The anxiety produced from ranking this sort of thing is unnecessarily intense. As I tried to decide the order of where each album should be placed, I felt I was betraying the connections I had with each record. On first listen, many of these pieces of work felt like the best album of the year. So instead of ranking them in terms of “greatness,” I ranked them in terms of how they impacted me as interpreter of music and musician.
First, some great records that didn’t quite make it onto my list.
Honorable Mentions: Denzel Curry – 32 Zel/Planet Shroom, Tame Impala – Currents, Joanna Newsom – Divers, Jlin – Dark Energies, Jamie XX – In Colour, Mormon Toasterhead- perfect understanding, Ought – Sun Coming Down, This is Lorelei – I You I I You You I, Speedy Ortiz – Foil Deer, Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, Kamasi Washington – The Epic, Jessica Pratt – On Your Own Love Again, Swings – Sugarwater, Torre –Sprinter
25. Homeshake – Midnight Snack
I changed my mind about this one when I saw Homeshake perform in a moldy, dimly lit basement for maybe 20 people. The numbing drums, R&B melodies and glowing synths fit the environment perfectly. The pessimistic drawl in frontman Peter Sagar’s lyrical longings hit me at a bad time, as my mental state at the time certainly shared his sentiment. When I put together that Sagar was attempting an unsettling rendition of the likes of D’Angelo and Prince, it cemented my love for this album.
24. Father – Who’s Gonna Get Fucked First
Father has some of the best snark in rap, constantly brandishing tongue-in-cheek lines throughout WGGFF. With a cheshire cat attitude, The Atlanta based rapper and producer toys with satirical writing and skits over his pristine production. Playing on the lyrical tropes of rapping about women and drugs, Father seamlessly mocks his industry with the heaviest tracks hitting hard, then being abruptly cut off. The hooks then transition into eerie grooves that leave you with a weird taste in your mouth. Radio-unfriendly rap or absurd critique is a constant question you have to ask yourself while listening and it’s what makes listening to Father so appealing. Father toes the line between radio-unfriendly rap and absurd critique, alienating some, turning others into devoted fans.
- GAS LEAK & FRIENDS – ANTHOLOGY OF GAS
Gas Leak invites the urge to suck on propane tanks and shit glass shards. No record this year got me so excited about a feverish desire for pyromania. Mostly improvised and the sonic equivalent to a car crash, this collection of the band’s best work from 2013-2015 gives you little notice on what direction it will head in. Sentimental echoes changing and droning outbursts from lead singer Ivan Gugel-Dawson are quickly broken down into violent tangents. The line between what is feedback and what is his voice is blurred. Bass, synths and guitar become twisted and jaunted before chugging to a halt. From there, you are often overtaken by demonic chants before the madness continues. This record is comparable to a sandbox RPG, in the sense that you can always discover an area of it you never noticed. Always a resource to help you channel your hilarious distaste for everyone.
- Fred Thomas – All Are Saved
The most happily cynical record of 2015, Fred Thomas matched my vacillating enthusiasm that came with this year. All the anguish about the future and excitement about the present that I felt this year churned constantly. Upon hearing this record, I felt immediately comforted. Thomas is a blunt storyteller, describing awkward moments on airplanes and drunken cell phone destruction over Elephant-6 style horns or yearning guitar chords. Nostalgia isn’t always good for you and the uncertainties of life are the themes that really I really got attached to while listening. While some people might be off-put by his lyrical frankness, Thomas has at least one tale you can relate to.
- Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment – Surf
Chance the Rapper and Nico Seagal (a.k.a. Donnie Trumpet) offer up a surprisingly warm and fuzzy listening experience with Surf, in a year where hip-hop has been especially downtrodden. Surf sees the likes of Big Sean, Janelle Monae, BJ the Chicago Kid, Erykah Badu and many others collaborate, not cooperate, efficiently on this record. Often with hip-hop albums that lean on many features, the work feels watered down and attempting to offer up awkward “surprises”. This is not the case with Surf, where each artist offers up their own styles to the constant genre bending that the record offers up. Epically composed by Seagal and narrated by Chance, Surf is has the perfect balance complexity and catchiness that you’d expect from such an eclectic cast.
- Gracie – S/T
Gracie Jackson’s debut LP has been self-described as “bummer jams”, but this record is not so much about stoned indifference as it is about self-deprecation. Jacksons mumbled croons and dreary, fuzzed out licks create a texture for the disappointment she seems to bring on herself. “If it’s any indication why you shouldn’t waste your time, well these days it’s not so easy…love is not so cut and dry” she mopes on the records must brutally straight track, “Jesse”. There isn’t so much sadness in her voice as there is contempt. I had little trouble finding this work especially poignant to my own issues with love for myself, taking in her words as the records rhythms came into sync with the morning commuters. The hazy weather didn’t help the cinematic grandeur I felt with this record. Like many albums on this list, it came to me at the right place and time.
- Lower Dens – Escape From Evil
Oozing with well crafted pop ballads and haunting lyrics, Escape From Evil has some of the best takes on 80’s nostalgia. While other acts have channeled this same phenomena, Lower Dens doesn’t make a crutch out of it. Instead, the group employs the creature comfort of chic synths and pop song structure while creating a sense of ownership. It does not feel recycled, but owned. Lead singer Jana Hunter’s melancholy voice is the driving force of the record and you can hear the myriad of emotions she is feeling without reading the liner notes or reading her writing. I always associated this record with an after-party or a late night trek home. It serves as music to reflect on social interactions both past and present. There is a meditative power to this album that’s why I was absolutely hooked on it.
- Fatkid – Fatkid’s Bath Night
I’d heard many of the songs on this record live before I finally got the ability to listen to it without having to be crammed into a basement or living room. Not that I didn’t absolutely love attending Fatkid’s shows, but it was fun being able to recant each situation I heard these songs in. Bath Night also captures the elements of their live set perfectly. The dialogue that lead singer Alex Mann devilishly mumbles is retained and the violent mood swings of each song are kept intact. A comparison has often been made to Primus, but Fatkid seems to take a page out of Frank Zappa’s playbook. Absurd lyrics, furiously different composition techniques on each track and the sense that these guys love laughing at their own jokes make it such an exciting listen.
- Negative Scanner – S/T
Shameless punk velocity and riot grrrl cackles make up the epidermis of this record, but there is so much spunky intensity, controlled chaos and gleeful spite on every track. It is the consistency of rawness that makes it such an awesome piece of work. With many rock and punk records that came out this year, there was a sense that genre bending was a necessity to push the envelope. Negative Scanner does not rely on spectacular shifts in sonic textures to get their point across. They are here to spit in your eye and step on your toes. It is the confidence and visceral nature of this album that makes it so powerful.
- DJ Mastercard – Corrupt Memories
While labelmate DJ Paypal got the most critical praise for his work in the footwork genre on, I was not as engaged by his very spastic approach to the style on Sold Out. What makes DJ Mastercard so entertaining is his chemical balance of footwork, hip-hop and Chicago house. It makes it impossible not to sway and jive when you put on Corrupt Memories. Insane rhythm changes and perfectly executed drops that never seem to sour. DJ Rashad (father of the footwork style) would certainly have been proud of how Mastercard has separated himself from the pack with this release. However, Mastercard is grounded on this piece, not attempting to overwhelm his audience. You see how he has nailed the technique of rapid fire percussion, while still keeping each track at a pace that is danceable. While very short in length, Corrupt Memories will leave you pleasantly exhausted in such a limited time span.
- Archie Marshall – A New Place 2 Drown
I had always held Archie Marshall’s first prominent project, Zoo Kid, in high regard. It was one of his various monikers, but his work under this particular name had stuck out to me for its refreshing take on hip-hop. Marshall returns to a similar vein with New Place 2 Drown. Hectic percussion, harsh samples and gloomy textures make up the record. Marshall’s post-punk delivery of his misty lyrics make it sound less like he is rapping and more like he is speaking directly to you. While most white people have made a bad habit of appropriating the mannerisms and cultural stylings of the genre, Marshall does not attempt to imitate or steal. He relies on his poetic capacity and musicianship to create his own unique piece of work.
- Holly Herndon – Platform
Holly Herndon’s Platform turns the clicks, coos and bleeps of a desktop and composed them into a frantic symphony. While many art school students love talking about playing with the concepts of space, technology and bodies; Herndon actually bothered to explore them. The album creates bodily movements out of wavy glitches. The familiar sounds of your Macbook make you realize how comforted you are by the siren song of the loading screen. Spacial relationships defined on the album expand, then collapse onto each other. Herndon’s vocals are absolutely beautiful, but soon become contorted into “hooks”. While not the most accessible album of the year, the time and patience you dedicate to this record will absolutely pay off.
- Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Sufjan Stevens’ intense body of work has typically relied on majestic symphonic arrangements. Carrie & Lowell strips down Stevens to his most essential components, his warm vocals and heartfelt blue-collar storytelling. Very few records of this past decade will make you as teary eyed by the gut wrenching love and honesty Steven’ put into this record. This record also features elegant soundscapes that Stevens uses as a tool for his stories. Creating an atmosphere of nature and nurture, he relies little on the flashy production of his folk contemporaries. Simplicity is key with this work and this allows you to really soak in every single word that is sung.
- Death Grips – Jenny Death
Since N***as On The Moon (the first half of Death Grip’s double LP The Powers That B) was released in 2014, I will only review the second part of the work. Jenny Death is the most abrasive work that the band has done. Which is saying something. Vocalist MC Ride starts off the record with the venomous chant of “I BREAK MIRRORS WITH MY FACE IN THE UNITED STATES!”. The satanic elements of Jenny Death only continue from there as Death Grips takes you further down into their personal hellhole. Fiendish sampling, unstoppable drums and Ride’s destructive lyrics deliver what you’d expect from such a polarizing punk group. I was legitimately paranoid that some sort of crevice would open up in the ground whenever I listened to the album. In terms of LP outputs as a project, Death Grips continues to deliver incredibly exciting material.
- Young Thug – Barter 6
Outside of Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly, no other rap album this year changed the game quite like Barter 6. In the Camelot of rap, Young Thug is the jester, constantly pushing buttons and participating in acts of lyrical gaul. Unlike many of his fellow Atlantans, he does not need production to make his songs engaging. While certainly present, the beats serve as a backdrop for Thug’s shifty delivery and comical brashness. By no means a juggernaut in the writing department, Thugger compensates with his theatrical personality and sexually ambiguous presentation which, given the industry’s growing tolerance of LGBTQ people, is certainly a step forward. Thug’s dedication, worth ethic and rise in popularity signifies a changing of the guard in the Southern rap scene.
- Opposites – Joon II and Got My Cough
Opposites’ first release in almost two years strikes with their mesmerizing vocals mixed with intricate riffs and percussion. However, the band seems set on breaking into fantastic thrashes and tighter arrangements throughout this album. With their 2013 record Printer’s Ink on Everything, Opposites offered up almost eighty minutes of music. Joon II and Got My Cough barely clocks in at fifteen minutes with a mere seven tracks, but what they do with such a small budget is incredibly efficient. Most of the songs aren’t even two minutes, yet each track is so hypnotic and intricate that you barely notice this minute detail. You just hit restart without a second thought. While one could be frustrated by this, Nate Amos (the driving force behind Opposites) seems to know exactly when and how to begin and end each section of the album so that you are constantly on your toes. It is impossible not to be entertained and totally engaged by Amos’s work.
- G.L.O.S.S. – DEMO
With many punk and hardcore bands in the 21st century, political messages have always been tricky. Often, they come off as whiny or as if they were taken directly from a freshman liberal arts notebook. With G.L.O.S.S. (Girls Living Outside Society’s Shit), every single line brings goosebumps. G.L.O.S.S. frontwoman Sadie Switchblade is unapologetic in waving the battle flag against straight America. It is this fiery demand for uprising that makes this demo so exciting to listen to. I’ve found that a good hardcore record inspires an internal riot and this demo does it on its own terms. A hardcore act hasn’t had this kind of lyrical velocity in many years and this manifesto for the women of punk brings hope that more of these kind of positive messages will follow. Much like with Opposites, this demo utilizes every single second. Eight minutes of pure, uncorrupted contempt.
- Protomartyr – The Agent Intellect
Protomartyrs answer to their highly praised Under Color of Official Right sees the Detroit punk group delivering eclectic and righteous tracks with even more proletariat turmoil. Frontman Joe Casey fires off tales of corruption, dive bar conversation and brutal self reflection. Casey delivers his usual baritone, drunken new wave crooning. However, unlike the previous album, Casey seems slightly more optimistic. There is certainly a strong element of pop to this record and it allows each track to transition smoothly. You will still get barbed wire coated guitar parts and potent drum rolls, but sometimes you get a whiff of early Strokes or Blondie. It is this mix of catchiness and poignant storytelling that connect me to Agent Intellect.
- Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
TPAB is compositionally, lyrically and structurally the most striking album of the year. This is undeniable. Credit must also be given to Kendrick for taking such a dramatic risk. The success of good kid, m.A.A.d. city put him in the position to go and release an LP designed to create radio hits. Instead he creates a milkshake of jazz, soul and rap that some have called his magnum opus. The record is certainly important considering when it was released, during a time in America where Black America is striving to achieve status beyond second class citizen. The impact of this album can be seen everywhere, with even the most commercially friendly track, “Alright,” being used an anthem for many Black Lives Matter protests. What many white critics, including myself, seem to forget is that this record was not made for us. There is only a certain level of this album we can wrap our head arounds. Sonically, I’m completely enthralled by the piece. It is the stories in this record and character development that makes TPAB so commanding. It is this aspect I fail to completely grasp and where I found it to be inappropriate to salivate over this LP.
- Guerilla Toss – Flood Dosed
An EP seems like a stretch for such a “high” position on this list, but Guerilla Toss is such an important band that it is hard not to give them the recognition they deserve. Their ability to create highly experimental material that is also impossibly dancey is astounding. I’ve shown this work to people who have absolutely no interest in noise, jazz or punk and observed that this band is surprisingly accessible. It is been very exciting to see this band grow and garner more fans as they were the first band I ever saw perform at a DIY venue. The cannon of the work continues to be strikingly special and a source of inspiration. Flood Dosed is not the heaviest of their work, but it’s the most explosive. Lyrically ambitious, dirty yet highly polished and filled with burning electronic synapses, this EP requires your full attention. I feel so strongly about Flood Dosed because it is bringing promise of more intoxicating music from this group.
- Downtown Boys- Full Communism
Hands down the most compelling and enticing punk album of 2015, Full Communism is a wreckingball of an LP. Downtown Boys perfectly channel The Pixies’ loud-quiet-loud style, Morphine’s unsettling sax sound and classic punk progressions. The band is politically charged in a highly intellectual, yet approachable way. Lyrically, they unrepentantly address issues of wealth inequality, industrialized prisons and the need for solidarity in minority communities. It is the assertiveness and frank nature of this record that makes it so poignant. Despite its serious nature, Full Communism is also really fun to listen to. I’ve had many one person mosh pits to their cover of “Dancing in the Dark.” Along with Protomartyr and G.L.O.S.S., Downtown Boys are keeping critically addressed punk bands from falling into some stale patterns.
- U.S. Girls – Half Free
Grimes’s latest album Art Angel received praise for being both fantastic pop and strikingly feminist in nature. I found that to be very true in the slept-on Half Free. Meg Remy’s beautifully unsettling project U.S. Girls has always been a very unique take on pop, but with this newest record Remy’s lyrics are actually audible. It is the songwriting mixed with Lynchian styled grooves where this album comes to life. This LP creates distorted poetry on the relationship with men that daughters, mothers and wives struggle with. It also steals like a motherfucker, capturing the essence of Bowie, Holiday, 60’s pop and 70’s soul. It is this variety in sounds and textures that allows Remy to tell different stories of missed calls, yearning widows and bad luck. Through these details comes the title of the album, Half Free. It is the subtle and precise details that make this Remy’s finest work.
- Jenny Hval – Apocalypse, girl
Apocalypse, girl has one of the best vocal performances I heard all year and Jenny Hval uses her greatest asset to define the album. Her voice and words are essentially the entirety of this project, give or take a drum machine here and some studio instruments there. It is the lyrical brashness and weaponized sexuality of Hval that makes this work so defining. “Yes! You say I’m free now, that battle is over! And feminism’s over and socialism’s over Yeah! I say I can consume what I want now,” she harps on the defining track “That Battle Is Over”. Each line of the record stays glued to you. Hval fires off shock value laced commentary, whispers innuendos and rivals Bjork in her shrill-yet-haunting singing. Apocalypse, girl is therapeutic in nature, yet venomously calling of nakedness on both an existential and physical level.
- Viet Cong – S/T
This was my favorite rock album of the year for a variety of reasons. Production-wise, it walks the line between lo-fi sensibility and crystal clear instrumentation. The writing is minimal, but has lines that stick out either vocally or demand more inspection because of how bleak they are. “The simple task of turning me on,” and “failed to keep the necessary papers for evacuation,” among other lyrics are sang in such harmonious indifference that you are given both bright and cold emotions. Awesome, opiate synths are paired seamlessly with psychedelic guitar jangles and post-punk styled drum bangs. The efficiency and immediate transitions within each song and on a track-by-track level are unreal. Spooked yet quaint points of just vocals and keyboards will explode into 12-string guitar hooks and cruel bass lines. I can’t stop listening to this work because of how defined and particular it is. By far one of the most expansive and organic records I’ve heard.
- Father John Misty- I Love You, Honeybear
It’s hard to find records like ILYHB, because many artists and bands have touched on the subject of love; yet this album has such a unique take on it. It is a collection of fantastic and sentimental love letters. Each song is like a chapter in a book with shifts from the past, present and future of a relationship. Josh Tillman (a.k.a. Father John Misty) toys with the concept of love through a lens that both embraces it and criticizes it. While Tillman certainly is madly in love, he can’t help but see the ways that consumerism, Western egomania and social media have corrupted its meaning. The composition is reminiscent of 70’s pop and country rock, but it provides an elegant backdrop to Tillman’s croonings. I grew so attached to this record because the emotion of love is so important to me. A huge variety of feelings go off into various tangents when one is in love and I certainly feel them when I listen to ILYHB. It just feels like a record that will be incredibly timeless for me and I anticipate using it as a tool for coping with both chaos and peace.
Written by Caleb Brennan