12.08.2015

Favorite Albums of 2015

When people admit they believe modern music has nothing good to offer, or that "they don't make 'em like they used to," I feel inclined to roll my eyes. There is an overwhelming abundance of incredible music these days, and 2015 proved that. 

This year was hilariously giving. So many of my favorite artists released amazing work this year, while countless others came out of nowhere and surprised me with albums I won't soon forget. 

Compiling these into a list is somewhat of a joke. How do you actually categorically rank music (or any art)? What are the specific merits on which the rankings are based? Are they purely artistic merits or does this take into account cultural impact? Why allow a list to make it seem like those near the bottom are bad (when, in fact, all entries are very good)?

The truth is that these are simply my favorite albums that I listened to this past year. That's all. They are all favorites for different reasons. Some came out last winter and have had months to sit and grow with me. Others were recently released and occupy a completely different space in my mind. And of course, these are likely to change over time. But right now, on December 8, 2015, these are my 25 favorite.

(Please click the artwork if you want to hear a track from each album)

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25. Ought
Sun Coming Down
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24. The Amazing
Picture You
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23. Beach House
Depression Cherry
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22. Alabama Shakes
Sound & Color
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21. Thundercat
The Beyond / Where The Giants Roam
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20. Joey Bada$$
B4.DA.$$
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19. Courtney Barnett
Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
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18. YG TUT
Preacher's Son
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17. Carly Rae Jepsen
Emotion
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16. Algiers
Algiers
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15. Joanna Newsom
Divers
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14. milo
so the flies don't come
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13. Natalie Prass
Natalie Prass
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12. Leon Bridges
Coming Home
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11. Sufjan Stevens
Carrie & Lowell
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10. Andrew Bird
Echolocations: Canyon

A breathtakingly beautiful instrumental concept album centered around the idea of a specific natural environment? Sure, I'm on board. The album itself was recorded in the Coyote Gulch canyons of Utah and is directly influenced by those surroundings, both sonically and emotionally. I'm excited to hear similar projects from him in the future inspired by LAKE, CITY, RIVER, and FOREST.
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9. Kamasi Washington
The Epic

I will admit - I don't listen to much modern jazz music. This one came to me by way of Kendrick Lamar, who has also recently turned me onto Flying Lotus and Thundercat. Turns out they all play music together all the time and finally decided to record a 3-hour-long jazz fusion album. There were a couple of other jazz albums I ended up checking out this year because of this one (Christian Scott's was very enjoyable), but I kept coming back to Kamasi. There is so much to dig into - I'm sure I'll continue to find new things to love about it years from now.
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8. Jens Lekman
Postcards

This is not an album per se, but I had to include it nonetheless. Jens promised to write, record, and release a new song every week in 2015. He did so by putting them as free downloads on his soundcloud page. And he has fulfilled his promise so far by releasing 48 new songs this year in a series he called "Postcards" (he still has a couple of weeks to finish those last 4 songs!) With a project like this, one would expect a few enjoyable moments but mostly throwaway songs hardly worth a second listen. Jens, however, delivers a collection of beautiful tunes full of wit and heartfelt emotion. The first 26 Postcards were perfect company while traveling across France this summer.
Thanks, Jens.
Yours Truly, Ben.
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7. D'Angelo and The Vanguard
Black Messiah

D'Angelo returned after 14 years and pounded this thing down on the table right after everyone put out their lists for 2014 - almost like he doesn't give a shit about acclaim and celebrity. What a weirdo! Well, it's going on my 2015 list and he's just gonna have to deal with it. I was fortunate enough to have mostly forgotten about D'Angelo's existence until a couple of years ago when I was at a friend's apartment, thumbing through his records, and came across a copy of Voodoo. I took it out and spun it while we played Settlers of Catan (the perfect setting for absorbing a complex neo-soul record). So when Black Messiah came out of nowhere, I was ready and willing.
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6. Badbadnotgood & Ghostface Killah
SOUR SOUL

This seems like an obvious pairing now, but when I heard a modern improvisational jazz trio from Canada would be making the music for a Ghostface Killah record, I was intrigued but wary. My wariness was unwarranted, though. It works so well. I'll be honest, I haven't dug into the lyrics of this one, but the music compliments that Staten Island flow perfectly. I love the mood this album sets.
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5. Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Multi-Love

This one took a while to click with me. The first few times I listened to it, I only made it two or three songs in. I finally stuck it through during a long kayak trip last month, and as soon as it ended I wanted to press play again. This thing is weird and funky and somehow sounds fresh and aged at the same time.
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4. The Tallest Man On Earth
Dark Bird Is Home

I have Audrey to thank for this one. I turned her on to this Swede's music several years ago and she fell in love with his cover of "Graceland" by Paul Simon. While I loved that cover, I always felt like the rest of his output was inconsistent. Fortunately, Audrey played this new one around the house enough times that I finally realized how incredibly beautiful it is. And it really is, from front to back. The addition of a full band might be frowned upon by some fans of his earlier work, but I think the violin and brass flourishes peeking out from behind the sonic wall of his 12-string guitar strumming bring some much-needed light and air into the mix.
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3. Tame Impala
Currents

Didn't care. Wasn't interested. John Lennon rip-off. Drugged out psych rock from Australia....yawn...
But I simply couldn't ignore the magnetic pull of Currents.

I finally signed up for Spotify this spring (sorry Thom and Joanna), and decided to give this album a shot one day while on a drive through the mountain passes of southern Virginia. It sucked me right in from the very first note. There are a few sophomoric lyrics throughout, but I couldn't deny how wonderfully catchy the music and melodies were. As soon as it ended, I pressed play again. And again and again and again and I haven't stopped.
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2. Father John Misty
I Love You, Honeybear

I have Eric Carlson to thank for dragging me to his show at the Bijou a few years ago. I had enjoyed Fear Fun well enough, but seeing Josh Tillman pull off a live show like he did turned me into a fan. I mean, this guy somehow shakes his hips sarcastically. I had heard him use his quick wit as the drummer for Fleet Foxes at The Ryman a couple of years prior, but based on his output under his given name, I would have never expected him to be such a vibrant and exciting songwriter. I guess that explains the mushroom-tripping, guitar-slinging shaman we now have with Father John Misty.

Some people seem put off by his whole shtick. I really can't blame them, but I would argue he's worth a second look. He finds a way to be sarcastic, cynical, self-deprecating, critical, hilarious, pious, sacrilegious, hateful, and romantic in a single song. This album is a collection of thoughts about a cynic finding true love in the midst of all the bullshit. It's about being equally confused and liberated at this new found joy. 

I loved this bit he had to say about the song "Holy Shit":

"The way that I felt on my wedding day was just so, so wild. To make a decision like that based on something you believe in — to get out of the morass of ambivalence, to live according to endless contingencies and potential mishaps, potential unhappiness — is just huge for me. For an intellectual, everything is a booby trap, and the only consolation prize is this self-satisfaction that you recognize it. "Holy Shit” is about me waking up from that intellectual dream and saying, like, 'Yeah, maybe love is just an institution based on resource scarcity'—these sentiments that sound great and sustained me for a while. But now I’m building this thing with this person, and those ideas just don’t work anymore. They no longer describe the reality as I see it, which is really liberating. And liberation is not typically a trait of institutions. The irony here being that it sounds like I’m intellectualizing all of this."

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1. Kendrick Lamar
To Pimp A Butterfly

This is a very special album to me personally. And I'm sure it feels the same for many people across the world for just as many different reasons. That is the beautiful thing about this release -- it touches everybody whether they want it to or not. The truth is that too much ink has been spilled over this album and anything I say will only add to the cacophony. I will say that I will never ever forget the first time I heard it.

My wife Audrey, and my brother Will and I stayed up late the night it was released digitally. We happen to be in Venice, Florida on vacation, so we sat out on the porch of our grandfather's old beach house and just stared into the darkness and listened. Will's wife Andrea lay asleep in the next room with little Darcy growing in her tummy and their son Knox asleep in his crib. The three of us sat in utter awe of what we heard. Of course, the complex wordplay and motifs of race, violence, money, sex, fame, God, politics, depression, temptation, and hypocrisy didn't fully sink in (they are still sinking in to this day), but we all knew we were listening to something special. Hearing an album all the way through is often a very personal and solo experience. It was unforgettable to do that with two of the people I love most in the world with an album like To Pimp A Butterfly.

I'll end with these concise words from Aquarium Drunkard:

"Decades from now, we’ll still be dissecting, questioning, and contextualizing rapper Kendrick Lamar’s third album, To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s a musical feast, with Lamar leading Flying Lotus, George Clinton, Thundercat, Bilal, Anna Wise, Rapsody, Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper and dozens more through intricate, dizzying webs of jazz, experimental electronic music, and funk, and it’s lyrically massive, with Lamar occupying multiple characters, settings, and timelines to address black identity, systemic racism, personal ethics, and obscured histories profanely, stridently, and with unmatched elegance. Adhering to radical redemption narrative, Kendrick rhymes as prophet, decrying the thieves in the temple, the worshipers, and sometimes the temple itself. It’s a work worthy of both the time and considerable effort it takes to engage it."
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1 comment:

Will Rucker said...

Really great list. Hilariously similar to mine. I counted 18 albums on your list that were strongly considered for mine. I'm still trying to find time to sit down and finally type mine out. And this year, I actually want to write my own thoughts on each album rather than relying on copy/pasting bits from a P4K review or something.

Some albums on your list have really grown on me since we last spoke over thanksgiving. Sour Soul being the biggest one. I listened to it one night while I was working and it finally clicked with me. This sounds funny maybe, but when I listen to that album I picture it raining. It just has that vibe. And I went on a run last night and listened to the first half of UMO's Multi-Love. Yea I really like it. It seems like it would make a great album for having on during a party.

There were 3 albums I hadn't listened to yet, Ought, The Amazing, and Jens. I like the 1 or 2 songs i've heard off each off those a lot though. I would love to get Jens from you over xmas maybe.