10 Favorite Albums of 2015

Already in the title alone I give away one of the biggest elements of this list, which is that I’m not shooting for a comprehensive critical “best of” list. This is largely due to cowardice; my long-list for the year had ~100 records, spanning rap and metal and jazz and prog and electronic music and pop and country, and I sat paralyzed looking at the damn thing month in, month out. It’s the same paralysis that kept me from writing a year-end list in 2014 and 2013. I didn’t want to sit another year out, so I had to rejigger things and take the easy road, which is the favorites list.

This one was much easier to hone down. I could look at records that were by all means great, that I loved, and that I know I’ll return to over time, but that simply didn’t sit with me as much or as well or as frequently as other records this year. That horrific long list dropped down to the low double-digits quick. I was looking at maybe 20 to 30 records, and when I was honest with myself about wanting to put a record on due to cred versus being honest, the list grew shorter.

Likewise, I had to take time into account. A year, despite what we feel at times, is quite a long time, and some things that meant the world to me in January don’t come up as much in December. This does not diminish their great-ness, and if this was a list predicated on how great a record was, they’d make it on.

What I’m saying in so many words is there are many, many records that I loved this year, as 2015 was one of the most musically rich years I’ve seen in a long, long time from almost every field, but at the end of the day these lists are about discipline and shock, and so 10 it was, no runner-ups, no off-hand mentions of artists or album names that almost but not quite made it. Just 10. My favorites.

10. Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp A Butterfly

This was the best album of the year.

I’ll just say that now: If this was a “best of” list, this would be number one.

Already I break one of my rules, because I only listened to this thing a small handful of times this year and certain records it’s edging out I listened to dozens and dozens of times. This is even beating out my most listened to album of the year.

This album is able to do that, though. It doesn’t take many listens. Hell, it doesn’t even take a music-critical ear to hear how fucking great this thing is. No, scratch that: how fucking great this thing is. There are detractors of it and there are critiques to be made (did we need the poem-reading pieces bundled with full songs instead of standalone interludes? did the lengthy dialogue with Tupac at the end need to come at the end of a song instead of its own track?) but these are along the same lines as arguing whether the video re-edit of “Thriller” should have been on the record instead of the inferior original cut.

This album is a classic. It’s dense, it’s jazzy, and it reminds mainstream audiences what backpackers and hip-hopheads have known all along, which is that rap as a medium is one of the successors of jazz, indebted as much to Ella and the Duke and Bird and Miles as anything else claiming that lineage. The people who say it breaks ground are wrong; none of these moves are new, and if you dig even a bit in the world of rap you find these all over. But novelty isn’t always a predicate for greatness, while execution always is, and this is one of the best executed versions of this idea period, mainstream or not.

It’s silly to write praises about this record if only because it’s so obviously a classic, to everyone, no matter what their listening background.

9. Kamasi Washington Jr. — The Epic

There are two schools of thought when it comes to demonstrating the necessity or power of a form of art to someone. The most traditional method is attempting to find the version of that form that most closely resembles that which the audience already loves. In this mode, we see pop-metal, pop-rap, even the pop-jazz of Kenny G. (No knock to Kenny; he’s maybe one of the most profoundly skilled musicians on the planet.)

There is a weakness to this method, however; by attempting to bend the heart of a form to whatever the pop conceptions there are of the day, what we wind up experiencing is less the power of that form and more the power of pop. This is also no knock to pop! The beauty of pop as a form is it is, at heart, a meta-form, the broader contextualizing force that finds palettable elements in anything to show to everyone. And while that may miss the true heart of the matter for many kinds of forms, it is a unique and worthwhile space, and not to be desperaged.

That said, me and everyone else who heard this record is glad Washington went the other direction.

Because the other method is to lean in to the very heart of a form, to amplify it to the Nth degree, in order to show all the world what that form and that form alone can do. In this case, it is jazz.

Washington doesn’t pair down his band to the basics (a drummer, a bassist, a sax, maybe a piano). He doesn’t write standard ABABCB song structures and he doesn’t aim intimate. Whatever Adele does to bend jazz and R&B to the pop idiom, and does spectacularly well to be fair, Washington does the opposite. He explodes out, every single song bursting with the broad gestures to God in gospel, the dense rhythmic dancing fun of R&B, the improvisational fevered cosmicism of jazz.

In ways, the album needed to be 3 discs long. It needed to almost be 3 hours long. It needed to be comprehensive, expansive, and uncompromising. Because what Washington is asking of the audience is to take jazz seriously again. Which sounds silly on paper; jazz is one of the most widely respected forms of global art, period. But if we are honest with ourselves, we don’t let it into the heart as often anymore culturally speaking. It has more than a hint of nostalgia to it. It feels in many ways to have its best years in the past, to have earned its laudates certainly but offers little in the way of new ideas. Washington needed a fierce and potent statement to get us all to look at it and find that new jazz could still touch us, move us, intertwine with the heart.

And who better to do it than the guy who played sax on record and on tour with Kendrick and Snoop Dog?

For those who dig this record, by the way, check the Robert Glasper Experiment records.

8. Joanna Newsom — Divers

Joanna Newsom remains one of the very few artists that I don’t mind doesn’t put her stuff on streaming. I find out she will put out an album and I mark the date of its release on my calendar and I dutifully march to the record shop upon the dawning of that day and walk out with it in my hands, without needing to hear a second of music.

I didn’t listen to her debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, when it came out in 2004. At the time, she was a Pitchfork folk music darling and I was a teenage progger and metalhead. I listened to music in that world, of course (music nerds of any stripe tend to stay at least generally aware of other wings of music nerddom), but she struck me as similar to Andrew Bird in that she was deft, talented, and had a knack for excellent songs that just didn’t appeal to me. Then, years later, her triple album Have One On Me is about to drop and a… I want to say mutual crush that lived far away tells me that she loves Ys and links me the song “Cosmia.”

Roughly ten minutes later, I pick my heart up off the floor and download the album. (I’ve since purchased her discography on vinyl which justifies the downloaded copies in my view.) Ys was love at first site and is in my top 10 for favorite albums of all time. This isn’t about Ys however, so I won’t get too far into that except to say I revisited her debut, picked up the triple album, and decided that anything she had to say I’d be willing to listen to without any hesitation.

Divers strikes closer to her first two records conceptually, hewing to a song-cycle structure with subtle nods between each of the pieces. Sonically, Divers is a development of her very expansive triple-length Have One On Me, which winds up making her sound more than a bit like Kate Bush with the swirl of programmed electronic elements, folk and orchestral instrumentation, occasional rock instruments and her… singular, gorgeous voice. It’s difficult to write about what makes her voice so compelling, and for many it will be the one element that makes her unlistenable. It’s additionally difficult to write praise of her voice without sounding condescending, which is a failing of writing and not of her talent by any means.

Divers is the sound of a swirling cocoon of dreamlike love that exists inside, outside, through and surrounding time, moving as freely against the dimensions of time as it does across space, and is a sonic monolith to the things which remain forever embedded within time whether remembered or unremembered. It is simultaneously post-anthropocentric and nestled very firmly in the human. It would seem cold if it wasn’t also affirming the warmest and most gorgeous and painful aspects of life and love. It’s wonderful.

7. Tau Cross — Tau Cross

The metal begins. Of course my favorites list has metal! Fool! Coward!

For a while, this was my favorite album of the entire year. It combines many of my very, very favorite things. For one, we get Away on drums and almost certainly tossing concepts and riff ideas into the pot. There is far more Voivod present in this than mere drumming, and that’s great, because its the 2010s and we’ve all finally woken up and realized that Voivod is one of the greatest heavy metal bands in history. Beyond that, we get a follow-up to the… I want to call it space-celtic pagan worship music that was Amebix’s last record, with The Baron (how cool is that name?) continuing his thoughts into tougher, evil biker mysticism realms.

So: heavy metal leather-clad pagan/occult biker mysticism combined with Away’s perpetual stargazing demented inhuman cyberprog-metallisms, alloyed on the shared base of a punky, thrash and hardcore-derived downstroke mentality?

Holy fucking shit.

So many albums came out this year that sounded like aspects of me, or foregrounded aspects I’ve always loved and known but never had names for. This album sounds, in deftness and serious, the way metal makes me feel. When I rhapsodize about the power of metal, how it saved my life, how it believed in me and encouraged me and succored me in my abusive childhood, alienated teens, and psychically harrowing 20s, this album sounds like what I heard.

This album in one move leapt like some fiendish Jersey devil into the same great heights that albums by Ihsahn and Devin Townsend and Megadeth and Isis and Metallica live in within my heart. I could place this higher if I wanted. I could place it at number 1 and feel okay. It would be disingenuous, but not so much that I’d feel guilty. It’s placement here is for more complex reasons, holding to an inward desire for accuracy and honesty. But, in that same spirit, this album sounds like how metal feels to me, and metal is in my view the greatest creation of all of mankind.

I don’t have more words because I don’t need more. Listen to this album, fucking loud, with headphones on, and you’ll feel what I feel in metal. Praise and hail.

6. Superhumanoids — Do You Feel Okay?

And right out of metal we go.

This album surprised me. For one, I’d never heard Superhumanoids before, despite being vaguely aware of them and their having multiple records under their belt. They occupied a place within the post-Depeche Mode/New Order moody electronic music world that I didn’t frequent too much, partly because DM and NO releases still sound so wonderful and robust and emotionally necessary now as when they came out. This was not due to a failing on Superhumanoids part as much as a result of the glory of the musical world they lived in, much the same way that equally as masterful and brilliant bands like Exodus and Testament got and get overlooked due to bands like Anthrax and Megadeth. But, Friday after Friday, I check the new releases lists and I check out a handful of records outside of the ones I was expecting, and sometimes I fall in love, like here.

The lyrics are a bit more… millennial, for lack of a better word, than either Depeche Mode or New Order, and while to some that may mark them as cringe-inducing amalgams of emo and goth and post-nihilism mixing in a moody dance-rock/pop world, this is precisely what makes them so affecting to me. My generation is a strange one to live in. We are witnessing the failure of previous generations in taking global warming seriously while simultaneously being told we won’t even necessarily see the worst of it in our lifetimes. We clearly live in late capitalism, another condition gifted to us by generations prior that we had no hand in, but the precise spark to that powder keg has yet to show itself. We feel transitory, marked by history not for our actions but our place on the precipice, witnessing events brought about by those before us and that will only fully effect those after. We are in many ways a second lost generation but without even something so obviously traumatic as the first World War. (As traumatic as 9/11 proved to be to global consciousness, or at least Western hegemonic forms of global consciousness, it still seems wrong to place it on the same tier as WW1.)

And so precisely the same… part emo, part goth, part post-nihilist Smiths’-inspired miserablist ruminations are what this record so affecting. I listened to it roughly once a day for the first two months it came out. It still crops up time and again, often at night or while I’m closing up at work. It feels… well, isn’t that it? It feels like I feel, in some hurt and confused part of my body. It’s the less hopeful counterpart to the Mountain Goats record that came out this year, which would have made the list had I made this list a little earlier in 2015 but has at least for now dipped just below the threshold.

In many ways, this album represents a similar space that Yeasayer’s Fragrant World did when it also made my year-end list. It represents a tenderness and a softness and a humanity to me that does not always get foregrounded but is nevertheless always there. I treasure access to that place, and this album better than any other this year mapped the contours of that space as I feel them now.

5. Bell Witch — Four Phantoms

I wrote a very lengthy review of this when it came out, and most of those feelings still hold very true. The release of this record is forever entwined with the passing of my grandfather for me. I sat in the old family home Wyoming, a house a Confederate military man had built for himself in the middle of South Carolina, and I stared out in the long tree-filled fields of my late grandparents’ home and I listened to this funeral doom album about a man’s spirit tortured in ceaseless cycles by four elemental spirits for all of his sins. It is an album about grief that sounds like grieving, and is the most potent portal to the pain and agony of that space I’ve encountered. It’s a sometimes food, to quote Sesame Street, and it’s a harrowing listen when you devote yourself to it, but it’s also the best of its kind and, in truth, perhaps the only real contender for Kendrick Lamar for best album of the year.

4. Baroness — Purple

I deliberately waited to make this list until this album came out. I was not so hot on their previous record, Yellow & Green, but even that record had highlights and interesting new ideas that the singles of Purple implied Baroness were capitalizing on. So, I waited until December 18th, picked up the record, and gave it, uh… let’s say more than a fair share of spins, and decided it was my fourth favorite album of the entire year.

I first learned of Baroness while strolling through a Best Buy in the town where I grew up, stalking the aisles of the music section. I’ve written before about my mental health issues, and one of the manifestations of my mental health (particularly anxiety) is OCD. My OCD often erupts when shopping for music or books, in which I feel compelled to check every single item in stock. This takes quite some time and is very taxing to those around me, as I slowly accumulate stacks in my hands of books or CDs or vinyl which are then slowly, thoroughly whittled down to my financial limit for the day.

On this particular day, the cover of Red Album caught my eye. This was the mid- to late-2000s, and so a thing you had to watch out for as a metalhead was great album art being a cover for a metalcore band. Metalcore, for those not in the know, is bad. (People who disagree with this are wrong.) I had been stung before, so I literally called up my girlfriend at the time, who was at her computer, and read off information from the spine to her so she could check on the band. She went on Metal Archives and told me they were progressive sludge metal (which, at the time, was a pretty accurate assessment of their sound), so I bit.

This led to me seeing them on literally every tour stop they had in my area, no matter the bill or plans I had at the time, including seeing them one year on my birthday.

I once saw them as the first opener on a bill of Opeth, High on Fire and them, and they blew Opeth and High on Fire out of the water live, which… says a whole fucking hell of a lot.

In 2009, they dropped Blue Record, which I still maintain is literally a perfect album, and is an album I’ve listened to about once a week since it came out six years ago. It was the second vinyl I bought, after Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, when I found out my neighbor (who would eventually become my roommate) bought a turntable. The CD I bought in 09 is still in the passenger seat area of my car, where it hasn’t moved since it’s release despite the time, life changes, and literally the change of a car. (It was the final touch that said the new car was really mine.)

So, while I wasn’t so hot on their previous one, the idea of a new Baroness record had me more than excited, and the singles (“Chlorine & Wine”, “Shock Me”, and “Morningstar”) had me salivating. I would listen to the first two singles from it back to back several times before work, sing them in my car on the way to work, then listen to them while closing, only to quietly woodshed them on my guitar in the night hours when my roommates were asleep. I was obsessed again.

I’ve been dealing with a lot of stress lately, due to both my 27th birthday and a close family friend being diagnosed with a terminal disease. It’s all felt… very heavy to me lately. Time and being. Purple, for the past week or so that it’s been out, has been my tether to life, with songs like “Kerosene” and “Dedication Burns” and especially “Shock Me”, which is one of my top 10 tracks of the year, reminding me of the supreme transcendent power of the instant over the Eternal and of the now over the past and future. It’s uplifting but in a no-bullshit way, staring down the void and determining to make the most of what is available. I love it, and I needed it, especially right now.

3. Carly Rae Jepsen — E-MO-TION

I’m not the kind to apologize for these lists, and thankfully due to this album placing on so many lists from so many different types, I don’t even have to think about apologizing for it.

I’ll go to the stump to this day for “Call Me Maybe.” It’s a smartly written song with a clear, catchy hook. The beat is solid and the synths and acoustic instruments on it play and dance in a way that make its irresistability only painful if you want to not like it, which pegs you as a supremely square stick in the mud. (This is coming from a guy who loves absolute no-fun extreme metal, so take that point seriously.)

But what made “Call Me Maybe” wasn’t just the fundamentals of the song, which were superb, but Carly Rae’s performance. She isn’t a powerhouse singer like Adele or Beyonce, and while her vocals on almost all of her songs are effected rather than unadorned similar to say a La Roux or an Ellie Goulding, she strikes for an identity based more in purity and borderline-naive optimistic maximalism of emotion rather than savvy or hedonism. This is not meant to slag any of the aforementioned; Adele and Beyonce are rightfully canonized already, and La Roux is perennially underrated by the mainstream while Ellie Goulding at her strongest is perennially underrated by critics. But the comparison stands.

It is this supreme, heart-bleeding earnestness and sincerity that made “Call Me Maybe” work so well that bubbles up through every single song on E-MO-TION. From the Sade-lite “All That” to the Cyndi Lauper-infected “When I Needed You” to the effervescent intoxicating pop maximalism of “Making the Most of the Night” (again, one of the best songs of the entire year), every inch of this album feels real. And by that I don’t necessarily mean that they feel like things Carly Rae herself felt and then transcribed into song. Because that isn’t needed in pop.

The function of pop as form is not to strike at the granular and specific, which is more often the route to sincerity favored by folk and certain strains of punk-influenced music, but instead to view the granular and specific as objects rooted in some ground, some underlying fundamental near-universal emotion or experience, and instead to grab at that. To take the weird glimmerings of the heart, no matter or at times precisely because of the melodrama and to play them out on the grandest possible artistic stage. Great pop, unlike great rock or folk or hip-hop or punk, requires us not to be clever, which is so often the way for the embarrassed to disown the emotions that embarrass them, but to be sincere, to own fully and completely the desires, pleasures and pains of our heart regardless of their image.

Carly Rae does this, again and again, with full power on every song. The 80s sonic aesthetic is there, yes, and the fact that this album feels so often like a deliberate hybrid of Kylie Minogue and Cyndi Lauper isn’t indeliberate, but it’s often mistaken by some critics as an end in and of itself instead of merely a means to an end. For Carly Rae, as so many of our generation, these were the sounds of either our youth or our babysitters, in ages before we were able to resist or ironically disaffect ourselves from music that tugged at the heart if it was uncool to our peers. It becomes the sound for a specific person, if not a specific generation’s, view of childlike emotional sincerity, and it is that sincerity that is on display.

This is yet another album that, were I to do a proper “best of”, would find itself not only placing but placing highly on that list. If you don’t like this album, if you are unmoved by its pop hooks and bold colors and emotions, it is because you think you are too cool for the album, not because it doesn’t excel at doing what it sets out to do.

2. Ghost — Meliora

Would this album have made it onto my list even if it were 10 copies of the song “Cirice” in a row? Is “Cirice” my absolute favorite song of the year? Did Ghost manage to encapsulate in one record all the heart-bare, thunder-spirited joy of everything I tend to talk about?

Yeah.

A wordier version:

My entry to Ghost was with their instrumental “Genesis.” It struck the perfect notes for me: early heavy metal, mid-period progressive rock, and enough hints toward extreme metal in image and sonic aesthetic and production to provide some necessary grit. The remainder of their debut Opus Eoponymous delivered more and more and more, and left me more or less satisfied. Did they sound more than a bit Blue Oyster Cult-inspired? Sure, but with Mastodon basically turning into a Thin Lizzy cover band and getting oodles of acclaim for it, newer metal bands offering modernist reimaginings of classic hard rock and metal bands wasn’t exactly taboo. And beyond that, the songs were good. Did I think they were the second coming of metal, like some? No. But that’s an absurd title to give anyone really, and does more to distract from music than engage with it.

Their second album was admittedly a bit shakier. They signed a major record deal, cleaned up the sound, and upped the volume in a loudness war-style way, and the record suffered for it. There were great melodies, riffs, rhythms, and lyrical bits on Infestessumam, and it’s still a worthy record certainly, but it felt transitional. The songs were a little flabbier, but only because they were experimenting with a broader palette, touching on pop and Danny Elfman-style theatrical touches. They played more into the absurdity of their image, partly to poke fun at critiques who said, after years of KISS and Alice Cooper and Mercyful Fate being metal staples that all of a sudden this crossed some line into pure gimmicry, but it also made some of the songs feels absurd or flippant. More to the point, it was the sound of a band that previously had never had enough budget to achieve the sound of its dreams suddenly having more than enough money to do whatever they wanted and not necessarily knowing how to say no to certain impulses, whether from the band or management or the label.

Meliora, Latin for “better,” seems less a course-correction than a nod to those circumstances of transition, and similar to Purple see the band revisiting the very good ideas of their previous record with lessons learned about how to properly execute them. One of the benefits of budget is the band is finally able to indulge in their progressive side the way they’d always teased, a necessary component to gift us the masterpiece of lead-single “Cirice”. But the band has also learned from the more involved writing and arrangements of their previous record how to wind multiple voices together in a song, letting their return to riffiness on opener “Spirit” or the more intense metal of “Mummy Dust” to take on a fullness they never had before.

Meliora is Ghost’s ideal third album, in that it is the proper major label followup to their scruffier debut than their sophomore release. Furthermore, it takes their ideas if not their image seriously, and with lyrics that play less on camp and more on giddiness and joy, we catch a glimpse of what is deemed Satanic in a way the mainstream is very rarely presented.

And, at the end of the day, it’s a pretty rippin’ rock record, which ain’t too bad a bonus.

  1. Tribulation — Children of the Night

Talking about rippin’ rock records. What the hell kind of a sonic reinvention is this?

Tribulation started out, but two records ago!, as a straight-forward no-frills death metal throwback bad. Their sound was grimy, tough, and disgusting, heavy on riffs and guts and blood and evil and violence. I remember the record coming out, and it being fairly decent, but ultimately making no great waves in the scene. It’s always nice to get a throwback record like that to reconfirm that power and pleasure of old ideas, but they have to be really something to reinvigorate a waning scene, and no-frills death metal has for too long now been a relatively dry place, tapped more by hardcore than by metal bands, so the record didn’t go very far.

I put them out of mind until I went to see Watain on one of their American legs for The Wild Hunt, their latest and relatively speaking their most tame and artful. This was a few years back, and they had In Solitude as main support with Tribulation as opener. In Solitude had switched from satanic traditional heavy metal to something with a little more post-punk and goth rock, a bit more of Hammer Horror and Killing Joke, for what turned out to be their final record Sister. Apparently, Watain, in keeping with the mood of the evening, picked up a reconfigured Tribulation. They hadn’t lost any band members, but they had sonically changed direction a whole hell of a lot by internalizing a great deal of psychedelic music and progressive rock, similar to but not quite in the same vein as Opeth.

After a handful of 10-minute long songs replete with lengthy psych/prog instrumetal sections, I wound up staggering over to the merch booth to pick up their most recent record, The Formulas of Death. It was lush where their previous was gruff, dreamlike where their last was visceral, but still had a death metal bite to it. I dreamed of them evolving in the direction of bands like Morbus Chron, delivering artsy, progressive death metal that avoided prog cliche and widdly wanky bullshit. (Admission: I love widdly wanky prog cliche bullshit, but I’m not going to pretend run-of-the-mill tech death bands are putting out records on par with Sweven, Morbus Chron’s last.)

So, it was to my great surprise that I see the cover for Tribulation’s latest looks like a DVD reissue of Nosferatu and their band photos look like a corpsepainted four-piece version of Rush from another world. Apparently, something about that tour rubbed off and everyone on the bus exchanged influences, because Children of the Night emerges from the artsy psychedelic fog of The Formulas of Death into clearly defined and composed heavy occult rock, part goth and part camp and part honest to god rock and roll boogie.

Tribulation plays a bit closer to the classic rock sounds that inspired god damn near every single metal band on the planet on this one, too, nodding to Blue Oyster Cult and Blue Cheer and KISS and Rush and Zeppelin and Deep Purple as much as any death metal or post-punk. There are mellotrons all over this album in a way that screams Genesis or Deep Purple, but is married to heavy guitar-centered rock with riff-writing and production that could only have come from now. The music feels like a three-part concept record about the occult but stay vague and mystical enough to slip just beyond the grasp of the fingers, as all great rock records should.

(Rock lyrics, by and by, being the dumbest and most neanderthalic pseudo-literature on the planet, and serving the song best when it gestures big and proud and dumb but remains just too unintelligible to judge intellectually.)

I could write on and on about this thing, but the important point is: Tribulation transcends on this release from making great metal to great rock and roll, period. They understand what makes rock work, and they see those bits at the heart of goth, post-punk, metal and classic rock, and they know how to blend and how to dial up or dial back each as needed. There are instrumentals, there are time changes, there are anthemic choruses, and there are absurdist rock-mystic lyrics. The titles are perfectly ridiculous the way great compelling rock and metal always are. (Think the covers and song titles of Led Zeppelin IV or Houses of the Holy for some premium compelling heavy metal absurdity.) The art is a deft aesthetic glue binding it all together.

This is a future Great Rock Record the way Mastodon has delivered them in the past. Every aspect of this record cries out in that direction. There’s a reason why it remained my go-to writing and brainstorming music for most of the year once it dropped and why it’s still one of the few records I special ordered on vinyl rather than just listening on Spotify or casually picking it up at the local shop. It does everything I want a rock record to do. And it’s my favorite record of the year.