This is the end . . . of the year that is!
10. DEAFHEAVEN – NEW BERMUDA
For the past few years, crossover artists have outpaced crossover genre successes. From the maybe-too-specific depths of genres, a few bands have emerged to jump to a broader spectrum of their taxonomy. Deafheaven did so with their second album Sunbather. The album was big enough to cause a backlash. Were these dudes really a black metal band or were they capitalizing on a scene?
New Bermuda is an album of effort and establishment. On it, Deafheaven reinforce their bonafides. They might not be the favorites of die-hard black metal fans, but they will be damned if you think they are faking. Sunbather was an album breaking down the crossover between black metal and post-rock. New Bermuda is an album that shows how adept Deafheaven is at being a metal band.
9. FUTURE & DRAKE – WHAT A TIME TO BE ALIVE
Neither Future nor Drake put out the best rap album of 2015. However, their quickly assembled collaboration showcased their actual strengths more than what they wanted you to see as their strengths. Drake pulled more out of Future than his beats usually do. Future held Drake to the clipped pace reminiscent of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Their solo efforts were distinct and ambitious, but their team up was a pleasant summation.
The gold standard of collaboration albums is Watch The Throne. That album is a monster, but it has two tracks (“Lift Off” and “Made in America”) that make the album sound academic rather than historic. A bunch of that is due to Kanye reminding Jay Z of his powers. He is capable of killing the album, but for most of it, he sounds fresher than he has in years (Yeezy taught him).
What A Time To Be Alive is a different animal than Watch the Throne because the parties involved are at different places. Maybe Drake and Future haven’t hit their peak yet. But it is possible they have. The record doesn’t work as a statement of their individual efforts, but it works as a record of 2015. The album contains the best song two songs these guys did all year (“Jumpman” and “Big Rings) but that doesn’t seem like a huge coup compared to DS2 and If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late.
Ranking this album here might be too much, but honestly these songs are my favorite Drake and Future put out this year. Again, the songs aren’t comprehensive of either artist, but they do know how to draw the joy out of their component parts.
8. WAXAHATCHEE – IVY TRIPP
There are songs about falling in love and there are songs about breaking up, but Waxahatchee’s Ivy Tripp is an album of songs for a place between. Falling out of love isn’t really sudden and clean. There are feelings of loss and sadness on both ends – rejection and despair on one side and doubts and emptiness on the other.
Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield touches on more complicated feelings through her lyrics. Crutchfield closes lead single “Air” singing, “You were patiently giving me everything that I will never need.” It’s an opposite and more real feeling than, say, “I want you to want me.”
The songs on Ivy Tripp are even more impressive when you consider the amount and detail of emotions addressed. There’s easygoing yet regretful nostalgia on “Summer of Love” and a jolly kiss off in “Under a Rock.” Most of the songs are quick, but they dig into your heart. Opener “Breathless” is the longest and most unique track on the album, with Crutchfield’s voice mostly joined by held organ chords that never decay. The song closes with Crutchfield claiming, “I’m not trying to have it all.” Ivy Tripp almost goes through a process of elimination, trying to find what it wants by going over what it does not.
7. COURTNEY BARNETT – SOMETIMES I SIT AND THINK, AND SOMETIMES I JUST SIT
It’s strange to talk about indie rock being at a nadir when several of the best albums of the genre recently have been made by women. Being ignorant of such music either out of habit or due to more unseemly motivations is a choice. You are not able to decry the end of indie rock while also ignoring a large segment of the genre.
That intro does a disservice to Courtney Barnett, one of the most clever and catchy lyricists going. The story of indie rock hinges more these days on watching bands fall apart instead of crowning new kings. Courtney Barnett should be the king of indie rock.
Not that Barnett is getting overlooked or anything – critics love her and she’s been nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy. Maybe Barnett’s delivery undercuts how an audience reacts to her. Even when Barnett rips, she sounds laidback. For an area of rock ‘n roll built on not giving a shit, Barnett’s songs don’t get their just desserts for shredding and being out of it all at the same time.
6. KENDRICK LAMAR – TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY
Most people like To Pimp a Butterfly more than they remember. It’s a dense record that also had a very weird release (The label released the edited version accidentally and then had to get everything out there. It also maybe was supposed to be a surprise release, but then they just announced the first release date two weeks before to drum up support maybe?) so people had to engage with a wildly interesting album without expecting it. Blowing minds can be exhausting.
To Pimp A Butterfly is a wildly inventive album musically and thematically, but it is also unexpectedly catchy. As someone who thought Kendrick Lamar was more interested in concepts than singles, the album proves those concepts are not exclusive. Lamar’s able to pull pieces of his album for radio or for videos, but everything comes together just a bit more when you ingest it as part of the album. Kendrick is so good he can make the most interesting, political, musical, and relevant album of the year.
5. HOP ALONG – PAINTED SHUT
Painted Shut has the best song I’ve heard about avoiding acquaintances. But also! It is the best rock album of the year.
In December, I saw Hop Along play music for the third time in 2015. At this show, they decided to do a cover of Rage Against The Machine’s “Bomb Track.” The members of Hop Along seem so thrilled to be playing music together. As a result, Painted Shut is a joy to listen to.
There’s a difference between happy music and the joy on Painted Shut. Often times, Hop Along aren’t playing happy songs. “Happy To See Me” is a spare and lonely ballad. “Powerful Man” is a song about assholes getting away with daily awfulness. “Texas Funeral” is about denial. But the album is never a drag! It riffs along, rollicking and ripping with a smirk.
4. JULIEN BAKER- SPRAINED ANKLE
Sprained Ankle is the saddest record from 2015. There’s a tendency to think that people younger than you have it made, but maybe you’ve just had a more charmed life than you imagined. Listening to Sprained Ankle, you realize Julien Baker has gone through some shit.
The pain on Sprained Ankle lingers. The album is just Baker’s voice and an instrument (usually a guitar, once a piano). On the titular track, she starts by singing, “Wish I could write songs about anything other than death.” Somehow, that’s not as devastating as later in the song when she sings, “A marathon runner/ my ankles are sprained.” Much of the despair in the album comes from being unable to move, physically and emotionally.
The sadness is inviting. Baker is able to transfer her pain to these songs and make her own suffering universal. While Sprained Ankle is the saddest album I listened to in 2015, it was one of the albums I listened to most. Over and over again, just losing myself in someone else’s sadness.
3. CARLY RAE JEPSEN – E•MO•TION
After the success of “Call Me Maybe, ” Carly Rae Jepsen set out to make a more substantive album. Emotion had a hit in “I Really Like You” but that song was not as huge as “Call Me Maybe.” We forget the mass of “Call Me Maybe.” Despite the album not being as big of a hit as Jepsen’s biggest single, she did succeed in making one of the top-to-bottom strongest pop albums in years.
Jepsen assembled some of the genre’s most successful and interesting producers to help her bring Emotion together. She was able to take the best streams of pop and shape them into a coherent album. Maybe all those things together was too shiny to avoid being seen as manufactured, but the shine might be from so many incredible tracks on the album. Carly deserves an award just for the saxophone that opens “Run Away With Me.”
2. JAMIE XX – IN COLOUR
In listening to the xx’s two albums, you wouldn’t guess the person doing their beats was a pretty inventive electro-pop producer. Also, in listening to the xx, I wouldn’t trust a member of the band to remix Gil Scott-Heron’s last album, but here we are. Life is crazy sometimes!
In Colour has Jamie xx presenting all of his best musical ideas out there. The album is a love letter to his own taste, but through luck or skill, it does not come across as self-aggrandizing. Jamie xx is an English music nerd making an album like his favorite music. The guy was relieved he did not record “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” with Young Thug because rappers smoke too much weed. Who doesn’t want to hang out with Young Thug?
The album expands on his 2014 single, “All Under One Roof Raving.” Where that track was packed with samples of people talking about the rave scene he loved, In Colour develops a personal connection to that. Its beats and synths coalesce from their antecedents on “Loud Places.” Joined by his xx bandmate Romy Madley Croft, Jamie xx paints a picture of love as a backbeat. The feelings of affection and longing are amplified by the music behind them. What came first, the music or the love?
1. THE WORLD IS A BEAUTIFUL PLACE & I AM NO LONGER AFRAID TO DIE – HARMLESSNESS
The World Is A Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid To Die get classified as a band in the emo revival. That makes sense given their band name, singer David Bello’s vocal sounds (especially on their last album, Whenever, If Ever), song titles filled with references, and their music – earnest lyrics with quick drums and chunky-yet-poppy guitar lines. With their collective nature and sheer band numbers, you’d think there would be more references to Broken Social Scene, but here we are.
The artists and bands that escape their genre proscriptions usually do so by widening their scope. Harmlessness is an epic sounding record. With emo already on the cusp of the theatrical, leaning into those impulses might not elevate The World Is. . . as it should. Harmlessness seems like an album concerned with personal connections instead of consensus ones.