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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Le1f – “Riot Boi”

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Rage,” “Koi”

Le1f is coming into his own as a rapper in the best possible time: he’s walking alongside rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Heems (whom he used to produce for), who have been open about struggles with social issues. While they have been open about depression, Le1f raps about sexuality. He’s an openly homosexual rapper, something he wears with pride despite the potential ostracization from his own scene. And to tag on to a unique voice, he’s got a manic, sometimes avant-garde backing beat that results in a sonic experience unlike anything else in rap.

If we learned anything from the minor hit Le1f had with “Wut” in 2013, it was that Le1f’s voice is low and his flow is fast. He continues it on his first full-length, a baritone voice that either stands out or blends into the music, whenever necessary. But even if his flow is fast (like, Lil’ Wayne fast), his voice is as clear as his message: you can’t tear me down. Le1f, as an up-and-comer, has already had a bigger wall to climb than most: he accused (rightfully) Macklemore of stealing the beat for “Wut” in his mega-hit “Thrift Shop” and then called him out for “Same Love,” saying (rightfully) that a straight man had no right to tell that story. But going up against one of the biggest artists in the country will have some immediate backlash. Thankfully, Le1f has taken it head-on: “Riot Boi” is a riot, indeed. Le1f is telling the world: Macklemore wasn’t the right person to tell that story; Le1f is.

He does address his sexuality in multiple songs, the best being in “Grace Alek Naomi” and “Taxi.” In the former, he raps, “You say f**k boys, well n***a, I f**k boys.” On the latter, “Boys pass me like taxis do.”

Musically, Le1f makes sure that “Riot Boi” is a sonic amalgum. “Rage” alternates between insanity and springtime happiness like manic depression, “Cheap” has an incessantly catchy, chiptune beat, “Koi” mashes avant-garde with dance, and “Umami / Water” drops hard and takes a left turn, going from a decent song into a musical odyssey halfway through. Le1f dresses like a rapper of the future, and here he sounds like one too. “Lisa,” meanwhile, just has simple trap beats. Dev Hynes, aka Blood Orange, drops in on the smooth finale “Change,” which bolsters the album’s manic nature.

Le1f is a rapper in his own category. He’s not about theatrics – evident by the album’s opener, “Hi,” where he starts almost in media res. Yet, the album is filled with dense and unexpected musical mastery. His lyrics cut as hard as the music, and the music cuts hard. Even in a bludgeoning rap scene, every rapper is finding some way to be creative and different – but an album like “Riot Boi” still makes you wonder if the rest of the scene is going stale. Le1f should be a household name, and in a few years he might be. Just by sheer force.

-By Andrew McNally

Heems – “Eat Pray Thug”

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Sometimes” “So NY”

Review also printed on Seroword.com

BRUH. Do you want to get shaken up? Wanna get rattled? Heems’ debut is the album to mess you up.

Queens rapper Heems finally has his debut album out, on his own Greedhead Records (search the name on my blog). He has described the album as “post-9/11 dystopian brown man rap.” Indeed, Himanshu Suri is a phenomenally unique force in hip-hop – a man living in New York who’s proud of his heritage, but also feels ostracized because of his race. And that politically charged motive is all over “Eat Pray Thug.” The songs excel on contradiction – New York is home; I’m driven from home.

The lead-off single, opening track and best song “Sometimes” establishes the discord perfectly, by setting Heems up as a rapper who isn’t taking on a persona. “Sometimes I’m pacifist / Sometimes it’s pass the fist / Sometimes I stay sober/ Sometimes it’s pass the fifth,” he raps about his human qualities. This disconnect is what demands the album work as a whole – on “So NY,” he raps about being so New York-based that, “I still don’t bump Tupac.” But, on most of the songs, especially closer “Patriot Act,” he’s more honest about the racism that he, his family, and others have been through as a Middle Eastern man living in New York City. On “Patriot Act,” he bemoans how life became difficult for many people he knew after 9/11, in a spoken word piece that references stop & frisks and donating to local politicians to stay safe. On “Flag Shopping,” he rhymes ‘flags’ with ‘rags,’ and later raps “They wanna Toby us / Like we Cunta Kinte.” Heems cuts deep with his personal experiences, accurate accusations and brutal truth.

But Heems doesn’t spend the whole album expanding on that. He tries pop songs and ballads, too. On “Pop Songs (Games),” he goes for a genuine, bona fide pop song and, while it’s results aren’t quite spectacular, he’s putting in the effort to diversify his music. And on “Home,” Heems and Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) expertly pull off a ballad (courtesy of the line “Be my remix to Ignition”). Heems hits all boundaries on a relatively short album, expanding a brief time to include everything he can.

“Former Das Racist frontman” “Das Racist head” “Creator of internet rap sensations Das Racist” Uuuuuuuuuugh. Still referring to Heems as being the frontman for Das Racist is like still referring to Conan as being a “Tonight Show” host. It happened, it was great and it was underappreciated, but it’s over. Das Racist hasn’t been a band for something like two and a half years, and it’s time to start recognizing Heems for what he is – an incredibly complex, diverse and talented rapper and entrepreneur. On “Eat Pray Thug,” Heems gives it his all, and nearly everything he throws at the wall sticks. “Eat Pray Thug” is an open, honest and powerful work, one that examines New York City as both a lifestyle and a germ pool. And it proves Heems to be the affronting rapper he’d set himself up to be; ready to grab the throne whenever it’s left unattended. There’s a lot going on, and Heems has a lot to say. We should all be listening.

If you like this, try: Any of the people Heems has signed to Greedhead; namely Le1f, or Lakutis.

Lakutis – “3 Seashells”

(Photo Credit: bandcamp)

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “What the Fuck” “Too Ill For the Law”

Is “3 Seashells” a mixtape, or a debut album? It’s been billed as both. It’s the first full-length work dropped by Lakutis, and it has the cohesiveness of an album. But it has two >15 second skits, the longest track is only 3:06, and it was dropped on a Thursday mid-afternoon. So it’s both, or it’s neither, or it’s whatever it is. And that’s exactly what it should be.

This album/mixtape is exactly what we’ve come to expect from Lakutis. It’s short; not a single song overstays it’s welcome. And it’s diverse. Lakutis is known for being involved in Brooklyn’s Greedhead Records (started by Heems – Lakutis is on the Das Racist track “Booty in the Air”), but he’s in the hardcore scene too, and it comes through in the most subtle ways. Each song seems to have a rapidity to get to the end, like hardcore groups. And there’s a certain dark tone running throughout the album, especially towards the album’s second half.

This album’s (arguable) best song, “Too Ill For the Law,” was actually #6 on my subjective list of the best songs of 2013, one of the only four hip-hop songs (which also included kitty’s “R.R.E.A.M,” from her EP that he shows up on). For someone with so little material, Lakutis has the energy and confidence of a seasoned rapper. Throughout this album, Lakutis proves himself a better, more inventive and quicker rapper than nearly anyone out there today. “What the Fuck” directly channels old school rap, when it was just starting to get profane. “Black Swann” has more of a frightening vibe to it, pairing with the screaming at the end of “Skeleton”. And “Too Ill For the Law” has a verse done entirely in thirds. It’s a bold, bold verse, and it’s downright perfect.

“3 Seashells” has been awaited for quite some time, and Lakutis proves himself to be one of the most formidable underground rappers working today. The almost unassuming man formally known as Aleksey Weintraub might not seem like it, but whether it’s the simplest of rhymes or a complex triplets rhythm, Lakutis is simply one of the best out there right now. Get on it, people.

-By Andrew McNally

(Side note: I once had the pleasure of meeting Lakutis at a Heems show in a museum, but he looked like he was so turnt that he could barely see. Got on stage and did a perfect verse. What a hero).