Ah, the holidays. A time for nailing giant socks to the wall. A time for singing about pudding. A time to reflect on the year in music. Here’s a list of the 20 audiodiscs that gave me the most earjoy in 2015.
20. Boosie Badazz – Touch Down 2 Cause Hell
Lil Boosie has always commanded our attention with the quavering intensity of his bars. But there’s something even more visceral happening on this, his sixth album, and first since being released from a five-year stint in a Louisiana jail. You best sit down before pressing play on “Intro – Get Em Boosie,” because it’s one minute and 16 seconds of severe passion, the sound of a rapper freeing a long-suffocated muse. There’s anger in there, and sadness, but the overarching feeling is triumph. Over 18 ensuing tracks, this feeling of grand catharsis rarely subsides, and what seemed like the typical branding moves – dropping the “Lil,” the chaotic promise of the album title – are revealed as truth. This is an inspired, determined, grown-azz man.
19. The Mountain Goats – Beat the Champ
You don’t need to care about pro wrestling to appreciate John Darnielle’s 15th record. But if you’ve ever been in love, caved under pressure, or searched for goodness in the world, Beat the Champ has something for you. The singer/songwriter uses the squared circle as a launching pad for autobiography, explaining his childhood obsession with regional star Chavo Guerrero – “I need justice in my life/ Here it comes.” Elsewhere, the metaphors fly like feigned punches, from the sweetly romantic tale of a long-sundered tag team to the unexpected sting of a foreign object in your eye. In his inimitable, nasally verbose way, Darnielle turns what could have been a novelty record into a strikingly emotional work. He is the world champion of wistful pride.
18. Panopticon – Autumn Eternal
Few things are as metal as leaf-peeping. People come from miles away to watch the trees blaze with a million little deaths, their once-verdant finery destined to rot. At least, Austin Lunn thinks so. He’s the man behind every note of Autumn Eternal, a black metal showpiece that plays like a drive through peak foliage – at first, with the sights blurring by, it feels like everything’s on fire. Then you slow down and realize you’re surrounded by beauty. Panopticon’s sixth record loses the bluegrass elements that made its prior work so haunting, in favor of walls of guitars, organs, drums and screams that swirl with enchanting grace. The melodies unfurl slowly amidst the chaos, gorgeous reminders that nothing is so natural as death.
17. Jessica Pratt – On Your Own Love Again
Jessica Pratt is the kind of enigmatic folksinger who sounds like she was meant to record alone, hurling complicated emotions into the void. Her phrasing is messy, her pronunciation odd – “can” is “keen”; “time” is “tam” – but in the psychedelic malaise of her second LP, these quirks sound less like grating affectations and more like the artist’s own personal language. The joys of her guitar playing, however, are clear as day. She interrupts gorgeous finger-picked cascades with staccato minor notes, playing with a narrative thrust that gives the record its bone density. When we hear that scratch of pick on acoustic, we’re trained to expect some diary-entry-type emoting. Pratt plays against that expectation beautifully, leaving just enough breadcrumbs to get us lost. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus, 2/11/15)
16. Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls
Of all the fascinating moments from the 2009 Iron Maiden documentary Flight 666, nothing compared to the footage of a Brazilian fan who had just caught one of Nicko McBrain’s drumsticks. He stands awestruck, unaware of the camera, tears of gratitude streaming down his face. It’s a feeling I can relate to when listening to the band’s excellent new double-disc, because it shimmers with the commitment and energy of a band half its age. While never straying from that classic Maiden formula– dramatic intro, triumphant gallop, insanely catchy solo, repeat – The Book of Souls avoids nostalgia though the use of a panoramic lens. The two best songs on the record are also the two longest songs in the entire Maiden catalog. “The Red & The Black” especially slays, its chorus a fist-pumping “whoa” that makes we wish I was in a stadium, expressing my gratitude loudly.
15. Bjork – Vulnicura
When Bjork released Vespertine in 2001, it was the most direct statement of her career. Starry-eyed, triumphant, vulnerable and otherworldly, it remains a breathtakingly accurate depiction of an all-consuming love. Fourteen years later, here is the denouement. Vulnicura details the demise of Bjork’s marriage in the same stark, unflinching way that Vespertine celebrated its beginning. It’s a devastating work. The artist and co-producers Arca and The Haxan Cloak paint pictures of dissolution with little more than a string section and a spare drum machine. The story arc begins with our narrator seeing the cracks in the foundation, surprised at how little she cares. “Maybe he will come out of this / Maybe he won’t / Somehow I’m not too bothered / Either way,” Bjork sings in ghostly three-part harmony, extracting as much wonder from winter as she once did from spring.
14. Drake – If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late
Here is perhaps the most downplayed of 2015’s surprise album drops. Even though it was released like a traditional, for-purchase-only record, Drake has insisted that If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late is a mixtape, a mere prelude to his much-hyped and still-imminent Views From the 6. (Are the rap semantics making your head hurt too?) For whatever reason, the artist basically told us to think of this as a minor release. But after hearing the first five songs, that is impossible to do. It’s rap’s strongest opening stretch of the year, a beautifully sequenced malaise of ego, death and crew politics that is about 200% catchier than I’m making it sound. The Torontonian has become a master at delivering hooks, filling this record with the same airy confidence that made “0 to 100” one of last year’s best singles. “Energy” is a great song entirely because of the way he draws out those syllables – “Tryin to take a waaaaaave from a n***a!” If this is just a preview, then I am going to pee right now – don’t want to miss a second of the feature presentation.
13. Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material
Country music has always understood how to wallow. Some of its finest moments have taken us down the whiskey-soaked alleys of Self-Loathing, USA. But I’m a bigger fan of the singers that return from the abyss and report on how they overcame it. Like Kacey Musgraves, whose filtered sunbeam of a second record sparkles with self awareness, jam packed with life lessons destined for cross-stitched kitchen wall hangings. It begins with a honey-sweet ode to the calming influence of marijuana, complete with strolling whistles, Dusty Springfield string swells, and a flamenco guitar solo. “It’s a fine time to let it all go,” she sings, the profoundly pleasant melody backing up her argument. Feel so lonely you could cry? Just cry already. You’ll feel better.
12. Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp
Ivy Tripp is one of those raw-nerve breakup albums that finds clarity in despair. Katie Crutchfield’s songs are all about sifting through wreckage, directing blame, taking brief escapes through nostalgia. Yet there’s real comfort in them, the reserved, homespun production a testament to the healing powers of a focused mind. No matter how many sad-sack, Reznor-ian sentiments Crutchfield throws at her work – e.g. “You’re less than me / I am nothing” – it never comes close to toppling. Whether it’s through a lone organ run, a gentle rockabilly groove, or an extra-slow, hunched-shoulder riff, every one of these tracks is built to be a grower.
11. Matthew E. White – Fresh Blood
“Everybody knows that rock and roll is cold,” croons Matthew E. White on the most rock ‘n’ roll-indebted song he’s ever done – 12-bar blues structure, ooh-la-la chorus and all. And in the lush, lovestruck context of his second LP, the irony of that line cuts even deeper. Fresh Blood finds the artist continuing to scratch his Randy Newman itch, slathering his compositions in strings and woodwinds and vocal harmonies, his unique baritone standing out in spite of it all. The difference here is Cupid’s arrow, washing away any trace of sarcasm. We’re talking celestial metaphors for love at first sight, picnics under laden fruit trees, a refrain of “nobody in this world is better than us.” With such shamelessly gorgeous production behind him, White has the power to swoon.
10. Tribulation – The Children of the Night
If you ever hear somebody bemoaning the lack of good guitar-based music these days (like, if you’re Dave Grohl’s fishing buddy), hand them a copy of this, the third LP from Swedish gothic metal band Tribulation. The Children of the Night is stuffed with the kind of layered, anthemic, utterly beautiful guitar interplay that will have you considering airbrushing a Gandalf/Balrog fight on the hood of your Honda Civic. When paired with a penchant for theatrical organ playing and singer Johannes Andersson’s gravesoil-spewing croak, Tribulation creates a completely immersive experience, where you can hear about the existence of gateways to netherworlds populated by dreaming corpses and be like, “of course.”
9. Kurt Vile – B’lieve I’m Goin Down
There have been moments – caused by exhaustion, an intoxicant, or both – when I’ve become obsessed with the sound of a word I’ve heard a million times before. “Di-no-saur,” I’ll say out loud, as everyone slowly backs out of the room. “Does that sound weird to you?” I share this boring anecdote in an attempt to explain the singular joys of listening to Kurt Vile, whose mesmerizing brand of folk-rock can make the most played-out phrases feel profound. On his sixth album, he has a song called “That’s Life,” a chorus about looking at the man in the mirror, another refrain about rolling with the punches. When delivered in the lulling sea of Vile’s finger-picked guitars and deconstructed piano chords, these clichés transform into a sort of everyman poetry. Dude could sing “It is what it is” for five minutes and have me in tears.
8. Miguel – Wildheart
In a year when the top R&B song was an ode to the joys of facial numbness, Miguel’s third album was the sound of feeling returning. On his previous records, the Los Angeles vocalist did striking things within the confines of the late-‘90s neo-soul sound that so clearly inspired him. But Wildheart is something else entirely. Earthy and psychedelic, introspective and sex positive, it’s one of those thrilling documents of an artist ditching the old templates and exploring what’s underneath. It never strikes poses. “The Valley” weaves religious metaphors into its lustful narrative, not to seem controversial, just to make the point that great sex is spiritual. “Coffee” celebrates the context of making love with its simple, elegant arc of a chorus, placing conversations and caffeine on the same sensual pedestal as the act itself. “Face the Sun” positions true love as a moment where we see the light. Miguel has never been more confident in what he’s saying, in the sounds he wants to hear, in the sensations he thinks we all should get to feel. And that is a turn on. (from my review in PopMatters, 12/4/15)
7. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love
2015 would’ve been a perfect cash-in year for Sleater-Kinney – a decade since dissolution; 20 years since its debut album. The trio could’ve easily booked a tour where they play that record front to back and made thousands of people very happy. Instead, they made a new one. And it’s better. Impressively, No Cities To Love doesn’t just recapture the band’s signature sound, it continues the spirit of evolution that preceded it. Where 2005’s thrillingly loud The Woods played like a radio station .2 off on the dial, NCTL is crisp and considered, a 10-song study in artistic chemistry. Honing in on Carrie Brownstein’s endlessly inventive riffs, Corin Tucker’s flamethrower of a voice, or Janet Weiss’s propulsive drumming can be just as rewarding as letting the whole thing wash over you. “We’re wild and weary / But we won’t give in,” sings Tucker, selling the idea with every syllable. This is why fans hope for reunions.
6. Vince Staples – Summertime ’06
“My mama caused another problem when she had me.” When gangsta rap was at its height, a line like this would be a swaggering boast, a motto for an artist starring in his own ego-driven, cartoonish noir. But in the hands of 22-year-old Long Beach rapper Vince Staples, it’s something else entirely. First off, it’s a lie. A deception the narrator needs to believe in order to live with those bodies in the alley. Summertime ’06 is named after the season that drove Staples to nihilism – “the beginning of the end of everything I knew.” And producer No I.D. gives the darkness no place to hide, save a drum beat and a few strangled notes. Like Yeezus, it finds irresistible hooks in unvarnished territory. Unlike Yeezus, it doesn’t believe in any kind of god.
5. Florence + The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Going by the title of this London ensemble’s third LP, one might expect a collection of songs that look outward, searching for profundity in the expanses above us. Instead, we get the opposite. These tracks are so focused on the internal workings of their creator that they make a delayed phone conversation feel like a burgeoning electrical storm, giving love the power to hurl us into canyons – breaking bones, but not our devotion. Florence Welch isn’t merely exploring her emotions here. She’s calling them to the mat, with a voice that could bend street signs. Factor in sweeping arrangements that rise like tempers, and we have a record that transforms the daily commute into a grand, cathartic singalong. Because while the universe is vast and intimidating, it’s got nothing against the fear that goes hand in hand with falling for someone. (from my review in PopMatters, 12/4/15)
4. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
I Love You, Honeybear sounds like a vintage Elton John LP, its rich, sad vocals buoyed by strings. It’s also marked by John’s old penchant for costumes. Recording for the second time under the guise of his sarcastic crooner-douche character Father John Misty, singer/songwriter Joshua Tillman falls into an ironically confessional groove. Behind the armor of a beard and fitted suit, Tillman can tell us that he’s in love, that it makes him brash and boastful, that it also terrifies him. In “Nothing Ever Good Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow,” he bellows at the men who hit on his girlfriend in bars, “Why the long face, jerk off? / Your chance has been taken.” As the pedal steel notes bend to the heavens, we’re hearing a form of male bravado we’re not used to – the swagger of the monogamous. Then there’s the closer, where the band takes five, and the costume comes off. Over his own gentle acoustic strum, Tillman sings about heading out on a routine errand, and learning that fate can feel tangible: “For love to find us of all people / I never thought it’d be so simple.” If he keeps writing songs like this, he can call himself whatever he wants.
3. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
We’re used to the narrative of pop stars rejecting their “voice of a generation” status. Dylan hid in the woods. Cobain set out for darker places. But I don’t think we’ve ever had an artist respond quite like Kendrick Lamar did this year. On his third album, the Compton rapper doesn’t reject or embrace the title. He obsesses over whether he’s worthy, snarling about the hypocrisies that should disqualify him, pinballing between belief in a just god and helplessness in the face of temptation. And he’s not afraid to make us feel the weight. To Pimp A Butterfly is a long, challenging LP, full of murky jazz and slow-building poetry, soaked in survivor guilt. For long stretches, Lamar doesn’t give us, or himself, much of a rhythm to latch onto. Listening to his bars unfold over slippery sax runs and ungrounded drums can be like trying to eat Jello with your hands. Which, in these violently racist times, is the point – there are no easy answers, no purely satisfying resolutions. But there are reprieves. Like “Alright,” the defiantly hopeful rallying cry and centerpiece of TPAB. “Do you hear me? / Do you feel me? / We gon be alright,” goes the refrain over a shimmering Pharrell beat. In that moment, in spite of himself, Kendrick Lamar is leading.
2. Young Thug – Barter 6
In an October feature on Young Thug for The New York Times, Jon Caramanica gave us a fascinating peek at the rapper’s creative process. In the studio, with a beat playing, he stitched together stream-of-consciousness outbursts like quilts. It’s something different from freestyling. It’s more like freecrafting. And on Barter 6, his first proper solo LP, we got to see that knack for building songs take center stage. It’s a spacious experience, with producers like London On Da Track favoring subdued, synth-heavy environments, where the bass bubbles up like lava. It’s the perfect milieu for Thugga, for my money the most inventively melodic rapper alive. Every couplet could be a chorus in his hands, every boast about drugs and cars enlivened by the undulating squawk of his voice. “I got Hot Wheels like a motherfuckin’ chariot,” he boasts. In the midst of this impressively assured work of art, it’s clear he’s not talking about toys.
1. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
When somebody has a great voice, people say they’d pay to watch them read the phone book. I’d pay Courtney Barnett to write about the phone book. On her debut album, the Aussie singer/songwriter exhibits an uncanny ability to turn the most mundane daily activities into poignant ruminations. A visit to an open house becomes a reflection on the life of the previous owner. An elevator ride becomes a suicide hotline conversation. A morning swim becomes a metaphor for the awkwardness of a new crush. Barnett sings with with a lackadaisical, seen-it-all edge that’s reminiscent of ’90s alt-rock at its finest. She refuses to dramatize, to court us with her ideas. So when she heads to the beach to mourn the destruction of the environment, we follow, knowing the last thing we’re going to feel is manipulated.
Honorable Mentions: Drake & Future – What a Time To Be Alive; DVS – DVTV; Fetty Wap – Fetty Wap; Future – DS2; Goatsnake – Black Age Blues; High On Fire – Luminiferous; iLoveMakonnen – Drink More Water 5; Jamie xx – In Colour; Jay Rock – 90059; Jeff Lynne’s ELO – Alone in the Universe; Meek Mill – Dreams Worth More Than Money; Ashley Monroe – The Blade; My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall; Petite Noir – La Vie Est Belle; Screaming Females – Rose Mountain; Shamir – Ratchet; Slayer – Repentless; Slugdge – Dim and Slimeridden Kingdoms; Chris Stapleton – Traveller; Wilco – Star Wars; Windhand – Grief’s Infernal Flower; Young Thug – Slime Season 2