Top Music Picks of 2015

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that, as an individual who maintains a very public persona centered around music criticism and scholarship, I listened to very little new music this year. Why, I haven’t really figured out yet — but I do know that 2015 was an intensely difficult year personally, politically and otherwise.

When I did listen to music, I listened to escape — perhaps this is why I played the Empire soundtrack more than anything this year — or to validate my own feelings about the state of “things,” as it were. The following represents the rare bits of musical moments from 2015 that excited, inspired and motivated me to do better, to be better. I present them in no particular order, but encourage you to listen to anything that didn’t appear on your personal listening radar.

Colleen Green — I Want To Grow Up (Hardly Art)

Colleen Green turned 30 this year — an age where most people expect one to reach “peak adult” and have everything figured out. But, as Green revealed on this incredibly personal and emotive LP (her strongest by far), age ain’t nothing but a number and “growing up” is a state of mind rather than mere existence. On I Want To Grow Up, Green addresses her personal demons head on — her desire to be loved, her lifestyle choices, the ramifications of her actions — in a way few of her grungy stoner garage rock peers manage. While I don’t think Colleen herself would consider this a “feminist” work, it is important to note that, aside from Grimes Art Angels, I Want To Grow Up is one of the very few albums released this year that gives such a public platform to the artistic and personal expressions of a woman. Green’s unique perspective on her life in the millennial age, coupled with her keen songwriting abilities, make I Want To Grow Up one of the year’s most overlooked albums.

G.L.O.S.S. — Demo (self-released)

As a genuine fan of old school-tinged hardcore punk, I’ve often struggled to justify my personal appreciations with the hyper-masculine, often exclusionary nature of the genre itself. Thank goddess for G.L.O.S.S. — the radical queer hardcore outfit out of Olympia, Washington who turned hardcore on its head with their subversive, powerful and all-around paradigm shattering five song debut. This is hardcore punk for the 21st Century — aggressive, socially conscious, empowering rather than divisive. The brilliant jenn pelly tackled the importance of G.L.O.S.S (which stands for “girls living outside society’s shit”) several times this year in a way I never could, but to leave this off the list would be to ignore the single most important punk album of the year.

Wax Idols — American Tragic (Collect Records)

American Tragic was, as its name suggests, born from the loss and pain experienced by frontwoman Hether Fortune in the wake of her short-lived and tumultuous marriage. Expanding upon the dark, gothy sound Fortune initially began exploring on Wax Idol’s previous album (2013’s Discipline + Desire), American Tragic reveals Fortune emotionally at her most raw, and artistically in her most fully formed state. Throughout the album, Fortune wields her voice like a weapon, alternating from breathy, mysterious whispers to guttural, emotive bursts so powerful that Fortune’s pain is rendered almost palpable — as if Fortune wants her pain to become her listener’s pain as well.

The Pats Pats / Peach Kelli Pop — PKPPP (self-released)

The Pats Pats, an all-female garage pop trio based in Tokyo, have somehow managed to make music fun for me again. Perhaps it’s the simple, but entirely earnest way in which the band discusses trivial life moments — eating donuts, hanging out with friends, petting cats. Or, perhaps it’s the way in which the band’s members have rallied together to create safe spaces for Japanese women to discuss feminism and women’s issues (something that is often ignored in Japan) through the art and music scene in Tokyo. Whatever the case, the Pats Pats split release with Los Angeles’ Peach Kelli Pop was easily my favorite cassette of the year. (And meeting lead singer Akiko in Tokyo while eating yakitori and having enlightening conversations on feminism and the importance of female musicians was definitely a high point of the year, personally!)

Grimes — Art Angels (4AD)

On Art Angels, Grimes directly addresses the haters that (very publicly) shunned her amidst accusations of “selling out” and turning “pop” (whatever that means) in the months and years after the release of her breakout 2012 LP, Visions. “But I don’t understand what they say / ’Cause I get carried away / Commodifying all the pain” she reveals on the seemingly upbeat and infectious “California.” In fact, much of Art Angels is ruled by the dichotomy between polished, radio-ready pop stylings and Grimes’ introspective and often insecure lyrical content — but it is this confessional, brutally honest form of songwriting and music-making that ultimately makes Art Angels a unique and captivating work. On Art Angels, Grimes reveals herself in her most pure form, unrestrained by the expectations unfairly foisted upon her by the music media and fans. Here, she gives life to the music she has so clearly longed to make — a clever hodgepodge of late ’90s Top 40, analog video game sounds and club-worthy beats. If anything, the album offers a unique perspective rarely seen in the otherwise superficial and Plasticine world of contemporary pop music — one in which a woman has written, produced, programmed and performed her artistic vision from beginning to end. If anything, this alone makes Art Angels an album worth learning from and listening to.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu — “Mondai Girl”

While Kyary Pamyu Pamyu didn’t drop a new album in 2015, she did give fans a glimpse into her current musical exploits with “Mondai Girl” — an infectious, polished single that fits nicely alongside Grimes’ cyborg feminist pop. “Mondai” roughly translates to “trouble” or “problematic” in Japanese, and the song itself is a subtle nod to Kyary’s many detractors who insist she’s merely another cog in the J-Pop machine. While that might be partially true, Kyary (more than any other Japanese female artist) has a firm control over her image and persona — and, now, perhaps her music. If “Mondai Girl” is any indication of what’s to come in Kyary’s world, this is definitely one artist to pay attention to in the months to come.

Rihanna — “Bitch Better Have My Money”

The unofficial song of freelancers everywhere, “Bitch Better Have My Money” was the Rihanna song we never knew we needed. Powerful yet restrained, almost simplistic in its production, the song revealed RiRi in her purest form — a bad bitch who knows what she wants and exactly how she’s going to get it.

Tricot — A N D (Bakuretsu Records)

In the world of Japanese music, Tricot is somewhat of a rarity — a group of women writing and performing their own songs, outside of the domineering major label machine that dictates most of Japan’s musical culture. A N D, the groups third full-length, expands upon the unique math rock-esque sound the band has become known for — and while it’s not entirely too different from the group’s previous work, the swirling, maniacal guitars and the confessional songwriting is simply too good to ignore here.

Girlpool — Before The World Was Big (Wichita)

In the last five years, no Los Angeles band made me as excited and passionate about local music than Girlpool. In 2014, Harmony and Cleo, barely out of high school, exploded onto the scene with their unique brand of quirky yet insightful songwriting and arrangement that seemed to channel the early spirit of Beat Happening (albeit through a angry, frustrated feminist lens). Of course, Los Angeles could never keep Girlpool to itself — but, our loss became the music world’s gain when the band released its first full-length LP, Before The World Was Big. The band’s signature sing-song, half shouted vocal delivery creates an urgency to the girl’s songs; Girlpool knows what they’re saying is important, and they command everyone in their presence to shut up and listen. Listening to Girlpool often feels akin to flipping through your high school diary — the fears and insecurities of young women stripped bare and thrown out into the wild.

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