There’s something so supremely calming about writing lists. The act of gathering my thoughts and organizing them really seems to give me momentary peace of mind. This is especially helpful in relation to my annual musical round-up, since before this time of year, my meditations on the subject seem to be an unruly collection of casual conversations and illegible notes. I often find, when making these year-end rankings, that the plans I have in my head become totally flipped around once I touch pen to paper; this list is no different from any other in that regard. The real differentiating factor between 2015 and other years is the sheer amount of fantastic music I’ve heard from January 1st to now. I must say, I’ve fell in love with more records recently than I could have possibly imagined in 2014 or before. So, from #25 all the way up to my “coveted” album of the year slot, I truly connect with all of these projects, and I think you might too. Give them a listen, and find something you love. Here’s my top 25.
25. Evermore: The Art of Duality – The Underachievers
I had a few different contenders for this last slot on my list; besides this record, Bully’s Feels Like, Daniel Lopatin’s Garden of Delete, and Czarface’s Every Hero Needs a Villain. Though these are all fantastic pieces of music, this debut Underachievers LP struck me with its authenticity. Upon first listen, I found the lyricism on the first half of this album to be the sonic equivalent of a middle school pep rally. Issa Gold and AK relentlessly spit bars on the subjects of hope, love, and the future. Their optimism annoyed me. But this album grew on me, and I came to appreciate the dichotomy between sides 1 and 2 of this album; “Rain Dance” and “Reincarnation,” respectively. The unrepentant starry eyed-ness of “Rain Dance” is the ambition and aspiration to the anger and despair of “Reincarnation.” This is one of the few hip hop albums in existence in which you might hear a line from a motivational poster over a hard hitting trap beat.
Favorite Track: “Allusions”
24. GUUD – Ash Koosha
To separate this piece into more than one track would be a disservice to its genius. Despite its relatively short 42-minute run time, GUUD is a daunting listen, if only for its indecisiveness. One moment you’re hearing a groove-oriented future bass beat, while the next you’ve hit hyperspace, with melodies and percussion smacking into you on your way through the cosmos. I would say that GUUD is “progressive,” but that might attribute it to a category or genre of music, when it should not be. You might just want to listen for yourself.
Favorite Track: The whole damn thing
23. Live From the Dentist Office – Injury Reserve
So, a group of guys from Arizona got together to make a semi-experimental hip hop album about trying to be rappers. This does not sound like the formula for a successful project; and yet, it seems to be. Ritchie and Groggs’ flows are catchy and coarse, and the hooks here are infectiously simple, reminiscent of Open Mike Eagle and Das Racist. Corey Parker, the third member of the trio and producer, crafts beats that are simultaneously bizarre and heavily orchestrated, and they always bump. Groups like this are what keeps great hip hop alive.
Favorite Track: “Whatever Dude”
22. Sylva – Snarky Puppy and the Metropole Orkest
This neo-classical masterpiece is an album that you will not be seeing on critics’ year-end lists anytime soon. For some reason, the “in” music media have shunned Snarky Puppy, deeming them either too jazzy and prodigious, or simply not cool enough. Either way, they’re wrong. We Like it Here was one of my favorite albums of last year for its experimentation with the expectations of what has been called “progressive jazz,” and Sylva does the same, differently. There are still the Snarky Puppy-fied funk tracks, but where this album really shines is in its longer cuts, “The Curtain” and “The Clearing.” These do what the best operas and symphonies do; they take you on a journey through music. They craft characters and plot lines without saying a single word, and keep you interested from front to back.
Favorite Track: “The Curtain”
21. No Cities to Love – Sleater-Kinney
Comeback albums are usually not an area of interest for me. Just this year I was let down by Cannibal Ox’s Blade of the Ronin and Refused’s Freedom, despite each bands decorated history. Looking back, though, I should have expected No Cities to be a great record, if solely based upon Sleater-Kinney’s consistency from the time they were together. In the 90s and 00s they released album after album of bombastic punk songs, and somehow, their comeback LP is one of their finest. Whether they reunited out of love for the music, societal rebellion, or something entirely different is unclear, but unimportant. The performances are raucous and Corin Tucker hasn’t lost an ounce of her shrieking charm. Each riff is a swift punch in the patriarchal gut, and it feels fantastic.
Favorite Track: “Bury Our Friends”
20. Summertime ’06 – Vince Staples
This record is To Pimp A Butterfly‘s depressed cousin. Both records portray poor neighborhoods in California, both deal heavily with issues of race (specifically, being black in America,) and both records were created by hip hop artists with unique flows and detailed lyricism. The difference is, the picture of California that Vince Staples paints on Summertime ’06 is unapologetically dark. The production is sparse and moody, sometimes leaving a single snare or bass line for Staples to flow over. The beats groove so hard that you can fall into a sort of hypnosis, in which the music just encapsulates you. The only reason to avoid this mesmerized state is to properly appreciate Vince’s lyricism and tone. He has this nasal, guttural drawl he spits in, that’s as gritty as the world he speaks about. This is not a concept album; it’s too grounded in reality.
Favorite Track: “Lift Me Up”
19. In Colour – Jamie xx
I gained a whole new perspective on this album after seeing Jamie xx perform at Pitchfork Music Festival. He was one of the most skilled DJs I had ever seen, weaving both his own and others’ tracks in and out of each other, all the while carefully managing the dynamics. After that show, I approached In Colour the same way he performed his music (that is, approaching it as a live DJ set), and I was pleasantly surprised. In my head, this record plays like one of the best Boiler Room sets I’ve ever heard; it segues between house grooves, making use of creative sounds and patterns to create new textures. The more pop-oriented moments on the record are certainly melodic and anthemic, but not overbearing. In Colour steers clear of the radio, but teases it. Jamie xx draws from diverse influences while retaining his own sound, which is what makes this record so captivating.
Favorite Track: Obvs
18. A New Place 2 Drown – Archy Marshall
The only time I’ve ever experienced insomnia was a Wednesday night. I had a 9 a.m. class the next morning, so I went to bed around midnight. I rolled around for a while, checked the clock, and saw it had somehow turned into 3 o’clock in the morning. After some more rolling around, I got out of bed, put on some clothes, and walked out into a desolate, freezing Boston morning. It was still dark out, and I didn’t see another living soul. I wandered the empty streets for about 40 minutes before returning to my dorm and getting a solid 4 hours of sleep. This was the first time I really “got” A New Place 2 Drown. Of any album on my list, this one is the most lonely. Archy Marshall, best known for his King Krule project, sort of half-mutters over nocturnal, punchy beats, with both the “rapping” and production seeming secondary to the thick atmosphere this album creates. After putting on this album, things feel cold, black, and solitary. It feels like walking around a vacant city at 3 in the morning.
Favorite Track: “Ammi Ammi”
17. Ratchet – Shamir
I don’t do much dancing. I’m a fairly nerdy, not particularly coordinated kinda guy, so unless I’m at a Phish show with lots of other people like that, I leave the dancing to the cool kids. When I see Shamir, though, I dance. It’s impossible not to when the majority of his catalogue is this record, which features hit after hit after hit. Save for the albums two ballads, “Demon” and “Darker,” it’s a track list made up of danceable EDM-tinged disco tunes with great bass lines and catchy choruses. Don’t let the music mislead you, though; much like my previous pick, this is a pretty lonely record. Tracks like “Call it Off” and “Head in the Clouds” remind us that despite Ratchet‘s instrumentals, Shamir is talking about breakups and being an introvert, not going out and partying. For me, though, this is a bonus; I’d be happy with just the music.
Favorite Track: “Call it Off”
16. B4.DA.$$ – Joey Bada$$
This was the first album I fell in love with this year. At the tail end of 2014 I got heavy into Joey, and I had his mixtapes 1999 and Summer Knights playing on repeat. But even though I loved them, I was worried. Like many other current artists with a love for older music, Joey had trouble staying out of the past and away from his influences. Many called him a Nas rip-off, and 1999 consisted of mostly unused MF DOOM and J Dilla beats. Luckily, B4.DA.$$ does not have this problem. On his debut LP, Joey seems to have carved himself a little niche in the growing boom-bap revival scene, making beats grounded in the 90s, but flourished with his cultural influences and dark worldview. As far as the rapping goes, Joey has as much swagger as ever. In my opinion, his flow is one of he best in the industry right now; he spits over the beats with so much confidence and laid-back rhythm that it practically oozes out of your speakers. He certainly has a tone far beyond his years, and at 20 years old, he’s got a very bright future ahead of him.
Favorite Track: “Christ Conscious”
15. Sun Coming Down – Ought
It’s very rare that a post-punk band can bring this much excitement and energy to their music. Despite the latter half of its namesake, the genre isn’t exactly known for mosh pits; not that that’s inherently a bad trait, but it certainly can be, and it’s what suppresses my interest in a lot of music deemed to be “post-punk.” Not so with Ought. This band has a knack for combining punk with outside influences, like soft rock and pop, but retaining the raw emotion and anger. This is largely thanks to lead singer and guitarist Tim Darcy, whose live presence is just as apathetic and assertive as he appears on Sun Coming Down. The songs on the album match his character, with a mix of eclectic guitar rock and jagged noise. And somehow, they still manage to get stuck in your head.
Favorite Track: “Men for Miles”
14. I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside – Earl Sweatshirt
I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, but I was disappointed when I first heard this album. After my first listen of this less-than-30-minute project, I was left feeling that Earl had gotten lazy. But, much like my relationship with his 2013 debut LP Doris, it took me a few listens to get it. It’s very possible, in fact, that my initial disdain for this album was very much rooted in the how much I loved (and still love) Doris. I Don’t Like Shit is everything that Doris is not; consistent, irreverent towards hip hop standards, and totally unique to Earl. That last one is probably the most important. While the songs and flows on Doris were great, it still felt like Earl was trying to break free the expectations Odd Future fans had for him. Tyler doesn’t appear once on I Don’t Like Shit, and neither do his goofy beats. Instead, we get an unadulterated 30 minute peek into Earl’s psyche. What you see and hear is depressing, brutal, and fervent. Each feature is chosen with care; even Na’kel, a skater-turned-rapper who I usually find really juvenile, comes through with a gut-wrenching verse about his dead brother. This album stays true to the title, so don’t expect anything else.
Favorite Track: “Wool”
13. Sound & Color – Alabama Shakes
My expectations for this band have always been very low. Until this record was released, I had written them off as a cheesy revivalist festival band with no artistic merit, in the same vein as Gary Clark Jr. In that way, Sound & Color caught me off guard. The lead single, radio-hit “Don’t Wanna Fight,” was in my rotation for a while, which was surprising based on how much I truly hated “Hold On.” Upon listening to the entire LP, I came to a few conclusions; the most important of which being that the Alabama Shakes are in no way trying to copy blues the way Gary Clark Jr. does. Their instrumentation is surprisingly minimal, and leaves ample room for Brittany Howard’s incredible vocal prowess. She seems descended directly from Louis Armstrong and Sarah Vaughn; I sometimes find myself aghast at the sounds she’s able to create, but there’s no question that she’s a very technically capable vocalist. The other crucial thing to recognize about this album is its variety and influences; though there are the Zeppelin-y tracks like “Gimme All Your Love,” there are also songs like “The Greatest” which seem almost punk. Then you’ve got the title track and opener, a gentle vibraphone-centered introduction that immediately disposes of any preconceptions of the band you had going in. My only hope is that I can catch this band away from the main stage at Lollapalooza, in a more intimate setting, where their attention to detail and precise sound can really be appreciated.
Favorite Track: “Gemini”
12. To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
Who could’ve guessed, right?
I know that by now, you’ve probably heard every fucking critic on the planet sing the praises of this album, talking about how it bends the very foundations of modern rap music, and how unflinchingly “black” it is. Of course, this is true, and most of the adoration this album has received is totally warranted. But I’d like to speak not about how fantastic this album is, but instead, why it’s my #12 and not my #1. First of all, there are moments on this album when I am bored. “Mortal Man” is crucial to the album’s story arc and it wraps everything up perfectly, but it’s 12 minutes long. Compare that to good kid, m.A.A.d. city‘s similarly long “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” I would argue that the latter is just as important to its albums story, and yet, I find myself captivated for the entire run time. My least favorite track on TPAB, “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” could honestly just be a Thundercat B-side. The six string bass arpeggios and soft neo-soul are great and everything, but the song feels out of place, and melodically lacking. Besides the songs themselves, the entire album feels like it could have been reigned in a bit more. Some parts ramble on for too long, some become repetitive, some feel far too short. Look, I’ll just come out and say it: I like good kid better. But really, enough of the devil’s advocate bullshit, this is a genius album and a modern classic. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.
Favorite Track: “Momma”
11. Divers – Joanna Newsom
I often have trouble fully comprehending Joanna Newsom’s music, which is upsetting to me. My first introduction to her was her 2006 LP Ys, a collection of five exclusively 7+ minute tracks. This was perhaps the wrong place to start. I was, perhaps, frightened by her abandonment of conventional song structure, sharp vocal delivery, and intense visual lyricism. All of these elements are present on Divers, but I find myself immediately enthused with this record. The melodies and instrumentation are, of course, gorgeous; I would expect nothing less from Newsom at this point. Her harp is sounding pensive and versatile as ever. The songs, too, are light and fluffy yet touch upon heavy subjects; and (dare I say it?), they’re catchy! For me, Joanna has reached her most accessible with Divers without sacrificing the elements of her music that make her one of the most forward-thinking artists today.
Favorite Track: “The Things I Say”
10. The Epic – Kamasi Washington
I had a very long internal debate over this album, that it seems a lot of people also had. I wondered for a long time, is this really a jazz album, or is it a sort of modern appropriation of jazz? Then I decided to get off my fucking high horse and enjoy the music. It’s hard to listen to any part of The Epic without considering its nearly 3 hour run time. However, I must say, I feel like that time is well spent. Few parts of this record are wasted, in large part due to the performances. Brotherly duo Thundercat and Ronald Bruner Jr. make up much of the rhythm section, with the rest occupied by Miles Mosley and Tony Austin. Every name here brings their unique instrumental sound to the table, and combined with the horn section, makes up an LP of invigorating solos, catchy melodies, and a full range of dynamic moments. If Miles Davis had made this, people would have been impressed.
Favorite Track: “Leroy and Lanisha”
9. Elaenia – Floating Points
The two main influences I hear on this album are Sun Ra and Carl Craig. That alone makes it one of the most interesting records to come out in 2015. This gives The Epic a run for its money as the best jazz album in recent memory, even though this one is mostly keyboards. Out of Elaenia‘s 7 tracks, only two have drums. This is because most of the run time is space-age, ambient, electronically-inclined weirdness. But these vast, open landscapes Floating Points’ Sam Shepherd creates give way to huge peaks (these come on those two tracks with drums.) This album functions as an album, running front to back with total continuity and a masterfully controlled temperament. Shepherd’s most powerful tool in his arsenal is restraint, and he uses it wisely.
Favorite Track: “Peroration Six”
8. The Gold Standard – Marrow
It’s hard not to feel bad for these guys. Three of the members of Marrow, Macie Stewart, Liam Kazar, and Lane Beckstrom, were once part of the blues/hip hop outfit Kids These Days. The drummer and trumpet players of that group went on to play for Chance The Rapper (who is now a world famous rap personality) and the group’s frontman, Vic Mensa, is now equally as famous as Chance. It seems these three got left in the dust. Luckily for us, we’ve gotten The Gold Standard because of it. Its a record full of precisely-written post-rock songs, that shine because of their catchiness and song structures. Marrow’s experimentation with odd song forms and total sonic changeups mid-track have proved fruitful on this project, and it doesn’t hurt that they’re all great players, too.
Favorite Track: “Mother of Maladies”
7. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometime I Just Sit. – Courney Barnett
“Jen insists that we buy organic vegetables/And I must admit I was a little skeptical at first/A little pesticide can’t hurt,” Barnett half sings, half speaks over “Dead Fox.” This line pretty accurately sums up the lyrical aspects of Sometimes I Sit and Think. Barnett provides deadpan, hilarious insight into the mundane life of a middle class Australian. Her oddly detailed descriptions of percolators and garages make her one of the most prolific lyricists in modern music. Fortunately, her actual music has just as much attention to detail. Backing up her lyrics are a collection of unruly garage rock tracks that can be simultaneously uncontrollable and reigned in. The lyrics and music come together perfectly to create a blend of rock music that hasn’t yet been heard.
Favorite Track: “Nobody Really Cares if You Don’t Go to the Party”
6. VEGA INTL. Night School – Neon Indian
If you had told me a year ago that Neon Indian was going to release one of my favorite records of 2015, I would have laughed at you. I tend to brush aside most artists who make “chillwave,” as I find their music is pretty uninteresting, save for a few tracks along the course of Toro y Moi’s discography. That’s what surprised me so much about VEGA INTL.: how much I liked it. Neon Indian’s Alan Palomo has managed to create an entire world within this record, filled with skin tight jumpsuits, smoky discotheques, and one man performing on stage for all of these characters. The sounds here are more disco and reggae than they are chillwave, and it serves Palomo well. He no longer seems so obsessed with the past as he did on Psychic Chasms, and each song is far more clear. The production is still reverb soaked, but the drums and vocals cut through the mix to provide a very full overall sound. Each watery keyboard chord change falls right into the vibe, and the grooves occasionally take on a life of their own. Palomo seems to have finally beat the chillwave label.
Favorite Track: “Dear Skorpio Magazine”
5. I Love You, Honeybear – Father John Misty
The day before I departed for my freshman year of college, I organized my records from happy to sad. This album made it in towards the latter half of the “happy” side, meaning I find it to be one of my most pleasant records. My friend scoffed at me, saying this album was cynical and critical. I agreed. But, despite that, this is a happy record. The title has the word “honeybear” in it. Father John Misty, AKA Josh Tillman, is clearly upset with how society treats love, and how it is viewed in our culture. But what makes this album “happy,” in my mind, is its view of authenticity, and how it elevates love to be something that not even society can ruin. Love is what you hear on “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C For 2 Virgins).” Tillman makes it clear across the album that he’s got some serious problems with the world, but who cares? He’s got Emma.
Favorite Track: “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment”
4. Blood – Lianne La Havas
There’s nothing too flashy about Blood. It’s not a 3-hour jazz record, it isn’t the anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s not her first album in 5 years. What it is, though, is a collection of fantastic songs. They have the pop appeal of Taylor Swift and the groove of D’Angelo. At the center of it all is Lianne herself, and her voice. Her tone is so incredibly full and powerful at times, like on “Midnight,” when she perfectly nails what seems to be the highest note in her chest voice. Then two songs later, you’ve got “Ghost,” a soft ballad featuring exclusively her voice and a guitar. She crafts pop songs with so much precision and soul that it’s impossible not to fall in love with her voice. It’s not flashy, by any means; just incredibly emotional.
Favorite Track: “Midnight”
3. The Powers That B – Death Grips
Who could have predicted that the most mind-numbingly intense release of this year would not have been a punk or metal album, but instead, a hip hop one? I’ve been waiting for Death Grips record like this since 2011’s Exmilitary, and I finally got it, thank god. The first half of this LP, n***as on the moon, is made up of some of the weirdest rap music I’ve ever heard. Bjork’s vocals are weaved into every beat, and drummer extraordinaire Zach Hill’s blast beats cover everything in energetic fervor. The entire first side feels glitchy and extremely off-kilter, which makes me wonder how the hell MC Ride managed to actually rap over these beats. The second half, Jenny Death, is totally different, in classic Death Grips fashion. Like the first half, though, it sounds very unlike anything they’ve ever released before. Jenny Death can, at points, actually sounds like rock music, believe it or not. Electric guitar is featured heavily on tracks like “On GP” and “Death Grips 2.0,” which is odd the group, but it works. It gives the whole second side a very moody edge that simultaneously pushes musical boundaries. I couldn’t have expected this, but I love it.
Favorite Track: “Powers That B”
2. so the flies don’t come – milo
If Death Grips is experimentation, this is flawed perfection. Milo has a way with words, indeed. He spits about Arthur Schopenhauer, his best friend Rob, being a rapper, and everything in between. He’s got one of the most diverse vocabularies in the game, so his membership in the Hellfyre Club makes sense. He’s got a lot of stuff to say, but that doesn’t mean it’s particularly clear. His rhyme schemes are dizzying and hilarious, but coded as well. As for the beats, well, Kenny Segal freaks the SP rather well. He’s got the groove prowess of Flying Lotus, and he can make a beat swing like a motherfucker. These beats perfectly match milo in their strangeness. Above all else, though, this is a rap album. Milo raps over beats. It’s pretty damn good.
Favorite Track: “Rabblerouse”
1. Multi-Love – Unknown Mortal Orchestra
I started off really liking this record. I don’t think there’s a single second of it I’m not enthralled by. Each song manages to craft a new lovable hook or weird disco groove, underscored by grungy lo-fi production that gives the record teeth. But this didn’t become my album of the year until I read this article. Pitchfork interviewed the man behind UMO, Ruban Nielson, over the course of a few days. After reading the article, then returning to the album, I felt so much more fulfilled by it. It was as though I was getting a peek not only into Nielson’s life, but the entire idea of polyamory. An album like this doesn’t only provide amazing music, it does so much more. It brings into question how to love and how to live, despite how cliché that may sound. It connects ideas that are sung and talked about to a persons real life, and it’s expressed through the sounds on the album. Nielson is bending psych-pop and bedroom recordings into a way previously thought unimaginable, he’s writing great songs, and he’s doing it all for himself. Fortunately, though, he’s sharing it with the rest of us.
Favorite Track: “Necessary Evil”
Thanks a lot to everybody who has written for, looked at, subscribed to, or in any way supported Yr Album’s A Sucker this year. I’m looking forward to a 2016 filled with great music and great writing. I appreciate everything.
Written by Preston Fulks