tupac… well, it just gets boring after the first listen. But taken as a whole, To Pimp a Butterfly is an ambitious album with incredible sociopolitical implications.
With To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick marries his hip hop to jazz, funk, beat and slam poetry. For Free? showcases his quick tongue and unique writing with one of my favorite verses on the album. When a woman berates Kendrick for failing to buy her a nice car and fancy extensions, Kendrick delivers a slam verse that ends with “Oh America,you bad bitch/I picked cotton that made you rich/Now my dick ain’t free.” Kendrick wrestles not only with systemic racism but also the impact of internalized racism, the desire to smoke weed in the White House, steal Rolodexes from the rich celebrities at the BET awards and the ways in which his fame has made him rich but failed to “take the hood out tha homie.” There is a lot of pain on this album as Kendrick wrestles with self hatred and hopelessness but one of the jewel’s in this album’s crown is Alright. As bitter as it is redeeming, Kendrick performed the song on top of a police car at the 2015 BET awards, exclaiming “We hate po-po/wanna kill us dead in the street fo’ sho’… I’m fucked up homey, you fucked up but if God got us then we gonna be alright.” Its definitely been one of the anthems of my shit-ass year. And a review of the album can’t be complete without a mention of King Kunta. As Jason would say, “I can’t describe it . Just go listen to it loud.”
This album is a snapshot of African American struggles in 2015 and a cry for change and revolution. Several schools across the country have started teaching this album alongside classics like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. I always give an imperfect piece of art more credit when I can see it inspire its audience to dream of a better life, and To Pimp a Butterfly definitely does that. This album is gorgeous and Kendrick is one of the best writers in the music industry today. Listen to it.
Oh shit, you made it this far. Thanks so much for reading. Here’s a Spotify mixtape I made just for you. And if you don’t have Spotify, there’s another version for those who have been following me since the days of the email version of this blog. Anyone else who is interested, just ask.
This list is dedicated to The Thin White Duke.