This was my first year voting, which I was really excited about. I wrote a few words on each of my choices:
‘The Thing We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us’
Beach Slang’s ‘The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us’ just dethroned Japandroids’ ‘Celebration Rock’ as the second best anthemic guitar-rock album of the decade so far (Titus Andronicus’ ‘The Monitor’ is still number one). For ten songs and twenty-six minutes, James Alex and co. sing of youth and what comes after as a glorious journey best shared with other weirdos and hard luck kids also in love with passionate, heart-on-your-sleeve punk rock. Beach Slang’s gospel is compelling and simple: being young and alive is a choice decided by attitude and not time spent on earth. However, you must also learn to live with the fear of aging and dying, because the fear never goes away (“Too Late To Die Young” means a lot more when you realize Alex is in his 40s). This album is for every restless soul that’s been waiting for its own Replacements – for the young and alive, this band really could be your life.
‘To Pimp A Butterfly’
Top Dawg Entertainment
It doesn’t matter if you like the music or not, ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ was 2015.
Don Giovanni Records
2015’s most ambitious punk album not made by Titus Andronicus reminds me of the Beatles’ ‘White Album’, a sprawling work made by clashing personalities competing to see who can be the most over the top. ‘Predatory Heights’ is also over the top and, at twenty-five songs over eighty minutes, is a lot to take in. Sometimes it’s too much (there’s a nine-minute free tribal-jazz jam). Yet for being so dense, the music is never boring. It’s lean and moves quickly to cover a lot of music history from Thin Lizzy (“Garden of Secrecy”), to Eels (“Ants + Flies”), and even the Beatles (“You Keep Me Cool”). With no Yoko back-story to spoil the music, ‘Predatory Heights’ is not an indulgent battle of egos but an ambitious album by a young and confident band swinging for the fences.
‘Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit’
Mom + Pop Music
If she were a folk singer, we wouldn’t shut up about how Courtney Barnett was the next Bob Dylan. She’s a masterful storyteller who can match her witty and observant lyrics with driving guitar rock, and she makes it look so easy. The best example is “Depreston”, in which Barnett turns an afternoon of home shopping into an metaphor for coping with mortality while only playing two chords through the entire song. And like Dylan, her trickery is both a part of her persona and a means of tricking us into pulling the profound out of the ordinary and mundane. Barnett also wrote the best chorus of 2015 for the appropriately titled “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party”: “I wanna go out but I also wanna stay home.” Amen sister.
I’ve always wanted a dance record for introverts, and now I finally have one. Thanks Jamie Smith.
‘The Most Lamentable Tragedy’
“O, why should wrath be mute, and fury dumb?
I am no baby, I, that with base prayers
I should repent the evils I have done:
Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did
Would I perform, if I might have my will;
If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul.”
-William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus
That voice. It’s the first and last piece of Hop Along’s breakthrough album that sticks with you. Frances Quinlan’s yell is at once intimate and full of rage and, especially behind the softer acoustic tacks like “Happy To See Me”, it can send literal shivers down your back. And she’s just as good writing lyrics. Not quite indie nor alternative, Hop Along exists in its own world like The Dismemberment Plan, and at its best ‘Painted Shut’ is as open and compelling as ‘Emergency & I’. Now with the Saddle Creek seal of approval, Hop Along is ready to conquer the world they deserve to own.
Tobias Jesso Jr.
True Panther Sounds
Tobias Jesso Jr. could cash in all his Adele checks and be fine, but I hope he continues to perform his own songs. Jesso’s understated singing is the secret behind the gorgeous ‘Goon’. From his shaky falsetto on “How Could You Babe” to his goofy boo-hooing on “Crocodile Tears”, Jesso sings like how I want to sing, not as a professional singer but as a normal person who needs to express himself. This natural approach, along with some excellent songwriting and production, elevates ‘Goon’ from a 70s throwback to a 2015 singer-songwriter album that sounds timeless.
Carly Rae Jepsen
Carly Rae Jepsen is a regular, really boring person. Those are her own words, not mine, and it’s not an insult. While the biggest pop stars battle multi-billion dollar corporations or twerk on Robin Thicke, Jepsen takes the biggest risk and releases a pop record about regular, really boring people falling in and out of love. And the best part is that the boring album is the strongest album of them all. You can’t live out your wildest celebrity dreams vicariously through Jepsen, but ‘Emotion’ is full of so much joy and bliss that you won’t need someone else’s love story to enjoy your own.
Even if it was just a publicity stunt, Ryan Adams’ reinterpretation of 2014’s biggest pop hit gives new life to the songs I skipped over on the original (“Style”, “All You Had To Do Was Stay”, and “Wildest Dreams”). Swift still owns "Black Space” and “Shake It Off”, but it’s fun to hear ‘1989’ in the key of The Smiths and other 80s favorites (“You’ve got that Daydream Nation look in your eye”). The music is good but the lesson is better: great songs come from great songwriting.
Note: my rule is that I don’t pick any songs from my favorite albums.
The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die
You Can’t Live There Forever
“We’re all afraid to die / and that’s alright.”
Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment
If Kendrick Lamar was the preacher of hard times in 2015, then the Social Experiment, led by Donnie Trumpet (Nico Segal) and Chance the Rapper, was the choir singing for redemption and love, and “Sunday Candy” was their most joyous prayer.
This might be the first song about 9/11 that doesn’t suck.
Flesh Without Blood
I didn’t realize how much I missed Grimes until I heard “Flesh Without Blood” and its punchy guitar riff. The K-pop influence is clear, even more so in its bonkers music video, but “Flesh Without Blood” has more to due with Top 40 Pop with its infectious hook and chorus. It also sounds like a twisted remix of Kelly Clarkson’s breakup hit “Since U Been Gone", and this song is on its way to become the next classic “I don’t care anymore” anthem.
Death with Dignity
Writing an entire concept album using an American Midwest state as a metaphor for religious loss and redemption is one thing, but fitting an entire lifetime’s worth of complex emotional baggage into just four-minutes and using only two acoustic guitars and a piano is the greater achievement.
‘Sound & Color’ is my 11th favorite album of 2015, so it just missed my top ten list. To make up for this injustice, here’s my favorite ‘Sound & Color’ song, which is also the best Southern rock, get-in-your-car-and-start-a-road-trip song of the year.
Cash Money Records
Until “Hotline Bling”, I couldn’t believe Drake was a real person. I thought he was a human incarnation of a meme, an invention of the Internet designed to start Twitter beefs and curse certain athletic types. ‘Take Care’ is plenty vulnerable, but I couldn’t find the humanity in the man who made #YOLO a thing. But “Hotline Bling” is a different beast. The song’s melody and production is disarming in its simplicity, and it makes Drake sound frank in a way I’ve never heard him before. I don’t know what it’s like to be as famous as Drake, but I know what it’s like to used to have someone to think about. I actually feel sorry for him, and he makes me sorry to ever doubt his ability to bring to realization in the mainstream what Kanye West started with ‘808s & Heartbreak.’ I also love “Hotline Bling” for its ridiculous and, ironically enough, meme-tastic music video, but for the first time I can hear the humanity in Drake.
2015’s 90s revival was too long and too emo (don’t worry, we’re due for a Brit Pop revival any minute), but Colleen Green was the bright spot among all the newly purchased flannels. The strength of the fuzzy “TV” alone could almost justify a MTV resurrection. Almost.
Fan The Flames
Remember back in the 70s when Thin Lizzy made that disco album? Neither do I, but wow “Fan The Flames” is a jam.
The Night We Called It A Day
It turns out that Bob Dylan can sing. Rock & roll’s greatest troll strikes again.