2015: the fastest year of my life. Best I can tell it was about 35 minutes long. I did manage to listen to at least a little bit of new music, and here are the new records I liked the most. I’m going back to the semi-arbitrary numbered format this year, because there’s a clear winner this year.
#1: Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
This record. I can’t think of another record released in the last 15 years that captured my interest like this one.
Look, man: I was an English major in college. I know who I am. I’m predisposed to love a knotty narrative and layers on layers of interpretation. I’m drawn to personal works that connect to the larger cultural zeitgeist of the time in which they were written. I like my characters conflicted. I like my writers challenging. I want my text to be brimming with enough external references to require exhaustive annotation. I want to read things that make me want to go read other things written about that thing.
On that level alone, To Pimp a Butterfly was going to win my affection. Kendrick Lamar calls himself a writer rather than a rapper; I think that’s an important distinction and one that is well-earned.
More on that later, but first I want to address how this record is as compelling musically as it is lyrically. It’s fearless. Name one other major pop record in 2015 that included so many unfiltered elements of “unpopular” forms — jazz, funk, soul, slam poetry, chamber pop. I’ve listened to this record dozens of times, but I’m still struck at each lesson by how detailed and multi-faceted it is — like the high point in the third verse of “These Walls” when the tone changes subtly and the fantastic string arrangement sends the song in a whole new direction. And that powerful musical change serves Kendrick’s verse, which adds yet another layer on a song that was already running a complex metaphor comparing sex and social institutionalization. I mean, seriously.
I admire the courage and ambition behind To Pimp a Butterfly. It takes an immense amount of nerve to release a record that so firmly pushes the boundaries of popular taste at a critical moment in a skyrocketing career, to release a record that tackles so many big uncomfortable ideas headfirst, to lay open so many deeply personal conflicts in a genre that doesn’t always accept rapping about those ideas with open arms. I’ve seen other year-end reviews comment apologetically on the record’s 80-minute runtime or more out-there ideas like the Tupac “interview” like we’re supposed to shrug off these extravagances because the high points are so high — but personally the audacity in those ideas just enhance my affection for this album.
And it all adds up to a record that has something to say. This is an album about a man’s deep concern for the state of his soul and where it stands with God, about what it means to be black in America right now, about what it means to be a leader, about the reality of being part of a important but imperfect community. It’s written with an admirable degree of self-awareness and deep consideration of the author’s role in a larger world, but never fails to be scathingly personal and self-crticial. There are loads and loads and loads (and loads) of great commentary out there about what this record means, not to mention that so many moments on this record — see the cultural embrace of “Alright” as a mantra — became living commentary on what’s happening sociologically in our world right now. For that reason alone, I’m confident we’re all going to look back at this as a landmark record decades from now.
And hey, the POTUS likes it too. I’m in good company.
Footnote: this would convert anyone.
#2. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Courtney Barnett followed an impressive set of EPs with a fully-possessed debut full-length that feels otherworldly confident as far as songwriting voices go. Stereogum compared this feat to something like Elvis Costello churning out This Year’s Model as his second release a year after his debut, and that comparison feels totally warranted. I love this record. I like to listen to it loud. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
#3. Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment – Surf
I’m not sure there’s a more likable figure in music right now than Chance the Rapper. Let’s cover what’s happening here:
- 21 year old up-and-comer follows a highly-acclaimed free mixtape by rejecting every label’s offer in exchange to do what he wants on his own.
- Instead of releasing something under his own name, his follow-up is another free record recorded by a community of Chicago artists and friends and billed to his band and bandleader. He also just straight up sits out on half the tracks and gives the spotlight to other musicians — both no-names and heavyweights.
- The best song on said record is about Chance going to church with his grandma. It also has a killer video.
- He and his band regularly cover the theme song to Arthur (the kid’s cartoon, not the Dudley Moore movie) in concert.
Surf is ebullient and warm-hearted when the current trend in hip-hop is to be the opposite. Chance and Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment and all their friends play songs about hope and unadulterated love, and my year was the better for it.
And seriously, these SNL performances — the first time an unsigned artist has played the show — made my December. Just look at how much fun this guy is having. Go get it, Chance.
#4. Wilco – Star Wars
Wilco’s best release since A Ghost is Born. There’s a clarity and focus here that Wilco hasn’t had in a while. Where my favorite record of the year followed the route of an 80 minute statement record, Wilco took the equally admirable road of self-releasing a surprise 35 minute record full of well-edited and carefully constructed songs that push the boundaries of their finetuned sound in new ways.
#5. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
I get how Father John Misty is a love him-or-hate-him kind of act. Personally, I think the whole debauched and arrogant out-of-time 70s Laurel Canyon thing is funny, but also an interesting way to hold a weird mirror up to the stranger parts of the musical climate. I loved Fear Fun but wasn’t sure if the act would stay interesting for a second record. I did not expect FJM to take the sardonic parts of his first record and somehow force them to live alongside (and even add dimension to ) an unflinching mediation on love and monogamy. FJM would make this list if just on the merit of the closing song on the record — “I Went to the Store One Day” — which is as stunning a song about the strangeness of falling in love as any song I can list.
#6. HeCTA – The Diet
#7. Tame Impala – Currents
#8. Oddisee – The Good Fight
#9. Bully – Feels Like
#10. Destroyer – Poison Season
Records I Need to Spend More Time With:
It’s pretty typical now that right at the end of the year, when all the “Best Of” lists come out, I start to chew through a ton of records I missed or that I picked up earlier in the year and just didn’t give enough time. And then, when we’re all gripped in the misery that is January and February, I’m listening to these things non-stop and wishing I had loved them before I made this list. (I know, this list means nothing. But it matters to ME.) So in an attempt to stave that off, let me name some records I feel I might soon fall in love with. Apologies to all the ones I haven’t even given a first or second listen to. There are no lists for you, my friends.
- Hamilton Leithauser and Paul Maroon – Dear God
- Shamir – Ratchet
- Cheatahs – Mythologies
- Majical Cloudz – Are You Alone?
- Hop Along – Painted Shut
- Beach Slang – The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us
- Deerhunter – Fading Frontier
- Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass
- Ought – Sun Coming Down