Top Records of 2015


This was an exceptionally good year for music. I don’t get around to writing about albums nearly as much as I write about live shows, so I thought I’d take the year-end opportunity to get some thoughts down on what resonated with me in 2015. I kept the list proper to 20 albums, in keeping with the lists I’ve done for the radio format in years past. I never really made ordered lists until I started doing radio in 2011 and needed one for a year-end show, and even though my radio career is no more (for now), it seemed like a good metric to stick with. Anyway, here’s the list – direct your hate mail accordingly. 

1. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

Arriving five years on from his 75-minute electro-acoustic mindbender The Age of Adz, Carrie & Lowell finds Sufjan Stevens going back to his roots – way back. Inspired by the death of a mother he long struggled to know, Carrie & Lowell digs into Stevens’ childhood memories – abandonment, confusion, sadness and brief bright-white flashes of joy – sets them against scenes from a dark and lonely period of his life in the modern day, and reckons with the whole burden. Stevens has always had an ear for pathos and the details of character in his songwriting, and when he turns that lens on himself at album length, in such unflinching fashion, the results are stunning.

Carrie & Lowell is heartbreaking in ways big and small. “We’re all gonna die,” goes the gently sung chorus of “Fourth of July,” chanted over and over, mantra-like and fragile. “Do I care if I survive this?” Stevens ponders aloud amid a litany of suicidal thoughts on “The Only Thing.” But while mortality is the catalyst for much of the record’s soul searching, Stevens is ultimately writing most directly about the nature of love, be it familial, romantic or spiritual. He addresses his mother directly on more than one occasion, begging in vain for a reason why she couldn’t love him. “John My Beloved” ties Christian imagery into an awkward date, concluding with a plea for the protection of Christ’s love. “All of Me Wants All of You” alludes to a limping relationship long since devoid of affection or care. “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” offers the year’s most quietly shattering couplet – “Like a champion, get drunk to get laid / I take one more hit when you depart.”

These 11 songs explore heavy and deeply personal subject matter with honesty and grace, exorcising an intangible pain in the form of something beautiful. Stevens’ compositions hearken back to the sparest moments of Seven Swans, largely acoustic, engineered as though he’s playing seated across from you, for you alone to hear. Even when the words are not easy to bear, there is undeniable beauty in their presentation. And that’s ultimately the nature of Carrie & Lowell, a record about the persistence of love in all its forms and  the acknowledgement of the unrequited; the beauty and the pain that must always exist side by side.

2. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear

Honeybear is the first of several releases on this list which I’ve already written about elsewhere (page 44 of this Tastemakers issue, if you’re interested in me going long-form about it). I’ll try to avoid rehashing and just say that Josh Tillman’s sardonic, bleakly funny and unapologetically romantic sophomore LP as Father John Misty continues to resonate. Bookended by different angles of the same love story, one playfully apocalyptic and the other achingly steeped in reality, it’s a record that examines the frequently weird, illogical and hopeless nature of romance against the backdrop of a bullshit American dream, but still suggests a light at the end of a very frustrating tunnel.

3. Drake – If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late

It was a sly move for Drake to release If You’re Reading This as a “retail mixtape,” thereby cashing in on its inevitable success while ducking the actual responsibility of a proper fourth studio album. The irony of the whole thing, though, is that he didn’t need to do it. “Album” or not, this is Drake’s strongest project to date. In some sense, it’s the same old Aubrey at the core of these songs – lovelorn player, sensitive aspiring mogul – but he sounds more assured in his presentation than ever before. The production, courtesy of a stable of collaborators new and old, is icy and brooding as the February night the record was surprise-released into. Drake himself largely follows suit, taking lyrical shots at anyone who looks at him the wrong way and lamenting the degree to which his competition strives to be on his level and fails so consistently at it. Nearly every track comes across as a corrective assertion directed at anyone who claims the man can’t rap. And when he does let his guard down on a song like “Company,” a rarer occasion here than on any Drake project of yore, the glimpse of vulnerability feels all the more impactful. If You’re Reading This soundtracks Drake as the triumphant lone wolf, but simultaneously ponders the emptiness of being alone at the top.

Plus, bonus points for enacting the miracle of a Lil Wayne feature that’s not godawfully embarrassing.

4. Viet Cong – Viet Cong

Yes, Viet Cong have a terrible band name. They’re changing it. They also made the year’s best rock record. With this self-titled debut, the Calgary-based foursome have done the seemingly impossible: taken music that could accurately be described as “post-punk revival” and actually made it interesting again. Viet Cong is post-punk in the truest sense: a measured deconstruction of rock that retains the guitar/bass/drums format and warps it into something darker and stranger while retaining elements of punk’s rhythmic aggression. The influences here are clear, but the end result is something new. Bassist Matt Flegel’s cryptically ominous lyrics ring out over Scott Munro and Daniel Christiansen’s serrated interlocking guitars and Mike Wallace’s tight percussion, but in arrangements that frequently dodge expectations. The core elements of any given song sometimes sound like they’ve been sourced from several entirely disparate recordings, but happen to fall together in perfectly offbeat ways. The band’s ear for unorthodox production plays an important role in setting them apart as well. “March of Progress” hard pans arpeggios alternately across the left and right channels to thrillingly disorienting effect; opener “Newspaper Spoons” fades in on a bit-crushed wall of drums and fades out into heavenly sonic ephemera; chunks of drones and distortion pedal detritus creep into the frame throughout the record at just the right moments. And above all perhaps, in the very primal sense of all great rock music, these songs just rock. I’ve caught myself air-drumming, irony-free, to “Death” more times than I care to remember. I haven’t been able to get enough of this record all year. I still can’t.

5. Deafheaven – New Bermuda

I’ll keep it brief here, as this is one of several entries covered for a separate year-end list at Invisible Oranges (plus it’s not like I haven’t written enough about Deafheaven here already). New Bermuda is the dark shadow of the luminescent Sunbather. It’s bleaker and heavier, drawing on a wider range of influences and advancing the band’s sound in all the right ways; the rare follow-up to a masterpiece that doesn’t disappoint.

6. Jamie xx – In Colour

U.K. producer Jamie xx has the distinction of releasing 2015’s most aptly titled record. The debut solo LP from the The xx’s shadowy third radiates with a giddy, vibrant energy and traverses a spectrum of moods and textures with thrilling dexterity. In Colour rarely stays in one place over the course of its 42 minutes, but somehow manages to make Young Thug, xx bandmates, doo-wop samples, steel drum patterns and varied strains of bass and downtempo electronic sound natural side by side. Attention-grabbing centerpieces like “Loud Places” and “Good Times” have dominated discussion of the record, but its less flashy moments are no less worthy of that attention. “Gosh” is one of the year’s best songs, plain and simple – the neon-bright synth that explodes through its final third resonates like divine intervention. The subdued groove of “Girl” is quietly infectious. “Seesaw” might even be the superior Romy collaboration. As the year draws to a close, this is the sort of record that encapsulates many of the positive memories I’ll take away from it. Pure sonic joy.

7. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit

With her debut LP, Australian singer/songwriter/guitarist Courtney Barnett delivered 2015’s strongest argument that the traditional power trio can still be a transcendently wonderful thing in the right hands. Sometimes I Sit overflows with effortless charm in a perfect balance of bouncy melodicism, melancholy musings and offhand guitar heroics. Barnett’s dry wit shines throughout 11 songs’ worth of quotable gems delivered with an observational detachment that almost belies how insightful she can be. Highlights abound, from kinetic opener “Elevator Operator” to the slyly self-deprecating “Pedestrian At Best” and the downcast expanse of “Kim’s Caravan,” but there’s something to love about every song here. Sometimes I Sit is an endlessly replayable and compelling listen. Barnett’s star is quickly rising, and she deserves it.

8. Wilco – Star Wars

In more than one sense, Star Wars could come across as a deliberately low-stakes affair for Wilco. Dropped without warning, for free, with a goofy title and a cat on the cover, the 33-minute affair is deceptively minor. What it lacks in scope, however, Star Wars more than makes up for with good old fashioned songwriting. It’s an unassuming collection that rarely indulges in the style of The Whole Love or Sky Blue Sky; the longest song here, at just five minutes, is the appropriately astral-sounding “You Satellite.” The songs excel in subtleties rather than flash – guitar licks, turns of phrase, a consistent krautrock rhythmic precision. Tweedy is on his game lyrically as well, particularly on the swooning love song closer “Magnetized.” Star Wars is a prime example of an exceptionally talented band choosing to play quietly to their own strengths.

9. Future – DS2

Future makes music that sounds dangerous. If you’re a person who has recently given up drinking lean and wishes to remain a person who does not drink lean, Future’s music probably is legitimately dangerous. The crowning achievement of the Atlanta rapper’s prolific and career-resurrecting 2015 is DS2, a surprise-released LP that invites the listener into a codeine-fueled abyss of masculine braggadocio and immense despair. Over ominous, Metro Boomin-headed production that frequently calls on eerie piano melodies and otherworldly electronics scrapes and screeches, Future raps about partying, pushing dope and partying some more with an inescapable sense of weariness and dread. Haunted by the demons of his past and present lifestyles, he’s a man in the grip of darkness, loneliness and addiction trying to remind (or convince) himself of his ostensible top-of-the-world status. DS2 embraces duality – it’s honest and it’s embellished; it’s mean and it’s regretful; it’s triumphant and it’s pretty goddamn depressing. It’s music for the night out and the shitty morning after – Future’s frequently living them both at the same time.

10. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

I’m not sure what more there is to say about To Pimp A Butterfly at this point, and I’m sure I’m not the one to say it, but I will say this: I was never wholly sold on Kendrick’s breakthrough good kid, m.A.A.d city, or a pair of lazy festival appearances I witnessed during its supporting tours, and readied myself to continue dodging the hype train this time around. TPAB caught me off-guard though, by sounding pretty much nothing like I expected. I’ll maintain that not all of it works (the cry-rapping coda of “u” is a bit much), but the record’s dense fusion of funk and jazz influences, sharp lyrics, ferocious delivery and massive sense of ambition comprise an impressive statement.

11. Joanna Newsom – Divers

Joanna Newsom’s 2006 opus Ys, with its fantastical storytelling and expansive compositions, begged the question of how she would follow up a piece of work so singular and grand. The answer, as it turned out, was a triple-disc collection somewhere between a break-up record and a prog-folk odyssey. Again, we’re left wondering how she’d possibly top that. Arriving five years after Have One On Me, Divers sees Newsom scaling back for the first time in a career that has been an upward trajectory in scale since it began. These 11 songs are her most concise collection since 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender, and the more digestible approach is welcome in light of Have One’s frankly exhausting nature. The resultant experience of Divers is a more compact dose of Newsom’s genius. The gorgeous harp performances and inventive melodies are here of course, matched by a lyric sheet that tends toward the more personal writing of Have One, but explores the experience of being in love rather than falling out of it. Divers is not Newsom’s best record, but once again, it’s something unexpected that exhibits a satisfying next step for a fascinating and exceptionally talented artist.

12. Low – Ones and Sixes

Veteran slowcore trio Low have seemed poised to slip comfortably into routine in recent years. 2013’s Jeff Tweedy-produced The Invisible Way was a solid collection of songs that offered up a few gems, but ultimately felt lacking in ambition. It was also their 10th studio album, released in their 20th year as a band. Complacent consistency is far from the worst one can expect from a band in that position. As Ones & Sixes proves, however, counting Low out for another minor masterpiece would be a mistake. Trading in its predecessor’s clean acoustic sound and concise structure, Ones sprawls out to nearly an hour and incorporates a range of electronic textures in addition to the band’s typical palette. The results are striking. Much like distortion pedals and Dave Friddman production seemed to spark the band’s creativity on 2005’s The Great Destroyer, the borderline post-rock approach here, combined with Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s oft-gloomy lyrics and haunting harmonies, renders some of their finest songs in recent memory.

13. Pile- You’re Better Than This

Pile are a Boston-based foursome who have long since earned the loyal adoration of their hometown, and it’s high time for the world at large to embrace the band’s idiosyncratic brand of knotty noise rock as well. You’re Better Than This is their most assured release yet, twisting their mastery of 90s post-hardcore dynamics into shapes all their own. Songs like gate-crashing opener “The World is Your Motel” overflow with riffs and rhythmic tics that wind up instantly stuck in your head, while the more subdued approach of “Mr. Fish” or “Waking Up in the Morning” shift the spotlight to frontman Rick Maguire’s drawling vocals and enigmatic lyricism. The acoustic instrumental “Fuck the Police” and the multi-part, false-start conclusion “Appendicitis” further the band’s commitment to keeping the audience on their toes. You’re Better Than This is multifaceted and ceaselessly inventive – a convincing argument for Pile being one of the best current guitar-rock bands not just in Boston, but anywhere.

14. Prurient – Frozen Niagra Falls

Frozen Niagra Falls is another entry already covered in detail at IO. I’ll add that I didn’t expect to connect with this one to the degree that I did. I’d been familiar with some of Dominic Fernow’s more accessible work as Prurient for a few years now due to the influence of an ex-girlfriend, but I’d always kept it at arm’s length. Fernow’s discography is imposingly large, and much of it too staunchly committed to pure noise terrorism for my personal taste. Falls struck me as something special though. It’s ugly and angry, but balances that with moments of quiet introspection and sublime beauty.

15. The Mountain Goats – Beat the Champ

Maybe the world of professional wrestling sounds like an odd choice of subject matter for a Mountain Goats record at first consideration, but is there really any topic that we suspect John Darnielle can’t write a good song about at this point? On his 15th(ish) full length release, Darnielle uses the small-time wrestling organizations that fascinated him in childhood as a jumping-off point to explore all manner of human experience both inside and outside the ring. Character sketches, true life stories and personal reflections, illustrated by Darnielle on vocals, guitars and keys with the steadfast rhythm section of Peter Hughes and Jon Wurster, blend together into one of the Goats’ most colorful and memorable latter-day releases.

16. Sunn O))) – Kannon

Sunn O))) mark the final IO-crossover entry on this list. The overlords of drone metal gave us their most concise project ever in Kannon – 33 minutes of glacial, meditative heaviness that remind us of the band’s ear for ambiance. It’s a loud and beautiful piece of work.

17. Bjork – Vulnicura

Bjork’s cuttingly personal Vulnicura is not an easy listen. It’s a bravely intense dissection of a crumbled relationship that spares no detail. Over the course of nine songs in nearly an hour, Bjork articulates the storm of conflicting feelings and raw nerves that accompany a break-up in ways that transcend what one typically thinks of as “a break-up album.” These often lengthy and harrowing compositions juxtapose string arrangements with atmospheric electronic backdrops, with Bjork’s singular voice floating atop and sounding as powerful as ever. The sonic fingerprints of collaborators Arca and The Haxan Cloak are certainly present on these songs, but there can be no mistaking the end products for anything but Bjork’s vision. In a career full of unexpected and laudable turns, this is among her most arresting moments.

18. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love

Olympia punk trio Sleater-Kinner were welcomed back with open arms when their reformation was announced, but the question of whether they’d be able to satisfyingly follow up 2005’s then-career-concluding masterpiece The Woods lingered. No Cities to Love doesn’t top its predecessor, but does justice to the band’s uncompromising legacy by not trying to. Woods’ blaring production and guitar epics are contrasted here by taut, urgent and timely songs that knock you over the head – 10 tracks over and done with in 30 minutes and change. The chemistry between the trio of guitarists/vocalists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss is reignited here as though no time at all has passed, and renders a defiant, politically charged collection of songs that feels less like a reunion album than a natural continuation.

19. Destroyer – Poison Season

Poison Season finds the chameleonic enigma that is Dan Bejar stepping off the yacht from which he orchestrated 2011’s soft-rock opus Kaputt, though the saxophones follow. Bejar claims to have deliberately avoided writing pop songs this time around, but weaves melodies around his cryptic musings that leave them stuck in your head despite his best efforts. Apart from the irresistible bounce of “Dream Lover” though, the hooks are indeed more subtle than usual. Bejar is writing from a reflective and occasionally dejected place; a state of mind summed up in the washed-out monochrome portrait that adorns the record sleeve. At 13 songs, Poison Season sometimes feels quite a bit longer than Kaputt (though it only exceeds its length by two minutes), but the sprawl suits the atmosphere. The tracklist scans like so many streets to explore in a romantic but troubled city of Bejar’s imagining.

20. Torres – Sprinter

Mackenzie Scott’s sophomore album as Torres vaults between baring soul and spitting venom. Quietly crushing acoustic odysseys are juxtaposed with fiery missives, all demonstrating Scott’s exquisite songwriting and lyrics. These are incisive songs that rumble with anger, sadness and our best efforts at the defiance and acceptance of both. Scott’s powerful live sets were what put her on my radar a few years back, and with Sprinter she’s released a record that does them justice.

Honorable Mentions:

Beach House – Depression Cherry

Though the Baltimore dream-pop duo suffered from a bit of overexposure in 2015 by inexplicably releasing two records months apart, Depression Cherry still represents exemplary Beach House with a few intriguing sonic steps forward.

Built to Spill – Untethered Moon

Doug Marstch’s reliable indie rock outfit returns after a six-year absence with a strong collection reminding us of Built to Spill’s generally unimpeachable nature.

Ceremony – The L-Shaped Man

California ex-hardcore crew ratchet up the Joy Division worship for an atmospheric LP that’s way better than everyone told you.

Chelsea Wolfe – Abyss

The gothic singer/songwriter gets heavy and delivers her most compelling LP to date.

Death Grips – Jenny Death

One of many I wish I’d spent more time with this year. Jenny Death felt like Death Grips vaulting toward their own twisted brand of rap-rock, if rap-rock were to be badass instead of terrible.

Deerhunter – Fading Frontier

Fading Frontier isn’t Deerhunter’s finest hour, but still quite a good record from Bradford Cox and co. “Breaker,” Cox and guitarist Lockett Pundt’s first proper duet, is lovely.

Drake and Future – What A Time To Be Alive

Ok, it’s largely Drake jumping on some pretty good Future songs that got left on Metro Boomin’s cutting room floor (and proof that Drake should never try to rap about lean), but there’s some jams here. I dare one to deny “Diamonds Dancing.”

Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside

A rap record as sparse, anti-social and acerbic as its title. Earl continues to distinguish himself as the lone Odd Future rapper with a legitimate future.

Faith No More – Sol Invictus

Eighteen years after their last LP, the alt-metal weirdos return without missing a step.

Fuzz – II

Ty Segall’s heavy metal side project doubles down on Sabbath worship straight from the garage, kicks ass thoroughly and consistently.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet and Other Distresses

Asunder finally lays Godspeed’s long-gestating live composition, fan-nicknamed “Behemoth,” to tape. It’s a minor work for the band but, the band being who they are, it’s still pretty brilliant.

High on Fire – Luminiferous

Matt Pike’s long-running sludge/thrash outfit lives to slay another day, delivers one of its strongest efforts in its seventh LP.

Krill – A Distant Fist Unclenching

Distant Fist turned out to be the swan song for these belovedly off-kilter Bostonians, and it’s a fitting set of odd, introspective songs that sound like no one but Krill. R.I.P.

Lightning Bolt – Fantasy Empire

Rhode Island’s preeminent noisemakers reassert their mastery of overdriven bass/drums insanity.

Liturgy – The Ark Work

If we’re being totally honest, I’m not wholly sure I’m a fan of The Ark Work, but it’s a record well worth acknowledging for sounding like literally nothing else, ever.

Metz – II

II is arguably more of the same from Toronto noise rock trio Metz, but the frantic pummeling that worked on their 2012 self-titled continues to work here.

Mount Eerie – Sauna

Meditative folk-drone zen was the direction that Anacortes, WA songwriter Phil Elverum’s muse sent him in this year. As always, it was a worthwhile experience to follow him there.

Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden of Delete

Daniel Lopatin’s otherworldly electronic vision reaches new heights with Garden of Delete. I failed to spend an appropriate amount of time with this one this year; I suspect it will only rise in my esteem subsequently.

Panda Bear – Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper

Grim Reaper is Panda Bear’s messiest solo outing thus far, but there are plenty of uniquely enchanting Noah Lennox moments here.

Speedy Ortiz – Foil Deer

Massachusetts’ distinguished indie rock exports make a strong showing on their second full-length, wrapping noisy guitars around Sadie Dupuis’ quick-witted and perceptive lyrics.

Tame Impala – Currents

I couldn’t place Currents high up on a year-end list in good conscience – Kevin Parker’s lyrical crimes are too great – but the album does offer up some undeniable tunes (“Let It Happen”) and some grooves that transcend objectionable lyricism (“The Less I Know the Better”).

Windhand – Grief’s Infernal Flower

Virginia’s dominant doom metal concern sheds a layer or two of swampy ambiance for their third LP and renders their cleanest, most melodic songs yet.