10. Grimes – Art Angels
“Why does anyone like Grimes?” “I…don’t know.” This was a brief but actual exchange I had with a co-worker the day this album came out. Visions and earlier had always come off as a try-hard attempt at weirdness and it never sat right with me. Maybe it was the haircuts. But when I heard the world confusedly trying to make sense of a heavily pop influenced Grimes album, it was enough for me give it a poke. After all, the cross section of weirdo and pop is a sweet spot for me. But as you know, that balance works best when it’s a weirdo exploring the depths of pop music and so much less so when it’s a pop star trying to get weird. Lady Gaga, Miley, even Sia, they’re all pop stars first who are coating it on thick with the weird—it’s kind of icky. Grimes, hardly a pop star, and someone who never seemed comfortable in full on strangeness, was able to reel it in and polish it up with some pop sensibilities. The result is something that feels freeing and fun. She is experimenting with different voices and noises and feels, but it’s all kept on track with a single and powerful vision for the album—hard fought feminism. This record wasn’t on my radar at all until the day it came out, so it’s been one of my most surprising enjoyments this year.
9. Miguel – Wildheart
I see Miguel often being billed as an R&B artist and I guess that’s acceptable. If you take what he’s singing about and how he’s singing it, on the surface it could be perceived that way. But I don’t quite feel comfortable reducing this album to that. He’s done things on Wildheart that R&B has traditionally been void of. Most importantly, instead of every song feeling like a macho brag about his sexual encounters, he’s turned the same stories into tales of sex-positive experiences. Even with his most explicit lyrics, nothing is being sexualized for sake of sensationalized romance novel type fiction. Instead, it’s humanity and respect and care, all in spite of the explicitness—which when you remove all that gross stuff, what’s explicit about it anyway? It’s something to be happy about and embrace. Feelings!
I also just adore what’s being done musically on this album. Risks were taken and he peeked out just enough from his zone to do something that ended in ultimate reward. About half of this record has the feel of a dude who found a guitar and wanted to play arena rock riffs but only had a bedroom amp. And then went for it anyway. The other half is synthed out and dark. It’s an interesting balance but certainly a fitting one for what Miguel is doing in his disruption of R&B.
As a side-note, Miguel is just insanely cool and this album does nothing if not drive that home.
8. Jaime xx – In Colour
In Colour is a fantastic ride that is perfectly paced and has impeccably placed flares of different sizes and forms consistently appearing at just the right times. In a snapshot of this, the opening “Gosh” spends the majority of the song building off of shuffling drum loops, slowly getting louder and more intense. Right at the point of questioning where this is going a swelling and haunting high pitched caw flys over the bassy foundation and transforms the song completely. The whole album is structured in this way, essentially. Fast forward 8 more songs from the opener, after you’ve been become fairly comfortable in the sparks of delight, and you’re hit with “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”. On first listen this sticks out from the rest of the album—in a good way—but it does feel unlike the rest. It’s an insane party jam featuring Young Thug and Popcaan and a soul sample and it gets you hype—a very different emotion from the rest of the album. Alone, it’s fantastic but an incorrect glimpse at what this album is. In context it serves as one massive flare to balance the whole album out. I mean, who hides a party track 9 songs in? It’s not used gratuitously, it’s specifically in there to torch some oxygen into the hot air balloon before the ride comes down. For an album with a little bit of loud and little bit of soft, a little bit of surprise and a little bit of familiar, a little bit of sadness and a little bit of happiness, it creates a gleefully unpredictable yet extremely balanced listen.
7. Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp
Not to be unfair to this album by any means, but I do have a relatively soft spot for the kind-voiced female singer gently-but-occasionally-less-gently caroling over some crunchy but simple guitar chords. It’s probably what drew me in, but alone, it’s not enough to make a great album. Ivy Tripp is intentionally simple in many ways. Musically, there are few overdubs—at times a single instrument carrying a full song. Melodies are unpretentious and lyrics—while actually pretty inventive and charismatic—are fairly plainly articulated. So what is it about this album that works so well? It’s feel. The vibes and character are palpable. Strong late summer and early fall moods. Strong 90s sense. An uncanny feel of the natural world. The things I attribute to its simplicity are not downsides, they’re building blocks for the bigger feel. They also make for an album that is empty of gimmicks and thus some extreme staying power. This was a common player in my listening rotation since it’s early April release. By comparison, Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit is an album that is relatively alike in a kind voice and guitar crunch kind of way, but it completely wore on me before we got to the middle of the year and I wound up kind of losing all interest in Barnett completely. Why? The dedication to simplicity was not as strong and the cute won over too often. See, cute fades. Ivy Tripp lives forever.
6. Vulfpeck – Thrill Of The Arts
Thrill Of The Arts truly doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve heard this year (or any year.) If pressed to describe Vulfpeck I’d probably say they are a funk band, which sounds corny—I know—but they’re not. They’ve traded the inherent cheesiness of white guys who like funk music for a brand of hyper self-awareness which instead of trying to avoid the cheesiness—which can in itself be a damaging maneuver—they kind of lean into it a bit. It never feels trivial or stupid. You feel in on the party and the joke. Whatever they are crafting, they are sharing it openly with you and it’s hard to not join in let alone scoff. The lyrics are nothing but fun and the spirit of the album is certainly that of a good time. It’s enjoyable from beginning to end no matter how you cut it. But what makes this album incredible is the mixing of the enjoyable with the impressive. And for all the enjoyment, there is still more impressiveness. The musicianship is absolutely through the roof. I mean, truly fantastic and complex compositions with impeccable playing. They were each studio musicians for Vulf Records prior to forming this group, so their interest in insane compositions and their ability to execute them is no surprise. Still, it’s the integration of humor and self-awareness with their super-human musicality that make this album the special something it is.
This album came out of nowhere for me. Like, truly, thin air. And I became obsessed with it instantly and haven’t stopped listening. As I do with all music obsessions I began to research them and find anything I could about them. Everything I learned about them made me fall in love even more and made this album sound even better than the last time I had listened. If you’re looking for a starting place for some auxiliary efforts to this album, check out their YouTube channel or read up on their Sleepify album and tour. Knowing that these guys are kooks and geniuses had made my experience with them all the better.
5. Tobias Jesso Jr. – Goon
One of the things I really love about this album is its emotional punch despite or perhaps in part of its lack of frills. It’s a well composed and produced album, yes, but it’s not the focus. It’s entirely centered around the song writing, which reads as classic, tested, and true. Songs oscillate between sad and sadder, the themes of love, loss, or moving on recur often, and each of the stops along the way are truly moving. It’s really an album full of feeling. As a man who likes feeling feelings and more pointedly, a sap with a baby, I cried at lines from “Just A Dream” like “I can’t explain the world to you / I can’t explain the things that people choose to do / There’s a thing called hate and there’s a thing called love too / Like the love I have for your Mom and for you.” I’m not sure I heard a lyric more directed at me all year. And now it feels like this album will be part of our family for a long time.
Alongside all that emotion, Goon gives a fairly heavy nod to the vibes crafted by the 60s and 70s balladeer. For that, it’s hard to not be reminded of our favorite mythic voices. In some ways he sounds like the scientific hybrid of Lennon and McCartney, but take your pick from the time and I’m sure you could find a trace of them in this album. This to say, what Tobias Jesso Jr. is doing is not unheard of nor is the sound of it unheard. It’s just not the part that matters most. This album is a special because of his strides—goonish as they are—in expressing real feelings.
4. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
To start things off with a divisive statement—but one I totally believe—those who don’t like Father John Misty just don’t get it. And if they claim to get it but are annoyed by it, then they definitely don’t get it. Josh Tillman, never mind for the moment what he’s doing musically, has found himself caught in the middle of a deep satire of the music industry, millennial tendencies, people on the internet, and people in general. The star of his own movie. He plays the part of Father John Misty so well that it’s understandable that people wouldn’t get it, or worse, wouldn’t even care to parse out what’s real and what’s commentary. Which is the ultimate shame, because not only is what he’s doing painfully hilarious, but ultimately, incredibly introspective. What is boasted as a position of being above, well, everything, comes from a place of self-loathing. As does much of his other takes. His on stage banter, his interviews, even his Instagram account all perpetuate this bit through his asinine character. It’s not until his music do we get to chip a little bit away from the facade. He still puts on the pomp but pieces of honesty creep out.
I Love You, Honeybear is an album of love songs he wrote after experiencing love and challenging himself to talk about it in a way that wasn’t stupid or by rote. The character allows him be incredibly vulnerable without every seeming so. If anything, he remains unfairly cool. I mean, he called his album I Love You, Honeybear and no one is blinking. The challenge of talking about love in a way that is fair and real is very much not easy. If you’ve experienced love, marriage, or both, he taps into feelings and scenarios that aren’t easy to articulate. My wife makes it a point to note that she chokes up every time he sings “You left a note in your perfect script / ‘Stay as long as you want’ and I haven’t left your bed since.” That lump in your throat feeling is real. But it’s not just the lovey obsession that comes with being in love, it’s also the darker side. “Why the long face, jerkoff? / Your chance has been taken. Good one.” he sings to a guy hitting on his wife in the bar. The defensiveness you feel when you’re in love manifests in ways that makes your chest puff out and you want to take on the world because it’s worth doing. That feeling is real, too.
I pushed off a chance to talk about what this album is doing musically, and it would be robbing it to not gush over it. This album is sonically fantastic. The compositions are well-layered and complimentary to his beautiful and steady voice. The seriousness of the strings and horns and piano—truly orchestral—make for a surprisingly appropriate if also humorous backdrop to his biting lyrics sung in a seductive manner. That this years funniest album could also be the sweetest is unorthodox, but of course it would be Father John Misty to do it.
3. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Sufjan Stevens is one of treasures of modern music. His work is impressive, expansive, and consistent—always pushing off from where his last album left us and diving into something unpredictable. Carrie & Lowell is no different. After years of experimenting with maximalist electronic orchestra sounds, he shrunk down to something as lean as we’ve heard from him yet. Seriously, it makes Seven Swans sound like a marching band. It’s poetic that he did so to take on his most tremendous subject—his relationship with his mother in the wake of her death. Sufjan beautifully and heartbreakingly tells the story of his mother leaving his family when he was a child and all of the effects that had on him throughout this album. In his making peace of not only her death but also an honest attempt to forgive her, we’re right there with him. It’s uncomfortable how close he lets us in. You easily share his sadness and you feel his pain. “Fuck me I’m falling apart” is the saddening cry of a desperate man at a breaking point. It’s feels unfair to be allowed to be so close to all of this.
It’s endearing, although painful, that Sufjan the adult still longs for what Sufjan the child did—his mother’s attention. A chance to know her. He never hates her though. His sadness never turns to vitriol. “I forgive you mother, I can hear you / And I long to be near you / But every road leads to an end / yes, every road leads to an end.” All life, all pain, all suffering, it all ends.
2. Tame Impala – Currents
When Lonerism came out I had said that it was the Tame Impala album that I had been waiting for. And at the time it was. But when Currents came out I realized that it had been the Tame Impala album I was actually waiting for. I had never really been able to shake the apathy I felt about the psychedelic guitar vibes of all their past albums. There is something about that sound that just cannot escape parody for me. The alarmingly different sounds on Currents tickled me. It felt like the Tame Impala I knew, but bigger, better, weirder. It’s interesting how it dwarfed his past albums—albums that are unique and complex—to make them look quaint by comparison. It’s the sign of someone hitting their stride, finding their clearest vision. I didn’t once think how much he sounds like John Lennon. Not because he doesn’t, but it wasn’t even something that registered amidst what the rest of the album was pulling together and mixing around.
Musically, this might be the juiciest treat of the year. There’s no shortage of sounds that I have no identifiable source for. Keyboards sound like guitars and vice versa. Plus, keeping in mind that Tame Impala is just one little Kevin Parker in isolation, the wall of sound that this album builds is astonishing. It’s huge and powerful. This album brought an excitement not just to the future of Tame Impala, but the future of independent bedroom recorded music.
1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
In a 2015 that was filled with a saddening amount of unrest and disparity across America highlighted by the injustices and inequalities within race, gender, socio-economics, Kendrick Lamar became a voice—the voice—for this moment in time. And boy, did he have a lot to say. I was drawn to To Pimp A Butterfly immediately simply for that reason. It was impressive how Kendrick used his popularity to get up on his bigger-than-the-next-guy’s soapbox and challenge us by speaking from a place that demanded more. Coming off good kid, m.A.A.d city, it would have been easy to put out an album that did none of that and he probably would have had had a successful run with it. But to push himself farther than he’d pushed before and insist the world be moved by it as well puts this album and himself in another league. I know by some measure it’s probably unfair, but I’ve come to expect more from rap albums than any other genre. There is the most potential to represent the under-priveledged in a way that can demand attention. I think we are living in a world that can be changed from the socially-conscious mind and it actually makes me upset when I feel like opportunity is missed. “So you better go hard every time you jump on wax.” There’s more to be worried about than money and make believe beefs. When I watched Kendrick preform “i” on SNL I had the distinct feeling that rap music was being changed forever. It’s still the most electrifying TV music performance I’ve ever seen.
There’s been much to say about the “blackness” of this album. “I’m African American, I’m African / I’m black as the heart of a fuckin’ Aryan.” My heart cramps every time I hear this lyric. I feel conflicted about my ability and place to talk about this, but I want to identify that yes, this album is black. And a black album is the album we needed most this year. Something to represent the under-represented. A voice for the black teenagers who were beat by cops at a pool party. A voice for Freddie Gray. For Michael Brown. Eric Garner. A voice for the black lives matter protestors. “Lookin’ at the world like “Where do we go?” N***a, and we hate po po / wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho’” he sings in “Alright.” The world is angry as hell and right they are. But Kendrick doesn’t leave us with anger alone. It’s a powerful agent, but it’s not the complete answer. He also teaches self-love. We have to love ourselves first if we expect to love anything else. Protestors adopted the “We gon’ be alright” hook from the same song to be used as a protest chant and sang it like a choir in the streets. That’s far more powerful than anger alone.
Kendrick has described himself as a writer over a rapper. His ability as each is obvious one this album. Each song is filled with moving phrasing that speaks on an incredibly vast set of themes. If you’ve never read his lyrics, I recommend it. No line or rhyme is wasted, he’s really packing it in. It’s entirely awe-inspiring to feel the depths of even a single line. The complexities and mastery within the lyrics are matched by brilliantly composed music that is as transformative as any other aspect of the album. I heard some discord from rap fans around the sound of the album due to it’s drastic departure from the sound of previous albums. There’s no club bangers on To Pimp A Butterfly. Which was intentional. Kendrick felt conflicted about how songs like “Swimming Pools (Drank)” had been appropriated as bro party anthems—missing the message about the effects of alcoholism. Not that the music on TPAB isn’t fun, but I think it’s much harder to play a free-jazz track in a club. To an extent, it’s protecting the sanctity of his message.
I don’t rate albums—and no one would care if I did—but push me, and this album is a 10/10. What else can be said of an album that is nominated for a grammy, ranked best album of 2015 by Pitchfork, features the president’s favorite song of the year, has been performed on Colbert and Ellen, performed with the National Symphony Orchestra, and performed by protestors in the streets? Its reach knows no bounds. Its impact is ceiling-less. Its message is one of celebration in spite of suffering. I may never hear anything better than this album and I welcome any artist to challenge that.
Givers – New Kingdom
Narrowly missing the ol’ top ten. As good as ever with this expansion into the darkness.
mewithoutYou – Pale Horses
Got me all excited because it sounds like the mewithoutYou I feel in love with in high school. The world agrees of its goodness as it earned them their first Pitchfork review in their 15 years of doin’ it.
Hop Along – Painted Shut
Something amazing from something amazing.
Battles – La Di Da Di
As weird and punchy as I could have hoped for. An improvement to Gloss Drop in the post Mirrored world.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Multi-Love
Warm and fuzzed, catchy melodies for days and nights, lots to love.
Kurt Vile – b’lieve i’m goin down
The constant hitmaker does it again. Classic Kurt doing all the classic Kurt stuff you know and love.
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Got stinkier with every listen to the point where I couldn’t even try. I can’t make sense of all of the love for her and this album. It feels so trite and basic.
Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
I was unsure of this on first listen and then liked it a lot and then became unsure of it again and now I don’t like it at all. The song that was in the end of the Transparent episode when Joshy stuffs his face with meats is pretty good.
Leon Bridges – Coming Home
Feels so much like a parody that I can’t accept it as being genuine. It’s so precious, but I can’t do it. The high waisted pants may have to do with this.
Ryan Adams – 1989
Hey, this is kind of cool for me not liking either of these artists. Hey, this sucks and Ryan Adams is a goober. That’s how that went.
Sun Kil Moon – Universal Themes
You know, just one year ago I was naming Benji my favorite album of the year. How did this happen? This album is like, very bad. He’s kind of a turd and I think that left me feeling gross.
Better Late Than Never
So, The National was famous for boring me for many years. But I listened to Trouble Will Find Me a lot this year and now I think they are great. His voice is :guy-pizza-box-kissing-fingers:.
Run The Jewels
I just totally goofed up on this one and flat out missed them when they put out RTJ 1&2. I started listening to RTJ2 this summer and woke up to the incredible force they are. Put RTJ3 in my “Peeing With Excitement” albums of 2016 (I hope).