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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Best of 2015: Songs!

Now that it’s halfway into January, I finally have time to do my personal best-of lists. As a critic, I’m obliged to do a “Best Of” list, but that can be viewed over here. Here is my “best of,” list, less capitalized, less formal. Posted right below is a Spotify playlist of 75 songs that I loved from 2015. It’s not in order of love, but ordered to make a nice playlist. I was originally going to make a 50-song one but there were too many songs I was leaving out (quick shoutout – I finalized this playlist and realized I forgot Selena Gomez’s “Good For You,” I love that song, so 76 songs). Under the playlist you’ll find a spelling out of my top 25 with a short description. Listen at your leisure.

 

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Top 25 Songs of 2015! (Relative. Take with a grain of salt.)

#25. “I’m a Ruin” – Marina and the Diamonds – This is an utterly tragic, introspective look into personal failures. As Marina sings about the inevitability of ruining someone in a relationship, we feel it. With a big chorus and a guitar rhythm that masquerades as catchy, this song doesn’t shy away from emotion.

#24. “Thunder & Lightning” – Motorhead – Lemmy’s last album on planet earth gave us this parting gift, an angry, raging song against…ambition? It doesn’t matter. This is premium Motorhead, and an unexpected final track from an ambivalent legend. Wherever you are, Lemmy, rock on.

#23. “Dreams” – Beck – Beck’s follow-up to the Grammy-smashing “Morning Phase” is proving to be funkier, with this single. Although lengthy, “Dreams” is an energetic jam like 90’s Beck. Unlike 90’s Beck, it’s focused and polished, ready for the radio.

#22. “Switchblade” – Holy White Hounds – I know nothing about this band/artist, and I only came across this song on western Massachusetts rock radio (in between Seether and Disturbed, probably). What I do know is that it’s a cool, innovative rock song that uses the provided instruments very well. I don’t know where this person or these people are right now, but I bet they’re wearing leather jackets.

#21. “In the Clouds” – Diamond Youth – The band responsible for my favorite song of the emo revival (“Cannonball”) put out another solid song in this pop-punk track. While their debut album was middling, this song from the album’s mid-point is a strong vocal track, layered over gaze-y guitar.

#20. “In the Night” – The Weeknd – One of 2015’s biggest breakout artists put out an album full of bangers. This was my personal favorite, as The Weeknd channels his inner Michael Jackson in a song about pain. Even a song as dark as this did well on radio – because the Weeknd is that good.

#19. “Truffle Butter” – Nicki Minaj (feat. Drake, Lil’ Wayne) – One of my favorite albums of the last year ever is Nicki Minaj’s “The Pinkprint.” This track was only on the expanded version but served as the fifth single. It’s one of the least subtle songs on the whole album, especially when Lil’ Wayne raps about a woman snorting cocaine off his penis. That probably didn’t happen, but who cares, it’s a fun song.

#18. “Price Tag” – Sleater-Kinney – The opening track to Sleater-Kinney’s comeback album is about, well, the economy. Sl-K always had a political message, and in the 10 years since their original departure, it’s welcome to see they’re still angry. It’s a raging pseudo-punk song with a brutal chorus. If they weren’t angry, what would Sleater-Kinney even be?

#17. “Feel Right” – Mark Ronson (feat. Mystikal) – Throughout his career, Mark Ronson has made an effort to bring other musicians into the mix, especially ones that might be out of their comfort zone. But “Feel Right” digs deep, bringing long-lost Mystikal back into the fold. On one level, the song is creepy, knowing Mystikal served time for sexual battery, but on the other hand, it’s a groovy song that shows an underappreciated rapper at his prime. Your call.

#16. “Sometimes” – Heems – “Sometimes” served as a mission statement for Heems’ first proper solo album, “Eat Pray Thug.” Unlike other rappers, Heems serves to point out differences and paradoxes in his own life. The album – which will be in my top list – serves as two parallels. Heems loves New York, he was a student when he watched the towers fall on 9/11. New York doesn’t love Heems, an Indian man. The whole album sets up a political parallel, but in “Sometimes,” Heems examines what it’s like to be human. Very sad and very funny, which are congruent, and exactly the point. Catch the topical ‘Mad About You’ reference.

#15. “WTF (Where They From)” – Missy Elliott feat. Pharell – If this is a song of what’s to come on Missy Elliott’s first album in 11 years, then rejoice. The song is a rapid-fire attack on Miley Cyrus young girls who appropriate black culture, with Pharrell in his truest form. Make way, Missy is back.

#14. “Sucker” – Charli XCX – This song stands as my favorite opening track of 2015, a surprisingly tough competition. No one can open an album like Charli XCX – “If you wanna bang, well fuck you, sucker.” Its just a great, energetic pop banger through and through.

#13. “The Metal East” – Lightning Bolt – The band Lightning Bolt has been going strong almost as long as I’ve been alive, and their 2015 album “Fantasy Empire” showed no signs of stopping. “The Metal East” is a ripping noise-rock song designed to make you sweat and let me say, I’ve seen it done live, and it is loud and magnificent in every single way.

#12. “Run Away With Me” – Carly Rae Jepsen – One of the best pop songs of the year wasn’t released as a single, and it kills me that I don’t know why. Although her sophomore album sold well in England and her native Canada, it didn’t in America, and we missed out on a real masterpiece. Please, buy E*MO*TION.

#11. “Motel” – Meg Myers – Rarely is indie-pop this affectionate. Actually, that’s not the right word to use, because this song is downright existential. Over relatively simple music, Meg Myers is able to transform a simple tale about someone holed up in a motel room into a sad tale. Throw in an audio sample of a 23 year old Townes Van Zandt interview, and you’ve got yourself the saddest pop song of the year. Myers’ voice in the background of the song is going to rip through your spinal chord.

#10. “Acetate” – METZ – Although their second album doesn’t stand up to their first, Canadian noise-rockers METZ put out their best song with “Acetate,” an extremely metrical and sweaty song with just a hint of a groove to it. Unlike some of their non-stop songs, this one has a lengthy breakdown section that leaves the ending pummeling you even harder. Coincidentally, I just saw this band last month, with opening act…

#9. “Trash” – Bully – …Bully! This might be from a debut album, but the folks over in Bully sound weathered. Namely, they sound like they ate nothing but Dinosaur, Jr. and Pavement records for breakfast. Their debut album alternates between alternative and more noise elements, but “Trash” is the most abrasive of the album. Alicia Bognanno’s screamed vocals propel the song into very angry territory.

#8. “Lampshades on Fire” – Modest Mouse – The first album from Modest Mouse in nearly a decade was subpar, but the leadoff single ranks among my favorites of their career. An environmentally-friendly single rocks with a steady beat and a vocal rhythm that could only belong to Isaac Brock. Modest Mouse at its best.

#7. “Don’t Wanna Fight” – Alabama Shakes – The most emotionally charged rock song of the year came from ‘Bama, with Brittany Howard’s vocals howling above the rest of the song. An ode to a troubled relationship, the band draws emotion from volume and intensity, escalating a quiet beat into a wholly consuming tune.

#6. “Figure It Out” – Royal Blood – I think this song technically came out in 2014, but I first heard it in the latter half of 2015. Inspired by bands long gone, Royal Blood have crafted a near-perfect ode to garage rock, but with better production. “Figure It Out” is like the best part of Foo Fighters mixed with the best part of Count Five. Bring it on.

#5. “Death” – Viet Cong – The longest song in this playlist, this 11+minute odyssey is post-punk at it’s finest. The band, lambasted for their offensive name, still put out an impressive debut, culminating in this noisy epic. It is an aural assault, with repeated guitar rhythms being driven into the brains of the listener. The closing song of the year, listen to as much as you can.

#4. “Let It Happen” – Tame Impala – One of the most sonically engaging songs of the year, Tame Impala’s intro to “Currents” is like this generation’s “Blue Monday.” This song builds even as the vocals disappear, into a sonic abyss, carrying a ship throughout. I cannot overrecommend listening to this song with headphones – it’s a journey. Without full engagement, it’s background music.

#3. “Pedestrian At Best” – Courtney Barnett – Courtney Barnett had a career year in 2015, releasing an acclaimed debut and a flurry of great singles. This is her at her best, no strings attached. Poetic lyrics that alter between apathetic and angry mix over Malkmus guitar rhythms, resulting in a song thats far more fun than it should be. Like the 90’s? Listen to this.

#2. “Flesh Without Blood” – Grimes – Grimes went for gold in 2015, finally releasing her follow up to “Visions,” after scrapping a whole other album. Although the album was inconsistent, certain songs struck out, namely the first single. At first, I was somewhat cold to it. But it got stuck in my head almost immediately and still hasn’t left. With a pop-punk bassline and ambivalent vocal line, it’s a song to pay attention to. The nod between “Remember when we used to say……./………I love you almost every day” is utterly devastating in its dual meaning.

#1. “King Kunta” Kendrick Lamar – Look, “To Pimp a Butterfly” is one of the greatest hip-hop albums, ever. No ifs, ands or buts. The album’s mission statement was also my favorite and most played track of 2015. It’s funky as hell, which drives the song through the political and introspective lyrics. The album has a bunch of different messages, and they all come into play on this song. It’s a whirlwind of political, social, and personal remarks to America, with looks at Compton, Kendrick as a kid, Kendrick as an adult suffering from depression and a premonition of the Drake/Meek Mill beef. There’s simply no one like Kendrick working today. In any genre.

(Also a quick post-posting shout to “Magnets” by Disclosure/Lorde and “<” by Waxahatchee, which originally sat at #25 and #24 before I realized I had forgotten “Trash” and “Acetate”)

If you don’t want to sparse through my 75 song playlist to hear these, then listen here:

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An Intimate Night With the Greatest Punk Band That Ever Was

(Photo by me)

Whomever said punk is a young man’s game is sorely mistaken. Last night, I got to see Television live, and even in 2015 they absolutely crushed it. I’ve been doing some thinking lately, nothing more than shower musings, about who I think is the best band in each genre of music, the one that defines it the most. I haven’t come to many conclusions, but one that I did come to was that Television was the best punk band. Sorry, Clash. The band’s attitude and style is what did it, but they convinced me as much in 2015 as they would have in 1976.

Punk, as I have come to understand in my years transitioning from Rancid to Patti Smith, is more a spirit than a genre. It’s not necessarily about anarchy and destruction, though a part of it. It’s about doing what’s unexpected, unwanted; breaking the status quo. Iggy & the Stooges did this in Detroit, so did the MC5. They rallied against the sex, drugs and blues-rock and roll of the time in the same way Black Sabbath did. They upped the volume and came out angrier. The Ramones changed the game again by setting a template – power chords, 2:30 songs with apathetic or political lyrics. This template is still in place today – everyone from NoFX to the Dropkick Murphys to FIDLAR follow this format in some way. But that’s the problem – it’s a format. Punk, itself, has an incredibly tired and ironic template to it.

Television was one of a few CBGB’s bands in the late 70’s that seemed to foresee this template problem. Blondie and the Talking Heads added pop elements, and took off a whole new genre. Patti Smith was setting her spoken word poems to music. Television looked less at the music and more at the template – short songs, fast, loud music, and did away with all of it. Their classic album “Marquee Moon” is marked with slow-burners, tracks over (or well over) five minutes, and long, technically proficient guitar solos on every song. A virgin ear might mistake them for a classic rock band living in the wrong part of the city. Their songs are restrained, but the band has an energy to them – noticeable on the very first chord of “See No Evil” – that says they can run with the big dogs, they’re just choosing not to.

Tom Verlaine’s lyrics, making allusions to poetry and art (the Venus de Milo, for instance), didn’t stand on the same platform as, say, “I Wanna Be Sedated.” Maybe Television was in the right place at the right time. Or maybe, when we look back at them today, we still consider them a punk band because their music demands so. Technically remarkable lead and rhythm guitars interlock across albums, with Verlaine’s and Richard Lloyd’s tension almost palpable. And with the general lack of guitar distortion, and a clean, jazzy sound, it was the purest of music. It was what the other bands weren’t doing. It was punk.

I truly had no worries about Television ruining this legacy for me. I knew that if they couldn’t sound great live, they wouldn’t tour. And they delivered, from a performance standpoint – next to nothing was changed in the songs. At first I was disappointed in the lost opportunity for longer solos, but then I remembered that their albums aren’t punk statements, they’re works of art, and fine art should not be tampered with. And as such, their setlist consisted of every song off “Marquee Moon,” out of order. Verlaine played piano sections on his guitar, muting his strings to sound like piano keys. And on a number of songs, he self-indulged and plucked and warped the strings to sound like a one-man string section. I couldn’t wrap my head around it and I still can’t.

The crowd was as diverse as expected – fathers and sons, lost young scuds like me, and older burn-outs. A man in front of me who could have passed for Hilly Kristal wore a Patti Smith Group sweatshirt and jammed to every song like it was his 200th time seeing the band, gleefully ignorant of the 35+ years behind him. To the right of me was a pretentious 30-something who played air guitar the whole night, despite having a drink in one hand and his other arm over his girlfriend’s shoulder.

But aside from the performance, Television delivered in the punk spirit as well. Permanent Lloyd stand-in Jimmy Rip came out in a bowl hat and beard that looked like a high-dollar Tom Waits Halloween costume. Verlaine, in an unzipped hoodie that may have been a size too big (he hasn’t gained a pound since they shot the “Moon” cover). The setlist consisted of “Marquee Moon,” but the encore was pure unpredictability – “Little Johnny Jewel,” a cover of Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” (always a staple of their live show), and an unreleased track called “I’m Gonna Find You.” Their second two albums “Adventure” and “Television” were left untouched. The show itself had an aura of unpredictability – opener Dennis Driscoll performed with an improvised saxophone, courtesy of Morphine’s Dana Colley, and his set ran long. Soon into Television’s set, someone behind me yelled to turn the bass up, to which Verlaine pointed to Fred Smith and said aloud, “Move closer to him.” Verlaine was louder when he was talking to the audience than when he was singing into the mic, the vocals lost in the music. And in the encore, when they were transitioning between “Reaction” and “Find You,” a game being played by an excruciatingly bored security guard on his phone was audible. For a show with 65+ year old men on stage, in a small but classy venue and a randomly assorted audience, a punk spirit still came through. The Ramones may have passed, the Sex Pistols riddled by death, the Clash riddled by maturity. But for one night, the spirit of 1976 came through, if only briefly. Television, keep doing your thing.

-By Andrew McNally (photo credit is mine)

Tom Petty Beat the System Without Even Trying

Ask people to name the biggest classic rock bands – what do they usually say? The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Stones, the Eagles, Springsteen.

Ask people to name their favorite classic rock bands. Here’s mine: The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bob Dylan.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers isn’t usually a name that comes up under either list, yet we all love him, and he’s had one of the longest and most successful careers of anyone from the classic rock era. So, why is that? There’s one simple reason, and it’s the reason why he’s still famous today. Just a few weeks ago, news came out that Petty had settled a case out of court with singer Sam Smith over his now-award-winning song “Stay With Me.” Smith’s song follows the same melody as Petty’s 1989 song “I Won’t Back Down.” The fact that it was settled and that neither party was the one to break the news reinforces Petty’s later comment that it was pure coincidence. But coincidence or not (and I think it was), this is the third time this has happened.

Musicians getting sued over stealing riffs and melodies has always happened. Robin Thicke and Pharrell are currently fighting a losing battle with the Gaye family estate over “Blurred Lines.” The Rolling Stones probably make more in royalties from “Bittersweet Symphony” than the Verve ever will. Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” was allegedly ripped off from Joe Satriani’s “If I Could Fly,” which was in turn alleged to be a ripoff of Cat Stevens’ “Foreigner Suite.” It’s always happening.

But this is now the third time in 13 years that Petty has been able to hold up a yellow card and call someone out for ripping him off.

In 2001, a little band called The Strokes released a little song called “Last Nite.” You may have heard it. The song almost single-handedly opened an indie revolution that had been laying dormant, unleashing the likes of the White Stripes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, Franz Ferdinand, the already veteran Modest Mouse, and many more, in a short span. But it didn’t take long for people to realize that the opening riff to the song sounded an awful like the Heartbreakers’ first single, “American Girl.” Petty never sued or made any deal of it. But the Strokes still admitted that the riff was stolen. In 2006, Petty said of the steal, “…there was an interview that took place with them where they actually admitted it. That made me laugh out loud. I was like, ‘OK, good for you.’ It doesn’t bother me.” Petty even invited the Strokes to open on a tour that year.

Also in 2006, there was a little song called “Dani California” by a little band called the Red Hot Chili Peppers. You may be familiar with that one too, it’s the one where they made a video honoring a whole bunch of musicians who are far better than them. It wasn’t their first single, far from it (it was #30), they were and are one of the most established names in rock. But they, too, were accused of a Petty ripoff. The rhythm of the song matches that of Petty’s classic 1993 single “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” Being the Chili Peppers, they feverishly denied it and claimed to be an original band capable of original ideas, even though the lyrics of the two songs are also pretty similar. Still, Petty didn’t sue or take any action.

Perhaps because this is getting repetitive, or perhaps because the song is just a little too close, but Petty’s publicists did get involved with “Stay With Me,” although the original low-laying settlement gives the vibe that Petty and Lynne had little interest in it and just saw it as a happy accident. The result, as you likely saw last week, is that Petty and ELO’s Jeff Lynne now share songwriting credits with Smith, Jimmy Napier and William Phillips. The song’s shelf-worth number of Grammy wins has continued to make this a notable story, too.

So why does this keep happening to Petty? It could just lie in the fact that Tom Petty is great and that nearly all of his big hits are excellent songs that never really get old. But that’s only the surface of it. 1976 saw the release of “Ramones,” “Boston,” “Station to Station,” and “the Runaways.” The Beatles were six years gone, Bob Dylan was beginning to show he wasn’t perfect, and Led Zeppelin was closing down. The Beatles the first band to prove that the album format could succeed, even with albums filled with original music. After that, nearly every band tried to rebel against music by creating an identity that was purely their own. The Ramones invented power chords, KISS and Alice Cooper wore make-up, Led Zeppelin were sloppy, AC/DC were tight, Black Sabbath sang about robots and suicide, and bands like Queen, Blondie and Fleetwood Mac all had their own, distinct sounds.

Petty, and the Heartbreakers, rebelled against that by not really doing anything original at all. Their music has never been showy, never grandiose, never Earth-shattering, and that’s what makes it so good. Classic rock can be exhausting, when “Freebird” gets followed up with “Iron Man” and “Dazed and Confused.” But when “American Girl,” or “Free Fallin'” comes on, it’s a sigh of relief. The Heartbreakers were one of the most successful classic rock bands that never tried too hard. Their songs are simple, just straightforward rock songs that could easily be by anyone, if you couldn’t immediately tell they were by Petty. Petty was a trailblazer in repetition. I don’t listen to much rock radio these days, I imagine it’s just filled with Nickelback and Stone Sour, but in a weird way, they have Petty to thank. the Heartbreakers often wrote rhythms that weren’t straightforward, but still simple – and have been copied. Petty was one of the first to know that rock music could just be what it is, as long as it’s catchy and memorable. And that’s why he’s now swimming in money and publicity. Petty rode a middle road – making music that was neither too sloppy or offensive to turn off a traditional crowd, but not dull enough to turn off new rock purists, either. And he’s still going, playing it. In short, Petty was one of many to help put the system of rock in place, but was one of the only who realized he could rig it, too.

the Heartbreakers released an album last year, “Hypnotic Eye.” It has an average of 77 on Metacritic and was the band’s first ever #1 album. This blog started but never finished a review, as I never found anything to say that wasn’t already being said. It was a great album, it was what they do best – straightforward rock. They’re still going, 39 years after their debut. They’ve essentially outlived the Strokes and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who have both been flirting with irrelevancy for years now. And Sam Smith’s questionable reviews from the get-go might prove tough for the future, even with the Grammy sweep. In 1976, rock music was finally fully forming, it was finally done being molded by Paul McCartney, Muddy Waters, Robert Plant, Freddie Mercury, and countless others. Petty was one of the only ones that picked a safe stance (you could argue that AC/DC did too). He’s still playing sold-out shows, and is one of the few holdovers from the classic rock era: Springsteen, McCartney, the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac are still going strong, but that’s about it. My advice to young musicians is to always take the road less taken; but Petty didn’t, and he’s made an entire career out of it, to the point where he’s constantly being ripped off. We might eventually phase out the more showy classic rock, but we’ll never lose Petty. Keep going, Tom, you’ve earned it.

-By Andrew McNally

Post-Grad Music Reviews is run by Andrew McNally. Comments can be left below, questions and angry responses are welcomed at amcnal817@gmail.com

Sorry Guys, Women Won Music (Again) in 2014

Man, us men really spent the year treading water. As 2014 comes to a (well-deserved) close, and we discuss the best and worst in music, one thing in evident – women really lead the way. Women released better songs, better albums and had more progressive things to say than men did. So although men can boast, dick around and talk big, it was women that paved every path this year. Aloe Blacc was the man? Well Beyonce was Flawless. From Laura Jane Grace to Ariel Pink, Wiz Khalifa to Mish Way, both men and women helped women become the beacons of music in 2014.

2013 was an exceptional year for women in music, too. I almost wrote this article last year, but I was then too devoted to keeping this blog strictly reviews. It’s amazing to think it was only last year that unknown teenager Lorde nearly overtook Robin Thicke for biggest song of the year. But where 2013 was all about new acts establishing themselves in new niches of music (like one Crutchfield sister in Swearin’ and the other in Waxahatchee, both redefining punk), 2014 was all about the big names taking sides and taking stances.

2014 began on December 13th of last year, when “Beyonce” dropped unexpectedly. Not even the album’s guest stars knew there was an album coming out. Only Beyonce could have a release that huge, that unannounced and that coherent. It would go on to champion a year full of feminism and sexuality where women dominated, with only minimal exceptions.

Women Dominated Albums

“Beyonce” may have been the year’s best album (if you count it), but it was one of just many great albums from women. Charli XCX and Nicki Minaj followed in Beyonce’s path and released December albums – a month usually reserved for contractual-obligation Christmas albums. Tinashe and FKA twigs released two of the year’s best debuts, two R&B albums that establish each singer’s other-worldly confidence. And speaking of other-worldly confidence, the year’s best album unabashedly went to St. Vincent. Annie Clark’s guitar-drenched songs of surveillance and snakes were nothing else we heard all year, in both scope and confidence.

Taylor Swift did something usually disastrous for musicians and switched genres (Remember “Forever“?). But she went passive, attacking armchair critics on “Shake it Off,” not coincidentally one of the year’s best/biggest songs. “1989” was a big mess of a pop album that convinced many people (myself) that there really is more there than angry break-up songs.

Another one of the year’s best albums came from Lana Del Ray, who listened to criticisms and improved her music in every way. “Ultraviolence” was dark, brooding and seductive – a 60’s minimalist pop work that’s ready to defend itself from Youtube comments. With songs like “Fucked My Way to the Top,” Lana owned her identity, to the chagrin of many. In comparison, Sam Smith provided one of the year’s best songs – “Stay With Me” – but struggled to find his own musical identity, with a lackluster debut and less of a personality than his minimalist pop peers.

And this brings us back to last year’s minimalist dear, Lorde. Lorde didn’t release any music in 2014 save one song, “Yellow Flicker Beat.” But the song came from the soundtrack to the recent Hunger Games movie, a soundtrack she was assigned to curate. That, itself, is a huge deal for anyone – especially someone still in their teenage years. And, she chose people of a like mind – CHVRCHES, Tove Lo, Tinashe, HAIM, Bat For Lashes, Charli XCX and Grace Jones (!!!) all make appearances.

Women Dominated Songs

“I got one more problem with you, girl”

“I go on too many dates / at least that’s what people say”

“Fuck the skinny bitches in the motherfucking club”

Women seemed to rule the radio this year, too. The year’s best songs and most provocative lyrics belonged to women. Let’s look at these three examples – Ariana Grande dominated the charts this year, with no bigger song than “Problem,” with Iggy Azalea. It was a horn-blasting, bombastic pop song influenced by DJ Mustard’s production but without any unnecessary DJ attachment. Taylor Swift tossed critics askew in a side of her we’ve never seen before, and Nicki Minaj rallied against pro-look pro-anti-feminists. “Anaconda” was one of the year’s best songs – she took a comedically remembered hit from ’92 about the male gaze and repurposed it into a song about female body positivity. What’s better than that?

Elsewhere, there was the female talent showcase of Jessie J/Grande/Minaj on the excellent “Bang Bang,” a song that’s just about bangin,’ and it’s great. It’s just a fun, upbeat pop song that shows off some talent. Grimes’ only contribution to 2014 was “Go,” a crazy, pseudo-steampunk song that reflects your every mood when you listen to it. Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” might not be one of the year’s most revered songs, but it tied Janet Jackson for most weeks at #1, and it’s just another notch in her book.

Women Owned Feminism & Sexuality

So let’s talk about the most important woman of the year, alright? Laura Jane Grace, of Against Me! In 2012, after Against Me!’s miserably regressive “White Crosses” album, Tom Gabel announced that he was going to start living as a woman, Laura Jane Grace. Grace joined Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, among others, in a year where the transgender movement finally came to a public eye. So Against Me!’s 2014 album, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” opened a wide audience to a previously closed movement. And while the album had some weak points, tracks like “True Trans Soul Rebel,” “Unconditional Love” and “Drinking With the Jocks” illustrate Grace’s struggles with gender identity in the way of some of Against Me!’s most abrasive lyrics yet.

And while we’re on punk, two of the year’s best feminists were Mish Way and Meredith Graves. Mish Way’s band, White Lung, released one of the year’s best albums in “Deep Fantasy.” The album is heavy and real from start to finish, but it’s centered around its second best song, “I Believe You,” a song that’s written from the POV of a surprisingly understanding friend of someone who’s admitting they’ve been sexually assaulted. The song is both musically and lyrically the heaviest thing they’ve done, and it’s one of the year’s most important minute and 42 seconds.

Meredith Graves, of Perfect Pussy, had a busy year. Perfect Pussy’s debut, “Say Yes to Love,” was secretly modeled off the line, “Why do we say yes to love?” The album has a feminist tone throughout, with Graves frequently taking on the established male punk precedent (if you can hear the vocals). Punk music needs a reason to be energetic; Graves and co. don’t hold back about that reason.

Outside of the band, Graves published essays on being a woman in the music industry, comparing Andrew W.K. to Lana Del Ray, and on male pattern violence after Mark Kozelek made an unnecessary, public feud with the War on Drugs.

On the sexuality side, it’s easy to say that sexuality in music as all about confidence – whether it’s outward, like Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love,”  Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” – or sultry and subversive – FKA twigs “Video Girl,” Tinashe’s “2 On,” this year was full of strong, confident women, and it’s been a joy of a ride. Keep it up, 2015.

There Are Always Exceptions

Of course there’s exceptions. With Azealea Banks finally getting to release her excellent debut, “Broke With Expensive Taste,” came some harassing, homophobic Twitter rants that diminished credibility. (I won’t link to them – know that they’re out there).

She also started an ongoing feud with 2014’s most problematic female, Iggy Azalea. For those of you reading this, by now you’re surely at least familiar with the name – she had a number of huge hits in the summer – “Problem,” with Ariana Grande, “No Mediocre,” with T.I., and her own songs “Fancy” with Charli XCX and “Black Widow” with Rita Ora. I have to admit, from a music standpoint, I think they’re all great songs. But I wish I didn’t know anything about her when I listen to them. Azalea is Australian by birth, British by upbringing, and whiter than a jar of Hellmann’s. But she raps in a fake, black Southern accent (see: Atlanta) to mimic those who “influence” her. She’s trying way too damn hard and yes, it’s really racist. And yes, she has dropped the N-word.

Lana Del Ray also sparked some controversy by saying she would rather talk about space travel than feminism. The degree to which it’s just to fit in with her old-money, Gatsby-befriending persona is debatable, but it’s something that was said and can’t be forgotten.

Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus also made trouble with some serious, continuous cultural appropriation, done for their own “artistic benefits.” Both artists have remained silent when asked by fans to stand up for actual black issues like Ferguson.

But Here’s What Men Did This Year

Men accomplished little this year, in terms of music (and most other things). As always – exceptions. Pharrell’s “G I R L” album was a great, feminist work (and acted as an unintentional apology for “Blurred Lines”). Perfume Genius’ song “Queen” was one of the most honest, heartbreakingly rattling songs of the year. Patrick Carney, of the Black Keys, had a year spent on the offensive where he called out people like Jack White for their actions. And, artists like John Legend and J. Cole led the movement to recognize the need to acknowledge Ferguson, with ?uestlove adding that we need more Bob Dylans and Rage Against the Machines – artists with political motivations. But for every Run the Jewels, there’s at least one Eminem, so let’s look at men being men:

Eminem. Eminem released a song where he threatens to punch Lana Del Ray. Why? To what purpose? Eminem is 42 years old, and his fight for relevance includes threatening the most passive, pacifistic singer you can think of? That’s not intimidating. If Eminem wanted to stay popular, he’d retire and let his record speak for itself. Or, he could actually focus on the quality of his music, since he hasn’t had a good song since “Lose Yourself” (arms spaghetti) and his 2014 contribution was a Shady greatest hits compilation no one asked for.

Mark Kozelek. Sun Kil Moon’s 2014 album “Benji” was remarkable, but the 47 year old singer is also fighting a losing battle with aging, as he started a one-sided, unnecessary feud with the War on Drugs, a band that has looked up to him, and has taken no part in this imaginary feud. It all culminated with the admittedly silly and meta but still homophobic single, “The War on Drugs Can Suck My Cock.” The fact that these attacks are unresponded to amounts to nothing more than Kozelek trying to prove his manliness and yelling at a crowd that isn’t listening.

Ariel Pink. Human clickbait Ariel Pink’s 2014 album, “pom pom” made a lot of year-end lists. I didn’t listen to it. Ariel Pink called out Grimes, for some reason, calling her “stupid and retarded,” insults I never realized people used after the age of 12. Pink said he was contacted by Madonna to record for her new album only to say she’s been on a big downward spiral. Madonna’s publicist said he was lying, that she had never heard of him. Downward spiral? Meet Ariel Pink.

Robin Thicke. Thicke! Thicke was quiet in 2014, but he wasn’t trying to be. Black metal bands be damned, the creepiest album of 2014 went to “Paula,” Thicke’s in-depth, hyper-specific public apology to his ex-wife. First week sales counts: USA – 24,000. UK – 530. Australia – 158. 158 copies in Australia didn’t crack the Top 200.

Phil Rudd. For a band that sings constantly about manly stuff like rocking and violence, AC/DC’s first controversy didn’t come until this year, when drummer Phil Rudd was arrested for trying to hire a hitman to kill his wife. The band was as shocked as it’s fans, where was this rock and roll stuff in 1977?

Future killed the good fortune he’d set up with one of the best albums of the year, “Honest,” by admitting he cheated on Ciara and by guesting on the atrocious “Pussy Overrated” with Wiz Khalifa. Jack White did interviews where he groomed his image by verbally attacking respected artists like Adele, the Black Keys, and even Meg. Chris Brown got arrested a few more times, and had the gall to release a song about disloyal girlfriends. I could keep going on about men in music, but these are the biggest examples. Most of the best music of the year was done by women, and women made the bigger stories. They’ve had to, because to be anything less than extraordinary is going to get them shelved under male musicians. Let’s keep this going. 2015 should be the return of Adele, and Beyonce might even give us another album. We’re starting on the right foot.

-By Andrew McNally. Inevitable responses can be directed to amcnal817@gmail.com. Article can be reprinted or referenced, with citation. Feel free to remove links if ya do.