Best of 2015: Albums!

As my yearly best-of lists get comically later and later, I present my favorite albums of 2015. My Proper, Critic list can be found here, but this list is reserved for my exclusively personal favorite albums of the year. Songs from 23 of these 25 albums can be found in my previously-published 75 Songs of 2015 zenith playlist (#24 and #20 require outside searching, sorry). I am but one man and I did not make it to every album I wanted to in 2015; still, I listened to a big diversity of releases, and here’s my 25 favorite:

Well, almost. I have to honor five runners-up who didn’t make it: Grimes, Lightning Bolt, the Dead Weather, Cage the Elephant and Jenny Hval. Their albums are all worth mentioning, but I can only write about so many.

#25. Bully – “Feels Like” – This is an apropos album title, because it feels like 90’s alternative. The band can kick up the volume and anger when they want – see standout “Trash” – but they don’t rely on it for every song. Their ability to switch between indie and noise seems almost too innate for a young band. A beautifully talented group. Between you and me, I got to see them earlier this month, and they put on a hell of a show.

#24. Deafheaven – “New Bermuda” – With a title like “New Bermuda,” Deafheaven lead on that their follow-up to the perfect “Sunbather” would be another blackgaze album designed for indie kids. We were deceived. This is a black metal album, with 10+ minute songs and no breaks like “Sunbather” gave us. Deafheaven split the metal scene in half with their last album, and on this release, they’re pandering more to the purists than the newcomers.

#23. Meg Myers – “Sorry” – Myers falls somewhere in between pop and indie, as an unassuming singer armed with a guitar. The album is top-heavy, but early tracks like “Motel” and “Sorry” are some of the most desperate and emotionally affecting indie-pop songs you’ll hear all year.

#22. Father John Misty – “I Love You, Honeybear” – Father John Misty’s second album established the indie-folk singer as someone who isn’t one to shy away from jokes or uncomfortable topics. There’s so many songs about sex on this album (many of them graphic), that you’ll completely forget he was ever a part of Fleet Foxes. He’s vying for the role of class clown in the folk scene, although his album isn’t without serious moments too. “Bored in the USA” is an affecting ballad about America’s shortcomings.

#21. Jeff Rosenstock – “We Cool?” – Jeff Rosenstock, one-time singer of my all-time favorite band Bomb the Music Industry!, put out his first proper solo album and went on about 10 brief tours for it. Although the album has punk tracks like “Hey Allison!” and standout “You, In Weird Cities,” it also ends on some more rambling, other-worldly songs that wouldn’t have fit on any of the albums by Rosenstock’s previous bands. Is it maturity? Who knows.

#20. Vince Staples – “Summertime ’06” – Staples long-awaited debut album feels very laid-back, which is odd considering that it is overflowing with both rhymes and emotion. Staples crams his album full of guests, with everyone sticking lines in everywhere they can. The fact that its a double-album for no real reason contributes to the mood – Staples has a lot to say, but he gets it out quickly. Never have chill and frantic intertwined so well.

#19. Carly Rae Jepsen – “E*MO*TION” – Look, I love Adele just as much as the next person. But this year’s best pop album belonged to Carly Rae Jepsen. It’s a shame that no one in America bought it because we missed out on a real classic. The album, Jepsen’s second and first since “Call Me Maybe,” is just her having fun in the studio and trying on some different outfits. Sure, some work better than others, but it is fun throughout. “Run Away With Me” especially is one of the pop gems of this decade so far.

#18. Le1f – “Riot Boi” – After Macklemore stole the “Thrift Shop” beat off of Le1f’s “Wut,” it was expected that his first full-length would be angry. And it is, although Le1f keeps it contained. Really, it’s an avant-garde rap album. Le1f uses his standing as a queer rapper to make a rap album that stands out against any other album. It ranges between angry and content, but it’s always unexpected.

#17. Will Butler – “Policy” – If you’ve ever found a piece of an Arcade Fire song that’s unexpectedly fun or upbeat, it’s because of Butler. As the multi-instrumentalist in AF, and younger brother of lead singer Win, Butler doesn’t quite share in the band’s downtrodden emotions. He showed that on his debut solo album, a brief collection of fun indie-rock that’s brimming with comical and unexpected lyrics. There’s an innocence to his odes to “beating the shit out of some birds” and “pony macaroni.” It’s the most fun on an indie record this year.

#16. Motorhead – “Bad Magic” – No reason to fix what isn’t broken. On what proved to be Motorhead’s last album, the band marched on with yet another collection of hard-rock grooves. Songs like “Thunder & Lightning” rock harder than almost anything done by younger contemporaries. And as Lemmy’s last album, it’s a proper sendoff to an extraordinary career. Rock on, Lemmy.

#15. The Weeknd – “Beauty Behind the Madness” – After a few EP’s and a false-start LP in 2011, The Weeknd finally delivered the big-league album that was expected of him. Okay, it does bleed over with casual misogyny, certainly, and that can’t be overlooked. But he also made sure he didn’t center the album around a few singles. “Can’t Feel My Face” and “The Hills” both became #1 hits, but every other song on this album could’ve done just as well. “Earned It,” has, in fact, picked him up an Oscar nomination.

#14. FIDLAR – “Too” – Man, FIDLAR got less fun. But it’s okay, because people have to grow up. And after their self-titled debut (one of my all-time favorites), some traumatic things happened behind the scenes. Their sophomore album was written and recorded amidst tragedies, and it switches between “drugs are fun!” and “drugs are bad.” It isn’t coherent, but it leaves messages both ways. The album’s first four tracks show the band’s full width, and are four of the best songs in their catalog.

#13. Death Grips – “The Powers That B” – According to Spotify, Death Grips was my most-played band of 2015, which is, well, embarrassing. Death Grips is only exciting on first listen of under the age of 17. But their “””final””” album (they have another coming out soon) is still a great listen, especially in the latter half. The album was split into two sides – the disappointing “Ni***s on the Moon” and the enthralling “Jenny Death.” Both sides have great songs (and both sides have Bjork), but the second side has standouts like “Why a Bitch Gotta Lie” and the excellently-titled “I Break Mirrors With My Face in the United States.”

#12. Viet Cong – “Viet Cong” – One of the most hotly debated bands of the year released an undeniably great debut album. With excellent tracks like “Continental Shelf,” “March of Progress” and “Death,” it’s easy to see that the post-punk band mean trouble. The songs jump from catchy to grainy to discordant in no time, like post-punk quartered and sliced. Unfortunately, their damn name has cost them. Change your name, guys, please change your name.

#11. Torres – “Sprinter” – I didn’t know anything about Torres jumping into this album and, based on critical acclaim, expected an indie-folk singer. What I got was far darker. One of my favorite songs of the year, “Strange Hellos” literally starts the album with a song about dementia. The album follows with songs about missed connections and identity. The album also continuously gets lighter, from guitar crunch to acoustic ballads, like someone fading away.

#10. MisterWives – “Our Own House” – I had the opportunity to see this band play three years ago in a hole-in-the-wall NYC club opening for Pyyramids, and was so taken aback that I wrote their name down in my phone. Two years later, their song “Reflections” is racking up Spotify plays. Their debut album is a piece of gorgeous indie-folk, with varying influences. Mandy Lee’s voice drives the band, a sweet and unique voice that fits any mood. I usually don’t care for the lighter indie fare, but I make exception for MisterWives.

#9. Wilco – “Star Wars” – About a decade ago, Wilco was dragged through such a hell that they really don’t care anymore. What I mean is that they titled a new, free album “Star Wars,” knowing there was a movie coming out months later, with no proper permission to use the phrase. Wilco have always fought titles, and just as they were starting to settle into a “dad-rock” phase, they fought against it. This is their shortest album, and filled with their shortest songs. They feel comfortable in guitar blasts and quirky little tunes that feel like older Wilco. It’s nothing revolutionary, but when Wilco is great, they’re great.

#8. Heems – “Eat Pray Thug” – The first solo album from Heems sets up amazing parallels. He is a native New Yorker, a city he loves more than anything. But he is also Indian, and as he watched the towers fall from a classroom on 9/11, and after learning about the ethnicity of the terrorists, he knew NYC would never love him back. The album is equally political and funny, and full of parallels between humor and seriousness. Rappers tend to be rigid in their image; Heems aims to be the direct opposite.

#7. Nerina Pallot – “The Sound and the Fury” – British singer/songwriter Nerina Pallot has been continuously putting out stellar releases for years, and her new album is no different. Compiled largely from recent EP’s, the album switches courses on almost every track. “There Is a Drum” has a haunting Tibetan rhythm, “Rousseau” is a simple but effective guitar track and “The Road” mixes in some other cultural influences. It is a tremendous indie record from start to finish, and I’m going to do my damndest to get her known here in the States.

#6. Sleater-Kinney – “No Cities to Love” – Sleater-Kinney originally disbanded around a decade ago, partially because they felt their message was becoming outdated and partially because they didn’t want to tarnish their legacy of seven excellent albums. But they’re back, as politically energized as ever, and with another great release. It was no accident that the album was released early in January, with opener “Price Tag” heralding a miserable but sweaty ode to the economy. The girls haven’t missed a beat since 2005 and really, they’ve only become more important.

#5. Peach Kelli Pop – “Peach Kelli Pop III” – Peach Kelli Pop is the project of Allie Hanlon, who’s three albums under the moniker only stretch to 63 minutes. This album, 20 minutes total, sounds just her like her first two. It’s the direct mix between hardcore punk and mermaid imagery. Ostensibly, it’s power-pop, but really it’s ultra-fast punk songs set alongside bells and girly-girl vocals. There’s nothing else really like it. It’s only fitting that she covers the Sailor Moon theme song. Catchy at it’s catchiest.

#4. Courtney Barnett – “Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit” – Courtney Barnett had high expectations going into her debut album, and she didn’t disappoint. The Australian singer/songwriter blends an incomprehensible mix of early Dylan and Pavement. She muddles her way through existential and empty odes to suburban Australia, seemingly disconnected to the music around her. But a closer listen proves that’s not the case, as Barnett really sticks her poetical words in every spot she can, around the music. It is crunchy, existential, 90’s alt at it’s best.

#3. Alabama Shakes – “Sound and Color” – The best rock record of the year was also my favorite. The band’s 2012 debut was an excellent Southern rock record, but the follow-up saw the band exploring their own influences. The band blisters through punk and avant-garde, among other stops. But the Shakes are at their best when singer Brittany Howard is howling above everyone else. “Don’t Wanna Fight” is one of the best vocal rock songs of the decade, at the very least. This group can switch from fun punk tracks to sending chills down your spine at a moment’s notice.

#2. Kendrick Lamar – “To Pimp a Butterfly” – This is a subjective list, okay? It’s #2, sorry. Still, this is one of the best rap albums ever produced. Lamar starts many, many storylines here that he doesn’t entirely finish. He raps about Compton, about his childhood, about depression and addiction, about police brutality, about rap itself. And he twists and turns all of them as the album goes on. It features almost no guest stars, but does include Snoop Dogg, and invokes Tupac, telling of how Lamar knew this album would be perceived. There’s nothing to say about this album that hasn’t been said already – he’s the greatest of our time.

#1. Nicki Minaj – “The Pinkprint” – Technically this album came out in 2014, but it’s release came alongside my lists then. Honestly, this is one of the most diverse and open rap records I’ve ever heard. It’s got older, flashy Nicki in “Anaconda,” and it’s got newer, mature Nicki in “All Things Go.” It also hits every point in the spectrum in between. There isn’t a weak track, and not even a weak moment on this album. Ballads like “The Night is Still Young” sound just as good as bangers like “Trini Dem Girls.” I’ve listened to this album so, so many times this year and I urge you do the same. Nicki has been through heaven and hell, and puts them both on record. In five years Nicki has become the highest-grossing female rapper of all-time: here’s why.

Great comedy releases:

I usually do a separate piece for comedy records and specials, but frankly, there wasn’t many released in 2015. So here’s a rundown of the seven comedy releases I paid attention to in 2015:

#7. Sara Schaefer – “Chrysalis” – The former co-host of Nikki & Sara Live put out her first true stand-up album, and although it might rank last on my list, it’s still absolutely worth a listen. Her bit “Pumpin’ Pussy Like Gas” had me in stitches on John Oliver’s stand up show on Comedy Central a few years ago. The twenty-track album is full of brief musings on sex, love, tattoos, and teenagers.

#6. John Mulaney – “The Comeback Kid” – Mulaney’s previous special, “New In Town” is my all-time favorite comedy release, audio or video. And although he doesn’t quite live up to his peak, his new special hits all the right marks. His stories are longer here, but the standouts are his memories of working for a start-up with a really, really old, quirky boss, and a closing story about the time his mother tried to bed a young Bill Clinton.

#5. Brooks Wheelan – “This is Cool, Right?” – It takes a real stand-up to make an album that’s actually comprehensive, and that’s what Wheelan has done on his first try. Wheelan, as you might not remember, was a cast member on SNL for one season. The best bits on his album cover New York, his time living there and his time on the show. He ends by mentioning all the pitches of his the show rejected (a 9/11 one elicits massive groans from the audience even in Madison, Wisconsin). The whole set seems to be aimed around youth in a way, with the title emphasizing that Wheelan is still new at this, just give him time! Honestly though, this is a great stand-up album.

#4. Jen Kirkman – “I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine)” – The title says a lot. Kirkman’s last album, “Hail to the Freaks,” was a mix of introspective-cynicism and reflective-optimism, as she had just gotten married. Four years later, she’s divorced and more famous than before, and her cynicism hits far more deeply. Kirkman’s stories about other married couples, children and hooking up with a 20-year old drummer are among the best material she’s ever done.

#3. Eugene Mirman – “I’m Sorry (You’re Welcome)” – Perhaps the most innovative comedy album ever produced, this 9-disc, 4 1/2 hour odyssey is like nothing else ever made. The first disc is actual stand-up, with great riffs on religion, hipsters, and the internet. It also includes the stories of the time Mirman got a parking ticket in New Hampshire and took out a full-page newspaper ad to fight it, and the time he got mugged in Mexico by police, alongside Michael Stipe. The other discs? One is voice mail messages, one is sound effects, one is orgasms, one is basic Russian, one is the effects of hard drugs presented through music, one is a full-body massage in audio form, and one is just him crying for 45 minutes. The zenith is available on LP, CD, and in the form of a chair or a robe, both with the MP3s embedded and, for one fan, a puppy.

#2. Ron Funches – “The Funches Of Us” – As a cast-member on “Undateable” and the all-time winning-est guest on @midnight, Funches capitalized a huge 2015 with an excellent debut album. At the album’s best, Funches presents himself as an innocent, relatable comedian. His big laugh and giggly attitude make him seem like the snuggliest comedian in the land. But he also occasionally goes into dark territory, making jokes at the expense of his autistic teenaged son. No, we probably shouldn’t be laughing, but Funches is able to show us how much he cares through his jokes, even if they are dark. Rarely do we feel warm and comforted through stand-up, but Funches is able to do that.

#1. Kyle Kinane – “”I Liked His Old Stuff Better”” – Kyle Kinane’s sharpest special sees him slowly creeping into a middle-aged life. Kinane is uncomfortable, with the aches his body makes now, and reminisces on old parties. With all of the innovative comedy albums this year (and the youngsters releasing debuts), Kinane was able to blow them all out of the water with a sharp and cynical-but-not-mean take on the differences between youth and whatever it is that comes after. Also, all of the track titles are based off of the tracks on “Straight Outta Compton,” so, one extra point there.

Thanks for reading, maybe next year I’ll have my 2016 best of out by St. Patrick’s Day.

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Jen Kirkman – “I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine)”

Grade: A-

On her last special, 2011’s “Hail to the Freaks,” Jen Kirkman was blessed with a wealth of material for stand-up – she had just gotten married. Now it’s four years later, and Kirkman has found herself with an even bigger plate of material – divorce. And turning 40. “Freaks” had a weird mismatch, of Kirkman’s largely cynical comedy battling with her joy of being married. All of that is swept under the rug on her new Netflix special, in favor of well over an hour of jokes and stories about self-love and self-confidence in defiance of age and gender standards.

Much of “I’m Gonna Die Alone” is devoted to how Kirkman at first uncomfortably, and now comfortably stands against the ideals of what a 40 year old is “supposed” to be. Kirkman is free, literally, to criticize those with kids, or to date anyone (including a 20 year old drummer, two days after her and her husband separated). On “Freaks,” a 36 year old Kirkman sounded surprisingly happy to be settling into a married life, one she never thought she’d fit into. Looking back now, present-day Kirkman realizes she was probably right all along.

Outside of marriage and divorce, Kirkman’s special still deals heavily with age. She struggles to find breakfast for her 17 years younger drummer boyfriend because she’s forgotten what it’s like to have to eat immediately. She attributes losing 40 pounds to standing while watching TV and having an occasional cigarette. And when she finds gray pubic hairs, she’s worried it’s going to look like barbed wire.

Kirkman’s confidence has risen considerably in the years since “Freaks.” She’s cynical, but she’s not bitter. Her cynicism is instead placed in her proud and utter rejection of societal standards. She doesn’t let anything weigh her down. She could easily (and maybe expectedly) taken the self-deprecating route that so many comedians have gone down in the wake of Louis CK, but she doesn’t. One of the special’s strongest suits is how easily Kirkman is able to dig out her niche in the world and observe it from the outside. Even in one of the special’s opening bits, about Dave, a man who doesn’t know the difference between lemons and limes, Kirkman observes the stupidity of humankind as an outsider. By ignoring the social norms she once embraced, she’s crafted a unique voice, and it has sharpened her comedy and delivery. With heightened TV appearances and a best-selling book under her belt, Kirkman is still on the rise. “I’m Gonna Die Alone (and I Feel Fine)” feels like a caged animal trying to get out. And watch out, because it’s soon going to be free.

If you like this, try: Kyle Kinane’s recent album, ““I Liked His Old Stuff Better,”” is one that departs from the expected self-deprecation route just like this one (and has already become one of my favorite stand-up albums).

Brooks Wheelan – “This is Cool, Right?”

Grade: B+

Key Bits: “new york stuff” “saturday night live stuff”

There was a sketch on Saturday Night Live recently, but not too recently, that was a play on Family Feud. It was a network edition. On one side stood CBS – host Jimmy Fallon as Jim Parsons, Taran Killam as Ashton Kutcher, John Milhiser as Jon Cryer and Noel Wells as Alyson Hannigan. On the other side stood NBC – Justin Timberlake as Fallon, Kate McKinnon (praise) as Jane Lynch, Jay Pharoah as Ice-T, and Brooks Wheelan. As himself. An SNL cast member. At the time, I laughed at the meta-humor and focused on Timberlake jumping around onstage as Fallon. But, this sketch really defined Wheelan’s presence at SNL, as a comic who was both too grounded and too weird to exist in the NBC universe. And, after his quick firing, Wheelan is out on his own – making that discord work.

It isn’t perfect. Wheelan spends basically the whole album talking about his upbringing, hoping to bank on comedy experiences to bolster his next work. But, Wheelan’s presence as both a bro-comic and an absurdist is strong here, and it’s so conclusive that it’s almost tough to know what to make of him. Wheelan talks about being an incredibly awkward child, through his love of ranking people he knows through brackets without their knowledge, and delivers it in such a way that we all can sympathize, even though that’s beyond crazy. He talks about being the youngest of three brothers in a small Iowa town, but his NYC experiences elevate those memories past the small-town boy charm.

Wheelan might jump from a joke about his brothers pranking him to a bit about how JFK really died from terrible rat breath and that the government covered it up; it’s an elaborate stand-up presence, one that shows that Wheelan is still finding his exact, specific footing.

Where Wheelan’s strengths lie, ironically, is in trying to find out exactly who he is as a comedian. The best bits he delivers on this album are family related – reacting to his father killing a possum with a rock in the garage, dipping his balls in a bottle of Scope that his older brothers used – but he also responds with absolutely unexpected reactions. He ends with pitching all his unused SNL sketches – most of which are weird, cerebral and outlandish (and outstanding, naturally).

He pitches at least eight sketches that SNL didn’t pick up, including a “Field of Dreams” where the players are Nazis, a pair of 109 year old grandfathers who are given Spencer’s gift cards, and an Australian tourist in America who can’t stop saying that Steve Irwin’s death was their 9/11. It’s brilliantly and delightfully weird, just the type of weird that could permeate SNL without making any waves. And on the album, Wheelan sounds a little resentful of his brief time at the show. He wasn’t on air much, and it sounds like it was a struggle on both sides to get his work up. Most of his failed sketches are brilliant, but just not the type to succeed on SNL, and his weird hybrid comedy just couldn’t survive there.

SNL has a history of passing on goldmines – Sarah Silverman, Zach Galifianakis, Louis CK and Larry David all had brief stints at the show before leaving unceremoniously. Wheelan never struck out to me much on SNL, but it might be because he never got his chance to. But on his own terms, on a debut album, he’s completely convincing. Wheelan is the bro-absurdist that could bridge gaps we didn’t know could be bridged.

If you like this, try: Kumail Nanjiani’s “Beta Male.” Kumail’s experiences growing up are decidedly different (Iowa v. Pakistan), but his content and delivery is similar to Wheelan’s.

Kyle Kinane – “”I Liked His Old Stuff Better””

Grade: A-

Key Bits: “This Track is Not Called 8 Ball” “This Track is Not Called Dopeman”

Comedy is tough on people that aren’t young. Kinane, at age 38, isn’t old, but you wouldn’t guess it. In his new special, he relates himself to the elderly via buying shelled nuts and fighting a battle against them. Kinane struggles with approaching middle age in a few segments, lamenting being “closer to the end than the beginning” and “tailgating your own funeral” at one point. One of the album’s best jokes lies in how Kinane finds himself reading signs out loud when he’s driving alone, imagining his brain is running diagnostics (“weird, bored Dad shit”). Jokes about burning his laundry and throwing change in the trash make Kinane uncomfortable with how his mind is seemingly rapidly degrading.

Age works in the other direction, too. Two of the album’s best bits are semi-repressed memories from his early 20’s – one, of a house party ruined by a confusing, out of place cop, and the other about the accidentally felonious blowjob he got behind a grocery store. Rarely do stand-up specials have themes that can run through the whole special, but Kinane manages to relate nearly every joke and story to the aging process. And the few bits that don’t, including saying “God bless you” to a cat and recounting his parents searching to find his interview in an issue of “Hustler,” land just as well.

What makes Kinane unique is his voice, both in the physical and metaphorical sense. Kinane has the gruff voice of a lumberjack who just slammed down a glass of whiskey (and he very well could be). Comedy Central hired Kinane to record their promos, he’s the voice you hear in their commercials (i.e. “Next Wednesday on an all new Broad City”). And his ‘voice’ is one that’s weirdly optimistic. Although much of this special is self-deprecating, Kinane always has the choice in his humor to do mean jokes, but almost never opts to. There’s an upbeat rhythm in his voice, that grabs the listener. Even if he’s talking about coroners hitting on women at a party or dropping a brick on a frog, he has an aura to him that makes it feel like things are going to be okay. I can’t say there are many comedians like that.

“”I Liked His Old Stuff Better”” is Kinane’s third special, and it follows in the trend of pointless track titles. His first two specials had bits that were named after songs by Cheap Trick and KISS, respectively. This special is all of the songs from “Straight Outta Compton,” preceded by “This Track is Not Called [track title].” It makes remembering bits for later a little difficult, but it doesn’t give away bits like other comedians would (my favorite comedy album, John Mulaney’s “New in Town,” has a bit titled “Asian American Woman” that gives away the big punchline).

“”I Liked His Old Stuff Better”” is an excellent comedy album, that proves Kinane is one of the funniest and most interesting people in comedy today. I’ve already listened to it a second time.

If you like this, try: Marc Maron. But since anyone familiar with Kinane obviously knows Maron, I’ll say Eugene Mirman’s “God is a Twelve Year Boy With Asperger’s.” I might say that because that’s the album I jumped to after listening to this last night, but the two comedians do share a voice that’s more welcoming than most other people in stand-up.

-By Andrew McNally

Marc Maron – “Thinky Pain”

 

Grade: A-

Key Bits: “Bill Hicks Was a Poet” “Israel”

It’s very possible that nothing has ever sounded more ‘Maron’ than the beginning of his 2013 special “Thinky Pain,” now available on audio. He starts by wrapping up a podcast with Tom Scharpling and walking out on stage to tell a story about crazy Bill Hicks was, and then himself admitting he didn’t prepare anything for the night. Maron didn’t prepare any set or anything for the special – and it comes off in the most Maron way possible – 50% confidence, 50% apathy. He starts the Bill Hicks story with an oral history of the venue, killing time before figuring out where to start (like an “Odyssey” bard recounting a name). What follows is exactly what you’d expect from Maron – self-pity, unwarranted anger, and the thin line between insensitivity and offensiveness.

Most of “Thinky Pain” is personal stories. Maron recounts how missing a pop-out in baseball changed his life, and how he overcame hypochondria, and his trip to Israel with his Jewish wife, among many others. Since this special was unscripted, it reassures us that Maron really is the always-slightly-upset man behind the comedy. He even says at the beginning that he might end up not telling jokes but working through some things. Even though he does end up working through things, it’s riotously funny throughout.

Maron is usually at his funniest when he’s talking about himself, self-deprecating or not. He covers his Jewish upbringing and now-aversion to religion in “Born a Jew” and “I’m Not an Atheist” and how that translated a religious vacation with his wife in “Israel.” He talks about how the religious vacation was basically just looking at rubble of buildings that were and were not Jewish. He discusses his druggy past and how he doesn’t trust people who can’t let drugs take them over for a few years on “Drug Wisdom,” and he acts out what his first time trying out autoerotic asphyxiation would probably be like on “Autoerotic Asphyxiation.” Maron switches from angry to self-involved to reluctant on a dime, and occasionally comes off as a ranting man who just happens to be funny.

The only real fault of the special is that, since it’s all off-hand and unprepared, Maron’s stories get a little tired towards the end. He ends with bits on roosters, a vacation to Kauai and having a ‘porn brain’ that are funny, but not as funny as the stuff at the special’s midpoint. “Thinky Pain” ends up coming off as a little top- and middle-heavy, going on maybe a little longer than it needs to. But then again, he has a lot of stuff to work out.

With his now very successful WTF podcast, and an IFC show in it’s second season, Maron picked a very good time to drop a new special. “Thinky Pain” helps Maron milk this opportunity without overworking it. And it establishes Maron as someone who is unfazed and unchanged by a surge in popularity. In fact, in five to ten years, we can probably look forward to a special about all of the pratfalls of success. The special’s title even comes from understanding the mental turmoil he’ll go through after missing that routine fly ball when he was a kid. Maron hasn’t changed a bit, and “Thinky Pain” is just as angry, whiny and honest as Maron’s ever been.

If you like this, try: It seems like such a softball pitch to compare a comedian to Louis CK, but Maron’s comedy has aligned with CK’s for years, even if the two have a rocky past together (or at least as documented on Louie). Maron is every bit as self-deprecating, angry, perverse and in control as CK.

-By Andrew McNally

Jim Gaffigan – “Obsessed”

(Photo Credit: firewireblog.com)

Grade: B+

Key Bits: “Donuts” “Seafood” “Cancer”

For stand-up comedians, if a formula isn’t yet broken, don’t change it. Jim Gaffigan continues to prove himself as a comedian who has found a unique voice, and one that can continue to drive it even though it seems like it should’ve overstayed it’s welcome. On what’s technically his ninth stand-up album, although only his fifth that’s readily available (the first four are out of print), Gaffigan continues to visit the same three topics he’s covered in the past – food, religion, and his kids. He honestly offers nothing new on “Obsessed,” instead choosing to enforce the album’s perfect title. “Obsessed” actually aims to cover the exact same ground that the near-perfect “Beyond the Pale” did in 2006. 2009’s “King Baby” suffered from being almost too safe, and 2012’s excellent “Mr. Universe” added a cynical vein, spawned on largely by long bits about his children. But “Obsessed” takes the exact same routes as “Beyond the Pale,” showing that as long as there’s food and weddings, Gaffigan’s material has yet to get stale. Unlike fortune cookies.

Nine of the album’s nineteen tracks have titles relating to food, with food bits often incorporated into other bits (like “Weddings,” where Gaffigan dreams of dying young from too much ice cream so he doesn’t have to go to his daughter’s wedding). And as always, they’re some of the best bits. “Obsessed” was recorded in Boston (my home city!), which feels very intentional for the album. Two of the strongest bits are centered around local New England cuisine, “Seafood” and “Donuts.” Just mere mentions of seafood and donuts elicit a response from the Boston crowd. The “Donuts” bit is all pretty predictable, with Gaffigan saying that still life paintings are of fruit because artists wouldn’t resist donuts long enough. And he doesn’t like seafood, not one bit. “‘I love lobster.’ ‘Look, I get it, I love butter too.'” Elsewhere, he tackles buffalo wings, Chinese desserts, Kobe beef and fried bread, among many others. The format is exactly as it has been on his previous food bits, and it’s largely predictable, but it’s still effortlessly entertaining.

On his non-food based bits, Gaffigan continues on with pieces on his kids, of which there’s five now. The jokes don’t land in the individual kids, but on having five kids as a collective. Now, people tell him just to stop before he forms a country (“Gaffganistan”) He briefly touches on religion again, too, with jokes on God sending Jesus back down to tell people they aren’t supposed to be eating crabs, and how people whisper the word ‘cancer’ because the Devil might give it to us if we say it loudly. His bit on “Cancer” is one of the album’s strongest points, too. He addresses both the disease – “Cancer wouldn’t even see me as a challenge” – and learning it’s his zodiac sign. “I killed grandma!” One aspect of Gaffigan’s comedic voice that goes unnoticed is how he can deliver slightly taboo bits on religion and cancer by starting with 45 minutes of totally clean jokes about food. It allows Gaffigan to talk about cancer in a totally inoffensive way, and keeps “Obsessed” spotlessly clean.

Gaffigan has largely done away with the “audience voice” gimmick that dominated much of “Beyond the Pale.” And that’s good, because it worked great there but it gets a little old even by the end of the special. He doesn’t even do many voices here, although twice he does what’s along the lines of a Jersey tough guy, that works surprisingly well. He’s more straight forward here, like he was on “Mr. Universe.” “Obsessed” might be Gaffigan finally perfecting his form, balancing food-based humor with hints of cynicism. He’s able to follow his formula exactly without sounding repetitive and without any dull points, and it’s another long special. “Beyond the Pale” is probably always going to be a high mark in Gaffigan’s career, but “Obsessed” comes pretty close to matching it.

If you like this, try: Gaffigan is a rarity in today’s world: a clean comic. So an obvious go-to is Brian Regan, another clean comic. Christopher Titus might be related, too, with his earlier albums being almost entirely family-based.

-By Andrew McNally

Patton Oswalt – “Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time”

(Photo Credit: Indiewire)

Grade: B

Best bits: “Sellout” “My Prostitute”

There are two things that Patton Oswalt does best: self-deprecation, and total dismantling of some meaningless (usually reviled pop-culture) subject. He does both here – while mixing in some more predictable family humor. “Tragedy” certainly isn’t one of the best comedy albums, and it isn’t Oswalt’s best, but he sells all of his jokes and anecdotes and proves that he’s still at the top of his game.

The album starts with a great self-deprecating bit called “My Fitness Future,” which is just being skinny enough that he doesn’t have to attend his daughter’s graduation in a motorized cart (Bonus: after she graduates, he says has to go sit in A/C and “swap my folds,” which is one of the most guttural trio of words ever spoken). Self-deprecation is peppered throughout the album, although the second half is centered around longer stories about Oswalt’s younger days.

First, though, is a few stories about his daughter. Two bits are titled “I Am a Great Dad” and “I Am an Awful Dad,” channeling (probably unintentionally) Louis CK’s “My 7-Year-Old is Better Than Me”/”My 3-Year-Old is a 3-Year-Old” two bits. He offers stories about his daughter getting scolded on a playground and accidentally seeing “The Wolfman” on TV, and while they’re very funny, they’re a little more traditional than Oswalt is used to. The follow-up, “Adorable Racism,” where his daughter starts being extremely racist in a Starbucks, is a lot funnier, and transitions into the album’s funnier half.

“Creative Depression” is a wildly funny bit that examines Oswalt blissfully committing suicide in a grocery store’s Lean Cuisine aisle. The whole rest of the album is largely unrelated but all hilarious anecdotes. The special’s midpoint is a lengthy bit on the opinion on selling out, and how 44 year old Patton disagrees with 25 year old Patton – and includes a total dismantling take on Nickelback that makes them look, somehow, like heroes. The bit includes a story about the gig that paid him more than anything else, ever, and how it took a very questionable turn. It’s a funny story, and Oswalt’s selling of his own fate in the story is perfect.

Afterwards, he gives stories about attempting to buy fancy clothes, a sad 19th century gardener, trying to tell jokes in humorless Germany, and a very funny bit about the one time he picked up a prostitute in Atlanta. These stories are nothing more than reflections on Oswalt’s past, and do not have much of a comedic arc, but they’re all very humorous. The special has it’s faults – occasionally a little too dark, and definitely bottom-heavy – but it has glimpses of Oswalt at his finest, and his total confidence telling embarrassing tales anchors the album. Oswalt is one of the most original stand-up comics working today, and when he starts to really get rolling, he’s unstoppable.

If you like this, try: It feels painful to ever compare a comic to Louis CK, because it’s such a cop-out, he’s the best working today. But this album did feel very reminiscent of CK’s 2011 special “Hilarious.”

-By Andrew McNally