MY FAVORITE ALBUMS OF 2015

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.

Honorable Mentions:

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.

Over It

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

The National

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).

 

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My Favorite Albums Of 2012

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10.
Daniel Bachman
Seven Pines

From the moment Seven Pines begins and the bouncy traditional American sounding fingerpicking bumbles in you immediately start to feel yourself drifting away from whatever day you’re withstanding and into the joyous court of King Bachman. Scenery starts to change like a theater production and you see the familiar being pulled off set and replaced by the dense thicket of pure Virginian steel. One of the most remarkable things about Daniel’s music is that it tells a compelling story using no words. When I first saw Daniel play he spent a minute describing what the first song was about. I kept waiting for the lyrics to kick in, and they of course never did, and yet  at the end of the song I felt like I understood exactly the story he was trying to tell. I don’t know how he does it but there is so much jammed into these songs that the stories, and imagery, and struggle are all conveyed through a simple dynamic of a guy and a guitar.

While I try to listen to albums as objectively as I can, it’s sometimes hard, nay, impossible to separate them from the life experiences they tie themselves so tightly to. I also think that’s a lot of what makes you connect with a record, and for this record, it will forever be connected to my wedding. We were lucky enough to forge a friendship with Daniel and asked him to play guitar at our ceremony and he said he would love to. Listening to this music makes me think back to that night and for that reason alone I will always love it, but I promise you that this is just an incredible record regardless. If I had to describe the way this record sounds in only two words I think I could do it. Being outside.

9.
Dirty Projectors
Swing Lo, Magellan

Dirty Projectors have mastered walking the fine line between oddness and accessibility. It’s clear that they strive to push their bounds with each album, nothing they’ve done has ever been conventional, but at the same time, if you listen to the progression of their discography there is a definite reeling in as they’ve gone on. That idea of something both expanding and contracting simultaneously is what makes them an interesting band to listen to and to follow. Being careful not to think of this album as simple or stripped down, it is however a bit more intrinsically crafted than previous albums, Bitte Orca for example (which I loved.) As always, the pairing of influences mixed with the mashing of their own fingerprints make for something entirely original, even standing out from their own discography.

8.
King Tuff
King Tuff

Alright, here’s the thing about King Tuff… Kyle Thomas is a wild man. Attitude and lack of care for the imaginable anything ooze from his pitted voice and I’m 100% sure that listening to this album makes me cooler. It’s that kind of listening experience. It’s largely an album of feel gooderies and responsibility-less living, but every once in awhile out pops something frighteningly profound.  “All I ever wanted was everything.” Man, sometimes I can’t escape this lyric. The heaviness of it despite it’s simplicity makes it genius and it pretty accurately sums up the feeling we all have experienced – wanting so much and not knowing how to get it or even what to do with it if we do get it. With many prompts to break the rules, throw caution to the wind, and be a “bad thing”, the encouragement for rebellion is obviously laid on quite heavily, but there is a constant lurking of conscience and reality that echo all of these themes. The tugging from one side to the other help create that deeper layer and the fact that all of this is hidden underneath these popped out jams makes it all the better.

7.
Dr. Dog
Be The Void

This album resonated with me immediately, as all Dr. Dog albums have, but what sets this apart from their other work is how I can still listen to it from beginning to end with much enjoyment almost a year after it came out. This is no knock against their previous albums, each has their own set of extremely high highs, but I often found myself tiring of past albums after a few months of listening and while the good parts stuck with me, the parts that lacked often dropped off and became tracks I skipped over. With this album, it feels like their best culmination of songs to make a functioning whole. All the classic Dr. Dog idiosyncrasies are present, bulky grooves, fluttering melodies, dancing guitar riffs, and their funkiest beats to date, all of which I totally welcome, but they are all tangled in a way that finally feels like they have harnessed their full capability. This kind of figuring out of what works and why is what makes good bands create great albums.

6.
Hop Along
Get Disowned

Often prettier than normal vocals on top of occasionally uglier than usual guitar chords. Who would have guessed this would have been such a winning combination? But Hop Along makes this work perfectly on album that most of us listening had been waiting a long while for. So long, that when Frances sings “Nobody deserves you the way that I do” it’s a fitting statement spoken from me to the album. (Har, har, har. Just having a bit of fun.) But as the saying goes – good things come to those who wait, and this is a really good thing. It’s hard to not speak of Hop Along without making mention of the ridiculous vocals in the same breath, and while I don’t want to harp on that because I think we all know just how ridiculous they are, I do think it’s important to fully recognize just how much they make this band special. I know I am not alone when I say I would enjoy an a capella album just as much as anything else they would put out. But even with that being true, you simply cannot sell the rest of the music short, and definitely not on this album- I get the impression that much of the composition and instrumentation was considered and labored over until everything ended up in that flawless lock-up of noise. If you have somehow avoided listening to Hop Along this far in life, please quietly end that weird streak and listen to this fantastic record.

5.
Delicate Steve
Positive Force

I’ve written about Delicate Steve before – their last album Wondervisions was one of my favorites from last year- and it’s getting hard to tell if they’ve sucked me into unapologetically loving everything they’ll do (not without merit) or if they are actually just writing powerhouse album after album, works that are so different from anything else I’m hearing that I am unbiasedly enjoying them. It’s both, I mean, it has to be, to assume those things are exclusive is kind of silly. It’s not inconceivable to believe a band could create such fanboys of their listeners because of what they are producing and at the caliber it’s coming it. I know this is totally not a new concept and probably what most bands are aiming at, but I guess the reason I’m thinking of it in relation to this band is because I’m not sure there is a better example of a group right now who’s music I enjoy because, yes, they have made a fan of me, but stripping those past credentials, and all of their previous work, I know my feelings about them would be the same had this been my only experience with their music. In that respect Positive Force succeeds in the same ways that Wondervisions does.

The trippy guitar god of now delivers (again) a cluster of slippery jams that sound like the are going both back in time and into the future simultaneously. I’ve done my best to push this band on everyone willing to give me a minute of their time and that’s something I’ll continue to do until they stop making some of the juiciest music in the game.

4.
Lord Huron
Lonesome Dreams

Hooked from the very first time I heard the first song, this has been an album I’ve not stopped listening to since I started. Soaked in American flavor, it’s filled with plenty of grooves, dreamy note bending, and twangy attitude, which in summation equal an album’s worth of bits to keep you moving. There is a sense of exploration that emanates from these songs. Those feelings of discovery and wandering, both literally and figuratively, are sort of a narrative for the record. The pairing of theme and style make for something quite special and very enjoyable. And that’s what I think sets this most apart from it’s comparisons- the fact that this record is fun. While Fleet Foxes, who they’ve been negatively compared to, have things we all like about them, I don’t think I’ve ever thought of one of their records as being fun. And there is place for that, but by the time I got to Helplessness Blues I was helplessly blue. Yes, I have puns. This has a wide-eyed eagerness to it that makes the listening exciting. A journeying record if there was one this year.

3.
Why?
Mumps, Etc.

I fully expected this album to be good- Why? has been getting incrementally better with each record and I had no reason to believe this would break that mold. I’m a particularly huge fan of Alopecia (their last proper full length) and when Sod In The Seed EP came out, I loved it, playing it on repeat endlessly. I knew if this sounded like those, even slightly, I’d be very pleased. What I could not foresee was just how insanely killer this album was going to be.

Why? is often championed as being an indie hip hop band. That could mean a lot of things and if you’ve never heard them before that sounds like a scary story that easily ends in some awfully cheesy and terribly executed freak show- but if you have heard them you know they keep that balance in perfect check and while it’s an indie hip hop band is never really comes off as as either of those things.  

I’ve recently found them to be some of the best risk takers and innovators making music currently and this album really follows suit. Whereas Eskimo Snow was outwardly their least hip hop sounding effort, this by far gives us their most hip hop sounding effort. In many ways this picks up sort of where Alopecia left off. Painfully honest and comically dry, the monotone delivered lyrics are packed in tightly within each song proving to be troves intended to be revisited in order to pull out all the lines that passed you by the last time around. The music itself is the finest we’ve heard from them. Everything is so crispy, which has been a bother of mine for past albums- there always felt like there was a moment (or few) that broke the stream of what was happening. This is a river with a steady flow and nothing is stopping it.

2.
Japandroids
Celebration Rock

For being a record I didn’t expect to like at all, in fact it was a record I didn’t even expect to even listen to, this had the highest payoff of any album this year. This same scenario seems to happen to me at least once a year, and it’s always a fun surprise to see who will put out, well, a fun surprise. The formula is usually the same- a band puts out an album or so that I don’t like, I write them off, and then, usually by accident, I listen to the new album I promised myself I wouldn’t listen to and I wind up loving it. It’s as if the bands are checking if I am still awake. I listened to Post-Nothing and didn’t get what the hubbub was about with it. It was under produced, under-performed, and uninteresting. Those were the characteristics I had associated with Japandroids (a name I still hate despite coming around on the music) and I really had no reason to believe this album would be a departure from that. I was happily very wrong. All of those things which I had plagued them with were shed drastically on Celebration Rock. They made the most energetic, in your face, high on life album I’ve heard this year and perhaps in the last three or four. The attitude is sharp and cutting, the sonic version of shark teeth, and it makes you want to forget about your cares and get wild.

On top of the rawness this album thrives on lives a compelling coming of age narrative which even offers bits of wisdom from time to time. What I love perhaps most about the storytelling on this album is the honest speaking from where the narrator is in life. While the music is quite youthful, the musician is aging, and all the things that come with growing up are approached thoughtfully and directly. There’s not much I hate more than a 30 year old singing about high school, and that is swiftly avoided and handled in a way quite remarkably. The only time youth is directly mentioned is in the track “Younger Us” in which the beginnings of a relationship is sweetly called back to. All of this without losing it’s well defined edge. It has the punk attitude of a band like Fugazi, the pomp of a band like He Is Legend, and the energy of an early Bruce record. No doubt one of the best records in recent times.

1.
Father John Misty
Fear Fun

Josh Tillman wrote the best record of the year. Somebody had to and it was him. And it was under the name Father John Misty. The ridiculousness of that isn’t lost on him if it’s not lost on you. So, how would a man react to the idea that his record was the best record of all music that came out in one calendrical year? Lucky enough for me, I was present when he was confronted with this notion. “You have the best CD of the year!” shouted a woman from the balcony of the venue in between songs. “Thank you….” he replied. On stage, Tillman, as Father John Misty, leaves little to preferably no room for anyone else to share in the light- he commands the room and for anyone to think they might be taking that from him, if even just for a moment to give him a very well-intentioned and earnest compliment, well, that’s not happening. “…. THE GREATEST CD OF ALL TIME!” he shouted as he clenched both fists and pumped them above his head. Command was back to being all his. “I wonder what the greatest CD of all time actually is?” You could hear the crowd soften and you knew people were wondering where he’d go with this. He cocked his head and rubbed his chin, “Probably one of those free discs AOL used to mail everyone.”  And that was that. The drummer clicked off the next song and he was on to the next thing. Such a perfect example of Josh Tillman as Father John Misty and vice versa.

Fear Fun is the deepest, most thought provoking, record this year and somehow at the same time, the most shallow, nonsensical, gab. I’m often wondering what’s real, what’s a joke, what’s meant to be an allusion, what is a real life re-telling of something he actually witnessed, what is meant to be sad, scary, or funny, and why any of it is relevant. And that is what makes this amazing! It’s Tillman finally giving in to himself and choosing to be the person he is and let the music reflect that, not trying to achieve that in reverse.

Aside from being incredibly smart, incredibly odd, and a wearing a healthy amount of smugness on his sleeve, Tillman is an extraordinary singer. He could be singing any slew of words, often it feels like he is, but the way he sings it, with unwavering steadiness, you’d take it to heart as the most precious lyric ever sung. So much of this record is taking two (or more) unexpected things and gluing them together and these beautifully sung lyrics are just as much of an element in these dichotomies as anything else.

For being a record that was coming from a guy who departed from two successful acts in order to go about making something that felt more authentic, you have to give him credit for his truth seeking and ambition. But where the real credit is due is in the fact that in doing that he wound up making a record that well exceeded everything else he had been involved with. There is not a complaint to be had of this record, and I don’t think I’ve loved an album the way I love this one is a long, long time.  

 

I LIKED IT

Sharon Van Etten
Tramp

I’m not sure there is a voice as haunting as Sharon Van Etten’s right now. It’s totally beautiful and commanding without having to be powerful, although it occasionally is. She’s one of those people with complete control over how her voice is used and no desire to flex it unless the song calls for it. With that kind of understanding, you are bound to wind up with some really great songs, and on this record she really nailed it.

Tame Impala
Lonerism

Yes. Finally, the record from this band that I’ve been waiting for. While showing so much potential and promise on InnerSpeaker it never felt like it came together the way that Lonerism does. This is a really great record that is definitely one of the best of the year.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
The Heist

I first heard Macklemore when I saw the Thrift Shop video and liked it so much because it was as good as it was funny. As I listened to the rest of this record I really loved that he was willing to take a stand for things that no one else in the rap game is willing to do. Positivity often comes with a price of being corny, but it was somehow evaded on this.

 

I DIDN’T GET IT

Frank Ocean
Channel Orange

I know everyone likes this album, and I’m not trying to trash it, but I really just didn’t understand the hype around it. I kept waiting to feel the way that everyone else did and it never happened. I think I just don’t like R&B.

Beach House
Bloom

Oh, Teen Dream B-Sides? Sure feels like it. This album bore me to death. It’s almost like they tried extra hard to keep it as close to Teen Dream as they could. Left a yucky taste in my mouth.

 

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER

Warren Zevon

For no explainable reason, I never listened to Warren Zevon until this year. I wasn’t purposefully avoiding him, and had no bent perception of him, I just didn’t. I don’t remember why I started, but from the first time I heard Excitable Boy I was sold. I played that album to shreds. He was one of those tough rock guys from the 70’s who were undeniably and unbelievably cool, and his music reflects that. He was also a guy who didn’t lose sight of who he was. His last album sounds as cool and authentic as his first album does.

The Doors

I wanted nothing to do with The Doors for so long, I just found them so trite and Jim Morrison was always a bit much to me. But I watch a documentary on the making of their first album and that really changed my view of them. I can’t say I ventured too far away from that self-titled album, but I finally understood it and got pretty into it. I also eased up on Morrison a bit and began to love some of the things about him I used to find annoying. Congratulations to me, I’m just like every kid in high school.

Frankie Valli

I was lucky enough to see Jersey Boys on Broadway this year and that obviously launched me into an interest and appreciation for Frankie Valli. I don’t know that would have happened or not if I hadn’t seen the musical, but I’m glad it did. Hits, man. HITS.