Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Best Albums of 2015

Not since the heyday of Napster and illegal downloading--way back in 2001, kids--have I listened to as many albums as this year. Thank Apple Music, which, unlike Spotify, actually has just about every new release I could want to hear. While it'd be easy to find something negative to say about all this access, I can't really come up with much. I was able to listen to incredible amount of new music, which is a good thing.

25. Sleater-Kinney - No Cities to Love
24. Drake - If Youre Reading This Its Too Late
23. The Weeknd - Beauty Behind the Madness
22. Mac Demarco - Another One
21. Alabama Shakes - Sound and Color
20. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell
19. Wilco - Star Wars
18. Dr. Dre - Compton
17. Panda Bear - Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
16. Destroyer - Poison Season
15. Donnie Trumpet - Surf
14. Vince Staples - Summertime '06
13. Deerhunter - Fading Frontier
12. Miguel - Wildheart
11. Blur - The Magic Whip

10. Jamie xx - In Colour

9. Julia Holter - Have You in My Wilderness

8. Tame Impala - Currents

Everybody else seems to love the overblown opener, "Let it Happen" or "Eventually," but I dig the endearingly earnest moments scattered in "Yes I'm Changing," where Kevin Parker somehow gets away with a line like, "They say people never change, but that's bullshit. They do." Or in "'Cause I'm a Man," when he repeats the title of the track, but instead of sounding like a unapologetic man, he sounds vulnerable and weak.

7. Erykah Badu - But You Caint Use My Phone

Drake's "Hotling Bling" was the best of memes, a hilariously great song that transformed into whatever anyone thought funny or relevant at the moment. But Erykah Badu took the song and turned it into one of the greatest missed connection albums in history--an oral history of the phone and what it does to relationships. "I know when that hotling bling, that could only mean one thing," changes completely when uttered from Badu's mouth. Gone is the judgement. Instead, it comes across as the late night ramblings of some hopeless lovers, someone she has no use for. After all, she's the girl that can "make you put your phone down." In this day and age, isn't that one of the greatest compliments you could give?

6. Beach House - Depression Cherry   

I look forward to hating every new Beach House album, only to succumb slowly to the same damn elements again. This should all be real boring by now--those organs and softly cooed vocals looping around and around forever. It took about two weeks for Depression Cherry to open up, (the second album released this year, fortunately, never did). And here it is, high up on my list, because I can't stop listening to it. I will say that the addition of distortion lent to songs like "Sparks" tickles that shoegaze scratch I have embedded in my skull. You can't exactly blame me.

5. D'Angelo - Black Messiah

Is it just me, or does everything just seem a bit off with this record? Not in a bad way, mind you, just in a slightly deranged and unexpected way. Though mentioned as a grand political statement about the unrest of the past year, the vocals are mixed so low it's hard to have much idea what he's talking about. "Sugah Daddy" exists for most of its running time as little more than a few piano stabs and a rhythm track. The bassline in "Back to the Future (Part I)" throbs along confidently until lurching to a stop awkwardly at the end, before getting back up and going back at it again. "Till It's Done (Tutu)" sounds like it's going to tumble on the floor for basically every second of the running time. Instead of a shambling mess, all these songs are deeply funky and infectious. You get the sense that these musicians know exactly what they are doing. They are not playing with us. They just know how to get things done, even if it doesn't make much sense initially.

4. Grimes - Art Angel

Grimes's last album, Visions, felt cold and otherworldly, like a beautiful dream or hallucination. Those are the last adjectives you'd apply to Art Angel, an album filled to the absolute brim with real intensity. I mean, have you ever tried to count all instruments and other sounds used in the first fifteen seconds of "Flesh without Blood?" Beyond the guitar and drums, look out for multiple shakers, vigorous hand clapping, the clanging of something metal (artificial steel drum?), perhaps a radio signal, and what sounds like a whip cracking. That's not to mention all the various vocal tracks that pop in and out for a few seconds. Of course, all of this effort would mean nothing if the song itself weren't so catchy. What makes this album so satisfying is that "Flesh" isn't even the most bizarre offering on the album. The winner is probably the aural assault of "Scream" or the 20 odd sections that are cobbled together to make up "Kill V. Maim." Still, I don't know what it means that my favorite song is probably "REALiTi," which is the only offering that seems to meld the hazy world of Visions with the busier world of Art Angel.

3. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

"I must express my disinterest." That line, declared during the fever pitch of "Pedestrian at Best," lays out the whole thesis of this album in one go. Rarely has someone tried so hard to express how little she cares. Some have traced the band's grunge era crunch to Nirvana, but I hear much more of Liz Phair's story-song approach here, and not just because both are female. Most songs feature characters unable or unsure about how to act, whether out of confusion or apathy. You could make some grand statement about our current generation, but I genuinely don't think that's the point. "Dead Fox" talks about the price of organic vegetables, but it absolutely isn't trying to guilt-trip us into buying them. After all, she only sometimes sits and thinks. The other times, she's trying to impress the boy in the next pool lane.

2. Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear

Is he really the asshole people make him out to be? I think that Father John Misty is only reflecting what America shines on him. Take my favorite song on the album, "Holy Shit", where he spends the entire song simply listing a string of unrelated statements. They don't make much sense together, but they add up to something quietly devastating. 

Take "the golden era of TV," which doesn't sound much written out like this, but when backed by strings and an ascendant arrangement, comes off as a sad comment on our times--that our greatest contribution is the drama we create. And that's not even the saddest part of the song. No, that happens with phrase, "Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity." Which is the kind of cold hearted saying that rings both true and impossibly wrong. He even admits as much seconds later, "I fail to see what that has to do with you and me." 

You could say the same about person connection in our hyper connected society, where our interactions are studied and over analyzed to mean something, anything, when it's little more than droning insignificance.

Doesn't sound like a jokester to me. Sure, it's shtick, but that's true of every artist.

1. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly

Too many people have written about this album already, so it's hard to figure out to anything new to say about the passion and politics that run through it. And after the year we've had, all of that is totally legitimate. I happen to agree with most, even if the political edge covers up what a truly bizarre and dense album this is. Instead, I thought I'd shine a light on on the drums, because no one else has mentioned them yet, and they rule. Just consider the moment in "Institutionalized," immediately after the declaration, "Master, take the chains off me!" when that tumbling drum beat hits. Suddenly we're in the early nineties in the middle of some lost Tribe Called Quest album, expect this one beat always feels like it's about to collapse and throw everything off balance any second. Of course, it helps to have Snoop at his laziest and best, popping in and out with his refrain. Or what about the straight up bebop of "For Free? (Intermission)", where the drums do all they possibly can to keep track with Kendrick's free-form verse, which only manages to get faster and more complex as it goes on. And let's not forget the lethal energy conjured up in "The Blacker the Berry," which is only matched by Kendrick's bitterly raw voice. Not only is TPAB an important album (I don't think that's in question) but it's also musically adventurous and full of incredible songs. At first, it was all almost too much. I couldn't figure out how to open up the last half. But each song slowly revealed itself. Few albums are worth spending this much time unlocking.   

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