Gabe’s Best Music of 2015
2015 was a heavy year. Wesley Morris, in The New York Times Magazine, called it “The Year We Obsessed Over Identity.” And yet, I can’t get this one line from Chance the Rapper out of my head.
“It’s cool with just me.
I’m cool being me.”
It’s not because our questionings of race and gender and institutions and political systems and representation aren’t necessary or interesting. They absolutely are, and they’ve lead to some of the best art of this century (and in 2015 especially). But this year’s music has not simply been reacting against current events, but thinking about the future, diving into history, fantasizing, experimenting. It has conjured up new worlds and reinvigorated our own.
Listening to music in 2015 was a full-time project. As a result, this is the albums list I’m most proud of, more than any year past. From the space race to manic depression to the alienation of technology, artists tackled stunningly conceived concepts, with production that ranged from sparse to grandiose, and pierced them with modern relevance. There were disappointments, to be sure (looking at you, Decemberists!), and not-quite-theres (so close, Belle & Sebastian!), but this year I found new love for artists I thought were beyond saving and became thoroughly enamored with others I didn’t even knew existed. My own tastes have expanded, out of sheer force of will more than anything.
Here are my Top 10 Albums of 2015, along with a handful of impossible-to-rank runners-up, and, for the first time, my Top 10 Tracks of 2015.
1. Kendrick Lamar,
“To Pimp a Butterfly”
What more is there to say about an album that achieves the best track of the year in a mere interlude? That, when it dropped, made everyone take a moment to themselves to think about what it meant for music? For what it meant to them? Everyone knew that To Pimp a Butterfly would top the year-end lists, because no other piece of art comes close to its political and emotional immediacy. Kendrick Lamar, in wrestling with what this country means to a black man in the 21st century, makes a perfectly imperfect masterpiece, torn and tattered and piecing itself back together again with bebop and funk and rock ’n’ roll. An album this large—almost an hour and a half—must have flaws, but even those are more interesting than the successes of every other album out there. This is not exactly a pleasant record to listen to at times: Lamar’s wheezing delivery and swigs of alcohol on “u” hit so hard, and he questions himself so relentlessly on “The Blacker the Berry,” that the whole listening experience is on edge. Lamar explodes, “Hypocrite!” Aren’t we all. To Pimp a Butterfly ends with an unanswered question: Lamar knows better than to try and provide any easy ways out. Must Hear: “For Free (Interlude),” “King Kunta,” “u,” “The Blacker the Berry”
2. Various Artists,
“Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Recording”
Can I be real a second? For just a millisecond? I have been waiting for this since Lin-Manuel Miranda premiered his (surprisingly complete) sketches of the opening song at The White House back in 2009. I have memorized most of songs on this 46-track, 2.5 hour hip-hop musical and, out of sheer luck, seen it on Broadway with the original cast. Yes, it is as good as you’ve heard. Better, even. But I heard and fell in love with the cast recording first, and that’s why Hamilton deserves such a high ranking. It so fully translates the energy of the musical into its tracks, and because it’s sung (or rapped)-through, listeners don’t miss a beat or a line. Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr earned his Tony in “Wait For It” declaring “I am inimitable, I am an original”; Renée Elise Goldsberry earned hers in “Satisfied,” proving herself the closest thing Broadway has to Beyoncé. Hamilton the project began as a mixtape, and with a cast recording produced by The Roots, this medium has given Miranda’s epic an entirely new life. Must Hear: “Satisfied,” “Wait For It,” “The Room Where It Happens”
3. Lady Lamb, “After”
On one of the most striking tracks of the year, “Violet Clementine,” Aly Spaltro aka Lady Lamb aka Lady Lamb the Beekeeper sings out with no accompaniment the beginning of the weirdest folk chorus. After a minute and a half, everything drops out but the bass. Intricately designed and starkly produced, the song showcases the best of Lady Lamb’s talents on her powerhouse of a sophomore album. After was the first album of the year to garner re-listen after re-listen; I scrutinized every line and guitar lick, taking in every voice crack and tonal shift. Every subsequent spin yielded new favorites, from the bristling guitar of “Dear Arkansas Daughter” to the climax of “Penny Licks.” No other attempt at rock music even comes close. “We will crane our necks,” she declares. “We were not made to build this city up.” Must Hear: “Violet Clementine,” “Billions of Eyes,” “Penny Licks”
4. Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, “Surf”
What an absolute gift. To have an album assembled with such care and jubilation arrive, for free, on our doorsteps? Surf was the true announcement of summer. It was not quite the “new Chance the Rapper album” that everyone declared upon its release, and that’s a good thing. Bandleader Donnie Trumpet and his horn of choice fill up the album, including a number of funky instrumental tracks, with intricate brass arrangements. But the singers and rappers turn this into a party. Brimming with breezy, singable choruses (“I’mma stand up on my own two,” “Forgive me but you look familiar”), these songs jump genres and shirk singular credit, the sort of R&B and hip-hop that can only come out of frenetic collaboration. Must Hear: “Sunday Candy,” “Wanna Be Cool,” “Familiar”
5. Asaf Avidan,
Now is when I start to break with everyone else a bit. One of my favorite discoveries of the year, Asaf Avidan is an Israeli singer-songwriter with an immediately distinguishable voice. “The Labyrinth Song,” with its anxious pleadings and references to Greek mythology (Avidan sings from the perspective of Theseus), first caught my ear, and from there I dived deep in Avidan’s eloquent and evocative imaginings. The best orchestrated songs of the year, Avidan employs strings not for some false sense of grandiosity but true mood-bending. So rarely has a songwriter drawn from so deep an arsenal. Must Hear: “A Part of This,” “Ode to My Thalamus,” “My Tunnels Are Long and Deep These Days”
6. Kacey Musgraves,
Half my excitement about taking a cross-country road trip was the thought of blasting Pageant Material with the windows down. Musgraves’s vision for country music is wink-and-a-nod clever and to-each-their-own empowered, and her snapshots of Southern life brim with personality. While the title track rides self-deprecation into charm, and “Biscuits” got all the attention for her “mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy” life philosophy, it’s tunes like “High Time” that best distill the strengths of her genre, swinging slow with dipping harmonies and slide guitar. The drone of “Somebody to Love,” meanwhile, is simply inspired. Must Hear: “Dime Store Cowgirl,” “Somebody to Love,” “Biscuits”
7. Public Service Broadcasting,
“The Race for Space”
Think if Daft Punk and Ratatat got really into astronomy. This incredible concept album, from the duo Public Service Broadcasting (no, not PBS), is to the mid-20th century international space race as Hamilton is to the American Revolution. Layering actual recordings of speeches, broadcasts, and NASA communications over dance beats, rhythmic guitar, and floating synth, The Race for Space is unlike any other album I’ve heard, this year or any other. Just listen to the drama unfolding on “The Other Side,” when the Apollo 8 mission loses contact briefly with Mission Control as it disappears behind the dark side of the moon. Hold your breath. It’ll come around. Must Hear: “The Other Side,” “Gagarin,” “Go!”
8. Wilco, “Star Wars”
Concise, noisy, and hype-free haven’t been used to describe a Wilco album for ages. They’re also why Star Wars is their best effort in a decades, and an easy inclusion on this and most year-end lists. Another album given out for free, Wilco’s 9th kicks off what will hopefully be a rejuvenated era with the screeches of “EKG” and doesn’t get softer from there. “Random Name Generator” runs with a riff that’s more classic rock, less dad, and lyrics that are amusingly obscure, but it’s the stunningly cold “Magnetized” that closes out the brief record with aplomb. Star Wars defies expectations, for Wilco or for any band, and that’s quite an accomplishment 20 years in. Must Hear: “The Joke Explained,” “You Satellite,” “Magnetized”
9. Punch Brothers, “The Phosphorescent Blues”
Punch Brothers, folk’s most inventive and interesting band, have yet to release their definitive masterwork, but The Phosphorescent Blues sure comes close. From the turning, burning opener “Familiarity,” their best ever song at 12 minutes long and feeling like it’s about to burst from a million ideas stuffed inside, The Phosphorescent Blues thinks about technology and connection in far more interesting ways than one would expect from tweed-wearing, mandolin-playing bluegrass musicians. Their softer moments have never sounded lovelier, and Chris Thile’s voice don’t hurt none, either. Must Hear: “Familiarity,” “Forgotten,” “Between First and A”
“No Cities to Love”
It was the reunion that nobody expected and everybody needed. 2015 enjoyed plenty of great punk, but none felt so good as this power half-hour of Riot Grrl resurrected. No Cities to Love may even be Sleater-Kinney’s best album, feeling urgent and hungry after 10 years, but doesn’t come with the weight of needing to do anything “new.” The production sounds fresh, sure, but songs like “Price Tag” get all the energy they need from the guitars and vocals of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker: “It’s 9AM / we must clock in / the system waits for us.” Here’s to second lives and never getting old. Must Hear: “Price Tag,” “A New Wave,” “No Cities to Love”
The Most Lamentable Tragedy by Titus Andronicus is so un-punk in its concept and execution—a 29-track, hour and a half-long opera about manic depression—that it’s surprising it works at all. Then again, they’ve already tackled the Civil War. This one will require further deep listening.
Currents by Tame Impala finally convinced me. With a lot more synth than guitar this time around, the Australian rock band dives into a warm bath of swirling psychedelia. Kevin Parker may be mopey and alone, but his melodies won’t leave my head. “Yes I’m Changing” is a stand-out.
Sermon on the Rocks by Josh Ritter takes a great singer-songwriter and finally brings him the band he needed. Tunes like “Getting Ready to Get Down” showcase Ritter’s ear for hooks and penchant for storytelling, while “Birds of the Meadow” brings out quite the dark side.
Sound and Color by Alabama Shakes was not the sophomore album I expected from this Athens rock band. After I lumped them into the dead-end category of blues-rock revivalists, they came back and surprised me and everyone else with a chart-topping earth-shaker rife with experimentation.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t shout out the stunning electronic chaos of Dan Deacon’s Glass Riffer and the endlessly listenable Ratatat’s Magnifique, the lyrical deftness of Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit and Laura Marling’s Short Movie, and whatever the hell you call Django Django’s Born Under Saturn.
Favorite Singles of 2015
It was so hard to keep this list to just singles, because I’d happily fill it with “For Free” and a bunch of Hamilton tunes. These singles took on lives of their own, though, and run the gambit from pop to hip-hop, emotional to pure fun. Here’s what I spun this year.
- Lianne La Havas , “What You Don’t Do”
2. Janelle Monae and Wondaland, “Hell You Talmbout”
3. Sufjan Stevens, “Should Have Known Better”
4. Kendrick Lamar, “King Kunta”
5. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, “Sunday Candy”
6. Benjamin Clementine, “Nemesis”
7. Natalie Prass, “My Baby Don’t Understand Me”
8. Bhi Bhiman, “Moving to Brussels”
9. Missy Elliot, “WTF (Where They From) ft. Pharrell Williams”
10. Carly Rae Jepsen, “I Really Really Like You”