My five favorite albums of 2015

Here is the penultimate post in the Best of 2015 series, a look at the albums I enjoyed the most from this past year.

Honorable Mentions

New Bermuda – Deafheaven

Barter 6 – Young Thug

In Colour – Jaime XX

Surf’s Up – Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment

Sound and Colour – Alabama Shakes

5. Too – FIDLAR

If listening to young people scream about drugs isn’t your thing, you’re not alone. Fast and distorted odes to substance haven’t been popular in about thirty years, and Los Angeles punk icons FIDLAR don’t hide their love of the California punk bands that popularized them nearly forty years ago. If you grew up listening to Descendents, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, X et al. sing about drugs, you’re going to love FIDLAR. If you didn’t, you may love FIDLAR anyway, because even though they suffer from a lack of originality, their most recent album Too sounds like the full realization of California punk, challenging the relentless sunshine and promises of opportunity the Golden State embodies.

FIDLAR sometimes sound like the schoolyard bullies, an unfair characterization the band rejects with odes to introversion “Leave Me Alone” and “40oz on Repeat.” Occasionally the band will get a little silly, as the lovely monologue and catchy-as-hell chorus on “Sober” suggest. Most of the time, however, they exist simply to pay tribute to their forbearers. “West Coast” tosses another solid track into the surf rock canon that brimmed with exciting entries from bands like DIIV, Best Coast, Real Estate, Wavves, and FIDLAR themselves a couple years back. Even “Generation Why” doesn’t suffer from the proselytizing that gets socially critical punk bands in trouble, instead building itself upon some impressive backup vocals and big production. Truth is, this is all stuff that would’ve killed on college radio back in 1991, but FIDLAR seems to be doing just fine rekindling those memories instead of making new ones.

4. I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside – Earl Sweatshirt

The most impressive thing about Earl Sweatshirt’s second album is that it verifies that his initially well-received debut album Doris wasn’t very good after all. Not that I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is the anti-Doris, but rather it identifies Doris’s shortcomings and throws them out completely. If that means cutting fifteen minutes and five guest verses (the charismatic Vince Staples excepted), so be it. From it’s marketing, hype, production, length, and cultural impact, IDLS;IDGO is a much smaller album than its predecessor. It’s also a lot better.

The opener “Huey” finds Earl graduating from the lackadaisical voice that made his music a slogging listen over the past couple of years, and that voice doesn’t go away for the duration of the project. Neither does his already established lyricism, thankfully, as Earl reprises ideas and sentence structure that reads more like poetry than bars. He’s improved on his hooks as well: the choruses of “Faucet” (“and I don’t know whose house to call home lately”) and “Grown Ups” especially relate Earl’s grief to the common listener. And as for grief, its namesake track in all its new age low-fi glory may be the most haunting thing Earl’s produced.

The album is as misanthropic as the title suggests, but it’s also a much warmer and more inviting listen than it should be. The cohesion between Earl’s production and lyrics is seamless (he provided the instrumentals for all but one track), making for an easily digestible project about hard-to-swallow topics. By the time he takes the torch from Vince on the album’s final track “Wool,” he reestablishes himself as not just an artist to look for in the future, but as a writer to pay attention to right now. He’s always had a way with a pen, and now he’s found a voice to match.

3. The Most Lamentable Tragedy – Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus fans will feel obligated to approach the band’s most recent album The Most Lamentable Tragedy as the gigantic culmination (and possibly finale) of the New Jersey rock band’s exciting career. And as Patrick Stickles and company have demonstrated throughout their career, they sound best on The Most Lamentable Tragedy when openly inspired by other artists’ work.

The tributes to William Shakespeare, Bruce Springsteen, and Bright Eyes have been augmented, and some new tributes to Cheap Trick and Daniel Johnston have been added. All the critics who deftly compared +@ to The Pogues will be forced to swallow two covers and a lovely green rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” melting the heart of every Irishman who deigns to press play. The band also calls back to their own work, posting up parts four and five of the “No Future” series, a reference to their modern classic “A More Perfect Union,” and a retread of the two worst songs they’ve ever put to record. There are also two songs that have the same title and an interlude filler that’s just called “Filler.” And after all of that, there are still nineteen songs left.

Of course, you could just ignore the theatrics and allow +@’s unabashed Americana to blow through your chest cavity like a neighborhood fireworks show. No one would blame you if you chose this option: the band is Springsteen and whiskey and social anxiety rolled into a continuous exhibition of meat-and-potatoes guitar rock, and a cursory listen should give you just as much enjoyment as a close analysis. And even if you choose to toss the scraps, you’ll find consolation in the album’s incredible second act (“The Magic Morning” to “More Perfect Union”), a nearly twenty-five-minute dissertation on the face-melting properties of punk’s undying noise. How can rock ‘n roll be dead while Titus Andronicus still lives?

2. Product – Sophie

If you’ve been following mysterious electronic producer SOPHIE and his collection of post-modern waterslides over the last couple of years, Product contains nothing you haven’t heard before. Instead of a traditional album, the project is merely a collection of eight singles he’s released two-at-a-time since early 2013. If SOPHIE were a generic DJ, Product would seem like a disappointing cash grab meant to capitalize on Internet hype and burger advertisements (even the project’s name satirizes commoditized music in the digital age). But rather than sounding dated in a digital landscape where trends fizzle in a matter of days, the songs on Product still feel like the future; albeit the future imagined fifteen years ago, but the future nonetheless.

SOPHIE’s M.O. isn’t dance or trance, but rather the combination of saccharine details with horrific undertones. The vocals on “Bipp,” “Just Like We Never Said Goodbye,” and “Vyzee” are so adorable that it makes me feel bad that our anime princess goes through the gauntlet of horror movie scores on “Elle,” “Hard,” and most terrifyingly on “MSMSMSM.” Every one of these songs, even the horrifying drill-porn “L.O.V.E.,” provides a unique texture that’s both unsettling and impossible to ignore. Product is the full realization of the Disney-through-a-meat-grinder sound that artists like Grimes and FKA Twigs do so well. Not that SOPHIE sounds anything like Grimes or FKA Twigs, mind you, or really like anything else I can think of.

If you can somehow make it through the painful drone of “L.O.V.E.”, you’ll be rewarded with “Vyzee,” his most recent and most satisfying single. It’s arguably the collection’s most straightforward track, but the squishiness and cheerleader-chant bridge throw it far from generic dance pop. If SOPHIE chooses to eschew everything that makes him weird, he’ll make a fine discography with “Vyzee”-like singles for the next few years. But if he isn’t done with waterslides and dildos, the months between his next releases will be worth the wait.

1. To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar

It doesn’t feel as if anyone has written much of consequence about Kendrick Lamar’s instant classic third album. I don’t feel as if I could write anything of consequence about it either, at least as of right now. But it’s pretty clear that To Pimp A Butterfly is the best of the year (maybe the decade? [maybe ever??]), and while I can’t really say why, I can encourage you to listen to it and discover for yourself.

Go buy it with money.

 

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