These are the albums I was most heavily involved with this year. Most of them are exceptional. Many are intriguing. This is not a best albums of the year list. I mean, I just generally don’t fuck with rankings on this shit, so I guess it’s as close to one as you’ll get from me, at least this year. Everything is listed alphabetically. Please leave your comments and tell me how my totally arbitrary list is obviously and entirely 100% wrong because… come on.
now raise your glass to another year in muzik and read mah listszsz
– jay forest || No Hype > 2016.
Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
I didn’t want to like this album. Their first outing, Boys & Girls, was solid, but I felt it was too soft and perhaps a bit too airy for its own good. I pegged the Shakes as a southern-meets-indie novelty act a la Kings of Leon. There was also hesitation on my part to give myself over simply because the people I knew who most liked the album were all pure rockists. Their biggest proponent was the kid in my fraternity who spends most of his energy trying to convince people that Radiohead is a terrible band. My hopes for the Shakes changed, however, as soon as I learned that Blake Mills would be behind the boards as executive producer for their sophomore record. Blake Mills is one of my favorite musicians alive, and he knows good shit. And he makes amazing shit. And indeed, the production on this dazzling piece of alternative rock and roll is both remarkably unique and sensibly refined – the guitars are clear and crisp, the drums have the perfect amount of slap-back reverb, and most importantly, singer Brittany Howard’s commanding voice is given center stage, providing an emotional spectacle that will affect listeners for years to come.
Blank Body – Explicit Deluxe
Explicit Deluxe is not a landmark album. It’s not necessarily a very touching album per se. What it is, however, is a laser-focused, badass statement of intent from a producer with chops for days and an attitude to boot. The space this album creates is a digital jungle, with electric vines swinging amongst trees of silicon bark. PC Music-esque synths co-mingle with head-banging boom-bap trap percussion while glitched out beat-repeats give rise to a very 21st century model of syncopation. As the elements continuously build and subside, a sense of wondrous exploration becomes clear, or rather, explicit.
Clarence Clarity – No Now
As you might have noticed, R&B has undergone a radical transformation over the past five years. As artists have injected their songs with electronics, ambience, and generalized whiteness, R&B has more and more found itself in a minimalist-leaning landscape. From the works of James Blake to that of FKA Twigs, much of this music operates with the “less-is-more” mentality. Clarence Clarity disagrees with that line of thunking. This album is a menacingly dense and schizophrenic listen in which expressive pop melodies struggle to cut through a whole mess of digital artifacts and experimental eccentricities. This is not an easy listen, but based on how many times I listened to it this year, it is a deeply rewarding one. It’s the Beach Boys after a bad acid trip at a nightclub, James Blake sans a delete button, Jai Paul in abrasive rebellion. It’s utterly indecipherable at points, but ultimately, impossible to ignore.
D’Angelo – Black Messiah
Either you read it as: Ain’t That Easy, or, Ain’t That Easy? Both work. If you don’t know who D’Angelo is, go listen to Voodoo. If you do know who D’Angelo is, then I don’t need to tell you how triumphant of a return this album was for the once-reclusive neo-soul legend.
DJ Paypal – SOLD OUT
With the 2014 death of DJ Rashad still looming large over the whole Chicago footwork scene, 2015 was destined to be a year of change, visibility, and maturation. The DJ Paypal story includes all of those things. While his earlier releases were almost nu-disco takes on the spazzy, high-BPM madness of footwork, his debut LP made its mark on the year as proof that, if Rashad was the genre’s Coltrane, then he might be its Ornette Coleman. The sampling source material here is diverse and exciting and its deployment is subtle, heady, and sometimes incomprehensible. If, as a friend recently proposed to me, footwork is the “rhythm of our time,” then this album will most certainly go on the books as an intriguing, singular vision of the zeitgeist.
Drake and Future – What a Time to Be Alive
It’s 2015’s version of Watch the Throne, and it’s so fucking depressing. Strip clubs, stacks of cash, loneliness, private jets, and codeine indulgence – these are the things that Drake and Future have in common. These are the things that hip-hop loves right now, and who am I to say it should be otherwise. There are some really great tracks on here – tracks that dig themselves into your brain and invade your sense of identity with quotables a plenty and personality up the wazoo. My relationship with Drake is so tenuous these days, but the wavelength he and Future are working on here is undeniable. Standout track “Diamonds Dancing” will maintain its place in my sad late-night playlist for at least the duration of this winter (if it ever comes?).
Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
You’d think that by now the whole hipster irony thing might’ve worn off. Instead, it’s metastasized its way into culture at large. Father John recognized this and reacted with his best shot at sincerity(?!?); the result is the year’s most endearing pseudo-intellectual negotiation of contemporary cultural nihilism. True love is silly, but it’s the only thing we can hope for. Cynicism is played out, but it’s the only thing that makes sense. Our world is composed of contradictions and indecision, and that is where Misty’s ever-relatable music works best. Also, by far the best album teaser of the year.
Floating Points – Elaneia
Ambient, orchestral jazztronica for indie kids. This album, the work of Sam Shephard, a Brit, is a wholly enveloping journey through the cosmos. The sounds are singular and irreplicable, and yet the vibe is easily transmutable to any a late-night situation, whether it’s closing out a downtown lounge, sustaining the high of a smokey dorm room, or shepherding a headphoned listener to sleep. There’s a static energy that fills the quiet moments spotting this record – a magnetic, electric sense of potential that is constantly being used and created, repeatedly recycled forward into the next moment and beyond.
GoldLink – And After That, We Didn’t Talk
Hip-hop and house music have always functioned as musical cousins – split impulses within the urban landscape with shared influences and favored use of many of the same analog technologies. GoldLink came onto the scene last year with the mission statement of bringing these musical traditions back together in a high-energy, Soundcloud-friendly blend. It’s a mission that, with the help of executive producer Rick Rubin, the DC rapper makes good on with this record. It’s a short listen, and one that you definitely want to spin at your New Years party.
Grimes – Art Angels
The big question of this album: “did Grimes go pop, or was Grimes pop all along?” Pop has always been at the center of the Grimes project, but there’s no way to get around the fact that there’s a whole lot more radio potential on this record than there had been on the last. Over the past few years, Claire Boucher has put an obsessive’s count of hours in at the studio, and it shows. So many of the songs on this record are simply immaculate, with a clean bite and deliberate energy that forces you to take note. The anger is palpable and the talent is obvious; top to bottom this is a thoroughly decisive work of creative flexing with Grimes taking her haters head on head first. Their silence is her victory.
Heems – Eat Pray Thug
Ever since realizing that I was following in Heems’ academic footsteps (Stuyvesant High School, then Wesleyan University), I’ve had an unreasonable infatuation with the guy. I think I see myself in him beyond the alma maters, too – he’s an absurdly funny, psychadelic brainiac with a depressive chip on his shoulder. Das Racist was a major moment for me, both in my college social life, and in my own relationship with hip-hop; the duo’s demise brought upon me an unexpected wave of sadness. Himanshu’s debut solo project, however, renewed my hope in the son of Queens… this is an album that only he could have created – a truly diverse set of songs that mix whacky nonsequiturs with deathly social critique, comedic catharsis with total exasperation. I’m happy that Heems is still making music, and even happier that he’s doing it with such a renewed sense of self and purpose. Given the status of brown Americans in 2015, this album is an important piece of 21st century identity-making, and a surprisingly brutal look inside the head of an irreverent jokester.
Hiatus Kaiyote – Choose Your Weapon
If you’ve never listened to Hiatus Kaiyote, be prepared for something truly breathtaking. The Australian “future-soul” band is in a lane of their own, taking on modern r&b music with a prog-rock derived, jazz-fusion-y sense of ambition. As meters spin out of control, the lush instrumentation acts as a vibrant vehicle for singer Nai Palm’s sultry, intimidatingly nimble voice. This is the band that every Dilla-worshipping, Radiohead-idolizing jazzhead wishes they were in. Their collective talent burns bright, but it never turns to wanking, and instead funnels itself into a groovy, mystically sexual journey. Highly recommended for fans of Badu, Flying Lotus, and the occasional bout of lysergic ego death.
Jeremih – Late Nights: The Album
When the Wesleyan Spring Fling committee booked Jeremih for last year’s event, I pegged it as a short-sighted decision based on hype, hit singles, and post-indie poptimism. I was no longer attending Wesleyan to see the show, but now I can honestly say that I kinda wish I had been. Jeremih can at first come across as a newly minted Usher type – a sex-friendly alto who isn’t afraid to say the bad words and get a lil’ sweaty in the process. But as much as I respect Usher, Jeremih is another beast entirely, and on his much awaited debut, he shows exactly what sets him apart. First off, the beats are immaculate, bouncy, and catchy as hell – I would put them up against anything else this year. Jeremih executive produced this album as well, and that’s crazy considering the breadth and power of the instrumentals here – trap shit (ft. Migos), melodic pop moments (ft. J. Cole), and even confessional acoustic numbers (ft. the tears of many young women). As for the vocals, Jeremih has a one-in-a-million voice that finds its power in Jacksonian heights. He sounds unstrained, gentle, yet sure of himself. He knows he’s the shit, that he can keep up with any radio rapper’s flow, and that he can blow you the fuck away. In the end, he’s excited to do just that.
Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material
I don’t listen to country. Not in the “everything except country and heavy metal” way, but more just in a “I never knew anyone who listened to it, so I was never exposed to it” kinda way. So when The Fader put this young country sensation on their cover, I was first taken aback, then intrigued, and then mesmerized. Kacey Musgraves is a country starlet for our time – a weed-smoking, tiara-loathing, small town girl who isn’t afraid to support gay marriage. The songs are calculatedly casual endeavors, matter-of-fact in both delivery and form, and they’ve won her some major cross-over appeal in 2015. Now, I won’t lie and say this shit ain’t cheesy – it is. But it’s the kind of cheesy that grows on you, the kind that makes you question exactly what made it so cheesy in the first place, and what that says about yourself. This album did a lot towards making me re-think my musical prejudices, and that’s quite the accomplishment. I don’t know if I’ll start listening to country now or if this was a one-off occurrence, but either way, I appreciate the fact Ms. Musgraves has made me begin to question.
Kehlani – You Should Be Here
My Album Of The Year or whatever. When Kehlani’s name starting making its way around the industry, it was spoken with immediate reverence, and I quickly realized it was earned. There’s very little that can be said about this lady that she won’t tell you (or show you) herself. She’s a flawlessly on-point singer with a knack for instantly loveable lyrics, and as she weaves in and around a varied selection of radio-friendly instrumentals, she continually reminds everyone listening that there’s nothing she can’t or won’t do. While her voice is saccharine and girlish, her look is full-on tattooed and leather-touting badass. And while her story is a tale of rising from treacherous beginnings, her attitude is optimistic and refreshingly open. She loves her fans, she loves her people, but she won’t let that love get the best of her. There’s strength and resiliency here, and it’s infectious and addicting.
Kendrick – To Pimp a Butterfly
Sure, whatever you say.
Marina and the Diamonds – FROOT
Marina helped me get through a major depressive bout in freshman year of college. Ever since, I’ve been a Diamond devotee. I got the chance to meet the woman at the center of it all earlier this year. I of course spilled my drink on her before thanking her for saving my life. It was hyperbole, but I think she understood. That’s the thing – she understands. Marina is there for you when no one is there for her. She’s a comforting muse, and a fabulous icon of keen thoughtfulness and a saintly poster-girl for pop’s healing power. Indeed, for the multitudes of young women and queer teenaged boys that populate her fan groups (in several of which lurk), Marina’s music is a lifeboat – a safe place and a shield that will get them through the day. This is the album that Marina has always wanted to make, and the world is better off for her having made it. Her last album, Electra Heart, was the bombastic spectacle that got her on the main stage; FROOT is her confident statement to these new fans that there’s so much more to her project than that album suggested. As always, blissfully iconic choruses lead the way here, but it’s the lyrical subtleties of the verses where Marina makes herself known, where she clears her throat and names names. She’s still the nicest popstar in the world, and that’s what makes her anger, her pain, and ultimately, her redemption, that much more potent.
Mick Jenkins – Wave[s]
If he plays his cards right and keeps honing in on the vision, Mick Jenkins can quickly become a leader in the realm of forward-thinking hip-hop music. Already having gained notoriety in his hometown city of Chicago with his straightforward brand of smoothly-delivered house-hop, Jenkins is now positioned to take on the world beyond. When you talk about a mixtape that we might as well call an album, this shits all over Drake and his bad handwriting; Wave[s] is a fleshed-out, ambitious project that can compete with anything going for $8 on Bandcamp. Rotating through a variety of drowsy, soulful, and menacing flows, Jenkins dictates the mood of a track by his very inflection. The beats are psychedelic, Ableton-rooted takes on post-Kanye boom-bap, jam packed with an impressively eclectic sample palette. The cuts range from dissonant orchestral string plucks to free-jazz drum fills, chopped-and-dropped r&b samples to prog-rock guitar breakdowns. Perhaps my favorite rap offering of the year, this mixtape, the final release before his coming studio debut, definitely solidifies Mick Jenkins as one to watch in 2016.
Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass
This is the only album on the list that I jacked from other year-end lists. It’s the type of album I would miss, though – it hits so many of my “meh” words: indie, baroque, theatrical, cutesy… yet, I love it. Just goes to show you how little you can depend on your own “aesthetics” to guide you to the music you will like. I don’t know how sarcastic this whole endeavor is, what with the sappy string sections, clap-driven breakdowns, and sentimental lyricisms, but it really doesn’t make a difference. Almost like a Disney soundtrack, this album grabs you emotionally in ways you won’t expect, and takes you on a fantastic ride full of magical moments, Mo-Town warmth, classic rock riffage, and vibrant, shameless enthusiasm.
Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden of Delete
Given the sometimes ambient, new-agey elements of Daniel Lopatin’s music under the OPN moniker, I decided to first listen to this album while trying to fall asleep. Not a good move. Distortion and destructive sampling methods abound here, colliding together alien elements into an immersive picture of the dark, disassociated, and primordial psyche of a flailing, puberty-torn American boy. Unsurprisingly, as hard as I tried to fall asleep to this raucous collage, I could not. But I also wasn’t disturbed. Instead, I found myself laughing into my pillow with glee. And then punching my mattress. And yelling under my covers: “HO-LY SHIT.” The unpredictable plunderphonics engulfed all in its path – nu-metal guitar riffs, glitched-out modular systems, spooky found sounds, and autotuned chipmunk melodies, all together and twisted to the very edge of human intuition. Sawtooth synthesizers and arpeggiated stabs spark friction as they do battle on Aphexian stomping grounds. I couldn’t help but freak out while lying in bed, and I haven’t stopped yet. If you can stomach some of the abrasive textures this work has to offer, I guarantee it will be a transcendent experience you won’t regret.
PWR BTTM – Ugly Cherries
If you told me that my favorite breakout act of the year would be a pair of arena-rock-inspired, genderqueer graduates of Bard College who dress in theatrical drag and deadpan lyrics about showers… okay, maybe I would have believed you. Indeed, PWR BTTM seems to have come along at a time where gender-driven rebellion, loud guitar music, and embarrassingly confessional lyrics have started interacting in ways they have not before. Rock music in 2015 was perhaps the most fertile genre for radical femme and queer voices this year, but none did it with the same sense of hilarity, the Van Halen-esque shredding chops, or the joyously bratty attitude that this duo brought to the table. Seeing them live was a hot mess of a time – a celebration of transgressive mirth in the face of New York’s ever-increasing conformity. It only confirmed, in my mind, the life affirming potential that lies within the hearts of these two fascinating, attention-grabbing personalities.
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
I was disappointed when the first single from this album came out – it was a return to depressing, acoustic form for Sufjan. Ever since the release of Age of Adz, I had constructed a narrative of Sufjan as a man who had lost the God of the Bible and found another in the Machine, or rather, the many machines that he had become proficient at programming. And since that album is one of my all-time favorites, you can definitely say I was happy about where I thought he had gone. I’m the kind of guy who probably would have cheered when Dylan went electric – I believe in the progressive artistic potential of technology. So, I was upset to hear that Sufjan had left behind the electronic freak show. However, the moment this album dropped in full, it was clear that for an artist like Sufjan, the medium is very much a component of the message, and the message he so badly needed to communicate could only have been delivered in a stripped-down, re-orienting form. Essentially a musical memoir of his tumultuous, heart-breaking relationship with his mother and stepfather, Carrie & Lowell is an unquestionably beautiful and marvelously potent performance from one of the deepest, most emotionally present artists of our time. And on a level of pure sonics, the synthy electronica that I loved so much has not gone away entirely, but has instead been submerged under the lovely coniferous domesticity that Sufjan calls home; with ambient swells and sine-wave counter melodies rounding out the mix. Damn, Sujan, it sure is pretty when you cry.
Toro y Moi – Samantha
Who woulda thought? Toro y Moi has really branched out since first making a name for himself as the Chillwave King. First, he gave us the jovial power-pop album “What For?”. Now, apparently, he’s a hip-hop beatsmith. Though not necessarily the most cohesive mixtape (in fact, more of a hard drive dump than anything else), time and time again I find myself utterly impressed by the sounds and unhindered creativity that remains throughout this beat-tape. Equally composed of Dre-worthy lead patches, post-dub-cum-cloud-rap haziness, and Toronto-facing r&b gushiness, Samantha is simply the result of a dope, multi-faceted musician making beats he loves with little thought or pretense. On a personal note, this is probably the closest example of the kind music I would like to make. The freeness and passion of these studio sessions is clear, and the pot smoke lingers visibly.
Travi$ Scott – Rodeo
Honestly, this was the album I most questioned putting on this list. After first hearing his name getting mentioned, knowing that he co-produced Kanye’s On Sight, and hearing the dark power of Mamacita, I was excited to hear what Scott could bring to the table as a proper auteur. When Rodeo dropped, I was immediately pleased by what I heard. I mean, there are hits all over this thing, goddamnit. And hit-makers, too: Kacy Hill, Justin Bieber, Juicy J, Future, Quavo and Young Thug are just a few of the features here. However, if that list seems overwhelmingly stacked, that’s because it is. Indeed, after the initial adrenaline wears off, this album becomes simply a mosh pit of famous names, jacked styles, and uninspired, silly lyrics. The ultimate paradox of this album comes to the fore on “Piss on Your Grave,” which might go down as the worst Kanye West featuring song ever released. It’s here that Travis goes toe to toe with his biggest inspiration, the man who gave him his so much of his career both on the level of precedent and collaboration. And not only does Travis piss all over the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he actually manages to bring Kanye down with him too. There are a few enduringly dope songs on here – “Maria, I’m Drunk”, “90210”, and “Antidote” – but I can’t imagine their strength will make this record anything more than a relic of chart-topping hip hop style-riding as we move on from 2015.
Young Thug – Barter 6
The appeal of Young Thug rests heavily on the difficulty of answering the question of exactly what or who he is. He’s a rapper, clearly, but his rhymes are often unintelligible and his trademark delivery style is saturated with a decidedly non-rap melodicism. He’s an alien, but it’s not quite obvious whether he’s traveling upon the heat of Lil Wayne’s Mars or riding a cosmic wave from Sun Ra’s Saturn. He’s a glam-y, sunglasses-at-night sorta rockstar who’s known to rock a dress, yet an understated interviewee who seems generally uncomfortable outside of a studio booth. He’s a diligent, if not obsessive worker, but a drug user all the while. The enigma of Young Thug, the identities that he moves through – they find expression here in true banger form. The language-agnostic earworms bring you in, and the warmly inviting beat selection keeps you put.