20 January 2016

Best Music of 2015

Hello again. I didn’t blog very often last year. I think I will blog more often this year, although I’m not making any promises. But here we are again. It's time for me to do a blog post with a list of my favorite albums of the year. These lists are intended as nothing more definitive than my own personal take on the year in music, committed to the interwebs as much for the purpose of closing the book mentally on another year as for public consumption (although I’m glad you’re reading—really!). This one feels more personalized than usual. I've been thinking a lot about the winnowing that happens in one’s thirties: Simply put, I care about fewer things now, while desiring a deeper engagement with the things I do care about.

Unfortunately, the category of things I no longer care about includes a fair amount of the most-discussed music of 2015 and—perhaps more to the point—nearly all of the discussion itself. Much as the internet increasingly seems to speak with one voice, the year’s musical output seemed to converge into a formless electropop blob, the ongoing fixation with rearranging conceptual and musical ideas from the 1980s now having lasted nearly as long as the decade itself. Call it decadence, call it the hyperreal, but please call it something. In that sense, the album of the year was Tame Impala’s Currents, a cynical attempt to capitalize on this tendency ironically disguised as an artistic evolution.

Most of the albums listed below have a more oblique relationship to the present moment, some retreating into musical languages of the past to create a sense of isolation or temporal suspension, others finding formal equivalents to contemporary modes of experiencing reality. The first three in particular, otherwise having very little in common, all require a considerable amount of time and effort from the listener.

But before we get to the list, a word on David Bowie. The outpouring of tributes over the past several days have highlighted the many important dimensions of Bowie’s life and musical career, most of which won’t be touched on here. For me, one of his greatest contributions was his demolition of the ethos of authenticity in rock and roll. This was partially effected by the use of characters like Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, the antithesis of the confessional singer-songwriter ethic that was commercially dominant for much of the ’70s. But just as important was his omnivorous approach to musical forms, what is often referred to as his “chameleon-like” tendency. It’s easy to forget that this adjective was more often a put-down than a term of praise in contemporary reviews of Bowie’s music. His genre-hopping, ranging from eclectic traditional pop to glam rock to prog to plastic soul to icy art pop in the ’70s alone, and later encompassing techno, industrial, and Scott Walker-style crooning, was viewed as suspicious, a mark of soulless inauthenticity. Now of course, this eclecticism is seen as evidence of Bowie’s prolific conceptual genius, essential to his singular impact on popular music and culture. As ever, the true greats change the rules and make the world’s first impressions of them obsolete.

Aside from revisiting some of the music discussed below for writing inspiration, I was listening to Bowie nearly the whole time I spent writing this. I can’t remember such a binge having so greatly enhanced my appreciation of an artist whom I thought I knew pretty well. Much of this has to do with Bowie’s terrific new album. But we can talk about that one a year from now.

1. Kendrick Lamar—To Pimp a Butterfly
The crucial thing to understand about this album is that its implied audience is black. Not that we white folks aren’t welcome to listen in, of course, but we shouldn’t expect any of the music or lyrics here to be tailored to the finer points of our political and cultural sensibilities. This is important to remember when thinking about the N-word riff at the end of “i” or the encounter with the homeless man on “How Much a Dollar Cost” or even the simple notion that we gonna be “Alright.” Kendrick’s comprehensive view of Black America encompasses everyone from that homeless guy to Obama himself, the street gospel of “Alright” sitting alongside the feral rage of “The Blacker the Berry” to render To Pimp a Butterfly resistant to any reductive political descriptors.

Musically, To Pimp a Butterfly is a conscious attempt to create a masterpiece that transcends hip-hop, with Kendrick instead placing himself within the broader black musical tradition. George Clinton shows up on the opener, and the whole album has both the sound and the musical freedom of 1960s jazz. More complex is Kendrick’s relationship with his hip-hop forebears. The straight-up G-funk of “King Kunta” is a nod to Dr. Dre, even as the literal appearances of Dre via voicemail on the opening “Wesley’s Theory” and Tupac Shakur in the extended “interview” that concludes the album are a bit harder to interpret. When Tupac suggests that black people are ready to take up arms against their oppressors, Kendrick responds by pivoting to the stirring testament to the transformative power of art that concludes the album. We're left waiting for ’Pac's response. (“Alright” “The Blacker the Berry”)

2. Deafheaven—New Bermuda
Perhaps inspired by complaints that their 2013 breakthrough Sunbather wasn’t metal enough, Deafheaven returned with their heaviest music to date. New Bermuda is less the Difficult Third Album than a roots move. That it was perceived as the former is evidenced by its relative lack of prominence on year-end lists and reader polls, despite its musical superiority to its predecessor. Seeing the band live in late October, it was evident that the new material is simply on a different level of intensity. Leadoff track “Brought to the Water” is typical in its structure. After a portentous buildup featuring church bells, the song breaks into full-on thrash before singer George Clarke comes in, roaring through the verses while a wall of guitar noise swells around him (Clarke’s black-metal rasp is mixed a bit higher than on Sunbather—another barrier for many non-metalheads.) Just past the halfway point, the song switches gears entirely, as if we’ve reached the top of the mountain and are looking out on some new vista. A descending guitar chime takes over as the song moves closer to the shoegazer territory familiar from Sunbather, before alighting on a soft piano figure. The remaining songs mostly follow suit, starting off heavy, reaching up toward some ecstatic electric guitar epiphany, and ending somewhere else altogether. The big exception is the closer “Gifts for the Earth,” which rages against the dying of the light via a propulsive ’90s rock riff. Just in case you thought they’d gone soft. (“Brought to the Water” “Come Back”)

3. Joanna Newsom—Divers
This 52-minute song cycle about space and time, love and death, might actually be Newsom’s most easily digestible album to date. The singularity of her style—crudely approximated as baroque chamber music blended with the American folk tradition and seasoned with pinches of rock-era spice—can obscure the amount of musical ground Newsom covers. “Sapokanikan” morphs fluidly from an easy, jazzy amble to its choral crescendo, while “Leaving the City” nearly rocks. Newsom’s subtle command of dynamics maintains a sense of drama throughout, while her lyrics are tricked out with allusions to history and literature, ripples that may obscure as much as they reveal about the underlying currents of the songs. Like the ocean itself, Divers retains its mysteries no matter how often one plumbs its depths. (“Leaving the City” “Divers”)

4. Kurt Vile—B’lieve I’m Goin Down…
Kurt Vile has it all figured out. He just wants to play his music, hang out with his family, and, um…I forget what else. Still, B’lieve I’m Goin Down… adds some dark shadings to its idealized portrait of domestic life. The jaunty opener, “Pretty Pimpin,” finds the singer not recognizing his own reflection (although by the end it’s unclear whether the experience is disquieting or liberating) and “That’s Life, Tho (Almost Hate to Say)” finds hints of impending death lurking in the most peaceful of landscapes. Vile doesn’t venture too far outside his wheelhouse here: a few songs could easily be outtakes from his 2013 masterpiece Wakin on a Pretty Daze. But when you’re in this kind of groove, why not ride it out for as long as you can? (“Pretty Pimpin” “Stand Inside”)

5. Viet Cong—Viet Cong
One of two albums this year featuring former members of the essential Calgary band Women (Cindy Lee’s softer, more experimental Act of Tenderness is also worth checking out), Viet Cong supplements that group’s hard-edged Velvets drone with more explicitly postpunk influences. (Joy Division looms large, particularly on the multipart “March of Progress.”) Postpunk is spoken as a dead language here, with guitar distortion, dissonant chords, and chugging industrial rhythms expressing an unbridgeable disconnect between singer Matt Flegel and the outside world; as some have pointed out, it’s the sort of feeling one gets from the extreme cold of a Calgary winter. (“March of Progress” “Continental Shelf”)

6. Courtney Barnett—Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
The first proper full-length from 27-year-old Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett goes down easily thanks to Barnett’s witty, closely observed lyrics and highly ingratiating persona. It’s all harmless fun, of course, as well as a disarmingly casual portrait of mediated 21st-century consciousness. Riffs on organic vegetables and coral reefs cross the streams of fact, myth, and rumor that we call news. Barnett realizes we’re all implicated, and shrugs. (“Pedestrian at Best” “Dead Fox”)

7. Jason Isbell—Something More Than Free
The onetime Drive-by Trucker follows up his 2013 solo breakthrough Southeastern with this more relaxed, less autobiographical affair. Along with Chris Stapleton’s Traveller, this album shows the artistic and commercial strength of a new strain of Americana that owes at least as much to classic rock as to Nashville. (“24 Frames” “Speed Trap Town”)

8. Jamie xx—In Colour
The first official solo album from Jamie xx relocates the intimate electronica of his band the xx from late night/morning after bedroom confessionals to the dancefloor. Less verbal and more beat-driven than either xx album, In Colour throws in some new wrinkles including a guest appearance from Young Thug. But happily, bandmates Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim stop by too, elevating Jamie to places he still can’t reach without them. (“Loud Places” “Obvs”)

9. Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood, and the Rajasthan Express—Junun
With Radiohead mostly on hiatus over the past several years, Jonny Greenwood has kept himself busy with various collaborations, movie soundtracks, and other solo compositions. Last spring, Greenwood and Nigel Godrich traveled to India to record an album with Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur and a group of Indian musicians in a 15th-century fort in the state of Rajasthan. Ben Tzur composes Qawwali (an ecstatic form of Sufi devotional music best known in the West from the work of the Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) primarily in Hebrew, which gives an idea of the pan-religious spirituality that suffuses his music and lyrics. As for Greenwood, who produced the album and plays several instruments, Junun may be the best musical project he’s been involved in since In Rainbows. (“Kalandar” “Allah Elohim”)

10. Hop Along—Painted Shut
The second album from shambolic Philadelphia indie rockers Hop Along soars on the strength of singer Frances Quinlan’s bleary-eyed tales of people trying to adapt to a world that’s grown “so small and embarrassing” in more ways than one. The low-fi sound and studied sloppiness of the arrangements combine with Quinlan’s mercurial vocal stylings to capture the emotionally tenuous state of characters ensconced on the margins of society. In a world of lowered expectations, the closest thing to paradise anyone here can imagine is a future where we all remember things the same. (“Waitress” “Powerful Man”)

Five runners-up (in alphabetical order)

Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment—Surf
This one is nearly as interesting for how it was released—a free download exclusive to iTunes—as for the music on it. Given away freely but still corporately released, it feels somewhere between a mixtape and a proper album. Surf is also notable as the second full-length from Chance the Rapper, one of the five official members of this Chicago jazz-soul-rap collective. The best tracks here are easily worthy of Top 10 placement, but repeat listening makes the copious filler hard to ignore. (“Sunday Candy” “Familiar”)

Atlanta rapper reaches for the full armor of God but settles for Percocet and strippers. (“I Serve the Base” “Blow a Bag”)

Oneohtrix Point Never—Garden of Delete
The only way for Daniel Lopatin to surprise at this point would be to repeat himself. As expected, Garden of Delete marks yet another departure for the Brooklyn electronic musician, with a more abrasive use of sampling and fractured evocations of genres like pop, rock, and R&B. It’s not his best album (I’d stick with 2011’s Replica), but it’s surely his funniest. (“Sticky Drama” “Ezra”)

Sleater-Kinney—No Cities to Love
The mighty Sleater-Kinney return after a decade-long hiatus with an album that would have fit right in with the music they made in their late-’90s/early-’00s heyday. This is both a strength and a weakness. (“A New Wave” “Bury Our Friends”)

Tenement—Predatory Highlights
The third album from this rock trio, who hail from my hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin, features 25 songs over a whopping 78 minutes. It’s a bit overwhelming at first, but if you respect the double-album structure outlined in the liner notes (yeah, that’s right), Predatory Highlights begins to take shape, with the slower and more exotic excursions of side three providing an ambitious change-of-pace from the hard, crisp powerpop that dominates the proceedings. (“Feral Cat Tribe” “Garden of Secrecy”)

I’ve finally decided to euthanize the “top songs not on those albums” list, which outlived its usefulness years ago. It probably would have been topped this year by “In Time” from FKA Twigs, whose 19-minute EP M3LL155X was good enough (if not long enough) for the Top 10. There was also a Colombian pop song called “Mar (Lo Que Siento)” by Bomba Estéreo that I was briefly obsessed with. So you can check that out too.