One thing I noticed as I reviewed my Best-of list for 2014 was that several of the albums were notably brief. My #1 album from last year (Sleepy Kitty’s Projection Room) clocked in at a tight 37 minutes. This year – not so much. My top 3 albums this year are all over an hour, and my favorite album of 2015 is, well, a bit longer than that. Long winded? Not when what you have to say is so compelling.
Honorable Mention: Jon Benjamin, Well, I Should Have…* – As in, “Well, I should have learned how to play piano.” Comedian and voice-over artist extraordinaire recorded a jazz album featuring himself on piano. No, he does not play piano. Instead, he created an absurd, Andy Kaufman-esque experiment with some legit studio guys lending support. It seems like the shtick would wear thin over a full album, but somehow it remains hilarious.
Essential Listening: “I Can’t Play Piano, Pt. 3”, “It Had to Be You”
17) Wilco, Star Wars – Though not as expansive or experimental as some of their recent output, Wilco returned this year with a surprise (and free!) album featuring A.M.-esque roots-rock. Contributions from members who have joined since the early days (Nels Cline, Glenn Kotche) give that sound a nice update.
Essential Listening: “More…”, “Magnetized”
16) Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color – The Shakes made the unexpected decision to get weird on their second album, and it pays off with the spastic yet still powerfully raw Sound & Color.
Essential Listening: “The Greatest”, “Guess Who”
15) Joshua Redman & The Bad Plus, The Bad Plus Joshua Redman – It’s hardly shocking that a pairing of two of the most adventurous and exciting acts in jazz today would turn out so well, but TBPJR excels by finding energy in adding subtle twists to otherwise static patterns.
Essential Listening: “As This Moment Slips Away”, “County Seat”
14) EL VY, Return to the Moon – Featuring The National’s Matt Berninger, EL VY trades his brooding, contemplative baritone from his original band for a more uplifting tone in their debut release, with plenty of grooves and hooks to go with it.
Essential Listening: “Silent Ivy Hotel”, “Sleeping Light”
13) Grimes, Art Angels – Despite the saturated Europop production on instrumental parts and Claire Boucher’s (AKA Grimes’) voice alike, Art Angels is brimming with edginess, and it’s this delicate balance that helps Grimes’ fourth album stand out.
Essential Listening: “Artangels”, “Kill V Maim”
12) Adele, 25 – Adele’s omnipotent voice will always be the main draw of any project of hers, but her decision to collaborate with several producers on her third album works to her benefit in this balanced collection of powerful ballads and grooving R&B jams.
Essential Listening: “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)”, “River Lea”
11) Tame Impala, Currents – With its polished and intricately layered production and warm falsetto from TI brainchild Kevin Parker, Currents is the rare album that would sound equally appropriate in arenas and intimate venues. The handcrafted pop writing here recalls an even more psychedelic MGMT.
Essential Listening: “Cause I’m A Man”, “Let It Happen”
10) Joanna Newsom, Divers – Modern day troubadour Joanna Newsom’s music is unique in just about every facet, from her nasally, wide-vibratoed vocal tone to her use of harp to her aversion to conventional pop forms. Though more contained than her epic 3-disc Have One on Me, Divers is another collection of gorgeously sculpted folk compositions.
Essential Listening: “Anecdotes”, “Leaving the City”
9) Curren$y, Pilot Talk III/Canal Street Confidential – New Orleans rapper Curren$y had a busy year, releasing a full album and a mixtape as a free download (seriously, get it here). Confidential was the proper release, and it features plenty of slick production and great hooks, while the third entry in his ongoing Pilot Talk entry series is perhaps more experimental and leans more heavily on jazz influence. Both showcase Curren$y’s curiosity and diverse tastes while remaining highly listenable.
Essential Listening: “Search Party”, “Everywhere”
8) The Decemberists, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World – After a brief hiatus, the musical incarnation of a Victorian novel that is The Decemberists returned with perhaps their catchiest album ever. World still maintains their signature blend of Americana and ornate lyrics, but if the aesthetic projected by the music is to believed, the band holds the view of the latter rather than the former.
Essential Listening: “Philomena”, “Make You Better”
7) Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear – A sample lyric: “She says, like, literally, music is the air she breathes / And the malaprops make me want to fucking scream.” Bizarre, blunt, yet witty text like this is par for the course on Honeybear, which is made all the more unusual when played against the lush Beach Boys-esque production. The contrast works well, though, and FJM creates a beautiful homage to 21st Century romance as a result.
Essential Listening: “Strange Encounter”, “The Ideal Husband”
6) Blur, The Magic Whip – Damon Albarn never disappoints regardless of his surroundings, but it’s great to see him back in his natural habitat. Whip is the rare reunion album where the band actually demonstrates growth and validates its new creative output. Blur continue to craft pop gems by deconstructing grooves, and Whip adds an ongoing commentary on life in the digital age that ties everything together nicely
Essential Listening: “Lonesome Street”, “Ghost Ship”
5) My Morning Jacket, The Waterfall – Jim James’ soaring tenor may not possess the same raw power as Adele’s voice, but it’s essentially the folk-rock equivalent. The song writing and execution also recalls the dark and expansive qualities found in MMJ’s Z, which is a welcome return to form, and the anguish of James’ recent recovery from injury is reflected nicely.
Essential Listening: “In Its Infancy (The Waterfall)”, “Compound Fracture”
4) Laura Marling, Short Movie – Marling’s voice has neither the technical precision nor the pristine timbre to make her America’s sweetheart, but I’ll be damned if her rich alto isn’t one of my favorite instruments going in music today. Her inflections and emotive approach to singing a melody sell the stories in her music, and they’d do so even without lyrics. Musically, Movie offers substantial contrast to 2013’s Once I Was an Eagle (my favorite album from that year) by veering more towards electric guitars, but that doesn’t make her music any less intimate.
Essential Listening: “Gurdjieff’s Daughter”, “False Hope”
3) The Amazing, Picture You – On its surface, the fourth album from Swedish art rockers The Amazing seems like a relatively monochromatic exploration of Pink Floyd-esque soundscaping. Upon closer scrutiny, however, I discovered two things: there are subtle dalliances into other styles that are woven into their sound so intricately that their depth is easy to miss (the laid-back funk groove that drives “Fryshusfunk” is a personal favorite), and the compositions and production on display here are so luscious that such a detailed journey into this singular aesthetic is hardly a bad thing.
Essential Listening: “Fryshusfunk”, “Tell Them You Can’t Leave”
2) Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly – Lamar’s third album was practically unanimously adored (in fivethirtyeight’s comprehensive tally of substantial publications’ best-of lists, Butterfly was the only entry from any category to appear on every list), and it’s easy to see why. A hip-hop record that refuses to color in the lines, Butterfly artfully careens from one genre to the next, and sometimes within the same song. My favorite example of this occurs with one of the album’s interludes: “For Free?” is an explosive jazz song featuring a verse from Lamar has the cadence of an improvised solo and masterfully shows the overlap between jazz and hip-hop. Lyrically, the album is poignant, insightful, and witty, matching the music’s vibrancy to offer a vital social commentary.
Essential Listening: “For Free?”, “King Kunta”
1) Kamasi Washington, The Epic – Jazz saxophonist/composer Kamasi Washington made a sound decision in naming his major label debut recording The Epic: spanning three discs and nearly three hours in music, its title serves as an ironically succinct yet fitting epithet. However, its genius is not in its sheer size (A couple tracks are superfluous, and “Re Run”/ “Re Run Home” are two versions of the same song. Both are great, but they also total over 22 minutes.), but rather in its unflinching exploration and synthesis of myriad American musics. The Epic is undoubtedly a jazz record, but elements of funk, R&B, soul, Classical, and even Spaghetti Western music run rampant throughout. Washington is establishing himself to be the go-to sax player for hip-hop/jazz fusion projects (he appears on last year’s You’re Dead! by Flying Lotus and the aforementioned To Pimp A Butterfly), which might explain how so many of his hooks would work great in either realm. My favorite album of 2015 is certainly epic, but it is no less immediate or essential because of it.
Essential Listening: “The Rhythm Changes”, “Askim”