It seems hard to believe that 2015 is almost over, and even though the year went by fairly fast, it left behind some killer tunes.
All in all, this might have been the strongest year for music since 2010, maybe the best of the last decade. One guy had his hand in not only the best hip-hop album of the year, but the magnum opus jazz recording of his generation. Then the man who was front and center on said hip-hop album appeared in four of the most memorable music videos of the last 12 months. No-brainer picks and aligning stars aside, there was no way I could assemble an all-encompassing top 20 list; there were a lot of quality albums, songs, and clips that came out in '15, and there are still a few that I haven't heard all the way through yet (sorry, Adele) and after being overwhelmed by the surplus of options I broke everything down the way I always do: by ranking the very best in descending order.
- To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar. It was clear three years ago (on his breakthrough, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City) that this prodigal child of Compton was not content with recording music so much as making statements. Butterfly sets the bar high; hardly any social issue is left unscathed, and where Good Kid could be accused of over-explaining, Lamar makes you connect the dots. Lamar clearly idolizes Tupac Shakur, and on the epic closing track the two men have a simulated conversation. His final question is left unanswered, a fitting ending to an album that offers no easy answers.
- No Cities to Love, Sleater-Kinney. As AV Club stated recently, “It’s no surprise that (their) first record since returning from their extended hiatus is as good as everything else in their catalog.” This reunion was not based in commerce, but rather in unfinished business; the long, long-awaited follow-up to 2005’s The Woods takes the sonic explorations even further, and in doing so became even more empowered.
- Art Angels, Grimes. Following 2012’s sublime Visions, where was speculation over whether Vancouver-bred flibbertigibbet Claire Boucher would ever record or release more music. Despite all that drama with her music label (among other things), it is both borderline miraculous that Grimes recorded not only a fourth album, but one that nearly eclipsed Visions in ambition and scope.
- Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens
- I Love You Honeybear, Father John Misty
- Short Movie, Laura Marling
- Star Wars, Wilco
- Vulnicura, Bjork
- Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, Courtney Barnett*
- Goon, Tobias Jesso Jr. One of the best debut albums of 2015 was also as a low-key, under the radar gem. The musical motifs float from one track to another, but the themes are weighty; the aftermath of a nasty breakup haunts Jesso, and his mother is battling cancer. Put together, it’s a haunting record with a sparse sound, at times evokes the likes of Randy Newman and early Elton John. The world is conspiring against Jesso, and the piano is his best weapon.
- Ivy Tripp, Waxahatchee
- In Colour, Jamie XX
- Depression Cherry, Beach House
- Return to the Moon, El-Vy -
- FFS, Franz Ferdinand & Sparks. This unlikely collaboration raised a few eyebrows in 2015 but really shouldn’t have; the Mael brothers and the “Take Me Out” guys have been friends and conspirators for years. In some ways, Alex Kapranos and company were the crackerjack backing band the Maels haven’t had in nearly three decades. In this thrilling co-dependency, Franz Ferdinand was lifted from a creative mini-slump, and Sparks recorded their most interesting work in some time. Like triple-sec vodka chased by Mountain Dew, FFS should have been weird and gross but worked almost effortlessly.
- Viet Cong, Viet Cong
- Panda Bear Vs. the Grim Reaper, Panda Bear
- New Bermuda, Sunbather
- Momentary Masters, Albert Hammond Jr.
- Natalie Prass, Natalie Prass. Let me begin with my sole complaint about this Nashville singer-songwriter’s debut solo album: it’s too short. At nine tracks and 39 minutes, Prass is tight and concise yet charming in a sultry sort of way. A former member of Jenny Lewis’ backing band, Prass set out to create a thoroughly American, 1970s throwback of a country-rock record, right down to the somewhat abbreviated running time. In the end, she left everyone clamoring for more.
Honorable Mention, EP Division: Another One, Mac DeMarco.
*Remember my 2014 list? I told you so.
Best Metal Album: Luminiferous, High on Fire. Matt Pike is a very paranoid fellow. Long regarded (or chided) as a man of esoteric hobbies, Pike’s beliefs have mutated into full-blown conspiracy theories. That yen for tinfoil hats fuels Luminiferous, HOF’s most focused album in some time. The rhythm section is unpredictable and complex, and even if you can’t stand Pike’s prattling on about huffing chemtrails or how 9/11 was an inside job, his focus and anger are pinpoint.
Honorable Mention: Sol Invictus, Faith No More.
Best Jazz Album: The Epic, Kamasi Washington. I just couldn't ignore the elephant in the room. In this case, it was the sprawling, ambitious 3-CD set that Washington dropped in the early summer. It’s impossible to digest in one sitting, and that’s fine; Washington did not record this with “binge-listening” in mind. This triptych is accessible yet thoroughgoing, so rich with ideas that almost don’t even notice him reinterpreting Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” on disc three.
Honorable Mentions: Sylva, Snarky Puppy with Metropole Orkest; Plus Joshua Redman, The Bad Plus.
"All Day," Kanye West
"Don't Wanna Fight," Alabama Shakes
"Things Happen,” Dawes
"Simple Machine," Guster“Outta My Mind,” The Arcs
"To Die in L.A." Lower Dens
"74 is the New 24," Giorgio Moroder
"S.O.B." Nathaniel Rateliff & The Nightsweats
"Smooth Sailin'," Leon Bridges"Dreams," Beck
"Nightlight," Silversun Pickups
"Sister of Pearl," Baio
“The Party Line,” Belle and Sebastian
“Falling from the Sky,” Calexico
- “Bad Blood,” Taylor Swift. I’m sure you’re giving me a weird look right now, but “event” videos like this don’t really come around that often anymore. It’s a well-edited action-adventure movie in miniature, with a plethora of cameos by the likes of Lena Dunham, Ronda Rousey, and Cindy Crawford. The “squad” mindset of the video also became a cultural sensation while Swifty --er, “Catastrophe”-- toured the world in the Summer of 2015. Also, hi Kendrick Lamar!
- "For Free (Interlude)," Kendrick Lamar. Why Kendrick had a killer year, part two. “This. Dick. Ain't. Freeeeeee…”
- "Alright," Kendrick Lamar. Why Kendrick had a killer year, part three. Where "For Free" is both pointed and lighthearted, "Alright" is gritty with absurdist flourishes. It’s almost hard to believe that this clip was helmed by Colin Tilley, who also directed Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda.”
- "King Kunta," Kendrick Lamar. Why Kendrick had a killer year, part four. This is a deconstruction of the generic hip-hop “good life” video, with the slick cars and the bodacious, scantily-clad women. I have arrived, Kendrick declares, but never take anything for granted. Also, bring the yams.
- "A New Wave," Sleater-Kinney. The Belcher brood from "Bob's Burgers" wig out to Carrie Brownstein and company on a standout track from the above-mentioned No Cities to Love.
- "Pedestrian at Best," Courtney Barnett. Old awards or not, some of us just aren't meant to be clowns for the long term.
- "Pendulum," FKA twigs. "Hey FKA, what's new?" "Oh, just hangin'."
- “Anna” (Emma Stone version), Will Butler. The first clip produced for the Arcade Fire bassist’s first solo single was fine enough; it was a relatively basic “lyric video” of him shuffling his feet in a dimly lit field. The second video was more viral-friendly; Stone dances Ernst Lubitsch-style on a cruise ship with several beefcake sailors in what Rolling Stone perceived as an update of Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice.”
- "Make You Better," The Decemberists. Anything that has a lovelorn Nick Offerman feigning a German accent on a Rockpalest-type music program is a contender in my book.
- "Let It Happen," Tame Impala. Does a heart attack really feel like that?
Honorable Mentions: "Ghosts," Ibeyi; “Norf Norf,” Vince Staples; "Johnny Delusional," FFS (Franz Ferdinand and Sparks); "Hello," Adele.