Top Albums of 2015
As is usually the case, I’ve come to this list in a state of frantic confusion. Frantic, because I’m trying to remember what in the world I listened to this year, and confused, because I don’t know why I never keep track of what I know I’ll want to write about come December, and I’ll spend the whole 12th month knowing I’ve got a list to write, but knowing I have no idea if I even listened to ten new albums that came out in that calendar.
But I think I’ve got it nailed down to where I want it:
Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, ten times.
Get it? Alright?
Okay, for real though, here’s to a good year in music (I remember thinking that at some point along the way, so now all I’ve got to do is remember why…). It appears as though rap has taken a front seat to anything else I’ve listened to this year, although I definitely enjoyed a lot of new-to-me-but-older music that can’t make it onto a 2015 list. Just this month, I discovered The Format through my friend Kris Rochelle, and I know that I must’ve been living underneath a rock to have missed them, or missed the fact that their vocalist started the band fun. more recently. At any rate, I didn’t write consistently - in length or content - for any of the albums you’ll see listed below. Some of them are very content focused as a cohesive art piece. Some specific to a single line or lyric that I loved that made the whole record for me. Some don’t talk a lick about anything but the memories of hearing the record, and where I was, and what that did for me. Some are more “recommendable” than others, and I’m sure some will wonder at why, for the reasons I’ve given, that could possibly be listed as a favorite for the year. I guess I’ll just let it all be what it is, in no particular order. At any rate, it’s always fun.
JGivens: Fly Exam
I know this is going to feel like a copout for folks - especially since it's the first album listed - but I wrote a novel of a post about my love for Fly Exam here, and I’m going to let that speak for the why on this list, as well. Since then, my appreciation for this phenomenal record has only grown. I am constantly amazed by the challenges it brings to me, personally, to rap culture (music culture, culture culture, humans) as a whole, and I cannot recommend it highly enough to those of you who’ve yet to give it a try.
Leon Bridges: Coming Home
I started paying a lot more attention to artists who inspire me coming up out of black communities this year. I wanted to, but I think it would’ve been hard not to, as well. After the Charleston shootings, I wrote a public prayer / confession about how inadequate I’ve felt to speak into social justice issues - and, well, human life issues - and I found myself - find myself - thankful for many of the black rappers, poets, and artists who took bold stands to speak gospel truths into this brutal year that was 2015. And literally every single one of those people I followed through all of that started posting status updated about Leon Bridges, probably within the same twenty-four hour time span. I was in Ohio when that happened, and the next morning, I got up and went on a seven mile run to Coming Home, through tree-tunnels and the serenity of walking paths in the middle of nowhere, leading into quiet places, and over train tracks, and through flower fields. Literally. It was one of those experiences that comes back to memory like a dream, and my, what a beautiful soundtrack for it. The record brings me joy, and I love that. I’m usually a somber listener, but this record feels sort of like freedom. Like weight lifted. It’s unique, and it’s especially unique to what I’ve usually got going on. Next step, vinyl.
Modest Mouse: Strangers To Ourselves
Ever since high school camping trips with best friends, sitting around campfires and smoking cigars (yeah, we were into cigars - I don’t know how, but I know they weren’t good cigars), I’ve loved Modest Mouse. Isaac Brock is fascinating to me - and none the less regarding Strangers To Ourselves. Rolling Stone came out with a story about the making of the record (sort of) in May, right around the time their first LP in years finally dropped. To be honest, I was kind of sad when I read it. It’s all speculative impression, but I don’t feel like Brock’s a very happy dude. Or, at least lyrically, he always seems pretty angry. The thing that has always fascinated me most about his writing is religious impiety. Ever since Cowboy Dan and “aiming rifles at the sky” because “God if I have to die then you will have to die,” or God as an indian giver in Good News For People Who Love Bad News’ Bukowski, etc, and this record is no exception. Or, at least, that’s my perception. Brock ends the record with, “Lord, lay down your own damn soul…” which I take to be both blasphemous and, as someone who has followed Modest Mouse for a long time, fascinating, as it makes me wonder just why each record seems to be littered with the perceived anger of loss, or disappointment, or suffering, or indifference. And not only that, but that specifically targeted at God as responsible. I don’t want to act as though that type of lyricism is recommendable or edifying, but I do think that it’s possible to look at and enjoy some art objectively, and even gain perspective from contemplating another’s. That’s what Modest Mouse - outside of simply enjoying their music (and still considering their live show one of the best I’ve experienced) - has always been for me. A contemplative experience that will resonate in some ways, repulse in other ways, and perhaps even lead me into a place of wrestling through (and ending thankful for) salvation that has put me on a different trajectory than the perceived bitterness I hear in those blasphemies. Plus, the dark humor of “Ansel” halfway through this album is just classic, and I appreciate that they keep to some of their earlier ridiculousness in each release.
Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell
Sufjan came to Albuquerque in November, and the next day, it felt like the whole city was talking about it. My friend Donovan came home from the show with what seemed to be something you might liken to little salvation experience, and I know my wife and I missed out on something good. But I did jam my fair share of Sufjan this year. I even sang his Christmas Unicorn to open up each set of my last tour of 2015. Carrie & Lowell is heartbreaking. It’s quiet and hard to hear. It’s gorgeous and defeating, and it’s hard to pull it apart. I’m a huge fan of narrative storytelling, and this is a movement, through and through. There’s a lot to connect with as a listener entering into it in the wake of loss and tragedy, captured musically and complimented masterfully in the words that Sufjan chose to use. One instance in particular comes from track two, All Of Me Wants All Of You, where Stevens’ sings: “Shall we beat this or celebrate it? You’re not the one to talk things through. You checked your texts while I masturbated. Manelich, I feel so used.” That lyric destroys me, and I’m not entirely sure why outside of the deep loneliness it captures in such simple form. The cold, aloneness conjured in a picture I see of everything but intimacy in my mind pinches at my every nerve when its sung. I know that’s a strange example to pull as a reflection piece for an entire album full of prettier images, but I can never seem to get the despair in that one to take a back seat to them, and the writer got his point across.
Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp A Butterfly
I literally don’t know what to say. Read this. Also, read this. Also, read this. And this. And this cool VSCO visual breakdown. And here’s something I learned from KDot and wrote about earlier this year. And here’s the California State Senate giving out a Generation Icon Award. Rather than try to add to the overwhelming amount of commentary that already exists surrounding TPAB, I’d rather just say I’m thankful for it. Truly. I’m thankful for the countless conversations it inspired in and among my friends. For the King Kunta dance sessions we had in the back room before Easter services started at my church this year. For the Headspacey rap sessions we’d have during a cold winter’s morning run. For driving through Seattle traffic the day of a best friend’s wedding, freaking blasting that record so loud and knowing every word. This album is iconic. I remember the day The Blacker The Berry dropped. Jordan Butcher at Studio Workhorse tweeted something with a bunch of expletives to the extent of listen to this it’s gonna be definitive and linked to the YouTube stream. The crazy thing about Kendrick’s album, or one of the crazy things, is the way an art piece so specific to its particular context completely transcended that space and became the soundtrack to a movement, or resonated globally, or gained appreciation from people like me who have no frame of reference for so much of the world represented there. It’s interesting, the way my ignorance of it almost makes me ashamed to quote lines, or let them speak to me however they do for fear of knowing I’m Mr. White Suburbia, connecting in whatever foreign way I’m connecting. But man, I loved it. It’s not an album for the faint of heart, and it’s not going to please everyone, but it’ll get you thinking and when you do, regardless of where you’re thinking from… quote the lines.
Purity Ring: Another Eternity
Finding this album was the first time I feel like I actually got out of Spotify what it's actually meant for - discovery. Even though it popped up on all of my friends' lists, I didn't hear about it from any of them - it just played one morning while I was trying to do taxes (unsuccessfully) in a coffee shop, and I loved it. Of course, seeing as how it's Spotify, Purity Ring didn't make much off of my discovery, but hey, they're here, on this list, so.
Twenty-One Pilots: Blurryface
To be honest with you, I wish I would have listened to this album more than I did, but what I did do was listened to it enough to know it belonged here. What I did do was listen through it less times than I should have, but I took all of that time to appreciate the way that Tyler hasn't abandoned his lyrical creativity for marketability. What he does, instead, is transparently wrestles through that struggle, and somehow makes it a marketable song about how annoying it is to constantly wonder whether or not you're making something marketable. I saw someone post something in the last few weeks about the incredible integrity of this band, and I can't agree more. I met Tyler and Josh and Marc with Reel Bear years ago and played a show with them when my wife Brandi and I were still touring and living with White Collar Sideshow. We'd heard approximately 17,000 local bands open up for the tour, and I know this isn't that cool, but we'd pretty much decided to stop watching them at that point. But when 21P started to play, we were so blown away. They're obviously playing for more than 30 people in a church now, but even back then, before all the production and everything, they were so, so good. Every bit as good. Pouring every bit as much of themselves into their performances as ever. This might sound kind of stupid, because we're more acquaintances than anything and it's not like I had anything to do with it, but I can't help but feel incredibly proud of what these guys have accomplished every time I see a new video, or five-bazillion retweets on some airport picture, or whatever it might be. I feel like everybody who follows Levi The Poet nowadays has a handle like "@julielovespilots" or "@twentyonedevins" or something like that. I know people love them, and I'm happy they do.
Dr. Dre: Compton
It’s hard not to include Compton solely for the influence Dre’s had on so many of the rappers I grew up listening to. Lyrically, although it’s still a Dr. Dre album, there were moments of depth, reminiscence, and growth that came through, and I appreciated that. A maturity. Plus, I loved Straight Outta Compton, and when the announcement for the movie’s “soundtrack” hit, I thought, that dude’s a rapper, but he’s every bit as much a master marketer. Demand, created. There’s still no one who does beats like Dre - my personal favorite this time around is One Shot One Kill with Snoop Dogg. On the flipside, a major disappointment was Eminem’s verse on Medicine Man. I grew up loving Eminem. He was always my favorite rapper, and linguistically, I still err toward choosing him over many others, and I still think he’s progressing as he gets older. But here’s the thing… he’s getting older. Everybody on this record is. While I understand that it’s not fair to filter another artist’s morality through my compass, as mine is, well - not his - there’s this thing inside of me that just knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that spitting about all of the same, twenty-year-old, misogynistic garbage - as a forty or fifty year old - is just not cool anymore. I mean - understand me - I get that it’s never been okay to just say horrible and demeaning things about people. Frankly, it gets harder and harder for me to understand why I was always so “okay” with constantly listening to so much of it. But here, especially in Eminem’s verse, which I was pretty excited about, it’s nauseating. Dude, it’s not okay to mock rape or sexual abuse or assault. I know that it never has been, but how old are you and how old is your daughter? And I know that track caught a lot of flak when it hit, and rightfully so. Whatever moral code a person adheres to, that type of crap is just abhorrent. That’s my rant and rage, and even though I though Compton was tight and nostalgic as a Dr. Dre record, it’s still a Dr. Dre record. (Loved Kendrick’s verses, of course. Glad to see him with so many spots.)
John Givez: Soul Rebel
I met John at The Canvas IV in Houston, TX - a huge show thrown by our mutual friend and poet/youtuber/entrepreneur guy, Joe Solomon, last April. Here’s a funny story for you… I had to go to the bathroom, like, really bad, when John was set to play. I thought I could sneak out the back and make a quick trip to the urinal, and maybe miss a song, and catch the rest. Somehow, I find a way to make situations way more weird and awkward than they need to be, so as I was washing my hands and leaving to get back to the auditorium, another dude who had just finished peeing turned around and said, “Hey! Good job up there, man!” to me. Not thinking, I smiled and extended my hand and said, “Thanks man! Appreciate it! What’s your name?” And he looked at my extended hand, and then at me, and then pointed at his own crotch, and said, “Oh, dude, I just, like, touched my penis.” And then I realized that I was blocking this dude up against his urinal trying to shake his hand and introduce myself in the bathroom. After that, he said we could talk outside of the bathroom in a minute, and then I felt bad just disappearing, so instead of catching any of John’s set, I spent it attempting to redeem my weird toilet introduction. I’m sure it was a nice conversation, but it sure was a bummer to miss the show, and I still haven’t seen him live after another spot was cancelled in Albuquerque a few months ago. Anyway, that’s a story that literally has nothing to do with the album, but the album’s great, too. John, if you read this, sorry I missed your show, and sorry I sort of gypped you on an actual album review by telling such a weird story, instead.
Andy Mineo: Uncomfortable
I'm so thankful for good rap coming out of gospel-centered, Jesus-loving, people-serving individuals like Mineo and the whole Reach community. Not every Reach artist is my favorite, and not every Mineo track has me like another does, but on the whole, Uncomfortable really is that, and it's a good thing. Lyrically - even though this usually carries a negative connotation and I don't want it to here - Mineo killed the bait-and-switch. There were several tracks that carried me in a direction where I'd feel justified in a position and then, at the last minute, he'd flip it, and I'd be blindsided, caught up in stances when he wanted to reach for motives and reveal hypocrisies and inconsistencies. Track 9 - Vendetta - is a great example of that. It's something we all need - to be challenged. To be convicted. To be called out. Dude's always been pretty brutal and/or vulnerable when it comes to his own inconsistencies, as well, and I think it does more for me to see a man leading from a position of weakness than macho perfection, where I'm reminded that the strength of the Lord is made perfect, instead.
Dustin Kensrue: Carry The Fire
I never was a Thrice fan, honestly. Not because I chose not to be. I mean, I liked Thrice, but I like them more now, and I guess I was just never in their path enough to have felt justified calling myself a fan when I didn't really know enough to be one. But I enjoyed Dustin's solo stuff - tracks like This Is War were especially timely for me - and I paid more attention to the Modern Post and The Water & The Blood. I did Re:Train with Dustin before Mars Hill exploded, or imploded, or whatever. I remember we did a fishbowl counseling session together that I hated and still cringe at remembering. I even apologized to him at the end of the day because I thought I messed up and he said that messing up was the point, but I thought he was mad at me and I came out of the whole thing extremely confused. Haha. Maybe it's funny, now? I was interested in hearing what Dustin would release post-Mars Hill, and Carry The Fire wasn't what I thought it would be, but that was, probably, largely because of my own desire for some sort of vicarious vengeance or something. "Gallows" might be interesting in that respect, but there's no way I'm going to assign something to a song I can't speak for, let alone talk of its motive as vengeful. It'll still be interesting to see what people put out in the form of art post-collapse, but vengeance is and has never been either of ours. What I found instead was a beautiful record, mostly about love and loving a wife, from what I've gathered, with gorgeous joy and simultaneous sadness, and a solid nod to one of the prettiest books out there. I think that Dustin is a master lyricist who has the ability to create imagery second to none, which is where my true fanship comes in.
Well, that was Eleven "Tops" for the year. That's cool. My friend Cam Smith is in a band called Hotel Books that also came out with a record this year. He gave me a bunch of crap on Twitter about how my whole list was gonna be Kendrick and maybe they'd end up in the Honorable Mentions section. So here it is, Cam, Run Wild, Young Beauty - honorable mention that probably could have made it into the top ten, except you screwed it all up. Hahaha. Now it's just in it's own section. Think "distinguished and set apart".
Alright everyone. I'm tired of writing and thinking. If any of you just haven't quite had enough of the holidays yet, I have - speaking of albums - along with my friends Dan Smith and Kris Rochelle from Red Sweater Lullaby, released a Christmas EP that will be available until midnight tonight. There are six songs - one original and one cover - from each of us. Just something small and raw from our recent Your Friendly Christmas Tour. Download it for three bucks here before it's gone.
Happy New Year! Be safe tonight.