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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Madonna – “Rebel Heart”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Living For Love” “HeartBreakCity”

Madonna’s new album has a song called “Bitch I’m Madonna,” so, what more do you need?

As we’ve settled deeply into this digital age, there’s been a feeling of resentment about the blending of music and technology, spurred on largely by Thom Yorke, Bjork, and others that don’t see the value of platforms like Spotify, and by the likes of U2, who have no idea how to harness technology to any sort of advantage. The elders seem to think that they’re outdated, and that their further output won’t be able to hold up amongst the music of younger acts. But there’s plenty of musicians fighting against the aging – like Madonna. On “Rebel Heart,” her 13th studio album, Madonna shows no signs of aging, instead standing with and against modern acts like Nicki Minaj, Diplo and Kanye, including them in the album and shoving them under her career in the process.

Madonna’s previous album, “MDNA” was lackluster. It couldn’t find the formula to match Madonna with EDM. On “Rebel Heart,” she’s learned to just be herself and let everything fall into place around here. Indeed, the album’s strongest songs are the ones where Madonna just powers through the dance music around her. On “Living For Love,” “Ghosttown” and “HeartBreakCity,” her voice dominates over all, and although they’re not always the most immediately enjoyable songs, they’re the ones with the longest staying power.

Generally, the bigger the ideas are on this album, the worse they’re pulled off. “Iconic” is the most high-concept song, a track that features Chance the Rapper and, uh, Mike Tyson. Tyson is a voiceover in the beginning, Chance is wasted in a forgettable guest spot, and Madonna herself is lost in the EDM-y overproduction. It’s a big track, one that’s immediate fun, but leaves a bit of a sour taste. “Bitch I’m Madonna” is like that too – it’s a great track overall, but it’s aided by Diplo and Nicki, and Madonna gets lost in the beats. This isn’t something that happens consistently, just on a few tracks, but it highlights the tight line Madonna walks as a 56 year old pop singer.

But, more often than not, “Rebel Heart” just works. With track titles like “Illuminati,” “Holy Water,” “Joan of Arc,” and the aforementioned “Bitch I’m Madonna,” we’re seeing a side that’s showing no reservations. She hasn’t calmed or grown weary in her years; this is the same performer we had in the Sex days. Her voice and her persona haven’t lost an edge, even going so far as to call out everyone in pop culture today on “Illuminati,” from Steve Jobs to Bieber to ISIS. Madonna is back out for blood, and it feels more natural than it has in a long time. “Rebel Heart” may not be a masterpiece, but it’s one of the better pop albums of the year so far.

-Andrew McNally

Meghan Trainor – “Title”

Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “3am” “Like I’m Gonna Lose You”

Like many pop songs, you’ve probably heard “All About That Bass” on the radio and thought, ‘I bet her album is all like that, but a little worse.’ “Title” is a solid debut for Trainor, in that it sees her properly explore different influences beyond most debuts. But, it ends up being hurt by the very same thing.

If you’ve seen pictures or videos of Trainor, or seen/heard “All About That Bass,” you’d think she has a pseudo-bubblegum pop vibe to her. The album’s first song, a cutesy 25-second vocal interlude (???), does nothing to dispel that. And the third track, after “Bass,” called “My Future Husband,” doesn’t exactly sway away from it either. But Trainor does show off a number of talents – on “3am” she adopts more of a doo-wop/soul quality to her vocals. She does try her hand at rapping, successfully on closer “Lips Are Movin” and unsuccessfully on the horribly titled “Bang Dem Sticks.” And she does pull off two ballads – the mid-album sleeper “Like I’m Gonna Lose You,” with John Legend, and “What If I” later on. Otherwise, the album is topped off with pop/R&B mixes that vary from catchy to overlong to forgettable.

As of now, it’s safe to say Trainor is known as the “All About That Bass” girl. And to her credit, that’s somewhat unfair. Trainor might only be 21, but she’s been making music independently for years. And it’s also unfair that with that song’s ever-increasing popularity (including a surprising Grammy nod for Song of the Year) mixing with her brief time in the actual industry, she might be stuck with that title. What makes Trainor’s debut more interesting than other debuts is also it’s downfall – lack of identity. By combining bubblegum pop, R&B, hip-hop, etc., we get a full array of Trainor’s talents, but we don’t really get enough of each to really know who she is as a singer. I’ve discussed this before, especially in dealing with Ariana Grande, who is having the same problem (in an opposite way). To be a female pop singer in 2015, you have to have a persona. Beyonce, Adele, Lorde, all have the personae to match the music. Trainor is still forming one (although already further along than Grande), and having a hit as big as “Bass” this early might end up being detrimental to her. Although “Title” is interesting as a debut, and Trainor’s superb songwriting skills are on focus the whole time, it isn’t consistent enough to produce a proper image. And as far as her lyrics go, she aims throughout the album for feminist anthems about body positivity and owning oneself – but a simple Google search leads to articles of how problematic “All About That Bass,” “Dear Future Husband” and “Title” are, among other tracks. The image she’s trying is one straight out of Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” (more a coincidence of time than an actual influence) but isn’t nearly as crafted.

There’s a few different ways to look at “Title.” On a purely musical standpoint, it can be seen as a fun collection of songs that mix throwback rhythms with modern vocals. It can also be seen as a marvel of songwriting from a talented young woman. Or, it can be seen more in-depth, as a varying, frustrating collection of songs that each try so hard to be unique that they end up uniform together. It’s tough not to look at it lightly, tough not to glaze over its flaws. So where “Title” has some pop highlights, it struggles from problematic and contradictory beliefs, and a lack of an image in Trainor. She’s certainly a talented songwriter and a versatile performer, and there’s promise on “Title.” The whole package just isn’t there yet.

If you like this, try: Into diverse pop? What a time to be alive. Into problematic female performers? Azealea Banks.

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.

Ariana Grande – “My Everything”

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “Problem” “Bang Bang”

There are certain singers and rappers that, when they show up on a track, are automatically going to outshine the star – Beyonce, Andre 3000, Nicki Minaj. The problem with Ariana Grande is that she’s shown up by everyone. Iggy Azalea, Big Sean, Zedd, Cashmere Cat, Childish Gambino, The Weeknd, A$ap Ferg and, in an excellent Deluxe Edition-only song, Juicy J and Minaj all make appearances and they all help otherwise mediocre songs excel. On the four songs where Grande stands alone (not counting an intro), she sounds like an empty copy of a different singer.

“My Everything” does have its moments, most of which being the quicker, more EDM-embracing songs. Despite my best efforts, local rap radio has forced me to love “Problem,” a song with beats bigger than Grande’s whole first album combined.  “Break Free,” with Zedd, “Hands On Me,” with A$ap Ferg and “Bang Bang,” with Juicy J and Nicki Minaj are in the same boat. They’re great, fun songs with crushing beats but inoffensive mission statements. When Grande lets loose and has some fun, the album does too. These four songs are well-positioned, too, saving bursts of energy to come up every few tracks instead of using it all up early. Of the ballads, and there are plenty, the most noteworthy one is “Love Me Harder,” collaboration with The Weeknd, which matches some great vocals with catchy beats.

The rest of the album isn’t bad – it doesn’t ask you to form any kind of opinion. Much of the album, even the better songs, goes in one ear and out the other; cheap entertainment that’s forgotten as soon as it’s over. Grande’s voice shines throughout, and it stays as bouncy and inoffensive as it can, which results in a generally fun listen. The real issue lies in Grande’s lack of identity. She can really sing, maybe even better than most other pop singers out there right now (saving you, Adele), but her ‘carefree, bubblegum’ identity was unfortunately worn out in the early-00′s. Pop singers nowadays have to establish their own, unique beings – Adele is a soulful, 60′s throwback, Lorde is a hip-hop inspired, minimalistic hip-hop basher, Lady Gaga is a theatrical and newsmaking shock. Grande is trying to establish herself as a straight pop singer, but to do that, she’s going to have to compete with the current queen – Katy Perry. And frankly, in this current music world, only one is going to be allowed continued success.

So “My Everything” isn’t bad, just forgettable and bland, and it is never sure of where it wants to be placed. Grande is still (very) young, and she’s still finding her place. Working with big names like Zedd and Minaj could still shape her place in a crowded music scene. But for now, she’s standing as a successful but unexciting singer, and her second album provides a safe, somewhat bland listen.

-By Andrew McNally

Wiz Khalifa – “Blacc Hollywood”

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “Promises” “Stayin Out All Night”

The best hip-hop albums are either wide-ranging, embracing different emotions and musical styles (“Beyonce”), or are directly consistent, pulling all of their material from the personae of the people behind it (“Straight Outta Compton”). “Blacc Hollywood” is neither of these, and it isn’t a great hip-hop album because of it. Rather, “Blacc Hollywood” starts with a call, a semi-political, semi-social trumpeting of the new ‘Blacc Hollywood,’ before quickly diverging into inconsistent weed songs and rough-childhood ballads. “Blacc Hollywood” wants desperately to have a point, but it never does.

The biggest fault with “Blacc Hollywood” is the lack of any flow. Khalifa tries to embrace different influences with the pairing of ballad “Promises” and weed song “KK” close to the beginning, but it only comes off as two disagreeing songs that don’t fit at all. It isn’t laziness – it’s ambition and ideas, without knowing how to execute them. The ideas on “Blacc Hollywood” compete rather than complement. “House in the Hills,” a ballad about not wanting to raise his son in the world he was raised in, doesn’t sound complete with the vain club banger “We Dem Boyz” popping up three songs earlier. This early disconnect faults the album’s second half, which is more consistent but less noticeable.

Indeed, Khalifa’s writing on this album isn’t that remarkable. “We Dem Boyz” has been getting airplay since it’s release in February, but there’s really nothing to the song. It’s a glorified chorus with little change for 3:45. His personal songs are honest and gut-punching, but the others are often too predictable (look no further than “Ass Drop”). Later album track “Stayin Out All Night” is helped by a huge, fuzzy, banging beat, but it’s in the middle of a string of forgettable songs.

Some guest spots do help the album – Ty Dolla $ign shows up on two different tracks, as do fellow Taylor Gang rappers Juicy J, Chevy Woods and Project Pat. Curren$y shows up on the honest “House in the Hills,” and Nicki Minaj drops a spot on the largely excellent closer, “True Colors.” (Unfortunately, a proposed collaboration with Adele was never more than an idea – how weird would that be? Bring new meaning to “Rolling in the Deep”).

So “Blacc Hollywood” isn’t Khalifa at his best. He’s more treading water – fueling a fanbase with self-serving bangers and ballads without offering anything great or consistent. It doesn’t come to a point, and it doesn’t flow like a hip-hop album should. Khalifa sounds fine on his own, but there isn’t anything noteworthy going on around him. As confused as it is average, “Blacc Hollywood” deserves a spin or two at a house party, but little more than that.

-By Andrew McNally

Ciara – “Ciara”

Photo Credit: the Huffington Post

Grade: B-

Key Tracks: “I’m Out,” “Super Turnt Up”

You have to admire Ciara’s perseverance. Lead-off single “Body Party” is her first song to make a dent in the Billboard chart since roughly 2010, usually the kiss of death for solo R&B / rap artists. Her last few albums have not been successes either critically or commercially, even if they were not exactly failures in both categories, either. I don’t want to bring up her critical and commercial struggles, because every review of “Ciara” begins with that fact. But it is an important lead-in to this album. The album is simply titled “Ciara.” Bands and artists that choose to self-title a non-debut are often making a statement, that the album encapsulates all of the artists’ progress until now. Some work, (“Fleetwood Mac,” “Social Distortion”) while some are misguided declarations into new territories (“Metallica,” “blink-182”). “Ciara” is the former. It is a completely safe and standard album, but one where Ciara can put her foot down and announce that, despite a consistently slipping presence, she is still here, and will not let past failures stop her.

That being said, it is a very safe album. Opener “I’m Out” is a very dance-friendly track, constrained to medium-volume beats and even features an only-slightly-uncensored guest spot from the often pervasive Nicki Minaj. The album continues down this path: basic R&B songs, basic club tunes, basic songwriting. “Body Party” is the only song that really features Ciara’s strong voice, the album’s biggest downfall. Also, it’s relatively quiet demeanor shows up too early on the album, as the third track, and it is a little off-setting against the early club songs that are still winding up the album.

“Ciara” is not a long album, only ten tracks ranging mostly between three and four minutes. This is probably good, because of how underhand the album feels. If it were to go on much longer, it would feel too tepid instead of feeling like a collection of what she has done so far. It is not great, and commercially and critically might go down as another hit-and-miss effort. It’s mixing of different ideas does seem to have a purpose, however, one that might not go noticed to the listeners but one that does tie up her career to this point. It is a basic work, one that is enjoyable and almost immediately forgettable. Depth-less and easy, without overstaying it’s welcome.

Also, side note: I’m always down for a song called “Super Turnt Up”

-By Andrew McNally