Sunday, March 27, 2016

The List of Lists 2015

For the uninitiated: this is the annual post in which I dump part of my reserve of meaningless ranked lists and usually create a few new ones for the occasion. It normally is posted at the end of December but I put it off in order to stay on top of current work. These are meant to be fun and subjective and frivolous, and some are obviously more thoughtful than others, some are not particularly broad-minded, but hey, they might be a kick to peruse. In that spirit, onward.

***

THE BEST LIVE ALBUMS
Live albums are one of this blog's blind spots, in that I tend to only even listen to them if they're the product of an artist I love passionately. Live music has come to mean a great deal to me but part of the crux of that experience is that it can't really be duplicated on record. Still, there are some that stand up to repeated exposure along with a given artist's studio recording; in a few cases below, they actually are a superior taste of someone's prowess to any of their proper albums. Another caveat is that some of the best live recordings ever made were never officially issued. Exhibits A, B and C would be the Clash, Stevie Wonder and Yo La Tengo. There are literally dozens of astounding Clash bootlegs, all undeniably better than the hodgepodge live releases CBS has mustered. To a lesser extent the same basic tenet holds for Wonder. YLT is anti-live album but with a band for whom each and every concert is such a unique entity, download any show and you're likely to hear something magical. I've considered doing a bootlegs list but I tend to think it would be even more unbalanced than usual for me, since I'm only likely to hear boots by a handful of acts. Bootlegs will, however, be addressed within one of the new features of this blog I'll be introducing in the next few months, so watch for that. There's also the question of someone like Television, whose astonishing performance The Blow-Up is officially available but in abysmal quality -- that holds for most Velvet Underground live tapes too. At any rate, these officially released live records are all certifiably extraordinary.

(Restricting this to one per artist; otherwise repeats from James Brown and Talking Heads would easily place.) I've formatted this with the recording date followed by initial release and then the date of any subsequent, superior edition.

1. James Brown: Live at the Apollo (King 1962/1963)
2. Jerry Lee Lewis: Live at the Star Club, Hamburg (Philips 1964)
3. Sam Cooke: Live at the Harlem Square Club (RCA 1963/1985)
4. Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense (Special New Edition) (Sire 1983/1984/1999)
5. The Velvet Underground: 1969 Live with Lou Reed (Mercury 1969/1974)
6. Lou Reed: Rock 'n' Roll Animal (RCA 1973/1974)
7. Johnny Cash: At Folsom Prison (Columbia 1968)
8. Van Morrison: It's Too Late to Stop Now (Warner Bros. 1973/1974)
9. John Cale: Sabotage/Live (I.R.S. 1979)
10. The Beach Boys: In Concert (Reprise 1973/1974)

***

1950s ALBUMS
Here's a list with two necessary disclaimers. First is that while the '50s remain steadfastedly my favorite decade of rock & roll, I'm less familiar with LPs from the period than those of any subsequent era. As a result I've chosen not to properly "rank" this list. Instead it's a catch-all collection, ranked in order of preference, of everything I've discovered so far. Assuming there's lots more -- in jazz especially -- to hear, this is an evolving and naive list, like all of these but even more so. Yes, Birth of the Cool is technically a compilation; for lots of reasons as explained in my review, I've chosen to consider it a studio album for my purposes here. We will begin a hopefully illuminating trek through the great rock & roll singles in next year's List of Lists, starting with 1956. (Note: The jazz albums below are listed by recording rather than release date.)

Miles Davis: Kind of Blue (Columbia '59) A+
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (Capitol '50) A+
Cannonball Adderley: Somethin' Else (Blue Note '58) A+
Dave Brubeck: Time Out (Columbia '59) A+
Miles Davis: Walkin' (Prestige '54) A+
Howlin' Wolf: Moanin' in the Moonlight (Chess '59) A+
John Coltrane: Blue Train (Blue Note '57) A+
Here's Little Richard (Specialty '57) A
Art Blakey: Moanin' (Blue Note '58) A
Miles Davis: Relaxin' (Prestige '56) A
Elvis Presley (RCA '56) A
Buddy Holly: The "Chirping" Crickets (Brunswick '57) A
John Coltrane: Lush Life (Prestige '58) A
Sarah Vaughan: After Hours (Columbia '55) A
Buddy Holly (Brunswick '58) A
John Coltrane: Dakar (Prestige '57) A-
The Everly Brothers: Songs Our Daddy Taught Us (Cadence '58) A-
Frank Sinatra: Songs for Swingin' Lovers! (Capitol '56) A-
Johnny Cash: With His Hot and Blue Guitar (Sun '57) A-
The Everly Brothers (Cadence '58) A-
Chuck Berry Is on Top (Chess '59) A-
Johnny Cash: The Songs That Made Him Famous (Sun '58) A-
Chuck Berry: After School Session (Chess '57) A-
Chuck Berry: One Dozen Berrys (Chess '58) A-

***

1965 ALBUMS
This and all but one of the lists below come originally from my last sweeping revision of my personal database in 2009 (with the addition of any wholly new discoveries made for this blog. In this case I have no serious errata; Highway 61 Revisited, far and away my favorite Dylan album, I would maybe move up to #3. Help! and The Kink Kontroversy should possibly be switched. I almost never play side two of Help! from start to finish and, upon buying a vinyl reissue of Kontroversy not long ago, was stunned by how strong it consistently is.

1. The Beatles: Rubber Soul (Parlophone) A+
2. Otis Redding: Otis Blue (Volt) A+
3. John Coltrane: Om (Impulse!) A+
4. Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia) A+
5. John Coltrane: Ascension (Impulse! 1966) A+
6. The Beach Boys: Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) (Capitol) A+
7. Bob Dylan: Bringing It All Back Home (Columbia) A
8. Vince Guaraldi: A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy) A
9. Herbie Hancock: Maiden Voyage (Blue Note 1966) A
10. The Rolling Stones: Out of Our Heads (London) A
11. John Coltrane: Sun Ship (Impulse! 1970) A-
12. The Beatles: Help! (Parlophone) A-
13. John Coltrane: Meditations (Impulse! 1966) A-
14. Herb Alpert: Whipped Cream and Other Delights (A&M) A-
15. The Beach Boys: Today! (Capitol) A-
Them (Parrot) A-
The Kinks: The Kink Kontroversy (Pye) A-

***

1975 ALBUMS
Errata: The top three are almost impossible to distinguish, quality-wise; Zuma would be too if not for "Stupid Girl". Pour Down Like Silver should probably be several spaces higher. I wish people didn't so consistently ignore that John Lennon record, which is surprisingly emotional and striking. I'm vastly less enamored of Loudon Wainwright than I used to be, but it's been a while since I did a checkup.

1. Patti Smith: Horses (Arista) A+
2. Neil Young: Tonight's the Night (Reprise) A+
3. Brian Eno: Another Green World (Island) A+
4. Neil Young: Zuma (Reprise) A+
5. Funkadelic: Let's Take It to the Stage (Westbound) A+
6. Modern Lovers (Home of the Hits) A
7. Lou Reed: Coney Island Baby (RCA) A
8. Burning Spear: Marcus Garvey (Island) A
9. Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks (Columbia) A
10. Richard & Linda Thompson: Pour Down Like Silver (Island) A
11. Ohio Players: Honey (Mercury) A
12. Fleetwood Mac (Warner Bros.) A
13. Bob Dylan & the Band: The Basement Tapes (Columbia) A
14. John Cale: Slow Dazzle (Island) A
15. Parliament: Chocolate City (Casablanca) A
16. Brian Eno: Discreet Music (EG) A
17. The Meters: Fire on the Bayou (Reprise) A-
18. The Mahotella Queens: Marriage Is a Problem (Shanachie) A-
19. Richard & Linda Thompson: Hokey Pokey (Island) A-
20. The Spinners: Pick of the Litter (Atlantic) A-
21. David Bowie: Young Americans (RCA) A-
22. Loudon Wainwright III: Unrequited (Columbia) A-
23. John Lennon: Rock 'n Roll (Apple) A-
24. The Staple Singers: Let's Do It Again (Curtom) A-
25. John Cale: Helen of Troy (Island) A-

***

1985 ALBUMS
Errata: I might prefer Little Creatures to both Fables and Psychocandy now. Actually, even Tim is eclipsed for me by the albums before and after it in the Replacements' discography. These are all excellent albums but this is, from my retroactive understanding, one of the weakest years for LPs. Hearing Fables again while working on posting this I realized that it might constitute the biggest side one-to-side two quality collapse in the annals of the rock album. Not that side two is bad -- I eventually even came around on "Auctioneer", and the Appalachian folksiness of "Green Grow the Rushes" is a pleasing forecast of "Losing My Religion" -- but there's nothing that even competes with their best stuff, whereas the first half is completely flawless as the left side of Reckoning or the whole of Chronic Town. The one time I saw R.E.M. live, they threw "Life and How to Live It" in the middle of the set and it might have prompted the most conspicuous public freakout of my life.

1. The Replacements: Tim (Sire) A
2. The Jesus & Mary Chain: Psychocandy (Reprise) A
3. R.E.M.: Fables of the Reconstruction (I.R.S.) A
4. Talking Heads: Little Creatures (Sire) A
5. Run-DMC: King of Rock (Profile) A-
6. Tears for Fears: Songs from the Big Chair (Mercury) A-
7. Mantronix: The Album (Sleeping Bag) A-
8. Fine Young Cannibals (I.R.S.) A-
9. INXS: Listen Like Thieves (Atlantic) A-
10. Suzanne Vega (A&M) A-

***

1985 SONGS
Brand new list. On the other hand, 1985 was full of stone classic singles; in some ways it was the perfect moment of pop radio at one of its most blissful heights, the tail end of the old school rap golden age with Mellie Mel's funky, imaginative minimalism dominating almost innumerable classic twelve-inches. In dancehall, the Sleng Teng riddim set off an absurd firestorm of between 200 and 300 singles; only three are represented here but cultists who can't afford old Jamaican 45s will have a field day on Youtube. DJing several oldschool and reggae theme sets in my younger days and too many hours watching MTV in adolescence gave me a leg up on this year in all quarters except indie / "underground" rock; an extensive exploration led me to believe I wasn't missing a whole lot. As so often, the more time you spend with the lion's share of alternative bands the more you realize how formulaic and reactionary a lot of that music really is. Still, there are some jewels here, just overshadowed by some of the hardest beats in hip hop ever. And with the entrances of LL Cool J -- all of his best stuff is from this year -- and Slick Rick, and Schoolly D with the indelible beginning of rap's forthcoming darker turn, it's a watershed year.

The rule here where applicable remains one song per album excluding singles and b-sides which are unrestricted, which is not the ideal rule but it's the best one I can think of. I like "Feeling Gravitys Pull" and "Maps and Legends" (and, hell, "Old Man Kensey") more than "Cant Get there from Here" or "Driver 8", but it would seem bizarre to me to have seven or eight R.E.M. songs on this list and equally bizarre for the two classic singles not to be on it. (Did you know "Wendell Gee" was also a single? It didn't make it.) Someday I'll do decade lists and they'll be a free-for-all. Oh, and Madonna's big hits of this year -- "Material Girl" and "Into the Groove", two absolutely perfect singles -- are technically from 1984, hence their absence.

1. New Order "Love Vigilantes" [Low-Life]
2. Mantronix "Needle to the Groove" [Mantronix: The Album]
3. Kate Bush "Cloudbusting" [Hounds of Love]
4. Roxanne Shanté "Bite This" [non-LP single]
5. Doctor Rocx & Co. "Girl Friends / Boy Friends" [non-LP single]
6. Pet Shop Boys "West End Girls" [Please (1986 LP)]
7. Depeche Mode "Shake the Disease" [Catching Up with Depeche Mode]
8. Prince "Raspberry Beret" [Around the World in a Day]
9. Tears for Fears "Head Over Heels" [Songs from the Big Chair]
10. Double Dee & Steinski "Lesson 1 - The Payoff Mix" [non-LP single]
11. Kate Bush "Running Up That Hill" [Hounds of Love]
12. Talking Heads "And She Was" [Little Creatures]
13. R.E.M. "Life and How to Live It" [Fables of the Reconstruction]
14. Sheila E. "A Love Bizarre" [Romance 1600]
15. Shebba "We Should Get Together" [non-LP single]
16. Simply Red "Holding Back the Years" [Picture Book]
17. Toddy Tee "The Baterram" [non-LP single]
18. John Wayne "Call the Police" [non-LP single]
19. Stevie Wonder "Part Time Lover" [In Square Circle]
20. The Replacements "Kiss Me on the Bus" [Tim]
21. The Jesus & Mary Chain "Just Like Honey" [Psychocandy]
22. Sparky D vs. the Playgirls "The Battle" [non-LP single]
23. LL Cool J "I Can't Live Without My Radio" [Radio]
24. R.E.M. "Ages of You" [b-side]
25. Run-DMC "Together Forever (Krush Groove 4)" [b-side]
26. Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew "The Show" [Oh, My God! (1986 LP)]
27. Double Dee & Steinski "Lesson 3" [non-LP single]
28. Bernice Frazier "Will You Be the One" [non-LP single]
29. Mantronix "Hardcore Hip Hop" [Mantronix: The Album]
30. Talking Heads "Road to Nowhere" [Little Creatures]
31. Schoolly D. "P.S.K. What Does It Mean?" [s/t]
32. LL Cool J "Rock the Bells" [Radio]
33. Til Tuesday "Voices Carry" [Voices Carry]
34. OMD "So in Love" [Crush]
35. Talking Heads "Perfect World" [Little Creatures]
36. Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam with Full Force "I Wonder If I Take You Home" [s/t]
37. Kurtis Blow "If I Ruled the World" [America]
38. Pet Shop Boys "In the Night" [b-side]
39. Grandmaster Mellie Mel & the Furious Five "Pump Me Up" [Stepping Off]
40. Run-DMC "King of Rock" [King of Rock]
41. LL Cool J "You'll Rock" [Radio]
42. The Replacements "Bastards of Young" [Tim]
43. Beat Happening "Bad Seeds" [s/t]
44. Fine Young Cannibals "Blue" [s/t]
45. Marley Marl feat. MC Shan "Marley Marl Scratch" [non-LP single]
46. The Cars "Tonight She Comes" [Greatest Hits]
47. a-ha "Take on Me" [Hunting High and Low]
48. Run-DMC "You're Blind" [King of Rock]
49. Tim Greene "The Facts of Life" [non-LP single]
50. INXS "Same Direction" [Listen Like Thieves]
51. The Replacements "Here Comes a Regular" [Tim]
52. Too Short "Players" [Players EP]
53. The Chesterfield Kings "She Told Me Lies" [Stop!]
54. Tenor Saw "Ring the Alarm" [non-LP single]
55. UTFO "Bite It" [s/t]
56. INXS "What You Need" [Listen Like Thieves]
57. Curtis Hairston "I Want Your Lovin' (Just a Little Bit)" [non-LP single]
58. Colourbox "The Moon Is Blue" [s/t]
59. Aretha Franklin "Freeway of Love" [Who's Zoomin' Who?]
60. Sparky D "Sparky's Turn (Roxanne You're Through)" [non-LP single]
61. Beastie Boys "Rock Hard" [non-LP single]
62. Oingo Boingo "Weird Science" [Dead Man's Party]
63. R.E.M. "Cant Get There from Here" [Fables of the Reconstruction]
64. Craig G "Shout" [non-LP single]
65. Tears for Fears "Shout" [Songs from the Big Chair]
66. Simple Minds "Don't You (Forget About Me)" [The Breakfast Club OST]
67. The Commodores "Nightshift" [Nightshift]
68. Everything But the Girl "When All's Well" [Love Not Money]
69. Fine Young Cannibals "Johnny Come Home" [s/t]
70. Mantronix "Bassline" [Mantronix: The Album]
71. Steady B "Just Call Us Def" [non-LP single]
72. Yello "Vicious Games" [Stella]
73. Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew "La-Di-Da-Di" [b-side]
74. The Bats "Claudine" [And Here Is Music for the Fireside EP]
75. Wayne Smith "Under Mi Sleng Teng" [non-LP single]
76. Word of Mouth "King Kut" [King Kut EP]
77. UTFO "Leader of the Pack" [s/t]
78. Ready for the World "Oh Sheila" [s/t]
79. Lone Justice "Ways to Be Wicked" [s/t]
80. NYC Cutter "DJ Cuttin" [non-LP single]
81. Klymaxx "Meeting in the Ladies Room" [Meeting in the Ladies Room]
82. R.E.M. "Driver 8" [Fables of the Reconstruction]
83. Death City Boyz "Bopsey Twins" [non-LP single]
84. Lloyd Cole & the Commotions "Lost Weekend" [Easy Pieces]
85. Double Dee & Steinski "Lesson 2 - James Brown Mix" [non-LP single]
86. Fela Kuti "Army Arrangement" [Army Arrangement]
87. Kate Bush "Hounds of Love" [Hounds of Love]
88. Half Man Half Biscuit "Fuckin 'Ell It's Fred Titmus" [Back in the DHSS]
89. The Beach Boys "It's Gettin' Late" [s/t]
90. The Cure "In Between Days" [The Head on the Door]
91. The Boothill Foot Tappers "Have You Got the Confidence for the Trick?" [Ain't That Far from Boothill]
92. Roky Erickson "Don't Slander Me" [Don't Slander Me]
93. Leonard Cohen "If It Be Your Will" [Various Positions]
94. Yossou N'Dour "The Rubberband Man" [Nelson Mandela (1986 LP)]
95. Johnny Osbourne "Buddy Bye" [non-LP single]
96. Run-DMC "Can You Rock It Like This" [King of Rock]
97. The Organization "The Big Beat" [non-LP single]
98. Pet Shop Boys "A Man Could Get Arrested" [b-side]
99. The World Class Wreckin' Cru "Surgery" [World Class]
100. Killing Joke "Love Like Blood" [Night Time]
Eurythmics "Would I Lie to You?" [Be Yourself Tonight]
Beastie Boys "She's on It" [non-LP single]
Newcleus "Space Is the Place" [Space Is the Place]
west Coast Crew "D.O.A." [In the Mix]
Boogie Boys "A Fly Girl" [City Life]
New Order "The Perfect Kiss" [Low-Life]
Suzanne Vega "Small Blue Thing" [s/t]
The Bangles "I Got Nothing" [The Goonies OST]
Madness "Yesterday's Men" [Mad Not Mad]
Whitney Houstin "How Will I Know?" [s/t]
Tears for Fears "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" [Songs from the Big Chair]
Howard Jones "No One Is to Blame" [Dream into Action]
Mantronix "Fresh Is the Word" [Mantronix: The Album]
The Cult "She Sells Sanctuary" [Love]
The B-Boys "Girls" [non-LP single]
Husker Du "Makes No Sense at All" [Flip Your Wig]
The Jesus & Mary Chain "Some Candy Talking" [b-side]
Prince "Pop Life" [Around the World in a Day]
The World Class Wreckin' Cru "Juice" [World Class]
Yello "Oh Yeah" [Stella]
Hoodoo Gurus "Bittersweet" [Mars Needs Guitars!]
Howard Jones "Things Can Only Get Better" [Dream into Action]
The Smiths "How Soon Is Now?" [Meat Is Murder]
R.E.M. "Burning Down" [b-side]
INXS "Listen Like Thieves" [Listen Like Thieves]
Depeche Mode "It's Called a Heart" [The Singles 81>85]
The Del Fuegos "Don't Run Wild" [Boston, Mass.]

***

1995 ALBUMS
Errata: A fan of both since grade school, I'm no longer able to stomach Ben Folds Five and although I stand by Red Hot Chili Peppers as an underrated and fun band, I rarely listen to them anymore. Proud to say I bought The Bends just a couple of months after its release, mostly because of a savvy preteen hipster I was friends with -- a preacher's son, ironically -- who prompted by god knows what external source sought to be a cutting-edge alternative rock expert. (He was learning to play guitar until he eventually shifted to an obsessive budding comedian who taped Conan every night to "study" it; last I heard he had become a Christian rock musician.) The only other record here I actually owned in 1995 was Oasis; still good but worn the hell out by now, unlike Definitely Maybe. I got Exit Planet Dust in '97, Passengers as soon as I learned what it was so probably 1996 (and it's still pretty awesome I think), Matthew Sweet around '98 or '99 when I had a huge flurry of interest in him. He's also up for a reevaluation, as I haven't put on much of his stuff in nearly a decade. The others came up later in high school save the two Stephin Merritt creations, but this alternative-exclusive list is a pretty succinct portrait of what I loved as a teenager. There's good stuff here, if not much variance.

1. Yo La Tengo: Electr-O-Pura (Matador) A+
2. The Chemical Brothers: Exit Planet Dust (astralwerks) A+
3. Radiohead: The Bends (Capitol) A
4. The Cardigans: Life (Minty Fresh) A
5. The Magnetic Fields: Get Lost (Merge) A
6. Luna: Penthouse (Elektra) A
7. Ben Folds Five (Caroline) A-
8. Björk: Post (Elektra) A-
9. The 6ths: Wasps' Nests (London) A-
10. Oasis: (What's the Story) Morning Glory (Epic) A-
Passengers: Original Soundtracks 1 (Island) A-
Matthew Sweet: 100% Fun (Zoo) A-
The Flaming Lips: Clouds Taste Metallic (Warner Bros.) A-
Red Hot Chili Peppers: One Hot Minute (Warner Bros.) A-

***

2005 ALBUMS
Errata: This is a weird one, reflective much more of my taste in 2009 than in 2005 or now. The top four seem fairly infallible. The Sunset Tree and Eggs should be higher. The Cookbook, Missy's weakest album, doesn't belong in the top ten. Surprised to see Madonna's record so far down below; I played it nonstop for most of this and the following year. My actual favorites in 2005 were, roughly, New Pornographers, Broken Social Scene (which, come to think of it, should also be higher), Depeche Mode, Madonna, Missy Elliott, Goldfrapp, Dylan, Junior Senior, Eels. I wasn't keeping up very devotedly at that time and mostly just heard whatever friends recommended or what I read about from favorite writers of mine.

1. The New Pornographers: Twin Cinema (Matador) A
2. Sufjan Stevens: Illinoise (Asthmatic Kitty) A
3. Kanye West: Late Registration (Def Jam) A
4. Fiona Apple: Extraordinary Machine (Epic) A
5. The Decemberists: Picaresque (Kill Rock Stars) A
6. The Mountain Goats: The Sunset Tree (4AD) A
7. Laura Cantrell: Humming by the Flowered Vine (Matador) A-
8. Depeche Mode: Playing the Angel (Reprise) A-
9. Andrew Bird: The Mysterious Production of Eggs (Righteous Babe) A-
10. Missy Elliott: The Cookbook (Atlantic) A-
11. Goldfrapp: Supernature (Mute) A-
12. Broken Social Scene (Arts & Crafts) A-
13. The White Stripes: Get Behind Me Satan (V2) A-
14. Feist: Let It Die (Interscope) A-
15. M. Ward: Transistor Radio (Merge) A-
16. Bob Dylan: Modern Times (Columbia) A-
17. Madonna: Confessions on a Dance Floor (Warner Bros.) A-
18. Junior Senior: Hey Hey My My Yo Yo (Crunchy Frog) A-
19. eels: Blinking Lights and Other Revelations (Vagrant) A-
20. Okkervil River: Black Sheep Boy (Jagjaguwar) A-
Chatham County Line: Route 23 (Yep Roc) A-

******

The March review post is coming up in a couple of days, and there is so much outstanding new music out there right now, folks. It's been fun to delve into the past a bit but we are in no kind of a drought. Stay tuned.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Name one genius that ain't crazy: February 2016 music diary

Jeremih: Late Nights - The Album (Def Jam 2015) [r]
Jeremih hasn't been heard from at this length in some time; his last big hit "Down on Me" was released six years ago, and it's already been the better part of a decade since his first and last full-fledged cultural juggernaut, "Birthday Sex", still available as a ringtone at your nearest Verizon store. For some reason -- the lapse of time? general incompetence? Megaforce-like stubbornness? -- Def Jam could barely be bothered to promote this, which is slowly making them look more out of touch than ever as its singles make waves. It's a long drawn-out druggy one-night stand, very solidly music of the moment, but it has its scattered good points. For one thing, Jeremih's descriptions of nasty sex delivered like street corner doo wop manage to seem like an amusing novelty even half a century after "Sixty Minute Man", even if some of his fixations don't seem terribly imaginative -- "two girls they kiss at the same time"; wow, at the same time!?!? -- and there's a fair bit of meandering and filler until the very end, when the whole thing snaps into place on the YG-guesting "Don't Tell 'Em", the best hook here in a major walk; after that we get "Woosah", potentially the best sex anthem yet to mention ass-eating, and a striking closing lament -- the peak of the album -- all about the morning after and coping with whatever the hell went on last night. It's supposedly about life being great but is so full of fear it could stand up next to the Velvet Underground's similarly themed "Sunday Morning".

Archy Marshall: A New Place 2 Drown (Matador 2015) [r]
This is very engaging, considering it's background with no foreground; a trip hop ambient darkwave whatever else rumble, immersive but intense, from the British writer and producer whose previous album was issued under the name King Krule. His vocal delivery is stoned out of the galaxy, which fits with its relaxed tone and paranoia. The album calls Tricky to mind, slightly, but is really unclassifiable.

David Bowie: Blackstar (Columbia) [hr]
Like Charles Schulz's last Peanuts strip, the timing here is eerily fortuitous -- one last victory lap for one of the true maverick creative forces of rock & roll, and what makes it so spectacular is that, like The Next Day only even more so, it's so unassuming: just a goddamn artist plugging away with integrity and restlessness to the end, and not a trace of strain or "comeback" woe. The album is impressively, strikingly brief so it leaves a deep impression and, like so few recordings by aging luminaries, Leonard Cohen and Yoko Ono and sometimes Bob Dylan but that's just about it, it has the unceremonious enthusiasm and thirst of youth. The entire record functions as slow, detailed drone, inventive and playful in all its turgid bleakness; "Lazarus" is the best of its many sleepwalking nightmares, though the obvious florid attraction is the opener. Though he seems to have intended it as a strong goodbye, Bowie does not sound like a man who's finished because, one assumes, he never really resigned himself to that; he's funny, mordant, alive, and so he shall remain.

Anderson .Paak: Malibu (EMPIRE) [r]
We touched on this a bit in our year-end essay earlier this week, but there's something to be said for how rampantly against the grain of the edgiest, most bleakly druggy hip hop this is: though there's plenty of weed floating around, it's rap with a pleasant, go-getter attitude, for the NOW people! So it's rather cheesy -- not Macklemore or Will Smith cheesy, mind, more like, hmm, PM Dawn? -- but also very danceable and charming, and at the back end certainly manages a good number of crucial jams. Though it's not something that seems immediately obvious, this is really a disco album, and wouldn't be out of place on a triple bill with Kwabs and the Foreign Exchange. This seems especially ironic since Paak rose to prominence after collaborating with Dr. Dre; numerous guest stars and great producers flock to make this a pretty relentlessly cheery party. It's basically stoner disco, and Paak makes it all credible and theatrical without overwhelming its basic visceral pleasures.

Tindersticks: The Waiting Room (City Slang) [c]
Long-running oh-sorry-you-just-missed-them stalwarts of the first wave of Britpop fits in with indie rock trends of roughly four years ago, maybe the last time indie rock even had trends. Without the history and pedigree it's dreadful yuppie chillwave, like "If You Wear That Velvet Dress"-era Bono fronting the xx.

Eleanor Friedberger: New View (Frenchkiss) [r]
The female half of the Fiery Furnaces seems to have had an extremely stable and reliable solo career, though this is the first of her albums I've heard from start to finish. And it's a good one -- she has a splendid voice, the lyrics are top-caliber and the performances are great when the folkish and modest but driving arrangements are. Certain songs -- opener "He Didn't Mention His Mother" and "Two Versions of Tomorrow" -- are particularly memorable and there's a hard-won, gritty directness to Friedberger's songs and singing. It does prattle on a bit but if you're intrigued by the first moments, this will grow on you.

John Cale: M:FANS (Double Six) [hr]
Bowie gets a lot of credit for sounding unfailingly contemporary up to the twilight of his career -- even some of this once-bemoaned trendy '80s hits now sound forward-looking -- and he deserves those accolades. But what of Cale? We need to appreciate him while he still walks among us. This has a bit of a handicap in comparison to Blackstar because it's not a set of new songs; rather it finds Cale taking a new approach to the songs of his experimental 1982 record Music for a new Society, which had him improvising over live orchestrations. I vastly prefer this new version which finds Cale in an industrial-tinged, bitter and adventurous mood -- its world is canned and limited, dirgey at times and full of rhythm at others, but miraculously evocative. It feels damned good to listen to something this effortlessly artful and cool, full of wit and drama and musical surprises. Thanks perhaps to his avant leanings, Cale boasts a level of integrity all but unique among surviving '60s rockers, and this like Bowie's album stands with his very best work -- a triumphant do-over.

Savages: Adore Life (Matador) [hr]
Silence Yourself, the first album by this sternly foreboding London foursome, was a noisy throwback, ideal for broodful dancing and celebrating pain; it was wonderfully adolescent and snide but was also one-dimensional by design. The follow-up is harsher, meaner, louder, funnier and moves along at a nice clip; it's the rock & roll of jilted love and all-consuming desire, and in that respect it's much more focused and human while the music has gained a pleasing variance that's less beholden to the post-punk road map. It sounds incredibly good on big speakers and the tension is sustained beautifully, always building to release at the right moments. You'll be pleased if you loved the first one but this is clearly a progression.

Shearwater: Jet Plane and Oxbow (Sub Pop)
Proggy offshoot of Okkervil River, a band you probably forgot about, does their thing and what can you say? It beats Muse.

MONEY: Suicide Songs (Bella Union) [c]
Manchester band sound like they're still troubled about Richey Edwards' disappearance and bring us draggy, orchestrated folk-rock. It's not really far apart from Shearwater above, or Coldplay with harder drugs.

Junior Boys: Big Black Coat (City Slang) [r]
There are probably people out there who could be bored to tears by this, and even I would say it needs me to be in the mood to forgive how much music that's exactly like it there is that I've listened to ad nauseam in my life. However, if you like synthpop with shades of harder techno and solid if emotionally distant pop songs played by non-threateningly polite-looking dudes, this is a whole lot of fun. The songwriting is middling but the arrangements and production are fine and if you're into the sound, that's what will matter.

Lucinda Williams: The Ghosts of Highway 20 (Highway 20)
Another extended, mournful album to follow the last one, this time with vocals sounding more tired and irritable than usual, and some superlative guitar work. There are grooves here and there, and lyrics that resonate, but this is a hopeless mood that won't often strike most of us, least of all for eighty-plus minutes. Those it targets, however, will not only respond to but need its monochromatic, dreary tones.

Kevin Gates: Islah (Atlantic) [r]
On his mixtapes and singles the Louisiana rapper Gates has become known for being personable -- not that he comes across as Casey Kasem friendly exactly but he's pretty fearless about rolling around in his personal failings and fantasies without a lot of embellishment. He branches out production-wise and there are some good cuts here, and an impressive total absence of guests (quite a contrast to what, well, virtually every major star is doing right now). There's lots of sex, lots of sucking on tits, two phones, and some ugly and charged drama. For the most part these elements recede; it's an easygoing, Rick Ross-like sex album and a promising proper debut.

King: We Are King (King Creative) [r]
Prince-sanctioned, smooth-as-hell En Vogue and Sade-style vocal group is a big pleasure; the album's so easy and lush it's almost ambient. This has been brewing for a long time and the trio's guested on tracks by Erykah Badu and the Foreign Exchange, but for most everyone it will be all new and, perversely, a big nostalgia trip for those of us who remember when stuff like this was on the radio constantly.

Porches: Pool (Domino)
........ Well, they're not paying me for ad space. Pretty boring stuff from a slightly beat-driven bedroom pop Manhattanite.

Ed Motta: Perpetual Gateways (Must Have Jazz)
Silly lite jazz from the Brazilian jazz/R&B arranger will find an audience with those seeking de-stressed pop. Patrice Rushen appears on keyboards. Listen while you peel wallpaper.

Kanye West: The Life of Pablo (Def Jam) [r]
This is getting weird. Sliding into a world in which headlines include "Kanye gets email on stage at Madison Square Garden," "Kanye asks Deadmau5 if his wife will wear a Minnie Mouse head," "Kanye orders chipotle chicken wrap from Tropical Smoothie Cafe," etc., this album frankly feels too modest for itself. From its slapdash cover art to its weirdly disorganized, mixtape-like vibe to the eerie sense you get that the primary artist's mind is elsewhere for the entire duration, this is the sound of someone completely unsure of what direction he wants to take. He does join Dave Matthews and Ben Folds in the exclusive club of rock stars so apathetic they literally answer their cell phones while recording, then leave it on the record. One thing for sure: you have to give the guy credit for managing to turn every insignificant damn feeling he has into a major moment of emotional extremism. That's been true almost from the beginning but it's only become more of a naked flaw, or virtue, or whatever it is; you could compare some of his other incredibly petty rants to great accidentally brilliant petty rants in history like the Clash's "Complete Control", but bleached assholes and fantasies about fucking Taylor Swift? You can't figure out if he's gotten wrapped up in giving people what they want and expect or if he's completely lost touch and interest in same. Across the first half here he seems like little more than a guest on his own album; he doesn't even want to talk about it. There is a positive god dream to open, then Stevie Wonder keybs and melody, half-assed hi-NRG, egomaniacal chanting, thinkpiece-ready a cappella self-love, a (pretty good) song that's actually called "Real Friends", neo-old soul, some weird beats and economic anxiety, a lot of noodling with playful samples, and it's a frightening trip inside a guy's too-short attention span. We're not here to question West's mental health or his opinion of Bill Cosby. We're here to find the scattered gems: the towering sound of "Famous", the weird, sinister, bubbling "FML" with its strung-out robotic scary conclusion, the great and menacing pop of "30 Hours", the obligatory 2001 soul throwback "Facts", and the apocalyptic "No More Parties in L.A." As on Yeezus, the focus and steely-eyed vision of which we miss already, dread wins out; everything else seems trite, especially in the face of the music he's already released. There's boredom ("Highlights"), garbage ("Freestyle 4"), and a voicemail rant that has absolutely no reason to be here. This is a fascinating record but it's also unforgivably messy and poorly judged.

Lake Street Dive: Side Pony (Nonesuch) [r]
This splendid coffeeshop band's biggest asset is their awe-inspiring lead singer Rachael Price, and if all you want from their major label bow is the opportunity to hear her full-throated, smart and passionate paeans to emotional distress that elevate her group's potentially middlebrow roots-rockisms, you're in for a treat. She sounds better than ever; she demolishes a song like "Close to Me" (written by the band's drummer) until she seems to stand alone with the darkest edges of lovelorn obsession. In fact, the band sounds pretty great too; their chops are steadily improving -- the arrangements remain enthusiastic and exciting -- but the songwriting really isn't. There are wonderful hooks on some cuts like "Call Off Your Dogs" and the disco dream "Can't Stop", but some of this really suggests the compromise of being on a new label making whatever modern demand is the equivalent of "WRITE a HIT!" -- witness "Hell Yeah", a really flat example of misguided NPR populism gone terribly awry. On the other hand, closer "Saving All My Sinning" boasts the lyric to beat this year: "I've been a good girl for so long, I deserve to do something wrong." To that you say, well, hell yeah.

Pinkshinyultrablast: Grandfeathered (Club AC30) [hr]
Not substantially distinct from the Russian band's intriguing, hard-edged dream-pop debut Everything Else Matters from a year ago, but that fine record's promising, wispy mystery is replaced with new confidence: they go for broke with blissful, infectious, even louder and even more propulsive shoegaze. It is certainly a sequel more than a follow-up, but with music this completely reliant on mood and sonics, there's no way to deny that if you loved the first one you'll love the new one, and vice versa. Guitars and drums are a bit more prominent than the electronic influence this time out, but there's still an impressive range of influences being absorbed here and a commitment to full aural absorption for anyone in need. Have already co-opted this as my morning commute music.

School of Seven Bells: SVIIB (Vagrant)
What's left of this fractured unit finishes up some demos left behind that were recorded with co-leader Benjamin Curtis four years back. Sonically it's pretty much business as usual: twee, boring, okay, superficially reminiscent to the '90s band Garbage, comforting if you like middling synthy dance stuff.

***

FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME:
* Lizzo: Big GRRRL Small World
* Rihanna: Anti-
* Basia Bulat: Good Advice
- Rick Ross: Black Market
- Pusha T: King Push
- Saul Williams: MartyrLoserKing
- Venice Dawn/Adrian Younge: Something About April II
- Sidestepper: Supernatural Love
- Field Music: Commontime
- Rokia Traore: Ne So
- Mavis Staples: Livin' on a High Note
- Cavern of Anti-Matter: Void Beats/Invocation Trex

***

REJECTS:
Babyface: Return of the Tender Lover
G-Eazy: When It's Dark Out
Cage the Elephant: Tell Me I'm Pretty
Cass McCombs: A Folk Set Apart
Hinds: Leave Me Alone
Mystery Jets: Curve of the Earth
Yorkston: Everything Sacred
Daughter: Not to Disappear
Milk Teeth: Vile Child
Dream Theater: The Astonishing
Your Friend: Gumption
Cross Record: Wabi Sabi
Turin Brakes: Lost Property
Night Beats: Who Sold My Generation
The James Hunter Six: Hold On! [NYIM]
Freakwater: Scheherazade
Josephine Foster: No More Lamps in the Morning
Nonkeen: The Gamble
Nap Eyes: Thought Rock Fish Scale
Elton John: Wonderful Crazy Night
DIIV: Is the Is Are [NYIM]
Sunflower Bean: Human Ceremony
Vince Gill: Down to My Last Bad Habit [NYIM]
Peter Astor: Spilt Milk
Pinegrove: Cardinal [NYIM]
Radiation City: Synesthetica
Motorpsycho: Here Be Monsters
Prins Thomas: Principe del Norte
Brood Ma: Daze
Matmos: Ultimate Care II
Rangda: The Heretic's Bargain [NYIM]
So Pitted: Neo
Marlon Williams
Animal Collective: Painting With
Wild Nothing: Life of Pause
Africaine 808: Basar [NYIM]
TEEN: Love Yes
BJ the Chicago Kid: In My Mind [warning: contains abstinence anthem]
El Guincho: Hiperasia

***

Quick note: It's not on the docket till next month's post, but recent darlings of this blog the Wave Pictures have issued a new all-acoustic vinyl-only album called A Season in Hull; since it's limited edition, I want to tell you that you'll love this album, and you should grab it if you're at all interested before it disappears. Actual review next time.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Best Albums of 2015

(Lady Lamb says what we're all thinking. Photo from her website.)

***

THE LIST

Because I graded 154 albums this year and a whopping 94 of them were recommendations of some order, I'm quite excited to give you -- for the first time -- my top fifty albums from 2015, judged purely on the basis of personal taste and level of constant rotation at home. These recommendations are heartfelt; when we get into the ones that personally made me swoon the most in 2015 the records are bolded, and of course the top ten is separated with links and stats. Here we go:

50. Lonelady: Hinterland (Warp)
49. Jazmine Sullivan: Reality Show (RCA)
48. Mbongwana Star: From Kinshasa (World Circuit)
47. The Internet: Ego Death (Columbia)
46. Shopping: Why Choose (FatCat)
45. The Foreign Exchange: Tales from the Land of Milk and Honey (s/r)
44. Jim O'Rourke: Simple Songs (Drag City)
43. Björk: Vulnicura (Megaforce)
42. Ghost Culture (Phantasy Sound)
41. The Underachievers: Evermore: The Art of Duality (Brainfeeder)
40. Janet Jackson: Unbreakable (Rhythm Nation)
39. Darkstar: Foam Island (Warp)
38. Charli XCX: Sucker (Atlantic)
37. Alex G: Beach Music (Domino)
36. Colin Stetson & Sarah Neufeld: Never Were the Way She Was (Constellation)
35. Lower Dens: Escape from Evil (Ribbon Music)
34. Surfer Blood: 1000 Palms (Joyful Noise)
33. Susanne Sundfør: Ten Love Songs (Warner Bros.)
32. Four Tet: Morning/Evening (Text)
31. Kwabs: Love + War (Atlantic)
30. Beach House: Thank Your Lucky Stars (Sub Pop)
29. Thee Oh Sees: Mutilator Defeated at Last (Castle Face)
28. Carly Rae Jepsen: E-MO-TION (Interscope)
27. Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly (Interscope)
26. The Mountain Goats: Beat the Champ (Merge)
25. Laurie Anderson: Heart of a Dog (Nonesuch)
24. The Chemical Brothers: Born in the Echoes (astralwerks)
23. Jamie xx: In Colour (Young Turks)
22. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Ba Power (Xango)
21. Pinkshinyultrablast: Everything Else Matters (Shelflife)
20. Meg Baird: Don't Weigh Down the Light (Drag City)
19. Ryley Walker: Primrose Green (Dead Oceans)
18. Ghostface Killah & BadBadNotGood: Sour Soul (Lex)
17. Chastity Belt: Time to Go Home (Hardly Art)
16. Leon Bridges: Coming Home (Columbia)
15. Alabama Shakes: Sound & Color (Rough Trade)
14. Built to Spill: Untethered Moon (Warner Bros.)
13. Deerhunter: Fading Frontier (4AD)
12. Tame Impala: Currents (Interscope)
11. Beach House: Depression Cherry (Sub Pop)

10. Yo La Tengo: Stuff Like That There
(Matador) | A- | review

9. Royal Headache: High
(What's Your Rupture?) | A- | review

8. Twerps: Range Anxiety
(Merge) | A- | review

7. Heems: Eat Pray Thug
(Megaforce) | A- | review

6. Lady Lamb: After
(Mom + Pop) | A | review

5. The Wave Pictures: Great Big Flamingo Burning Moon
(Moshi Moshi) | A | review

4. Ezra Furman: Perpetual Motion People
(Bella Union) | A | review

3. Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
(Mom + Pop) | A | review

2. Joanna Newsom: Divers
(Drag City) | A+ (upgrade) | review

1. D'Angelo & the Vanguard: Black Messiah
(RCA 2014) | A+ (upgrade) | review


***

THE JUSTIFICATION

So I know what you're thinking, which is: that's a very strange list. Because this is the second consecutive (and hopefully the final) year in which I'm extremely overdue posting a year-end list, only completing it well into the following year, we have the unusual opportunity of comparing it to Pazz & Jop and every other individual and aggregate poll published of 2015 albums. Obviously it's an outlier for several reasons. You don't come to someone's personal blog, I would hope, to expect some general reprocessing of the consensus, though there have been times (2010 and 2013, for two) when I was pretty closely aligned with the wider perspective of people who are actually professional about this stuff. I normally wouldn't try to make a defensive case for my list, but in some sense I'm not entirely pleased with it. I don't mean the records themselves; I stand by them all and honestly love every one of them from #21 onward, and there's every reason to guess that others below that line will one day gain even more respect from me. I suppose what I'm displeased with is how my own taste seems to be gradually breaking away from the records that are considered -- and even that I think are -- socially important.

The essay to follow is not a "State of the Union," so to speak; others are far more qualified than I am to expand on what is happening to your music and why. I have no interest in trying to understand the economics of streaming or the eternally conflicting reports on how sustainable it is to be a professional musician in the mid-2010s; it's not that I don't like reading about all that, but what we're about to breathlessly analyze has nothing really to do with anything except me and why I feel the way I do about the big totems of this past year. I'm aware this has very little chance of being interesting to anybody but me, so feel free to move on with your week.

The innocent version of all this is that I fell back in love with guitar music this year; that's innocent and it's true. The beautiful vinyl package of D'Angelo's record comes with this gigantic glossy photo of him clutching an axe and ever-so-subtly sneering, echoing Gene Vincent in both senses. The photograph is strikingly powerful and erotic, an effortless depiction of rock & roll as a force that feeds and expands on itself. Black Messiah also contains an intriguing note explaining, in essence, that it's a political album -- about race, class and injustice -- whether you want it to be or not. In that spirit it seems undeniable that my choices of what music made me sing and dance in 2015 is politically charged, regardless of whether I want or intend it to be, and not progressive in the sense I would like.

In 2014, hip hop topped and covered my list, mostly alt-leaning music that challenged and thrilled me: Cities Aviv, clipping., Shabazz Palaces, the Underachievers, and of course Kate Tempest, who recorded the third consecutive album in the genre that became my top choice for the year. I think this blog has a good track record of taking pop, R&B, hip hop and other genres as seriously as indie and alternative, which are inevitably -- because of how and when I grew up -- my "home base," so to speak, as far as contemporary popular music goes. But this year, hip hop I designated as highly recommended is pathetically thin on the ground; I have no one to blame but myself. I at least sampled every major release of 2015 and most minor ones, solely excluding those by artists like Drake who are hopeless lost causes for me, but somehow I emerged unmoved. Were the above list provided by a publication I would rail at its overwhelming whiteness and its focus on "rock"; it's somewhat less offensive since it's a personal list and I don't believe in judging the politics behind what individual people enjoy listening to, but as someone who does bristle at predictability and tokenism, I do somewhat regret that we only have one rap record in the top ten and only two records whose primary artists are not white.

But these lists I publish here have only ever been rigorously honest, and I work hard on them. I just want to stress that the absence or low placement on the relevant albums here isn't a reflection on their vitality. Rather, as I get farther into my thirties, it may be a reflection on me and my retreat into relative comfort and complacency; regardless of how devotedly I continue to seek out new music, perhaps the things I come back to are destined to become narrower in scope. Try as I might, I can't get anything except relative boredom out of Vince Staples' Summertime '06, and I know it's a significant artistic statement by a lot of measurements. Similarly, can it be a symptom of much except my becoming older and grouchier that I get no pleasure out of Future's music? With DS2 in particular, I have a full awareness of why it's good, the troubled and zonked-out brilliance in it, but as with a lot of music driven so much on chemical highs and lows, it's not something I enjoy listening to at all. That's the sort of priggish statement that's made me roll my eyes at some older critics, and I always hoped as I got older and kept writing about music that I would be one of the Cool Ones who was constantly a-OK and philosophical when it came to the music of the youths, or of democratic and cultural origins totally unrelated to my sheltered status. Maybe this isn't something I can fully control after all.

As a result of all this you might reasonably expect that my cup of tea would be drunken with the likes of Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment and Anderson Paak and THEESatisfaction, all of whom exemplify the spirit of conscious Afrocentrism and sometimes sheer dumb happiness. I support those things and I like Paak a fair bit, but in the other two cases while listening I have the strange feeling I'm in school, which was also the case with some of the recordings from the early to mid-'90s to which they're constantly compared. Still, a love of 3 Feet High and Rising, Blowout Comb and The Score and an aversion to male aggression that crosses all genres and artforms (I don't like Ernest Hemingway, N.W.A. or Martin Scorsese) could easily pigeonhole me as a weedy white hipster unconscious of his footprint of flagrant privilege, blasting Tribe on the headphones and buying brownstones in Bed-Stuy. What could I say to really correct this picture? Nothing, that's what, except the hope that the zillions of words I've written here have made my heart at least kind of trustworthy, and maybe they haven't.

Weirdly, exhibit A in this whole internal crisis -- Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly -- is the item whose placement I can most readily defend. For one thing, while I heard Staples and Future's albums (and Young Thug's, and lots of others) multiple times, I lived day and night with Pimp for weeks. I will unquestioningly tell you it's an accomplished, often masterful and emotionally slash politically righteous recording that I simply found bloated and musically frustrating. I'm not the first to point out that while I'm sure Lamar is flattered by the praise he's received from the mainstream, his music is not designed to speak to us. And by "us" I mean the white music press but also white music listeners as a whole, and that's what gives To Pimp a Butterfly a lot of its revolutionary-sounding power. It's thoughtful but confrontational, in the vein of the Clash. Lamar is a phenomenal artist; there's a certain undeniability to that and it transcends personal taste.

But personal taste is still there. Lamar's previous LP good kid, m.A.A.d. city was another example of something that almost transcended both the fractured culture and the various unpredictable contradictions in my own digestion of music. It showed up in my headphones very late in 2012, after I thought I'd long since decided on my top two or three albums, and almost without debate it immediately topped the list as soon as I was swept up in its intricate, cinematic, redemptive storytelling. The album remains glorious, believable, and impressively well-judged, but it was already an outlier for me in terms of my personal taste: I've always tended to feel annoyed by albums that have "plots," so to speak, but Lamar's entry as well as Tempest's are both exceptions that prove the rule, because they're something else disguised as records. It's probably instructive that Lamar billed good kid as a "film," and that Tempest is turning Everybody Down into a novel. Neither album expands or redefines its form exactly, but both refine and make art of ideas that have been unsuccessfully tested by others before them. In both cases I come away liking a lot of the songs (I don't like a single song on good kid as much as I like "King Kunta" and "How Much a Dollar Cost" from his new one, but I like the older album infinitely more because its cumulative impact is simpler and greater for me; the best songs to hear out of context on Tempest's record are the two or three that don't advance the story, plus the summation "Lonely Daze"), loving the albums, but more than anything overwhelmed by admiration for the two young, gifted artists, capable of so much I could never even think of accomplishing.

All that goes double for To Pimp a Butterfly; offer me any bite-sized sample of it and I'll tell you I'm hearing a tremendous writer and performer operating at peak, full of moral righteousness and zeal and the mere grace and showmanship of all great pop music. Yet whereas good kid -- which allowed Pimp to exist in its messy, uncompromised form -- was a small and modest story with grandiose implications, this is an album of the world, and there's something subtly limiting in this limitless achievement. Even so, it's beyond gratifying to find a creation like this meeting with so much praise and success, and yet again, you must know who it is you're reading: I like Stand! more than There's a Riot Goin' On, like Here, My Dear and Let's Get It On more than What's Going On, and vastly prefer The Conversation to the Godfather movies. I'm not saying this to tell you I'm a contrarian; I hate that sort of logic. I'm telling you this to demonstrate that Lamar's epic construction is already at a disadvantage with me because epic constructions of universal import make me a little queasy; they're just too big for me to get myself fully around them. Much as concept albums bug me but Lamar's last one was so good that you know it means something if I say it's aces, the fact that I have so much admiration for this record that is too overwhelming for me to process and appreciate should indicate something of its value.

Another factor to mention about this list is that it is almost certainly informed by what happened in my personal life in 2015. I moved from an apartment in a small but noisy city to a dead-quiet house in a coastal tourist community that's nearly empty in winter, on stilts and hidden behind a bunch of trees. I got married after a six-year relationship that changed everything about my life and outlook already. Conditions in our very mellow shared quarters are extremely favorable for the likes of Deerhunter, Tame Impala, a reconfigured pure-acoustic Yo La Tengo and, well, Beach House. Ghostface Killah fronting a jazz combo is somehow ideal. Things have become quieter, even as I've also been wrapped up in what feels like a flurry of activity -- though it's a very un-rock & roll flurry, like going on vacation with my parents and getting my teeth fixed and taking the bunny to the vet. It doesn't look to me like this is a list of boring-old-man music, but were that an argument you wanted to make you'd sure as fuck have a lot of ammo.

Let's go back to that guitar, though. This is the first list I've done in a long time dominated to this extent by guitar bands, and what a terrific crop of them it is. There's also a curious overrepresentation of Australia; even with Tame Impala just missing the top ten, Royal Headache, Twerps and Courtney Barnett all show up in the final countdown. Twerps and Royal Headache are pure throwback but both are impressively versatile, and in what seems to be the theme this year, their records are driven chiefly by songs rather than a sound -- indeed, both of them are quite prepared to turn on a whim into another band entirely if the song calls for it.

Another trend, however, dominates from the seventh position on up: these are albums that are about words as much as music. D'Angelo buries his words and vocals however momentous, and Joanna Newsom's sentiments are obtuse and enigmatic, wilfully puzzling, for as smart a wordsmith as she is, her choice is to hit hardest in nonverbal terms. I don't think my life would've been the same in 2015, though, without the things I learned from the poetic rants and raves of the other fine artists in our top ten. Lady Lamb's document of the aforementioned fractured culture, "Billions of Eyes", has a touch of personal pain and apprehension but also an eagerness to share something with the world. That yearning runs across all of my favorite albums this year: Barnett's elevation of mundane day-to-day existence to a ramshackle celebration of life itself, occasionally chided by even some of her champions as some sort of embodiment of privileged millennial self-importance, draws portraits of strange normal lives so convincing and often so refreshingly miniml that they can make you think differently about the way you approach your commute, your best and worst moments, your conversations with your friends, your coworkers, your spouse. (Lady Lamb sings about seeing an old woman yawn on a bus and suddenly wondering why it's just now dawning on her that people are such a bizarre conglomerate.) If a simple house-hunting excursion and idling talk about coffeeshops can turn into a song as deeply moving as "Depreston", built wholly on the conflict of internalized thought and externalized communication, are we not all potentially architects of such dreams? There are only two chords in "Depreston" and even I can play it, sort of.

Dave Tattersall, lead singer and usually lyricist of the Wave Pictures, said in an interview early in 2015 that "I don't believe in stream of consciousness but I do believe that lyrics are everywhere." It became almost comical, I'm sure, to witness my long vendetta against Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon in the last eighteen months, so irritated was I by his new approach to writing completely unfiltered lyrics that were glorified LiveJournal entries. (I'm happy to say that the reception to his 2015 album Universal Themes suggests the world has caught up with me.) The difference between what Kozelek does and what Tattersall and Barnett do is down to the pure curation of art from normalcy. Kozelek simply reguritates, like a motion-capture model of an actor. Barnett and Tattersall are like animators, rendering expressive lines from traces of real life drawn upon by creativity and enthusiasm. So Barnett can talk in aching detail about staring at shapes on the ceiling while longing for someone far away and the various curiosities accompanying that longing. And Tattersall can turn an odd, fleeting experience he had at St. Pancras Station into a two-line fantasy about one woman in a green coat who stands out because everyone else in sight is dressed in black.

The Wave Pictures' words can be lofty, they can be juvenile; they are consistently real and bracing, and delivered in a sharp but emotive manner calling back to the Only Ones, and not just because there are a lot of songs about pets and other animals. "We Fell Asleep in the Blue Tent" might be the most beautiful love song of the decade so far, a chronicle of a scrappy sleepover that includes the immortal sentiment "I saw your handwriting written on everything, and I liked it." Musically, the band is punkish but professional; much as Barnett calls to the classic riffs and yelps of Nuggets-phase garage, they unabashedly nod to classic rock of the late '60s, going so far as to cover Creedence Clearwater Revival not once but twice. The Pictures are an established band in the UK, they've recorded a lot and enjoy a sizable cult that's almost nonexistent in America, but they've been at this a long time and sound relaxed and casual in a manner that doesn't remotely affect their capacity to connect or to communicate passion.

"Passionate" is another fine word for these terrific albums that don't have much to do with one another but strangely still seem to belong together. Certainly Ezra Furman and Heems, each of whom recorded a phenomenal and all but completely ignored album this year, qualify as two sides of a certain coin. Heems is the first former member of Das Racist to record a proper studio album, and while he wanders off on experiments and twice gives the floor to the painful realities of being brown in America after 9/11, his album is at bottom about coping. He and Furman both have talked openly about suffering from depression, and both have spun it into mature work that's often masterful. Nothing on Perpetual Motion People hits as hard as the closing lines from Eat Pray Thug, documenting the deportation of a dad whose daughter won't be around to correct his bad English at the dinner table anymore, and the resulting pressure in Heems' own family to be quiet, keep your head down and don't make trouble.

But Furman also turns his pain around on us, heartbreakingly so. As on each of the top four albums, the highlights are so numerous and so refreshingly different it's a task to determine what to mention here. There is "Ordinary Life," about losing the will to live and trying to find it again; or "Body Was Made," about owning one's identity. There's also "I'm gonna get old so goddamn fast / pass me that bottle with the XXX." But just as frequently as they form distress into the catharsis of universally relatable pain, Furman and Heems approach their work with astounding charm and humor. The personality crisis Heems describes on "Sometimes", wrapped up in lofty self-analysis and obsessively minute detail, is both harrowing and eerily familiar to any adult human. Furman, meanwhile, can engage in black comedy smack-dab in the middle of his moments of hard-living false retribution. His levity is musical as well as lyrical, too, filling every song with hooks and wacky rock & roll arrangements that are equal parts New York Dolls, Phil Spector and Platters. He's wobbly, but the music sees him through. It's not a requirement that those who suffer from mental illness of any sort make accessible art about it that's full of disarming warmth. It's not a requirement that one be troubled or have known instability to create great art. But it is most assuredly impressive as hell when someone is able to pull that off. Perhaps nothing bothers me more at the end of this year than how little attention these two albums received. (The widespread celebration of Barnett's genius is, to some degree, a compensation, but let's not wear her out on public exposure just yet -- I'm sure her best work is still to come.)

To a lesser extent that same fate has befallen Joanna Newsom's Divers; it's received ample praise from the expected quarters, but perhaps as a result of its absence from streaming services, it seems to have made less of an impact than her first three albums. This is an injustice; as time has gone on, it's become clear to me as her finest work to date and the first to truly fuse the most instantly arresting qualities of her songcraft, so evident on the invariably enchanting songs of her debut The Milk Eyed Mender, with her command of wildly ambitious and fascinating arrangements and production. Like Have One on Me, the album has marked divisions that become clearer with more exposure. Its florid, busy first half eventually falls into a mournful, resigned back end that offers some of her starkest arrangements and most straightforward words ever. Even setting apart her clever, busy and cautiously worked-over lyrics for a moment, the sad shake in her voice is obvious even when the album's at its most playful. It's a record of layers, though, as easy to appreciate as simply a beautiful collection of folk music as it is an endlessly revealing box of secrets. It does need time, but less than you expect, and soon enough every single cut reveals its magic, and the funny, despairing, scholarly, reference-filled lyrics will endear themselves to you after a while, but long before that you'll already want to live in that voice and in the clear emotional peaks, like the title cut with its near-magic, balletic feeling of timelessness. In every moment you can hear Newsom's hard work to meld her emotional inner life into something complex to donate to the world.

"Timeless" effectively describes Newsom and D'Angelo's albums equally well. Though it wasn't immediately obvious, both have come to feel like masterpieces to me. Black Messiah is a cheat since it actually was released in December 2014, but that placed it past our window for last year's list -- which, if I'd the proper time to come to fully appreciate it, it would easily have dominated. Divers and Black Messiah feel in many ways like albums that could have been released in the '70s, still the best decade for the long-player. What this might reveal is that even the stick-in-the-mud, aged-out feeling we talked about earlier might not prevent me or anyone from recognizing when someone transcends their era, transcends even the very idea of an era in this microscopic portion of history. These two truly great albums could belong in any time; both boast awesome power, worthy of hushed reverence. Both are exquisitely romantic, sad, worried. Only one, however, is also a banged-out, blissfully rhythmic orgasm of hearts, bodies and minds in an hour-long collision.

The only thing instantly obvious about Black Messiah when you first hear it is that it will take a bit of unpacking. The many years it took to create have paid off more than in just the rigorous, infallible quality-control. (Once again, virtually every track is perfect.) The grooves and hooks are buried under dust, and after a while even the dust becomes intoxicating. Like few albums since the heyday of Parliament-Funkadelic, Exile on Main Street and Sly & the Family Stone, this is a record that becomes markedly different every time you hear it. That's how rife it is with detail and intricacy, but never in the proggy jammed-out sense that sometimes inspires such grand statements. The songs are carefully, immaculately crafted, and though most of them stretch into the four-to-five minute range, were you to strip them down to an acoustic guitar and a voice, they would entrance in their slow, ethereal beauty. It could be funeral music. It could be the music of seduction. It sometimes feels like it contains every iteration of what popular music can be.

It's also a band album, so much so that D'Angelo's frontman status almost seems irrelevant; he willfully recedes more often than not. (This has been turned around as a criticism, actually.) The interplay isn't just an enhancement here, it's the story. That puts the album in good company with the likes of Sign o' the Times and Maggot Brain, but in at least one sense I think Black Messiah has a leg up on its ancestors: its pure, unadulterated, melted-heart beauty. That's not the classic pop beauty of simply a well-turned hook or a lush ballad. It's the beauty of something hard-won, a savior behind the chaos. Chaos dominates the foreground of Black Messiah and, like To Pimp a Butterfly, it emphasizes funk as an expression of and a battle against that chaos. The most important feature of D'Angelo's record, though, is how it perverts funk's formal standards -- On "The Charade", vocal lines that are deliberately abrasive just as George Clinton's once were slowly form into a swirling cacophony that, melded with the band's propulsive plugging away, attain a fevered, almost religious power. It transforms confrontation into sensuality without lulling us as the audience into some sort of passive acceptance. The same basic tenet goes for my favorite moment in all the music I heard in 2015 -- about three minutes into "Till It's Done", when a solo vocal line unexpectedly broadens into a chill-inducing cry. It's among many moments when Black Messiah rushes past even its most obvious and very worthy pursuits, protest and love and sex and everything else, and becomes just inexpressibly sublime. It's also one of those magical moments, so rare but not as rare as some who've not let their ears open in decades will try to tell you, when it dawned on me without question: I will be listening to this for the rest of my life. What a thing for someone to give us.

***

APPENDIX: Recommended 2015 albums that didn't make the list of 50
Shamir: Ratchet (XL)
The Spook School: Try to Be Hopeful (Fortuna Pop!)
Songhoy Blues: Music in Exile (Transgressive)
Ghostpoet: Shedding Skin (PIAS)
Erykah Badu: But You Caint Use My Phone (Motown)
Advance Base: Nephew in the Wild (Orindal)
Tuxedo (Stones Throw)
Talib Kweli & 9th Wonder: Indie 500 (Jamla)
Hot Chip: Why Make Sense? (Domino)
Blackalicious: Imani, Vol. 1 (OGM)
Sleater-Kinney: No Cities to Love (Sub Pop)
Twin Shadow: Eclipse (Warner Bros.)
Floating Points: Elaenia (Luaka Bop)
Ducktails: St. Catherine (Domino)
Ty Dolla $ign: Free TC (Atlantic)
Young Fathers: White Men Are Black Men Too (Big Dada)
Blur: The Magic Whip (Warner Bros.)
Rachel Sermanni: Tied to the Moon (Linear Labs)
Della Mae (Rounder)
Apollo Brown: Grandeur (Mello Music)
Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)
EL VY: Return to the Moon (4AD)
The Very Best: Makes a King (Moshi Moshi)
Helen: The Original Faces (Kranky)
The Bird and the Bee: Recreational Love (Rostrum)
Dutch Uncles: O Shudder (Memphis Industries)
Bilal: In Another Life (eOne)
Logic: The Incredible True Story (Def Jam)
Wolf Alice: My Love Is Cool (Dirty Hit)
Knxledge: Hud Dreems (Stones Throw)
Wire (Pink Flag)
Curren$y: Pilot Talk III (Jet Life)
Nils Frahm: Victoria OST (Erased Tapes)
Natalie Prass (Columbia)
Widowspeak: All Yours (Captured Tracks)
White Reaper: White Reaper Does It Again (Polyvinyl)
Bully: Feels Like (Columbia)
Young Ejecta: The Planet (Driftless)
Roots Manuva: Bleeds (Big Dada)
Valet: Nature (Kranky)
New Order: Music Complete (Mute)
Wilco: Star Wars (Anti-)
Stealing Sheep: Not Real (Heavenly)
Sarah Cracknell: Red Kite (Cherry Red)

APPENDIX 2: EP THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN IN THE TOP TEN ABOVE IF IT HAD BEEN AN ALBUM
Kelela: Hallucinogen (Warp)

APPENDIX 3: OTHER GOOD EPs IN 2015
AFX: Orphaned Deejay Selek (Warp)
The Paranoid Style: Rock & Roll Just Can't Recall (Worldwide Battle)