FEATURE: The Best Songs of 2015
by Chad Jewett
20.) METZ – II
A compact, bristling collection of corroded garage punk, II found Canadian trio METZ building on the scuffed-up post-hardcore of their self-titled debut with a bit more studio adventurousness (you only need to wait 16 seconds for their first trick, as a choppy bassline is suddenly hotwired into a full-band explosion on “Acetate”) and an understated attention to classic song structure. II becomes one of those great punk records that remains vital because of its sound and fury, but distinguishes itself with its instincts for how to make a song work, even if all of that pop structure is still deployed for tunes that sound like a Drive Like Jehu single coated in acid.
19.) So Stressed – The Unlawful Trade of Greco-Roman Art
The last few decade-or-so has seen the great democratizing wave of the internet finally begin to liberate genres. Kanye West put out the best punk album of last year. Some of this year’s best old-school funk and free-jazz showed up on a Kendrick Lamar LP. Courtney Barnett dropped a record that might contain your favorite country weeper and your favorite garage-rock barnburner. Slowly but surely, that kind of imagination is beginning to find its way into hardcore — that most orthodox of genres — and The Unlawful Trade of Greco-Roman Art, the debut full-length from Sacramento band So Stressed, serves as one of the scene’s imaginative vanguards. Song lengths are all over the place; the production is expansive and at once ferocious and thoughtful; a boiling synthesizer cuts beneath super-dense punk colossi. The Unlawful Trade is both a challenge and a pleasure, one of the smartest hardcore LPs in years.
18.) Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love
It’s one thing to break a decade-long hiatus with a record that manages to reach the heights of a just-about-perfect discography. It’s quite another to make that return with an LP that ranks among a band’s absolute best, and which offers some of the most exciting, innovative, and daring punk songwriting in a long, long while. But such is No Cities To Love, the long-awaited eighth full-length from Pacific Northwest punk trio Sleater-Kinney. Clocking in at a sharp 30 minutes across ten songs, No Cities is the band’s most compact, kinetic LP since 1997’s Dig Me Out. Even better, the album’s collection of riffs, rhythms, and sonic approaches is dazzling in its originality and unequaled in its simultaneous sense of joy and righteous fury, adding up to an album simultaneously full of both ideas and explosive forward-motion, while never sacrificing one for the other. The interplay of Carrie Brownstein, Janet Weiss, and Corin Tucker has never been so angular and elastic, yielding songs like “Gimme Love” and “Price Tag”, filed-down bursts brimming with imagination.
17.) Erase Errata – Lost Weekend
Lost Weekend is a bittersweet achievement. Likely (along with 2003’s At Crystal Palace) Erase Errata’s best LP, it is also their last, as 2015 saw the San Francisco trio announce their breakup. But Lost Weekend is a triumphant last statement, a clever, infectious collection of dance-punk bursts that, at 22 minutes, is perfectly built for the multiple listens it demands. One need look no further than the barking groove of album-opener “History of Handclaps” – at once tuneful and stylishly discordant, pairing a stomping beat to a gonzo horn chart – to appreciate the special imagination that powered Erase Errata and that makes Lost Weekend so fascinating and definitive a final bow.
16.) Le1f – Riot Boi
Hey, last year’s excellent EP from New York rapper Le1f was one of 2014’s best releases, an addictive 5 song breakthrough that turned every one of its daringly avant-garde beats and wild production flourishes into infectious left-field hooks. So its good news that Riot Boi, Le1f’s full-length follow-up, does a lot of the same work, offering tracks like “Koi”, which finds the emcee rapping over an out-of-control synthesizer that is constantly creeping up and up the scale as random sounds buzz in and out of the sonic field. But if Riot Boi thankfully maintains the daring headphone weirdness of Hey, it also adds a taste for pop hooks that only serves to make the record that much more addictive, especially when, as on “Rage”, the album’s quieter moments suddenly explode into its most galvanizing and bombastic.
15.) Julien Baker – Sprained Ankle
2015 had more than its share of quiet, emotionally devastating confessionals. What makes Sprained Ankle, the album from 20-year-old Memphis singer-songwriter Julien Baker, so special, is the LP’s conversational beauty and its unassuming perfection. It’s the kind of record where everything is seemingly in its exact right place, every spare note (as on the spectral “Brittle Boned”) perfectly etched, every melody (as on the bluesy “Something”) an ideal vessel for Baker’s detail-rich, poignantly stark storytelling. Sometimes Sprained Ankle can actually be a challenge to listen to, so cathartic is its willingness to be subsumed in its own disquieting feelings, doubts, and scars. But of course that is also precisely what makes it so special an album, and so unparalleled an experience.
14.) Foxing – The Dealer
With 2013’s The Albatross, St. Louis post-everything quintet Foxing released one of those out-of-nowhere breakthroughs that is so captivating because it so bafflingly self-assured and fully-formed. Of course, following up an opening statement like that can only be a challenge. So credit Foxing with producing something as lovely, confident, and expansive as The Dealer, an album that took the imagination, atmosphere, and sturdy song-writing chops of The Albatross and added a greater sense of melody, pace, and clarity. Songs like “Weave” and “The Magdalene” are at once dense with ideas and lighter than air, taking the carefully-woven details that have defined the band and lending all of that nuance to songs that are more tuneful and strikingly urgent. It all makes for a follow-up that is unafraid to be itself — and with good reason.
13.) Girl Band – Holding Hands With Jamie
Barbed and ferocious, replete with tension and bite, Holding Hands With Jamie found Irish quartet Girl Band expanding the withering noise-punk of their previous EPs and 7”s (helpfully collected on the excellent The Early Years comp) into an album-length exercise in taut, gnarled post-hardcore panic attacks. But where past songs all followed one, compelling direction — essentially, simmer for a few minutes, then utterly melt down in spectacular fashion — Holding Hands found Girl Band searching out new ways to balance unnerving quiet and absolute discord, yielding tracks like the deceivingly complex “Umbongo” and the clattering “Baloo” – tracks which constantly lurch between extremes, finding new ways to both thrill and unsettle as they ebb down to a whisper or snowball into triumphant cacophony.
12.) Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside
I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is a quietly revolutionary tour de force, an exemplar of what “the album” as form can be in an era where the turnaround for an LP is only as long as the mixing and mastering process. And while the weightlessness of 1’s and 0’s has lead some to speculate that we’d start to see giant, expansive records finally free from the limits of 80-minute discs, Earl Sweatshirt actually used the newly freed album unit to release a brief, compact exploration of a mood. Stark, ruminative, and melancholy, I Don’t Like Shit finds the 21-year-old rapper exploring ideas of family, depression, artistic and emotional difficulties, and various definitions of “self”, all over a set of cohering beats (almost exclusively produced by Earl himself) that create a soundscape as knit-together as the ideas that populate those settings. This decade might see the album free to grow to new dimensions, but artists like Earl Sweatshirt are actually doing something more interesting in using the internet’s immediacy to release self-contained, intimate missives.
11.) Thee Oh Sees – Mutilator Defeated At Last
Almost absurdly consistent, San Francisco garage-rock eccentric John Dwyer has more or less released an album a year for the last decade and a half, either in the guise of his feral blues-punk trio The Coachwhips, or more recently, the great Thee Oh Sees, which balances The Coachwhips’ punchy energy with airier studio atmospheres and more nuanced, psychedelic ideas of space and melody. Mutilator Defeated At Last is in some ways just more evidence of Dwyer’s boundless creativity and confidence in his own vision. But it’s also an exceptionally good Thee Oh Sees record, cycling effortlessly between the spooky slither of “Web” and the buzzing momentum of “Poor Queen”, the lush Zombies-esque bleariness of “Holy Smoke” and the Thin Lizzy stomp of “Turned Out Light”. As a tight, focused triptych of Thee Oh Sees’ various sounds, obsessions, and iterations, Mutilator Defeated At Last feels comprehensive, an alternate-universe greatest hits album.
10.) The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die – Harmlessness
Built around deeply rich, complicated, and insightful ideas about empathy, self-understanding, social responsibility, and forgiveness, Harmlessness is the grand, inspiring document that The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die were always capable of making. More global than the New England-based reveries of Formlessness, more expansive, experimental, and confident in its sense of direction than the perpetually unsettled Whenever, If Ever, Harmlessness plays like an hour-long statement of purpose, one that variably advocates poignantly for social justice (“January 10th, 2014”) and a collective sense of belonging and embattled survival (“Mental Health”, “Haircuts For Everybody”). At its best, Harmlessness becomes an embodiment for the sense of inclusivity that has attached itself to The World Is, a band that has doubled as a family, a collective, and a way of looking at the world.
9.) Annabel – Having It All
It’s hard not to read Having It All, the title of Annabel’s newest, most challenging, and most complicated full-length, as soaked in Gatsby-like irony, a Fitzgerald-esque riff on the disquiet and melancholy that pools beneath the American dream. And indeed, the LP, which plays like an unsettled sequel to 2013’s Youth In Youth, is most poignant for the ways in which its stories and characters seem to be their own worst enemies, fulfilling their own pessimistic prophecies as they question the realities of middle-class comfort. And yet, it’s to Annabel’s perpetual credit that these narratives are buoyed by such excellent melodies (“The Fortunate Ones”, “Everything”, “Another Day, Another Vitamin”) and such lovely, absorbing compositions. Produced by Evan Weiss, who obviously has an ear for the clarity and lightness that makes Annabel special, Having It All is a collection of pop songs that succeeds in all its bittersweetness, that sticks in your head both as a set of melodies and as a thoughtful expression of nagging doubt.
8.) Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Who’d have thought that Sufjan Stevens – whose work is normally so defined by the outsized American effusiveness of Aaron Copeland, the jangling rhythms of Vince Guaraldi, the ultra-dense mythos of Van Dyke Parks – would render his magnum opus with a record that rarely exceeds a whisper. Yet such is the devastating power of Carrie & Lowell, an album that, like Michigan or Seven Swans, succeeds by choosing a theme and doing its level best at capturing that idea from every possible angle, best of all the ones you least expect. Yet here the high-concept genealogies of his state-history albums is discarded in favor of family trees that serve as their own form of ghostly atlas. Thus we get an album about a troubled mother-child relationship that sees kids left at video stores (“Should Have Known Better”), that watches one generation’s illnesses unfurl into the next (“The Only Thing”), that highlights how the intimacy of faith can curdle into a haunting curse (“No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross”). Carrie & Lowell may be an autobiographical plumbing of one man’s relationship to his parents, but, in a way that only Sufjan Stevens could, it becomes so much more.
7.) Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment – Surf
Seemingly the least cynical artist alive, Chance The Rapper has a belief in himself only exceeded by his belief in the trusted people with whom he surrounds himself. It’s that faith that leads a young musician to follow-up one of the most beloved mixtape albums of all time (2013’s Acid Rap) with another free record, helmed by a member of his band (Donnie Trumpet, aka Nico Segal) and devoted as much to a many-splendored mix of funk, gospel, classic Motown pop-soul, and free-jazz as it is to Chance’s own pliant, excitable brand of hip-hop. It’s a move that underlines the Chicago rapper’s activist generosity and egalitarianism, but it’s also a decision that yielded one hell of a record, and if Chance took, well, a chance, on following up Acid Rap with so unconventional a project, he was right to put his trust in Donnie Trumpet and the extended family of The Social Experiment. Yielding both peerless, moving singles (the wonderful “Sunday Candy”) and dense, challenging album tracks (“Windows”, “Something Came to Me”, “Pass The Vibes”), Surf extends the democratic self-made world of Chance The Rapper by embracing another artist’s equally capacious, revelatory imagination.
6.) Refused – Freedom
The Shape Of Punk To Come, the 1998 masterpiece from Swedish hardcore quintet Refused, was its generation’s London Calling, a daring, trenchantly political work of explosive genius that found great energy in its own intrepid imagination. Thus Freedom, the band’s long-awaited follow-up, might just be their Combat Rock: a more condensed, less obviously avant-garde collection that nevertheless innovates by binding the band’s obvious sense of sonic adventurousness to a set of tight, four-minute bursts that forgo The Shape’s self-aware modernism for funk rhythms, soul-punk workouts, and ultra-sharp metal riffs. Daring to leave behind much of hardcore’s muscular punch for dance-punk litheness (“Destroy The Man”), trip-hop strangeness (“Old Friends/New War”, “Thought Is Blood”), and Stax-Motown irreverence (“War On The Palaces”), Refused in fact maintained the spirit of The Shape Of Punk To Come by refusing to repeat it, instead giving us some sense of what a more global, less conservative definition of “punk” might actually look like. Few records in 2015 were such infectious fun as Freedom, and even less were so daring in their refusal to entertain the expectations of others.
5.) Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp
Roughly split between bright power-pop confections (“Under A Rock”, “The Dirt”), and achingly quiet confessionals (“Summer of Love”, “Stale By Noon”), Ivy Tripp found singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield expanding the slice-of-life storytelling and conversational tunefulness of Waxahatchee to something more comprehensive but no less intimate. When the album pivots to more energized arrangements, as on the bouncing “Grey Hair”, the results are stirring and personal even for all their relative effusiveness — pop songs for sensitive people lost in thought. When Ivy Tripp turns to more spacious, quieter fare like the echoing, breathy “Blue”, there is a snapshot quality that lends those moments specificity. The hush pays off. It all adds up to a compelling document of a singular time and place, which of course is precisely what makes Crutchfield and Waxahatchee special in the first place – the belief that your own backyard is worthy of poetry, and that you’re just the person to write it down. It is the special achievement of Ivy Tripp that the album so regularly transforms that observational art into such memorable songs and moments.
4.) Hop Along – Painted Shut
Adored as one of those out-of-nowhere revelations that become articles of truth for those lucky enough to find it, 2012’s Get Disowned found Hop Along (then more of a vessel for Francis Quinlan than a full band) jetting through a lifetime of ideas with abandon. The album is magical, not least of which because it is so quixotic and breathless. Perfect hooks come around once, ideas are sketched out then erased to make room for the next thing. The beauty of Painted Shut, the band’s long-awaited follow-up and their first release through the venerated Saddle Creek Records, is that it finds some archetypal middle-space between the buzzing kinetics of Get Disowned and the stolid rules of traditional song structure, and thus goes on to produce a set of songs that are at once entirely original and accessible, reflective of Quinlan’s singular worldview and shaped just enough to pay off as compositions with beginnings, middles, and ends. A lot of that fine balance is thanks to the band itself, who manage to curve in and around Francis Quinlan’s flexible, free-ranging voice, lending the album a sense of possibility and lightness, so that songs like “Buddy In The Parade” and “Powerful Man” bob and weave with inspiring sympathy, a perfect match for their leader’s entrancing story-telling and transporting melodies.
3.) Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
It’s one thing to tell a complete story above the relative placidness of a quiet acoustic guitar or a easy-moving alt-country ballad. It’s another to do that kind of work inside a garage-rock barn-burner that sounds like The Kinks circa-1965 in a rush. Such is the brilliance of Courtney Barnett and her debut album, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, that she seems so effortlessly capable of both, equally at ease in stretching her tales out across hushed canvases like “Boxing Day Blues” or hectic, adrenal bursts like “Elevator Operator”. Sometimes I Sit is often funny, which makes its sadder moments all the more poignant. It’s often infectiously energetic, which makes its calmer stretches seriously compelling. Barnett, for all the Malkmus-like irony and surrealist drollness that populates her stories, has a classicist’s grip on how drama works, on how spirits can be lifted and tears drawn out. It’s why Sometimes I Sit plays like such a nuanced, intuitive rendering of the human comedy: funny asides seem to fold into tragic memories, then into nagging neuroses or odd first-person details with a realism that isn’t often associated with the kind of dry wit with which Barnett so often delivers this stuff. But even if you miss the real pathos amongst the stomping garage-core angst of “Pedestrian At Best”, there’s no mistaking the painful beauty of songs like “Depreston”, which, instead of greeting the suburbs with a punk-rock sneer, render those cul-de-sacs with startling, poetic empathy.
2.) Vince Staples – Summertime ‘06
A stream-of-consciousness exploration of his native Los Angeles; a 60 minute tone-poem full of haunting minor-key beats and avant-garde soundscapes; a document of verbal acumen that might just be remembered as one of the great collections of sheer, limitless flow, Vince Staples Summertime ’06 is undoubtedly one of the greatest debut rap LPs ever. Taking the harsh, jagged palette of 2014’s excellent Hell Can Wait EP and expanding it to a cinematic scope, Summertime is a densely layered experiment in storytelling, one that follows Staples as he moves through spaces both literal (his neighborhood) and conceptual (the music industry), piling philosophical readings, stark imagery, and lightning-quick political points, so that songs like “Lift Me Up” can switch from Staples’ origins to the systemic racism that turns the music industry into a minefield, while letting the experimental, slinky beat (courtesy of No I.D. and DJ Dahi) stitch the whole thing into one apocalyptic vision. Historically, the comparisons are telling: records like GZA’s Liquid Swords or even Nas’s Illmatic – early LPs that feel entirely complete and shockingly self-assured, indicative of a singular vision set to a singular sound. And like both GZA and Nas, the sheer depth and observational nuance of Vince Staples’ storytelling is made all the more compelling by just how imaginatively Staples inhabits the beats around him, finding the syncopated bounce of “Norf Norf” or the punchy stop-start pace of “Surf”. Few albums this year offered so fascinating and comprehensive a world to be entered, forwarded so brilliant a collection of ideas and sonic innovations.
1.) Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
It speaks to just how radical, how revolutionary an album To Pimp A Butterfly really is that, in short order, the comparison’s that best suit Kendrick Lamar’s incredible sophomore LP extend beyond music into film, literature, poetry. So while the record’s sonic adventurousness calls to mind Bitches Brew and Stankonia and There’s A Riot Goin’ On, its dense, complicated web of ideas, references, histories, and echoes is just as likely to remind you of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, the more conceptual films of Spike Lee or the simultaneously joyous and mournful poetry of Gwendolynn Brooks. To Pimp A Butterfly is a postmodern masterpiece, engrossingly intrepid in its transcendence of genre, medium, and category. At once a deeply confessional explication of self – wherein Lamar dramatizes his own doubts following the success of 2013’s good kid, m.A.A.d city and the pressures coinciding with that success – and a layered, challenging political document with incisive things to say about race, class, caste, sexuality, white-political hegemony, and history, To Pimp A Butterfly is a forever-circling kaleidoscope, its vivid imagery constantly melding into new pictures and shapes. Just try to reconcile the confident lyrical ace of “Hood Politics” with the nightmarish self-doubt spied on “u”, or the free-jazz defiance of “For Free?” with the lush gentleness of “For Sale?”. Yet the album reaches its true brilliance in the fact that Kendrick Lamar refuses the very idea of reconciling these concepts, instead celebrating that deeply human variability and ending the album with the moving “i”, a song that pairs the joyous buoyance of its Isley Brothers sample to a defiant declaration of self-value that manages to encapsulate all the complicated warring impulses and withering doubts explored throughout – adding up to a generous definition of humanity that Lamar carefully etches throughout Butterfly. Matching Lamar’s doubled considerations of humanity and contemporary America is a soundscape of equal richness and diversity, ranging from nostalgic FM soul to tempestuous bad-mood funk to post-bop jazz and rustic blues to post-rock touches that reference Radiohead and Sufjan Stevens. To Pimp A Butterfly is a challenging, complex work of brilliance, a fearless achievement of imagination, and a defining masterpiece of the 21st century.