Favorite Records of 2015

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



Favorite Records of 2014

It’s that time again — the one month a year I remember I still have a blog.

But first, questions:

  • Is this the most scattered list of favorite records I’ve ever posted?  I found something to love in just about every genre this year.
  • Why do I insist on posting these things every year when I know I’m going to finally get around to something next week that I missed, and regret posting this at all?
  • Do podcasts count? Because I listened to a lot of those this year.
  • Can you say you work at a record store if you only worked there three times in the year?
  • Where does the time go?

Because ranking only leads to regret, I go with two buckets.

Records I Loved:

Run The Jewels — Run the Jewels 2

What a record, seriously. RTJ2 is a perfect combination of apocalyptic hip hop tracks, a singular lyrical mission, a willingness to blend humor and hyperbole and warts-and-all social commentary, and an undeniable chemistry between two MCs at their competitive best. Listening to RTJ2 makes me feel like my head is going to explode in the best way possible. I wore this record out, and I can’t even listen to it with the kids around.

(Note: best show of the year, too. Unreal.)

D’Angelo and The Vanguard — Black Messiah

How is it possible that a dude who hasn’t released a record in 14 years (and, to be real, only had two records to his name) could suddenly and silently drop a record this mind-boggingly great? “Black Messiah” has only been out a week and I’ve basically stopped listening to all other music; I haven’t checked a play count, but I’m fairly confident I’ve listened to it more than anything except the record above. I’m astounded by the richness of it — it’s this organic, remarkable genre mutation that sounds both totally classic and totally current. That it could live up to the hype is unbelievable.

St Vincent — St. Vincent

An early favorite of the year, and one I was really passionate about for months after its release. I feel like this is the best record Annie Clark has made — the first one that really nails the balance between her synthetic aesthetic and the raw and human side of her songs. It reminds me a bit of “Speaking in Tongues” (one of my favorite Talking Heads records) — a well-crafted record equally willing to be played as pop and art.

Sturgill Simpson — Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

My complaint about the americana/alt-country/etc genre is that it’s such a narrow sound, and the dividing line is essentially impossible to discern in most cases. I’ve seen Sturgill Simpson mention that he hates when people call this a country record, but c’mon — this it the most “country music” sounding record I have in my collection by a long shot. It doesn’t matter, though, because this record is brilliant — and this is coming from a guy who really doesn’t like country music. Personally, it’s refreshing to hear someone take the genre seriously; to see someone push the boundaries of what a country song can sound like and be about but without sounding like a half-informed impression of country music, which is what most alt-country music sounds like (and I can say this because I was once in an alt-country band). This record is magnetic.

Spoon — They Want My Soul

How do they make it sound so effortless? Spoon continues to have the best track record of any working band. Any record with “Rent I Pay,” “Inside Out,” and “Do You” has to be in a best-of list, regardless of the other songs.

Wye Oak — Shriek

I hope Jenn Wassner never picks up another guitar, because I prefer “Shriek” — the “we’re just doing keyboards, bass, and drums now” Wye Oak record — to anything they’ve ever done by a long shot. It’s impressive how confident they sound in this reinvention — it’s dreamy but propulsive, shoegazey but not shy about its pure technical proficiency. Here’s to hoping they do an encore record.

Hamilton Leithauser — Black Hours

Sure, I miss The Walkmen. But in their hiatus came three great records — my favorite of which is Hamilton Leithauser’s (criminally overlooked) solo debut. Frontmen making solo records is a losing proposition — fans naturally want it to sound like the band, but will slog if off if it sounds too much like the band. This, impressively, lands somewhere in between — yeah, it sounds like The Walkmen, but a record they never made. I like the orchestral flourishes and the raspy-Sinatra-singing-torch-songs-at-5AM vibe. The songs are great. If The Walkmen name had been on it, we would have all flipped out about how great this is.

The War on Drugs — Lost in the Dream

It’s a little strange to say one of my favorites of the year is a record the reminds me of 80’s era Tom Petty and Dire Straits and Bruce Springsteen; all artists I have respect for but not a whole lot of undying love. This was one of the most anticipated records of the year for me, and honestly — 8 months later — I think I prefer the general feeling of “Slave Ambient” over this one, but I can’t deny that this is a huge step forward for The War on Drugs as songwriters.

Walter Martin — We’re All Young Together

In a lot of ways, this charming little record could be my secret favorite of the year. It’s certainly soundtracked some of the best moments of my year. The second record from an ex-Walkmen member in my list; this record is often described as a “children’s record” but that sells it considerably short. This is well-worn, traditional, campfire song pop music — songs about tigers and snakes and trips to the zoo and families and The Beatles, played with a childlike enthusiasm and innocence that reminds me more than a little of Jonathan Richman. It’s so unassuming and sweet-natured that it’s hard not to love it completely. And it’s always going to make me think of my kids at the ages of 4 and a half and 1 and a half. Everyone in my house loves this record.

Courtney Barnett — The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas

Incredible debut. Courtney Barnett’s songwriting talent is palatable but hard to describe — it’s all about this charming (yet cutting) simplicity that perfectly matches her voice and the presentation, which reminds me a bit of Neil Young and a bit of Pavement and a bit of Kurt Vile and a bit of Bob Dylan. It’s totally unassuming and completely charming.

Records I Really Liked:

Real Estate — Atlas

Cheatahs — Cheatahs

Ty Segall — Manipulator

Tweedy — Sukierae

Damien Jurado — Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son

Peter Matthew Bauer – Liberation!


Favorite Albums of 2013

First: I should acknowledge that this is the first time I’ve posted here since December 2011. I am not  what you’d call  a “power blogger.” Or even a “blogger.”

Second: I just realized I never posted a favorite albums of 2012 list. I’ll retroactively post a list so that my children can later use it to laugh at how pretentious I was.

Third: 2013 was not my best year for purchasing/discovering new music. Second babies, man: hard. More than twice as hard as having one baby. I’ll admit I missed lots of stuff this year and didn’t give other things the time they deserved. Also, Ansel is now at an age where he has an opinion about music, and while his tastes are pretty impeccable for a three-year-old, he’s just not down with my more adventurous tastes. (Although we love to listen to Berlin-era Bowie and play Lego.) Most often, he just wants to listen to the Star Wars soundtrack.

So, I’ll do what I did in 2011 and separate the LOVES from the REALLY LIKES.

Records I Loved:

Neko Case — The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

Shocker: I loved the new Neko Case record. I’ll never deny I’m a loyalist for the artists I love. I also think this is her best record, so there. Probably the record I spent the most time with this year.

Goat — World Music

Loved this. Freaky kaleidoscopic groove-heavy psych rock played by a dozen masked Swedes. Perfect mix of primitive sounds and assured musicality. A blast to listen to.

Elvis Costello and The Roots — Wise Up Ghost

That this works as well as it does is, admittedly, a surprise – I was intrigued when announced, but didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I do. The biggest pleasure, for me, is how Costello is sampling himself throughout the record; repurposing old songs, lines, melodies, etc — a brilliant way to re-contextualize some of his own work and lend the record a really strong theme.

Vampire Weekend — Modern Vampires of the City

I was over Vampire Weekend; we saw them live a few years back and I walked away thinking “those guys obviously took their bit about as far as they could.” I expected the third record to be a retread of the first two, but with diminishing returns. Their third, though, is by far their best — a truly great pop record. Very impressive.

Yo La Tengo — Fade

Another fantastic Yo La Tengo record. Among their best, I think — has all the qualities I love from them. “Cornelia and Jane,” particularly, is really hauntingly beautiful.


My friends and favorite no-longer-really-a-band in Nashville finally released their final (?) record. Nashville isn’t the same without the Hotpipes; this record is a pretty fantastic farewell. (And holy smokes, what a beautiful LP.)

The Records I Really Liked

Okkervil River — The Silver Gymnasium

Not sure why Okkervil River gets overlooked on best of lists. I thought this one was great; their best since “The Stage Names.” Will Sheff is a hell of a writer and seemed to be having fun on this one.

Califone — Stitches

Singular in sound; I’ve yet to find a Califone record I dislike.

Bill Callahan — Dream River

Another artist who hasn’t made many records I dislike. “Small Plane” alone is a masterpiece. Also, if you like flute, Bill Callahan evidently has a friend who plays one and was readily available throughout the recording of this album.

The National — Trouble Will Find Me

I’m not as rapturous over The National as I once was, and this album has one song that just makes me angry (“Fireproof”) but when I’m in the mood for moody serious-white-guy-in-his-30s music, this is pretty much the top of the line. This one bloomed a bit after seeing them live, too.

William Tyler — Impossible Truth

Caitlin Rose — The Stand In

Frightened Rabbit — Pedestrian Verse

Reissues and Whatnot:

Harry Nilsson – RCA Albums Collection box 

FINALLY, Nilsson’s catalog gets the loving reissue it deserves. This, along with the Nilsson biography, put Harry back in heavy rotation. Frankly, with 13 discs, this is something I’m still consuming. Worth it just for the rarities.

Big Star – Nothing Can Hurt Me

Nothing new here, but this is a perfectly loving Big Star overview: fantastic alternate mixes, great mastering job, and on beautiful clear orange vinyl. Sat down one Sunday morning and listened through the whole thing as if I had never heard these songs before (and I’ve heard them hundreds of times each, so that’s saying something.)

R.E.M. — Green 25th Anniversary Remaster
Green had historically been in the bottom tier of loved records by my all-time favorite band (well above their two terrible records, of course). This reissue made me re-think that long held opinion, and the live disc from the Green tour is fantastic.

Greatest Disappointments:

The Walkmen Go On Extreme Hiatus

The best currently active band around call it potentially quits for good. Everyone should be sad about this, and everyone should be listening to “You and Me” or “Lisbon” right now in mourning.

Still Feeling Ambivalent About Bruce Springsteen

Every year I try, and every year nothing changes. Not to say I don’t like Springsteen, I just can’t bring myself to really care about him. 

I Never Heard the My Bloody Valentine Record

I almost bought the vinyl, but it was $40. I kept waiting for it to get cheaper, and it never did, and I could not remember to go online and download it. I’ll remedy it eventually, I’m sure. Probably would have been on my list.

The Men live at The Stone Fox

Here’s a band I was feeling very enthusiastic about playing at a tiny venue. And they were completely upstaged by an opening band named Diarrhea Planet by a factor of about 100. We heard about 8 songs by The Men and left. Disappointing. (For the record, I should probably put the Diarrhea Planet record in my list of likes, despite my reluctance to admit that I really enjoyed a band by the name of Diarrhea Planet.)

Missing Jonathan Richman Live, Again

Got a late start because of a kid who didn’t want to go to bed. Pulled up and it was sold out. Crushed.

What Parenthood Has Done to My Listening Habits

I’ve basically only listened to side 1 of any piece of vinyl for the last 18 months.

The Fact That I Didn’t Find any New Hip Hop Records To Love

Beyond discovering and loving Oddisee’s “People Hear What They See” (from 2012), I didn’t really find any new hip hop to love in 2013. In truth, I probably listened to more hip hop this year than in years previous; just didn’t find anything new that struck me as much as discovering (or rediscovering) older records. On this same topic, the 2nd Big Boi record was a flop — but let’s get a new Outkast record in 2014 and put it behind us.

Favorite Albums of 2012

Posted retroactively, a year late…

  • Father John Misty — “Fear Fun”
  • The Walkmen — “Heaven”
  • The Walkmen — “Dance with Your Partner” 7 inch (those songs should have been on the record)
  • Japandroids — “Celebration Rock”
  • Grizzly Bear — “Shields”
  • Tame Impala — “Lonerism”
  • Wild Nothing — “Nocturne”
  • Twin Shadow — “Confess”
  • Lower Dens — “Nootropics”
  • The Men — “Open Your Heart”
  • Lotus Plaza — “Spooky Action at a Distance”
  • Jessie Baylin — “Little Spark”
  • Lambchop — “Mr. M”
  • Daniel Rossen — “Silent Hour / Golden Mile” EP

Favorite Albums of 2011

Honestly, this is the hardest year in memory for building my annual “favorite albums of the year” list. I’m not entirely sure why. I refuse to use the fogeyist “no good music came out this year” statement — I (mostly) don’t believe that to be true, even though I will admit that as I get older, I’m considerably less interested in what I hear from the indie-rock blogosphere. Instead, I’ll admit that it’s probably my fault: I didn’t invest as much time this year checking out new artists — it was a busy year. Also, I turned a lot of my music-listening attention backwards towards artists and albums I missed (primarily feeding my new-found Nilsson obsession, which then fueled a still-growing Newman obsession, which then fueled a still-growing Wainwright obsession.) And lastly, a good part of my time after September was spent listening back through the R.E.M. catalog, as the announcement of their retirement did nothing but make me want to listen continually to my first and favorite band. (I’ll try and save the R.E.M. eulogy for another post).

Still, there were a handful of new albums I really loved this year, and a bigger handful of albums I truly like and might grow to love as time goes by. Instead of the arbitrary numerical ranking I’ve done in the past – which I always question as soon as I click “Publish” — I’m going to separate this list into two clumps of records: the ones I love right now, and the ones I like right now.

Continue reading Favorite Albums of 2011

The Complete Avenues Archive

So, I’m finally completing a long-standing goal I’ve had for, oh, 4 or 5 years. The goal was to catalog and archive the Avenues library of video and audio. Why? Well, I suppose for posterity — it’s been 5 years now since we decided to end the band, and I’ve been sitting on video footage and demos and whatnot since then. Its only a matter of time before those things get misplaced, so I figured it’d be best to get them online in case we want to show them to the kids at some point, or just look it all back up in 10 more years when we can hardly remember the names of the songs. Continue reading The Complete Avenues Archive