To open the latest Death Cab for Cutie album, Ben Gibbard sings, “I don’t know where to begin. There’s too many things I can’t remember.” He’s singing about the dissolution of personal relationships and wondering where things went south. There’s too many wrong turns to keep track.
I’ve been organizing the music in a given year through running playlists that I update every few days. This is not a perfect exercise, but it is a good way to remind myself of the year in pop music. Sometimes I will bury myself in an album or only listen to the theme song from the Stephen Hawking movie, but I will always come back to the playlist to keep track of the year. I don’t want to lose track of things. Here, I am going to take a final look at some of my favorite albums to reassure myself I remember.
30. CHVRCHES – EVERY OPEN EYE
In deciding to start an electronic pop band, maintaining an air of professionalism is probably the afterthought that is most crucial to the composition and perception of the band. You could do electronic noise or electronic punk abrasively and haphazardly since those genres lend themselves to messiness. But if you go the pop route, you have to make your music shimmer. And if you keep making music, the next time you have to do it all bigger.
CHVRCHES succeed in doing that on Every Open Eye. Their first album was a winning combination of huge synthesizers and the personable voices of Lauren Mayberry and Martin Doherty. They keep the formula the same on their sophomore effort, smoothing the rough edges you did not notice on The Bones of What You Believe. The newer album is more referential than its predecessor. On one track, they stretch bits of Depeche Mode’s “I Just Can’t Get Enough” to a counterpoint -“Clearest Blue” where Mayberry implores “So please say you’ll meet me/ you’ll meet me halfway.” It takes a sound you are familiar with and expands it to something bigger and brighter.
29. VIET CONG – VIET CONG
The band Women is wild, interesting, and nonexistent. They stopped being a band in 2010. Matthew Flegel was the bassist in Women. He also started the band Viet Cong.
You can trace Women’s sound and influence through Viet Cong by way of Flegel, but both the EP Casette and Viet Cong’s self-titled full length separate themselves from Women’s previous efforts. Women could shred (see “Sag Harbor Bridge”) but Viet Cong’s guitar work is more capable and focused than the punky yelping riffs filling Women’s catalog. Both bands could be called post-punk because of their aggression and caustic music, but Viet Cong standout “Continental Shelf” actually makes an attempt to ape the post-punk canon. “March of Progress” floats between technical instrumental feats and experimental sections that Women hinted at. Viet Cong carved their own sound with a rusty knife. It will be exciting to see what they do next, whatever their new name is.
28. NATALIE PRASS – NATALIE PRASS
Monogenre this, monogenre that! The monogenre is a concern that pop music is becoming an amorphous entity combining aspects of country/ western, r&b, rock & roll, dance music, and rap. Homogenization is more of a theoretical fear, a “Sure, this might happen given current trends.” A few popular acts sound alike and we begin to pace anxiously.
Natalie Prass doesn’t fit in the current conception of this phenomenon, but if there was similar handwringing in the past, her music could. She would also need to be a time traveler. Her music is the sort of throwback that makes you claim 2015 is the year of the 1970’s reminiscent songster – spare unmodulated keyboards, soft horn groups colliding with colorful strings. That would be a dismissal. Prass twists pop, folk, and an AM radio aesthetic so expertly that you wonder why more people aren’t doing it. And yet, doing what exactly? Writing great songs?
The title that opens the album – “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” – could title a million songs. It crams a CBS Orchestra into the back of a dive bar and manages to stake its own claim. Every time you think pop music is moving one way, you have to remember there are always so many more ways people can go.
27. SHAMIR – RATCHET
Throughout Ratchet, Shamir is able to bring his Vegas desert background to life through some of the best-tweaked synthesizers since LCD Soundsystem called it quits. I saw Shamir perform some songs on acoustic guitar and piano in advance of his album but after a few singles were released. Most of his songs start out as solo acoustic guitar pieces, just Shamir’s voice and the strings. He has a very charming idiosyncrasy – he’s left-handed and plays a right-handed guitar, simply flipping it without changing the string order. He could have probably restrung the guitar conventionally when he was learning, but then he would have had less time to make music.
To go from simple acoustic songs to stacked and frenetic electropop is a sign of ambition and energy. In interviews, Shamir comes across as warm and thoughtful. It’s not a contradiction, but it’s a surprise to think that the funny and bouncing break-off anthem “Call It Off” started off as an acoustic number. Kids these days are full of surprises, and Ratchet has some of the best surprises of 2015.
26. PROTOMARTYR – THE AGENT INTELLECT
Protomartyr did one of my favorite things in music. They put out an album early enough one year to cram their follow up into the next calendar year. Everything I wrote about Protomartyr last year is mostly true, musically. The mythos stuff probably isn’t true. They are four guys making a rock ‘n roll go of it.
With Protomartyr, we are seeing something special. There’s no need to conform to a tren when you are making future classics. With The Agent Intellect, Protomartyr trash their promising newcomer status and steer straight into being one of the best rock band. Critic Ian Cohen often talks about indie rock in 2015 being stale and boring. Protomartyr’s form of rock isn’t stale but rotting. It doesn’t bore you to sleep. It bores into the rot deep within you.
25. HUDSON MOHAWKE – LANTERN
Lantern is not as coherent as some other albums on this list, which is fine! Hudson Mohawke (real name: Ross Birchard) creates big pop and hip-hop beats for his own projects, teaming up with Lumice as TNGHT, and for A-List artists like Kanye West. As a curator, Kanye has a great eye for talent. However, West also quickly moves on from collaborators. Lantern works as a collection showing a wide audience that HudMo can do more than the booming tracks his fans and Kanye love.
Even if you haven’t heard a ton of his tracks, his sound has already wormed its way into the broader pop world. The horns from Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” are a sanitized and attenuated take on the sounds that fill HudMo or TNGHT’s discography. Just like West, Swift has an ear for talent. If a version of his sound can exist there, why not try to see how far it can go.
Lantern features a great variety of features – Miguel, Jhene Aiko, Anohni. No matter how Hudson Mohawke twists his sound, it never stops banging and clanging. Hudson Mohawke can do stadium bangers like “Ryderz” and “Very First Breath” while still organizing a signature sound into a dramatic background for Anohni (fka Antony) on “Indian Steps.”
24. ESKIMEAUX – O.K.
Bedroom music and young musicians are often saddled with notions of sentimentality and quaintness. Oh, isn’t this cute follows them for a while. Frankie Cosmos addresses this on her new EP. Her bandmate Gabrielle Smith doesn’t get into this too much on O.K., because there isn’t enough time to get into these metatextual issues when there are songs that need to be recorded.
Eskimeaux doesn’t shy away from discussing youth, but it’s more a matter of fact than a feature. Fear and indecisiveness run through the album, but their presence is not powerful enough to sap the joy out of the themes of friendship and energy running alongside. O.K. takes these parallel emotions and turns them into songs that get bigger than you expect and shrink small enough to creep deep into the crannies of your feelings. On “The Thunder Answered Back,” Smith builds atmospheric background music into a stomping and charging force that builds up to her shouting “You coward!/ You hummingbird!” It’s a crash course in ten years of indie rock tropes that people talked themselves out of using as too serious and silly. Those tropes never lose their shine. Indie rock just needs a fresh take.
23. A$AP ROCKY – AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP
Before AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP, I thought that Clams Casino was a necessary part of a hypothetical A$AP Rocky album. Clams only had two contributions to LONG.LIVE.A$AP, but on an album that mashed a bunch of trends in current hip-hop together, those songs complimented Rocky. It was Rocky at his essence.
Now, Rocky puts together an album where a dude off the street (Joe Fox) is there more than Clams. Hell, Rod Stewart makes more of a mark on the album. Clams is still around in 2015 (he made great contributions to Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06), but he and Rocky don’t need each other anymore.
Absent of his frequent collaborator, Rocky turned to Danger Mouse and a host of consulting producers to look over the album. Luckily, Danger Mouse’s understated style works for Rocky’s second major label effort (on the record, Danger Mouse is sometimes v. boring. I am looking at you, Gnarls Barkley). Rocky leans into the cloudiness of his sound and comes out with an album of perpetual haze. There are no bangers or songs ready for crossover radio, but the album sets Rocky as a consistent persona. The album keeps you in pleasant haze while A$AP Rocky makes some subtle and nuanced advances of his own music.
22. SKYLAR SPENCE – PROM KING
Skylar Spence formerly went by Saint Pepsi (and legally Ryan DeRobertis). Said moniker produced some interesting remixes, reworks, and a straight jammer of a single in “Fiona Coyne.” His taste ranged from reworking deep cut American Football songs to crafting said jammer about a second generation Degrassi: The Next Generation character.
The output of Prom King isn’t out of step with Saint Pepsi’s, but on lead single “Can’t You See”, DeRobertis calls out his former life singing, “I was working/ tried my hardest/ slowed some music down and called myself an artist.” The album expands Saint Pepsi’s SoundCloud and laptop based jams to a full party record. The samples and synths are still there, but so are funky guitars, full horn sections, and a level of introspection that is balanced out by DeRobertis’s flair for disco bounce.
The album exists to soundtrack an 80’s comedy that never was, and that DeRobertis was only able to see run on cable or streaming on Netflix (he is young, you see). Prom King expands Saint Pepsi’s sounds by letting Skylar Spence synthesize the aesthetics of popular teen culture. These are songs that desperately want to score the big plot points – dances (both homecoming and prom types), house parties, state championship sporting events, last-minute romantic reconciliations. DeRobertis’s is too good at these emotions, and the backing track explodes into the star of the show.
21. RAE SREMMURD – SREMMLIFE
In a year full of party rap, Rae Sremmurd’s Sremmlife has been with us the longest. The album came out in January after the duo’s 2014 exploded with “No Flex Zone.” One of my bigger regrets is not ordering the physical copy of the album that came with No Flex Zone caution tape. What a fun tie-in!
The duo’s 2015 was filled with features, chugging on stage with Justin Bieber, and comic book covers. Mike Will Made It might have ceded his producer du jour title to Metro Boomin, but SremmLife is a textbook on how a producer can and should mesh with rappers. Swae Lee and Slim Jimmy’s frantic, young, and indefatigable voices flow over Mike Will Made It’s bassy and minimal beats, adding color and life to the spaces between drums and bass.
Every song on the album could be a single. A song with a catchy Nicki Minaj hook and a solid Young Thug verse is a deep track on the album. Being picky about the album, the only dark spots fall on the team’s references. Bragging to ball like Tracy McGrady comes out like a bone to basketball Twitter rather than a natural rhyme. “Up Like Trump” and its apocalyptic beat have been given new life by Donald Trump’s terrible presidential campaign, but when they committed it to tape, the dude was probably still just the asshole on The Apprentice. These are minor faults, overcome by Rae Sremmurd throwing a party on every track.
NEXT TIME: Physical music destroyers, various points of Philadelphia, albums about Law & Order actors