Merry Listmas, y’all!
Welcome to Listmas, Ranting About Music’s annual year-end week of coverage, where I recap my favorite albums, favorite (and least favorite!) hits of the year, songs of the year, and recap the year it was in music. It’s a lot of fun, and, per usual, will include full length updates every day this week, starting today with favorite albums.
2015 had a lot of great records. Practically every genre had a good year, and from veteran acts to fledgling groups just finding a voice and a label, there were very few disappointments; I could have made a top twenty this year, and still been faced with hard cuts. There were a ton of albums I connected with and obsessed over this year. I hope you can say the same.
15. Florence + the Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
14. The World Is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid to Die – Harmlessness
13. Modern Baseball – MOBO Presents: The Perfect Cast EP featuring Modern Baseball
12. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love
11. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment – Surf
10. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
I did stage technical theater for around ten years, and in tech, there’s a guideline called the Thirty Foot Rule. The Thirty Foot Rule states that, if you can’t get a set detail quite perfect, it’s fine so long as it looks right from the audience view of about thirty feet away.
I mention this because I applied the Thirty Foot Rule to I Love You, Honeybear. Just about anything you read about Father John Misty starts with an overwritten prelude on how brilliant and meta he is, when really, all he’s done is split the difference between “Silly Love Songs” and Guy In Your MFA. Beside, it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to think FJM is some cynical genius (gag) to appreciate the orchestral pop of “I Love You, Honeybear”, the joy in “Chateau Lobby #4”, how great love song “Holy Shit” is, or Josh Tillman’s excellent vocals throughout. It’s just a wonderfully arranged and sung album with memorable songs. Ditch your overreaching point about how he’s only an asshole because he cares and it’s really because he hates himself: just call him an asshole, but an asshole with tunes. It works for me.
9. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
There’s something mesmerizing about watching talent being actualized. I’m not talking about someone with just an ability, I’m talking about the rush from watching someone whose honed an innate skill set to a point nearing perfection so effortless it’s near clinical. Listen to the way Australian indie rocker Courtney Barnett threads her lyrics and delivery together on the verse of “Pedestrian At Best” like she’s coming up with it on the fly, and try to not be impressed. Be it the characters in “Elevator Operator”, the commentary in “Dead Fox”, or the scene sketch in “Depreston”, her work feels lived in and relatable in a disarmingly personal way (hell, I’ve been the dude in “Elevator Operator” who goes to a building top for “perception and clarity”). It’s an album that reminds us we’re more thoughtful than we might think.
8. Bully – Feels Like
This was a great year for zippy alternative/punk rock records with charm, melody, and ramshackle energy in equal measure (see also, that MoBo EP in the honorables), but Feels Like stands a cut above the rest because no other band had Bully’s Alicia Bognanno calling the shots. Bognanno’s as much a student of late 80’s/early 90’s alternative as I am a fan of it: Feels Like is built on loud-soft dynamics, nimble guitar lines, confessional lyrics, and caustic singing and was produced at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio where Bognanno (who acted as the album’s coproducer) interned. From scorching opener “I Remember” onward, Feels Like grabs you and doesn’t let go as one of the best emo records of the year.
7. Bjork – Vulnicura
Bjork’s ninth album Vulnicura is one you can’t let sneak up on you because it will ruin your day. The album chronicles Bjork’s separation from her longtime partner, but to call it a “break up album” feels disingenuous. It’s not about a break up as much as it is about your world ending; the tortured double vocals on “Lionsong” sound like a psyche being ripped apart, while “Family” has the rotted dread necessary to soundtrack a murder sequence. Coproducing with Arca and The Haxan Cloak, Bjork’s made a record great at bringing the listener into its shattered galaxy, one whose very string and electronic arrangements telegraph instability. Close “Quicksand” is bright enough to suggest a light at the end of a harrowing tunnel, but the immediate ending leaves nothing answered. Some emotions demand to be felt, and Vulnicura feels every bleeding second.
6. Beach House – Depression Cherry
Something about me: I really like world building albums. They don’t have to be explicitly conceptual, but I love albums that reward you for walking into their world, and connecting on some deeper level. Depression Cherry does a brilliant job of that, from the floating away sensation of “Levitation” to the enveloping shoegaze of “Sparks” and centerpiece “PPP”. In terms of sound, it reminds me of the sad-eyed dream pop The Smashing Pumpkins dabbled in during the second disc of Mellon Collie and explored on Adore, all shimmering guitars, sparse percussion, breathy vocals, and tons of atmosphere. It’s a gorgeous album full of aching, and the best pick me up of the year. If you haven’t read Caitlin White’s disarming write-up, do yourself a favor; she describes the album better than I ever could.
5. The Wonder Years – No Closer to Heaven
What happens when you age out of the Warped Tour circuit? Frontman Dan Campbell and the rest of The Wonder Years are still beloved by the scene and were part of the Tour this year, but 2013’s The Greatest Generation was the best Warped-style pop punk record they could make. So, for No Closer to Heaven, there’s no going back to Melrose Diner or your parent’s basement, but the world at large, moving on, and (as always) your friends. The result is a slower burn than anything else in TWY’s discography, but one that focuses its angst into grief and longing for a better society. It’s a relatively mature album, one with some of the singer-songwriter influence from Campbell’s Aaron West side project brought into focus. And, so long as they can write songs like “Cigarettes & Saints”, “A Song For Patsy Cline”, and downright love song “You in January”, The Wonder Years will have a long life ahead of them, maybe even one outside Warped.
4. Grimes – Art Angels
Art Angels remains just as much of a delightful oddity now as it did last month. Even moreso, in fact; given a little bit of distance, each of these songs gets a little more room to breathe on an album that threatens to turn claustrophobic in the best way. The best pop albums are the ones that run away with you, and Claire Boucher runs with the idea that anything from songs about trees to gender-switching vampire mobsters might be awesome, and it’s impossible not to get caught up with her.
3. FKA twigs – M3LL155X (Melissa)
To me, the most exciting part (so far) of FKA twigs’ career comes at about 3:43 of M3LL155X centerpiece “In Time”. What’s already been one of her best, most grounded songs blossoms into an honest to God chorus with twigs singing in a full, unprocessed voice. The moment, much like the EP as a whole, is a burst of confidence that retains all of twigs’ artistry while pumping her songs full of more sound. Last year’s LP1 was great, but could be called wispy since it relied on atmosphere and space. She does away with that space on the shrieking “Glass + Patron”, and demented “I’m Your Doll” while still retaining her works’ sensuality and sense of motion. M3LL155X is a compact creative statement with both eye-popping songs and visuals. twigs the pop star? She could do it, she’s got a goddamn nerve.
2. Antarctigo Vespucci – Leavin’ La Vida Loca
Ask any music fan (or musician) why they love music, and inevitably, escapism will come up. Antarctigo Vespucci, a duo made of Fake Problems’ Chris Farren and former Bomb the Music Industry! leader Jeff Rosenstock, get that just about better than anyone. Leavin’ La Vida Loca is an album about desperately seeking chill, but only because it beats the fuck out of dealing with your own hangups and insecurities. It sets these tales of self-doubt to some of the prettiest, catchiest, best made guitar pop possible: Rosenstock brought the beachy shoegaze pop punk sound from BTMI! with him, which pairs nicely with Farren’s relaxed croon. Antarctigo’s the sound of two veterans making music that sounds as fresh as someone’s first album, and you can check it for free.
1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
I know that To Pimp a Butterfly is, empirically, the consensus pick of the year, and I hate going with consensus picks. And I tried another option, I really did, but any other choice involved a contrived argument against TPAB that just didn’t hold. It is simply, and honestly, my favorite. In a twisted, confusing year, it was a twisted, confusing album that I still don’t always agree with, but it made me wonder why I didn’t agree with it; you couldn’t Thirty Foot Rule your way out of something this complicated. And while the record has these high concepts, it’s still a blast to listen to Kendrick: boasting on “King Kunta”, unchecked rage from “The Blacker the Berry”, storytelling in “How Much a Dollar Cost?”, or mental breakdown of “u”, he’s rapping at what has to be the top of his game over tracks that ensnare you in layers of soul, funk, prog, and jazz. It’s a rich album that I’ve come back to again and again over the year, and it still dazzles as much on the hundredth listen as the first. You can make all sorts of arguments about its importance to 2015 overall, but for this list, it was important to me, and that’s enough.
Listmas 2015 Schedule
December 16th: Favorite Albums
December 17th: Worst Hits (10-6)
December 18th: Worst Hits (5-1)
December 19th: Best Hits (10-6)
December 20th: Best Hits (5-1)
December 21st: Favorite Songs
December 22nd: Year in Rant: Odds and Ends