Let’s keep those good times going.
20. ADELE – 25
“Cheerleader” by OMI is the song I hated most from 2015. According to the internet, this song was first conceived in 2008, which, holy shit man. It took seven years for that? I was getting a teeth cleaning when I figured out what “Cheerleader” was for – there was an absence of new easy listening songs for lite FM. With its soft vocals and sunny tune, “Cheerleader” can fill medical offices all across this nation.
Oddly, OMI’s song needs to exist because the previous tenets of adult contemporary have been fucking shattered by Adele. A British singer with a booming voice singing songs of heartbreak and love should be cleaning up in that context, but Adele is too good at her job. You can call 25 more mature because the songs are slower than her previous albums. Mostly, it’s an album about nostalgia and feeling old when you are still young. This is typically a recipe for an outbreak of wrist tendinitis, caused by the simultaneous sarcastic jerkoff motions made by a host of music fans who have seen this before. But Adele elevates these themes, either through her talent or her pop savvy.
As discussed a bit with Natalie Prass, 2015 had many releases from throwback pop singer-songwriter types. In the way that the biggest superstars (Adele, Kanye West, Taylor Swift) can, Adele plucked Tobias Jesso Jr. from the Beggars Group label family and worked with him on one of 25‘s legitimately huge numbers – “When We Were Young.” It’s a ridiculous concept on the outset as two young songwriters contemplate the fading nature of love, relationships, and youth. But she sells it! Bow down before Adele and her powers of pop supremacy.
19. SORORITY NOISE – JOY, DEPARTED
At a point, the emo revival will begin swallowing rock bands of various persuasions, because guitar rock has not expanded like other genres. Sorority Noise’s Joy, Departed could be an early example of this. The album is a polished and catchy collection about dependence and addiction. There is an earnest quality and there is a sentimentality. This is what we use to qualify the emo revival.
The ten songs on Joy, Departed are exhausting as to reflect the subject matter. Opener “Blissith” starts quietly and then explodes into a wall of post-rock sound. The band has a penchant for dynamically splitting their songs. The front comforts and lulls you while the back half shreds your face. When they aren’t switching between those modes, they tap into anthemic pop-punk on tracks like “Corrigan” and “Noisey.” Sorority Noise could be a new generation’s Superchunk, but that’s not the climate right now. It does not matter, since Joy, Departed gets by on the strength of its songs rather than its context.
18. CAR SEAT HEADREST – TEENS OF STYLE
Indie Rock’s Great Hope will be carried on the backs of bedroom artists with a Bandcamp following. For example, Frankie Cosmos has translated a slew of Bandcamp releases to last year’s Zentropy on Double Double Whammy and this year’s Fit Me In on Bayonet. Will Toledo’s Car Seat Headrest put out 2015’s Teens of Style on Matador.
We put too much on young artists as genre saviors. Considering that in 2015, pop musicians can largely exist without the strict constructs of genres, it’s odd how much we still fall in love with an idea that a lo-fi wunderkind will magically transport us to a basement where Guided By Voices, Pavement, and Yo La Tengo are doing a four-hour show on a rotating stage. But on Teens of Style, Toledo does make a smiling namecheck, singing “When I was a kid/ I fell in love with Michael Stipe.”
Teens of Style takes some of CSHR’s old songs and repurposes them for an ersatz debut. Despite the song’s age or source, everything sounds current. Heck, “Times to Die” and Adele’s “When We Were Young” basically get at the same ideas, but they approach them at much different levels of audio fidelity.
17. DONNIE TRUMPET & THE SOCIAL EXPERIMENT – SURF
Chance the Rapper not being on a label is an old story by now. I am not sure how much a label would have helped or hindered his career at this point. He clearly has competent people going to bat for him. He would have competent people go to bat for him at a label, too. The only part I think his hypothetical label team would have issue with is Surf, an album he put out with his backing band and guided by Donnie Trumpet AKA Chance’s close friend Nico Segal. Telling the people responsible for your career that you weren’t going to release your proper follow-up to Acid Rap because you were working on something slightly different is probably a major non-starter. Luckily for Chance, he doesn’t have a major backing him at this point.
Where Acid Rap‘s release was a moment, Surf‘s release bubbled under for a while. The Social Experiment leaked a few bits every once and a while – “Sunday Candy” hit SoundCloud in October of 2014, I believe. The Social Experiment performed a bunch of Surf at SOB’s in New York in February. That night, SoX jammed more instead of simply running through the album. None of the album’s major features hopped on stage. For the most part, the band just did what they wanted and Donnie Trumpet gave into some of his more masturbatory trumpet solos.
Such solos aren’t absent on Surf. In fact, that’s what turns many Chance-fans off of the album. That’s fine! Strictly speaking, this isn’t a Chance affair. For an album that features Quavo, Busta Rhymes, and Big Sean, the trumpet flourishes are the second biggest power move on the album, after not listing any feature credits on any of the tracks.
As much as this isn’t about Chance, the way Mr. the Rapper cultivated his 2015 runs parallel to Surf. “Sunday Candy” started as a late 2014 SoundCloud heart. Then it boomed into the video of the year and a highlight of both Chance’s SNL and Pitchfork sets. Loosely, it might as well be a Chance single, but it would not have broken through without his friends.
16. DRAKE – IF YOU’RE READING THIS, IT’S TOO LATE
Drake, if nothing else, knows how to get and keep people talking. His mixtape/ album If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is an aesthetically focused and musically interesting collection, but it came out in February. Drake has done so much shit since then. Here are the Drake Things that happened in 2015 that did not involve this album
- Drake and Madonna made out on-stage at Coachella
- “Hotline Bling”
- The Meek Mill feud which produced “Back 2 Back” on the one hand, but also the regrettable “World tour or your girl’s tour”
- “Trust me, daddi” vines
- The “Hotline Bling” video and Apple not scanning his video, robbing Drake of his first #1 single.
- The Raptors continued resurgence
Drake had a year! (WATTBA was omitted because we will get to that later) Opinions vary wildly on the guy, but in every conception of Drake, there is a fear of fading away. Drake rejects this by being everywhere, which sometimes works to his detriment. His presence overshadows his music at this point. At some point, Drake is disappointing someone. For someone who seems to be generally good-spirited, he does put across a lot of friendzone revisited vibes. Maybe he leans into the emotional when he runs through the six with his woes, but you misunderstand – WOES is his crew. There is no winning with Drake.
If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is by far Drake’s least flashy work, but it’s the closest his oeuvre comes to a simple rap album. It’s Drake, under cover of night, putting out an album of him and a few OVO-affiliates discussing rap things. It’s not the most ambitious project of the year, but you can’t contextualize Drake with a year. He can only be contextualized by what silly thing he does next.
15. FATHER JOHN MISTY – I LOVE YOU, HONEYBEAR
According to most outlets, Josh Tillman’s Father John Misty persona is a joke. Honest to gosh, I am not sure I get it! In my understanding, FJM is a send up of a 70’s type of sauntering singer-songwriter that shows the absurdity of Life As We Know It. But the kind of remove that the persona puts across is similar to a bunch of other modern humorists (his Instagram account is not tooooooo far from Ezra Koenig’s Twitter account). I don’t know if Father John Misty the persona exists outside of his music. I am not sure if cognizance of the persona is even necessary for enjoyment of that music.
What if that maybe-necessary lothario found love? Essentially, I Love You, Honeybear is about Father John Misty meeting his wife. Additionally, it’s about this detached author making sense of their life and love through the person in their life. The first time the world was introduced to this iteration of Father John Misty was a great performance on David Letterman’s show, where Tillman faked piano and piped in the laugh tracks that appear on his album. The track he performed – “Bored in the USA” – is no love song, but it was the best statement of what Father John Misty was. I Love You, Honeybear is how we got to Father John Misty now.
The album is a flourish of the sweet parts of new love (“Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)”), the disgust of lust (“The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment”), and the magnitude of retrospect (“I Went to the Store One Day”). Concept music can often fall under the weight of cleverness, but I Love You, Honeybear is full of songs that are too good for ambition to derail.
14. SLEATER-KINNEY – NO CITIES TO LOVE
2014 was the year of remembering Sleater-Kinney. Sub-Pop reissued their albums in a deluxe box set edition in the fall. The band’s last album came out in 2005, but collectively remembering Sleater-Kinney brought out the sort of good will and fuzzy feelings in music fans that usually only come up in small pockets for obscure acts from ages ago. People adore Sleater-Kinney. Luckily, the box set contained new music and the promise of more music in 2015.
No Cities To Love is not a victory lap. The album is a document of the band as they are now. They are the punky statesmen of indie rock. In the 9 years between music, more people discovered Sleater-Kinney, as people will always be drawn to things they think are gone.
The band is not gone. No Cities To Love has an immediate quality. The aggressive sounds on the record are culmination of expert musicians expertly playing music effortlessly. Contemporary hip people are backing S-K so hard now – Carrie Brownstein is a wildly famous actress, the band’s album teaser was full of a-list celebs, the video for “A New Wave” was a minisode of Bob’s Burgers – because Sleater-Kinney essentially made the zeitgest in their own image through their fans.
13. SUFJAN STEVENS – CARRIE & LOWELL
Carrie & Lowell is a highly personal record from Sufjan Stevens about people in his life. It’s quiet like his early work, but as emotionally ambitious as The Age of Adz was conceptually ambitious. Every time I listen to it, I feel like I’m going to cry. More accurately, I want to cry, but feel like there are no more tears left. There is dread and sadness without the emotional catharsis of crying. It’s not hard to listen to. It’s easy to fall into Stevens’ despair.
Sufjan can do whatever he wants to do musically, but I’ve never felt like I wanted him to go back to the fifty states thing as much as the end of Carrie & Lowell. His other albums evocative moments too, but he breaks things up with history lessons and string flourishes. There are no breaks on this album. When he sings “fuck me/ I’m falling apart” on “No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross” it’s even more sad that he hasn’t realized he’s already fallen completely apart through the previous nine songs.
12. BEACH SLANG – THE THINGS WE DO TO FIND PEOPLE WHO FEEL LIKE US
In Spinal Tap, the band’s manager tells them during a cab ride that New York isn’t a rock city. Philadelphia is more of a rock town. There are a ton of bands coming out of Philly these days, so that line pops up a lot in my head these days.
Far be it from me to declare who is the most rocking of these Philly bands, but Beach Slang are the band who can be called full-stop Rock most easily. The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us sounds like what it is like to remember Big Star and The Replacements and [FILL IN YOUR FAVORITE ROCK BAND HERE]. Singer James Alex is gruff and gravelly in the way vocals usually aren’t these days. I’m trying not to get too meta about rock music and Beach Slang because their music seems contrary to such navel-gazing. So, in closing, Beach Slang rule.
11. FUTURE – DIRTY SPRITE 2
On Honest, Future made some choices to become a more standard pop star. I loved the album, but it seemed like it wasn’t Future at the height of his powers. Future put out a TON of music in 2015 and it was all well-regarded. Future decided to lean into what made him a star in the first place.
Future’s separation from Ciara might have triggered the end 0f his pop aspirations, if only metaphorically (the rumor that the Seahawks cannot listen to Future because Ciara now dates Russell Wilson is my favorite thing of 2015). In 2015, the thought that Future needed to change his music or approach to achieve superstardom is laughable. Mainstream music is weirder than ever, and Future’s weirdness fits with this. On Dirty Sprite 2, Future’s musical ambitions and talents were right in line with the audience of 2015.
If anything, Future’s harshest criticism has come from fans of more classical rap. If you hold Future up against Kendrick Lamar, you are doomed to be disappointed one way since they are wildly different. Even Future and Drake populate difference spheres of the pop world (Well, mostly, but we will get to that in the next set).
NEXT: CINDERELLA, AUSTRALIA, THE WORLD IS A BEAUTIFUL PLACE AND I AM NO LONGER AFRAID OF LISTS.