Monday, 4 January 2016

Groove Theories: Top 50 Albums of 2015

by Sean Morris

In more ways than one, 2015 was a steady stream of “what the fuck?” moments. My favorite kinds of western civilization music appeal to my inner bitch pop afficionado, ignorap historian, college radio snob, and R&B junkie. All of these preferences have never been equally catered to in the same calendar year… until now.

The overriding themes of this weird ass year in music were twofold. First, between Animal Collective solo projects and emo trap superstars, lyricism has declared war on consonants and is winning handily. This development has caused me to appreciate instrumentation and production techniques more. It has also led to more questionable high-ranking entries than usual. Second, whether because of declining sales or streaming services or torrent sites or all three, more musicians than ever are either unable or unwilling to create consistent and cohesive full length listening experiences. Even the most high profile Best Of lists this year feature critically acclaimed albums with undeniable dull spots if not out and out clunkers.

This list also doubles as a document of the realignment that my music tastes go through every few years. Who knows which genre is going to emerge triumphant this time… let’s get straight to it.

...don't ask.
#35 JR JR

For their 4700th release, Thee Oh Sees lead a rigorous rock history cram session. In half an hour you get woozy psychedelics, brittle punk, and even a little detour into country. The mixes are even less grubby than last year’s Drop, which could be a result of John Dwyer’s move from Northern to Southern California. The reconfigured lineup keeps getting better at translating the gleeful fury of their live shows to a studio setting. Mutilator’s final third is an essential new classic rock playlist unto itself.

Multi-Love rarely moves faster than a saunter yet remains lively all the way through. While their contemporaries venture deeper into the realm of chintzy 80s synths, UMO genuflects before 70s funk organs. Blue eyed soul goes dance punk on “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone,” and “Necessary Evil” takes yacht rock on an acid trip. Who would’ve thought “jam band makes a soft rock album” would turn out to be a bright idea?

Better than it has any right to be, this crowdfunding joke not only made it to fruition but also attracted Just Blaze, Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, Prince Paul, and more. Meow the Jewels owes much of its success to El-P & Killer Mike’s still blistering and timely RTJ2 lyrics, which clearly sound incredible over anything. The cat sound remixes, at turns searing and silly, are inexplicably as brash as the originals, and in some cases even more daring. Snoop Dogg singing the Meow Mix jingle alone is worth the price of admission. 

The Bad Boys of kneepad R&B celebrated the twentieth anniversary of 
still sensational The Show, The After-Party, The Hotel by unexpectedly releasing the long-awaited/long-forgotten-about follow up. Timbaland dropped his pop auteur facade long enough to return to his raunchy roots as Devante Swing’s co-pilot. K-Ci’s voice wears the hint of gravel well (Jo-Jo not so much). With the exception of the contemporary pandering on “Too Hot” and the B.O.B. cameo on “Nobody Wins,” these tracks are the quintessence of 90s retro. Only thing missing is some Mr. Dalvin ad-libs.

On The Game’s best album since… wait a minute… no 50 Cent… only two skippable tracks instead of three… this IS The Game’s best album! #MeatprintPapi wisely stays out of the way of his insane guest list, from Q-Tip & Premier to Kendrick & Kanye. Even the incessant name dropping and Rich Little-esque impersonations of great rappers past and present have grown endearing. Flipping everything from Screamin' Jay Hawkins to Phantogram, the ridiculously well-produced and well-sequenced Documentary 2 remains one of the most pleasant surprises of 2015.

The Hypnotize Minds Renaissance went into hyperdrive in 2015, with eight new albums from representatives of the former Memphis rap enterprise. Lola Mitchell helmed the strongest Three 6 Mafia-related project for the second year in a row. Candy, Diamonds & Pills’ biggest revelation is its total lack of smut, especially coming from a rapper well known for filthy quotables (happy 15th anniversary to “Tongue Ring”). Gangsta Boo simultaneously struck while the “Love Again” iron was hot and ignored the iron altogether, preferring to reinforce her legacy as the First Lady of Crunk with grimy beats and twisted rhymes.

2015 was hip-hop’s most commercially and culturally relevant year so far this decade, for better and for worse. At the top of the “worse” column, even over that C-minus rap beef, were the losses of Three 6 Mafia’s resident Pareseltongue Koopsta Knicca and the mighty Bar-barian also known as Ruck. The self-proclaimed Brokest Rapper You Know slap-boxed competitors one last time with his trademark barrage of stinging punchlines and witty reminders that he didn’t vote for Obama. The Duck Down version of Songs in the Key of Price runs an hour, while the “we couldn’t get all the samples cleared” version lasts a mere sixteen minutes. Both are spectacular farewells to an unbridled diss-master. P!

Today’s allegedly provocative entertainers keep ripping pages out of Madonna’s 80’s playbook yet not a one of them has dared to emulate the strip hop disco dominatrix of 1992’s Erotica. The Queen Mother of Pop realized she had to do it herself and recorded several dozen homages to her raunchiest persona. "Artistic crepe" connoisseurs pored over the praise-worthy folktronica demos that leaked three months in advance. Even the official version of Rebel Heart, plagued with overproduction and misguided song transitions, contains a solid hour of ratchet triumphs and Madonna's best overwrought ballads since Music. Put them together and you get a riveting journey through guilt, pleasure, and an unapologetic bitch’s enduring vitality.
#17 Protomartyr - The Agent Intellect

From Danny Brown to (Dale Earnhardt) Jr Jr, Detroit has been producing a lot of flame emoji artists this decade. Post-punk quartet Protomartyr’s revelatory third album is teeming with vicious strumming, tempestuous drumming, and aloof grumbling. Joe Casey’s lyrics are steeped in references to Christian mythology and dive bar culture, devoting equal amounts of reverence and disdain towards both. Whether you identify with the cul-de-sac Satans or the saints about to get stoned in both senses of the word, The Agent Intellect is a staggering listen, and an excellent addition to the modern Motor City playlist.

#16 Hermitude - Dark Night Sweet Light

Hermitude’s fifth full-length wrests the spotlight back from Flume, who upstaged the Australian duo’s entire previous album with one irresistible remix. Motivational EDM anthems flow seamlessly into smooth R&B seductions, and nasty bass drop bangers double as advertisers’ wet dreams. Hermitage excises the irritating parts of multiple trendy genres and expertly blends the leftovers. Dark Night Sweet Light is officially the chillstep gold standard.

#15 Them Are Us Too - Remain

Putting the “new” back into “Best New Artist,” Them Are Us Too’s debut is the hottest thing to come out of UC Santa Cruz since all the KZSC DJs I crushed on graduated. Cash Askew’s haunting guitar work mesmerizes, and Kennedy Ashlyn’s soprano is as uplifting and heartbreaking as her percussion is savage. Drawing inspiration from shoegaze and slowcore, Remain’s nightmare pop revels in gloomy synths and dejected drum patterns. These maudlin foundations often give way to aching beauty such as “False Moon,” one of the best songs anyone released in any genre this year.

#14 Teen Daze - Morning World

Canadian producer Jamison’s previous projects under the Teen Daze moniker were full-fledged chillwave affairs, reaching an absorbing apogee with 2013’s Glacier. Recorded and mixed in just ten days, Morning World is an idyllic sunrise soundtrack that owes more to orchestral folk and space rock than downtempo electronica. Branching out into string arrangements and peppy tempos has resulted in yet another impressive maturation. With Morning World, Teen Daze reveals himself to be a habitual game stepper-upper.
#13 Neon Indian - VEGA INT'L Night School

Neon Indian awoke from his four year coma only to discover that the 80’s retro bandwagon he’d helped establish had been toppled over, shoved out to sea, and transformed into a yacht. Unfazed, he sidles past misguided tributes to Dire Straits, Styx, and Debbie Gibson to resume his post as the reconfigured Nostalgiamobile’s figurehead. VEGA INT’L Night School takes Psychic Chasms’ sun dappled distortion to nightclubs, dark alleys, and boudoirs. Working with a live band equally well-versed in Paisley Park and The Dangerous Crew, Alan Palomo creates his giddiest, sexiest, and funkiest work to date.

#12 Best Coast - California Nights

After months of listening to California Nights out of obligation, I saw Best Coast sell the shit out of these nouveau grunge tunes to an adoring audience that was even younger than the previous eight times that I saw them. Bethany Cosentino is still surf rock’s Mary J. Blige, only now she’s closer to No More Drama than My Life. The apathetic journal entries, inviting “ooh”s, and deceptively sunny melodies are still there, just swaddled in much more muscular riffs and polished mixes. Cosentino and Bobb Bruno’s successful yet bittersweet transition from indie sensations to alternative rock stars means catering less to a fan base that remains loyal and more to a fan base that remains the same age. As Ol’ Dirty Bastard would put it, California Nights is for the chilbren.

#11 Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz

The second entry in the Flaming Lips The Terror Cinematic Universe focuses on an insulated creature who survives on a diet of marijuana, viscous glittery liquids, and her own tears. Thumping techno lead single “Dooo It!” and its unicorn bukkake video are red herrings. Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz is a messy, weepy psychedelic fucktronica opus. Self-funded and then given away à la Run the JewelsDead Petz corrects the many missteps of the endearing yet vacuous Bangerz, including Big Sean going from cringeworthy to a career-best cameo. Her pipes more penetrating than ever, Cyrus trills, snarls, and screams meditations on the fragile mortality of ecosystems, romantic entanglements, and yes, a blowfish. The Lips boldly rework a couple Terror interludes, and Orel Yoel and Mike Will Made It pull off amazing straightforward R&B beats. I don’t know how Miley goes back to contractually obligated pop records after this.

#10 Compton: A Soundtrack By Dr. Dre

Inspired by his surging protege and the immensely entertaining N.W.A. biopic, ignorap’s pristine perfectionist finally completed his third album. Compton is the first Dr. Dre effort with accurate production credits (y’all still don’t think he did Doggystyle by himself do you?) and no momentum-killing features (*cough* Hittman). Considering it's by the man who helped turn gangsta rap into a pop juggernaut, Compton is also surprisingly radio unfriendly. The majority of the content is preoccupied with homicide - committing it, witnessing it, or lamenting its proliferation. Thankfully, none of it is played for laughs. Kendrick Lamar goes for broke; Anderson Paak crows through multiple A Star is Born moments; Snoop Dogg & Xzibit spit like they give a damn again; The Game gets a lean on your car horn anthem; Eminem floats overhead spouting aggro Micro Machines ad copy. Reigning them all in is the finest rapper to never write a rhyme, his commanding baritone and pliable delivery in top form. Andre Young may need Extendable Ears to keep his ears to the streets, but they’re working better than ever.

#9 Bhi Bhiman - Rhythm & Reason

Dear Every Aspiring MC: being a great lyricist doesn’t mean being able to rapidly spout strings of homonyms in one breath. Bhi Bhiman’s Rhythm & Reason features few sonic or thematic ties to hip-hop, yet his couplets inhabit the same fatalistic, sarcastic, and insightful domain as the genre’s strongest storytellers. Disillusioned expats, opportunistic bigots, drug addled radicals, and enhanced interrogators traipse across Bhiman’s reggae and soul-inflected landscape. His powerful tenor sparkles as he portrays these variegated voices of dissent. Rhythm & Reason is a rollicking, eerie, and passionate work that exemplifies folk rock’s full potential.

#8 Alabama Shakes - Sound & Color

Alabama Shakes is the first of three acts that barely registered on my radar in 2012 and then inexplicably made it to The Big Show this year. There’s nothing wrong with Boys & Girls, but everything about Sound & Color is grittier, sexier, spookier… exponentially better all around. Brittany Howard turns on a dime from tender lover to gruff blusterer. The foursome’s synchronicity is electric, seamlessly shifting back and forth from hushed to thunderous tones. Alabama Shakes lovingly wrap their limbs and instruments around all the South’s signature sounds, from scorching blues to breezy playalistic pimp themes. Sound & Color is one of new classic rock’s most crucial entries to date.

#7 pizza boy. - this is pizza boy.

Last year the only rapper to make a better song than pizza boy. was Jay Electronica. Jay Electronica did not release a song this year. ICYMI, and based on his Soundcloud play counts YMI, pizza boy. is a Taco Bell & masturbation addict-cum-humblebrag wordplay wizard. this is pizza boy. is his sophomore effort, third if you count the futility EP, which you should. His most subversive acts are as follows: daring to rhyme with excellent grammar in an era of run-on sentence ramblers; intelligently analyzing his desires and shortcomings with mischievous humor; making prank calls in Bill Cosby’s voice. This is his third appearance on my 2015 Albums list along with Sus Boyz, his collaboration project with Shampoo Papi, and a stunning feature on Ly Moula’s Psychotic Breaks. Widespread and possibly even thin-spread success and attention unfairly continues to elude him. If you don’t support him, Melvin Burch will win, and he will order you to drink a cumshot through a straw. Quit playing and listen now.

#6 Jamie xx - In Colour

If you told me that one of the best rap songs of the year would contain the line “she gon get on top of the dick and she gon squish it like squish,” I wouldn’t believe you. But then, I’m still perplexed as to how a member of a group known for making 40 minute ambient interludes created such a diverse, thoughtful, and superbly sequenced ode to electronica’s illustrious history. The glowsticks, the grime, the EmbracEs from strangErs with as many capital Es as thEy can afford… Jamie xx covers it all and then some. In Colour also stands as one of the few EDM albums to explicitly and sweetly convey its mission statement: “I go to loud places to search for someone to be quiet with.” Not even Young Thug following it up with “I’ma ride in that pussy like a stroller” can break that sentimental spell.

#5 Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

My inner Conspiracy Brother believes it’s not a coincidence that Sometimes I Sit and Think… dropped nine days after Tame Impala released their Chemical Brothers-meets-REO Speedwagon lead single. Australia’s rock scene needed a new standard bearer and quick. Courtney Barnett left her twangy pair of EPs in the dust with this dazzling grunge/blues/punk conglomeration. The deadpan, half-spoken delivery of minuscule details and self-deprecatory slogans resonates deeply, yet none of the lyrics are as intimate or alluring as what CB does with her guitar. Whether gently strumming or vehemently shredding, Barnett’s volatile fingers are even more expressive than her whispers and hollers. CB combines a rousing and arousing racket with remarkably candid declarations of yearning and sorrow.

#4 Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly

I am one of the dozen people on the planet non-plussed by the “Murs makes a Drake album” that has already been declared this generation's Illmatic (*shudders*). This guaranteed that I would enjoy the follow-up a lot more, I just didn’t expect it would be this much. The lion's share of the credit goes to the impeccable production courtesy of Sounwave, Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, Pharrell Williams, Knxwledge, Terrace Martin, Boi 1da, Tae Beast, it goes on like this. To Pimp A Butterfly singlehandedly introduces a generation raised on trap pop and emo hop to - gasp! - live instrumentation in hip-hop. Kendrick is game to tackle every jazz spazz-out and G-funk symphonic movement thrown his way. As the best MC mainstream hip-hop currently has to offer, Lamar is working without a net here. There are ridiculous voices, somber slam poetry platitudes, stream of consciousness nonsense, religious parables, black pride diatribes, shame on a nigga scenarios, and more. If it weren’t for that unnecessary mock 2Pac interview, TPAB would be a masterpiece. The Realest Negus Alive will have to settle for a classic.

#3 Wax Idols - American Tragic

In a year overflowing with multiple generations of pop divas audaciously staking their respective claims, a DIY glam rocker out-popped them all. On American Tragic, singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/general badass Hether Fortune defiantly displays her scars as proudly as she does her compositional prowess. She plays everything you hear on this record except for one instrument, which is taken care of by Rachel “imagine if Furiosa was a drumming virtuoso” Travers. “Lonely You” is the glorious goth lead-in, but that’s as close as Wax Idols gets to recreating the chilling magic of Discipline + Desire. There is no comparing the two albums; Tragic is an entirely different beast. Moreover, the beast turns out to be in good spirits.

“Deborah” is a delirious graveyard party, and “Goodbye Baby” is a relationship kiss-off that could soundtrack Waiting to Exhale’s most iconic scene. “Glisten/Severely Yours/At Any Moment” is the astounding one-two-three punch that tells the story (or at least the story in my imagination) of the cover photo. Fortune is mired in the murkiness of toxic love, spies a light above her head and clambers towards it. She is pulled the rest of the way up by her own libido “like some tethered angel, lifted straight from the ground by the fingers in my mouth.” She is ecstatic upon her arrival but hesitates, knowing from experience that blissful luminescence can be just as treacherous as the shadows she just escaped.

#2 Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper

Ladies and gentlemen, the best electronic and best hip-hop producer of 2015. Mr. Noah Lennox, Animal Collective’s resident lead percussionist and seraphim, takes his sample-heavy song structures to dizzying new heights. Though the 1990s finally became the prevailing choice for retro flourishes this year, Panda Bear was the only artist brave enough to re-envision boom bap for the 21st Century. When you impress the Chocolate Boy Wonder, you know you’re on the right track. Though trippy progtronica remains Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper’s ultimate goal, sturdy drum loops provide a much needed bridge across a generation gap that can’t even agree about Common’s verse on Kanye West’s “Get ‘Em High.” PBVSGR intricate tracks are far too captivating on their own for anyone to spit bars over, though I’d love to see Chance the Rapper or Kendrick or pizza boy. or anyone but Jimmy From Degrassi try.

The album’s gooey center - from “Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker” to “Lonely Wanderer” - is the most creative AC-related work since the morbid fantasies of Avey Tare’s Down There. Synthesizers burble and splash like a swamp located in the mouth of a volcano. “Dark clouds descended again and a shadow moves in,” our hero narrates with jagged echo chamber chirps. As soon as the Supernatural Anesthetist comes, the agitation dissipates, and Panda Bear earns wings and harp. “And you won’t come back, you can’t come back to it” is his plaintive hymn as Debussy and a demonic thrum hurtle him to the next destination.

#1 Chelsea Wolfe - Abyss

On a warm, clear summer day in 1995, I entered the mall to buy a copy of Brotha Lynch Hung’s Season of da Siccness. When I walked outside again, the afternoon sky had turned jet black. Within minutes of my first listen through, it didn’t feel like mere coincidence. Twenty summers later, another Sacramento-born musician duplicated this ominous feat, only this time dark clouds did not gather overhead. They gathered inside my head.

“Even sometimes when things are going really well and calm, I’ll have crazy nightmares. It doesn’t really make any sense. The mind is a wild place.” 

As album openers go, Chelsea Wolfe’s “Carrion Flowers” is one for the record books. A horrific slice and dice synth motif lurches to life, then stalls, and repeats until- devastation. Punishing triple time pulsations and churning strings signify sinister machinery whirring to life, its purpose as yet uncertain. A high voice calls out “hold on to the pain,” as both consolation and grave warning. A macabre, flippant amalgamation of industrial and Chicago drill, “Carrion Flowers” is a masterstroke. Nothing else on Abyss tops it, nor does it need to. The mood is set, and the descent continues.

“Waking up… you can move your body and your eyes are open, but there are figures and people from your dreams still present in the room.” 

Wolfe cites her experiences with sleep paralysis as the reason for Abyss sounding even more nightmarish than her usual recordings. These eleven operatic folk metal songs do more than recount memories of phantoms gliding through bedroom walls; they vividly depict the artist’s personal vision of a hell dimension.

Many easily identifiable instruments and chord progressions represent ambiguous intentions. The clatter of grinding guitars evokes gateways to torture chambers. A whining viola can either be the despairing cry of a lost soul, or an approaching swarm of demons. Pensive acoustic passages are welcome respites from the internal turmoil… or are they shape-shifting hallucinations, twisting pleasant memories into relived trauma? Wolfe’s warm soprano acts as a beacon, though this guardian angel may be leading her charges towards unfathomable peril.

Emboldened by extraordinary bandmates and St. Vincent producer John Congleton, Chelsea Wolfe engages in some visionary netherworld-building. Abyss isn’t just the Best Album of 2015, it is one of the finest releases so far this decade.

Zestyverse's resident Music Geek Sean Morris is an SF Bay Area native with a photographic memory and encyclopedic knowledge of popular culture. He is a graduate of UCLA's School of Theater, Film, and Television, a former Los Angeles Slam Team member, part of the collective Art 4 A Democratic Society, and a music blogger for The Owl Mag. Find him on TwitterSoundCloud, and YouTube.