Across the Margin winds down its rollout of the Best Albums of 2015 with albums 21-1…
We have reached the mountaintop. After a revealing week, where we tackled our picks for albums 50 – 41, 40 – 31 and 30 – 21, we have come to the moment everyone has been waiting for, The Top 20 Albums of 2015. Before the grand unveiling we feel inclined to note that this annual compilation is never easy. As we discussed as our countdown commenced, the yearly offerings are bountiful, and because of this a scattering of wonderful albums slip through the cracks ((We would like to take a moment and extend a heartfelt apology to Thee Oh Sees’ Mutilator Defeated At Last and The Amazing Picture You. Truly two of the finest albums to be released this year. We are ashamed of the omission.)). But, we hope that this list not only acts as a celebration and tribute to some of the music that has enriched our lives this past year, but also as an opportunity for our readers to maybe stumble upon something that could not only touch them deeply, but also expand their musical appreciation. And now, without further ado, Across the Margin’s annual musical countdown concludes…
20. Joey Bada$$ – B4.DA.$$
It’s wild to think about the fact that when Joey Bada$$ dropped his debut album, B4.DA.$$, that he was only twenty years old. It really feels like he has been around for a minute with two excellent mixtapes under his belt (1999 and Summer Knights) and appearances on a few Statik Selektah productions alongside such vets as Freddie Gibbs, Raekwon and Black Thought. The Brooklyn mc rhymes with a throwback 90s vibe, tight and lean, but Joey also spits with youthful enthusiasm and that fresh out the box feel. B4.DA.$$ is one hell of a debut, packed with an assortment of tight and diverse beats for Joey to highlight his dexterous talent, and just the right amount of guest mc’s to spice things up (BJ the Chicago Kid, Chronixx, Raury, Maverick Sabre). It’s clear that Joey has versed himself in the greats – from Jay Z ,Tribe, Nas, Gang Starr, The Roots and beyond – and that he is all the better of an mc because of it. Whether deliberating the need for money against its power to corrupt on “Paper Trail$” (produced by DJ Premier) or lashing out against police brutality on the frenetic “No. 99,” or contemplating about his place in the rap game and in life on “Like Me,” wondering, “It’s like every step bring me close to my destiny / And every breath I get closer to the death of me / I’m just tryna carry out my legacy / But the place I call home ain’t lettin’ me,” Joey offers a plethora of ideas and styles that exhibit the skills of an mc that is bound to be around for the long haul.
Essential Tracks: “Hazeus View,” “Run Up On You,” “Paper Trail$.”
19. Beach House – Depression Cherry
Beach House’s 2012 Bloom was that special kind of album. The sort of musical encounter that we all hopefully get to experience from time to time: the album that made us fall in love with a band. As fans of veteran acts like Air and Cocteau Twins, who with their ethereal sounds and countless innovation have garnered near-universal acclaim, Beach House easily slide into our comfort groove when it comes to our love of everything dream pop. On 2015’s Depression Cherry, Beach House again wash over us in waves of purifying bliss and all-over body shivers. Wish lush tones, perfected balance, floating dreamscapes, the occasional welcomed guitar blow-out, and a timelessness that borders on flawless magnificence, Beach House are the sellers of dreams on Depression Cherry. As our newly appointed ambassadors of trance and transcendence, melancholia and fantasies, we’ve watched Beach House morph into that remarkable band you come across every once in a blue moon, the one that flirts with the word perfection, and wholly deserves it.
Essential Tracks: “Sparks,” “Space Song,” “PPP,” “Levitation.”
18. Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp
Katie Crutchfield, who performs under the moniker, Waxahatchee ((The name of a creek near her childhood home in Alabama.)), released her third, and easily best, album this year. Ivy Tripp, her first release for major indie label Merge, acts a leap forward for Crutchfield, and proof positive that she has come a long way from her bedroom-recorded debut album, American Weekend. To record the album, Crutchfield confined herself and her producers, Keith Spencer and Kyle Gilbride, in a house in Holbrook, Long Island for upwards of a year. And when they emerged they did so clutching a meticulously crafted lo-fi, 90s alt-rock inspired, rock album that is wholly mesmerizing. Crutchfield’s delicate voice dances effortlessly over the the sparse but intricate soundscapes culminating in a blustering pop eruption, and her introspective musings on Ivy Tripp are heartfelt and relatable. There is something so very familiar about Ivy Tripp, but the unfettered headspace it leaves us in is absolutely novel, and intoxicating.
Essential Tracks: “Breathless,” “Half Moon,” “Under a Rock,” “Air.”
17. Kamasi Washington – The Epic
We first learned of the talented saxophonist Kamasi Washington through his collaborations with Broken Bells on After the Disco and then later on with Flying Lotus on his seminal album You’re Dead!. After learning that he would be releasing an expansive, triple album nearly three hours in duration called The Epic in 2015, we just knew we had to get our hands on it. Now we’ve never used the word “infinite” before to describe an artist’s music, but that’s just what The Epic feels like. It’s expansive yet easily accessible jazz for the modern age that is as much about the traditions of jazz as it is about expanding its concepts into further realms. And that’s where the power of The Epic comes from. In its ability to integrate its grand-sweeping odes to a multitude of musical genres, from hip-hop to funk and from gospel to soul, into the album’s soaring atmosphere of sounds.
Essential tracks: “Change of the Guard,” “Askim.”
16. Kurt Vile – B’Lieve I’m Going Down:
Kurt Vile writes simple lyrics, but man, does he deliver them beautifully. Add to that mix his penchant for impeccably well-written and produced songs that sprinkle in folk, country, rock and new wave and a vocal acumen and sage sophistication that is rarely encountered these days, and what you’re left with is something magical. Something special, as if it’s a secret whispered between passing strangers in the shadowy depths of a dive bar. On B’Lieve I’m Going Down, Vile ushers us into his darkened musical realm, a kingdom of the night existing when most of the world is fast asleep. There’s banjos, guitar solos, finger picking, piano, existential uncertainty, not as much reverb as he’s been known for in the past but just enough to grind that edge and there’s an abundance of darkly comical, yet upon reflection, deeply introspective lyrics like, “When I go out I take pills to take the edge off or to just take a chillax, forget about it / Just another certified badass out for a night on the town.” Kurt Vile is that long-haired guy you all know who likes to sit at home at night and talk about music, or play the guitar. He’s the kind of musician who easily channels early Tom Petty or Springsteen and what draws us into him over and over again is his heartfelt delivery, but it’s the touching simplicity to his lyrics and the effortlessness to which he presents his hazy brand of folk-rock that keeps us coming back to the well for more.
Essential Tracks: “Pretty Pimpin’,” “Dust Bunnies,” “Life Like This.”
15. Ratatat – Magnifique
For years now, Ratatat has been wowing its fans with its unique mastery of the “holy trinity” of music: guitars, keyboards and beats. With Magnifique, the duo continue to display that proficiency. By skillfully blending disparate sounds, like the charging steel guitar on “Supreme” or the funk-ridden underpinnings of “Countach” and the thin-sounding, hollow guitar hook of “Cream on Chrome,” Ratatat definitely still brings the music (and the beat!) to the party. Although some of their detractors have said that in the five years since their last album dropped, their music still sounds the same, we for one have no problem with that. Ratatat know full-well where their comfort zone is musically, and with Magnifique they fully own that sound for fifteen toe-tapping, finger rapping, head swaying tracks. From the muffled, in-your-face guitar-laced interludes on “Cold Fingers” before the track explodes into its smattering of beat heavy hooks to the Daft Punk reminiscent bubbly guitar on “Primetime” or surf-rock laden dreamscapes of “Magnifique,” Ratatat gives us more of what made them famous, simple beauty amplified to the Moon, which is why we’ll keep coming back for more.
Essential Tracks: “Cream on Chrome,” “Countach.”
14. Bjork – Vulnicura
Bjork, it seems, is not immune to the writing of a breakup album. An artist who always seems to be existing on a creative plane orbiting high above us, or hard at work crafting bold new interpretations of the world for us to digest, her latest album Vulnicura grounds her back to Earth and in doing so, allows her recent experiences to wash over us in waves of lyrical emotion. Rife with allusions to vulnerability, love, sadness, regret and steeped in an overwhelming feeling that everything you are listening to is becoming void and on the verge of disappearing, Vulnicura chronicles Bjork’s breakup with her partner, the artist Matthew Barney. Bjork’s voice, and the soaring soundscapes she’s created on the lofty Vulnicura sound flawless, and the progressions of the songs (akin to her chronicling the rise and fall of her relationship) are a masterwork in the musical documentation of what it means to endure the loss of love. It’s an album that is as emotionally pure, yet brutally honest as could be written about this kind of experience, and who but the infinitely talented and beautifully unique Bjork, to tackle this most difficult of human journeys.
Essential tracks: “Atom Dance,” “Black Lake.”
13. My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall
The Waterfall is the definition of a grower. This is not to say the seventh studio album from The Jacket isn’t arresting upon first listen, but rather that subsequent listens reveal intoxicating layers of sound that demonstrate a band averse to resting on their laurels, but rather working towards new creative heights. In preparation to record The Waterfall, My Morning Jacket gained access to a hilltop mansion in the coastal town of Stinson Beach, California known as the Panoramic House. There, inspired by the natural, “slightly spiritual,” beauty around them they meticulously constructed an album that infuses a progressive, nuanced sound neatly cupped within their large-canvas, all-powerful southern-roots rock. While the mysticism that separates My Morning Jacket from other southern-slanted rock bands of their caliber is present in spades, particularly in the inspiring “Believe,” the lyrics this time around are more literal and pragmatic than their previous efforts. But Jim James angelic voice soars over the celestial, sweeping soundscapes and what results is an album that is akin to a thunderous burst of energy – not unlike a waterfall.
Essential Tracks: “Spring,” “Tropics (Erase Traces),” “In Its Infancy (The Waterfall).”
12. The Dead Weather – Dodge and Burn
The Dead Weather is another one of Jack White’s all too numerous side projects. Comprising White, Queens of the Stone Age alum Dean Fertita, Kills vocalist Alison Mosshart, and City and Colour bassist Jack Lawrence, the Dead Weather is the band where Jack White and his bandmates come to let out all their aggression and rage. It’s the stage where they can let loose and write hard-hitting music on a more guttural plane. The band’s third album, Dodge and Burn, is more of that same great recipe, meaning that the quartet’s dark mix of grunge, garage rock, rock and punk is as prevalent as ever, if not more deeply entrenched. There’s a fierceness to their sound, like a harkening back to the more raucous days of rock and roll, when music was defined as much by your sound as the outsized personalities of its artists. The Dead Weather are not for the faint of heart. They’re a super-charged fist pump to your soul or what music would sound like if it were demonically possessed. Listen at your own risk, and don’t say we didn’t warn ya!
Essential Tracks: “Let Me Through,” “I Feel Love (Every Million Miles).”
11. Vince Staples – Summertime 06’
It has routinely been the case that when we we approach a double-disc album we do so with hesitation. For we are usually left wondering why the fat wasn’t trimmed, and one concise and coherent disc wasn’t constructed. There is usually a healthy slew of filler, but after only our first listen to Long Beach, California resident Vince Staples’ debut album, Summertime ‘06, it became abundantly clear this wasn’t the case. With Summertime ‘06, all the pieces matter. This bold new endeavor is a coming of age story, one we should all be so lucky to experience through Vince’s eyes and Vince’s eyes alone. It tells of a life most teenagers shouldn’t be forced to encounter, one plagued by drugs and gang violence in the streets of Long Beach. When the album was released Vince wrote, “Summer of 2006, the beginning of the end of everything I thought I knew. Youth was stolen from my city that Summer and I’m left alone to tell the story. This might not make sense but that’s because none of it does, we’re stuck.” What’s remarkable, and wholly inspiring, is that through this daunting street narrative and in understanding the impact of where Vince came from, Summertime ‘06 is not void of hope, or a steadfast will to endure. With stunning production, mostly by Def Jam executive No I.D. and Clams Casino, DJ Dahi, Christian Rich and Brian Kidd as well, Summertime ‘06 deserves to be hailed amongst the most celebrated debut albums in hip-hop’s illustrious history.
Essential Tracks: “Lemme Know,” “Senorita,” “3230.”
10. Viet Cong – Viet Cong
As impressive as a debut album that was released this past year, Viet Cong’s self-titled, full-length ((Last year, the band released Cassette, a tour-only EP that ended up getting picked up and given a proper release.)) album is a guttural, pounding assault on the senses. Calgary’s Viet Cong arose from the ashes of the of the late-’00s art-noise band Women, a band who already had our hearts with their dissonant guitar riffs and farcical undertones. Women reminded us at times of The Velvet Underground, and while Viet Cong do not, they display a similar dense and intertwined guitar texturing. “Newspaper Spoons,” the first song on the album, opens with thunderous drums, ones so domineering that they not only startle you into acquiescence but linger with you until “Death,” the eleven minute krautrock-esq opus which closes the album. Core members Matt Flegel and Michael Wallace who used to play in Woman now team with Scott Muro and Daniel Christiansen, two talented artists who wield monstrous guitars, and in tandem Viet Cong thrashes and pounds out one of the most abrasively pleasant albums of the year. One so insolent it demands to not be ignored.
Essential Tracks: “Death,” “Continental Shelf.”
9. Wilco – Star Wars
July 16th, 2015 felt like our birthdays come early. Without any advance warning, alt rock legends Wilco released the band’s first album in over four years, Star Wars, for free, on their website, bucking the traditional album roll-out scheme. Easily the band’s best album in the last ten years, its quickie opening track “EKG” dabbles in shades of Sonic Youth and hints at the greater album’s accessibility and overall looseness of sound. On “Random Name Generator,” a song that sounds as if every single instrument is literally touching a microphone, Wilco’s frontman Jeff Tweedy sings “I change my name every once in awhile / a miracle every once in awhile,” as if giving his fans a window into Wilco’s perception of themselves. Known as a band that can play country as well as they can play pop or rock, Star Wars is just another brilliant variant on Wilco’s dynamic and ever changing sound. With shades of Dylan and hints of the Velvet Underground, T. Rex and even the 1970s electronica duo Suicide running through the album, Star Wars hints at a Wilco still trying to challenge themselves, even if it is within the confines of a freely released LP. Who knows, this could be the lead-up album, or the practice run, for something far, far greater.
Essential tracks: “Random Name Generator,” “Taste the Ceiling,” “Pickled Ginger.”
8. Jamie XX – In Color
Coming in at eleven songs, Jamie XX’s latest album, In Color, is forty two minutes of minimalist genius crashing over the listener in waves of undulating color. Existing as a testament to the artist’s last six years of work, a period of time where it felt like Jamie XX was stretching his wings and figuring out his sound, In Color is the logical conclusion of that journey. His first full-length, solo debut, it’s an album that’s as meticulous and deliberate as it is exhilarating to behold. There’s no frills or filler to be found anywhere around In Color’s offering of original, fresh-feeling songs. From the hollow-sounding steel drums of “Obs,” to the bursting with joy enthusiasm of “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” – featuring rapper Young Thug and dancehall vocalist Popcaan – every track on the album is alive. At the end of the day, In Color feels like a dance album, and it’s a master in its class. It’s the sort of album that can soundtrack all the facets of our lives, from break-ups to debauchery and everything in between, for at its essence, In Color is a celebration of what it feels like to be alive.
Essential Tracks: “Loud Places (feat. Romy),” “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times) [feat. Young Thug & Popcaan],” “SeeSaw.”
7. A$AP Rocky – At. Long. Last. A$AP
We have always sweated A$AP. We had his debut studio album Long. Live. A$AP on repeat the entirety of 2013. But we must admit, while we have nothing but respect for A$AP’s talents, we have to admit we were blindsided by the opulent splendor of At. Long. Last. A$AP. The album is overflowing with guest appearances (Joe Fox, Future, M.I.A. Schoolboy Q, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Rod Stewart, Miguel, and Mos Def, just to name a few) and features production by a team of savants including Danger Mouse, Mark Ronson, and Kanye West (again, just to name a few), however all the various puzzle pieces and competing personalities fit together seamlessly. While the vast sonic soundscapes are captivating on their own, A.L.L.A highlights Rocky’s lyrical maturation and an increasingly polished flow and tone that exhibits a savvy control in speed-shifting and internal rhyme schemes. The lavishness of the eighteen tracks allows one to settle in, to open up to that unique blend of Houston and NYC rap that is now blanketed with a healthy dose of confidence, and a dash of L$D.
Essential Tracks: “Holy Ghost,” “Canal Street,” “Pharsyde.”
6. Panda Bear – Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper, the fifth and newest album from Animal Collective member Panda Bear was one of the first major album releases of 2015. And unto the final moments of this waning year, one of its best. This year Noah Lennox – a.k.a. Panda Bear – dropped his most rugged and funkiest album to date. An album with far more edge than 2007’s masterpiece, Person Pitch, and more full-bodied that 2011’s Tomboy, Grim Reaper is both a return to form for Panda Bear, echoing the aquatic echoes of his initial releases (particularly Young Prayer), and a departure into sonic territories previously uncharted. Lennox has said that the percussion on the album is directly inspired by his favorite breakbeats as a youth, and it is that boom-bap beat construction that provides the foundation for his most accessible album yet. But it is the artist’s distinctive, hypnotic and cyclical vocals which remain as enticing as ever, lulling us into submission while radically quickening your pulse. Lennox has alluded to the fact he wants to abandon the Panda Bear moniker at some point, and maybe this encounter with the Grim Reaper signifies that eventual metamorphosis, where Panda Bear passes and something is born anew. With any luck, what is to come will be as cosmic, imaginative, and ambitious as Grim Reaper, a dynamic work of art which assuredly will get your head noddin’.
Essential tracks: “Mr. Noah,” “Boy’s Latin,” “Tropic of Cancer.”
5. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Wunderkid Sufjan Steven’s most personal, paired-down album yet, Carrie & Lowell, is the best thing the musician’s ever done. Now we know that’s a bold claim from such a prolific and incredibly talented musician, especially one with 2010’s monstrous The Age of Adz or 2005’s Illinois under his belt. But where those albums, and Steven’s sound up until now, were defined by bold, catchy, symphonic soundscapes or orchestra-backed electronic-flavored acoustic adventures, 2015’s Carrie & Lowell is the direct opposite of all that circumstance. What makes this album so grand, so far-reaching and so touchingly beautiful yet uplifting to experience, is that in the end it’s just Sufjan and his guitar. He wears his head and his heart on his sleeve with Carrie & Lowell and bares his soul to all who’d listen. Named after his parents, this album is a musical autobiography of Sufjan’s life. Of his trials, his troubles. Of his childhood, and his adolescence and his loneliness and his faith. It’s a guy with a guitar, that softly whispering voice that draws us like a moth to flame to his side, and those impossibly penetrating lyrics that only he can forge. “This is not my art project; this is my life,” Stevens has said regarding his opinion of Carrie & Lowell and we would have to agree, as the album feels like a timelapse of memories, and a more touching ode to the overwhelming experience of being alive we have yet to encounter.
Essential tracks: “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross,” “Should Have Known Better,” “Carrie & Lowell.”
4. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
This is Courtney Barnett’s first album and her musical approach is most decidedly unique. It feels like your brothers ’90s grunge CD’s took a detour into your uncle’s record collection of ’60s psychedelia and then made a run at your childhood storybooks. Barnett doesn’t just sing on her songs as much as she talks, as if her voice were an instrument unto its own. But where some may see this as a negative – who wants to hear a person talk on an album? you may think – we can assure you that it most certainly works. Barnett’s voice is like a tourist in her own songs. An alternate perspective offering judgement and insight as a passenger riding shotgun to the songs she sings. Her music exists as an ode to a simpler time, like when rap was in its early days and Sugar Hill Gang sang verses like “You see, I’m six foot one, and I’m tons of fun / When I dress to a T / You see, I got more clothes than Muhammad Ali” on songs like “Rappers Delight.” And that’s a good thing, because if it wasn’t for Sugar Hill Gang, we’d never have Biggie or Jay Z. We for one, can’t wait to see what trails Courtney Barnett will blaze with her fun new sound and who else the gravity of her musical ease and looseness will pull in.
Essential tracks: “Pedestrian at Best,” “Depreston,” “Dead Fox.”
3. Mikal Cronin – MCIII
We had the distinct pleasure of spending an evening at the Bowery Ballroom with Mikal Cronin this year in support of his latest album, MCIII. Sufficed to say, it was a night rife with excesses, both in music, drink and sound. But what captured our attention the most was the way in which Cronin’s latest offerings of songs sounded more refined, more elegant than in his previous works. As if MCIII were the “grown-up” version of 2013s absolutely radiant MCII, an album that wowed us with its thick, grungy guitar rock sound. Now “grown-up” isn’t used here to suggest a lessening of Cronin or his music, or a passing from adolescence into adulthood. What it is meant to imply is that his sound has moved from the realm of raw and raucous to elegant and refined. And that’s a good thing, for MCIII finds Cronin offering up an album that in its second-half – which functions as a sort of numerical odyssey – feels like it is flirting in the realm of rock opera, as string quartets lend weight to his sound, trumpets and French horns echo about and strange instruments like the Greek tzouras add depth. Tracks like “Made My Mind Up,” “I Feel Like,” “Ready,” and “Say” front load the album with the kind of garage rock we’ve just seem to get enough us these days, transcendent melodies rife with hooks, unhinged guitar rock-outs, and soaring, harmonious lyricism. If 2013s MCII was the well-crafted blueprint that established Cronin as a viable musician separate from his collaborations with wunder-musician Ty Segall, then 2015’s MCIII is Cronin expanding on that design, wowing us with lush arrangements, lyrical work of a powerful depth and a multitude of mood-altering turns of the heart. This album is Mikal Cronin “going big” and there isn’t one aspect of MCIII that doesn’t fire on all cylinders.
Essential Tracks: “ii) Gold,” “Turn Around,” “Ready.”
2. Tame Impala – Currents
From the opening track of Currents, where Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker implores his fans to “let it happen / let it happen,” to the closing moments of the album where he sings “I feel like a brand new person,” we can’t help but think that Tame Impala has spent thirteen songs trying to convince us that this isn’t their best album yet, but an entirely different being altogether. On songs like “Yes, I’m Changing,” a pop-song if there ever was one (yes….Tame Impala is writing pop-songs here on Currents and absolutely killing it!) Parker sings that “people never change but that’s bullshit, they do” all the while presenting us with a sonic landscape that is entirely devoid of guitar. The guy’s just that good, and the message is: he’s just getting started! Possibly one of the most underrated bassists of the 21st Century, Parker’s every track on Currents seems to further display his range and depth of talent. And taking in the album’s slick, tight production (the drum-work on “Let it Happen” alone is frighteningly genius) and Parker’s mastery as an arranger, vocalist, songwriter, bassist, and producer, it all makes us wonder what kind of madness and perfection could be created if he ever teamed-up with the very talented English music producer, remix artist and DJ, Jamie XX (one half of the musical duo The xx). Dare to dream my friends!
Essential tracks: “Let it Happen,” “Cause I’m A Man,” “The Less I Know The Better.”
1b. El Vy – Return to the Moon
Brent Knopf is a wiz with a melody. He is a master of refrains that are choppy yet pointed and succinct. His piano strokes are graceful, moody and wholly engrossing. His synthesizer work is sparse, haunting and propulsive. Knopf’s unique style of production has fashioned his former (Menomena) and current (Ramona Falls) bands as some of the most intriguing art-rock projects in recent years. But who would have thought these progressive soundscapes would be the ideal place for Matt Berninger of The National to grace his melancholy baritone? The pairing, El Vy (“pronounced like a plural of Elvis and rhyming with ‘hell pie’”), is a collaboration that as time ticked by, and new songs were released week by week, gradually began to blow our mind. Berninger revealed to NME that this is his “most personal album,” and his simple and exposing brand of poetry and impressionistic storytelling thrives within Knopf’s provocative arrangements. Berninger’s sense of nostalgia is steeped in both fond and regretful memories. On “Paul is Alive” he conjures up an alternate adolescence as “Sixteen years old in a dead guy’s boots / With my hair slicked to the side / Sitting outside the Jockey Club / Crying in my 7-up ” and playfully recalling his mother’s sage advice, “She always said, don’t waste your life wishing everything was how it was.” We can only hope that Knopf and Berninger, who are currently on a world tour in support of the album, revisit this prosperous collaboration, a musical tangent showcasing some of Berninger’s most absorbing lyrical work to date and some of Knopf’s best production in recent memory. (( We understand we are cheating here, with the whole “1b” and “1a” approach – but there are far too many albums we want to shine a light on, and this is, we figured, one way to do it!.))
Essential Tracks: “No Time To Crank The Sun,” “Happiness, Missouri,” “Paul is Alive.”
1a. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
Admittedly, following the hard-hitting brilliance of good kid, m.A.A.d. city and his biting, foreboding “Control” verse, we were hoping Kendrick was going to drop an absolute banger on us. An in-your face barnburner that made it abundantly clear that Kendrick is untouchable and the best rapper alive. While To Pimp a Butterfly might not deliver on that expectation, it undoubtedly brought the heat, but in a far more impactful and meaningful way. To Pimp a Butterfly is a journey, one that commences with “Wesley’s Theory,” featuring a few lines of black pride positivity from Boris Gardiner’s “Every nigga is a star,” and closes with the highly affecting “Mortal Man,” which segues into a mesmerizing imagined interview with Tupac, using actual words from a 1994 interview, and ultimately into an explanation by Kendrick of the album’s brilliant central metaphor – the pimping of the butterfly by the caterpillar. To Pimp a Butterfly is a concept album, weighty in self-examination, of the ills of fame, and on U.S. race relations and the history of black music and slavery in America. It is an album that forces one to look inward, and to acknowledge one’s own self-worth and it demands that worth be validated by the powers that be. It’s an album strong in voice, conviction and in purpose. And, to put it plainly, it bumps as well, with “King Kunta” being one of the best song we have heard all year, and “Alright” right there on its heels. To Pimp a Butterfly, while critically acclaimed, didn’t blow people’s minds as unanimously as good kid, m.A.A.d city did, but that’s alright. To Pimp a Butterfly is a far different animal, a masterpiece that we believe to be an important work of art, and one that will stand the test of time in its musical aptitude and also in its cultural consequence.
Essential Tracks: “King Kunta,” “Alright,” “i,” “Mortal Man.”
1. Father John Misty – I Love You Honeybear
We once heard Father John Misty talking about his moniker. Within this loaded and assuredly cheeky conversation, he mentioned how he is essentially “leaving the listener with the check,” and it is up to that listener to decide, “Are you going to apply meaning to this or not?” We can’t help but feel this idea sums up the entire Father John Misty experience. I Love You a Honeybear, if we may channel a measure of Father’s John’s drollery, is an age old story, one where a sardonic boy meets a girl, they fall in love, and the boy suffers an identity crisis, wondering if love can persist the perils of consummate self-involvement. Father John’s modern vision of this story on I Love You Honeybear is awash with questions about the lover’s predicament. Is societal pressure to blame? The institutions that mold and shape our lives? Would running off together solve everything? Father John doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but he is asking the right questions, as vulnerable and exposed as this leaves him. But again, this is where the listener is left with the proverbial “check,” in that they are left to ponder the depths of human nature and our place in the world. This is the power of Father John Misty, and of the provocative masterpiece that is I Love You Honeybear.
Josh Tillman, who gained notoriety as the drummer for Fleet Foxes, and then become a star unto his own when he stepped out from behind the kit, never sidesteps a chance to take a jab at the intrusive institutions that meddle in our lives for profit, and it is in these moments where Father John’s wit and wordplay transcends. While “Bored in the USA” challenges the age old institution of marriage and the path one should take in life, “Holy Shit,” comes to the poignant conclusion that “No one ever really knows you, and life is brief,” and “Love is just an institution based on human frailty / What’s your paradise got to do with Adam and Eve? / Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity / But what I fail to see is what that’s got to do with you and me.” The moral of the story seems to be that you just can’t get caught up. Like Father John, it’s best to just to be yourself. In fact, that’s the only way love stands a chance.
There is truth in Father John’s music. There are layers of understanding to be had beneath all the parody and self-mockery. And backing all of Father John’s insightful witticisms and clever lyrics are enthralling guitar solos and lush harmonies and string arrangements, all elegantly framing forty-five minutes of startlingly beautiful music, and the best album we heard all year.
Essential Tracks: “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins),” “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment,” “Bored in the USA,” “Holy Shit.”
Interesting top 10. But I guess Sleaford Mods hasn’t reached you yet. Mebbe next year!
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