Top 15 for '15!
This was an absolutely crazy stacked year so we're bumping it up from 10 to 15. If you're reading this, it means it's worked out for the better. If you're not reading this... it's too late. Know that it was very difficult to pare it down to even 15, which is why we're gonna skip doing Honorable Mentions this year. There's stuff that wouldn't have made top 20 that I'd still be excited to write about in almost any other year, so I think it'd be too easy to slip into another ridiculous top 50 situation if I tried to indulge in it. It was a truly magical year, one that delivered on almost every (SWISH ;___;) promise and then some. My list is a mix of things that were better than I could have dreamed, things I wouldn't dare dream of, and things I didn't even know I wanted. It's been a truly magical year. Let's begin.
15. Julia Holter - Have You In My Wilderness
This would be something in the "didn't even know I wanted" category. Holter's previous albums, especially Loud City Song, had attracted no small amount of critical praise and thus were on my "radar", but only in the sense that I knew that there was "something to them", and that I "ought" to find some "appreciation" of them. That level of scare quotes probably makes it pretty clear that I didn't end up giving them much of a chance. This sort of music - very composed, purposeful, emotional - is somewhat foreboding to me... It seems like so much is happening on an intellectual level that my needs on the visceral level, the level of "bangers", might be neglected.
But what can happen, and happened here to great effect, is that one can come to understand even the most nuanced and complex piece through sheer emotional gut reactions that run in every direction tangental to sanity, like someone wilding tf out to Liszt's Totentanz like it was Gucci Mane's Lemonade or vice versa. If you haven't experienced such a thing, let me guide you along. Listen to how "Silhouette" shifts from being a collection of airy light to an apocalyptic round. Listen to the chilling hesitation on the end of "How Long?": "All the people run from the horizon". Listen to the way her voice beats a triumphant path on the chorus of "Sea Calls Me Home". Listen as she's caught up in a typhoon of her own visions on the end of "Betsy on the Roof". Understand that, for all the nuanced instrumentation, poetic imagery, and complex layered meaning, this is true wilderness, one that can enchant you as easily as anything else.
Recommended tracks: Sea Calls Me Home, Silhouette
14. Earl Sweatshirt - I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside
Original Live Review
There's a rhetoric of "rawness" that is thrown around a lot in hip hop, often without a clear narrative signified by it... a real "know it when you hear it" sort of thing. I thought I heard it on Earl's 2010 debut, with its surreal violence that seemed direct from every troubled teen's secret notebook. But then I knew I heard it on 2013's Doris, which was the true story too true to be told before, that lurked behind Earl's mask. Then this: behind the facade and the confession, a pit of infinite blackness. Beyond raw: this is just
It's the sort of emotional aesthetic that feels like it could barely produce an album, that lends itself only to long immobile periods with curtains drawn etc etc, that if somehow recorded could only sound like harsh drone, or something. But no - this is still hip hop, this is still Earl rapping, and proving again his status as one of the true prodigies of the genre. The endless, cascading density of the lyrics give a sort of fractal depth to his despair - by the time you've untangled one message of depression, addiction, or disillusionment, you've been hit with three more. It's the looping, relentless inner voice that speaks out on unbearable sleepless nights. Combined with production that varies between... a faded memory of simpler times (like on "AM//Radio") and David Lynch nightmare sound (like on "Grief"), the album becomes a sublime testament to transcendent despair.
Recommended tracks: Grief, Faucet
13. Lil Ugly Mane - Oblivion Access
Since 2012's cult-breakout Mista Thug Isolation, Lil Ugly Mane has established himself as a voice incompatible with any existing understanding of hip hop, or music, or humanity itself, maybe? If that seems a bit excessive, just check out Oblivion Access, or even just read the bandcamp release description, and see if you can match it up with anything you'd previously thought about how people could behave. On this, what seems to be his finale LP, he reaches new heights of both accessibility and abrasiveness, exposing himself at his most cryptic and confessional.
Never before has Tyler's famous "walking paradox" label been more appropriate. The harsh noise of "Compliance" feels incompatible with the soulful humanity of "Leonard's Lake", a reworking of an obscure 1921 gospel recording. His frequent self-deprecation and self-destruction is undone by his masterful command of imagery and allusion. But it is in this conflict that his unique appeal fully takes route. Only a perspective rooted in such conflict could say things like "Facts are human arrogance, we barely know a fraction", "Your third eye is just a fucking hole in your head", or, in the album's most hauntingly powerful moment, break down entirely into a computer generated voice on the latter half of "Collapse and Appear", when he moves past anything a person could contain. It is albums like this that really show the true beauty of our internet-boosted culture... I can't imagine LUM finding one kindred spirit through means of traditional distribution, but now he can grow a fanbase, influence people, get burnt out and sick of everyone, and release a masterpiece of finality and dismissal. A triumph!
Recommended tracks: Persistence, Collapse and Appear
12. Heems - Eat Pray Thug
Original Live Review
Rounding out our trifecta of sad rap is Heems' long-awaited debut LP, his first solo album after hype mixtapes Nehru Jackets and Wild Water Kingdom. You'd be forgiven if you see a disconnect between IDLSIDGO's pit of despair, LUM's explosive self-conflict, and this, which, at first, comes across as another fun romp through Heems' preoccupations over fun beats. And sure, a lot of these tracks are straight bangers - "Sometimes", "So NY", and "Jawn Cage" have him in rare form, going hard over hyper-catchy beats with all the requisite funnies. But these tracks have a dark side - the misfortune that has publicly plagued Heems in the past few years, lurking just below his rap persona, become more pronounced here. Other tracks, like the exquisite "Home", give a melancholy space to these voices. It creates a duality between your memories of the fun Heems of Das Racist, and the man he's become in the half-decade since... Or, beyond a duality, it shows you the entire spectrum between the H-man (party pseudonym) and the H-man (heroin addict). It's portrait both fractured and whole, and compellingly human.
But it's only half the story of Eat Pray Thug. In the same way that Heems bravely admits to his present personal issues, he also delves into the political/social/economical history of the often unheard intersection of demographics he finds himself in. Heems' work has always been political, sure, but from song titles like "Flag Shopping", "Suicide by Cop" and "Patriot Act" alone, we know we're reaching new levels of direct insight. Specifically, he addresses his experiences being a visible Pakistani in New York after 9/11... the latter half of "Patriot Act", which I wrote about here, stands as one of the best things ever written on the subject. And from this mode, where he confronts the very systems at play at the root of his being, that the experience of the album blooms outward: it is no longer sad because it is our beloved Heems suffering, but because we know he is one of many.
Recommended tracks: Home, Patriot Act
11. Oneohtrix Point Never - Garden of Delete
Alright, now we're doing something completely different... We're doing something that Wikipedia has resigned itself into just describing as "electronic" and "experimental". 0PN's music has always been on the weird side, but here, on his second LP for Warp, he pushes his strange ideas forward with an unprecedented aggressiveness and mastery. There's beats that will excite the most jaded rhythm fetishists and samples that will send Boards of Canada cultists on trips to the darkest depths of Youtube. The diversity of instrument sounds is reminiscent of The Flashbulb but it moves with the demented surging quality of Arca. His interludes justify the existence of a dozen microgenres and invent a dozen more. Truly masterful work.
The best element of the album, though, is the sheer relentlessness of the quality. This may not come as a surprise when I've just described it in terms of the greatest hits of several other genres and artists, but the amount of content he packed into these 45 minutes still manages to stun me. Beyond just an absence of filler, it feels like every track is spending every second in a struggle to justify its own existence. Everything has to escalate, but it can't just be a crescendo or acceleration, it has to be an offshoot into a previously unknown dimension. Some tracks, like the warpath opener "Ezra" or single "Sticky Drama", double down on the complexity of their motifs, letting patterns frantically fractal into dizzying soundscapes. Others, like the more contemplative tracks in the latter half of the album, dive into singular sounds, revealing entire alien worlds. The effect is like playing a game like Yume Nikki, where you explore deeper and deeper into unfamiliar aesthetics, only here half the time you could be dropped suddenly into Dustforce. And it never lets up.
Recommended tracks: Ezra, Animals (I can't find them on Youtube)
10. Hop Along - Painted Shut
In 2015, humanity also witnessed the most significant linguistic revelation imaginable: emo and moe are spelled with the same letters. Yes. You read that right. The Japanese term for "budding", referring to a sort of self-annihilatory courtly love directed at cute fictional characters, and a post-post-hardcore genre where people sang openly about their feelings, both not-coincidentally rising to prominence in the early 90s, turned out to be the exact same thing all along. Does this prove a level of anagramistic synchronicity to words, revealing a non-arbitrary origin to all signification and generally a greater meaning and purpose to every facet of life? Uhh, maybe. Did it lead to the huge paradigm shift in my life that I suspected it could when I first wrote about it? Not so much. But did I listen to this album dozens of time since then, loving it, with moe in my heart? For sure.
My approach to this album as an outsider and novice to the genre is somewhat similar to how I approached the anime Gakkou Gurashi (idk if the anime list or this will come out first), a zombie horror/moe slice of life hybrid... I recognized that some elements that I loved were probably fairly standard for the genre, and the fact that I only cared about them now was because I associated them with "moe" was absurd, but then I realized that it didn't really matter why I was enjoying it, as long as I embraced it and maximized my enjoyment of it.
Like a good slice of life, Painted Shut is a world onto itself, separate from yours but warm and familiar. The subjects of the songs vary considerably to construct the world on many tiers... there's personal anecdotes ranging from seeing a Jehovah's Witness at your door, to seeing parental abuse in public, to meeting your doppelganger, there's rumination on memory and loss, there's abridged tragibiographies of Charles Boden and Jackson C Frank... we feel like we're seeing the complete mental space of the singer, all her preoccupations, her memories, her feelings. It's all conveyed through wonderful lyrical work that perfectly hits the sweetspot between evocative and contrived.
It captures a conversational tone where you feel like you're really on the speaker's "side", that whatever feelings and memories she's conveying, she's doing so with the expectation that you will empathize on a very intimate level. Like something shared between close friends, rather than the typical artist-listener relationship. I think this is really key to the appeal of emo, and moe, or at least my understanding of it. Much of this is felt on a very gut level when hearing Frances Quinlan's god-tier vocals, which faultlessly sweep across the entire range between tender confessionals and all-out screamed proclamations. She manages to have it both ways - her vocals are both endearingly raw and masterfully executed. This is true of the songs, too - on one level, they're straightforward and centered around definite themes, but every one of them also includes some amazing breakdown or finale or development that reveals the true dedication behind these dynamic structures. And man sometimes it is really great to hear a bunch of guitars and stuff played super well. Y'know, just for a change.
Recommended tracks: Horseshoe Crabs, Happy To See Me
9. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell
Original Live Review
Ambitious songwriting has always been a hallmark of Sufjan Stevens' work... in the past, he's treated us to Biblical interpretation, eschatological exploration, the biographies of serial killers, and heartbreaking short fiction. He famously endeavored to cram entire states into albums. If one was to extrapolate a personality from all of this, it would be some sort of... gigantic history dork, with a painfully empathetic drive to seek humanity across time and space? But there was always something lurking behind that, some tragedy or emptiness that must explain the origin of this unbounded desire. You caught glimpses of it, often in moments of more reserved instrumentation, in lines that suddenly seemed a little too real, too close, too tender to be seen directly. These moments proved to be some of the most magical and memorable of his previous albums, the secret heart that was wholly his own.
And this one? It's all heart. With his uniquely humanizing gaze, he has looked into himself. The album speaks unabashedly about his past, indiscriminately about his present (the famous "You checked your texts while I masturbated"), and unflinchingly about his future ("Fourth of July"'s haunting outro), but Sufjan resists simple narrativizing. Although the significance of some of his stories may initially be cryptic, there is no attempt to obfuscate his message or trick or convince you to buy into some "persona". The self-portrait he paints is compelling and honest, but what's more clear is that a portrait can never be the person it depicts.
What's beyond, then, in the inexpressible details of someone's inner world? I think we see it here in the beautiful moments that go beyond the personal, into a universal signification of emotion. On every track we see this pattern: although the incident he describes is deeply personal, the ramifications it had in his life, the impression it left on him, is expressed through sheer sonic rapture. And, in that sense, you can bring these feelings into your own personal history, and find them in your own forms. It's really the trick he's always used, making you care about the ambitions of Chicago architects or selfmade prophets as if they were your own family members. But here, when it's his own life, it's never been so rich, so beautiful.
Recommended tracks: Carrie & Lowell, Should Have Known Better
8. Panda Bear - Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper
Original live review
Like all of Panda Bear's albums, PMBTGR feels like the Pet Sounds from some phantom genre we haven't even seen the Please Please Me of. While Person Pitch and Tomboy seemed to anticipate movements of chillwave and surfgaze by launching forerunner masterpieces, I cannot see how any other artist could ever hope to match this "genre", to operate in this mode. It feels more like an alien world than an album... and not just some rocky planet that, if we're lucky, has a bit of dripping water, but a lush, vibrant, moving world, populated with creatures entirely unlike anything Earthy in appearance, colour, behaviour...
The song structure lends itself to this sort of... "safari"-esque approach? Many of the songs are very repetitive, with a loop backbone upon which several short, simple verses are repeated, usually with a single line being repeated in the intro and outro. It really feels very much like observing the behaviour of some bizarre deep-sea fish or something, watching it move around with its strange motions, maybe flashing some lights with unclear intention. Then you watch it swim away. Some of them are bouncy, erratic, undulating to propel themselves; some of them are smooth, graceful, with long rippling bodies... I hope this analogy makes any sort of sense to you. It is not something that can be described directly.
The lyrical message is similarly animistic, once you're able to discern it. Panda's vocals are bathed in radiant reverb and layered upon themselves, creating a mantra-esque feeling of both fluidity and concreteness, persisting both as a singular looped statement and a continuous flowing current. His voice is in beautiful form, soaring all across his radiant tenor range, and enunciating every vowel sound in gaping beastlike swells. When you finally work out what actual English words he's saying underneath all these gorgeous layers (or look it up), it might be at first a bit... underwhelming? His lyrics have always been fairly cryptic, elusively alluding to things too personal or too obscure to understand, but here his habit of metaphor and abstraction are so reductive that many verses are at first nonsensical. Like "Dip begin, this pad has a bigger grid/Grip this, grab that, have that, an empty bag"? "Got to like it all/Got to like what kills/It kills just to know what kills"? "This is the last time/It's inside the one and all/You don't make that one again"? What could any of this mean?
Given that we can work out some references to PS2 cult classic Shadow of the Colossus and some to his father's death, we know that there's probably some that are even further on either extreme of esoterism (personal or obscure), and we perhaps will never discern. It isn't all futile, though - from some of the more direct statements, Panda's musings on desire, creativity, family, love, and death become clear. From these ideals, we can align the strange symbols of "a dog with a broken leg" and the many abstract signifiers of "it" and "that one" and "you" etc with philosophical meaning. It may seem like a difficult process, but it happens very naturally, very intuitively, like how you might start to predict the actions of even a very strange creature just by watching it long enough. What emerges is a message of persistence, optimism, and appreciation, one that proves itself through the brilliance of the album itself. By arriving at his message this way, it feels much more intimate and warm, instead of preachy or authoritative... It's just him letting you know how he's feeling about things, and hoping you have a good time alongside him. When you really start to feel it, when you really start believing in this attitude, the magic of this album, the true jam energy, is unending.
Recommended tracks: Mr. Noah, Crosswords
Alright I'm gonna split this into part two
Are you excited for the top 7??? Can you guess what's on there??? Are you instead just looking up videos of weird fishes swimming around?? That's fine too?