Our Albums of the Year: 2015
Welcome to The Collapsar's first ever Albums of the Year List. A long time ago, I was the music section editor for another online literary journal called The Fiddleback. We had a yearly tradition of collecting lists of our staffs', readers', writers', and friends' favorite albums of the year, throwing them all into a massive spreadsheet and then tabulating the results to produce a list of the 'best' albums of the year. It was fun, and I hope to do it here next year. Alas, since The Collapsar didn't relaunch until just a couple of weeks ago, we didn't have a lot of time or opportunity to set up something like that. Instead, we paired with our friends at The Hairsplitter, pitched our lists together and came up with this. Most of the contributor lists, in some form or another, can be found over on The Hairsplitter (though, if you try to crunch the numbers, keep in mind that a few lists changed, and a few new ones came in after The Hairsplitter's deadline). Anyway, I hope you enjoy our list, and maybe next year we'll be building this using your favorite albums. Unless otherwise noted, I wrote the blurbs. There were a few assists, and they are credited appropriately.
Here's looking forward to a great 2016!
20 | All Are Saved | Fred Thomas
With All Are Saved, Fred Thomas has issued his best collection of songs, hands down. For an artist with a discography full of pop gems, shoegaze folk, and hardcore punk, that’s no small feat. So what makes All Are Saved more compelling than, let’s say, All Your Summer Songs, or Sink Like a Symphony, or my old personal favorite, the first self-titled Saturday Looks Good to Me album? Maybe it’s the sense that All Are Saved is a culmination of sorts—the albums brings together all the best bits of Thomas’s career to make a grand statement. Or maybe it’s something else—maybe there’s something particularly vital and raw about an artist who has never quite broken through to the indie mainstream taking a look at where he’s at, where he’s been, and where he’s heading, and pouring all of his guts into the resulting songs.
19 | Surf | Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment
Who knows when we’ll get a proper follow up to Chance the Rapper’s exquisite Acid Rap, but honestly, if he keeps putting his muscle behind albums like Surf, does it really matter? Surf dropped when I was in Los Angeles visiting my girlfriend before she moved to the Midwest. For two days after the album’s free release, we drove around Los Angeles listening to the album on a loop. From the opening Beach Boys vibe of “Miracle” to the quiet, Miles-fusion-inspired trumpet interlude of “Nothing Came to Me” to the psychedelic arrangement of “Familiar,” I can’t imagine a better warm-weather album to share with that special someone. These songs are easy, and warm, and brimming with all the energy we’ve come to expect from Chance and his associates. And then there’s “Sunday Candy,” one of the sweetest and most ecstatic love songs to come around in ages.
18 | Beauty Pill Describes Things as They Are | Beauty Pill
I don’t often listen to pop music, but a new record from Beauty Pill is always going to be of interest to me. The second track, “Afrikaner Barista” is easily the song I heard the most this year, as the CD lived in my car and it was a favorite of both my kids. If it had been any less than excellent I would have begun refusing the requests. As it is, it is nigh on seven minutes of exquisite art pop and I was stoked as hell that my children had the good sense and taste to latch onto it.—Jeff Boyle
17 | Art Angels | Grimes
I’ll be honest—Art Angels is not what I expected from Grimes, but then, what does anyone ever expect from Grimes? I love this album for many of the same reasons I loved Grimes’s last album—it plays with pop tropes while turning the genre inside out. But the thing about Art Angels is that, while Visions kept its pop impulses at arm’s length, deconstructing the form until we were left with echoes and snippets, here, Grimes embraces pop signifiers while balancing them with enough left-field weird shit that the end result is as wild and art damaged as any of us possibly could have hoped for. I only needed to experience the jolt in the transition from the grungy, colorful anime-punk-pop of “Scream” into the shimmering pure-pop heartbreak of “Flesh Without Blood” to begin to truly appreciate Grimes’s updated approach.
16 | Natalie Prass | Natalie Prass
After almost a year with Natalie Prass’s self-titled album, I’m still not sure what to make of it. Prass’s songs feel like vintage pop, like a smokeless answer to Dusty Springfield, but there’s something else going on here that roots these arrangements firmly in the present. Maybe it’s because Prass’s voice seems more like Feist’s than the soulful pop stars’ of yore, or maybe it’s just because these arrangements, while busy, somehow still feel sparse, like we can hear every instrument’s voice in the mix. Whatever it is, the end result is gorgeous and spacious, is full of complex emotions lurking just beneath its beautifully polished veneer. “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” reads like a heartbreaker, but there’s an odd distance between Prass’s performance and the lyrics about a doomed relationship, and in that distance, something odd happens—the song becomes almost wistful, almost cautiously optimistic that maybe, just maybe the love in question won’t be a “long goodbye,” but something lasting and true. Or, at the very least, perhaps, the song’s speaker is simply embracing and appreciating the romance in the harsh, naked truths that most folks try to ignore.
15 | Summertime 06 | Vince Staples
By the time Vince Staples arrives at “Summertime,” around halfway through Summertime 06, we shouldn’t be surprised at the song’s weariness—over-warped tones, Staples’s speaker is begging for connection—in one breath, he implores his lover to “open up your heart, if we don’t love we fall apart,” while in the next verse, he tells us “my feelings told me love is real/but feelings known to get you killed.” This is a perfect example of the album’s central tensions, a constantly searching push and pull between the realities of street violence and the desire for more humane, compassionate connections. That it’s all presented over a diverse range of beats that run the gamut from weird and grim, to downright fun.
14 | Currents | Tame Impala
Anyone coming to Currents expecting the fuzzed-out psych-pop that defined Tame Impala’s previous work was probably surprised when they pushed play and heard “Let it Happen” kick off the album with synths and programmed drums. On Currents, Kevin Parker’s lyrics have found a perfect marriage with icy arrangements. These are anxious and bleak songs. When Parker sings “Oh my love, can’t you see yourself by my side,” over the disco-funk of “The Less I Know the Better,” it plays less sweet than emotionally wrought and desperate. Likewise, over the gentle, electric bounce of “The Moment,” Parker sings, “In the end, it’s stronger than I know how to be,” before announcing that he wants to exist in a moment that is “getting closer.” Here’s the thing—that moment is probably never going to arrive; Parker knows it, we know it, and alien synths floating over and chirping under the song know it, too. This is an album about feeling out of touch and alone, about alienation and the ways we try to beat it. Stark as Currents may be, its new-wave-psychedela and desperately searching lyrics makes for a deeply affecting and endlessly fascinating album, even if it doesn’t sound like your older brother’s Tame Impala.
13 | Depression Cherry/Thank Your Lucky Stars | Beach House
Maybe we’re cheating by listing Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars together, but I don’t think so. Even though Depression Cherry was the big Beach House album this year, the one with the marketing and the buildup, Thank Your Lucky Stars feels just as essential. I get the band’s impulse to separate the two albums—the first is rich, lush, and dreamy, a natural extension of Beach House’s current trajectory, whereas the second album feels more stripped down and direct, its songs more present, less buried beneath light years of dreams and sighs. The reason these albums work together, though, is that Thank Your Lucky Stars feels like an answer to a question that Depression Cherry never got around to asking. It feels like waking up after a warm dream and feeling everything a little harder, a little brighter. That said, even though the soft, hazy edges of “Levitation” are wispier than just about anything on Thank Your Lucky Stars, the spare drum machine and synths of Depression Cherry’s “10:37” aren’t that different from its successor’s “Rough Song,” providing a sense of continuity that lets these albums feel like pieces of a whole—but then all of Beach House’s discography feels that way, so we shouldn’t be too surprised.
12 | Simple Songs | Jim O'Rourke
Despite its title, the songs on Jim O’Rourke’s latest album are anything but simple. Maybe the title was intended as a disclaimer for folks who came to O’Rourke through his involvement with Sonic Youth or Wilco or Stereolab, or maybe it’s just a nod to the traditional arrangements couching these songs. It’s those arrangements that make Simple Songs such a thrilling album—O’Rourke’s songs, here, feel both fresh and familiar, to the point that they feel weirdly foreign to a contemporary context, as if they exist in an uncanny valley of 70s singer-songwriter fare. It’s not hard to almost imagine “Friends With Benefits” wafting through a hazy, pot-smoke-filled living room, or “Half Life Crisis” unfurling over a crowd of stoned revelers gathered in an auditorium for a show—but then, O’Rourke’s compositions feel a bit too ambitious for those settings, while, simultaneously, remaining a bit too grounded for the prog-rock set. Regardless, Simple Songs is a timeless and impressive set of songs.
11 | In Colour | Jamie XX
After a Gil Scott-Heron remix album and a handful of stunning solo tracks trickled out in the years after The XX landed with their exquisite self-titled album, most listeners probably weren’t surprised upon listening to In Colour, to realize that Jamie XX’s solo work hinges curation. And In Colour is a meticulously curated collection of songs. From the so-perfect-it’s-an-all-timer sample from The Persuasions’ “Good Times” and guest performances from Young Thug and Popcaan on “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times),” to the layers of keyboards winding their ways around “Hold Tight,” In Colour plays like a masterclass in contemporary production and curation. Every decision here feels exacting, excruciating, but the end result feels anything but—this is a slick and rich selection of vibrant sounds that come together almost like magic.
10 | The Epic | Kamasi Washington
From the opening salvo of The Epic’s “Change of the Guards,” it’s pretty obvious that Kamasi Washington and his band have set out to make a daring and ambitious jazz opus. The results blend fusion, astral jazz, and, to lesser extents, soul and funk, in a dizzying combination that feels like a trip to the outer regions of our galaxy. The whole crew sounds stellar here but as should be the case, Washington’s searing saxophone work is the real star, even up against a soulful cut like “The Rhythem Changes,” complete with a gorgeous vocal turn from Patrice Quinn. For the last half decade, I’ve grown increasingly excited by the nexus of jazz and funk-inspired music coming from the likes of Thundercat and Flying Lotus, so it’s no surprise that one of the collaborators would step out and make something so exciting, so audacious, and so enjoyable that the only thing it could be called is The Epic.
09 | Divers | Joanna Newsom
Part of me wanted to rank this album higher on my own list, because, let’s face it, it’s a flatout masterpiece. Let’s also face it: this album should probably be higher on this list. I suspect the only reason it’s not is because it’s Joanna Newsom, and we expect this level of craft from her. We know she’s doing something extraordinary in her writing, performance, and arrangement, but we’re so used to it that it doesn’t really phase us. And that’s a shame, because Divers provides plenty that should phase us. The elegant evolution and playful arrangement of “Anecdotes,” (those clarinets! those subtle synths!), the twinkling bounce of “Sapokanikan,” the delicate piano-balladry of “The Things I Say,” the sparse, stormy opening of “Time, As a Symptom,” then that song’s back half fierce and propulsive headlong dive into big baroque pop—all of it is fun, and gorgeous, and surprising. That all of these wonderful moments are complimented by Newsom’s increasingly assured voice, and customarily specific and just-odd-enough-to-always-feel fresh lyrics only sweeten the pot. Newsom has been one of our most daring and exciting artists for just about a decade now and Divers easily stands among her finest work.
08 | I Love You, Honeybear | Father John Misty
Father John Misty spent 2015 calling us out on our bullshit, and we loved every minute of it. Between his trolling Ryan Adams, posing seductively on the Late Show piano, or selling $70 bottles of perfume, its easy to forget that I Love You Honeybear is a seriously good album. Of his many personas, the Father John Misty heard on these 11 tracks is the most earnest. Sarcastic lyrics aside, an authenticity emerges in the melodies, not in the words that dress them. At first listen, you chuckle at one-liners like “Save me, White Jesus!” But when the jokes grow old, you still want to hear those songs. Calling them satire is oversimplifying. As he sings in “Chateau Lobby #4,” "People are boring, but you’re something else, I can’t explain."
We feel the same way about you, Father John. —Susannah Clark
07 | New Bermuda | Deafheaven
The songs on Deafheaven’s New Bermuda are big. Mixing the sweeping bigness of post-rock with the explosive loudness of metal, by design, Deafheaven are constantly in danger of boiling over into an unpleasant too-much-ness. Here’s the thing: that never happens. Somehow, between the big ideas and bigger noise, Deafheaven work with a sublime restraint that keeps the songs exciting. Just when “Luna” goes so heavy for so long it might melt your speakers, it spins off into an elegant, spacey vamp that, of course, builds back up to loud, loud, loud. New Bermuda is easily one of the most exciting and dynamic albums to land in 2015.
06 | No Cities to Love | Sleater-Kinney
I, like many folks I know, were filled with trepidation at the prospect of a new Sleater-Kinney album. After being burned by countless film reboots, and disappointed by the majority of one-of-your-favorite-bands-is-reuniting-and-putting-out-a-new-album” scenarios (thanks, Dismemberment Plan), I wasn’t sure I was ready to be disappointed, yet again. Luckily, that didn’t happen, and Sleater-Kinney showed up with as much ferocity and urgency as ever. No Cities to Love feels a little older, and a little wiser than what came before, but that’s to be expected. What really counts is that Carrie Brownstein and Corrin Tucker can still wail—with voices and guitars—and Janet Weiss’s drumming is still massive. The album’s title track is as fun and hooky as anything the band has previously recorded, and “Bury Our Friends” as raucous and noisy. I’ve read arguments that Sleater-Kinney has quietly earned the title of “Best American Rock Band” of the last twenty years and, while the competition for such a title isn’t as fierce as it once might have been, I struggle to think a band that has rocked as consistently, as hard, or as exuberantly as Sleater-Kinney. No Cities to Love is yet another supporting detail to the thesis of Sleater-Kinney’s excellence.
05 | Garden of Delete | Oneohtrix Point Never
On this, his fourth proper album since breaking through to a wider audience (which, was, of course, after several other smaller releases), Daniel Lopatin has upended his earlier drones and more recent Robot Symphonies to God to make harsher, more aggressive music, electronic music that elegantly blurs the already uneven lines between ugly and beautiful. Alternately haunting, raucous, terrifying, and downright trippy, G.O.D. marks a bold, fresh approach addition Lopatin’s consistently excellent body of work.
04 | Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit | Courtney Barnett
When the Grammy Awards announced the nominees for their 58th ceremony a few weeks ago, the indie mob dropped their Pitchfork and spit out their Stereogum. Courtney Barnett, folk-grunge darling, is up for Best New Artist. Are the Grammy’s going to finally get something right? Will this Australian wise woman join the ranks of the Beatles, Milli Vanilli, and Evanescence? Barnett will likely lose to bass-advocate Meghan Trainor. But the nomination will certainly put Sometimes I Sit and I Think, Sometimes I Just Sit onto the Spotify queues of millions. The mainstream threatens. Diehards might doubt that the masses will appreciate the nuance in Barnett’s lyrics, that 14-year old girls will bob their heads to the guitar riffs in the same way they would “Bring Me to Life.” Yet something tells me her fans are fretting about the bandwagon more than Barnett herself. The album’s title is also an instruction guide for listening to it. “ —Susannah Clark
03 | Emotion | Carly Rae Jepsen
Editors’ Note: As a Christmas gift to Carly, we at the Collapsar have eliminated all references to “Call Me Maybe” (and one-hit wonder syndrome) from the following review. A new year, indeed.
In their Definitive Guide to Hipster Genres, Vice narrates the origin story of “Acceptable Pop”:
“…music nerds made a secret pact that, every few months, they'd claim some random, mercenarily constructed teen-pop album was actually high art, and we've been cursed with an avalanche of half-assed thinkpieces ever since.”
With a 150-word limit, I’m gonna have to quarter-ass this one:
Good music is not defined by its catchiness. But earthworms poop nutrients into soil, and maybe earworms do the same to our brains. Carly Rae Jepson’s third album is the extra shot of unadulterated joy we needed in 2015. If Taylor Swift’s 1989 was acceptable to hipsters, Emotion is integral. What profound truth about society can we extract from Carly Rae Jepson’s mainstream and indie success? We like to dance, we like to sing along. And even the most pretentious among us are starting to admit it. —Susannah Clark
02 | Carrie & Lowell | Sufjan Stevns
Every once in a while, an album comes around that is so powerful that, even though I adore it, I can hardly listen to it. Sometimes the album arrives this way, others, as is the case with my favorite all-time album, Automatic for the People, the album simply accrues so much meaning over time that I hate the thought of tarnishing the idea of the album by actually listening to it, as if the album has become sacred. Though Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie & Lowell has only been around for about a year, it somehow fits into both categories—this is a heavy album about death, and is shot through with so much sadness that it can be emotionally difficult to listen to. The last time I listened to Carrie & Lowell from start to finish was the night I found out one of my closest, oldest friends died unexpectedly—it was the right album to listen to then, and its sadness washed over me, comforted me. But for all that sadness, the songs here are also overflowing with beauty and a generous empathy. With aching lines like “I’m just a ghost you walk right through,” on “All of Me Wants All of You,” and “Did you get enough love my little dove/why do you cry” from “Fourth of July,” Stevens is at the top of his game, crafting an album for the ages about love and lost. Even a so-obvious-it-should-be-dull line like “We’re all gonna die,” also from “Fourth of July,” feels masterful thanks to the directness of its presentation. Carrie & Lowell is unflinching, difficult, and infinitely rewarding. Maybe the reason I can’t bring myself to listen to it is because it’s so hard, or maybe it just seems like the kind of album I don’t want to besmirch by listening to it too much. an album that was born feeling sacred—maybe I’m just saving this one for when I really need it.
01 | To Pimp a Butterfly | Kendrick Lamar
Surprise. Not really. I can’t help but feel like publishing yet another year end list with To Pimp A Butterfly at the top is a little bit boring, and completely uninspired. But then, I suppose good year end lists—at least the ones I like, not the obvious “argument/conversation starters”—are an attempt to shape and build the pop music canon in real time. So all it really means when an album tops lists so universally is that it’s a shoe-in, a sure bet, a lock. There’s no two ways about it: To Pimp A Butterfly is a stone-cold classic, a masterpiece that celebrates hip-hop's most vital impulses, while pushing against the genre’s limitations to create a wild and surprising album that fuses hip-hop and funk, while unabashedly exploring ideas of race and culture. It’s the kind of album that, no matter how much I love, appreciate, and am in awe of it, I don’t feel right analyzing or writing about its themes in any substantial way because, to be frank, my life of privilege hardly provides me with the insight to truly get what Lamar is laying down here.
While writing a collaborative review of another, far less significant album, I noted that I struggled to inhabit that album, that I felt like a tourist when I listened to it before writing the review. That sentiment is even truer for To Pimp a Butterfly. In yet another historical moment when racial tensions are fore-grounded and you’re tired of explaining to people that “Black Lives Matter” doesn’t mean that other lives don’t, but that “Black Lives Matter, Too,” all I can do is appreciate, learn from, enjoy, and marvel at To Pimp a Butterfly. This is a special, incredible album in a year full of excellent albums. And, while Lamar’s work here feels particularly crucial and vital in this historical moment, I look forward to slipping To Pimp a Butterfly on the turntable for years to come.