Like all years, 2015 produced an abundance of great music. As improving technology makes it easier than ever to hear more diverse, deserving artists, it only takes minimal effort to fill lists like this with gems spanning from Long Beach gangsta rap to underground Danish black metal. Taking a macro look at any year that was, it’s impossible to totally separate the music from the events; because for the rest of time when we hear these songs and records they’ll bring us right back to 2015. Tension seemed like the overarching theme of the year, as the most minute differences between certain groups were exposed and exploited to everyone’s detriment. With all this head-butting as the backdrop, 2015 rewarded artists that could see through the fog and just tell it like it is. I also tried to reward those artists. From about 300 new releases this year that I heard, here are my 20 favorite. I urge everyone to listen, share, enjoy, or not enjoy; but at least challenge yourself to find something new. But most importantly, don’t remember 2015 as the year of ISIS, mass shootings, Greek debt, rising seas, or refugee crises - remember it as the year “You used to call me on my cell phone . . .” I promise you’ll be much happier for it.
TL, @LaVoiePGH, 12/20/2015
20. Lucero - All a Man Should Do; The 11th record from the Memphis outlaw country legends is their best since 2003’s That Much Further West. Ben Nichols’ gravel voice fuels more classic ballads and midtempo thumpers about drinking, life on the road, and a lot more drinking. Rick Steff’s rollicking piano, and emotive accordion and organ work further solidify All a Man Should Do as a worthy entry in the catalog of one of the essential American bands of the last 20 years. Stand-out tracks: “They Called Her Killer”, “Baby Don’t You Want Me”, “Young Outlaws”
19. Protomartyr - The Agent Intellect; This bracing record from the Detroit post-punk unit grabs immediately with herky-jerky, reverb drenched riffs and urgent vocals. A lot of bands do what Protomartyr do. But very few balance the teeming energy of the garage with grandly ambitious songwriting and a broader artistic vision so seamlessly. Stand-out tracks: “Pontiac 87”, “Ellen”, “I Forgive You”
18. Myrkur - M; 2015 may go down as the best year for metal in a generation. Of late, a couple massive releases dominated the genre year to year. Last year it was Behemoth and Pallbearer, in 2013 it was Deafheaven and Altar of Plagues. Yet, in 2015 every couple of weeks another colossal album was released that further defined, pushed, or challenged its sub-genre’s boundaries. Of course, the ever-stretching boundaries of what constitutes “metal” and the widening circle of commercial outlets that review these records resulted in intense backlash from sanctimonious purists. This is the environment Myrkur - the one-woman project of Denmark’s Amalie Bruun, bravely entered. Her debut, M, is a searing set of blistering Scandinavian folk influenced black metal. Of course, the ever-blogging purists hate Myrkur, because her previous musical project was, *gasp*, an indie-pop band. And she’s been a successful model (oh, the horror!). Sure, better black metal records came out in 2015. The curious are urged to hear the new records from Vanum, False, and Panopticon. But for a genre to flourish, purists must allow the sound they love go through artistic shifts and accept newcomers who may not have come up through the scene. While the haters are putting on corpse make-up in their parents’ basement in some Helsinki suburb, Ms. Bruun is actually putting herself out there making awesome music. That must be celebrated, not rejected. Pedigree is overrated. Stand-out tracks: “Skøgen Skulle Dø”, Dybt I Skoven”, “Onde Børn”
17. Björk - Vulnicura; Björk’s output since 2001’s Vespertine had been, politely, uneven. And that’s coming from a card-carrying superfan. Her last three records all had moments that flashed enough greatness to keep fans’ attention, but ultimately left both casual and diehard followers wanting - needing - more. It took the disastrous breakup of a 13-year relationship for Björk to reclaim her rightful spot atop the avant garde pop world. Vulnicura is a gut-punch of a breakup record that doesn’t shy away from placing blame. On “Black Lake” she sings, “Family was always our sacred mutual mission / Which you abandoned / You have nothing to give / Your heart is hollow.” Ouch. Accompanied by a full string section and restrained electronics produced by Acra, Björk’s voice sounds both stronger and more vulnerable than ever. Stand-out tracks: “History of Touches”, “Black Lake”, “Notget”
16. Wrekmeister Harmonies - Night of Your Ascension; Composer JR Robinson directed a cast of over 30 musicians for the towering, two-movement, new record from his Wrekmeister Harmonies project. A complex study in extremes, Ascension shifts from 15 minute stretches of classical drone enmeshed with somber female chanting to blasts of shrieking, violent metal. Waves of strings, harp, and tension-building percussion slowly and flawlessly guide listeners from angelic 16th Century Renaissance-influenced compositions, to the blood-curdling screams of a prisoner forgotten in solitary confinement. Night of Your Ascension is crazy, shockingly ambitious, and a unique masterstroke from Robinson. Stand-out tracks: n/a
15. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit; Armed with direct-narrative songwriting and a biting sense of humor, Courtney Barnett crafted 2015’s most memorable alt-rock breakthrough. Musically, Barnett harkens back to the fuzzed-out glory of the mid-90s. But it’s her fantastic lyrics that make the record novel. On “Depreston”, a ballad about house shopping in the Melbourne suburbs, she manages to garner legitimate emotion from every-woman lines like, “And I can’t think of floorboards anymore / whether the front room faces South or North / and I wonder what she bought it for?” If that’s not charming enough, try “Dead Fox.” It’s possibly rock’s first, and certainly best, song discussing whether or not it’s worth buying organic vegetables - “I must admit I that I was a little skeptical at first / a little pesticide can’t hurt.” Stand-out tracks: “Depreston”, “Elevator Operator”, “Pedestrian at Best”
14. Jamie xx - In Colour; The solo debut from the English electronic producer, and member of The xx, is the shining culmination of all Jamie’s projects preceding it. In Colour drips with energy, warmth, and evocative dance production. The spectrum of influence Jamie culls from ensures moments to love for fans of Euro-pop, hip-hop, and club music alike. More impressive than any one track, is that Jaime sculpted a record this brimful of diverse sounds together into one cohesive statement. Stand-out tracks: “Loud Places”, “Obvs”, “Sleep Sound”
13. Low - Ones and Sixes; Low have been doing their melancholy, slowcore thing so well, for so long now, that one would be forgiven for assuming record number 11 would not break new ground. But Low drastically tweak the formula on Ones and Sixes by adding electronic, programed beats to their meticulous, nuanced sound. This industrial dabbling doesn’t change the basic equation for Low - they are still a remarkably quiet, harmonizing husband/wife band. But the added electronic flavors crystallize what they’ve done so beautifully since 1993 in a fresh, unexpected way. Stand-out tracks: “Into You”, “Spanish Translation”, “Kid in the Corner”
12. Bell Witch - Four Phantoms; In addition to the black metal peaks discussed above, 2015 saw an embarrassment of riches in the metal sub-genre of funeral doom. Haunting records from Windhand and Elder easily could hold this spot on the list. But the almost impossible heaviness of Bell Witch’s four-song masterpiece, Four Phantoms, remains superlative. Each song, or “phantom”, represents an element - Earth, Fire, Water, and Air, in that order. The record attempts to communicate each element’s unmatched power. Four Phantoms creeps forward at a spilled molasses pace. This only intensifies the bowel-shaking power of the crushing guitars and drums when they appear and stomp ahead in slow-motion. Four Phantoms is one of those rare albums you can actually feel. Stand-out tracks: n/a
11. The Weather Station - Loyalty; On most of Loyalty, Tamara Lindeman doesn’t merely sound like Joni Mitchell; she is Joni Mitchell. As the Weather Station, Ms. Lindeman crafted a humble, but near-perfect traditional folk album of exceptional grace. Stand-out tracks: “Personal Eclipse”, “Shy Women”, “I Could Only Stand By”
10. Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free; Alt-country superhero Jason Isbell had the unenviable task of following-up a career-defining record; the already classic Southeastern (your author’s 2013 Album of the Year). But more important than just pressure, the prospect of Something More Than Free provided Isbell with the opportunity to move his personal narrative past the redemption story of his finding love and defeating alcoholism that carried Southeastern. That story’s been told. Now Isbell can focus on being the best damn Americana songwriter alive. His tales about towns and townies are as richly detailed and vivid as ever - “The doctor said daddy wouldn’t make it a year / But the holidays are over and he’s still here / How long can they keep you in the I.C.U? / Veins through the skin like a faded tattoo / Was a tough State Trooper ‘til a decade back / when that girl that wasn’t Mamma caused his heart attack.” Isbell’s songwriting has never been so colorful. Stand-out tracks: “Speedtrap Town”, “Something More Than Free”, “24 Frames”
9. Royal Headache - High; The second record from Sydney’s American soul-influenced punks is an anxious, concise blast of jangly garage rock. High is still a punk record at heart. But, with that all crooning - “And now I want to be with you . . . be with you” - it would not take much reconfiguring to make each track on High sound like Sam Cooke or Wilson Pickett originals. Royal Headache effortlessly keep one foot in 1960s Detroit without sounding anything less than urgent. Clocking in at 28 minutes, High is a shot in the arm of unfiltered joy. Stand-out tracks: “Love Her If I Tried”, “High”, “Need You”
8. John Moreland - High on Tulsa Heat; This collection of finger-picked, acoustic Americana bears the raw sincerity of a man about to break. Moreland’s songs either reach for something in his past that slipped through his fingers, or something ahead that he acknowledges he may not be worthy of grasping - “I’m the kind of love it hurts to look at / But once I was enough to make you try.” Coils of Oklahoma twang and a Springsteenian use of geography bring each track alive; if only to crush the listener by the end. Moreland sings, “My baby’s a tornado / in the endless Oklahoma sky / Spinning devastation / and singing me a lullabye.” We’re squarely in the Golden Age of country tinged singer-songwriters, which makes it all the more impressive that High On Tulsa Heat was 2016’s standard-bearer for the stacked genre. Stand-out tracks: “You Don’t Care Enough for Me to Cry”, “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars”, “Cherokee”
7. Vince Staples - Summertime ‘06; Ignore what such street-wise outlets as NPR, The New Yorker, and Time, tell you about Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Hip-hop’s best, and most honest assessment of the tinderbox of American race relations in 2015 is the Long Beach, California rapper Vince Staples’ banger-filled double LP. Where To Pimp a Butterfly displays an impressive array of influences and literary ambitions, it resulted in only three or four actual songs. On Summertime ‘06, Vince manages to balance pulled-from-the-headlines lyrics without losing any bounce. Unlike Butterfly, each track here would find equal comfort in a grad school classroom as in a rattling car trunk. Woozy atmospherics and snapping percussion keep the listener off-balance and reflect the tension Vince relays. In a year filled with horrific visuals from Baltimore, Chicago, Charleston, Cincinnati, Charleston again, and Oklahoma City, forget the guy that successfully introduced “acid-jazz” to hip-hop parlance. Give me Vince all day. Stand-out tracks: “3230”, “Norf Norf”, “Loca”
6. Joanna Newsom - Divers; Divers plays like a crash course on the incomparable, idiosyncratic talents of the dexterous Joanna Newsom. Her harp-based brand of folk, punctuated by her unmistakable, sometimes squeaky voice, never sounded so well-honed and approachable. While each song is still novelistic in scope, they don’t reach the 15 minute length she’s previously hit. And at 11 tracks, Divers is a welcome reigning in of sorts following 2010’s incredible, but often-times intimidating triple-disk Have One on Me. Like Newsom herself, these songs are quirky, and oddly magnetic. Coming from the renown harpist and certified music school nerd, the musicianship that bleeds from each song is truly unique. Lyrically, Newsom spins dense narratives both historical and literary. Empires rise and fall on “Sapokanikan”, which tells the history of Manhattan in five minutes. The intense, plunking “Divers” is an epic tale relaying the worries of a pearl diver’s lover while he is out to sea; “The diver is my love / and I am his, if I am not deceived / Who takes one breath above, for every hour below the sea.” Divers displays a transcendent artist in grand form. Stand-out tracks: “Divers”, “A Pin-Light Bent”, “Leaving the City”
5. Drake - If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late; We’ll remember 2015 as the year Drake ascended from simply the world’s most popular rapper, to the internet-owning, all conquering, omnipresent pop culture monolith we have today. This year he unironically made pocket-sized lint rollers a must-have accessory; somehow got people to refer to Toronto as “the 6”; released If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late - his best record yet; trolled Meek Mill all summer with diss tracks; and released What a Time to be Alive - a fantastic collaboration album with Future. Oh, and then almost as an afterthought, he then unloaded the most ubiquitous, unavoidable song of the year, the Twitter-crashing “Hotline Bling.” Yet, it’s the surprise-release If You’re Reading This that was the beating heart of Drake’s career defining year. Called out for the pop leanings of 2013’s Nothing Was the Same, Drake responded with this angry, double-barrelled assault on his critics that dared challenge his claim to the crown. Just listen to him on the seething “Energy” - “I got enemies / got a lot of enemies / got a lot of people tryin’ to drain me of my energy.” It’s tenable how insulted he is to even be put in the position of having to defend himself. If You’re Reading This is Drake’s most aggressive, rap-focused release to date. There’s no “Hold On, We’re Going Home” here. In typical Drake fashion, his rhymes pull from his emotions rather than the headlines. This makes tracks like “You & The 6” - about his mother - refreshing in a year filled with such strife. It’s a credit to the man himself that years into his career he’s still finding ways to make his innermost feelings so captivating. It was the year two-thousand and Drake. Stand-out tracks: “No Tellin’”, “10 Bands”, “You & The 6”
4. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell; Sufjan abandoned the electronic wizardry of 2010’s The Age of Adz, and returned with a sedated, therapeutic acoustic album revolving around the 2012 death of his mother, Carrie. He alternates between stories of the summers in Oregon he spent with her and his step-father, Lowell, and his grief and reflections following Carrie’s passing. Sufjan deftly balances complex feelings stemming from competing emotions. His mother struggled with alcohol and mental health issues, and made mistakes along the way; “When I was three / three maybe four / she left us at that video store.” But, he clearly loved her, and now as an adult himself he can appreciate that she did the best she could; “I forgive you Mother / I can hear you / and I’d love to be near you.” Carrie & Lowell could have been an awkward exercise in over-sharing. But under Sufjan’s tender care, it’s a hushed, elegant triumph. Stand-out tracks: “Should Have Known Better”, “Death With Dignity”, “The Only Thing”
3. Majical Cloudz - Are You Alone?; The third album from the Montreal electronic/singer-songwriter duo does more with less than anything released this year. As on 2013’s breakthrough Impersonator, Devon Welsh belts out intense, blunt lines about the building up, and breakdown of relationships. The power of Welsh’s vocal performance is elevated by Matthew Otto’s minimalist, skillfully uncluttered production. Soft electronic beats, washed over with sweeping atmospherics, and the occasional piano are all Otto needs to fill your headphones. Though equally sparse, there’s more hope here than on Impersonator. On “So Blue”, Welsh assumes the role of the re-assuring ex, giving the vaunted “it’s not you, it’s me” justification; “Yesterday, I wasn’t here for you / Go on now, in the way you do / Try not to be so blue.” The vocals, purposely mixed too high, are a direct connection to Welsh’s core. Though this is essentially sad music, Welsh remains an optimist. On the lead single, “Silver Car Crash” he insists, “I am always perfect / when I am holding on to you / And I know love is worth it”, before ending the song with a simple plea of “I hope you won’t forget me.” Bereft of any symbolism, Welsh’s primary lyrical skill is summing up huge, complicated feelings in the simplest of terms - a perfect partner for the striking simplicity of the musical arrangements. The clearest example of this may be the opening line to the spectacular, understated “Downtown” - “Nothing you say / will ever be wrong / because it just feels good being in your arms.” “Downtown” also implicates that the unimpeached majesty of Are You Alone? was a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Welsh intones, “There’s one thing I’ll do / if it ever goes wrong / I’ll write you into all of my songs.” A remarkable display of restraint, Are You Alone? is simple, seductive, and utterly intoxicating. Stand-out tracks: “Call On Me”, “Downtown”, “So Blue”
2. Locrian - Infinite Dissolution; In a banner year for metal and all its sub-genres, the best metal record wasn’t really “metal” at all. The Chicago ambient/experimental post-black metal band Locrian have grown to the point where its ambient/experimental side has for the most part taken over. This makes the explosions of noise that much more thrilling when they creep out of the otherworldly, droning atmospherics and haunted-house twinklings of out-of-tune piano. A concept album pondering, and previewing man’s inevitable extinction, the saturnine Infinite Dissolution may be 2015’s most audacious and daring artistic effort. Its ultimate success is the year’s crowning achievement from a purely artistic point of view. As this is Locrian’s attempt to display what the universe will be like once we all disappear, Infinite Dissolution is eerily 95% instrumental. And those rare vocals don’t provide comfort, but rather an Event Horizon-esque air of impending solitude. Intentional or not, everything here alludes to the celestial. The minutes-long stretches of slowly throbbing electronics bring alive the endless frozen expanses of black space that one day will surround everything. When the pounding drums finally draw out blazing guitars, we’re reminded that the battle may be scarier than enuing hollowness. Innumerable records have claimed to be a soundtrack to the apocalypse. On the spectacular Infinite Dissolution, Locrian dared to show what comes next. Stand-out tracks: “Dark Shales”, “An Index of Air”, “The Great Dying”
1. Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear; Josh Tillman’s solo career hit a snag. After a glut of records, he remained just one more sad-sack, miserable folkster - and without a day job after quitting Fleet Foxes. Enter Father John Misty; Josh Tillman’s bizarro, drunk, wise-cracking, shamanic drifter alter-ego debuted on 2012’s Fear Fun. Misty’s origin story seems to change each time Tillman’s asked. But the best, and most-likely inception tale is what he told The Guardian earlier this year: “I got into a van with enough mushrooms to choke a horse and drove down the coast with nowhere to go. [I found myself] sitting naked in a tree, hallucinating and scratching my head like an ape. And I confronted the great cosmic joke. I’d wanted to be perceived as this spiritual person, but the reality was me running about with my pants around by my knees. You wouldn’t know it from this conversation, but I’m actually hilarious.” Okay then, we’ll go with that.
He’s become something of a rock n’ roll Andy Kaufman. Determining where Josh Tillman ends and Father John Misty starts has become nearly impossible. His ridiculous Instagram, absurdist interview answers, Mick Jagger dance moves, and sometimes dismissive stage banter and behavior - he often scrolls through his iPhone while singing - all indicate Father John Misty has completely taken over Josh Tillman. His second album as the character, I Love You, Honeybear, is stuffed with the same scathing, hilarious, commentary on our hand-held obsessions and misguided outlooks heard on Fear Fun. Lambasting the nightmare millennial on “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment” he snarks, “She says ‘like literally’ music is the air she breaths / and the malaprops make me want to scream / I wonder if she even knows that that word means / Well it’s ‘literally’ not that.” Classic Misty-isms roll out from every song, displaying the cynical, all-knowing Father John Misty who can see through the bullshit and call you out on your’s.
Musically, Tillman’s moved on from humdrum acoustic soloist towards the full bombast of Honky Chateau-era Elton John and Mind Games-era John Lennon. Huge arrangements flush with strings, choirs, pedal steel, piano, and even the occasional mariachi horns, place Honeybear’s esthetic squarely in the mid-70s when no one held anything back. If only played the instrumentals, one could be tricked into thinking this was a newly discovered trippy third disk of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass.
But something more is going on here, and it’s much deeper than Father John Misty delivering zingers. In 2013, the real Josh Tillman got married and found the domestic bliss that his onstage persona would be the first to ruthlessly tease. So on I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman breezes between character and self, sometimes switching narrators mid-song. He unhelpfully explained that Honeybear is actually a “concept album about Josh Tillman” by Father John Misty. A listener could get lost, or pissed, attempting to penetrate the multilayer veil of irony encasing this whole endeavor. Unpackaging, and sorting out which lines are being delivered with an unsubtle wink and which lines are honest declarations of love can be an exhausting exercise in futility. I still don’t know if that ridiculous title is a joke or not.
On “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” it’s clearly first-person Josh singing, “I can hardly believe I found you / and I’m terrified by that.” The same is true on the title track as he belts, “But don’t ever doubt this / my steadfast conviction / my love / you’re the one I want to watch the ship go down with.” These heartfelt moments of narrative clarity let the listener peek behind the curtain a bit, allowing a real emotional connection to an insane concept.
The high mark of the record, and the whole Father John Misty experiment to date, is the piano ballad “Bored in the U.S.A.” Everything that’s effective about the persona and charming about the bizarre guy behind it is on display on the track. Tillman begins mid-existential crisis, “How many people rise and say / ‘My brain’s so awfully glad to be here for yet another mindless day?’” Like Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”, this is an ironic, biting critique of middle class American life. But where Bruce’s narrator found anger in giving everything he had to just get nothing in return, Misty finds total apathy and merely shrugs in defeat. As the song builds, and a canned laugh track begin to play, he laments; “They gave me a useless education / a subprime loan / on a craftsman home / keep my prescriptions filled / now I can’t get off / but I can kinda deal / with being bored in the U.S.A.” It’s a brilliant sleight of hand from an artist that knows he’s the smartest guy in the room.
Darkness and crisis dominated the newsreels in 2015. It’s important to be connected to the world even when things are a little scary, and art in any form helps us do that. This year these scary things all seemed to coalesce in a never-ending cycle of televised violence and suffering. So it’s a credit to the human condition, and that most human expression - irony - that the driving force behind the year’s best record was its ability to make people smile. It’s difficult to get too upset while singing, “Everything is fine / don’t give into despair / ‘cause I love you, honeybear.” Stand-out tracks: “Bored in the U.S.A.”, “I Love You, Honeybear”, “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me”, “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for Two Virgins)