2016 :: SONG OF THE YEAR

2016

DAVID BOWIE

I CAN’T GIVE EVERYTHING AWAY

We have lost so many this year. People who shaped the later half of 20th century and carried us into the 21st are gone. It’s as if they were stepping aside for new blood to fill those great iconoclastic and defining shoes. Time will tell if that will happen, but this song seemed to be a dispatch to that next generation. The last message of a true artist with so much to give, so much creative life force, ever in bloom. The words of a man looking into the void, confronting his inability to deliver everything he had inside at the end of things. This is not a dirge, though. It’s a celebration. The young jazz lions Bowie surrounded himself with for this last album are in full voice, exultant and alive with swing here. As final goodbye, it is a perfect, whistful-but-bright look back and forward at the same time. That’s what, it seems, 2016 was all about.

 

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2015 :: TOP ALBUMS – 30 THROUGH 02

30

Tobias Jesso Jr.

​GOON​

This is an earnest, simple album and it achieves success because of it. Jesso plays like a lovechild of Ben Folds, Elton John and Randy Newman with all of the good that comes with that. IMHO, he still needs some seasoning to reach the heights of his forefathers, but “Goon” is a great indication of his promise and intelligence as a songwriter and performer. One to watch!

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29

Holly Herndon

​PLATFORM​

At once purely artistic and crazy smart “Platform” is arguably the most intelligent release of 2015. Simply a beautiful release in all of its angular, challenging uniqueness.

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28

Janet Jackson

​UNBREAKABLE​

Janet’s back in a big way on “Unbreakable.” It’s an album both maturely refined and giddily grateful — the musical expression of that jaunty shimmy, confident swagger and sure smile of a woman on the other side of catharsis and standing atop a wealth of life experience.

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27

José James

​YESTERDAY I HAD THE BLUES​

The only thing cooler than “Yesterday I Had The Blues” is the man who recorded it, José James. It takes a cocksure voice and steady hand to even attempt a compelling set of covers of the great Billie Holliday’s material. James has both. His rendition of “Strange Fruit” on “Yesterday” breathes a soulful, spiritual life into the chilling classic. That track alone is NOT to be missed. Truly arresting!

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26

Leon Bridges

​COMING HOME​

I know there’s something perhaps a little “groomed” about Leon Bridges. I get it. BUT… That doesn’t mean that “Coming Home” isn’t strong through and through. It’s a time-machine in the best way possible. Bridges takes us to a time when everything was simpler, when a gent would swim the Mississippi river to impress a girl and pop recordings were bathed in that gorgeous post-gospel glow. This album is like honeysuckle and caliche dust blown on the summer wind. Just turn it up and enjoy.

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25

Carly Rae Jepsen

E•MO•TION

Excuse me, officer… I would like to report a crime. Carly Rae Jepsen was robbed in 2015. Straight up. This is a sterling pop release and it was so sadly overlooked this year. These are songs with wonderful pop sensibilities, sweet depth and amazing production, all with Jepsen’s clarion voice spread over top.

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24

Deerhunter

​FADING FRONTIER​

Deerhunter walks the line on “Fading Frontier.” It’s a line betwixt noise rock and radio-friendly classic (Or is it psych?… Or glam?… Funk, perhaps?… You get the idea) rock influences. I guess that makes the album experimental. Whatever we CALL it, I do know that it works. Very well. These are songs that shimmer and shake, strut and preen, rock and roll.

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23

Kurt Vile​

B’LIEVE I’M GOIN DOWN​

Kurt Vile continues to walk down his path. HIS path. It’s a path that leads through a deeply personal set of 70s-laced songs about the craft of being a singer-songwriter. Annnnd… This time, it’s a path that leads us into darkness. Not a fear-laden darkness, but the darkness that comes with night writing and Vile’s acerbic wit.

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22

Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment

​SURF​

OK… Get ready to slap me. Forget Kendrick Lamar, “Surf” is the most compelling rap / hi-hop / R&B thing of 2015. Big words, I know. But with good reason. “Surf” sparkles with experimentation, strides with monster musicianship, moves with poetic acrobatics, hugs with epic harmony and winks with a wry smile. This is the end of the story that starts… “Chance the Rapper, Donnie Trumpet, Erykah Badu, Janelle Monae, Busta Rhymes, and Big Sean walk into a studio with some of their best friends…” and trust me it’s a gloriously creative and funky end.

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21

The Vaccines

​ENGLISH GRAFFITI​

Hooks for miles! It’s weird, though Vaccines frontman Justin Young claims the band wasn’t looking to make something timeless with “English Graffiti,” but in a weird way, that’s what they’ve done. There are moments here that feel like the summer of 1986, or earlier and that’s a cool thing. This is radio-friendly pop without the radio. Fun stuff, for sure.

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20

Protomartyr

​THE AGENT INTELLECT​

I had Protomartyr on last years list, too. Here they are again. And even higher. “The Agent Intellect” is a dark, urgent album, full of beauty. Stark at times, layered in others, but ever bluntly beautiful in the way that Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures” or Bauhaus’ “In The Flat Field” are bone-gleamingly gorgeous. It’s limiting to compare Protomartyr to other bands… I know… But I mean it only to help convey that they are recording amazing songs of sinewy style, remarkable clarity and emotional honesty.

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19

Charlie Parr

​STUMPJUMPER​

Charlie Parr. Charlie Parr. It’s safe to say that no one else is carefully nurturing the gnarled roots of​ ​American music in quite the same way as Parr. Traditionally, he has eschewed a more “lush” approach for a bare resonator guitar, a tapped foot and an inimitable howl, and that has given him a sense of purity matched by only a very select few in the whole of music. With a full backing band, “Stumpjumper” marks a departure from this model, but the purity remains. I am grateful Charlie Parr exists. You should be, too. Turn it up and play it proud.

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18

Disasterpeace

​IT FOLLOWS (ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK)​

Simply put, “It Follows” is a minimalist synth masterpiece. (No pun intended… I think.) Seriously. This is a sterling release, one that calls to mind Eno, Carpenter, Goblin and yes, for me, even Glass. I know that’s rarified company, but the kudos are absolutely deserved. The fact that Disasterpeace (aka Rich Vreeland) composed and recorded it in mere weeks only makes this soundtrack even more of an achievement. Truly, few soundtracks have shaped a film like these compositions did for the wonderful “It Follows.” I can’t wait to see what he does next.

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17

Grimes

​ART ANGELS​

I had the pleasure of seeing many of these songs performed live at Fun, Fun, Fun fest this year. Grimes (nee Clair Boucher) is a force to be reckoned with on the leading edge of pop. This is fact for me. “Art​ ​Angels” acts as proof of this. It is a collection of truly artful work from a female auteur stretching her legs, letting her talent simply shine, all while keeping the dance floor in sight. This is no mean feat.

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16

Courtney Barnett

​SOMETIMES I SIT AND THINK AND SOMETIMES I JUST SIT​

Speaking of female auteurs… Courtney Barnet literally burst onto the scene in 2015 with her first full-length album “Sometimes I Sit and Thing and Sometimes I Just Sit.” A proud, quirky tour de force, “Sit” channels grunge, garage and psych in spades and to great effect. But… the strength of this release is not purely musical, but also in the idiosyncratic, conversational, ejaculatory little thought poems that Barnett laces throughout these songs. It all comes together to glorious effect.

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15

Oneohtrix Point Never

​GARDEN OF DELETE​

Yes, this is an album about a pubescent alien named “Ezra” with mountains of oozing acne. Strange to sum it up like that, because “Garden of Delete” doesn’t feel that way — puerile — at all. In “Garden of Delete,” Daniel Lopatin has created perhaps the most weirdly accurate picture of youth’s march into adulthood along the precarious catwalk of adolescence we have seen since Radiohead’s “Creep” or Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen,” both timeless masterworks. As a father of a beautiful 14 year old with nothing to be insecure about (but still is), I can see a brilliance in Its frenetic, layered sound and piecemeal storytelling. For all of its peculiarities, this is an important album.

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14

Los Lobos

​GATES OF GOLD​

40 years. 24 albums. That’s a hell of a track record. “Gates of Gold” is the sure-handed work of a group​ ​of true rock and roll explorers and it shows in spades. Los Lobos speaks through“Gates” culturally,​ ​musically and emotionally in the way that only a very select few bands can these days. Anyone who thinks that bands like The Rolling Stones are still relevant needs to spend a day with “Gates of Gold” to see how a true outfit of RnR voyagers can stay relevant and innovative after decades in the craft. A truly original release from a band of true originals.

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13

Dr. Dre

​COMPTON​

Dre proves why is one of the best in the game on “Compton.” As a producer his skills are in rare form on Compton, showing improvisational flourish, polyphonic ear and artful precision. This is arguably his best work from that standpoint. As an MC, Dre shows us a new side, beating out stacatto arpeggios of straight-up rhyme, bluster and, yes, even song. The supporting cast of guest artists is far reaching and stunning and they only bring more interest to the project. “Compton” is a menacing, world-weary love letter to a hometown, a genre and a sound.

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12

Maria Schneider Orchestra

​THE THOMPSON FIELDS​

Ten years in the making, “The Thompson Fields” is a magnum opus. Contemporary classical-jazz master Schneider is at the peak of her skills in this orchestra setting and it is with the rich dimensional qualities of this larger group that she is able to more poetically communicate the rhythms and complexities of life, love and yearning. This album charts the bittersweet valleys of emotion and we are the better for it. Gorgeous.

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11

Jamie XX

​IN COLOR​

The second minimalist masterpiece on this list. This is also another phenomenal 2015 debut. “In Colour” engrosses through 43 minutes of bright, expansive compositions that are at once open, effortless and beautiful and yet never lose sight of being fun. This album has the remarkable quality of a gradual flowering, the songs unfurling themselves to the listener further on each play. Auspicious!

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10

Kamasi Washington

​THE EPIC​

Again, I invoke the name of Kendrick Lamar. Washington was responsible for the lion’s share of the​ ​arrangement on “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Lamar’s blockbuster 2015 release. Though “To Pimp” shows​ ​brilliance, “The Epic” is the true showcase of Washington’s talent in 2015. This is a vitally significant jazz album, shifting and broadening the conversation outward from the confines of jazz traditionalism to​ ​include more modern expressions. It is smart, astute, vivid and shining.

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09

Peace

​HAPPY PEOPLE​

Speaking of time machines… Peace has one, too. Climb aboard and jump back to the glory days of The Stone Roses and Primal Scream… Or is it earlier? It’s both. “Happy People” is that time machine for Peace, traveling along the lines of Brit-pop psych. These are big songs — fun, far-reaching compositions that strike a fascinating balance between the desire to save the world and one’s self, with the knowledge that it’s impossible. This is pop-rock brilliance at its best, as soaring, glittering and groovy as it is nihilistic and snarky. I love it!

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08

Sleater-Kinney

​NO CITIES TO LOVE​

This. Is. Rock. And. Roll. Full stop. It is an unflinching, uncompromising record that snarls at societal​ ​ills with both guns drawn. The brilliance here is a direct result of Sleater-Kinney’s carefully acquired songwriting skill and bombastic musicianship. That means epic, punchy songs of near perfection. 10​ ​heroic songs in a mere 33 minutes, rather like a wine reduction that uses heat to concentrate the flavor and aroma of a sauce to stunning effect. Sweet.

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07

Steven Wilson

​HAND. CANNOT. ERASE.​

Steven Wilson has made a concept album. “Hand. Cannot. Erase.” is loosely based on the story of Joyce Carol Vincent, a vital, young and attractive woman who lapsed in to total reclusiveness, ultimately dying alone only to remain undiscovered for 3 full years. The story is fertile ground for Wilson’s explorations and provides a wonderful backbone for the album. Wilson’s progressive spirit is aflame here, but where his brilliance has sometimes lapsed into prog imitation in the past, he uses it as a springboard to new synthesis, sounds and even positivity here. I loved this album and couldn’t put it down. Haunting,​ ​complex and magnificent in its intimacy.

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06

Brand Mehldau

​10 YEARS SOLO LIVE​

Mehldau is one of our greatest living interpreters of song. “10 Years Solo Live” is a testament to that,​ ​with 4 albums worth of improvisatory genius spanning 10 years of live recordings. He’s 20 years into a wildly influential career and Mehldau has entered into an even more mature phase of his work, bringing​ ​a unique perspective to both standards and, most importantly, the music of his own generation (Gen X). A living master at work.

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05

Frank Turner

​POSITIVE SONGS FOR NEGATIVE PEOPLE​

I had the privilege… And trust me… It is a privilege… To see Frank Turner live supporting this album in 2015. It was a transformative, regenerative experience, reaffirming the power of music, of rock and roll,​ ​to unify and move. “Positive Songs for Negative People” shares that quality. With his 6th full length​ ​studio release, Turner brings us a collection of brilliance, honesty, affirmation, durability, positivity,​ ​realism, strength and fragility. I feel strongly that this album didn’t get its due this year. Music critics knocked it for being more of the same. They’re always looking for artists to reinvent themselves in a cloud of epiphany. There is something to be said for consistency though, and that’s Turner right now. I, for one, and grateful for that consistency.

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04

Alabama Shakes

​SOUND AND COLOR​

Brittany Howard is a force of nature. Period. Her operatic howl is the stuff of legend. Truly, it could make Otis Redding do a smiling double take. Consequently Howard and her band of musicians has beed forced into some sort of retro sandbox by the industry and the public alike. “Sound and Color” smashes that sandbox, kicking at the confines of expectation, using the past as a booster rocket to new heights, new sounds. This is a soul record, to be sure, but it’s so much more than that. Punky, funky, bluesy, fresh, muscular and confident, this is the work of a band who relishes in its prodigious gifts and in the spirit of exploration and fundamentally, the music itself. The album name “Sound and Color” is actually a perfect expression of the album’s experience. It is through the curious, experimental use of sound that brings color to the undiscovered galaxy that Alabama Shakes have charted their course through. That’s pretty amazing for something so rootsy. I could NOT put this down in 2015. It always sounded good and it will for years to come. I can’t wait to see what’s next. This is only album #2 for The Shakes!

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03

Baroness

​PURPLE​

For their 4th album, Baroness has an adjusted lineup and a new perspective. Following the 2012 near-fatal bus crash that almost ended the band, Baroness has healed and brought us 10 metal-tinged​ ​galloping, swaying hard rock songs that both probe death and mortality and affirm life in a range of beautiful, majestic ways. Dave Fridmann of Flaming Lips fame is on production here and it shows in the psychedelic keys, phasing and tones throughout. Though there is an urgency throughout this record, Baroness has not lost its ability to deliver bittersweet moments of beauty. Those are here, too. Tight,​ ​precise, surgical, urgent, accomplished, this is Baroness at their best, and that’s saying something.

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02

Sufjan Stevens

​CARRIE AND LOWELL​

There are albums that are both deeply personal in nature and awe-inspiring in realization, then there is “Carrie and Lowell.” I was lucky enough to see Stevens and his band recreate these songs live this year. It was nothing short of a catharsis for me. Hearing the studio versions reached me in the same way. Built around autobiographical stories from his past, Stevens uses the album as a platform for plumbing his troubled relationship with a bipolar, schizophrenic mother and an expression of gratitude for the 5 years spent with his stepfather Lowell Brams (who still runs his label). But that’s not all… His own family is a part of the mix as well as Sufjan himself. It’s one of the most honest, self-revealing albums we’ve seen in years, even from someone who has made a career of it. This is really only half the story here, though. Pulled-back, elegant, crafted… These are simply gorgeous songs. It all adds up to something truly memorable.

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2015 :: ALBUM OF THE YEAR

2015

FATHER JOHN MISTY

I LOVE YOU, HONEYBEAR

Here we are… At #1. To be honest, any one of these top 6 albums could be at #1. I did have to choose one, though. This release definitely deserves it.

J. Tillman is a very unique talent — As funny and whip smart as any comedian working today, as talented and alluring a songwriter as the greats, as brilliant and engrossing a storyteller as we have seen in a long time. Tillman has packed all of the above into 11 sardonic little jewels on “I Love You,​ ​

Honeybear.” These songs are treasures. Wry. Mordant. Bitter. Honest. Heartbreaking. Lovely. Lovable. All of the above. It’s an album specifically about his relationship and marriage with his wife, photographer Emma Elizabeth Tillman (nee Garr), but there is SO much universal experience here. I found myself in these songs. Not in that my experience mirrors his in any way, but they do act as a mirror for the thrills, excesses, mistakes, losses and little victories in all of our lives, whatever the specifics.

But what puts it over the top for this year? Again… Any of the top 6 could be in my #1 spot. For me, it was the last 3 songs on “I Love You, Honeybear.” Don’t get me wrong, the rest of the album is sterling. Sterling. But those last three songs (“Bored In the USA,” “Holy Shit,” and “I Went To the Store One Day”) act, for me, as a perfect triptych for our modern existence. There are SO many lines worth quoting here that I won’t even start, but Tillman absolutely captures life as so many of us know it. The laughtracks alone on “Bored In the USA” are one of the most genius and heartbreakingly haunting choices I have heard on a record in a very long time. All of that is laced over 3 real songs, performed perfectly and with exceptional production to boot. The power of these songs is immediately evident in their ability to make me laugh hysterically and cry wistfully often at the same time.

I could say more about this one, but it’s better to tell you to just listen. To experience. This album will be opening doors for a long time for me. That I know.

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