Some Songs Considered #033: The only “Best Music of 2015” lists worth reading
Welcome to Some Songs Considered, a column that recognizes they can’t all be zingers and truly appreciates the ones that are.
They’re all for you dear, the Albums of the Year
by Justin McCarthy (@JustinSMcCarthy)
[Editor’s Note: If you don’t get that title, like Justin didn’t when I suggested it, go listen to this song and come back when you’re done weeping. – Bryce]
In no particular order, and with the acknowledgment that I’ll probably be adding on to this next week…
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
Kendrick Lamar is a once-in-a-generation storyteller with a once-in-a-generation approach to engaging with these culturally spatialized, spiritually suffocating times: a true maximalist, he gives every voice and image and ghost a spot in the groove session, without ever letting you forget who the bandleader is.
Like 2015 itself, To Pimp a Butterfly can be confusing, distressing, maddening, but it’s never less than thrilling and it’s full of reasons to believe in the progress, albeit painful progress, toward the seemingly-Sisyphean project of removing the age-old masks of “impartiality,” “level playing fields,” and “equal justice under the law” from the face of daily American life.
Further Reading: Some Songs Considered #001
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie and Lowell
In which the Crown Prince of Graceful Sentimentality and Whisper Singing fixes his interest not on Midwestern states or synthesized sonic textures, but on his fraught relationship with his recently-deceased mother (and essentially the whole concept of dying in general).
Make no mistake, this is a dark record. Standouts like “Fourth of July” and closer “Blue Bucket of Gold” are like fragmented lullabies from music boxes in mourning and even the most melodically bright track, “The Only Thing,” is about suicide contemplation. However, if you are in a place in your life (or even just your day) where you’re picking up what this saddest version of Sufjan is putting down, this album can help, and maybe even heal.
Further Reading: Some Songs Considered #031
Future – DS2
“Tried to make me a pop star, and they made a monster.”
Upon its release, the music writing community did what it does best and beat the perceived context of Dirty Sprite 2 like a dead drug mule: “yada yada Ciara, yada yada brooding, yada yada Actavis.” But while it’s standard practice (and occasionally helpful) to imbue an LP with narrative, come on, let’s not ruin the fun here. The beats may be minor key, but this isn’t music by or for the despondent – it’s bursting with energy and melody, not to mention instrumentals that supercharge your endorphins thanks to Metro Boomin’ and Zaytoven. Play it in the car, on a workout, even at a party. I guess you could even technically play it to get over your ex#, so long as you get over them as productively and with as much gusto as Future Hendrix#.
Julien Baker – Sprained Ankle
To bare your soul without getting corny; this is the ever-delicate balancing act of the emo-influenced indie singer-songwriter. One might get a little Dashboard vibe from 20-year-old Julien Baker, but it’s always with a chaser of something more complex or more guarded, whether that’s the snarling defeatism on “Everybody Does” (“You’re going to run / When you find out who I am”) or the nuanced theological musings of “Rejoice” (“But I think there’s a God and he hears either way/ And I rejoice, and complain”). With a sparse, reverb-drenched musical backdrop equivalent to the splintered set of a college play, Baker sings of love lost, habits gained, hospitals and ambulances, and going home.
It’s earnest stuff, and yet you never once wince in embarrassment for her. Balance achieved.
Further Reading: Some Songs Considered #031
Shamir – Ratchet
Las Vegas’ Shamir Bailey won big this year with “On The Regular,” a bare-bones dance crossover jam exploding with personality, but Ratchet is hardly a conservative bet. It’s characterized by both genre and sexual fluidity, reclaiming the queerness of the club with the poise and conviction usually reserved for the hyper-masculine braggadocios of pop. Shamir’s dance floor fantasia is one of radical inclusion, economical instrumentation, and try-anything boldness, all coursing with the vigorous energy of youth.
It may seem like I just described a punk record, and maybe I did.
Further Reading: Some Songs Considered #016
Vince Staples – Summertime ‘06
“I know change gonna come like Obama and them say / but they be shootin’ every day round my mom and them way.”
If To Pimp a Butterfly is like a Spike Lee joint — a postmodern patchwork of perspectives, meta-commentaries, and varying levels of absurdism and irony — the year’s other great hip-hop album is perhaps like Fruitvale Station: journalistic realism delivered through a clear lens, yet one through which an entire terrible ecosystem is discernible if you consider what’s just outside the frame.
Contrary to what he tells us on “Señorita,” Staples isn’t “painting a picture” of the real-life LBC; he’s making a photo collage. Via his verified Rap Genius annotation of “Señorita”: “Until people really see themselves within other people, they can’t genuinely care for their betterment. It’s hard to understand and respect things that are different than us. We need to start looking at each other eye-to-eye.” Thus the project of Summertime ’06 comes into view, and it manifests as the steely-eyed stare of a brilliant young artist who doesn’t want to let you look away.
Further Reading: Some Songs Considered #011
Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material
Last year’s great outlaw country album was Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, an LP that sounded like Merle Haggard, Townes Van Zandt, and Waylon Jennings. This year’s great outlaw country album is Pageant Material, which sounds like the work of someone whose star could easily shine bigger and brighter than all the above – if she weren’t so much like us. As singularly talented and poised for greatness as she is, Musgraves is determined to pull the velvet curtain back on her specific brand of normalcy, confidently embracing quotidian low stakes.
Pageant Material is a quiet record, devoid of smash hits, all about small-town living and the epigrammatic delights of a good old fashioned country bon mot. The album’s production is warm and sparkling, and instrumentation is limited to a backing band and a trusty steel pedal. In a year of lions#, witches#, wardrobes#, and all manner of fairytales being shoved down our throats, Kacey Musgraves’ voice rings true and real.
Houndmouth – Little Neon Limelight
Americana as a musical genre is terra cognita. As a rule, it must sound familiar and well-worn, and it must be understood as part of a lineage. The path to a great Americana album in 2015 is not paved with innovation, but with channeling your forebears in a way that’s just plain good enough to warrant attention. Easier said than done – unless you’re Houndmouth.
Little Neon Limelight kicks off with the anthemic Laurel Canyon tribute “Sedona” as an intro, a sing-along ringer if ever you heard one, and it just gets better from there. If Emmylou Harris, Jakob Dylan and Ryan Adams met up with Dawes at the Thirsty Crow, and they all decided to hitch a ride to Levon Helm’s Barn in Woodstock, NY, and somewhere along the road trip they recorded an album, this would probably be that album. Enjoy.
Hop Along – Painted Shut
Philadelphia’s Hop Along signed to Saddle Creek records late last year, and boy does that seem like a perfect fit. On the label that made its name on the sweat and tears of one-time hardest emoting man in indie rock Conor Oberst, Hop Along released a record fueled by complex emotion, unabashed melody, punk esprit, and the hoarse vocals of a woman who’s seen a lot and felt even more. The LP’s standout tracks are the loosely bopping, brash-but-tuneful “Sister Cities” and the powerhouse sonic vignette “Waitress,” but don’t sleep on the record as a whole; every song feels like a winding journey taking you to unexpected melodies, rhythms, and emotional states.
Saddle Creek diehards won’t find the “Omaha” sound here, really – but they’ll find the heart and soul of what made early Bright Eyes feel so visceral, so honest, and so worth obsessing over.
Further Reading – Some Songs Considered #016
Ought – Sun Coming Down
Hot Take Alert: the 2010’s post-punk bubble burst this year when we realized that maybe it’s just not worth it to pay attention to bands like Parquet Courts who, for all the interesting ways in which they play with “rock band convention,” don’t seem to really give a damn. Fortunately, there are bands like Ought to remind us that yes, you can be influenced by bands like Television and Wire in 2015 and still make an album that’s listenable in its entirety.
The stakes are higher, of course, because their ambition is — they aren’t interested in just being an art project, they want to be the Talking Heads, which is to say, a really, really popular art project. It’s a tall order, but when Sun Coming Down hits its stride with standout tracks like the slow-burning “Big Beautiful Sky,” it doesn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility.
15 Thoughts I’m Thinking As 2015 Winds Down
by Bryce Rudow (@BryceTRudow)
In no particular order…
2. Autre Ne Veut the singer is really letting down Autre Ne Veut the songwriter/producer. That new album Age of Transparency is a fantastic sonic trip#, but I just wish the guy in the driver seat would shut the hell up so I could actually hear it.
3. Florence Welch is the Tim Duncan of music. We occasionally take her for granted because of how easy she makes it seem#, but when she retires, going back over her entire career is going to make us seriously reevaluate where in the pantheon we mentally place her.
3a. If Florence is Duncan, I think that makes Brittany Howard the musical Kawhi Leonard. Sure the critics respect her game, but somehow it still feels like we’re not appreciating that one person is responsible for both Sound & Color# and Thunderbitch#.
4.Take the 11 best songs from Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz and put them on one playlist (like I did in Some Songs Considered #020) and you now have a pop album that rivals 1989.
5. It may have taken them four albums to finally hook me, but Titus Andronicus did it with this year’s The Most Lamentable Tragedy#, an album that Wikipedia describes as “a rock opera in five acts that follows ‘Our Hero,’ a man who is visited by his doppelganger and goes through considerable life experiences and dream sequences, all acting as a metaphor for manic depression.” Whatever gets your goat, right?
6. I know it’s just another drop in the bucket, but I would like to go on record naming “Can’t Feel My Face” the pop song of the year.#
7. I caught Will Butler live and in person when he swung by DC before the Policy tour and it was one of the best shows I saw all year, so it’s a shame that the studio album wasn’t able to capture that magic. “Anna,” however, is a notable exception and it’s been one of my most replayed songs of 2015, so I’m cool calling it a wash if he is.
7a. If I’m really keeping it 100 though, the best dance-y “Great Song on a Meh Album” this year was actually “All Your Love Is Gone” by Boxed In.
8. Father John Misty and I Love You, Honeybear deserve to be mentioned somewhere in this thing, so how about the fact that “Chateau Lobby #4”# is going to be played at every hipstery wedding for the next 5-10 years?
9. I’m pretty sure the only reason Bully isn’t on more Best Of lists is because the patriarchy controls the media and Sleater-Kinney took the one available “loud, female-fronted rock band” spot.
10. I’m not proud of it, but it feels great to leave Tame Impala off this list#. While I’m at it though, the same goes for the likes of Jamie xx#, Grimes#, CHVRCHES#, and Majical Cloudz#.
10a. Speaking of lists, here’s another handful of albums and songs that we at Random Nerds think deserve to be on more Best Of 2015 lists.
11. Hey remember when Conde Nast bought Pitchfork? We had so many things to say about it then, some more hyperbolic than others, but I honestly had completely forgotten about it until I started doing end-of-year research. Nevertheless, don’t trust big media, and keep an eye on them in the coming year.
12. The Game’s The Documentary 2 is the easy answer for which hip-hop veteran’s album flew tragically under the radar as Best Of lists got put together, but PRhyme is the correct one. Royce da 5’9 and DJ Premier, with a murderer’s row of guest appearances, rewrote their legacies with this one.
13. Something I wrote about Leon Bridges for Some Songs Considered #009 that I think deserves repeating:
There’s a great passing line in the penultimate episode of Community’s third season when a guest-starring John Hodgman is trying to convince the Greendale 7 that what they believe to be true isn’t all that it seems: “You shared this delusion with each other, like that time all those people got into swing dance music back in the 90’s.” And I think we’re deluding ourselves again.
Yes Coming Home is a really enjoyable soul album and yes it feels like many of Leon’s fans might conceivably also stumble down a 50’s/60’s rabbit hole after being exposed to this sound, but I think we’re putting too much weight on a 25-year-old kid who is just beginning to discover what soul is.
This isn’t the same thing as when we decided it was okay a bunch of Brits named Mumford jacked the Americana sound only to ruin it for the foreseeable future, this is soul; a genre that is so much more than just nice melodies and recording-to-tape and fun outfits. The cultural history of soul and gospel is arguably more important than the music itself, and when we start comparing 25-year-old kids to all-time, game-changing artists just because they look and sound like something we’re familiar with, it’s a little irresponsible.
14. The Mountain Goats’ professional wrestling-themed album Beat the Champ didn’t quite make my list, but Marcus Dowling’s review of it on Brightest Young Things sure does.
15. For a while, I stubbornly held on to the fact that the song owes a lot to D.R.A.M.’s “Cha Cha,” but the cultural phenomenon that was “The Hotling Bling” video was probably my favorite pop culture moment of 2015.
The Best of DC 2015
by Lindsay Hogan (@LindsayHogan88)
I do not take kindly to people who have cynical words about DC’s music scene. Those who would complain about the lack of nationally-recognized acts and media coverage are worse than those who are ignorant to it.
Not to mention, there are two sides to every factor that hinders DC from becoming a musical motherland the likes of Brooklyn, Austin or Baltimore:
- a transitory population of young people also means an influx of hardworking 20-30 somethings, either eager for music as entertainment or as a creative outlet
- the city’s face as the seat of government and the music scene’s struggle to identify with something other than the national mall mean less immediate attention but more freedom for uncommon and experimental expression
- the cost of housing and the high price of living in DC has both stifled the arts and created a vibrant, durable DIY scene
Together, these struggles have produced an odd-ball, fiercely communal, hard working music scene. While some cities in the US struggle to “keep it weird,” DC is struggling just to “keep it,” and the outcome of that hustle is something to be proud of.
So in the name of that pride, I labored in anxiety and indecision to put together 11 tracks that capture the spectrum of DC music that I love the most.#
I <3 U DC
Hemlines – “Agenda”
Hemlines gets my pick for “2015’s Best DC Punk Rock Group with Aggressive and Resonant Political Feminist Overtones.” And if you think that’s a niche category, you’d be wrong; DC’s finest and most consistent export is uproariously brash political punk bangers (shout out to runner up, Jack on Fire).
“Agenda” takes the weekly heating arguments I have inside my head and projects them outward with a crash and a grind, as Katie Park flips between a sweet and enraged delivery of “yeah she’s got an agenda, if standing up is having an agenda.” I hear there’s a lot of righteous women driven rock music outside of my home city, but I’m glad I’ll never have to look beyond the beltway for the best of it.
The North Country – “The Cross We Bear”
I’ve loved this song since it first came out all the way back in January, but it’s continued to grow on me month after month. The North Country’s blend of folk, rock, Americana, and psychedelic ensures that something new will catch my ear with every listen, and “The Cross We Bear” seamlessly changes tone from serene to frantic throughout the course of the song, covering regret, hope, self depreciation, and loss, but managing to put all these under an uplifting umbrella.
What I like about folk rock bands in D.C. — and I’m sure this is not exclusive to our city — is how they unabashedly project joy in a music community where joy is a riskier style choice then say, despairing noise rock. So thank you to The North Country for keeping it positive without losing substance.
Heavy Breathing – “Gimmie Mine”
I have never had an easier time losing my shit at a local show in DC than when I saw Heavy Breathing back in the spring. They’re a spacey, electronic rock trio with exclusively sampled and effect-laden vocals and a knack for energy that never drops below 80 mph. The album, Airtight, is one outrageous psych track after the other.
“Gimmie Mine” is my favorite track simply because it serves as the peak of their live shows. The music itself is a wildly fun sensory overload, but add a few lasers, hanging light curtains, and a disco ball, and you have the live Heavy Breathing experience. Drummer Jeff Schmid is laser-lit from below like an over-zealous holiday lawn ornament, and in “Gimmie Mine,” the choice spacey vocal samples and video game synths are brought together by his wild rolling drum-work.
What heavy Breathing pulls off is no small feat, but their uninhibited, carefree attitude is their greatest contribution in a music scene too often plagued by cool reservation.
Ardamus – Gone”
New Years resolution: listen to more DC hip hop, ya dingus. I know I haven’t scratched the surface of what’s out there, but I did come across the extensive discography of Ardamus this year, and the third album in his I Can’t Replace Me series is packed with rock-leaning production and energetic, conscious rap.
“When The Truth Comes Out” is the smoothest and most biting track, courtesy of Oddisee’s production, but this year, I found myself more often dancing behind closed doors to “Gone.” Fuzzy but feverish beats back Ardamus’s most punching, charismatic delivery on the album, and while I know there’s a lot more to sink my teeth into in 2016, I feel confident with Aradmus as my jumping-off point (though please direct personal favorites and essential DC hip hop suggestions to my twitter self @LindsayHogan88).
Young Rapids – “What R U Saying”
This song has been part of the soundtrack of DC for so long that I don’t know where to start expressing how much I love it. Young Rapid’s full album, Pretty Ugly was a long time coming, but “What R U Saying” has been wooing cozy DC venues for a while now. It’s a meticulously crafted art-rock piece that I must have seen performed at least 8 or 9 times by now.
It’s amazing with the amount of effects and swirling rock, pop, and electronic elements that it doesn’t turn into indistinguishable noise, but every piece of the song is tightly controlled, and even a little understated, so as to utilize all the layers without overwhelming the listener. However, that doesn’t mean Young Rapids created an easy listening pop song. Each piece of track — synths, drums, keyboards, sampled vocal, actual vocals — is uncommonly arranged, crossing purposefully into chaos and back.
As a sucker for atmospheric tunes, I say this is hands down the most effective track of 2015.
Paperhaus – “Misery”
Catharsis is one of the most valuable functions music can serve, and no band in DC nailed that this year like Paperhaus. I don’t know if there’s a term for songs that take the listener steadily from dusky minimalism to driven chaos, but we’re calling them “catharsis jams” today, and “Misery” is the best one I’ve heard all year.
It takes a lot for me to compare a song or artist to my musical godparents, Tom Waits and Bob Dylan, but the cynical saltiness of this track makes it unavoidable. Admittedly I’ve never felt anything close to the 3am, empty-bar, last-call level of despair that Alex Tebeleff and the gang lay out in this track, but when I feel myself getting close, this song is a 7-minute outlet. Somewhere between the jaded opening riff and the heavy, grinding climax of the song, I end up feeling a little relived.
Kokayi – “Part of It”
Bryce was all over Kokayi’s Tiny Desk submission, “The Lick,” this year, which was my first introduction to this guy, and geez it was a loveable one. But Kokayi’s other 2015 release, “Part of It,” was the track that hit me right in the feel-center when I needed it most.
The DC hip-hop veteran and Grammy nominee has a knack for surprising me with every new song I hear. Whereas “The Lick” is a funky, cool track showing off his lyrical speed and beat-making skills, “Part of It” is the other side of the spectrum, reflective and poignant. It incorporates Kokayi’s smooth, funky beats with introspective, soulful vocal talent, and the accompanying music video is simple but effective, featuring Kokayi’s son wandering aimlessly and eventually coming home to his father.
After a lot of darky challenging music coming out of DC (see song selections 6 and 4), “Part of It” was uplifting and downright necessary in the political climate of 2015, pinning Kokayi as both a lovably cool and genuinely positive force in DC music.
Br’er – “Masking”
Br’er is DC’s darkest adrenaline rush. The experimental, industrial noise-pop trio released an intensely challenging album in October and “Masking,” the title track, is my pick to sum up the Br’er experience.
It’s hard to nail down this group’s sound exactly and I’m pretty sure they want to keep it that way. Sonically and lyrically they push their listeners into a subversive world, giving glimpses of the darkly sexual and near-psychotic versions of ourselves. And if this track leaves you feeling like you’re about to have a liberating heart attack, you should see them pull it off live. The experimental weight and futurism of their music doesn’t block their inherently punk spirit from driving a show.
Br’er is a lot to handle, I’ll admit, but you owe it to yourself to try.
Louis Weeks – “White Moth”
Louis Weeks’ gorgeously smooth album haha came out in June, and going back to it now makes me hurt for longer, warmer days and the lazy ease that just doesn’t exist in December. The whole album is filled with bittersweet, beautiful ache and intelligent pop.
“White Moth” is my favorite track from the solid 11-song LP, as it perfectly toes the line between romantic pop and experimental, changing gears to fit multiple movements within a four and half minute song. It has orchestral elements (including a perfect amount of horn), but also heavily features synth and vocals effects. And each instrumental piece is measured not to overwhelm the earnestness of his songwriting.
Stronger Sex – “Temptation”
I don’t even know where to start with this song. I’ve been devouring the Stronger Sex record for so long that I was sure it came out in 2014, not January 2015. It’s both a relief and burden to a) have to pick only one Stronger Sex song to feature on this list and b) write concisely and confidently about one of my favorite DC bands filled with some of my favorite DC people. In fact, between the full album release in January and the collaborative release with CrushnPain (electronic producer Austin Gallas, now a full time member of Stronger Sex) in March, I could make a “Best of 2015” exclusive featuring Stronger Sex releases#.
Stronger Sex is one of the few DC groups that can put out 6+ minute songs that never feel long enough, and “Temptation” is no exception. It’s their most grandiose track to date, but the mix of distinctive, progressive electronic arrangements and bitingly clever lyrics keep it from being overblown. Like much of Stronger Sex’s work, “Temptation” juggles a lot of sounds and ideas at once. It feels like glam rock and futuristic industrial music; a dance track and an art piece, an anthem for self-righteousness and self-loathing. Once you’ve absorbed all the lyrics, you’ll find yourself belting along in the shower/at the bus stop/in your office cubicle at least twice a week.
Beauty Pill – “Steven & Tiwonge”
I’ve written and waxed poetic about this song so many times, its getting hard to come up with an original angle. And that’s what “Steve & Tiwonge” is; a beautifully original song, impressively packed with character study.
The fourth track to their album Beauty Pill Describes Things As There Are (also in the top spot for album titles of 2015), this three and half minute track gives a glimpse into a story that could be stretched over three and a half hours. It details the actual events of a Malawian couple who were jailed by the State for their sexuality, only instead of a preachy political ballad, Beauty Pill uses the story as a backdrop to the careful and heartbreaking narration of two individuals reacting to the severity of their situation.
In the two distinct verses, their attempts to escape law enforcement are narrated from each perspective. However, instead of a discussion on human rights and the struggle of gay couples, Beauty Pill evokes compassion by highlighting the heartbreaking, doubt-ridden thought process in the face of their “crimes.” Both narrations discuss how to buy time, whether to take their valuables, and if they should escape together or separately. It’s painfully effective, not just by evoking empathy but for understanding the duality of a relationship.
And that’s only the lyrical genius of “Steve & Tiwonge.” All through the album, innovative electronics play with more traditional rock instrumentation to create dense pieces of music unlike anything else out there.
I’ll freely admit I have a different perspective of how things are since Beauty Pill started describing them to me. Thanks guys.
P.S. End of year lists are super stressful you guys. Here a few honorable mentions that deserve the attention of your ear-holes, even though I didn’t have enough time to dissect them.
– Marian McLaughlin – Spirit House
– BRNDA – Year of the Manitee
– Baby Bry Bry – The Way Things Was
– Pree – Rima
– Polyon – Blue EP
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