Favorite Albums of 2015

2015 was a long, strange year. Throughout the year, I experienced many hardships, while at the same time being the recipient of great fortune. I purchased and listened to more music in 2015 than any other year since starting this blog, but a lack of time and energy prevented me from dedicating much time to it whatsoever.  I have thought about packing it in countless times, but each time the thought crosses my mind, I always come back to the feeling I get when I have a new idea for a post. It's really difficult to put into words, but suffice it to say that listening to music fills me with joy, and I enjoy sharing music that delights my readers.

While most people have probably already started focusing their efforts on the most anticipated records for 2016, I have just begun to wrap my head around my favorite albums released in 2015. Last year I spent more time thoroughly listening to records, rather than dismissing them after a cursory listen to get through a stacked listening queue. For me, 2015 was the year that female musicians and hip-hop artists came into their own, crafting interesting and innovative albums in an age where most people buy their music in bite-sized digital increments. It was a year where Kendrick Lamar went against everything that he knew would guarantee popularity to create his masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly, and would go on to be nominated for 11 Grammy awards, and a year where Alabama Shakes would shake the foundation of their patented southern soul sound to create a more varied, distinctive aural experience that is all their own on Sound and Color. I am hopeful that many artists will continue to go down this road less traveled, forging it's own path by crafting thought-provoking, soul-baring artistic statements that absolutely had to be made.   

Each record on this list is one in which I spent a considerable amount of time with, poring over the lyrics, melodies and tempos until they were firmly embedded in the musical jukebox in my mind. I hope that you are introduced to some new artists from this list, and please give money to the artists if you like what you hear.

1) Kendrick Lamar- To Pimp a Butterfly














I imagine it's fitting that I discuss this record first as I listened to it more than anything else this year. What Kendrick was able to accomplish with this album is unprecedented in hip-hop, especially hip-hop in an era of sound-bite news and social media.  In essence, this is a concept record about the trials and tribulations of dealing with the pressures of being a famous hip-hop artist that is political, conscious, poetic and aggressive. The music is a heady stew of funk, jazz, soul and rock anchored by an all-star cast of producers and musicians including Thundercat, Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, Snoop Dogg and George Clinton.  With To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick has set the bar high for rappers, and the record could be the catalyst to shifting mainstream rap's focus towards positivity and lyrical consciousness.

For Free (Interlude) and Momma

2) Drinks- Hermits on Holiday

 

When I heard that Cate Le Bon and Tim Presley of White Fence were collaborating on a new project, I was positively intrigued. On this record, the two artists are able to mix and match styles effortlessly, careening wildly between punk rock, psychedelia, post-rock and noise often in the same song. In a year where their weren't too many albums that rocked, Hermits on Holiday was there to give me the caffeinated rush that I needed to get my day started.

Focus on the Street and Spilt the Beans

3) La Luz- Weirdo Shrine

 
On their follow-up to It's Alive, the four piece from Seattle, WA enlisted Ty Segall to produce, lending to a heavier, fuzzed out sound without sacrificing any of the crucial elements that made the debut so enticing.

 You Disappear and I'll Be True

4) Ryley Walker- Primrose Green

 
Previous albums by Walker have been low-key acoustic affairs, but On Primrose Green, he has enlisted a full band to flesh out his phenomenal guitar playing, and it pays off in spades. While it's hard to deny that Walker's vocals are directly influenced by Tim Buckley, the band manages to carry him to another level on the extended instrumental workouts.

Sweet Satisfaction and The High Road

5) Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba- Ba Power

 
I've had the pleasure of seeing Kouyate in concert, and it's nothing short of electrifying. On Ba Power, the band is able to capture the intensity of Kouyate's blistering ngoni solos filtered through fuzz and wah-wah pedals. This is absolutely essential music!

Siran Fen and  Ab Sumaya

6) Brian Ellis Group- Escondido Sessions

 
Thanks goes out to J Hubner for turning me on to this album, and the rest of the roster on the El Paraiso label. Typically, contemporary jazz is either too avant garde, or too generic for me to bother with it. Escondido Sessions is spiritual cosmic jazz that verges on dissonance, but doesn't go so far out of the pocket that it can't find its way home. If you haven't heard of the other acts on this label, get hip to it now!

Via De Mi Rancho and Memories of Pubby

7) Peacers- S-T

 
After Sic Alps released its swan song self-titled record in 2012, it was hard to tell what direction Mike Donovan would go.  Decidedly, he has come full circle with this frizzle-fried, acid-soaked collection of songs that recall the best of psychedelia and classic rock from the 60's.

R.J.D. (Salam) and Kick on the Plane

8) Pops Staples- Don't Lose This

 
While the initial sessions for this record began 18 years ago at Chicago's Hinge Recording Studio in 1998, the album didn't come to fruition until 2015. Another interesting thing to note is that Jeff Tweedy took the rough digital recordings, and fleshed it out with a little guitar and drums. What results is a raw recording that sounds amazing, especially considering that the only things kept from the original recordings are the vocals from the Staple Singers and drums and bass on two tracks.

Somebody Was Watching and Nobody's Fault But Mine

9) L'Orange and Jeremiah Jae- The Night Took Us in Like Family

 
L'Orange's cinematic soul-noir samples are the perfect compliment to Jae's low-key rhymes. As I said before, this is gangster rap for people who are tired of the same old tropes that have plagued the genre since the demise of N.W.A.

Ignore the Man to Your Right and Kind of Like Life

10) Built to Spill- Untethered Moon

 
Earlier in the year, I overheard a conversation where someone compared the new BTS album to Perfect From Now On. While this is quite the statement to live up to, I would say that this album measures up to the best in the Built to Spill oeuvre. From the yearning melodies to the extended guitar solos, there is so much to sink your ears into here.

On the Way and When I'm Blind

11) Helen- The Original Faces

 
When Liz Harris approached Scott Simmons and Jed Bindeman about starting a thrash-rock project, I'm sure none of them thought it would come out quite like this.  What resulted was a hazy, ethereal shoegaze sound with the vocals buried beneath layers of reverb. This one came out of nowhere and never left my playlist last year.

Covered in Shade and Right Outside

12) Dr. Yen Lo- Days with Dr. Yen Lo

 
Under the guise of Dr. Yen Lo, Ka along with the producer Preservation has crafted one of the most dense, cerebral hip-hop records in recent memory. The production is all tripped-out guitar, cinematic strings and subtle cymbal splashes, providing the perfect backdrop to Ka's poetic, revelatory rhyme schemes. As far as hip-hop goes, it doesn't get any better than this!

Day 811 and Day 110

13) Alabama Shakes- Sound and Color

 
When the first words spoken on Sound and Color are "A new world hangs outside the window, beautiful and strange," it's pretty apparent that Alabama Shakes weren't going to be content with simply repeating the formula that worked for them on their debut. This is a transitional follow-up record where the group experimented with the studio as an instrument. Each sound on the record has been tweaked to fit the context of the song perfectly, while retaining the grittiness and punch of the debut that earned them such a loyal following. I don't know what direction Alabama Shakes are headed, but I'll certainly be along for the ride.

Sound and Color and Gemini

14) King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard- Quarters

 
On the latest long player from King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, they decided to make each track ten minutes and ten seconds, making the album 40 minutes and 40 seconds. Each song unfolds, winds, twists and takes on another form every couple of minutes. Aside from the opener "The River," they mostly keep the guitar solos to a minimum. Instead, these songs have multiple verses and repeatable choruses that tickle the pleasure centers of your brain. If you haven't heard of these guys yet, I highly recommend checking them out.

The River and Lonely Steel Sheet Flyer

15)  Jessica Pratt- On Your Own Love Again

 
Jessica Pratt's follow-up to her self-titled debut contains more haunting vocal melodies laid over a bed of acoustic guitar strumming. If you hadn't told me that this record was released last year, I would have thought that it was a long-lost folk chestnut from the 70's that was shelved indefinitely due to poor promotion. Thankfully, Pratt is alive and well, producing exceptional records like this.

Strange Melody and Greycedes

16) Oddisee- The Good Fight-

 
I heard the first single from this album called "That's Love", and I instantly knew that the record was going to be something special. From the upbeat tempo, to the positive message in the lyrics, the song has an infectious, crackling energy that can't be denied. Also, in an unprecedented move for contemporary hip-hop music, Oddisee managed to create an entire record containing no profanity at all. With a steady lyrical flow juxtaposed with live instrumentation and soulful choruses, Oddisee has clearly won The Good Fight.

Want Something Done and A List of Withouts


17) Chastity Belt- Time to Go Home

 
Time to Go Home is a meticulously recorded, angst-ridden rock record that just happens to be created by four female musicians. The fact that the album is so great has everything to do with the bands ability to write catchy melodies couched in lyrics filled with doubt and desperation. But don't get me wrong, the band can just as easily write a song like "Cool Slut" where they celebrate female promiscuity with a playful spirit, sending a clear message to women that it's okay to be "slutty". Subtlety is clearly not Chastity Belt's modus operandi, but we love them all the more for this fact.

Cool Slut and Joke

18) Eternal Tapestry- White Strawberries

 
After founding member, and virtuoso guitarist Dewey Mahood left Eternal Tapestry a couple years ago, I figured that this would be the last I would hear from them.  Then, in the beginning of the year, this unsuspecting gem of a record found it's way into my listening queue. Often, I feel that the term "psychedelic" is used so much that it practically has no meaning, but this album is so saturated in trippy guitars, synths and organs that it literally sounds like the aural equivalent of an acid trip.

Wild Strawberries and White Adders Tongue

19) The Ghost Ease- Raw

 
While the debut S-T record by The Ghost Ease contained epic songs that rarely strayed from the darkness, the new one lets a little light peer through the pervading sense of doom with playful vocal melodies on "PJM" and "4BV, and a symphonic closing track called "Bye Love" that could hint at a new direction for the band.  The songs on Raw are an exercise in restraint and catharsis, pushing and pulling the user in opposite directions, often keeping them guessing as to what is just around the corner. Slow ballads can turn into pummeling fuzz rock, and vice versa. At just under 30 minutes, the record is over before you have time to think about it, but hopefully you will be able to muster enough energy to hit the repeat button. 

Neptune Sun and 4BV 

20) Sleater Kinney- No Cities to Love  

 After an extended hiatus, Sleater Kinney have returned to the fold with an album that fulfills every expectation that one could possibly have for a follow-up to The Woods. Usually reunion albums are sad affairs that are created specifically because the band members need a quick cash-grab. In Sleater Kinney's case, they went on hiatus because one of the members was chronically ill and continuing on due to these circumstances would have been futile. Fast forward ten years later to No Cities to Love, and Sleater Kinney have crafted an aggressive, cathartic record filled with punchy drums, sing-along anthems and fuzzed-out guitar. Here's to hoping for another new record from the ladies in 2016!

Surface Envy and No Anthems 

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