Thursday, December 17, 2015

Favorite Albums of 2015

 Here we are again. At the end of another year. I easily spent more time with music this year than any year before. My job being the reason for that. I work remotely in Memphis for a company based out of Nashville. Eight hours a day, I sit at a computer, editing pictures and videos for real estate companies. For the most part, it's a mindless job where I just zone out and do what I now know how to do better than maybe anything. So naturally, being a complete nerd for music, I let myself slip into the black hole of all the various voices that can be heard in a singular year.

 Toward the end of this year, I kept wondering if this was possibly the best year in music.. maybe ever? To be rivaled with 1967 or something like that. It felt like a ludicrous thought, but now I realize why I kept thinking that. I got crazy into hip hop and rap this year. Like crazy into it. And so, quite simply, there was just more music for me to enjoy this year, especially being that this year was a killer year for hip hop and rap. I probably could go back to 2001 or 2005 or 2007 and say those years were just as good for music if I had been into hip hop then. I digress. Here is my list. Click on the album artwork to watch a video of a live performance or a music video. Enjoy!
25. Jamie xx
In Colour

[This album makes for great night driving full of rich tones with a pulsing, hypnotic , cinematic scope. A lot of people are saying this album has rearticulated dance music once again and that it has its finger on the pulse of what may be missing in electronic music right now. I don't know about that. But I do find it more accessible than most electronic music I have listened to lately. And Jamie xx does seem to be on to something.]
24. Ryan Adams

[It would be dishonest to not include this album on my list. For me, it works as one of those albums I think of when I have people over. I tend to lean pretty heavily on the 80's sound for parties and this album pulls out a lot of what I liked best about the 80's - more on the Springsteen side of things, rather than The Smiths that I think Ryan Adams was going for. I liked Taylor Swift's original 1989 quite a bit. So much actually that I legitimately considered it for 2014's list. But leave it to Ryan Adams to almost always rub me the right way...get your mind out of the gutter. I've been a fan of his for about 17 years (I got "Gold" when I was in 6th grade, back in the day when I got all my CDs from BMG) and I've followed him very closely throughout the years. The thing I appreciate most about Adams is that he'll do whatever he wants without giving a crap what the public thinks. He likes Pinball. He likes taking selfies. He likes comic books. He is not ashamed to admit he wrote a whole album's lyrics on his Android phone while doing a cool-down walk after a run in the woods. He does what feels good for him. I like that.]
23. Mick Jenkins

[On first listen, I thought, "Damn, Mick sold out." Of course, that thought was premature and quickly faded away after a couple minutes of the project panning out. It feels much more radio-ready than anything on his previously-released "The Water[s]", because it's much catchier and much more vibrant. But Mick doesn't sacrifice anything for that. It's very clear his former artistry is still intact and that, just like everyone else in the world, he changes and evolves. The neo-soul influenced beats Jenkins raps and sings over often sound submerged in a fog of reverb effects and filtration. Lyrically, it's dense, containing its own murky depths, but his intense intelligence and formidable talent is never less than crystal clear.]

Favorite line:
"It's like turning nothing into everything
Starting with scraps and redefining what society thinks is quality
Like who thought up the golden standard, the haves?
The have nots ask not what you can do for them but what have you done?"
22. Tame Impala

[Hardcore Tame Impala fans keep saying Kevin Parker took out all of the psych-pop/rock vibes that worked so well for this band and left us with a poppy "Currents". Maybe. I don't really know because I'm fairly new to the Tame train. But to me, this album is one of the best pop albums of the year. It's melodic and pretty, but there's a pervasive sense of melancholy here.]

Favorite line:
"They say people never change,
but that's bullsh**,
they do."
21. Earl Sweatshirt
I Don't Like Sh**, I Don't Go Outside

[This thing is depressing as a mofo and rarely do I find myself in the proper headspace to take in an atmosphere like this. But man, when I can get on the same level as Earl and what's he's doing here, it's nothing short of genius. He is a wordsmith. Earl gives us a dark world, and this might sound off but it feels like something you might find in a Faulkner or McCarthy novel. Earl seems to say as few words as possible with as many lyrical devices as possible, it almost feels pretentious, but man if he doesn't give you some fat to chew on.

I also learned after perusing Earl's Genius page for the track "DNA" that the final verse has a bit of a story behind it. It features Na'kel, who dropped his verse literally moments after receiving word that one of his close friends had died. It's this kind of in-the-moment clarity, however depressing it might be, that coats this album.]

Favorite line:
"Snakes sliding in the street
Momma taught me how to not be like the bodies lying in them
Pigs, riding in 'em
I'm a target so it's hard to even eye me in 'em"
20. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment

[I loved this thing so much at first. It maybe would've ended up in my top 5 for the year if it had come out last week. Its positive happy-go-lucky vibes absolutely permeated my spirit when I first heard it. Strangely enough, the amount of guests featured on this thing is actually one of the reasons I like it as much as I do. It makes it feel even more like a collaboration. But man, I wish it had been produced by someone else. There are some really warm sounds coming out of this album that at times feel crunched and compressed. I guess it makes sense that the production would sound low-quality, being that it was self-released and given away for free. Production aside, this album is blindingly optimistic and it radiates from every nook and cranny. Its message is very clear: "If a cool guy's cool in the middle of the forest, man, nobody fu**ing cares."]

Favorite line:
"Snow is melting, water's pouring
Signal's turning, it's a miracle
Homies breathing, families eating
Mama singing, is a miracle
Snow is melting, water's pouring
Signal's turning, it's a miracle"
19. Alabama Shakes
Sound & Color

[The first notes that come in, sounding similar to something Jon Brion would maybe orchestrate, immediately welcome you into the new direction this band is taking. Its weirder moments, the molten strings and vibraphones, redefine the band as a powerful and original force that I didn't completely feel on their last project. In the wake of D'Angelo's "Black Messiah", the off-kilter and quieter R&B spirit is looming wonderfully in the air these days.]

Favorite line:
Take or leave it
Come, people
You got to give a little, get a little
And see it
Like future people"
18. Inventions
Maze of Woods

[Inventions, a duo made up Eluvium and one-fourth of Explosions in the Sky, brings an instrumental project to the table that is sometimes challenging, other times comforting. It unfolds its world quickly and almost urgently. It's an interesting listen and one that stayed with me all year, perfect for editing to and wanting only to escape into a world where I can hone in on whatever I'm doing. I still prefer their debut, but I'm not complaining.]
17. Dave Rawlings Machine
Nashville Obsolete

[Americana at its finest. I feel like Dave invited me up on to his porch with a glass of Bourbon and a dusty old chair and then looked me in the eyes and asked me if I like Neil Young's "Out on the Weekend", to which I replied, "oh yea, very much, sir"... and so then he started playing this album.]

Favorite line:
"My pegs are loose, my screws too tightly wound to get in tune
But I still try sometimes on those golden summer afternoons."

16. Little Simz 
A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons

[The album opens with a dissonant and eerie noise that sounds like someone's drilling metal into metal. Simz quickly enters with a monologue about how women can be kings. She wastes absolutely no time and she makes it very clear what kind of an artist she is. She always says exactly what she means without any BS or lyrical devices. She breaks her introduction by launching you into her world where all kings are women: "Ooooooohhhh everybody should know that I'm king now!" Her voice is incredibly British and throws some unique British lines in there that you'll most likely have to Google, i.e. bloodclart and her way of saying lines like "prolly not". If it weren't for Kendrick Lamar endorsing her, it would have taken me much longer to find her. Thank you, Kenny.]
15. Tut
Preacher's Son
[Tut has a masterful way of saying something in one line and then contrasting himself in the next. He sees nothing as black and white. Street crime, as always, is more complex than it might seem on the surface. There is a community of sickness and decaying but Tut continually sees the church as a place where community comes together even in the most trying times. Tut's flow works perfectly over the jazzy-Southern instrumentation, sometimes Gospel-inspired, the beat selection sometimes trap-flavored. I hate to admit it, but this album would be much more memorable and probably higher on my list if Isaiah Rashad (also from Chattanooga, TN) hadn't come through with a fairly similar album last year. But this album is clearly in the wake of Rashad's "Cylvia Demo", as even its title, "Preacher's Son" was crossed off the cover of Rashad's "Cylvia Demo", almost like it was a considered album title. I've grown to accept that Tut and Rashad are more-or-less cut from the same cloth. And that's fine by me.]

Favorite line:

"Remember sitting in my uncle kitchen, I was 8 though
Whippin up a lil something for the pesos
I was making pyramids out of legos"
14. Twerps
Range Anxiety

[At moments I feel like I'm listening to The Velvet Underground. At others I'm feeling some Yo La Tengo. The sound is a consistent sound nonetheless though. It's all very summery and laidback. I showed this band to my brother. He texted me back later and said he listened to it while mowing his yard. I texted back and said that makes too much sense. What would make even more sense is if my brother had been wearing huge headphones and maybe wearing a fanny pack and stopped mowing every once in a while to eat some Gushers or sip on some Mondo. Don't ask my why.]

Favorite line:
"Somebody out there is doing better than me.
They're kicking back, sipping on an iced tea.
Don't mind me, I'm doing as I please.
I'm hanging in the trees and singing out at the leaves."

13. Natalie Prass

[It's been a busy year for this one. I saw my dear friend, Austin Manuel, open up for her back in the day at The End and then a year later at Station Inn. Fast forward three or four years later. She goes from literally living right down the street from me in Sylvan Park of Nashville, TN, to going on tour with Ryan Adams. And practically dating the guy, judging from their hand-holding and flirtacious little giddy smiles they continually posted on Instagram. Pitchfork put it perfectly, "What makes this album stand out from the seemingly endless pile of Authentic American Roots Music wasn't how real it felt, but how artificial. Like Elvis in Hawaii or a leather sofa with a plastic slip cover, Prass and her collaborator Matthew E. White's blend of '70's soul, variety-show country, and music theater is a perpetual mixed signal. Gritty one minute and detached the next, it's confessional in subject matter but brittle, even chill, in delivery. The facade is moving in part because of the occasional ways it cracks."

Favorite line:
"Just want to know you violently
Oh, I've had enough of talking politely
And the red is there, it's all over me
It's overlaid eloquently."
12. Jay Rock

[If you're familiar with Jay Rock, the first thing you'll notice going into this is how far he's come since 2011's "Follow Me Home". It's not just the beat selection, but it's his flow, his limber diction, and his ability to never over-dramatize things or throw too much imagery at you. He stays very simple and he always says exactly what he means, hardly ever a lyrical device to read in to. That is definitely the biggest difference between him and his Top Dawg Ent. label-mate Kendrick Lamar. I think this project really solidified Rock's personality within the TDE cannon. Rock brings on ScHoolboy Q and Ab-Soul and Kendrick and Isaiah Rashad and utilizes the very distinct personality differences in a very masterful way. This time around he's found his own and he truly came through with an original piece of work that I'll continue playing for years to come.]

Favorite line:
" They say get your money first and foremost
I rhyme like I got pollos in that Volvo
Sh**, I switch up, whippers can't get caught, that's a no-no
So watch out, the paparazzi takin photos."

11. Kamasi Washington
The Epic

[I think this may be the most time I've ever spent with a jazz album. This thing can be seen as a beast, almost like homework, if you look at it as a three-hour thing you have to listen to from start to finish each time you sit down with it. But if you can just allow yourself to live with it, pushing play randomly on any track and allowing it to come to you over coffee in the morning or in the pitch black of night where the screen of your computer is the only light around, you'll feel it penetrate your soul with its deeply focused vision. It's epic alright, in its most intense and most somber and most chipper forms.]
10. Vetiver
Complete Strangers

[Andy Cabic is most effective when he's closer to home and this record finds me as intimate and low-key as an evening home with friends sitting next to a warm fire. Warmth absolutely radiates off this thing. It starts with shimmering (borderline shoegazy, could you call it that?) guitar and keyboard arrangements repetitively flowing over steady percussion, you can't help but get the glazed-over look in your eyes just completely in a daze with meditative pulsing music like this. Especially when Cabic's silky and sorta raspy voice smooths itself seemlessly over the bed of simple instrumentation. Maybe turn this thing on during a warm summer day and sit outside with a tall glass of beer. I doubt you'll complain.]
9. Courtney Barnett
Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit

[Barnett has a way of sounding like she's day-dreaming out loud instead of singing, but she's deceptively incisive as a lyricist, capturing seemingly mundane moments in very ordinary lives and shedding light on the in-between moments we all have but rarely interpret. ]

Favorite line:
"Wondering what you're doing, what you're listening to
Which quarter of the moon you're viewing from your bedroom.
Watching all the movies, drinking all the smoothies
Swimming at the pool, I'm thinking of you too."
8. Vince Staples
Summertime '06

[There is a nuance about Staples that took a while to really reveal itself to me. His coldhearted monotone voice didn't completely enthrall me on first listens. But the pairing of his lyrics with his flow and No I.D.'s beat selection had an impact on me with time. And the importance of what he's saying couldn't have come at a better time, with all the issues of systemic racism and seemingly random shootings at what seems to be at a boiling point lately. Might I add that this thing can bang hard if you blare it loud enough in your car. As Feefo of Dead End Hip Hop would say, "This bumps in the whip."]

Favorite line:
"Did it, got away with it out the Civic
We Crippin', Long Beach City, pay a visit
Park Ramona, Pop block the corner
Givin' hell 'til it's frozen over, I ain't never ran from nothin'"
 7. Joan Shelley
Over and Even

[This came out of nowhere for me and I have Aquarium Drunkard to thank for that. It's in the same spirit as Joni Mitchell or Bonnie Prince Billy (who actually sings backing vocals on a track.) I listened to a song on YouTube and wanted more, but I couldn't find it on Spotify or a free download anywhere online (Oh no! Third world problems, what are you gonna do), so I went to iTunes to purchase it. I had an immediate connection with it. The vibes are ethereal and Southern-rooted. It's a very gentle album, subtle and simple and precise through and through.]

Favorite line:
"You've split the cord
with Cedar and Holly
in light, indoors.
Let the smoke do the cleaning
and sweeten our skin with the salt and a stone.
There's the pages of our story."
6. Julia Holter
Have You In My Wilderness

[I'm not really sure what you call this thing. Chamber pop? Baroque pop? Vocals and strings remind me of Nico at times. The drums and poppy "jazz finger" vibes remind me of Grizzly Bear at points. "Vasquez" definitely was inspired by Radiohead's "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors". I was raking leaves on my back deck recently and listened to this thing start to finish and was enamored by how swept up into I got. It's an entrancing album, opaque but effective. So lush and perfected, I don't understand how you couldn't feel some emotional cord in you connecting with the music.]

Favorite line:
"I can't swim. It's lucidity. So clear!"

5. Sufjan Stevens
Carrie and Lowell
[His most personal work to date. He doesn't lean on state history or Biblical history to reveal his own personal conflicts. It's all told in complete bareness, no guard up. The subtle and hushed appearances of electronic, as well as the simple and gentle guitar arrangements made me treat this as a sleep album at first. But this album somehow was played repeatedly in my house the better part of this year while Knox and I played Legos or Andrea and I sat outside all summer.]

Favorite line:
"Since I was old enough to speak, I've said it with alarm
Some part of me was lost in your sleeve
Where you hid your cigarettes.
No, I'll never forget.
I just want to be near you."
4. The Tallest Man On Earth
Dark Bird Is Home

[To say the least, I was surprised how much I liked this album. I was not a huge fan of his output in the past. His voice was always too much for me. Bordering on grating at times. And I think the main reason for that was that Kristian Matsson strummed his guitar so harshly and passionately, it sounded like he was most likely rubbing off the wood of his guitar and he sang so intensely I pictured his veins popping out of his neck. All of that is great and usually reasons for me to get into an artist. But he didn't allow much room for the listener to breathe and come up for air. His latest release is a completely different story. There is a versatility and a restrain here that wasn't present before. There are brass and string sections very masterfully placed into the songs in a way that always feels right, bringing to mind Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks". I was already very into this album, but the cherry on top was listening to this around a fire, roasting marshmallows with my family over Thanksgiving.]

Favorite line:
"It only takes a gravel road
in Missouri light.
Rolling to the way back when
simple was alright."

3. Joey Bada$$

[Joey draws a pretty heavy influence from the likes of J Dilla, De La Soul, and someone like Del The Funky Homosapien. He's still only twenty years old, so I can't help but think of him as being in a similar spot Kendrick Lamar was at eight years ago, sounding maybe too much like his influences: Eminem, Lil Wayne, and Tupac (but has since come into his own with flying colors). I see Joey's trajectory as being similar.

But that's not to say I'm bothered by how much he's in the shadow of his influences. I have no doubt in my mind that Joey will move beyond that. This album is full of fiery bars and clever wordplay and concepts to chew on. He has an ear for beats and a consistent chemistry with whichever producer is at the helm: Statik Selektah, DJ Premier, Chuck Strangers, etc. It's evident Joey knows hip hop and more importantly East coast hip hop. To say the least, I am excited to see where he goes from here.]

Favorite line:
"I'm a microphone killer
Especially when my head is gone off the liquor
Specially educated, heavily medicated
Give me that beat and I'll put you next to Dilla"
2. Father John Misty
I Love You, Honeybear

[As far as the clever lyricism goes, it brings to mind Loudon Wainwright. With deeply moving lines that present themselves in blunt and crass ways (i.e. narrowing down his rough sex life to "mascara, blood, ash, and cum") preceded by a corny nickname he made up for his wife and succeeded by a reference you'd probably have to Google (i.e Rorschasch). And the very second you feel yourself start to think Tillman is pretentious or judging modern love from the sideline, you learn pretty quickly he's on the playing field and you start to feel the burn of how much truth radiates from his stinging honesty and the warmth of how open-hearted he's allowing himself to be. It can be uncomfortable at times, almost Jeff Tweedy-like in a "...take off your dress in an embarrassing poem..." kind of way.

But how this thing comes together sonically is what really makes this record a classic. It has some stylistic elements of his former band Fleet Foxes. Melodies that border on some Randy Newman or Harry Nillson West Coast pop. There are slices of country rock, gospel, Laurel Canyon folk, and R&B that gracefully blend together.]

Favorite line:
"Love is just an institution based on human frailty
What's your paradise gotta do with Adam and Eve?
Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity
What I fail to see is what that's gotta do with you and me"
1. Kendrick Lamar
To Pimp A Butterfly

[Kendrick dropped "To Pimp A Butterfly" while Ben, Audrey, Andrea, and I were in Venice, Florida on vacation. I'll seriously never forget that night Ben, Audrey, and I stayed up late and listened to this thing with childish, intense, stupefied wonderment. We sat out on the back screened-in porch, smoking pipes, drinking wine and I felt this moment in time unwinding itself in front of me as a very memorable freeze-frame in time. Occasionally I laughed out loud at how much I was loving every minute of what was happening.

After nine months of sitting with this thing, I've realized what I like so much about Kendrick. He somehow is able to talk about nearly every issue that comes along with being black in America, from the complexion of your skin, to police brutality, to incarceration, to poverty, to slavery, to systemic racism, and yet he makes it all so incredibly personal and so very Kendricky. Most of the time, when an artist confronts topics this heavy, they feel the need to get preachy and there's not much humor involved and you feel beaten over the head with a message and you lose the personality of the artist.

But the moment you feel Kendrick get heavy, there's a subsequent moment that feels inspired by the T.V. show "Martin"...or Kendrick cleverly refers to Lucifer as Lucy and asks him where Ricardo is...or George Clinton screams "Hit Me!" ... or some hilarious way of introducing the archetype of mammy... or some clever jabs at critics for wanting to mention that they miss when hip hop was rappin'... or some warm and brotherly way of relating to an African boy tossing football with his ashy black ankles. As the listener, you feel pulled into this world because Kendrick's world feels very lived in by him. So many vivid images and on-point references all over this album spanning hundreds of years and it all blends into this huge pot of blackness. And it is incredibly clear that Kendrick absolutely loves being black.]

Favorite line:
"I remember you took me to the mall last week baby
You looked me in my eyes about 4, 5 times
Till I was hypnotized then you clarified
That I (want you)
You said Sherane ain't got nothing on Lucy
I said you crazy
Roses are red, violets are blue
but me and you both pushing up daisies if I (want you)"