10. VINCE STAPLES- SUMMERTIME ‘06
I loved Vince Staples debut 2014 EP “Hell Can Wait” so much that it made my top twenty last year even though I usually keep EP’s separate from my main countdown. Audaciously Staples followed that brilliant EP with a full length double album, during a time when most major label rappers and forced to give their albums away as free mixtapes. Like Kendrick Lamar, Staples is from Compton and also like Lamar, extremely political helping to further conversation in the age of rampant police brutality against people of color and of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. “Summertime ‘06” documents and pivotal year in Staples life, a year when he was still quite young- a year where he grew up too fast. The album is a depressing look at racial profiling, drug addiction, poverty, gang banging and institutional failures of his community, but like Public Enemy or Ice Cube before him, Staples manages to sound authentically cold, hard and pessimistic while being catchy if outside the bounds of traditional rap radio. Staples is one of the most important young voices in rap today.
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9. MIGUEL- WILDHEART
Though “Wildheart” may rank just slightly below his last album, 2012’s “Kaleidoscope Dream” in overall quality it is a worthy follow-up nonetheless whose highlights may just be his best songs yet. Let’s start with lead single “Coffee”, a song as much about love as sex and one of my very favorite songs of the year. Album closer “Face The Sun” is nearly as good and “Waves”, “nwa” and porncentric “The Valley” are other highlights. Miguel is normally kinks and naughty but also just as focused on female pleasure as his own. He is the closest thing we have to a modern day Prince. Sexy & sultry with a powerful, passionate voice, equally adept at funk as he is at crooning loverman, pillow talk jams. Like Prince he is eccentric, even weird, with a distinct personality, writes his own stuff and plays a mean guitar. He also crosses over from R&B to Rock and back again, giving fans of either genre much to love.
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8. FATHER JOHN MISTY- I LOVE YOU HONEYBEAR
Father John Misty (alias of Josh Tillman), is a hyper literate, super smart guy with a dripping sense of irony and cynicism and probably a superiority complex. He takes the piss out of everything and everyone. He plays his character as a drunken lothario, above it all like his Laurel Canyon forebear Harry Nilsson. And like Nilsson Tillman has a great sense of melody and a beautiful voice. When Tillman isn’t taking shots at his sexual conquests or both making fun of and feeling sorry for America’s dwindling middle class, he is writing beautiful love songs to his wife Emma who seems to be nothing less than a soulmate to him. Tillman’s last album as Father John “Fear Fun” brought him many fans, particularly in in the indie world, but “I Love You Honeybear” does that album better in almost every conceivable way. The songs are better and more consistent while being more musically and tonally varied while maintaining his sense of humor and nonchalance that made him standout on “Fear Fun”. Tillman unwillingness to play the ‘record company game’ will likely keep him at least slightly outside of the margins even though he has the talent, sense of melody and potential of accessibility to probably achieve much greater stardom. But again like Nilsson before him, Tillman’s unique weirdness can also give him more longevity in the long run and make him more interesting and memorable.
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7. COURTNEY BARNETT- SOMETIMES I SIT AND THINK, SOMETIMES I JUST SIT
“Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit” is the full length debut from Barnett, a talented 20-something Australian singer songwriter with a unique voice and style and a kickass rock band behind her. Barnett’s cache has steadily risen since the release of her two EP’s, including the great song “Avant Gardener” one of my favorite songs of the last few years. Barnett’s singing is done with a wink, in a deadpan monotone while her band plays a mixture of indie-punk and nineties indebted grunge. This music is both fun and thought provoking. Barnett’s manages to make the mundane details of life profound and she exhibits both great storytelling and twists of a phrase. The music varies through many different varieties of rock- grunge, punk, power pop, acoustic but Barnett’s voice always remains the same, given her a unique, recognizable sound. And “Sometimes…” is another album filled with great songs like “Pedestrian At Best”, “Debbie Downer”, “Depreston” and “Aqua Profunda!”. It is my favorite debut album of the year and would surely even rank higher of the list in a year with less stiff competition.
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6. SUFJAN STEVENS- CARRIE & LOWELL
“Carrie & Lowell” is the first major album in five years from Sufjan Stevens, one of the best musical artists of his generation. It’s both one of his best and definitely his most personal, making the wait well worth it. After dabbling in electronic music with 2010’s “Age Of Adz”, “Carrie & Lowell” returns to Steven’s acoustic roots and he is at his most spare and intimate here. The album addresses his difficult upbringing with a mother (Carrie, who recently passed away in 2012) who was bipolar and schizophrenic and also had substance abuse issues. And Lowell, his stepfather, who took the family under his wing, when their mother could no longer function as a parent. As usual Stevens writes and sings with depth, beauty and great empathy exploring his own issues with grief, depression & his own substance problems. “Carrie & Lowell the album is both a truly heartbreaking album and jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Nearly every song is a highlight but the album is best listened to as a whole, alone. It requires full concentration.
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5. TAME IMPALA- CURRENTS
“Currents”, Australian band Tama Impala’s fourth album, is quite a departure for the group in several ways. It’s a move away from the group’s sixties inspired psychedelic guitar rock sound and is much more a solo album with hired guns by group mastermind Kevin Parker, than it is a collaborative ‘band’ album. Lyrically Parker is clearly breaking out of a familiar, probably long-term relationship and placing himself in the unknown. Despite the griping of some of Tame Impala’s old fans that the group’s sound has changed too much, I believe their more synth driven sound is largely successful and “Currents” stands alongside the group’s best material, and they are one of my very favorite modern bands working. “Currents” mostly deals with the excitement, loneliness, shame, pain, jealousy and guilt that occurs after a big breakup and the album also acts as a metaphor for Parker taking a more solo route musically as well as changing up his sound rather drastically. “Currents” has one weird misstep in the middle with “Past Life” and has three of four other interludes that act as bridges between songs, but it’s otherwise loaded with highlights including seven minute lead single “Let It Happen”- the album’s statement of purpose, “Eventually”, “The Less I Know The Better”, “Cause I’m A Man” and the beautiful and underrated “Yes I’m Changing”.
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4. JAMIE XX- IN COLOUR
In a different year “In Colour” could have been a solid number one, but 2015 was no ordinary year and it boasts the best top seven or eight since I’ve been compiling these lists. It’s the best straight up DJ album I can remember, even beating out the brilliant “Cosmogramma” by Flying Lotus. It’s improbably Jamie XX’s best release even topping the xx’s brilliant self-titled debut from back in 2009. It is both consistently great and top heavy with amazing singles, including his collboaration with dancehall artist Popcaan and rapper of the moment Young Thug “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”, which was one of 2015’s signature summer jams. “Gosh” and “Loud Places” (the best of the lot in my opinion) are two others that were among the best songs of the year along with instrumental mindfuck “Hold Tight”. There isn’t a bad moment here and Jamie manages to varied while always remaining tasteful making his way through hip hop, pop, chilled out electronic slow jams, deep house, drum n’ bass and other more dance ready rhythms. Romy Croft from his band the xx guest here several times, always to nice effect, giving the listener a taste of Jamie’s other band while moving fully outside of it throughout the rest of the album.
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3. GRIMES- ART ANGELS
Grimes is Claire Boucher, one of the most unique artists to come around in a long time. She brings more weirdness and experimentation to pop and more pop to indie music than anyone else. She’s had great moments in the past, especially the track “Oblivion” from her 2012 album “Visions” but with “Art Angels” she gives us both one of the year’s best albums and an album filled with “Oblivion” like moments. The variety on “Art Angels” is incredible. She melds EDM, dance pop, country, balladry, hip hop sampling, K-pop & rock guitar music together, singing, writing and producing everything herself expertly. Filling each song with crazy hooks along with her own weirdness. One can imagine most of these songs playing alongside, but always standing apart from other modern radio hits. Her helium filled vocals are somehow both accessible and unintelligible at the same time. The highlights are abundant. Pre-released digital single “Realti”, “Flesh Without Blood” (with Janelle Monae), “Venus Fly”, “California”, Kill V Maim” and “Butterfly” are all among the best tracks released this year and I get the feeling that more listens to “Art Angels” will bring new favorites. “Art Angels” has all the makings of a modern pop classic.
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2. KENDRICK LAMAR- TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY
“To Pimp A Butterfly” has dominated year end #1 lists like no album before it in recent memory and I was very tempted to place it there as well. Even upon its release last March it felt like an important album out to make a statement. It’s a very lengthy album chock full of opinions and ideas, challenges its audience both musically and lyrically. Though Kendrick is an expert rapper, one of the best technically, he gives us so much more than rap on “TPAB”. It feels almost as much a funk and jazz fusion album than it does rap. Along with likeminded Los Angeles artists like Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin, Flying Lotus and Thundercat, Kendrick crafts a black concept album for the ages, like Stevie Wonder, Funkadelic and Sly & The Family Stone did before him. And this album is more than anything, about what is means to be black in modern America. Kendrick waxes philosophically on fame, wealth, drugs, sex as well as race- never sparing and always questioning America’s power structure, his own community and even himself. Though the three singles- “The Blacker The Berry”, “King Kunta” and “Alright” are the most notable highlights, there is so much more greatness here than them, even if it may take many listens for some of the rest of the tracks to sink in. President Obama called “How Much A Dollar Cost” his favorite song of the year. “If These Walls Could talk” is another highlight. And it will likely be years before “TPAB” is fully deciphered. It’s a rare album that truly justifies this long a running time but “TPAB” is one such album and is like a “Songs In The Key Of Life” for our modern age.
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1. SLEATER-KINNEY- NO CITIES TO LOVE
“To Pimp A Butterfly” is the clear critical consensus number one album of 2015. It’s the most important album, a fantastic album, and I was very tempted to give it the number one slot as well. But “No Cities To Love”, Sleater-Kinney’s first album in a decade, is just too perfect. Every song slays. Between the mid-nineties and the mid 2000’s S/K was probably my favorite rock band and that being said, I think “No Cities” is improbably their best album. Many, if not most, reunion albums are a huge disappointment, or at best a worthy follow-up to a band’s best work. But S/K managed to deliver a relevant, urgent album filled with top notch songs that tweaked their sound while still remaining true to it. The few tracks that I didn’t absolutely love on first listen (namely “Gimme Love” and “Fade”) I love now and the remainder of the album is filled with instant S/K classics like pre-released singles “Bury Our Friends” and “Surface Envy” along with the title track, the brilliant “Price Tag” and “New Wave”- one of my favorite S/K tracks yet. S/K’s last release “The Woods” was brilliant too- their longest, jammiest album, most indebted to 1970’s Classic Rock and Heavy Metal. “No Cities” goes the opposite way- delivering a short, tight album with all killer, no filler. That it dropped in early January also set the tone for one of the best music years in recent memory.
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