DEDICATED TO THE MUSIC & LIFE OF DAVID BOWIE 1947 – 2016
BUY MUSIC! Buy a whole album instead of a few tracks. Go to a show and pick up some merch while you’re there. Just spend money! But if you buy music (downloads or physical) and merch online, try to buy from the artist’s website, or the label if it’s a small one.
Cool? Cool. So here we go. Here’s all the stuff that moved me this year. This is my most expansive attempt to celebrate a year in music so far. There’s the inevitable TOP TEN list, and then TOP FIVE lists broken up by genre further down. If you use the evil Spotify there’s eight genre-specific playlists as well, and one “year-in-review” playlist, so keep scrolling down, whatever you’re in to, it’s represented (except for blues and country – I kind of dropped the ball on that this year). I hope this helps you discover something you’ve never heard before.
TOP TEN ALBUMS OF 2015
1. TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY – Kendrick Lamar
I know, this topped everyone’s list, and there’s nothing I can say here that others haven’t said better, but the hype is so fucking real. good kid, m.A.A.d city was a masterpiece, a concept-album that became a classic the minute it hit. In the space between then and now Lamar has continued to guest spit on tracks where his verses were often the very best thing about them. He dropped a single late in 2014 and it was good, different from what we had heard from him in the past, but good. The anticipation around Lamar’s new album swelled to bursting. It seemed impossible that he could drop a project that would meet all expectations. And then To Pimp a Butterfly hit… and it was amazing. In the year of the Black Lives Matter movement Lamar released a genre-defying storm of black identity assertion. It’s just one brilliant jam after another, tied together with cohesive, complex themes and fantastic soundscaping. He raps from multiple viewpoints and creates a wide cast of characters and intentions. There is no misstep here, no oversimplification and no way to over-praise what he has achieved. It is jazz and rap and soul and poetry. It is complicated and angry and pure and comprehensive and, above all things, utterly artful. A work that time will be hard pressed to obscure.
2. THE EPIC – Kamasi Washington
And so, it is no mistake that one of the musicians featured on To Pimp a Butterfly put out the second best album of the year (though both records achieve an impossible plateau of quality). In fact, because of The Epic‘s association with To Pimp a Butterfly, I tried to put something else in the number two slot, tried to space it all out a little, but the more I listened to this three-hour Jazz odyssey the more I heard the verity of it all. Saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington has dropped a work so massive, so beautiful, and so accomplished that after listening to the whole thing, the title of the album smacked me as being the only reasonable thing to call it. The musicianship and imagination on display here are astounding.
3. ART ANGELS – Grimes
I have to start with what seems like an act of full-disclosure, but it’s really just a brag. I’ve known Claire Boucher’s family for several years now and I consider them, and Claire, to be truly good personal friends. Actually, I kind of love her mom, her stepfather and her. Because of this I’ve been lucky enough to hear Claire’s music through the years, from before the storm of attention hit, and I have been sincerely impressed with her since beat one. But this… watching her become one of the most interesting and rightfully celebrated “pop-musicians” in the world over the course of just her last two albums, well, it’s been kind of astounding. Now, listening to her most recent release, her growth as an artist seems both inevitable and explosive to me. I have quite a few extraordinary artist in my life, but never have I been able to watch a friend’s ascent as they go through the act of becoming one. During an early listen through of Art Angels, while laying in bed with my partner, I turned to her and said, “What if Claire’s like an actual genius? I mean, not just good, but the real, real thing?”
4. I LOVE YOU, HONEYBEAR – Father John Misty
Onetime Fleet Foxes member Josh Tillman has a new album. As it floats in on the first unsuspecting listen it seems immediately to be the kind of earnest, sensitized folk that will be relegated to background music at your adult dinner parties. He sings with great, vaulted emotion. He plays a kind of lush folk that could very easily come off as saccharine. But I Love You, Honeybear is a trojan horse. As the lyrics start to sink in, the truth becomes clear. Tillman is really fucking funny. Tillman is also truthful, sardonic, bored, pissed off, brutally honest and overwhelmed. With each song the work becomes more and more novelistic. His tracks are stories about himself and the people he endures. His musical production is unprocessed, often driving, or lilting, almost always beautiful. His sonic imagination is excellent. His vulnerable folk martyrdom is real, but so is his jaundiced indignant disenchantment. This is no affect, this is art from a man who could very possibly be the Dave Eggers of folk music… or, actually, I think it’s more realistic to call Dave Eggers the Father John Misty of literature.
5. BLACK MESSIAH – D’Angelo and the Vanguard
Black Messiah is soul monster and poly-instrumentalist D’Angelo’s first new full-length in fourteen years. A purist, and a genius from day one, he had become uncomfortable with his increasing role as a celebrity and hated the decreasing emphasis on his inner person, the vibrant soul-music explorer. And so, the natural and genuine heir of mountaintop gods like Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, etc., went away. He guested here and there, to be sure, and tracks have quietly dropped over the years, but he seemed submerged by time, someone you used to listen to. And now, like a music ascetic come down from the mountain with a deep psyche-funk/jazz/rock groove-truth to share, our messiah has returned. He has grown, yet remains unchanged. These jams shamble and swing and glide. Like any transcendentalist, D’Angelo knows that simple structure and easily identified form are the coward’s tools. D’Angelo, and his band, have synthesized the past into a great soul revolution. A new/old sound. Sloppy, earnest, funny, playful and bold. Greatness takes time, and often a little solitude. Our culture’s hunger to masticate the people it loves is immense, but a real creative visionary knows that sometimes you have to leave the clamor and head for the mountaintop. Welcome back D’Angelo, if I’m fifty-eight when your next album drops, it’s okay by me. You’ve given us plenty to hold on to until then.
6. CARRIE & LOWELL – Sufjan Stevens
I was never a Sufjan Stevens fan before. I heard the work, his back catalogue is immense, but maybe I didn’t give him the love he deserves. Maybe I was blind. Now, from where I’m sitting, with my still-limited vision, it seems that Carrie & Lowell is an enormous achievement in folk music. This is a heart-achingly honest album about Stevens’ parents (mother and stepfather) and the rapport he immediately achieves with his listener is mesmerizing. You play this thing, and suddenly you’ve become a therapist to your most beautiful and perceptive friend. You learn, here, that his mother was a drug addicted bipolar schizophrenic who abandoned Stevens but came back again and again over the course of their relationship. She has since died of cancer. His stepfather, Lowell, now runs Stevens’ label. There is a great and tremendous truth about the work. This is not folk music subverted by the cynical. It is also not cloyingly sentimental folk. This is the personal turned universal. Youth and love and sadness and fear. And hope, hope that we can all learn to love the things that tried to undo us, the people who unintentionally hurt us, and that we can embrace the idea that we are stronger, not weaker, for our travails. Suddenly we are all best friends with Sufjan Stevens.
7. NEVER WERE THE WAY SHE WAS – Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld
Every time I listen to groundbreaking saxophonist Colin Stetson’s albums I feel like I’m being retuned. Like dark magic has entered my life and deeper, most likely dangerous, epiphanies loom. I am not sure that Stetson is even a person (though I’ve seen some personification of him play live before). He seems more like a force of nature. The element that gives the wilderness its darkness. Sometimes I am a primitive man on the outskirts of his music, holding an ineffectual torch against his lumbering, massive, sonic darkness. There are monsters inside Stetson’s music and they peer out, longing to devour all things. Sarah Neufeld is a violinist who has worked with Stetson in Arcade Fire, and like Stetson, when she is liberated from others’ more grounded vision she proves to be a bearer of greater musical truths too. The team-up between the two is something amazing. The dark, masculine organic drone was in need of an equally brilliant feminine. Now the sound is woman and man. So working together, Neufeld and Stetson are something to be worshipped. Here are eight “ambient” songs that will submerge you, command you, frighten and empower you. Never Were The Way She Was has nothing to say, because words are not truth. It’s too momentous to have anything to say, because meaning is not truth. It’s too unnerving to have anything to say, because comfort is not truth. It has nothing to say, but it will help you achieve total, pure, mindfulness. This sound is your new god. All hail Neufeld and Stetson.
8. LUMINIFEROUS – High on Fire
High on Fire fucking drives. This is relentless doom-metal. Pure turbulent, gordian rock n’ roll. Nine hog-wild, invigorating tracks led by Matt Pike. Pike’s vocals could fill, to some small degree, the space in your heart left by the death of the GREAT Lemmy Kilmister. And then there’s the music under him. The riffs are huge, the hooks go deep. We, the listener, are an army of berserker-dammed on the march, lost in the multitude of the war machine, fervent in our belief, willing to die, but not before we rage. There is no break, no chance to take oxygen, no rest. Every musician is locked in, building something intricate and vast. Like ants creating a bridge of their own bodies across water, these musicians seem willing to support one another so intricately that the weight of the metal they craft could very well crush them. High on Fire have been making music for some twenty years, but time cannot slow their roll or even endure their thunder.
9. ABYSS – Chelsea Wolfe
Chelsea Wolfe’s ode to her own diagnosed sleep paralysis, Abyss is the first time she’s fully and totally zapped me. I’ve been watching her for a few years. Always checking up on her. Always “feeling” her talent, admiring what she was going for. That’s over now. Here her heavy black-doom-folk, her astounding voice, and her ability to create sonic landscapes has completely won me over. There’s something in this that reminds me of an early Tori Amos, but with more dysmorphic and poisonous flora growing inside of it. Like Kamasi Washington’s The Epic, this album could not be more aptly titled, The Abyss is big and dark and boiling and certain of its intentions. It is not a wall of sound, but a bottomless black chasm. The kind you fall into in a dream, where first you’re afraid, but the plummet lasts so long that the illusion of weightlessness becomes freeing, and after a time you forget you are falling and, lying to yourself, begin to believe you are flying.
10. SOUND & COLOR – Alabama Shakes
Front woman Brittany Howard posses a timeless talent for belting, lilting, screeching, whispering and crooning. To ignore her is to deprive yourself of one of the very best blues and rock singers working today. So I expected to love this album, always a dangerous thing, expectation. But the album came as a surprise. Here the Shakes have mostly cast aside the driving roots rock and blues that characterized their previous effort and embraced a kind of modernized second-wave-of-soul sound (save for brief flirtations with post punk and other interesting explorations). The music weaves its way in and out of incredibly inventive arrangements. The album may be slower than the previous one, but it digs deeper, and Howard is the foundation. It is not hyperbole to say that, in time, she may stand alongside the finest jazz vocalists in history. A beautiful, soulful record that grows in importance the more attention I pay to it.
LIVE IN DUBLIN – Leonard Cohen
This is not new music, but it is. And since it came out in December of 2014 (which counts as 2015 to me) it lands here. The eighty-year old Cohen has put out a lot of live music since he emerged from retirement in 2008, all in an attempt to regain some of the money that was stolen from him by unscrupulous partners. And many of those recordings are fantastic, but here he brings an army of killer musicians to Ireland – that great storytelling culture – and the Irish audience eagerly embraces the great song-storyteller. You can feel them out there in the dark, having a collective peak experience just on the other side of your speakers. Their enthusiasm helps make this recording something really special. This is a three-disk, exhaustive tour through Cohen’s catalogue, and the new arrangements are absolutely fantastic, dense and free and beautiful. I can think of no better way to spend a mellow evening at home than with this album on. It’s just wonderful.
THE SOUND OF 2015
Here’s our first playlist. Fifty-two songs, one for each week of the year spanning a little under four hours. Together they paint a sonic map. They’re not necessarily the best songs, Drake dropped a good album and he’s not here, but they are the songs that either got the most play in my life or simply worked well in the playlist. Either way, all genres are represented. I have been told these kinds of list are almost too broad to be appealing to anyone but me. I guess the metal heads don’t dig the electronic music, and folk fans don’t feel the hip-hop, or whatever. But it’s a good music discovery tool and if you let it roll out in order, as it was meant to be heard, it’s a pretty interesting musical road trip.
1. To Pimp A butterfly Kendrick Lamar
2. B4.DA.$$ – Joey Bada$$
3. BARTER 6 – Young Thug
4. IF YOU’RE READING THIS IT’S TOO LATE – Drake
5. TODAY, I WROTE NOTHING – Billy Woods
HONORABLE MENTION – Earl Sweatshirt, Open Mike Eagle, A$AP Rocky, Travi$Scott, The Game, Vince Staples
THE POWERS THAT B – Death Gripps – It’s not that Powers that B wasn’t amazing. It absolutely was. But it’s almost impossible to classify the genius that is Death Gripps. He defies genre. So I’ll stick him here, and just tell you that the album is extraordinary and hope you check it out.
Here’s my year in Rap, more than an hour and a half of new music…
IN SOUL, FUNK & JAZZ
1. THE EPIC – Kamasi Washington
2. BLACK MESSIAH – D’Angelo and the Vanguard
3. ALGIERS – Algiers
4. THE BEYOND/WHERE THE GIANTS ROAM – Thundercat
5. BLOOD – Lianne La Havas
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Leon Bridges, Omar Souleyman, Ibeyi, Dave Douglas, Bilal, Miguel
The Jazz, Funk & Soul playlist for this year is HOT! Listen to it! Two hours, twenty-six songs. A few re-releases, because they were too awesome to ignore. Again, these aren’t the best tracks, just the best flow in a list meant to shine a light on some things you may have missed.
IN FOLK, ROOTS & SINGER-SONGWRITER
1. I LOVE YOU, HONEYBEAR – Father John Misty
2. CARRIE AND LOWELL – Sufjan Stevens
3. WELCOME BACK TO MILK – Du Blonde
4. POISON SEASON – Destroyer
5. BEAT THE CHAMP – The Mountain Goats (a fantastic concept album about the lives of pro-wrestlers)
HONORABLE MENTIONS – Julia Holter, Natalie Prass, Tobias Jesso Jr, Torres, Shilpa Ray.
Great year for earnest singer-songwriters giving it their all. A few points of note. In a year of transgressive gender awareness Tica Douglas produced a wonderful heartfelt album called Joey. We also had two comic book related news items in music this year (besides the very comic book centric work of hip hop artist CZARFACE). La Luz released Weirdo Shrine, a concept album based entirely on Charles Burns’ masterwork graphic novel Black Hole. And indy-cartoonist Shana Cleveland released a lovely album called Oh Man, Cover the Ground. Here’s your year-end folk and singer-songwriter list. Twenty-seven songs, two hours…
ROCK & PUNK
1. SUN COMING DOWN – Ought
2. KEY – MARKETS – Sleaford Mods
3. HALF FREE – U.S. Girls
4. VIET CONG – Viet Cong
5. FEELS LIKE – Bully
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Menace Beach, Pill, Jeff Rosenstock, Colleen Green, Pile, QUARTERBACKS, Young Fathers, Sannhet, Ghost B.C.
Is U.S. Girls rock? Shit, I don’t know. But I sure do love that album. Is Young Fathers rock? Should the AMAZING Death Gripps album be here… man… probably. No genre is becoming more submerged by the great musical unification that is happening now than Rock. And honestly all the genre smashing is for the greater good, so who knows what’s what anymore, and who cares. Anyway… here’s what the year in Rock and Punk sounded like…
METAL, INDUSTRIAL & DOOM
1. LUMINIFEROUS – High on Fire
2. APEX PREDATOR – EASY MEAT – Napalm Death
3. WHERE GREATER MEN HAVE FALLEN – Primordial
4. THE ANTHROPOCENE EXTINCTION – Cattle Decapitation
5. MELIORA – Ghost B.C.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Xibalba, Lightening Bolt, Krallice, Crosss, Crypt Sermon, Panopticon
1. ART ANGELS – Grimes
2. VEGA INTL. NIGHT SCHOOL – Neon Indian
3. CURRENTS – Tame Impala
4. ME – Empress Of
5. M3LL155x – FKA Twigs
HONORABLE MENTION: Shamir, Milo, Dutch Uncles, Deradoorian, Clarence Clarity, Miguel, Colleen, Julio Bashmore, Petite Nior, Doe Paoro, Sophie, Everything Everything.
1. IN COLOUR – Jamie xx
2. DARK ENERGY – JLin
3. POMEGRANATES – Nicloas Jaar
4. CHINESE NU YR EP – Iglooghost
5. COMPUTER CONTROLLED ACOUSTIC INSTRUMENTS PT. 2 EP – Aphex Twin
HONORABLE MENTION: Nosaj Thing, Ghost Culture, MCFERRDOG, Lakker, The Chemical Brothers, Oneohtrix Point Never, Sophie, Baths, Clarence Clarity
AMBIENT & SOUNDSCAPE
1. NEVER WERE THE WAY SHE WAS – Colin Stetson & Sara Neufeld
2. MISCONTINUUM ALBUM (FIEPBLATTER CATALOGUE #3) – Jan St. Werner (Scary as shit!)
3. METALEPSIS – Eartheater
4. A READYMADE CEREMONY – Felicia Atkinson
5. BEHOLD – Oren Ambrachi
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Nick Cave, Sam Prekop, Anamai, Benoit Pioulard, Colleen, Ash Koosha
Whoooo! If you made it all the way to the end, thanks for reading this. I had no good reason to do it, I just wanted to. Much love. Now I can start listing to the music of 2016!!